This new, fully annotated edition of Koch’s memoir offers an unparalleled look at the Forest Service’s formative ambitions to regulate the national forests and grasslands and reminds us of the principled commitment that Koch and his peers exemplified as they built the national forest system and nurtured the essential conservation ethic that continues to guide our use of the public lands.
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About the Author
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I think I was born to be a forester — the profession of forestry in the United States opened up just in time to offer me the kind of life and work that fit my desires and upbringing.
My father, Peter Koch, was one of the pioneers of Montana. He was born in Denmark with the tradition of three or four generations of Lutheran ministers back of him. His father, pastor at Kirkeby, filled the old parsonage with a brood of fifteen children, but somehow or another, in spite of the low income of a country minister, managed to put all of the boys through Latin School and the University.
My father at the age of twenty-one had no expectation other than to take his degree in philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, and carry on the tradition of his family as one more in a line of ministers. But somewhere in the young student was a streak of restlessness. Perhaps the genes of some forgotten Viking ancestor had somewhere infiltrated the sober lineage of the family. At any rate, on a sudden impulse he left the university and took ship to the United States to seek his fortune. After a couple of bitter and unsuccessful years of knocking about the eastern states, the young man ended up at "Bogue Homa," the farm of his uncle in Mississippi. Old Christian Koch, after many years at sea as a ship captain, had found port in southern Mississippi, where he built himself a low, rambling farmhouse, shaded by giant live oaks and imbedded in the flowers that all Kochs love. Here he married a Spanish-French girl, and proceeded to raise a family of twelve children. Welcomed into the family, young Peter fell in love with his shy, dark-haired cousin Laurentze.
But Mississippi, after the Civil War, seemed to offer little opportunity, and Peter decided to go West to better his condition. A loading steamboat at St. Louis caught his eye with a sign, "Ho for Fort Benton and the gold mines." He embarked on the river steamer, and after one hundred days on the Missouri River, delayed by sand bars and snags, he was still one hundred miles short of his destination, Fort Benton.
Again acting on the impulse of the moment he left the boat at Fort Musselshell, an isolated Indian trading post, in what is now Montana. Here he spent the winter of 1869 and 1870, and the following summer, part of the time as a clerk in Clendenning's trading post, but most of the time in a lonely cabin on the river, twenty miles below Musselshell, with a rough crew of woodhawks as partners, cutting wood to be sold to the river steamboats the next spring, living on elk and buffalo meat, and learning to use an axe, his Henry rifle always handy to stand off the constantly prowling Sioux. It was here that young Peter entered in his little red diary, "Twenty-five years old today, and still poor as a church rat." The venture proved unsuccessful. The next spring steamboat traffic on the river dropped to a few boats and the Indians eventually burned most of the wood.
Peter decided to look for more promising fields, and took horse for Bozeman, then a small pioneer farming and cattle town. It was five years before he could accumulate enough worldly wealth to go south for his Laurentze.
After a period as clerk in the Crow Indian Reservation post at Absarokee, Nelson Story, one of the pioneer capitalists and entrepreneurs of Bozeman, discovered ability in the young Dane, and gave him charge of an expedition to establish an Indian trading post in the Judith Basin, a wild and unsettled country, inhabited only by Indians and a few hide hunters. By now, Peter was getting to be something of a frontiersman. He could take a hand with an axe in the building of the log trading post, kill and butcher his buffalo or elk, or take a rifle shot at the constantly threatening Indians. He even acquired an Indian name: Massa-chela-shena-hathat, the "yellow-haired white man," the Crows called him.
But in that rough life he did not forget that he was a man of scholarship. He studied the geology and botany of the country, made maps, and daily entered the weather data in his journal. He even wrote several sketches from the Judith Basin to the pioneer newspaper in Bozeman, the Avant Courier.
But Story sold the trading post and Peter returned to Bozeman, where for the next year he worked in Willson's store, studied surveying, and took a public land surveying contract. It was not until 1874 that he felt his future sufficiently secure to go south and bring home his bride.
With such a pioneer background, and living in what was still a very small and primitive western town, it is natural that I grew up with a love for the mountains and the range and outdoor life. Father's affairs gradually prospered, and he became cashier and vice president of the Bozeman National Bank, and began to take his place as a well-known and prominent citizen of Bozeman.
As a growing boy, most of the life of myself and my younger brother, Stanley, centered about the outdoors. A cousin of my parents, Richard Biering, had two ranches within a few miles of town, and we had the run of these to our hearts' content. A Saturday was never satisfactory, winter or summer, when we did not get out to the ranch or take our .22 rifles and a lunch for an all-day walk or ride into one of the canyons or over the hills.
