Stories & photos
by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
July 2, 1998
The Swan Valley 4th of July Parade this year will honor long-time residents of the Condon area. Dale and Karen Conley of Salmon Prairie were chosen by the American Legion because of their history of community service, their commitment and hard work.
The other Grand Marshalls for the parade this year are Warner and Margaret Lundberg. Margaret Lundberg taught school for 18 years in Missoula. She was Karen Conley's freshman counselor.
"Margaret was our advisor. She was really good to us country bumpkins," Karen Conley explained. "She was our leaning post."
Since the 1960s, the Conleys have been successfully self-employed in this community. They contract the school bus routes for Seeley Swan High School and Swan Valley Elementary. In addition, since 1971, Dale has worked as the study hall proctor at the high school. He's seen several hundred local kids, including four of his own, graduate from school here. The Conleys have befriended many young people. Their kitchen door is always open. Teenagers and young people have always been welcome.
In addition to their school-bus business, the Conley's have always raised a few cows, and keep busy every summer haying and ranching.
In the late 1980s, when the family bought the Swan River Cafe (now the Pathway Pines), they also donated land to the local volunteer fire department so the community would have a centrally-located Fire Hall.
The Condon community needed a place for a fire hall, Karen explained. In earlier years, she said, the Forest Service took responsibiilty for fighting fires in the area. However, a growing population at Condon combined with changes in government policies, led to the need for an organized volunteer fire department.
Over the years, they have also been loyal contributors to school activities, 4th of July O-Mok-Sees, Christmas programs and local fundraisers. They want to help the community, they said. "It's our home," they explained.
Karen was born at Salmon Prairie, the daughter of Babe and Dorothy Clothier, early settlers in the area. Like most early residents, the family milked a few cows and sold the cream. Her dad also made a living trapping mink, marten, beaver and coyote.
"I remember many a night Daddy sat out in the kitchen and by lamp light he would skin his muskrat," Karen said.
She remembers when her father's mill burned, too. The Forest Service sent a borade plane to Salmon Prairie to drop fire retardant on the blaze. "It burned about two acres," Karen remembers.
Karen and her sistersLeita Anderson and Dixie Meyerall graduated from the 8th grade at what was then the little log schoolhouse at Salmon Prairie, and attended high school at Missoula and Bigfork. Karen moved back to Salmon Prairie when she and Dale were married in 1961.
Dale grew up in Bigfork, where his parents farmed and ranched and raised big gardens in the Swan River community. After high school, Dale went to work in the woods and at area sawmills. He soon realized that the sawmill work was affecting his health. In 1964, when the new high school was built in Seeley Lake, he ventured into a new businessschool bus operator. He sought advice from experienced bus drivers from Bigfork. "They gave me a lot of pointers," he said. Then he borrowed money from a good friend to buy a school bus, and he was in business. At various times, Karen and her sister, Leita, also drove the buses on the route. This year, Owen and Dana Conley, Lanette Conley, and Renae Ashcroft, all worked as drivers or in the business. Dale continues to drive the high school routeand waves at eveybody on the road. "It never hurts to wave at people," he said.
In the 1970s, the Conley's also operated D&K Ready Mix, a portable batch plant, and poured concrete during the summers.
In between ranching, driving the school bus, working at the high school, operating a cafe and the ready-mix plant, the Conley's, over the years, have enjoyed spending time with their familyincluding seven grandchildren. Three of the Conley's four childrenLynda (Matthew), Lanette, and Owenlive at Condon. Their other daughter and son-in-law, LaRae and Ted Sullivan, were killed in a car accident in 1987.
When the family isn't working or playing together, Dale and Karen also have enjoyed a number of hobbies. They both love music, and dances were a big social event in the valley for many years.
Karen and her sisters learned to dance when they were in grade school. Glenn Houston and Louie Krause (of Liquid Louie's fame) taught them to dance. "They were good dancers," Karen explained. "Louie had a big nose. Well, Glenn did, too," she laughed. "He'd tell us, 'If you want to look at something look at my nose. Quit watching your feet!"
Dale's family played music for local jam sessionsand Dale still enjoys playing the accordian. He also collects the button accordians. He owns several one, two, and three-row accordians.
The Conleys also hunt, fish and ride horses whenever they can. Karen competed in local O-Mok-Sees for many years, and the family has always been involved in the Saddle Club.
Dale also collects classic cars. His black '58 Cadillac Limo is a favorite at 4th of July parades. He also owns a '56 Chevy and a 1965 Ford Fairlane.
Karen, who was a member of the Salmon Prairie Ladies Club until it folded a few years ago, is also an accomplished artist. When she has time, she enjoys oil painting. Her latest passion is painting on cow bells.
"We used these cow bells for open range, and we don't have open range any more, so I thought, 'fiddle, I'll paint cowbells,'" she said. Her unique bells depict wildlife and mountain scenes, and are popular.
The Conleys have seen many changes in the community over the years. The population growth is the most noticable, they said, and along with it, have come regulations. According to Karen, her family took a lot of things for granted, like hunting and fishing, and riding horseback through the valley. "You didn't need a license for everything you did," she explained. "And you never heard of a No Trespassing sign when you were growing up." The biggest change, she said, is "the way you have to live now, compared to what we could have done years ago."
Dale agrees, and sums up the changes by saying simply, "The newcomers have arrived, and the old-comers are gone," he said.
When Warner Lundberg's family first applied for homesteads in the Swan Valley, they fell in love with the area's mountains, trees, and meadows.
