Thursday, May 23, 2024
57.0°F

Local historian keeps stories alive

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | May 15, 2024 1:00 AM

Gayle McCarron has served on the five-member Fortine/Trego Cemetery board for the last 16 years. Her dedication to researching family histories has helped the Fortine/Trego Cemetery regain and honor the compelling stories of those buried there.

The Fortine/Trego Cemetery is celebrating its 110-year anniversary with a cookout and potluck this Saturday. McCarron said it is traditional for the town to get together in the spring and clean the cemetery. 

“Families would go up on Arbor Day and have a clean up day,” McCarron said. “Men would usually clean the cemetery. The women would make the lunches and they'd have picnics up there. Kids would be playing around. They always remembered it as a fun time.”

If anyone can make a visit to the cemetery a fun time, it is McCarron. Her thirst for knowledge started with her own family history and extended to the lives of those in the cemetery when she was tasked with taking over for the previous record-keeper.

“I’ve been doing genealogy for quite a few years,” McCarron said as she pointed to three shelves full of binders that contain just her own family history. “Before I started, Donna Gentry had made a list of names and dates of people in the cemetery and she asked me to continue on because I was into genealogy.”

Years ago, McCarron and her husband had been going through some old newspapers looking for obituaries and doing research, so it didn’t take much arm twisting to get her involved. She is a natural for the job and has found the Trego/Fortine area rich with history waiting to be rediscovered.

“It’s fascinating. There are so many interesting things that happened up there,” she said. “I love to do the research. I really got hooked on it.”

Her fervor is evident as one glances around her office space. The walls sport floor to ceiling shelves, which are laden with books, folders, binder and ledgers full of names, dates and stories.

“I’ve got drawers and drawers full of information,” she said. “Where it's going to go from here, I don't know. It's just stuff I have hoped to pass on. Somebody may be interested and keep it up.”

ONE MAY NOT typically think of a cemetery as a source of colorful, intriguing stories, but when looking at the markers through McCarron’s eyes, they can reveal epic, enchanting tales of the wild west.

“There’s so much fascinating history of these people who had lived in this area,” she said. “They spent their life here and died here and it's just fantastic history.”

The cemetery’s story is intriguing right from the start. In 1914, Mike Petery bought five acres to be used for the cemetery and deeded the land to the Fortine Amusement Company, which was made up by a group of men who made money buying and selling homes in the Fortine area.

The full story of its inception is available at the cemetery’s pavilion.

“The first person that was ever buried there was [the father of] the Hellenga family,” McCarron began. “Everybody lived up Deep Creek, it seemed like, and they all went into Fortine.” 

“He was up Deep Creek quite a ways away,” she said of Hellenga, a logger. “He was unhooking the team of horses and I think he had the tongue up and he was unhitching them and the tongue come down and hit him on the top of the head.

“Meanwhile, the kids and the mother had to hitch up the team again, load him in the wagon and they took him seven or eight miles down that road into Fortine.

They loaded him on the train and then took him all the way to Libby where he lingered for maybe a couple, three days and died," McCarron said. "Can you imagine that? Can you imagine traveling on that train and going that far? It was probably faster than anything else, but still, that horse and buggy ride.”

With that story in mind, seeing the Hellenga name on a 110-year-old granite headstone in the cemetery yard is a much more moving experience. McCarron’s imagery brings warmth to the stone markers and life to an otherwise barren place.

Before the fascination wears off the first story, McCarron dives into another. This time, she describes former Fortine resident, Fritz “Shorty” Jaeger.

“He was a Forest Service guy and built that first little lookout tower and he stayed there for years and took care of that for us and would call in fires,” she said. “He was a unique little guy.”

Shorty was a logger who lived on his own and was also into watchmaking and mining – a jack of all trades. Each detail McCarron shares makes the listener lean in for more.

“He’d offer somebody something to eat, like moldy cheese and crackers,” she said with a laugh.

THE FORTINE/TREGO CEMETERY was established in 1914 and for years, many of the gravesites had no names and others had no markers. With minimal information from the old records, perhaps only a last name, McCarron has worked to locate the grave sites and discover the life-stories behind the names.

“All of those that didn’t have names on them, we got more information and we made little markers for them,” McCarron said. “We made little headstones out of patio blocks.” 

She said at first, it was difficult to find a few cement markers and the old original ones, but they all have markers now.

To uncover some of the forgotten life stories, McCarron utilizes books by Darius Flannigan who is another local researcher and author. She has shelves full of his books for reference.

She has also traveled to the courthouse in Libby for information. Often armed only with a name, she was able to look in the county records and verify that the person was in the Fortine/Trego Cemetery. 

For many years, before there was a cemetery board, Art Weydemeyer volunteered to tend the cemetery. He kept records of burials and who bought and who sold plots. 

“A lot of times he would pace off where the burial should be, so some of them are a little bit out of line, in the walkways or different areas, but he did his best and he did pretty darn good on that,” she said. 

The Weydemeyer family name is found often in the cemetery. Art’s grandfather came to Montana from Michigan where he served in the cavalry.

“Most of the records were kept … in the store,” McCarron said and pointed to a photo of Fortine’s old storefront that still stands today. The store owner in the early 1900’s was Mike Petery, the man responsible for donating the land for the cemetery.

Now, McCarron is the keeper of the records and the stories of a colorful, compelling time.

“I want somebody to carry it on,” she said. “To have a record of some of this, to keep people interested in it.”

INVITATION

In honor of the Fortine/Trego Cemetery’s 110 year anniversary, the cemetery board, Tim Thier, John Slesar, Sally Warren, Trudy Doble and McCarron, invites the public to a celebration on May 18 from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. 

The cemetery is about 40 miles north of Whitefish on Highway 93. Take a right on Cemetery Road just past Deep Creek Road.

People are welcome to help tidy the grounds with rakes and weed eaters, or they can just come visit the cemetery grounds and learn about the history of the area. The annual get together is a tradition with a long history.


    The headstone of Henry Hellenga, the first person buried at the Fortine/Trego cemetery. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
    The still-standing storefront in Fortine where all the records were kept in the early 1900s. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
    A member of the Michigan Cavalry, P. R. Weydemeyer is buried at the Fortine/Trego cemetery. His family was well-known in the area. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)