Melvin Beattie



My name is Melvin Beattie born 28 March 1944 Townsend Montana raised in Willow Creek eight miles south of the Head waters of the Missouri river.

First eight years I was my Grandfather’s shadow; I lived with my Grandparents until my Mother remarried. Granddad trapped the Jefferson River and Madison and all the land in between as if he owned it. Never saw any trespassing sign or orange painted fence post; all the owners knew my Grandfather. He had been in the valley since 1919.

My earliest memories of trapping were of muskrat in the creek that ran past the house and of the fur buyer that came every so often throughout the winter. I always remember the man because he had one leg missing below the knee. I can still see him going up and down the stairs with no difficulty at all with a metal crutch that he had made.

All the fur was stored upstairs in the colder rooms. Most of the rooms where cold and the only rooms heated were the living room and kitchen; both heated with wood stoves. The water pump was on the back porch and the outhouse was a good 60 yards away beside the skinning shed and garage. Of course, the muskrat carcass was hung by the tail in the chicken yard to be picked clean of all meat.  

The pig pen, milking barn, wood shed, grain shed, maggot house and the honey house made the playground for a five year old.  During the summer there was the lower garden, upper garden, two raspberries patches, apple and plum orchard and then there was an area that none of my girl cousin would follow me into because it was home to the 100 or more bee hives my granddad had.

The skunk was another animal that I had many encounters with especially in the summer. Granddad was not a person who wasted anything and would be called a recycler today. A skunk can eat a lot of bees in one night so the skunk was box trapped and taken to the river bottom along the Jefferson and turned lose with the hopes of being trapped in the fall. Once caught, I can still hear my Grandfather say with a little chuckle, “Ok, look in the box to see if there is one in there”.

It was my job; you might say to check the hives for skunk activity which can be seen by all the scratch marks on the edge of the hive. The way a skunk catches bees, is to scratch the hive which irritates the bees until they swarm out and the skunk waves his or her tail in front of the opening then eats those caught in the tail.

One might say that I was raised in the best kind of world with my Grandparents. I was allowed to explore my surrounding without being told that I couldn’t do this or that or I might get hurt. I still have the scars from many knife cuts from the knife I was given when I was only 6 years of age; but I still have all eight fingers.

There was one memory I have at the breakfast table that set the stage for my life’s travels and study. Nabisco Shredded Wheat; those little round loafs of cereal, each layer separated by a blue card that had Indian lore printed on it. Granted I couldn’t read yet, can’t say I can today either, but pictures are worth a thousand words and I saved each card and began playing Indian.

Buy age 8, after Granddad gave me a book on how Indians tanned hides, I started brain tanning and wasted one hide after another. The only thing Granddad said was “just go get another one from the pile”. So I kept on brain tanning until I got it right. My web page gives more details of that life interest of mine.

My Mother remarried and I moved out of my Grandparent’s house; but in small town like Willow Creek, with its two streets, I was never more than a few minutes away from their place.  

 At the end of the school day, the 29 Plymouth was sitting outside the school waiting for me and my cousin Chuck, who was a year older than me. We would then be off to check traps on the river. Granddad had built in porters you might say many a evening Chuck and I had a beaver or two on a pole between our shoulders carrying them out of the woods to the car.

As years passed and I got a little older, the real work began. I started driving tractor by age 9. By age 12 I was doing the harder work of bucking bales. It was then during those summer months that the Jefferson River became the bath tub. People call it skinny dipping now days; but we just called it getting the goddamn itchy hay off with a quick swim. We might have even been considered streakier as we waved to the passing cars that drove over the bridge.

In the spring of ‘56 my step dad was out of work and we moved in with an uncle on my mother’s side. I had eleven aunts and uncles, twenty two cousins. There was a cousin in every grade in school and sometimes there were two. One day my cousin Joe (who was year older and in the 7th grade) and I drove to school but stopped on the way to check the muskrat line that we checked each morning after doing chores. We would drop the rats off at Granddads and he would skin them and put them up for us which would give us gas money.

That summer of ’56, my step dad got work in Butte at the open pit mine as a heavy equipment operator, and so I spent the next six years going to school there; but every vacation and summer I spent at my Grand parents place.

May 28th, 1962 I graduated from high school. On May 30th I was sobering up at San Diego Naval boot camp. As all good things must come to an end, the Navy decided they knew best what I should become. I had signed up to be a jet mechanic, four year enlistment, but could have signed for three years. I was lead to believe I would get my school of choice. About the only thing that came close to having anything to do with airplanes was that I was jumping out of them. I ended up being a Navy parachute rigger and survival technician at the school in Lake Hurst, New Jersey, Sept 1962- March 63. Across the waters to VP-22, home base Barbers Point Hawaii, tour of Japan 64, tour of Vietnam 65, discharged March 7th, 66 Second Class Rigger. 

 Once I was back on Montana soil I proceeded to pick up where I had left off. Late 60s early 70s I spent time brain tanning hides and going to rendezvous, moved in to a cabin in the mountains had a garden and kept some goats. Spent each fall working in a wild game meat processing shop; I was the skinner. I skinned in exchange for the hides, because poorly skinned hides create extra work. Along with some trapping it was a great life, but then reality set in and I had to make 4x4 payments.

I opened my own upholstery business in ‘79 which I just closed this year, April 2006 when I retired. Along with a full time business, I still spent time tanning and rendezvousing. In the mid 80’s a gathering called Rabbit Stick began in Rexburg, Idaho. I then became an instructor of primitive skills at that time.  

In the 90’s I hired on as a staff instructor for a group called Aspen which was a three month in the wilderness program for troubled kids. My job was to train the staff in all phases of primitive skills; shelter, fire and cordage, just to name a few. The program eventually folded and I moved on to work with my cousin Tom Elpel of, who is a survival specialist and promotes my skills through his business.

This brings me to the present time of being retired and once again working in a wild game meat processing shop skinning and salvaging pieces/parts of animals in exchange for good hides and tools for the mountain men of today.

I am looking forward to being a member of the Manuel Lisa party AMM.

Melvin Beattie

PO Box 7025

Helena, MT 59604


Melvin Photos


  Party Members    Manuel Lisa    Articles    Equipment    Events and Pictures  Links    Trade Blanket