Having secured a home to live in we began housecleaning to make it habitable. In the junk heap conveniently located in the small space between our back door and the canyon wall, we located a worn-out broom. This was the only housecleaning tool required.
The cabin had one room and a small lean-to. The large room, as we found it, was a bleak place. One corner was graced with a cooking stove, another with a blanketless bed. There was a small table. A soap box nailed to the wall served as a cupboard. Of the two chairs in the shack, one had no seat.
The beams forming the framework of the house were covered over on the inside with cardboard and heavy brown wrapping paper, in place of wallpaper and plaster.
There was no kitchen sink. In fact, no kitchen. Of course, no running water or inside plumbing. But—joyful discovery!—right back of our cabin a cool clear spring gushed from the mountainside.
Autumn in these mountains is inspiring, so our housecleaning was well done. Those beautiful sunshiny days were warm and joyous and we gave no thought to patching up our shack for winter. Rather than worry about winter our thoughts turned to affairs of more immediate concern. It had been weeks since we had eaten a substantial meal. The furnishings of our little home did not include cooking utensils. We bought a kettle and saucepan at the store. And in the junk pile behind our house were a fry pan and two pails. They underwent a thorough scouring and were brought into immediate service. Most important of all there were two dishpans. Not that we were guilty of regularly washing our dishes. Too many other things took our time to bother about trifles like that.
The dishpans were for cooking. The mine work was hard and we had eaten little since the hop job. We were hungry, always hungry, and a dishpanful of rice, another of boiled potatoes, with other quantities of beans or noodles, or soup from a combination of them all, made up our meals.
The stove had an oven and we experimented with additions to the menu. I demonstrated my culinary ability on a tasty peach pie. Winfield determined to seek after glory with a batch of biscuits. He decided on the baking powder variety and mixed up the dough in a dishpan.
By the time he had thoroughly kneaded the mixture, there was no dough left in the pan. It was all on his arms and hands. For he was not doing the job in a half-spirited way; he stirred the dough with a vengeance, much as a stout washerwoman scrubs away at dirty shirts. And just as the washerwoman's arms become covered with suds, so Win's arms became plastered with dough.
Greasing a couple of pans he stationed these on a table and placed his left arm in a perpendicular position above one of them. With the finger of his other hand, he started at the elbow of the perpendicular arm, and carefully scraped a furrow through the dough. Giving his finger a snap, a biscuit was deposited in the pan. He got half a dozen off that arm and as many more from the other. In the dishpan there were scrapings enough for two more. With great confidence and not a little pride, looking admiringly at his work all the while, (and expecting me to do the same), he placed the pans in the oven.
I am truthful when I say it. Those biscuits were the most delightful I had ever eaten. Light, fluffy, golden brown, beautifully shaped. How it all happened shall remain forever a mystery of the Coeur d'Alenes. It was no more than Win had expected.
Thus encouraged I started a second batch. How easily and well I mixed them, how symmetrical were the bunches of molded dough in the pans! My arms were not even spattered. I built up the fire and placed my work in the oven. Just then a friend, the night timekeeper, came in, and we sat down and talked. And talked. And talked.
Our friend left an hour later. I thought of my biscuits—too late. Even now their ashes grace the slopes out back where I threw them.
After this we bought bread at the grocery store—twenty-ti,vo loaves a week. Our cooking had its ups and downs. But throughout the three months of our sojourn between the canyon walls the quantity, if not the quality, of the food which we put away, was astonishing.
One of my letters to Vera, our friend with whom we had gone to school back in Michigan, shed more light on our culinary skills and problems.
"We are coming along fine with our batching and our only fear is that our future wives can not do as well as we. (Take that with a grain of salt.) But we are doing fine and cooking everything from biscuits to bear steak. The only thing which wasn't good was some pudding, and that was because the egg I put in it was half spoiled. Eggs, here, are forty-five cents a dozen; fresh eggs are fifty-five cents; and strictly fresh ones are sixty-five cents. This bad one was just a fresh one.
"Milk is fifteen cents a quart. There are only fifty cows, fifty horses, and twenty pigs in the whole county. When we leave, there will only be eighteen pigs. "
Win and I were supremely happy. We had been wandering so long without a home that to sit back in our rudely constructed chairs in the evening and absorb the fall odors carried through the open door by a gentle Chinook breeze seemed to us the most pleasant thing to do in all the world.
