Pinkham Creek- The Old Days

Sam Billings wrote of his experience as a Forest Service guard on Pinkham Creek.  We do need to remember that the Pinkham Creek residents of the time did not have the same access to the historical record that the Forest Service did – the stories I heard as a youngster suggest there was only one man specializing in arson . . . but it was a different time.  Billings’ story gives a perspective on the early times on Pinkham.


By Sam Billings

Sometimes referred to as the Pinkham Creek Insurrection or the Pinkham Creek Rebellion, the entire Federal lands in the Pinkham Creek drainage, Kootenai National Forest, were closed to entry without permit beginning about the first of August 1924 and were kept closed until the September rains.

For several years preceding this closure, the Forest Service had had to contend with incendiary fires that were set within or adjacent to the drainage. These fires were believed to have been set by homesteaders in Pinkham Creek who set the fires in order to obtain work as firefighters. In the latter part of July 1924 a rash of these fires were set—some 32 fires, if the writer remembers right, were set at one time; and the Forest Service decided to take drastic action. The Forest was closed to entry except by permit, and seven camps were established around the valley, out of which patrolmen enforced the closure. There were three men in each camp – two patrolmen and a camp tender, who did the cooking and watched camp during the day. All the patrolmen were armed and were supplied a saddle horse apiece for riding out over the trails. Wages were $100 per month and food.

This writer was one of the patrolmen and was assigned to Camp No. 1 the first camp on the road at the lower end of Pinkham Creek. Andy Fluetsch, sent over from the then Absaroka National Forest, was the other patrolman in this camp, and Bill Hillis, from Libby, was the camp tender. Andy was a long, lean cowpuncher-type and was a fast-draw artist. Bill was short and round and bald and was a retired professional gunman who had worked for years for the Peters Arms Company, doing exhibition shooting at circuses and on the vaudeville circuit. They picked me – they told me later – because I had served in a tough outfit, the First Division, in World War I.

The people who organized this armed patrol must have thought there would be violent resistance to the closure, but there was none—only the threat of it one day. Fluetsch and I usually left camp around 8 a.m. and rode out in different directions each day, sometimes together and sometimes each in a different direction. We usually returned to camp at around 4 p.m. Bill Hillis usually stayed in camp all day, but occasionally, he would catch a ride into Rexford or Eureka on business of his own, or rarely, he would go duck hunting. One day we returned to camp around 4 p.m., as usual, and found a note on the dish up table. Bill had gone to Eureka and had not yet returned. The note read “You get to hell out of here or we will shoot up your camp,” and it was signed “Pinkham Creekers.” Andy and I slept on cots in one tent, and Bill slept on a cot in the cook tent where we ate our meals. Naturally, we were a little nervous for a while after reading the note; and both Andy and I had our guns under our pillows at night. I carried a Luger 9 mm automatic, but Andy had a .38 Smith & Wesson, with an 8-inch barrel; and as stated earlier, he was a fast draw artist and practiced every morning at it before he sat down to breakfast.

The third night after receiving the note, and soon after getting to sleep some rattling of cooking utensils woke me up. There was a tarp stretched out in front of our tent and a small mix-up table under it on which Bill had stacked some pots and pans. I raised up on my elbow and looked out the tent flap and saw a pack rat rummaging around on the table and in and out of the dishes. There was a full moon – and very bright. Without arousing Andy, I pulled the Luger from under my pillow, leveled on the pack rat and fired. Andy’s reaction was instantaneous. It wasn’t a second before his feet hit the dirt floor and he stood there with the .38 in his hand. I don’t think I ever saw a man move that fast before. Had there been someone out there, it would have been just too bad.

Bill Hillis, our camp tender, had made a profession of shooting practically all his life. As a young man, he was a market hunter in California and made his living shooting wild ducks and geese before there were any game laws. He shot them day in and day out, as long as there were any to shoot; and he became as skilled at it as anyone alive. He could do anything with a shotgun and often demonstrated his skill while we were in camp. His favorite trick was to load his pump gun full of shells and start firing into the air, and he knew how to jerk his gun while ejecting the shell so that it would fly up and ahead, and he would shoot and hit each ejected shell.

