OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895


4:00 P.M.

October 4, 2001

How To Go Fishing Forever:
Buy A Montana Resort

Fish-man.jpg (19280 bytes)

by Robert A. Covington

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


This is the story of our experiences after finding a beautiful part of Montana near Yellowstone National Park and along the Madison River below Hebgen Lake where a long established fishing resort is located. It became for sale and I, my wife, our oldest daughter and her husband purchased it in 1976 and operated it for seven years. We bought the resort not to make a lot of money, but rather because we liked being there during the summer months. While we had the camp we improved the facilities, made some changes in patrons and ended each summer with a reasonable profit. This narrative recounts in some detail how we planned its operation, problems we encountered and solutions that were found. As you will find it was a unique experience of real life with its humor, sometimes some sadness, and many accomplishments that we are happy to have had, but do not plan to have again.


Robert Covington was born in Redlands and two years later moved with his parents to Alhambra where he lived and went to school until 1937. He entered the University of Redlands and graduated in 1941. He then attended Law School at the University of Southern California and worked as a Liaison Engineer at Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach until 1943. After service in the U. S. Army Air Force, in 1946 he returned to the University of Southern California and earned a Master of Science in Public Administration while working as a City Planner for the 2ity of Long Beach. In 1948 he became Planning Director for San Bernardino County and in 1959 Chief Administrative Officer and served in this position until his retirement in 1976. After this time he and part of his family purchased and operated a resort along the Madison River in Montana during the summer months for seven years. During winter months for fifteen years he was a consultant for local government and assisted several new cities, acting as interim city manager, recruitment of the new City Manager and organizing the new city government. He is still active in various clubs, organizations, commissions and committees.


Discovery of Campfire Lodge

It was late August 1971. The phone rang and our son-in-law, usually very calm, was on the line and sounded more excited than at any time I could remember. His words just tumbled out, "We’ve found the perfect fishing and camping spot - it’s in Montana on the Madison River close to Yellowstone Park a mile below a large lake and two miles above another lake caused by the big earthquake in 1959.  Tomorrow we’ll bring our picture to show you." Our son-in-law, Dick and daughter, Ruth Ann arrived the next day as promised with a large packet of pictures and we looked at them carefully, two showing the camp, one showing fish, two of scenery and another one of fish, some more of the camp, some more of fish and so on for the next half hour. It all was beautiful and the fish were large and plentiful. The next year when they returned from vacation the story was the same, only this time they insisted that we join them at the camp for our vacation in 1973. We were convinced and promised to come for two weeks next summer.

The Madison River originates in Yellowstone Park at the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers. It flows for over one hundred miles in a northerly direction through southern Montana to join with the Gallatin and Jefferson to form the Missouri River near the town of Three Forks. 

After leaving Yellowstone Park the Madison enters Hebgen Lake, an irregularly shaped reservoir sixteen miles in length created eighty years ago by an earthen dam with a concrete core. It was designed by a talented engineer for which the lake is named. The flow is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish and Game, and the Montana Power Company (recently sold to another power company) who also owns the underlying land to the high water line of the lake. One other dam is located fifty miles downstream at Ennis. This is a relatively small and shallow body of water that is gradually filling with mud and some debris deposited by the Madison each spring. The only other lake along the entire length of the river was caused by the great earthquake of l959 when half of a mountain at the far end of the Madison canyon below Hebgen Dam slid across and blocked it to create a lake that briefly flooded the entire upper canyon (see Fortnightly paper, "When the Mountain Fell" 1987). It too is gradually filling with sand and mud from Cabin Creek and Beaver Creek that turn chocolate in color for three or four weeks each spring and whenever there are heavy summer storms. The Forest Service predicts that this body of water called Quake Lake will be completely filled in less than 100 years.

