Quest for Yesterday: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

a documentary by
Alton “Butch” Krause
(first-person supplemental material to
“Gold in the Hills: The Alton Krause Family Story”)

Built in the summer of 1957, it nestles just several feet from the small creek that beckoned, “Come here! Come here! I have riches for you. I can give you great wealth. I can give you Gold ! “ How many times and how many places has that specter beckoned to people with its’ outstretched hand and its’ whispering, ghost like, voice? The few times it did yield riches were decoys to entice and trap countless thousands of hapless souls who would invest time and lives in quest of this promised, Holy Grail.

It was no different for Tom Sears and his wife, Dosie. I first met the two of them in the summer of ’54 when my father and my cousin, Donnie and I ventured from Corpus Christi, Texas to the forests of Idaho for a preliminary excursion into what would become our future. A future somewhat influenced by an ancient, and many times incurable, ailment called Gold Fever. The destination for our query into this new world was a ghost town by the name of Leesburg, named for General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army of the Civil War. I was just 12 years old and Tom and his wife were .. well, seemingly as ancient as the hills where we had our first encounter. They drove a Jeep pickup truck, which seemed to rival even the age of them and the mountains, even dirt itself. A first impression was one of a vehicle put together with parts from many Jeep carcasses resurrected from a vehicle graveyard. Any thing without a serious dent in it would not have been worthy of incorporation into the project. As beaten up and ancient as the vehicle was, one thing did stand out above all others. The driver’s side door! In my protected youth, I did not immediately identify what it was that was so different about it. Then Tom spat his stream of tobacco juice outward and the tail end of the sticky string hung in the air forever so long a time, then settled with great satisfaction on the door and his chin. He would wipe his chin with his hand or on his sleeve, whichever first came to mind. As the matter on the door began slowly searching a path downward, it morphed into a gross resident alongside its neighbors, it’s kinsmen, so to speak. I suppose they took up residence there until a rain washed them away, or at least melted the top portion somewhat to make a new canvass for future artwork. Grey-haired, ancient, and plagued with arthritis and asthma about completes the picture. Tom was a retired and disabled veteran who lived on his small pension and dreamed every day of striking it rich on his mining claims in the forests of Idaho. His wife, Dosie, sat somewhat quietly on the other side of the cab of the Jeep. Also a person of many years, grey hair and a body plagued with the ailments of old people, she was to become a good friend with the passing of time, as was Tom. Between these two people there were not enough teeth for one mouth let alone two. That about covers the physical aspects of this couple who would share the next few years of their lives with our family. The other aspects, the personal things that make us who we are, would un-fold as time went by. Gentle people locked into a life style from which they could not escape. They would spend their winters in Idaho Falls where Dosie worked in a “tater factory” where instant potatoes and hash browns and such were made for the tables of America. They had at least one son and I do seem to recall another son or daughter but cannot seem to pin it down at this time. I believe they stayed with the son while in Idaho Falls and Tom would stay at home and not work. When spring came to the mountains around Salmon, Idaho so did the salmon return to the river, the leaves to the cottonwood trees and Tom and Dosie Sears to their claims. These were inevitable and welcome events in the passage of time and happened as a yearly ritual repeated over many seasons. Just as I do believe the river smelled different when the salmon were in it, so did the forest take on a new meaning, a new aspect of life, with the return of Tom and Dosie.