Through the summer, when school was out, horses were our main interest. We of course had a barn back of the house where the old family driving mare, Kate, was stabled, as well as our ponies. After these many years it is strange how I remember the individuality of each of our many horses — much better than I recall the people of the period. We rode, under the direction of cousin Richard, from the time we were so small that we had to be strapped on the horse. Our first pony, which my brother and I usually rode double, was an old cayuse roan named Mary. She was supposed to be twenty-one years old, and strangely enough never got any older; she was always twenty-one. I shall never forget, as a small boy, the first time I got the courage to spur and whip old Mary into what we called a "dead run." The speed and power of the horse's muscles under me thrilled me beyond description.
As we grew up, we had a succession of horses as they might be spared from Richard's ranch, mostly mares. There was Dolly, another roan mare, who had a disagreeable habit of biting when we tightened the saddle cinch, and a horse can bite mighty hard. When she had her colt she could be approached on a picket rope only with a club in hand, as she came at us with ears laid back and teeth bared; but once she was saddled she was as gentle as a dog. There was Peggy, a blue roan, who had a pretty trick of balking at unexpected moments, and often would have to be worked with for an hour before she would consent to go. Then there was old Betsy, a gaunt, tall, bay thoroughbred mare. Perched on her I must have looked like a monkey on a stick, but how she could run! None of the other boys' ponies could keep near her. Only I couldn't stop her when she started running, and had to let her run it out.
Our first ponies that we really owned were Billy, Stanley's horse, and my little brown mare, Belle. They were full sister and brother, bred from a cayuse mare by a Hambletonian stallion. Belle was a splendid little saddle horse, and we understood each other perfectly. From a walk it took only the slightest lift of the reins and a slight lean forward for her to break into a lope. Of course Stanley and I raced all the time. His Billy could never beat my Belle, but he never gave up. Every time we came down Babcock Street toward our house we broke into a race, until the town marshal came to Father and put a stop to it.
As we became older, we became more ambitious as to our mounts. Once cousin Richard left in our corral, for some reason, an unbroken horse he called Slivers. When he was first roped and snubbed to a corral post he fought so hard he battered his head against the post until it was covered with scars. I was alone in the house one day and went out and looked him over. I dropped my rope over him and managed to get my hand on him, and concluded he was not so wild. So I got a halter on him, and worked him over with a saddle blanket till he quit trembling. I put the saddle on and led him out in the street beside the house, and eased myself into the saddle. He didn't buck as hard as I expected, and I stayed with him, and from then on for that summer he was my horse. That was the first completely unbroken horse I had tackled, and I felt pretty proud.
Stanley's best horse was a black gelding ... There was a sale of J N horses over at Livingstone, and Stanley went over with some of Richard's hands and bought him. He was a flathipped, rawboned animal, but the most enduring horse I ever rode; no day was too long for him, and he always came in with his head up. But he had one fault. He had been spoiled in breaking, and developed into a bad runaway. When we got him his tongue was cut half in two by the use of a spade bit, and he hated the curb. He might be going along quietly, and suddenly with a powerful lunge he was away on an uncontrolled run, and he ran wild, regardless of obstacles. He fell once with my brother and broke his collarbone; another time, with one of Richard's men, he ran square into a barbwire fence and broke the man's arm. Twice in running horses he got away from me and fell end over end. When Stanley went off to West Point, [his horse] fell to me. I decided I could cure him of running away. It was fighting the curb bit that enraged him, so one day I took him out with a plain bar bit instead of a curb. When we got out to the edge of town, [he] made one of his characteristic lunges and was off. I didn't try to stop him, just kept a steady rein on him, and after he had run five miles he commenced to slow down. Then it was my turn, and I spurred him on till he had all the running he wanted. That was the last time he ever ran away, and from then on anyone could ride him. But that was when I was almost a young man; it is the horses of my boyhood that most come back to me.
From the time I was seven or eight years old, my father used to take the full month of August as vacation from the bank, and the whole family went camping. At first we set up a fixed camp in one of the canyons and stayed in one place, but as my brother and I got older and could look after the horses and the camp work we extended our excursions. Our favorite camping spot was on the Gallatin River, after a wagon road was finally built through the canyon. We usually made three camps during the month, and fished, rode, hunted, and climbed mountains. These summer camps were the high spot of the year. Occasionally we varied the program with a longer trip, once through Yellowstone Park, two or three families together, with a four-horse grub wagon, buggies and saddle horses, a teamster and a Chinese cook. It took a whole month to make a circuit of the park from Bozeman. Nowadays they drive through with a car in a single day, but we saw the park in a way that few people do now.
