Pretty worn out when the last of our guests for the Great Eclipse of 2017 departed last Thursday, I determined to take it easy and stay home. We had skipped church on Sunday to take everyone out into the wilderness. Thus, sadly, I learned only from an obituary in the Frontier that Esther Wells had passed away and that I had missed her funeral.
I would certainly have gone. Farewell, Esther. It was a pleasure and a privilege to know you.
One of the last survivors of the homestead era, Esther Clendenning Pickett Wells was older than the town of Dubois–either 102 or 106 years old, depending on which record you prefer. The last time I saw her, only a few years ago, she was completely blind but nonetheless bright-eyed. Also still quite sharp and articulate. Not to mention kind and sweet to me, almost a stranger, and seemingly always cheerful.
When Esther was young and small, growing up, Dubois was also young and small. She survived two husbands. For a time she owned a ranch in Paraguay, where she founded a school that is still in operation. But what I admired most about Esther Wells was her legacy as a wife, mother, and co-manager of a ranch farther up that same steep glacial valley I see out my window, back when absolutely nothing about living around here was easy.
And yet, she said she loved it. She was a precious living link to the first of my kind who came to know and enjoy this place at a time when doing so was more of a challenge than a mere adventure.
I first met Esther after she had stopped coming to church because she’d moved into assisted living. She must still have had some vision at that time, because she asked to come to our open house for one last look up that valley. I remember men carrying her up the front steps in a wheelchair, and setting her down facing out the window.
Someone pointed her out to me and suggested I greet her. Just to make conversation, I asked her if she knew anything about Charlie Richards, the early settler buried in an unmarked grave across the highway. I like to hike up to it now and again. Back then I used to entertain romantic visions of the man who wanted his grave to face out over that splendid valley.
“Why, sure I knew him,” she said, without a hint of admiration. “His wife was my mother’s best friend. They had the next ranch over. She was always borrowing pots and pans, because she had nothing to cook in but old tin cans.”
Mrs. Richards had to run the ranch all by herself, Esther said, and they were poor as church mice. Charlie was always out prospecting and was no help at all around the ranch. (A futile effort: More recent geology reports say there’s nothing of any mining value up there.) So much for my charmed estimation of Charlie! Although perhaps I should not allow my sympathy for his wife to rule out some compassion for his constant disappointment.
Thank goodness the Dubois Museum Association has preserved on videotape an interview with Esther about those early days when you couldn’t get down the valley all winter. We have learned that she was not bored as a child with no store-bought games, because old Mrs. Burlingame loved making toys. We also heard that geraniums were everywhere back then, because they were the only flowers that could survive the climate.
We learned to be especially grateful for soft fleece and Thermasilk, because something else Esther remembered was the cold. Just think about trying to layer cotton and canvas against these winds! “We didn’t have all the fabrics we have now,” she said. And fires never kept the whole cabin warm.
Later, Esther and her husband owned and managed what would become Brooks Lake Lodge, up the mountain. Today it’s a luxury getaway. Back then, life was elemental. She told of swiping a grizzly bear out of her kitchen with a broom, and then she laughed at the memory.
It matters only to me that I missed Esther’s funeral. What matters to everyone is that she is gone, and with her some of the strength, courage, and good humor that laid the human foundation for this valley.
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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