About one half mile below Hebgen Dam there is a fifteen acre area of forest land and meadow bounded by Cabin Creek, the Madison River, the highway and a hilly tree covered area. It was used as a camping area by Indians in the past and occasionally an arrowhead is still found there. During the construction of Hebgen Dam an enterprising young woman, Mrs Miller by name, set up a tent kitchen in this area and many of the workers camped there. After the dam was completed Mrs. Miller stayed on, and with eventual approval of the Forest Service, developed permanent camping facilities. After the war the Christiansen family owned and operated Campfire Lodge, as it was now called, adding cabins and enduring the flooding that occurred as a result of the earthquake. Christiansen missed a great opportunity to enlarge the camp when he was unable to tie down four cabins that floated onto the property, but had all he could to keep his own buildings in place since some had up to four feet of water in them. Several years later the camp was sold to the brother of Paul Whiteman who wanted to make it a rustic hideaway for the celebrity crowd. He knew nothing about operating such a facility and is best remembered for refurnishing the cabins with antiques and in preparation for the winter sub-zero weather,  piling all of his remaining food supplies in the middle of the café floor and covering them with heavy blankets - you can guess their condition the next spring. In a year or two he sold the camp to Margaret and Rufus Shelton who were in their sixties and tried to operate with little or no help. Rufus was able to repair almost anything and assisted Margaret in the store and caf é. He had a good sense of humor and an endless number stories to relate to any who would listen. He also was part Indian and became a different person whenever he could find alcohol. When this occurred the venders would steer clear of the store. If by chance he would take his pickup and start for town, Margaret would call ahead to the other resorts warning them that he was on his way and to watch out for him.

Margaret worked very hard cooking, cleaning the cabins, taking care of laundry and all the other work associated with operating a resort.

In August 1973 my wife, Mary and I drove along Highway 287 following the contour of Quake Lake with its hundreds of gray tree trunks pointing skyward out of its quiet water. Then we followed the highway over a rise and down along a shallow pond where a moose was chomping on various aquatic grasses, and on across the bridge at Beaver Creek. Then driving up another hill, off to our right we looked down at our first glimpse of Campfire Lodge identified with large letters on the roof of the store and café. Several cabins were within view, the rest hidden by the forest of large old growth spruce bordering the river beyond. A green meadow sprinkled with wild flowers was immediately below us while another meadow area along the right side of the access road from the highway to the camp a solid blanket of purple fireweed greeted us. We looked around at dense forested areas on all sides broken by dramatic beige rocky out-cropping reaching to the sky to the north and another awesome series of towering broken cliffs dominated the landscape on the other side of the Madison River. We had found our Shangri-la!

The Purchase and Plan of Operation

During the two weeks at Campfire we stayed in a small rustic cabin with a porch overlooking the Madison River and Cabin creek where they joined. We found that within a twenty-five mile radius there were four lakes, two rivers, at least six creeks -all with good to excellent fishing. In addition there was the small City of West Yellowstone and the main entrance to Yellowstone Park. Taking the beautiful scenic drive along the Gallatin River we were able to visit Chet Huntley’s Big Sky development and then the City of Bozeman and the highly regarded Montana State University. On another day we drove northwest along the highway following the Madison River as it flowed past many large cattle ranches bordered off to our right by the rugged Hilgard mountain range. In a little over an hour we reached the small community of Ennis which still retains much of its rustic frontier character and friendliness. Fourteen miles further to the west  Virginia City, home of the vigilantes who eliminated the rampant lawlessness of the 1860s where most of the original buildings and much their furnishings are preserved today. We also spent time at the Earthquake Center at the mouth of the canyon built on the spoil from half the mountain that slid across and created Quake Lake in 1959. One day was especially exciting when a sow brown bear with twin cubs meandered into the camp in midday examining each of the garbage cans. When we and the family from the adjacent cabin came out to watch, she sent the cubs up a tree, but otherwise seemed unconcerned and continued to search for food while we stayed clear of the sow and enjoyed the antics of the cubs. Rufus called the game warden so that he could remove them if they became a nuisance. Another time the four of us crossed the river one by one on a seat fastened to a cable strung on pulleys tied to large trees on each side of the river. We hiked downstream to a broad sage-covered open area where eight homes had been deposited as the lake created by the quake had left them when it receded. They were separated and positioned as though their locations had been planned by the owners, but there was now no access except by wading the river and thus were abandoned. Even after fifteen years they still had many of the furnishings. As we hiked back to the cable crossing we glanced behind us and found we had a large brown bear following now far behind. Fortunately he maintained his distance but we were happy to reach the cable crossing and back across to the camp.