After game laws went into effect, he went to work for the Peters Arms Company and traveled all over the United States and Europe with vaudeville companies and circuses doing trick shooting. He could take any type gun, whether he had ever had it in his hands before or not, and do amazingly accurate shooting with it.

I recall one Sunday a doctor from Eureka and his family stopped at the camp to visit. The doc had a .22 caliber rifle with him and was quite proud of his ability to shoot with it. He belonged to a rifle team and the National Rifle Association. He used a small pine knot on the tamarack flagpole we had at camp and put a very creditable group of five shots around the knot. Hillis complimented him on his marksmanship and asked if he might try his luck. The doc said Sure, and handed him the rifle with five shells in it. Bill fired the five shells at the same distance at another pine knot (about the same size as a .22 bullet) in quick succession, and all holes overlapped. He apologized for the overlaps, saying his eyes were failing him.

There were two arrests made during the patrol; both for trespass on a closed area. One of the arrests was made by Fluetsch and me. We knew that one of the homesteaders, living one-half mile or so up a draw and away from the creek, had to haul water for himself and family and stock. He had none whatsoever on his place. He hauled two barrels at a time on a stone boat pulled by a team of horses. His horses, when not in use, were turned loose and grazed on the National Forest. We knew what they looked like, where they grazed, and when they were used. The homesteader had been told two different times that he could have a permit for the length of the closure and to go out and get his horses. He assured us both times that his horses never went onto Government land – he always kept them on his place and, therefore, didn’t need any so-and-so permit from us. He even told us what we could do with said permit.

Our camp was near the creek and within a short distance of the willows and alders that lined the creek. We discovered tracks in the soft, moist earth that indicated possibly two barefoot boys were sneaking through the brush after dark to within hearing distance of our camp and listening in on our conversation as we sat around the campfire and discussed where we would patrol the next day. We presumed our plans were pretty well distributed among the residents up and down the creek.

So, one night we talked about our next day’s plans in tones loud enough to make sure anyone could hear it out in the willows. We were to go out along some trails on the east side. At our usual bedtime, we went into our tent, lay down for a half hour or so, and then rolled up our blankets and stuffed them into packsacks along with an alarm clock and a breakfast lunch Bill Hillis had prepared for each of us. We strapped on our guns and, with packsacks on our backs, we crawled out under the back end of the tent and across the creek in pitch darkness. There was no moon that night, and we had difficulty in finding the trail on the west side but finally did and without too much trouble reached the area where we knew the aforementioned horses would be grazing. They both had bells on them so they were easy to locate, and we bedded down on the trail close by after setting the alarm clock to wake us just before daybreak. When the alarm went off, we stuffed our blankets into our packsacks, hid out in the brush beside the trail while we ate our sack lunch and waited for the suspect. We waited but a short while before he came up the trail with halters and a pail of oats in his hand. Andy Fluetsch jumped out into the trail with gun in hand, and it scared the poor fellow to where I thought he was going to faint. We told him he was under arrest for trespassing in a closed area of the National Forest, helped him gather up his horses, and took him back to his home and thence to the U.S. Commissioner in Eureka, where he was placed under $500 bond. As far as I know, neither he, nor the other man that was arrested, were ever brought to trial.

The closure ended in September with the first heavy rain, and some of us were assigned to construct the new cabin up the creek and some to build a new 72-foot lookout tower on Pinkham Ridge. After the first heavy snows the tower job was brought to a halt and I was assigned to go on game patrol with Charlie Hudson from the Upper Yaak country. I never knew the reason for this game patrol. Both Hudson and I were made honorary deputy game wardens, but we made no arrests or saw any evidence of poaching and very seldom saw any game.