For the first weeks our reading matter was limited to the New Testament, which we carried in our packs, and a few poems. To occupy our time we wrote hundreds of letters in the hope of getting replies, for to us the big event of the day was receiving the mail in the evening. While one of us prepared supper, the other trudged up to the post office to stand in line with a hundred other miners and file past the general delivery window. After the first time we never gave our names, nor did any of the others. The postmistress had an uncanny memory. Cold, always unsmiling, she would glance at the face before her, then sort out the letters which matched.
The diligence of our correspondence was rewarded many times over. There was a steady stream of mail from our friends far and near. One evening when I lined up for the mail the postmistress—silently, dispassionately—counted out twenty-six letters for us while the whole line of men stood and gasped.
Running all the way from the post office to our tiny home, I burst into the room with a whoop and waved handfuls of letters before Win's incredulous eyes. Our kerosene lamp was not adequate for such an occasion. Hooking our carbon miner's lamps into our caps, then lighting them, we started devouring that literary manna—news-filled letters from our folks, from a dozen of our high school friends, from some of the new acquaintances we had made on the trip so far, even two letters from persons we didn't know, who had heard about our travels and wanted to know more about us.
In following evenings, when mail was lighter, we answered all of that mail. In our letter to Vera, which she returned to us after our trip was over, Win said: "Yours was one of twenty-six letters we received night before last. What a feast we had. The carbon burned out of our lamps, then we lit a candle and that had kicked the bucket before we had finished them all. We were three hours reading all those wonderful letters. After that, we finished our supper. The mail was far better than the meal. "
Floods of mail were followed by an avalanche of packages. Our folks sent us things from home: magazines and books to read, pictures for the walls, blankets for our bed, candy to give our friends, dainties to liven our meals. In a letter to Vera, we wrote: "Oh joy! We got a box from home—candy, peanuts, chewing gum. There were also two decks of playing cards and a Bible. A rather incongruous combination. There were three pounds strictly fresh salted peanuts which look good to us. They charge wartime prices for their peanuts here and after tasting some we knew why—they were bought during the war. "
Other friends sent things to eat. The Latheys who had carried us into Yakima a few months before sent us goodies. Our friends in Burke also seemed to delight in showering us with gifts—the night timekeeper and his wife, the milkman, even the barber. Scarcely a week passed that a can of fruit or a cake, some doughnuts or a loaf of bread, were not sent down to our little cabin, with the compliments of some acquaintance.
The autumn days were delightful, but the winter was cruel. During one storm sixteen inches of snow fell in a single night and forty-four inches in as many hours. The front door of our shack stood three feet from the railroad track. Great rotary snowplows would whip the snow from the tracks and pile it against our door, so high the building was at times nearly hidden from view and we had to get in at the rear. When the wind blew, no warmth could be found inside. Many nights we huddled over the fire as the cabin shook violently and the brown wrapping paper that lined the walls flapped far out into the room.
Meal after meal was eaten without removing our caps or even our gloves. Many nights we sought our blankets at an early hour with only the formality of removing our shoes. Every available sweater and coat was on our bodies and our ears and hands were protected from frosting by heavy stocking caps and mitts. The worst difficulties resulted from the fact that we had to sleep and cook in the same room. The steam from huge dishpansful of boiling rice or spuds, would fill the room and settle over everything. The top blankets on the bed became soaked, and after we turned in, would freeze stiff. In the morning we had to lift our board-like coverings carefully, fearful lest they crack or break in two.
All supplies of food also had to be watched after with care. The potatoes came to bed with us every night. Once we forgot them. The rock pellets, next morning, clinked together like ore from the underground. Canned fruit, if wrapped, seemed to withstand the cold.
One of our diary entries noted: "The only thing that did not freeze stiff in that cabin was our enthusiasm, which remained as warm and limber as ever."
A later diary entry said, "We really love it here now. We christened this our `Idahome' "
It may seem strange that in such a place, under such conditions, we enjoyed the most wonderful sleeps of our trip. It was because of the cold, I believe. And because of our hard work, for we always needed rest to build us up and keep us ready for heavy labor. We could scarcely wait until the hour for bed arrived to seek the warmth and rest which our lumpy mattress provided. No matter where we may some day be privileged to rest our heads, never shall we find greater comfort, sounder sleep, truer rest, than was ours in those glorious "Idaho nights." We loved our sleep so much that no power could call us from bed until the last possible moment.
