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Old potatoes tell vital story

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News from Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana

CHARLO — A recent acquisition now on display in the museum is a glass jar of potatoes canned in 1918. You may be asking if this has historic relevance. The answer is yes – on two counts. One, the sealing apparatus is one not commonly seen; and two, the story of the individuals associated with this jar of potatoes involves as many people in our valley as the number of spuds in a hill of potatoes.

Let’s get the sealing apparatus out of the way first, so we can weave our story about the people. In an attempt to locate a name for the type of sealing apparatus on the jar, by searching the Internet, the fact that everything has an interesting history was once again reinforced. Back in the late 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a cash prize to anyone who could successfully develop a method of food preservation that would keep food safe for his armies.  A Frenchman, Nicholas Appert, spent nearly 15 years perfecting his idea of using heat and an airtight glass container to store food. Appert used his award money to build the first commercial cannery that operated from 1812 to 1933. Along the way he also developed the bouillon cube. (And you thought the French knew only wine.) The actual lid style/name is still a mystery. If you recognize the lid and know the maker’s name, please call the museum at (406) 644-3435.

Working backwards in the story about the jar of potatoes, you should know the jar came to the museum by way of one of the museum’s founding board members, Hope Stockstad. Hope’s husband, Stocky (Dwight S.), is the linchpin in creating a setting for the story to unfold. As the first biologist at the Ninepipes Wildlife Management Area with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Stocky was working on a goose study in the Mission Valley with John Craighead in the 1950s. Whenever they came across an injured goose, they took it to Ellison (Sam) Mitchell, who had a license to treat the geese, and who lived along the south shore of the Flathead Lake. The gracious Mitchells eventually told Stocky he should bring his wife, who lived in Missoula at the time, along with him when he came to see them. A great friendship was formed that spanned three decades. Hope and Sam’s wife, Anna, would can hundreds of jars of vegetables using a wood-burning stove for 15 years or more, and Stocky would help cut wood for the Mitchells to heat their lakeside house. Hope’s sister, Valorie Kelley, recalls a visit to the Mitchells with her two young daughters in the 1960s and being told by Anna that she had cooked for twenty years using the same heavy, cast-iron pots that she currently used for canning. Anna, ever conscientious about the delicate balance between man and nature, instructed the girls how to trod gently over the lawn and to step only in certain places to retain the natural habitat.

The Mitchells retired to Polson in 1940 after a 30-year, accident-free career of building wood-beam bridges. In fact, Sam worked on Polson’s wood bridge in 1927. When Governor Babcock visited Polson for a dedication of the third bridge, Stocky wrote the governor telling him that one of his greatest admirers, who worked on the construction of the previous bridge, lived in Polson. As a result, Sam met the governor and was included in the festivities. An article about Sam appeared in The Flathead Courier in the September 1, 1966 issue. 

Anna authored a book in 1961, with the help of the Latah County Historical Society, titled, “Homesteaders and Early Settlers of the Cedar Creek Ridge Area.” She revised it and republished the book in 1978 under the title, “Pioneer Families of Cedar Creek Ridge.” Sam had served in the Spanish American War in 1898, and he penned a few of his memories of his experiences in the Philippines. 

Continuing to look back in time, Anna followed Sam throughout Montana and Idaho during his professional career building bridges across rivers and living in rough, tent-city conditions. They met in 1918 while Sam was building a bridge over the Salmon River and Anna was teaching school in White Bird, Idaho. After a five-year courtship, they married in Spokane, Washington, in 1923. Anna Smith had two sisters, Ida and Leah. It was Leah who canned the potatoes and sent one jar to Anna. (Leah also sent a jar of beans that regretfully bit the dust just last year.) Leah died that same year, and out of sentimentality, Anna could never bring herself to open those two jars. But she did carefully pack and carry them with her for hundreds of miles, from tent-city to tent-city and then to Polson, and now to the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. Here it will stay in testament to the many lives that it has touched along its journey. See, a jar of potatoes does mean a lot. Come visit it in the Peter and Mary Ronan display.

The story behind this one item is a great illustration of the fascinating connection we have to each other, and the treasurers we may take for granted. Anna and Sam would have loved the museum and its current history preservation project. We look forward to the continuation of this project to gather and retain the countless stories and artifacts that abound in the Mission Valley. 


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