Early Days in the Forest Service
Volume 2

October 1955

By Leon C. Hurtt
(Retired 1951)

From shank's mare with a back pack, to saddle and pack horse, wagon or buckboard, then to automobile and finally to airplane, all happened during the first half century of Forest Service existence — greater changes than in all of previous history. To keep abreast, the Forest Service also changed. With two Wisconsin State rangers, I traveled to my first forest fire with a back pack in 1910 when a smoky haze was drifting in from R-1 fires. My pack contained 2 blankets, flour, bacon, raisins, tea, a can of tomatoes (the emptied can served as a tea pot) and a small frying pan, file, etc. The shovel was strapped on behind but I carried the axe in my hand. In later years we often used back packs to inaccessible side camps in the west. However, saddle and pack horses were more common when wagons were not usable.

R. T. Ferguson (Fergy) was perhaps the first supervisor in R-1 to use his auto for official travel on the old Beartooth. Anyway, I made my first official trip by auto with him. Maybe it was 1917 or '18 that he and I rolled gaily out of Billings over a narrow, crooked, dirt road. At Belfry we bought gas at a blacksmith shop. The blacksmith asked if we were going through Red Lodge and if so, could we take a lady passenger that far.

Fergy was young, handsome and as always, too chivalrous to fail a lady in need of a lift. After considerable delay, the lady appeared with her belongings - four small children, 3 or 4 suitcases, some boxes, various toys, a bird-cage, and a baby carriage! With real ingenuity we packed this assorted cargo into the back seat, lashed the baby carriage on behind and started for Red Lodge. About half way up a long steep hill the very garrulous lady informed us that she was running away and that her husband would be wild when he got home and found her gone. Fergy then began glancing frequently over his shoulder and opened the throttle wide. Finally we reached the top of the long hill before the old Franklin caught fire. From there we were able to largely coast into Red Lodge. As luck would have it, Ranger Baum and his assistant strolled up as we were unloading the family and impedimenta. With a wink, Baum remarked to no one in particular that he had always understood that the supervisor was a single man. Fergy ignored this with dignity and a flushed face. If the irate husband did pursue us, the Franklin won by enough margin to avoid tragedy on my first official trip by auto. Since then I have steamed up many hills from the Nezperce to the Custer in a Model T — sometimes backing up the steep ones so the gas would feed.

My first trip by plane came as the fire season closed in September of 1924 or '25. Fire Chief Howard Flint sent the obsolete old De Haviland plane to Grangeville to take the Nezperce and Selway staffs up to test us on locating fires from a plane. I made the first hop without incident to Red River and back in about an hour's flying time, a trip that usually took 2 days by truck. I noted the speed indicator up to 125 miles per hour as we came in to land! Brandborg's hop circled out over the Seven Devils to frighten and scatter widely a bunch of Hibbs' fat steers being driven to market from their isolated Snake River range. They had never before heard a gasoline engine. On Clyde Blake's trip, the pilot treated him to a surprise loop-the-loop over Grangeville. Clyde was a little green around the gills when they landed. Jim Urquhart took the last trip of the day and narrowly escaped disaster because the pilot, flying down the Selway River under low clouds with a small gas supply, failed to take the left turn toward Camas Prairie where the Selway and Lochsa joined. After he had followed up the Lochsa rugged canyon for several miles, Jim made him understand that he must turn back and follow down the Middle Fork to reach Grangeville. We lined up car lights to illuminate the landing place in a stubble field and were almost as much relieved to see the pair down safely as were Jim and Priestly, the pilot. (Priestly was killed a few days later at an air show in Spokane.) Since then planes and autos have become indispensable to the Forest Service.

I don't know of any constructive forestry work that can be done by modern supersonic planes or rockets, but I suspect that they can be used by an enemy to set destructive fires.

Old store building of Diamond City, Confederate Gulch, Helena National Forest. 1927.

LIBBY - TROY ROAD in Montana, Kootenai National Forest, 1915. Typical rock excavation on improvement.

Gates Park Ranger Station, Lewis & Clark National Forest.

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Last Updated: 15-Oct-2010