The Sentinel of the Mission Valley
It was over three hundred years ago that this great Ponderosa, or yellow pine emerged from the fertile soil at the base of the Mission Mountains. Its parent, a large yellow pine, had dropped the seed a couple years earlier on ground that had been blackened by a lightning-started forest fire. The tree was about thirty five years old in 1728 when it looked down on the first horses in the Valley. From then on, it would see many horses. The Upper Pend’d’Oreille Indian’s life style was experiencing a big change as they learned how to utilize the strength and intelligence of this wonderful new animal.
Throughout the years the tree watched Blackfeet war parties sneak into the Valley to steal the Pend’d’Oreille’s horses and women. It watched the horses carrying the women and children up the mountain to the huckleberry patches, and the hunting and gathering parties returning with roots and meat. It looked on as the women and children gathered in the meadow below, blue with camas blooms, to dig the plump bulbs. It watched the tipi village being taken down as the Indians prepared to move across the mountains to the plains for their annual spring buffalo hunt.
In about 1790, it saw the first white man, and by 1810 it was seeing these strange white men more often. It was standing tall in 1845 as the Hudson Bay Company men built Fort Connah, five miles to the south of the tree. Then, in 1854 Father Hoecken and other Black Robes started the construction of the St. Ignatius Misson. In 1855 it watched the Indians trailing by to join the Bitterroot Salish, and meet Governor Stevens at Hellgate, for the famous Hellgate Treaty signing.
The tree was surprised in1860 when two Indians, Charley and Louie Mollman and their families moved in around it. They brought their horses and their small herd of cattle. The tree had never had cattle grazing around it before. In 1874 it witnessed the start of the great Allard and Pablo herd. It started to see more dust as the old trails turned into wagon roads. By 1885 it was a common sight to see the smoke and hear the whistle of the steam engines from the new railroad across the valley.
From it’s lofty height, in 1910 it could see the dust in the west from the buffalo roundup, making room for the swarms of settlers coming into the area. It listened with pleasure to the singing and the beat of the drums at the Mollmans’ annual Winter Jump Dance.
In 1920 the tree saw it’s first sheep when the Cheff family joined the Mollmans, and built a house just a couple of hundred yards from it. And it smiled at the children playing at its base, knowing it was too big for them to climb up to it’s lofty branches. It worried when Polley Lumber Co. built railroad tracks and started logging with in a half mile of it. The tree was glad it stood out in the meadow by itself, too far and maybe too big to be of interest to the loggers.
It witnessed the dust from the first automobiles as they replaced the horse and wagon. It heard the roar and saw the shadow of the first airplane flying over its head. In 1936 it heard another new baby cry in the Cheff home when grandson, Bud Jr. was born. Then in 1938 it saw the Valley light up with electricity from the new Kerr Dam just built near Polson. It looked on as Gene Allard, standing proudly on the back of his tractor, drove into the meadow below. It was the first tractor in the area, and the beginning of the end for the teams of horses, the noble animals that helped conquered the frontier.
In the early 1960’s Mother Nature injured the tree with a lightning strike, but the tree lived on. Then in 1974 it was hit by lightning again. This hit was a hard one, but not fatal. The great tree struggled on until 1986 when lightning again struck it. This time it knocked the top fifty feet of the tree off. It could not withstand this hit, and was dead in two years.
At this writing, January of 2008, this great tree, this valley sentinel, is still standing. Much of its bark is gone and many of its massive limbs, some over twelve inches in diameter, have fallen. The trunk has dried and shriveled, but the tree still stands, watching the world change. I often look at this great tree, and let my mind drift back in time, seeing the changes in the land the tree has seen in it’s long life; knowing it was here to witness history unfold. “If it could only talk!” The tree is now six feet 4 inches. in diameter at the base, nineteen feet around, and ninety feet tall, no longer the towering one hundred forty feet it was before it’s top was knocked off. After every storm or strong wind, I look out with fear that it will be gone. When it does go down, it will take a part of me with it.