by Donna Love
For the Pathfinder
December 14, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
The Rich Ranch will be giving free sleigh rides at the Apprciation Day Sunday at the Rich Ranch where other activities, a chili feed and an appearance by Santa Claus highlight a day of free activities for the public.
Pathfinder photos by G. Noland
An Appreciation Day full of winter fun for the whole community will be held on Sunday, December 17 from noon to four o'clock at the Rich Ranch near Kozy Korner.
Appreciation Day is a day when the businesses in the community express their appreciation to the citizens of Seeley Lake for their support throughout the year.
Activities will include sleigh rides, snowmobiling, sledding, dog sled rides and a chili feed complete with a visit from Santa at three o'clock for the wee ones and absolutely every activity is free of charge.
But Appreciation Day wasn't always in the form it is in today. It actually started from three separate early day celebrations that eventually combined to become one.
Dan Cainan, a long time resident and former owner of Dan's Discount, a sporting goods store in Seeley Lake recalls two of them. "The business people would put on Appreciation Days for the community in the fall of the year and around Labor Day as a kind of a "thanky" for supporting the businesses through the year," he said.
He explained that in the fall, the late "Barney" Bowles, the owner of Barney's Restaurant and Bar (now the Seeley Lake Fun Center) cooked two hams and two turkeys for an Appreciation dinner. The town's folk would potluck the rest of the food.
Mr. Cainan said it was well attended and recalls that "everyone would come out of the woods and they'd all have five or six kids that we hadn't never seen before."
Another Appreciation Day was held on Labor Day in the form of a Buffalo Feed. Dan remembers:
"Barney" Bowles and I used to get a buffalo in Helena or over in Arlee. We'd go pick it up in his derrick truck. One year we went to get one at Whispering Bob's in Arlee. We called him Whispering Bob because he hollered all the time.
When we got there he invited us in for coffee. We had already put butcher paper on the floor of the truck so we would could keep the meat clean and we left the doors open to cool it down in there so we could keep the meat cold on the drive home. Darned if while we was in having coffee five of Whispering Bob's goats didn't get in the truck and make a mess of things.
Now usually our buffalo was butchered when we got there, but every now and then it wouldn't be. Whispering Bob got gored that year so he couldn't butcher the buffalo for us. We had to take about three pickup trucks and separate a yearling from its mother, then we'd shoot it and throw it in a truck. We chased that buffalo for about three hours. We couldn't do it and there was a two year old bull and he just stepped out to put an end to that business so Whispering Bob said "Shoot him," so we got a eight hundred dollar bull for six hundred and fifty bucks that day."
Oh Christmas Tree!
Helen Rich, matriarch of the Rich Ranch explained how the community Appreciation Day came to be a little more civilized and centered around Christmas time.
In the 1950's the community had a Christmas tree downtown. At first it was at the Seeley Lake Mercantile [now the Grizzly Claw Trading Company], but after awhile the community tree moved to the big center square in front of Dan's Discount.
Mrs. Rich said the move took place when the half circle of "evergreen's were just seedlings." According to Mr. Cainan the Christmas tree moved because the "first" Lion's Club, who provided the tree at the Mercantile had a couple trees fall over and "get awful beat up." He explained, "They [the trees] looked like heck so they quit that real quick." For many years after that the Christmas social was held in front of Dan's Discount.
Here Comes Santa Claus
No Christmas social is complete without Santa Claus so Jim Sullivan, Alvin Rovero and some other town folks put their heads together and asked Allen Chaffin, a former packer for the U.S. Forest Service, if he would be the town's first Santa.
He qualified because he had a team of horses and a sleigh complete with sleigh bells. As far as Mr. Chaffin could remember, that was in 1954 or 55. He agreed to play Santa, but Santa needed a suit so his wife, Mildred, made the first Seeley Lake Santa suit.
"She made it out of old sheets and flour sacks that we had," Mr. Chaffin said. Mrs. Chaffin added, "I went up to the store hoping they would have some red dye. They did and I dyed it red." Then Mrs. Chaffin sewed some cotton bating around the collar and sleeves to decorate the suit to look like Santa's.
Mr. Chaffin said he wasn't a big man, but the costume was big enough to fit over his overcoat and trousers so he looked big. He wasn't cold in the suit. He said that in those days he was younger so he could stand the cold.
Mrs. Chaffin, who enjoys writing, wrote a short story about making that first Santa suit. It was published in the December 15, 1961 issue of the Montana Farmer-Stockman, a bi-monthly newspaper published by The Montana Farmer, Inc. in Great Falls, Montana. (Her story was factual, but she changed the names to protect the innocent.) It is a delightful story about heart-felt family feelings that ring as true today as they did when that first Santa suit for Seeley Lake was sewn. Mrs. Chaffin was paid twenty-five dollars for her story.
Red Nosed Reindeer
Dressed in his Santa costume that first year Mr. Chaffin drove into town in his two-seated surrey, which he made into a sleigh by taking off the four wheels and replacing them with sled runners.
"I still have that sleigh," Mr. Chaffin exclaimed. "When I came into town," he said, "I've never seen so many kids running around in all my life." Mrs. Chaffin added, "It was something to see all those kids coming up the street to see Santa Claus."
Santa always had something for the children. The women in the community made popcorn balls and community businesses provided oranges and Christmas candy to put in each child's sack.
"The community was not quite so big back then so that was still possible," Mrs. Rich commented. When the "second" Lion's Club started they took over some of the work and provided treats, too. Mr. Cainan said they could only take a few of the kid's goody bags at a time out to Santa or the fruit would freeze.