One hour was allowed to prepare and eat breakfast, walk three-quarters of a mile to work, and change our clothes before taking the train underground. The night before, we would mix together the ingredients for breakfast—soup usually—and would pour into a cooking dish what water we thought we'd need. On arising, it was the work of two minutes to start a roaring fire. Then it took eleven minutes to melt the food and water and another two minutes to heat them through. If the night had been unusually cold, or if the fire was going poorly, there would still be frost in our soup at the end of thirteen minutes, even though we ate with our bowls right on the stove, but we could not afford to wait longer. We allowed fifteen minutes for consuming the meal, sometimes finishing the last slice of bread while walking to work. We always prepared our lunch the night before. Never once did we miss the train.
We worked on day shift for three weeks after entering the mines, with never a day off. Saturdays and Sundays in Burke were just work days. But toward the middle of October and the approach of winter, the annual lure of the underground brought more men seeking jobs in the mines. The payroll of the Hercules expanded; soon there were enough men for double shifts, day and night. We then worked seven day shifts, alternating with seven night shifts. That left one day out of fourteen for ourselves.
Those glorious "change days" as they were called provided opportunities for hiking the mountains and canyons and visiting our new friends in Burke.
Halloween approached and recollections flooded in of the pranks of our younger days. On this spook night in Burke we twice frightened off malicious invaders. Then came a rush at our front door and we opened it to see dark forms scattering. Grabbing several handfuls of kids we drew them inside. Supplies of peanuts and goodies from home were soon on the table and there was a glorious Halloween feast.
"Hoo-ray for the men from Michigan," yelled half a dozen lads when they left our cabin that night.
Of course they came every evening while our refreshments lasted. We expected that. Then they continued to come. We suggested the formation of a club. They named it themselves—the "We Do No Wrong Club," W. D.N.W. for short. The final roll call showed seven names. The boys varied in age from eight to fourteen and not a livelier, cleaner bunch could we have wished. Officers were elected and regular meetings held on Friday evenings, or in the afternoons when we worked on night shift.
Interest was not lacking with those boys. Our meetings began with discussions concerning most anything. We played games, did tricks, and as the excitement grew we had to protect everything breakable as the boys played a little "rough house." As a conclusion to an evening's events there would usually be a feast. The mothers of the boys supplied what was lacking in our cabin larder.
An occasional pile of dirty dishes was never even noticed by the boys—nor by Win and me. Then one night two sisters of the club members showed up. Embarrassment overtook us, and Win and I tried hard to keep our cabin more shipshape after that.
We had twice failed to reach the summit of the mountain behind our cabin. Darkness or weariness had overtaken us. Our next try for the top was a club excursion and came just before the snows took the canyon in their grasp. Already the mountain ridges were white. One of our letters described that adventure.
"...This time we reached the summit. There, on all sides of us, was the tumbled mass of the Bitterroot Range. In the distance was Nine Mile Canyon and the shafts of the Interstate and Tamerack mines. We had anticipated the view for months, and were more than satisfied.
"I'm just wondering what things back home will look like after being in such a country as this, not a place for miles which is level enough for a football field.
"It's quite a job to get up the mountain and for most people it would be hard getting down. But it wasn't for us. When we would come to a place where a path led down we would just let go' of ourselves, and I absolutely know we broke all running records ever made. It's a wonder we didn't break our necks. The slope is about 45°. And when we came to an open place that was snow covered we could just sit down and forget our worries until we bumped up against a tree or something.
"But the most fun of all was when bushes blocked our path. We would lie down and it was so steep we would roll right over the whole bunch of bushes. They were full of snow, and so were we, soon. It was great."
Our last hike in the area and the final activity of the club was a "fox and hare" chase up the Whiskey Trail, which was snowbound, no human having been that way for weeks. We floundered for miles, took refuge in deserted mine shafts when the cold was too intense and, on returning to Burke, turned the Line shanty into something which resembled a rendezvous for Arctic explorers.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
- Hits: 1884