The Parker Homestead

We pull off old Montana Highway 2 in our shiny new Toyota Tundra as I suck the last of my orange juice through my super-sized McDonald’s straw, throw open the door, and step out into the warm August breeze. Chris stuffs his paraglider back into his pack as I headed off down a trail that leads to a time light years from where I’ve just been.

The Parker homestead is hardly noticeable to the average traveler, sitting inconspicuously among weather-distorted cottonwoods a few hundred feet off the highway. Growing up in the cornfields of Iowa, I’m used to seeing old, dilapidated barns and settlers’ cabins, eventually forgotten by those who should remember them most. Cattle, pigs, sheep, and horses take over those historic spaces or they get torn down for more planting acreage and the notorious Midwest winds sweep them away. Fortunately, the Parker Homestead has suffered somewhat less neglect.

The Parker cabin and shed were leased from the Beardsley family in 1985 and then rebuilt and renovated in 1998 and turned into a State Park for all to enjoy. The log-stack two-room cabin and the hand-hewn beam shed were built in 1901 by Nelson and Rosa Ellen (Harwood) Parker, after the Jefferson River’s high spring runoff swept away their first home. As the story goes, they narrowly escaped death as Nelson rowed them to safety, Rosa clutching the youngest of their three children between her knees all the while. The Parkers lived in a sod-roofed cabin until they later built a larger home near Three Forks and moved the family there.

In 1939 Orville and Josephine Jewett purchased the cabin and lived there with their four children through the Depression and World War II. They remodeled the dirt-floor cabin by adding plaster (of which pieces still remain) and painting the walls terra cotta red with calcimine and creamy eggshell with whitewash. They also installed wood plank floors covered with bright linoleum and curtains on the windows. While the linoleum is now gone, the curtains have long since blown away, and the plaster disappeared chunk by chunk, you still get a sense of what it must have been like to grow up in this little cabin. Waking up and looking out the window at the towering Tobacco Roots covered in snow; snagging your dress on the sharp edge of a handmade nail sticking out of the doorway frame; and lugging buckets of water from the ditches and creeks nearby before you could make morning breakfast—these daily experiences would have created a much different
perspective of this harsh, mountain country that everyone covets so dearly today.

I am pulled back to 2004 as Chris starts the truck, eager to find the next spot to launch his paraglider. As I walk away from the Parker Homestead and past the sign that warns visitors against Western Rattlesnakes, I turn and look back at the little cabin. The doorway sags and is lopsided, the logs are gray and decaying and the sod roof is now brown and dry from the hot summer sun. Yet there it stands, a stubborn, determined little piece of history representative of the worn,
callused hands that built it more than a century ago.