Our family moved to Salmon in the spring of ’55, arriving at Sergeants’ Café on Main Street at 4:00 am. early in June. We had made the trip of several days with all our belongings in a trailer pulled behind a 1950 Ford car, which itself was inhabited by Mom and Dad, my sisters Debby, Becky and Sandy, me, our boxer dog, Max, and, finally, a bird cage with five parakeets. As Dad talked with the waitress in the café, she informed us that we would not be able to get to Leesburg due to the snow still being in the mountains. The roads simply were not passable. As people were in those days, she offered to let us store much of our goods in her garage and Dad and Mom took her up on her offer. After leaving the bulk of our things, we continued toward Leesburg and a future that would be filled with the unknown and certainly the unexpected. Salmon sits straddling the Salmon River at an elevation of about 4000 feet. Leesburg sits in the forest at an elevation of about 7500 feet. As it turned out, our car would not have been able to pull its full load up that mountain with the clearest of roads. The road over Williams’ Creek Summit was maintained due to the amount of traffic coming and going to the mines at Cobalt, where ore of that same name was mined for industrial purposes of very strong and heat resistant metals. When we crossed the bridge over Napias Creek and turned right toward Leesburg it was a different world altogether. A single lane, rutted road with muddy stretches which demanded some time to get through with several attempts and some assistance from people pushing on the back of the trailer. The last obstacle we thought we would have to over come was the hill just after we crossed Camp Creek. There was a large beaver dam across this creek, causing the water to be re-directed onto the road and so the steep and rocky hill was also covered with running water. After several attempts we did work out the right formula for success and reached the top of the hill just at the outskirts of the “town” of Leesburg. From there we encountered about 200 yards of swampy road, which became our downfall. Somewhere in that ooze we were done for. We could not go forward or backward. Simply, we were stuck, lock, stock and baggage. In desperation, Dad un-hitched the trailer and we managed to get the car down the road to dry land and a cabin where we spent the night. The next morning we carried our belongings to the cabin and, with some difficulty, did rescue the lightened trailer from its’ muddy grave. As it would turn out, this experience would have its’ rivals in years to come, some its’ equal and some which would champion over this with very little difficulty. And so was our initiation into the world of Ghost towns, gold prospectors, mountain living and the people who we would find to inhabit this new and strange world.

We stayed in that cabin the first summer, as it was the only one in town, which offered shelter from the rain. It was a newer and better maintained cabin which, we were to find out later, belonged to Mike and Maude Fraker. We were also to find out the town of Leesburg, itself, was within the boundaries of their mining claims. We settled in quite comfortably and began our attempt to adapt to a life such as we would never have guessed existed. Over the next week or so we were joined by Chic and Kelly Hess, two retired carpenter brothers from Wisconsin who we had met the previous year on our preliminary excursion. They arrived each summer in their green Chevy truck with a camper on the back and took up residence in a small cabin just on the outskirts of town where the Leesburg Trail ventured toward Salmon, 14 miles to the northeast. Then, another arrival from the previous year, Colonel Harry M. Schwartzy. I may be spelling his last name improperly but would have to research it to be certain. The Colonel would arrive a little later in the summer so he was certain to not have to fight the lingering snowdrifts and the muddy roads. He spent his winters in Washington D. C. and his summer traveling back to Leesburg by somewhat of a less than straight route. He said he had fought for this country and so wanted to see a little of what he had fought for. His retirement allowed him to do just that. His mode of transportation was a small car, a Henry J. Kaiser, or simply the Henry J. This rounded out our little group that first summer and we became fast friends.

Dad helped Tom and Dosie break through the remaining snowdrifts on the Leesburg Trail so they could get to their claims a little earlier. It took Dad only a short time to tell Tom that it was easier to shovel out a drift without a Jeep stuck in it, but that never seemed to register with Tom. When Tom spotted a drift, he simply gunned the engine and met it head on, shifting down gears as forward progress slowed, then stopped. A shift to reverse seldom moved the Jeep and it was time to jump out of the back and start shoveling. If there were a good tree available, Dosie would hook up the winch and try to pull the Jeep through the remaining drift. Tom couldn’t hook up the winch due to his asthma and other health issues. Also, I do not truly know if Dosie could drive. I cannot ever remember her doing so. On one excursion to their cabin Tom showed Dad a place where he had known another man to have placer claims in the past. There was a fireplace there made out of large granite boulders fitted together to make a firebox and chimney. No other improvements were evident. Dad checked the records at the BLM and found the previous claims had lapsed and the land was no longer “staked” as a mining claim. This began the saga of what is now known as “The Floyd Krause Cabin” on present day forest maps of this area.

