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Dam the Mighty Missouri (1 Viewer)

C

carly

DAM THE MIGHTY MISSOURI

The small, northeastern town of Glasgow, Montana hasn't much to offer visitors these days; just a few small specialty shops, an ample selection of bars, a gas station or two and a few other small town businesses. Two banks, a barber shop and 6 motels round out the town where Rees White and his brothers, George, Jim and Bob---- one sister, Margery and their parents, Dave and Georgie White lived from 1906 until 1940. People are moving out, rather than in and homes are selling at a very decent price. If you like wind --and lots of it---plus the absence of trees to break the wind, and if you love the cold, then this is the place for you.

The weather has always been the same in the northern section of Montana; the flat land bereft of trees, save some cottonwoods that grow along the banks of the Milk River, but green, with more water then most of the state. The towns are small and not too far apart, just enough to make it a day trip, mostly, to see a friend or do some decent shopping.

In 1933 the town was larger, had an active social life; there were neighbors who knew each other and were there to lend a hand in good times and bad. They were, for the most part, good citizens. Many of the residents were descendents of settlers that moved west in the 1880's and before, stopped in Glasgow, found good soil, an abundance of pasture land, the water that most of Montana found lacking, and for some folks, the 160 acres they were promised by the Homestead Act. It was all to their liking and they decided to stay.
George and Annie White did just that; their reason being 160 acres of homestead land on the Milk River just ten miles west of town, as the crow flies. George White and his wife Annie settled the 160 acre ranch in 1890 where they raised work horses at first; many years later selling off the horses to raise sheep. The sheep produced wool for the uniforms of the American soldiers fighting overseas in World War 1. By 1917 George and Annie had retired from chasing horses and sheep and had given the ranch over to their son Dave and his wife, Georgie. They had 5000 sheep during the war years and for a few years thereafter, but when the war ended so did the demand for wool and wool uniforms. After World War 1 the bottom fell out of the wool market and many ranchers such as Dave White had no buyers for their wool. Tons of the wool produced in northern Montana post 1920 was, and maybe still is, in storage barns and sheds across the area.
The ranch did well, spawned 7 kids, and from time to time an errant Uncle or two would show up for awhile, help out and then get out.. The Depression forced them back and FDR was there to give them and lots of others, a New Deal

The Fort Peck Dam Project was the brainchild of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of these United States at the time. This was the New Deal, a good deal, too, for folks with no jobs or money; but with large families to clothe and feed. Begun in 1933 by the Federal Government and going strong until 1940, many men and women from the northern Montana area and a good deal of folks from further away were employed building the dam in very many ways.

Unskilled laborers were paid fifty cents an hour. In the beginning they were invaluable to the start of the building of the dam; clearing the bottom land with their hands and any tools they had or could find to do the job. As they cleared the land, they would burn homes of friends and neighbors that lie in the path of the soon to come dam. They earned every penny of that hourly fifty cents. The skilled guys, the ones who could drive a loader, bulldozer or caterpillar got top pay of $1.20 an hour for their work. The local ranchers, the men who had other talents and tools needed, called their own prices and some of them actually got more.......Dave White’s workhorses used on his ranch became invaluable to the building of the dam by pulling massive tree stumps from the land. Their roots had burrowed deep enough to hold them upright for centuries; now the big trees were gone in a day. Dave’s wife, Georgie, a woman who never shied away from any work, jumped right into cooking for the men seven days straight and she got paid for it. Their youngest son, Rees, a hardworking, fun loving fellow of seventeen in 1937, lied about his age (he wanted to be older) and drove a bulldozer. His 3 older brothers drove caterpillars and loaders and the four of them pushed dirt around Fort Peck for a few years.

Home for the family was Wheeler, Montana, a "town" among several others, that had grown overnight almost on top of the dam. Glasgow was 15 miles to the northwest and too far to go to be feasible, so Wheeler it was. And what a place! The buildings and I use this term loosely, were shanties made of found lumber nailed together, some tarpaper if the owner was lucky, and dirt floors. A few shelves and some odd items of furniture were gathered and you had instant home. Never mind if the wind blew sand and dirt through the cracks in the walls, never mind if there was no indoor plumbing or running water, this was a place to sleep and eat, maybe; a shelter of sorts. Rees built his own room away from the family but close enough, and he set up his Ham Radio. When he wasn't working on the dam, he was chasing girls or talking on that radio. The hobby lasted a lifetime for him, helping him make friends with folks who were only a voice on the airwaves; people he would never meet.

The entire White family was on the government payroll at Fort Peck. David Sr. drove the horses, Georgie cooked for hundreds of men and women, and Rees and his brothers worked the heavy machinery. Money was being made and saved: college for one brother, Jim, and a ticket out of Montana for George, Bob and Rees.

In 1939 Uncle Sam said he had a better deal for Rees and he joined the Navy. His brother Jim got to college---Cornell University in Ithaca, New York---where he excelled at everything he did, married his college sweetheart, Ruth, raised a family of two boys and a girl, and became a scientist. A professor at Cornell University for his entire career, he is 89 now and travels the world alone, for the most part. Ruth, his wife and sweetheart of 54 years, passed quietly one evening as he held her hand.

The other brothers went off to parts unknown; never were in the military but raised families and became teachers and manufacturing plant managers.
Dave and Georgie liked building dams so much, they sold the ranch on the Milk River and everything else they owned and went East to Ontario, Canada on the train where there was another dam being built. He handled the horses and she cooked.........

Rees ended up on a boat they called the ARIZONA in the middle of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941; he had watch that morning when the Japanese planes came. He made it out, spent the remainder of his naval career on the USS Tangier ----an AV8 supply ship in the Philippines.
He was discharged in June of 1945 at San Diego and made his way to his wife’s apartment. They had been married five years by then---and in September of 1946 the couple welcomed a baby girl into their lives.
Rees would speak very little of Pearl Harbor; never answer any questions about where he was or what he did unless he had a few drinks and the right mood struck. From time to time his daughter, as she grew up and learned history, would ask him about his part in World War 11, but he would walk away, not answering.

Wheeler, Montana had a population in excess of 50,000 people during the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. The dam project did what it was supposed to do: employ men and women during the depression, boost the U.S. economy and help get the nation financially on its feet again. By 1940 the project was mostly finished and World War 11 was heating up...another form of government employment.

The Fort Peck Dam and the Fort Peck Museum on the Missouri River in northeastern Montana is well worth seeing. While the dam looks sort of cold and untouchable, like many people we meet today, it is not. There are hundreds of stories untold by the men and women who lived and worked to see the project completed.
The lives of Dave and Georgie White, their sons and their part in this huge undertaking are just one.


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