Our two weeks were over far too quickly. We made reservations for the next year, said our goodbys to many new friends and Margaret and Rufus, drove out to the highway and up the hill for our last look at Campfire that year.

When we returned in 1974 we found that Margaret was not as well as the previous year and was having trouble with her legs. Rufus was about the same but did not go out of his way to maintain the camp although patrons did not complain too much and some made a few repairs themselves. They did have some help from a daughter with her two children part of the time. During our stay we heard rumors that Margaret was interested in selling the camp. Our son-in-law,Dick and daughter, Ruth Ann talked about this between themselves and then approached us. They told us how much fun it would be if I would retire from the county and buy Campfire. We could open it in May, operate it with some help until they finished their teaching in June, then we could all run it together until they had to go back to teaching and we could close it in September - maybe the whole family could help. What fun?

I had mentioned to the family that I would probably leave my position with the county in a couple of years but had not decided exactly when. County government was changing, becoming more ministerial, with mandates from both the state and federal levels that expanded existing services or required new programs without providing funding at all or insufficient funds to cover the costs. Also Governor Reagan and local government wanted to revise the property tax laws, with tax limits and a more equitable distribution plan. A small technical committee which I chaired, composed of selected county CAO’s and tax experts, drafted legislation which was supported by the Governor, the counties and cities and was introduced as Proposition 1 in the legislature.   In committee hearings it was amended to such an extent that the effort had to be abandoned. The result was of course the notorious Proposition 13, passed by the voters several years later that still plagues local government with its inequities and problems of fund distribution.

During the rest of our vacation time we talked more about acquiring Campfire and visited the U. S. Forest Service District Rangers office in West Yellowstone to see what was involved if we would decide to buy it. Since the camp was on Forest Service property we would have to assume the present lease or secure a new lease. The District Ranger told us there was a possibility they would close it because it was not being maintained as well as they expected. He agreed not to make any change before we talked with him next year when we returned. We told Margaret that we were interested in buying it and would make a decision over the winter so that all the details could be worked out the following summer. She was pleased because only one other family had expressed an interest, but did not have any way to finance it.

1975 was a year of decisions and questions.  All of the family was consulted and they were all very excited - somewhat more than Mary and I were - and they all wanted to be involved. Ruth Ann and Dick said we could operate it together until they retired (this has not yet occurred) and then they would take it over. But at this time, only Mary and I would be able to be at Campfire the entire period (the middle of May to the middle of September) when the camp would be open. Ruth Ann and Dick could be at the camp from the last part of June to the first part of September. Would we need help to open and close it, and if so how much? How much additional help would we need during the peak months of operation? The most important decision was when I would leave the County. My resignation would need to be submitted months before my last day of work so that my successor could start work the day after I left. I wanted to be sure that the budget preparation which begins in January and must be completed in June would not be disrupted. Other questions were postponed to the summer when we returned to Campfire for our vacation in August 1975 and looked  carefully at what we might be buying.

The lease area on which Campfire Lodge is located consisted of about ten acres of land, two thirds of which is mountain meadow and the remainder forested area within which were nearly all of the improvements fronting on or close to Cabin Creek or the Madison River. All the buildings in the camp were painted with what we called "campfire red" and had gray-green roofs that blended well with the various forest greens. There were thirteen fully furnished housekeeping cabins in various configurations, all with kitchens but two, and sleeping accommodations ranging from two to seven persons. There were eighteen trailer spaces, thirteen with full hookups and seven tent spaces. At the north end of the camp near Cabin Creek there was a fairly large shop building and adjacent to it a smaller restroom and shower building. Nearby a small bunkhouse could sleep one or two employees. At the opposite end of the camp where the entrance road from the highway terminated was a building close to and overlooking the river. It had an office, a store and rest room, café and kitchen, with an adjacent storage room and wellhead. Below this part of the building there was a basement where the well and about a 500 gallon pressure tank was located which served the entire camp with excellent tasting water. Close to the main building   a bungalow housed the owner and provided space for storage of linens and other small items for cabins. Outside of the kitchen there was a laundry building with washing machines and an ancient drier large enough to crawl into. It was used only when it was too wet or windy to use the clothes lines outside for drying. Parking was in front of the main building, which had a porch with some chair, and as one entered what was the largest room of the building, the office was on the right, the store portion to the left. It had fishing tackle and supplies, groceries, a refrigerator, a large wood stove and a table to serve eight. The view through a wall of windows showed the river, and another, rather narrow,  room with a fireplace at one end. In it were booths and tables for twenty persons, who could also see the river  and across it a beautiful fifteen foot high mossy rock outcropping, shaded by the forest above it and beyond, this a favorite spot for all kinds wildlife in early morning and evening. In the main room there also was a counter that seated with six stools which faced the grill and work area for it. The kitchen had two freezers, one large refrigerator, two stoves, one electric and one propane, two sinks and a drainboard for drying dishes.

