Bob Morgan watched Friday morning as the bucket of a massive excavator slammed through the roof of the home in which he was born nearly 84 years ago.
“Man, oh man,” he said.
The birthplace of Helena’s best-known artist is no more, pounded into pieces and hauled away Friday along with eight other structures near Prickly Pear Creek off York Road. The site, private land for decades, will soon have trails and a fishing access under the authority of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, thanks to a purchase by Prickly Pear Land Trust, funded by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Morgan, full of stories of the area, had mixed feelings as we watched the destruction.
“You feel bad about losing stuff,” he said, the home about half destroyed. “It was a nice place to live.”
Pieces of the house, a relatively ordinary structure covered in yellow stucco and old shingles, will live on. Local artist Al Swanson has plans to construct some functional art, maybe a table and chairs, from lumber salvaged from the house. Other wood will provide a frame for a photograph by Kenton Rowe. The items, along with a painting by Morgan of the creek and another by Dale Livezey, will be auctioned off Sept. 28 at the land trust’s Harvest Moon Banquet and Auction, raising money for more efforts to preserve open space in the area.
Morgan had considered making a painting of the home itself, but something about its condition — run down, with broken windows and even some bullet holes — made it impossible.
“I looked at that a long time,” he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
He joked that he painted a house one time that burned down the next day, and he’s sure people blamed him for the fire.
Instead he painted the nearby creek, a place he fished as a kid and loved for years, hunting in the area as recently as about 10 years ago. He said his eyesight is failing and he’s not sure of the quality of the painting, but it’s been getting adequate reviews.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s fine,’” he said.
Morgan was born in the home in 1929, the second of three sons. He was born a little early, he said, and an aunt helped out as a midwife. They took him later to St. John’s Hospital for the birth certificate.
His father was the caretaker of a large area of land, raising cattle and alfalfa and more. They also had about 150 chickens and some milking cows. On Saturdays, his father would deliver milk and chickens around town.
“There was a lot of ingenuity in the old farmers. They could get by,” he said. “They knew how to get a nickel out of nothing.”
His family moved out of the house when he was 4, but has plenty of memories he said, many involving being put to work.
He was sent out with the “stacking team” of large workhorses to push hay into stacks, although he wasn’t sure how helpful he was.
“They knew more about it than I did,” he said.
He also recalled watering the 150 chickens.
“You just did all those things without thinking,” he said.
The area was owned by another family, the Olson brothers, he said, and when Shorty Olson moved into the house, the Morgans moved out, first to Helena briefly and then to Stansfield Lake, a small reservoir just across the creek, created by the railroad as an ice source.
“And I loved it,” he said.
The site had the best pheasant hunting in the Helena Valley, he said, because grain was grown and there was plenty of water. But the construction of the Canyon Ferry Dam around 1954 displaced foxes, which migrated into the Helena Valley, and the pheasants disappeared.
Morgan said the last time he fished in the creek, about a decade ago, he caught three or four nice trout and had the feeling he was being watched.
“And there was a big Canada lynx, just sitting there watching me fish,” he said.
The 36.5-acre future fishing access site had heavy equipment and massive debris piles on it Friday. Dick Anderson, the project manager for the removal of the buildings, took the controls of the excavator for the initial destruction of the home.
Helena Sand and Gravel donated a truck for the day, and the Lewis and Clark County Commissioners waived the dumping fees.
The site is part of a 266-acre parcel that was planned for a development, Aspen Trails Ranch, that never got off the ground and defaulted on its bank loan. PPLT established a conservation easement on the remaining land, which was sold to the Prickly Pear Simmental Ranch.
Morgan’s grandson, Jon Ahmann, came to watch the activity along with his niece (Morgan’s great-granddaughter), Genevieve, who was about to turn 2.
Ahmann said he was there to support his grandfather and had visited with him the night before about the place.
“He just absolutely loves this place and has such great memories of here and of Stansfield Lake,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a tough day for him, so I wanted to be here with him.”
He said one of his grandfather’s favorite childhood memories was his uncle rowing him around the lake.
“We’ve come out here on quite a few occasions, just he and I, and walked,” Ahmann said.
He said Morgan was excited that the property would be turned into a trail system for others to enjoy the beauty of the area.
“Because he sure did when he was a kid,” he said.
One structure in the area will remain standing — a stone hut that was once an ice storage house and a spring house.
The spring was accessible under a trap door until the earthquake of 1935 turned it off, and it was covered with concrete.
Inside a wooden shed attached to the hut — still standing — the Morgans separated milk from cream. Inside the hut, they stored dairy products and eggs. On top of the shed, Morgan and his older brother sometimes climbed, to the distress of their parents.
Morgan recalled that the decrepit old house was in great repair when he lived there. His mother maintained window boxes and the lawn was in good shape. His family always left the places they lived in better shape than when they moved in, and his father was proud of that.
As the heavy machinery slammed the house and scooped up its pieces, Morgan told them to be careful around some concrete steps along the side.
“They used to laugh about a jug being hidden in there,” he said. “Might be a quart of whiskey.”
From the site, across the pasture with the conservation easement and grazing cattle, the open slopes of Mount Helena and Mount Ascension are visible, the city of Helena appearing only to be a thin strip of structures below the mountains.
The fishing access will be one of the closest to town and one of just a few public access points on the entire Prickly Pear Creek. One is John F. Kennedy Park in East Helena, and another, near Ash Grove Cement in Montana City.
Andy Baur, the executive director of the land trust, noted the lush habitat along the creek. He’s seen kingfishers, sandhill cranes (a few of which were sighted during the demolition), a nesting owl and sometimes eagles.
Entering the half-destroyed house, he spotted something else — a swallow’s nest, made of mud and hanging on the thick wires of an old electric light fixture.
Baur cut the wires and removed the nest ahead of the final destruction, finding a cluster of four or five tiny baby swallows packed in, resembling a mass of feathers and only slightly moving.
Their mother was gone, but Baur found a tree in which to place the nest.
He hoped that once the people, trucks, bulldozer and excavator left and things quieted down, maybe the mother would hear the hatchlings chirping and find them.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Sanjay on Twitter @IR_SanjayT