In the summer of ’55, Dad staked his mining claim and registered it with the BLM office in Salmon. The very first claim was the “Sandra Lee” and it was a placer claim upon which the quest for gold would un-fold over the next few years. The next year I believe Dad added two more claims adjacent to the first one and the process of building our cabin began. The site was within 30 or so feet of the fireplace. A flat spot was necessary and this was about the only one to be found on this hillside. Obviously the previous tenants had found this to be true and that is the reason the fireplace was built in its location. Our cabin was not large. I would guess approximately 15 feet by 25 feet. Upon entering the door you would find yourself in the main room. To your left was a wall, which divided the cabin into the main room and one bedroom. In the bedroom there was a double bed frame made out of logs for Mom and Dad and a triple-decker bunk bed for us kids. Now, a triple bunk bed in a room approximately eight feet high would not allow much room in any one bunk. The bottom bunk was about two feet off the floor, the second approximately four feet off the floor and the third at six feet. Our closet room was a wooden apple crate at the head of each bed for us kids and I do not seem to remember what the folks used. Back to the main room. The main room had a large window in the front, center of it. It was composed of glass window panes set in a frame made of boards. The panes were taken from the mill at Devlin Falls on Napias Creek and carefully wrapped to make the safe journey four miles from Leesburg to our cabin site. Memory seems to tell me there were probably enough panes to make a window about 3 feet high and about 6 feet long. Approximately 18 panes set in the framework Dad made for the window. (The mill at Devlin Falls was a “five stamp mill” which meant it used five large stamping devises to crush the ore from the underground mine adjacent to the mill. All processes were set up to move the material by gravity with the mill built down the slope of the hill. I believe the mill was built in the very late 1800’ so the windows in our cabin are officially “antiques” being over 100 years old. ) In the far right hand corner of the main room was the wood-burning cook stove, which we acquired from the scrap iron dealer on the north side of Salmon, on the road to the dump. This was a time when such a thing was not popular due to everyone in civilized living conditions switching to electric ranges. I do not think the stove was a high dollar item. There was another window in the wall beside the stove, but it was without panes. It was the “window box” which served as our refrigerator. It was built as a box out side of and attached to the cabin and was screened to keep out bugs. It also had closing shutters to keep out larger critters. Due to the cool climate at this altitude we many times kept fish in this box for as long as three days without them spoiling. Dad laid linoleum on the floor and covered the cabin with a flat, sloped roof, which was topped with tarpaper and roll roofing. The total cost of the cabin was $170.00, give or take a few dollars. Logs were taken from our claims and Dad refused to cut green timber even though that was an allowable thing in those days. Trimming and shaping the dead, dried, logs was a real challenge but was overcome with the expenditure of a great deal of time and a lot of hard work. All in all, it was a very handsome cabin, indeed, with the large window in front and the red roll roofing on top.

While work was being done on the cabin there was a tent set up for living space. On one occasion, Mom and I and my sister, Sandy, stayed in Leesburg while Dad and Debby and Becky went to the claims to finish the cabin. While they were gone, I managed to cut my foot on a piece of broken glass, which was laying on the ground not too very far fro the cabin we were staying in. I remember looking down at the amount of blood and running to the cabin yelling to Mom, “Mom, I’m bleeding to death!” Little did I realize at that time that I had accurately summed up the situation. The glass had cut an artery just below the bump on the inside of my left ankle. We soon found that blood would squirt four or so feet each time my heartbeat and we immediately knew we were very much in trouble. Nothing we tried would stop that type of bleeding. The more we tried, the more we realized our situation. We were 4 miles from Dad and the car. The other direction we were about 25 miles from Salmon. It was getting dark and Mom realized that I would simply bleed to death if something were not done very soon. She left me and took a flashlight and walked about two miles down the Napias Creek Road to where Bob Spaeth had his mining claims. She got him to come back to the cabin and take us into Salmon to the hospital. While she was gone, I had to keep pressure on the artery to let as little blood as possible escape. When Mr. Spaeth arrived, he tried to pour flour into the wound and wrap it tightly to curb the flow of blood. It would not stop bleeding and continued to bleed a little the whole way to town. When we reached the hospital I was taken immediately into the emergency room and the artery tied off. A blood test revealed I was dead. The loss of the blood was so severe that my hemoglobin count was practically nil. With no ability of my blood to carry oxygen to my body I was in very poor condition. A quick blood type test revealed that I was O positive and that Mom’s blood was compatible with either an 0 positive or an 0 negative. A pint of blood was immediately taken from her and a transfusion given to me. I stabilized during the night and the rest is history, as they say. Dad and the girls returned to Leesburg that next day and found the cabin abandoned with a note describing the incident and a mass of dried blood on the floor. On the trip to town he and the girls did not know if they were going to find me alive or dead and I was told the trip was made in record time. That next day we returned to Leesburg after thanking Dr. Mulder and the staff of the hospital.