That first year Mrs. Chaffin recalls that a boy in the crowd asked where the antlers for the reindeer were and Mrs. Chaffin told him that they sawed them off.
Tis the Season to Be Jolly
After Santa's visit everyone hung around to socialize. "It was harder to get around then so it was a time for folks to catch up on each other's news," Mrs. Rich said. They would take horse drawn sleigh rides around the community caroling wherever they went.
"Every year we would pull over in front of Bertha "Bert" Sullivan's home, which is now the little plumbing place [Heritage Plumbing and Heating] across from Pulici's [Pulici's Propane] and carol there. Bert is now in a nursing home in Missoula, you know," Mrs. Rich said.
She went on to describe how folks would walk around town wandering in and out of stores to chitchat and make Christmas purchases. Merchants would offer cookies and hot chocolate to the strollers.
"It was like a picnic in the snow," Mrs. Rich said and explained that "The tradition of having cookies and hot chocolate on Appreciation Day started from that." In the evening the celebrating would be taken indoors to the various restaurants and bars "as those things always do, you know," she said.
There were always lots of people who helped. Ed Coyle, at Coyle's Bar and Café, which is now the Filling Station used to provide a free Christmas dinner.
The dinners were started for the multitude of singles working in the woods in those days and the restaurant in the old Log Cabin Bar that burned down (where Seeley Lake Fun Center now stands) also provided free Christmas meals.
Elta Townsend, another long time resident of Seeley Lake was a member of the Seeley Lake Woman's Club. The women made quilts, lap robes and toys to sell at their Christmas bazaar. Most of the money they earned was used to build the Community Hall.
"We'd turn a thousand dollars at a time over to the Community Hall fund," Mrs. Townsend said, and added, "We'd sew year round and store up for that bazaar. Without that we'd never have a Community Hall!"
All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth
Mr. Chaffin was Santa for several years until the late C.B. Rich became Santa in 1959 a year after they moved to the area.
Mrs. Rich reminisced that in the early days when Santa donned the Santa Suit they still had all their little one's. One time one of their granddaughters stood and looked at Santa round and round and then sat on his lap. When she returned they asked, "Did you tell Santa what you wanted for Christmas?" The grandchild replied, "That wasn't Santa. That was Grandpa." When they asked her why she thought it was Grandpa she replied, "He had on Grandpa's gloves!"
The Rich Family used the original Santa suit for many years, but in 1978 Paula Trip's mother, Fae Tyler said "We can't have Santa looking tattered" so Mrs. Tyler made a new suit. It is still in use today.
Let it Snow, Let it Snow,
Let it Snow
Sometimes the weather cooperated and sometimes it didn't. "We've had arctic weather, Florida weather, and Oregon weather, a little bit of every thing on Appreciation Day, but that never deterred the crowds," Mrs. Rich declared.
No matter how cold it was plenty of folks still turned out for the day's events. If there wasn't enough snow they used the six-person, light weight sleds for the sleigh rides. The big twenty-four person sleds make an appearance when there is enough.
But the weather wasn't the worst problem. The worst problem was gravel on the roads. It got harder and harder for Santa to drive into town in a sleigh. As more of the roads were graveled and as more cars traveled on the roads it was no longer safe for Santa to drive into town. That's when Santa went modern and snowmobiled in. Mr. Cainan takes the credit for that. He said he brought Santa in on a snowmobile for a couple of years. It wasn't the same as a sleigh, but the kids loved it.
Just Like the Ones
I Used to Know
In 1992 Appreciation Day moved from downtown to the Double Arrow Ranch. The day's activities grew to include a chili feed (which is easier than a Buffalo Feed!) and snowmobile rides. In 1994 Appreciation Day made another move when the Rich Ranch operation moved to Kozy Korners.
Today the Chili Feed is provided by the Lion's Club with donations from local businesses. Dog sled rides have been featured for the past three years. The old days are gone, as Dan Cainan said with a bit of melancholy in his voice, "like a cup of water poured into the lake."
But some of the same things that the Chaffin's, C.B. Rich and others enjoyed about the day still remain. Santa still has time to make a visit, but he walks in and his voice sounds a lot like Bart Peterson's. (Last year during a power outage he sounded a little like Dan Barns and it looked like Santa had been on a diet.)
Horse drawn sleigh rides remain an integral part, but now C.B.'s son, Jack, and son-in-law, Ralph Cahoon, drive them, with sometimes a little help from Michael Sexten.
Mrs. Rich says, "One of the poems that C.B. wrote comes to mind. It is from "A Way of Life," and she recited a few lines...
by C. B. Rich
"Why do you live out here?" they asked
As they entered our gravel drive.
"Don't you like civilization,
Don't you want to feel alive?"
I told them I live in a mountain flower,
In a million blades of grass,
In a stately pine or twisted fir
High on a windy pass.
In a winding stream or a quiet lake
Close by a mountain high,
Whose timbered slopes and steep, sheer cliffs
Seem to pierce the very sky.
I live in the heart of an honest horse,
As he plods his weary way
O're rocky trails, 'neath heavy loads
From dawn 'til close of day.
In the rhythmic bob of heavy packs,
As I look back over the string.
When we make our way to our mountain camp
Far from cars and towns and such things.
I live in a rambling old log house
That my dear ones all call home
In its quiet walls by its cheery hearth,
Many happy hours we've known.
It's true I care not for the city,
With its hustle, bustle and strife.
I'll live out here and feel close to God
Happy in this way of life.
So, this Sunday, take a drive out to the Rich Ranch and enjoy a little taste of those long gone Appreciation Days of yesteryear. Much will be changed, but the smiles will still look the same.