I discovered early on that one of the easiest ways to get a pulse on the inherent cultural nuances of the Whitefish community in 1992 was to simply read the local weekly paper, the Whitefish Pilot. I personally found 82-year old Ida Hunnewell’s “Olney Briefs” column to be especially enchanting. And who wouldn’t? An Olney native herself, Ida proudly reported the social goings-on of those born and bred in her tiny town of Olney (15 miles northwest of Whitefish) with the unsophisticated simplicity of a fifth grader.
Ultimately though, it took working in a Whitefish title office and closing a majority of the regional residents’ real estate transactions to show me just how incestuously intertwined those residents really were.
Living the big sky life in a small town like Whitefish meant that just about everyone knew where I lived and worked. It was unavoidable. The kind of work I did, however, meant that if I wanted to protect my personal time, I had to keep my home phone number private. By carelessly allowing my home number to become public knowledge, I would’ve been forced to fight against the assumption of the local real estate agents that I was on call and available for business and problem solving 24/7 - a challenge effectively circumvented with an unlisted home phone number. The only person who knew that phone number was my assistant Joan, and she’d been given strict instruction not to share it with anyone for any reason, no matter how pushy they got or how much they begged. And faithful Joan never surrendered it.
When it came to the delivery of packages, on the other hand, it was admissibly convenient for both the postman and the FedEx delivery lady to know where I lived and worked; and they somehow always seemed to know where I was at any given moment. There were more than several occasions when the postman showed up at my office so that I could sign for a package that had been addressed to my home, or when I saw the FedEx lady drive her big delivery truck down my long dirt driveway to deliver a package to me at home that had been sent to my office.
My moderately multi-cultural upbringing in The OC gave me a pretty open-minded and tolerant approach to diversity when it came to people, their belief systems, and their lifestyle preferences. I arrived in Montana taking much of that social conditioning for granted, and I naïvely made the mistake of assuming most Americans operated under a similar premise until I rudely realized, of course, that they did not. Not only was good ole boy intolerance the norm in big sky country, there appeared to be no need or desire to change the way things had been done since Custer tried to take out the original Americans at Little Bighorn.
Every year the Whitefish Pilot was known to publish the town’s census statistics by race. This was something I’d never seen before, and yet I was utterly fascinated with its blatant (and proud) lack of diversity. In spite of any compulsory public show of political correctness, the truth was, anyone who was different didn’t tend to last long enough to make the paper a year later.
As hard as some tried to sustain the pretense of political correctness, it couldn’t completely cover up the area’s shadowed past, for truth has the strangest way of rising to the surface in spite of all attempts to suppress it … kind of like a mushroom sprouting from a pile of dung.
One big mushroom that comes to mind involved a sales transaction I closed for a lot along the shoreline of Coon Lake, a few miles west of town. I know water front property is supposed to be all the rage, but whatever water front property was claimed to exist around this lake was, in my opinion, a joke. It was, hands down, the ugliest algae infested tully lake I’d ever seen - good only for breeding mosquitoes and the bass that feed upon them. By the time this escrow had opened and Joan had ordered the title work, I’d closed quite a few transactions around Coon Lake and gave little thought to the place, let alone where the name of the lake came from. I simply assumed it was short for ‘raccoon’ or ‘coondog’.
When I got the title prelim a week later, I began casually reviewing it for closing conditions as was customary, but something wasn’t right, and I kept saying that out loud to Joan. The exceptions listed in the report were not the usual Coon Lake exceptions, and when I got to the plat map, I just about lost it. What was this???
The plat map read Nigger Lake, not Coon Lake. I turned to Joan, a Whitefish native, and demanded answers.
By the time I pulled my eyes away from the prelim report to look at her, Joan had turned her head away from me and cowered over her desk with her hand blocking the side of her face I was looking at, ashamed and reluctant to talk about awful things that she wished had been buried along with their sordid past. Nothing she personally had anything to do with, but apparently some unsavory things she’d been witness to as a young girl.
Joan told me that the reason this prelim was different than every other Coon Lake transaction we’d previously closed was because this sale was from an original owner and the title work had never been dated down to the present day like all the others. After this sale closed, the report I saw would no longer exist and all future title work for the property would be from the date of closing onward.
As for the name of the lake, she believed it had been originally named because of the lynchings that had been known to occur on its shores during the first part of the century. It was changed in the 1960’s after the federal government required all states to be in compliance with the Civil Rights Act; meaning any inappropriately named lake, waterway, park, etc. would need to be changed to something that was considered racially neutral and not derogatory. Apparently Nigger Lake, Nigger River, and Nigger Road in upstate New York were overlooked by the 1960’s compliance police. And then there are the private exceptions, such as Texas governor Rick Perry’s Niggerhead Ranch…
Undoubtedly, the Montana Moby Dicks of the 1960’s pulled a fast one on the federal government by selecting the name of Coon Lake, for no one seemed to catch the poorly disguised slur. Given my original assumption about the name however, I can hardly find fault with the enforcers in Washington way back when. Maybe they’d been naïve too. Either that or well paid off.
In the end, I think the good ole boy intolerance that permeated just about everything took a huge toll on me. It bred limitation in every possible way, and for someone like me, that limitation felt like incarceration. No wonder I couldn’t wait to escape.
Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King