We did not complete our cabin for a few weeks after this incident. We stayed in Leesburg for about another week, then all stayed in the tent while the work was completed and we moved into our “new home”. During that week in Leesburg I again attempted to cease to be. Chic and Kelly had just arrived from Wisconsin a day or two after the bleeding incident. They made me a pair of crutches out of some willow bushes and I soon was able to get around quite nicely. It seems that Debby and I decided to go fishing and found ourselves about half a mile down the creek when a threatening storm came over the hill. Almost immediately we were involved in a hailstorm and tried to take refuge under the dense willow bushes, which over-hung the bank on the side of the creek. In short order we were both drenched and thought to make a run for home. After traveling only a short distance I found myself face down in a large puddle of rainwater. Thinking I had fallen due to the crutches, I was amazed to find Debby lying in the puddle next to me. Then the realization set in! Every hair on our bodies was standing straight out and our ears were ringing from the lightning bolt and the thunder, which had split a tree about 50 feet from where we were. Almost at the same time we realized we had been just narrowly missed. Jumping up, with our eyeballs sticking out so far you could have scraped them off with a stick, we headed for home at a furious rate. When we reached the crossing in the creek I could not cross due to the floodwaters, which had swollen the creek. There was a large wooden beam across the creek but I could not traverse it on crutches. On the way to our fishing trip I had simply waded the creek. Debby went across the beam and stopped at the cabin occupied by Chick and Kelly and Chick came down and helped me across the creek by way of the beam. We returned to our house with a wild tale of a fishing trip gone awry and my second attempt at self-destruction within a week’s time. A few days later we all moved up to our claims and completed the work on the cabin.

Life in the cabin was quite different than it was at the house we rented in town. The very one most important thing that made our cabin possible was a spring, which was maybe 200 feet up the hill from where the cabin sat. Without water there would have been no way to live where we were. The water was cold and never failed to flow summer or winter. We built a rock wall to impound the water and put some food in five-gallon cans, which were partially submerged in the small pool. Rocks in the bottom of the cans held them down so they would not tip and the lids kept the bugs out. We used them for such things as eggs and bacon. Water in the house consisted of a 10 gallon cream can from the dairy. We would haul water to the cabin in buckets and fill the cream can each day. The water was clean and we had no problems with bacteria and such. An aluminum cup was on the small counter top by the water can for those who wanted a drink and water for cooking came from the can, also. When it was time to take a bath the one taking the bath would haul two buckets of water, heat them on the stove and pour them into the washtub. Not much of a bath but it was sufficient. At this time, all the water in the area was drinkable. Whenever we were fishing or hiking through the mountains we would simply reach down and pull up a handful of water and drink it. Today, one would be inviting trouble to do so. I have been told the spring at the cabin quit running several years ago. The head of Sawpitt Creek has dried up. This was where we did most of our gold mining work and the area in which we worked has reverted to nature, giving no notice that there once was a small mining operation there. The small creek that ran through Leesburg has ceased to exist due to open pit mining operations just above the town and the spring which gave all of Leesburg their clean and abundant drinking water for many, many years is all but dried up. The last time I was in Leesburg was 2006 and so that last remaining bit of spring water may now be gone.