Power was supplied by Montana Power Company and eight miles of forested area separated Campfire from the next user below. However two miles above was the dam, a cluster of cabins used by Montana Power for recreation and the dam keeper ’s house so we were in a high priority area in case of power problems. The 400 amp distribution system was a combination of copper and aluminum wiring strung along both poles and old growth trees. Each building and trailer space had a circuit breaker and all water heaters were electric.  Propane was used for all of the cooking stoves in cabins and was distributed from a large tank located in the middle of the cabin area. A gasoline pump of the thirties era with the glass cylinder at its top and an 800 gallon tank below ground took care of auto and outboard motor fuel needs. During the winter time the camp was unoccupied and only a cable across the dirt entrance road impeded access until the snows came. However the camp area was checked by the sheriff periodically and there was no record of any theft or damage to the property during the winter. Sewage was handled by individual septic systems for each cabin, trailer space, restroom building, and the store and café building. The septic system we discovered consisted of fifty-five gallon drums for the cabins, trailer spaces and rest rooms, but the kitchen for the café had a standard grease trap and septic tank. Surprisingly, they all functioned very well and there rarely was a problem with any of them. Also there was a boat dock with spaces for four boats at Quake Lake, and two boats with two outboard motors all owned by Campfire Lodge. Also there was a l959 Chevrolet El Camino pickup truck with a trailer hitch that was included in the sale. It ran reasonably well in spite of its age and was vital for a multitude of tasks in the camp, at the lake and back and forth to town.  In the shop building we found a conglomeration of old tools, most of questionable value, and some qualifying as antiques, along with various parts for plumbing and electrical repairs. Other miscellaneous items were scattered about haphazardly including nails, nuts, bolts, screws and washers, paints and brushes, rolled roofing, plywood, sheet metal, and a mixed pile of lumber of all kinds of sizes that someday might prove useful. The most valuable piece of equipment was a good compressor to blow out all the water lines at the end of the season to minimize freezing that can cause water leaks. When Mary viewed all this with some dismay, she said, "Well this will be our clutch pile."

The lease with the Forest Service was negotiated in short order with only one matter that was different than we had requested. The lease term was for fifteen rather than twenty years, but could be renewed at the end of that time. The annual amount to be paid to the Forest Service was very reasonable and there were no objectionable requirements or restrictions on our operation.

The contract for purchase from Margaret and Rufus was prepared by the one attorney in West Yellowstone representing both parties. It included a requirement for lists of names and addresses of patrons for the last two years as soon as possible after the camp was closed for the year, an inventory list and an agreement to assist in opening the camp so it could begin operating Saturday, May 15, 1976, the opening day for trout fishing. We would take possession on the day of our arrival and they were to assist us for at least one week and not to exceed two weeks without compensation, but with room and board. Margaret would provide us with all other pertinent information, and   especially that relating to revenue and expenses, vendors for food supplies for the café and items for sale in the store.

Following our return home we began preparing for our new venture. Dick, who taught graphic art at a Long Beach high school, worked on forms, stationary, a camp logo and designed a new sign to replace the old, inadequate one by the highway entrance road to the camp. In early December 1975 after having had   informal discussions  with each of the County Supervisors, I submitted my letter of resignation setting a date of April 30, l976 as my last day of work - exactly twenty-eight years from my starting date.