We were quartered in tents with the crew building the new cabin. By the time the cabin was finished in mid-November the snow around the tents was stacked up against the canvas walls to the roofline. When construction was complete, all except putting a partition through the middle, it was decided to have a dance and invite the Pinkham Creekers. Most of us had become pretty well acquainted with most of them and found them nice, friendly people; and we had a very happy party that night. Whole families came – children and all. The younger kids were put to bed in the tents.

Our cook was a young Italian fellow, and besides being a good cook he was a good mandolin player. One of the Pinkham Creekers was a good fiddler, and he and the cook really made the folks step lively in the square dances. There was some moonshine imbibed outside between dances but none to excess. The cook had prepared a lot of food and coffee for midnight lunch after which the dance went on for another couple of hours. After everyone had gone and I crawled into my tent, I found the blankets soaked.

These people were largely from the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky and had been poverty stricken all their lives. Their ways of living back East had changed little or possibly for the worse in Pinkham Creek. The soil on most of the homesteads was white clay, too acid for the raising of most crops, and in dry summers not enough water was available for irrigating any land but that close to the creek. Some of the more able-bodied made a partial living hacking railroad ties from the tamarack and Douglas fir stands on their homesteads and adjacent National Forest. These they hauled to the Great Northern tracks at Eureka for which they got $.43 a tie – if they passed inspection. Some made moonshine; some had a few head of cattle and tried to raise hay. All of the land had been timberland – largely Douglas fir and tamarack (western larch) but some ponderosa pine – and there were stumps in almost every clearing. Some clearings were also rocky, and it was the custom with some to pick up the rocks and place them on the stumps. Noticing one day that the stumps in a quite large field were pretty well rotted out, I asked the owner why he didn’t get rid of them so he could raise more hay; and he replied, “Well, what in hell would I do with all of the rocks?”

All at that time lived in log cabin homes. There was no electricity in the valley nor was there telephone line except Forest Service. All farm work was by manpower or horses. No one had any powered farm machinery. There were no radios. I bought an early battery-operated Radiola with earphones – the first one in the valley – soon after the Forest Service cabin was completed.

One Sunday I invited old Mr. O’Brien, who lived a mile or so down the road, to come up and listen to a church service from a Catholic church being broadcast from Winnipeg, Canada. He had never seen a radio before, and although a devout Catholic, he had not been to church for some 20 years or more. I sat him at the table on which the radio was placed, adjusted the earphones on his head, during which process he showed considerable nervousness, and turned it on. The services had just started and were coming in real good. The old fellow sat there with both hands cupped over his cane during the full hour without moving a muscle or saying a word. When it was over he carefully removed the headphones and placed them on the table; and without saying a word, he took his cane and left. But he spent the rest of the day walking up and down the valley talking to anyone who would listen about the great miracle he had just been a party to. He had attended church in Winnipeg while sitting in the Forest Service cabin in Pinkham Creek.

Tony, our mandolin playing cook, another man whose name I can’t recall but who had a good singing voice, and myself visited the O’Briens two different Sundays. The conditions under which they were living appalled us. They had no running water but dipped it out of a barrel outside; a two-lid wood-burning cook stove that was warped all out of shape; an outside toilet, the door of which wouldn’t close because the top hinge was gone; a potbellied stove for heating that seemed as though it put more smoke into the room than went up the chimney; windows that you could barely see through and with two panes of glass missing and covered with paper. They did have an old foot pump organ that the old couple said was brought over from Ireland by their grandparents and was in playing condition. Their granddaughter, a girl about 18 years old, was living with them and caring for them, and she could and did play the organ while Tony played his mandolin; and the rest of us sang from an old hymnal they had. The old folks’ lives seemed to be made a little happier by these visits.

Money for my employment that year ran out the first week in December, and I left Pinkham Creek. Having just come from Massachusetts in early July, the things seen and experiences gained have remained rather vividly in my mind these 50 years. It is hoped that these recollections may add to those already placed on record by others.

1 thought on “Pinkham Creek- The Old Days”

  1. I would have loved posting this in The Trail. I did publish a photo of these FS gunmen titled “When the Forest Seervice had Clout.”


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