"It's a lot like the country my dad and mother came fromthe old country in Norway and Sweden. And they thought, 'Just imagine, we're getting 160 acres for nothing!" he laughed.
But Warner cautioned that the homesteads turned out to be a tremendous amount of work.
"The government bet you a 160 acres that they could starve you to deathand they did, most of them," he grinned.
Warner's parents and his grandparentsthe Lundbergs and the Rollsboth worked homesteads between Kraft Creek and Elk Creek beginning in 1914. They proved up on those homesteads in 1917, and later moved their ranching operations a little further south, to a location near Pine Ridge Road.
Warner Lundberg and his wife, Margaret, are the Grand Marshalls for this year's 4th of July Parade at Condon, which begins at 11:00 a.m. in front of Liquid Louie's on Saturday. Traditionally, the American Legion honors the area's long-time residents during July 4th activities.
The Lundbergs have lived and worked on their Swan Valley ranch for most of their lives. Though Margaret didn't move here until the 1950s, Warner grew up here, attended school here, ranched and even cruised timber here for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
One of his earliest memories is the forest fire of 1929 that burned 6,000 acres in the Kraft Creek area. He was 10 years old, and attended the Pine Ridge School (which now serves as the garage at the Lundberg residence) at the time.
"The Forest Service moved us out of here because it was so dangerous," Warner explained. The school children and family members were moved to the Gordon Ranch until it was safe to return. Firefighters110 of themsaved the ranch buildings, which included the ranch house, barns, sheds and the school. The fire burned for several weeks, from October into November, Warner said.
Firefighters pumped water out of the creek to protect the buildings. The man-made lake on the ranch wasn't built until the 1940s, Warner explained.
Firefighters also discovered some homemade beer that Warner's mother stored in the root cellar.
"I don't know how they got wind of that," Warner laughed, "but they tore the lock off the root cellar and they got in there and the drank all our beer!"
Warner's family subsisted by raising a few cows and horses, and by selling and shipping cream. "There weren't any beef cattle in here at the time, so most of the homesteaders milked cows," Warner explained. They had to clear 20 acres of land in order to prove up on the homesteads. "Oh, gosh, that was a problem," Warner said. "They didn't have any D-8 cats."
The homesteaders that lived in the Swan usually went out in the fall, "to make a grub steak," Warner explained. Warner was born in Missoula in 1919, and his parents, Charles and Olivia Lundberg, brought him to the ranch when he ws six months old. The family began staying at the ranch year 'round in 1924. Warner has three siblingsClara, who died some years ago; Mabel Stillwell, who lives across the road with her husband, Clarence; and brother Frank, who lives in California and visits every summer.
By 1929, the year of the fire, Warner was a regular "hand" around the ranch.
"Boy, I tell you, I took a man's job in the hay field when I was ten years old," he said, shaking his head.
His parents also raised a garden, mostly root crops such as potatoes, carrots and rutabagas. They fed potatoes to the milk cows during the winter.
The Lundberg ranch has quite a bit of history behind it, and has been of interest in recent years to the Indian cultural committees from the Mission Valley. A traditional Indian camp was once located on the ranch, but was flooded by the lake in later years.
"They (Indians) were here when we came, and that Indian camp, well it may have been here for a hundred years. Nobody knows," he explained. A massacre occured in the valley one year, and a game warden shot six Indians, Warner said. "A 14-year-old boy shot the game warden," he said. The Indian camp, as he remembers it, was complete with tipis and bath houses along the creek. The Indians came here to hunt and fish about twice a year, from the Mission Valley through a pass in the Elk Creek Drainage, he said.
The Indians used trails through the mountains for many years. Early white settlers used gravel roads in the valley bottom. Highways weren't paved in the Swan Valley until the early 1960s.
Margaret, who came to Montana from Iowa to teach school, vividly recalls the first time she saw the Swan Valley, in the late 1940s.
"Oh, boy!" she said, laughing and shaking her head. Warner, his brother Frank, his mother, Olive, and Margaret, came from Missoula one wintry Sunday for a visit to the ranch. "We got up to Potomac, and I think, 'Well, this is nice farming country, this must be about where we're going!'" She was wrong, of course, and kept looking around every corner for "farm country."
"I knew what farmland looked like, and I knew how farmers farmed, but they didn't do the same things they do aorund here!" she laughed. "They didn't get wood and they didn't have to milk the cows," she grinned.
As the group reached the Summit in their 1940 Chevrolet, they met a hurried traveler on the one-lane road. He hit them head-on, and broke the wheel on their car.
"I had a shovel," Warner explained. "I jacked the car up and put the shovel under the wheel that was broken, and I tied the handle of the shovel to the bumper. It was snow, so it slid. We came on in here on that shovel," he laughed.
Warner and Margaret were married in 1947. They raised their son, Joe, in the Swan Valley, but like many families in the area, moved to Missoula each winter when Joe was in school. Margaret taught school for 18 years at Sentinel High School. Warner continued with his timber cruising job, ranching and haying, and also worked on heavy equipment in town.
The Lundbergs have seen many changes over the years, the most noticeable one being the increased population in the Swan Valley. They no longer "know everyone" in the community, like they once did. But they still enjoy having lunch regularly with neighbors and friends. And every summer they open their home to friends and family who just can't stay away from the mountains. Their ranch has become a retreat, not only for Warner and Margaret's retirement years, but for wildlife such as deer, elk, bear, beaver, sandhill cranes and swans.