The next few months we discussed our plan of operation and set our opening and closing dates for the third Saturday in May when trout season would begin and September 15th. Rental rates for cabins, trailer spaces and camping spots would remain the same this first year except for minor adjustments based on cabin location and capacity. There would be 5% to 10% discounts with stays of seven days or more. The reservation system was developed and the hours when the office, café and store would be open was set for 7:00 AM -9PM seven days a week. We prepared a set of camp rules including matters such as fresh towels and linens once a week, campfires only in established fire pits at each camp or cabin site, quiet time after 10:00 PM and five miles an hour speed limit on all roads within the camp boundaries. 

A very important matter to decide was the number of employees we would need and how to find them. Mary and I would require help to open and operate the camp until Dick and Ruth Ann arrived and to close it after they left. During the peak period of late June through early September we would need help in the café, to do laundry, and to clean cabins, the public restrooms and showers and general maintenance throughout the camp.  In addition Ruth Ann had two very small children that needed care when she was working in the caf é. Dick and Ruth Ann developed a summer work opportunity for students that we called a "working vacation in Montana". The idea was that each of the students would work a day and have the next day off for which he or she would receive $20.00 a week, a share of all tips split evenly between student employees, and board and room. Each student was responsible for his own transportation to and from the camp. This notice was posted on the summer employment bulletin boards at several high schools and a community college in the Long Beach area in the spring. A number of students applied and were carefully screened by checking school records, teacher’s recommendations and interviews with students and parents. Sixteen was the minimum age and personality, intelligence, attitude, related working experience, interest in the outdoors and related matters were the main attributes in selecting staff. Two boys and two girls were picked to work for ten to eleven weeks for each of the first two years. We advertised for a retired couple to help for a minimum of three weeks at the beginning of the season and talked to friends who might like to have a short working vacation in September to help us close the camp. Our phone was not deluged with calls and we had some concern about finding a satisfactory couple to help us open.. Then just over a week before we were to leave we received a response from a retired minister and his wife. They were quite excited about the chance to go to Montana and be so close to Yellowstone Park and willing to do the kind of work we discussed with them. Also she was an accountant and wanted to help set up our bookkeeping system. They were hired to start June first.

The first week of April a letter was sent to everyone who had visited Campfire for two nights or more during the last two years. Using our new stationary we told of our purchase of the camp and our plans to maintain all its good characteristics and improvements that could be expected. We listed the rate schedule and outlined the reservation procedure, expressing the hope that they would vacation with us during the summer in 1976.

As the date for my leaving the county drew nearer there was great curiosity among the county family and friends about our plans. The San Bernardino Sun and the Redlands Daily Facts ran wonderful articles including pictures about Campfire - the publicity was unrequested and could not have been better. Dick had printed cards and brochures that I could distribute. At this same time there was a controversy at the county about a "leave without pay" proposal. Someone in the county had hundreds of one dollar bills printed showing the phrase "leave without pay dollar" at the top, a fisherman holding a rod and line with a fish as the centerpiece, San Bernardino County at the bottom between two copies of the county seal. In bold letters printed at each side of the fisherman was the statement "Negotiable only at Campfire Lodge Resort, Montana". Neither I nor the Board of Supervisors every knew who was responsible, but it was accepted with good humor by the Board and I could not have devised a better way for employees to know about Campfire Lodge.

Thrills and Chills of Operation and Management

Before noon on Friday, May 14,1976 we drove onto the access road of Campfire to begin the transition period and to learn all we could from Margaret and Rufus during this time. There were patches of snow on the ground and the weather was vacillating from cold in the daytime to freezing at night. The opening of the camp was already underway. Margaret had the store, café and kitchen almost ready and Rufus was in the process of turning on the water for the cabins, one by one.   The well was pumping normally and was already providing water for the café and kitchen, laundry and the bungalow for the owners quarters and storage. Mary worked with Margaret and I helped Rufus.