As we grew into our teens, my brother and I, with a few of our friends, used to take long trips by ourselves with our saddle horses and a pack horse or two, exploring the wonderful country around the Gallatin Valley. We had the greatest of freedom, and our parents never objected to any sort of an expedition we wanted to undertake. Conservative people occasionally asked my father whether he was not worried about such young boys going off alone into the mountains, but he always said he felt they were far safer there than loafing about the pool halls in town. To this day I have never learned to play pool or billiards, which I sometimes think detracts from a well-rounded education, but the mountain training doubtless was far better for us.
The most extensive trip we made was in August 1897. Father was then closely connected with the college at Bozeman, and a semi-scientific expedition was organized to traverse and explore some of the little-known country in Montana and Wyoming, and Yellowstone Park. In addition to my father, there were three members of the college faculty, a Presbyterian minister from Helena, my brother, Stanley, and myself, who were then fifteen and sixteen years old. We, of course, had a saddle horse apiece, and a pack string of seven horses, with Ed Alderson, an old-time mountain man, as packer. The cook, Jim Trail, completed the party.
Ed pitched his tent in what was known as the Alderson pasture at the end of Black Street, and we assembled the outfit there: bedrolls, tents, war bags, and food supplies for a month's trip. My brother and I, excited and wild to be off, slept the night at Ed's camp, and after the usual delay in packing up the first morning, we were off. We struck east from Bozeman over the historic Bozeman Pass, up the Boulder River, past the abandoned mining camp of Cooke City, into Wyoming via the Clark Fork, and up Crandall Creek into Yellowstone Park. At that time, it was an almost uninhabited wilderness. Except for a few old prospectors still hanging on in Cooke City, we saw no one during three weeks of riding. Of course it was outside of hunting season, but both my brother and I carried rifles on our saddles, and riding up the Boulder River we had a chance to use them. A she black bear with two cubs, one black and one brown, were feeding in a huckleberry patch along the trail. Stanley and I were off our horses in a moment, and as the old bear reared up on her hind legs we both fired and she dropped. The cubs climbed high in a lodgepole pine tree, and much excited we continued bombarding till they both were down. We took the hides, which were not good at that time of year, and only served in later years for our dogs to sleep on, and the cubs' hindquarters, which were very good when Jim Trail baked them in the Dutch oven. Dr. Wilcox took the skulls as a contribution to his biology department. Fifty years later I was going through the college buildings as a member of the governor's Post War Planning Commission. I passed what went for a museum, but which was neglected and I hope only temporarily disorganized. I said to the professor escorting me, "I want to go in here and see if I can find something." Sure enough, I ran across three bear skulls, an adult and two cubs, unlabeled and unknown, but doubtless our trophy.
It was a wonderful trip through some of the most attractive mountain country in the United States. The Clark Fork Valley and the Sunlight Basin in Wyoming, which are now cluttered with dude ranches, were completely untenanted by man. We cut up through Crandall Creek, and into the Hoodoo Basin, where Dr. Traphagen and Stanley, the official photographers of the expedition, got some unique photographs of the grotesque eroded rock formations. By this route we entered Yellowstone Park by a back door, which was quite contrary to official procedure. At that time the park was policed by the army, which had two or three troops of cavalry concentrated at Mammoth Springs, with small detachments scattered over the mail travel routes.
About the time we arrived, the whole park was in an uproar over a stage holdup. The robbers had stopped the whole string of seven or eight stages run by the transportation company, relieved the tourists of all their valuables and money, and disappeared into the forest. As it happened, that day we were approaching the Grand Canyon, which would be our first contact with the usual tourist routes. We had been out three weeks, and by that time were a pretty tough-looking outfit. None of the men had shaved since we started, and we wore rough clothes, much the worse for wear. With the guns on our saddles and our general rugged aspect we looked like anything but a bunch of scientists. When we got within two or three miles of the Grand Canyon a messenger from the military post was out looking for a fishing party of soldiers to get them back and on the trail of the bandits. He took one look at our outfit, wheeled his horse, and galloped back to the canyon station to report that he had seen the stage robbers. A squad of cavalrymen was hastily sent out to meet us, put us under arrest, and moved us into camp under guard.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forty Years a Forester"
Copyright © 2019 Peter R. Koch.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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