The next summer, we built Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The summer of ’57 started out like every summer should. We kids got out of school and shortly after that Dad would quit his job at Evan’s Grocery store and we headed to our summer retreat. While we were gone for the summer, there was a fellow who was going to college in the winter and filling in at the store in the summer. It was a very good arrangement for all. Since we were so experienced in cabin building, Dad talked it over with Tom and Docie and we built a cabin for them on their claims about 2 miles from ours. Again, it was quite small but Docie thought it was a mansion. No longer living in a leaky tent for the summer was a fabulous dream come true for her. The building of it took only a few weeks and we all thought ourselves quite adept at construction of mountain cabins. No blue prints were ever drawn. I think each phase of the construction simply matched up to the last. Soon it was done and no one ever looked for square corners or level surfaces. I do not remember just how it was laid out but would assume it was two rooms, also. The door faced the creek where their mining operation would continue on a day-to-day basis. Just as you entered, there was a window to your right, which allowed enough light during the daylight hours. The door faced north and the window to the west. Tom excitedly told us one day that he was sitting in the front room looking out of the window and saw a deer across a small opening in the forest. Tom had been mining in this region for so many years that he simply held to old laws and old truths. For many years it was legal for a miner or prospector to kill one deer a year for food. Tom calmly stepped out of his front door and harvested this deer even though the legality of the act had ceased some years previous. A simple life of simple ways for folks of a simple nature. It would seem that this was somewhat of a christening of the cabin and that suited the two of them just fine. The thunder and lightning storms in these mountains can be very violent. In early summer they usually start with a terrible hailstorm, which is quickly followed by a very serious rain accompanied by a great deal of lightning and thunder. Living in a tent and sitting out one of these is a nervous experience. Usually, the tent will sag in one area or another or will start to leak or the small amount of earth piled around the bottom is swept away by the water draining off of the roof and sides. When this happens, the remaining rain simply comes in across the floor and makes mud beneath your feet. Yes, Dosie couldn’t have been much happier if we had built her a proper house of decent proportions and conventional materials. When we saw her reaction to the new home we knew that we had done a good thing for some nice friends.

Through the coming years, even though we left Salmon in 1961 and moved to Coeur d’ Alene in the northern part of Idaho, we did hear of the passing of these two friends. It seems that their son attempted to work the claims for a while, then we lost track of the family altogether. In later years I have visited our cabin two or three times but have never attempted to find Tom’s cabin. In the summer of 2011 I did have an opportunity to again visit my sister Becky in Salmon over the Fourth of July weekend. Our intentions were to return to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and take some pictures of it or whatever might be remaining. Looking at forest service maps, I believe I can pin point its location within a very small area and would expect to find it with minor difficulty. It was not to be! Idaho had a record snow pack in the winter of 2010/2011 and a late spring to go along with it. The Salmon River and the Lemhi River were at flood stage and the forest service said there was a great deal of unmelted snow remaining on the ridge road which was our way of passage to the cabin. Access to our designated area was denied by Mother Nature. Even though our physical quest was cut short, I have revisited both cabins in this story which I have just made fast upon the paper as the thoughts came to me of these long ago events. If two people were to sit down and write accounts of things long past, they would necessarily write two accounts with varying thoughts of the same happenings. One person in a situation will be more impressed by this event while another standing alongside will be impressed by another. Then, when you allow for the passing of 50 years time, even their own memories may not serve them well or be truly accurate. However, I now complete this particular quest for yesterday and the search for Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the closing of this writing. I have found both in the memories I find in my mind and in my heart. Memories of a time and of places and of, most importantly, people who cared about each other and themselves. People who shared good times and bad. People who knew how to give of themselves simply because that was how they were taught while growing up and they knew it was the right way to be. It was a very successful quest, if I must say so myself.

Return to “Gold in the Hills: The Alton Krause Family Story”

Transcribed by Larry Pearce: 3/1/17

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