I discovered that the water distribution lines were one inch flexible black plastic pipe that had been laid throughout the camp at an average depth of about a foot where the fertile topsoil ended over a very rocky sandy layer below. Leaks were easily repaired with inserts and hose clamps. The cabins for the most part had copper lines and some had not been blown out well enough so had cracked where water froze in them during the winter. I had some lessons in soldering that proved valuable in the years that followed and even today. The water heaters, all electric, had to be filled before they could be switched on and tested. If an element had burned out, the heater would have to be turned off, drained, the element replaced and then the heater tested again. Rarely did a year go by without at least one element having to be replaced. The cooking stoves were almost all propane. I have always considered propane a dangerous fuel because it is heavier than air. However the stoves worked well and had no pilot lights, so were easy to check and maintain. We had only two incidents during the time of our ownership. One young man turned on the gas to the oven and thought he was at home. When he realized it had not come on, without thinking he lit a match and the resulting explosion blew the oven door off and it broke the window about six feet away. There was no other damage and the young was uninjured but very embarrassed. Another time two boys started to pitch a pup tent off to the side of the cabin where their family was staying, contrary to our camp rules. As they were driving the stakes for the tent, they suddenly heard a ssssing sound and knowing that something was wrong, came running down to report it. Since there was no water showing, it could be only  one thing - propane. I ran quickly to the shutoff valve for the cabin area and turned it off.  This occurred at   at dinnertime and many families were cooking so there were some very unhappy campers. It was then that I discovered that the propane distribution lines were also flexible black plastic pipe. However this  was easy to repair and soon all was back to normal.

Opening day for fishing was overcast and cool, but there still were a number of fishermen who began arriving early in the morning, some for breakfast, but most just registered, got keys for their cabins, unpacked a few things and were then out to the river and down to Quake Lake. This was our first real chance to learn how to use the grill efficiently and to see how the food preparation was handled. The weekend went fairly well and the atmosphere was pleasant for almost all of the guests were "repeats".  The next few days we continued the cleanup, repairs  and preparations for summer business. We noticed that Margaret was taking blankets, sheets and towels from one of the cabins. This seemed more than strange, since we had never received a satisfactory inventory list from her. Her explanation was that she had stored supplies from a small motel they owned in West Yellowstone at Campfire because they had inadequate and unsecured storage space at the motel. Much, but not all, of the Campfire linens was labeled and we did have enough to get by. They were  old and the sheets were heavy stiff cotton and difficult to dry. Over the years we added to and replaced much of the linen.

Late one evening about a week after we had arrived it became obvious that Rufus had fortified himself with fairly strong liquid refreshment. It was nearly ten o’clock and I said it was time for bed. All but Rufus agreed but Margaret was able to get him to go with her to their room which was separated from ours by the plywood wall. We could hear every word clearly through it. He was very vocal and said, "I’m not having anyone tell me when to go to bed. I’m going to take my gun in there and shoot him!" Margaret finally calmed him down and he stayed in their room and eventually went to sleep, and so did we when everything quieted down. The next morning I told Margaret we thought we knew enough now to manage without them and would call her if we ran into problems. She was very apologetic, but understood our concern. They packed up and were gone in couple of hours. Over the years we maintained contact with her and she would visit us several times each summer until they moved to California.

Our phone at Campfire was on a party line involving at least three other numbers so there was no privacy and everyone in town knew what was going on. One of our very good friends happened to be on our line and when we did not answer the phone, they would answer and take the message for us. The closest pay phone was three miles away and it was a constant problem for guests who needed to make an important call. We did permit use of the phone for short local calls at slack times. There were two unusual and interesting calls during our time at the camp. One was from CBS national news in August one year when southwest Montana experienced a storm that dumped six inches of snow throughout the area. I described its beauty and the problems that tourists were experiencing but we were unable to hear the report because radio reception is very limited in the canyon. The other call was made by a wealthy guest who heard of the discovery in Australia of the largest gold nugget ever found. He immediately asked and we allowed him to call Australia to see if he could purchase it. He was unsuccessful, but the nugget later was acquired by the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas, whose Controller and his family were annual guests at Campfire.

The couple we had hired to assist us arrived in time to help over the Memorial Day weekend and we were glad to have their assistance. It was a busy weekend and we still had a lot to learn. They worked in the kitchen and café, and cleaned and made up cabins when it was over. The retired minister worked hard and was very conscientious. The wife wanted to do bookkeeping and disliked cleaning the cabins and kitchen work. After a little over a week the husband came to us and said his wife was not feeling well and that he was sorry but  they were going to have to leave the next day. Fortuitously before the day was over Mary stopped to help a young man walking along the highway who was looking for work and uncertain where he was. He had been involved in an accident and had a plate in his head that had an affect on his reasoning capability, but could follow directions and was strong. He was especially helpful when I discovered that the KOA campground 10 miles down the highway was going out of business and wanted to sell almost new  picnic tables for five dollars each.  I was able to get one for each cabin, trailer space and camp spot. By stacking them perilously high in the pickup, we were bring the thirty-one tables to the camp in four trips. Although this was a slack time of the year, we were busy enough so that Mary wrote on her calender on June 14th, Seems like one year, but just one month at Campfire Lodge". Fortunately on June 18th Dick and Ruth Ann, their two children and two girls who would be helping all arrived. To add to our happiness the mobile home was hauled in that we had purchased from the sheriff who had lived in it at Poney not far from Ennis. This would be for the two of us and another used two bedroom mobile home would be coming soon for Dick, Ruth Ann and the children. The two girls and the two boys who were still on their way would use the sleeping rooms in the linen supply building.

Bicyclists were coming by on the highway in ever increasing numbers. Many were stopping by to rest and for cold drinks and food. The weather was variable but quite cool with cold rain every few days. We were lighting the fire in the wood stove every morning. One of the mornings brought sleet and temperatures close to freezing all day. Bikers were all stopping to warm up before continuing on to West Yellowstone. One miserable young man staggered and was very distressed because someplace along the way he had lost his pants that had been tied to the back of his bike. We had no spare pants or large pieces of plastic, but instead after he had warmed himself we taped a number of plastic bread wrappers around his legs for the twenty-three mile ride to West Yellowstone. A few days later a man drove in and identified himself as an official of the Bikecentennial. We discovered that this being the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, a biking organization had carefully planned a cross-country bicycle ride for all ages that would last all summer. The route was established with eating places marked and overnight stops designated as Bike Inns published with other useful information in a booklet. The preferred direction was west to east, beginning at Astoria, Washington, through the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone Park, one elevation exceeding 12,000 feet, across the mid-west and east to end in New Jersey. The Forest Service Beaver Creek Campground  had been one of the Bike Inns selected for overnight camping. Locals all know this campground as mosquito hollow because of a small pond in the middle that annually produces multitudes of mosquitos. There were so many complaints from bikers   about this problem had that they knew a change was necessary. The official asked if he could place two large tepees, each able to sleep thirty-two persons in the meadow next to our camping area. Those staying overnight would pay $2.00 and of course many would eat at the café. Some would rent cabins so they could have a comfortable bed. At the end of the summer the tepees would be removed and the area cleaned as necessary. The additional income was welcome and the tepee location was away from the cabin area. It also proved to be a good advertising gimmick that drew people to the camp that otherwise would not have stopped. Twice during the summer Indians who were selling their jewelry came in and spread out their beads and bracelets on the porch of the store and many of our guests bought a few pieces from them. Well over 5000 bikers, men, women and children, came by our camp, ranging in age from seven to eighty in age. A high percentage of them stopped either for food or overnight or both. Depending on their physical condition, weather, wind and terrain, their distance traveled per day was from 25 to 150 miles. When they reached Campfire in the evening their appetites were voracious. We developed a special "bikers dinner" which featured lazana as the main entree. The "bikers grapevine" passed this information along and it was a rare evening when we had no bikers for dinner. There was never left anything on the plates, because if anyone had food left over, there was always someone who would clean the plate. Also we had to remove the sugar containers from the table or they would be emptied by the bikers.

The same day that Dick and Ruth Ann arrived with the two girls to help us, a group of fishermen from an electrical firm in Pocatello came for their annual visit to Campfire. One of our helpers was a friendly and very buxom young lady named Dora, who, we found sometime later would sometimes refer to herself as "Boom Boom". It was dusk and she wandered up to the cabin occupied by the Pocatello group. When we sent the other girl up to get her, she returned and told us that Dora was inside, they were all drinking and some of the men were drunk. Dick, who is six feet tall, well over 200 pounds, grabbed a two-by-four and stalked quickly up to cabin.   An argument ensued and threats to sue were made by one of the inebriated men. The girl returned to the café, and Dick called the sheriff, who responded and restored peace. There was no more difficulty that year or in following  years. Although consumption of alcoholic beverages was permitted within the privacy of cabins or trailers, none was allowed in the café ( this was not permitted under our lease with the Forest Service anyway).

The philosophy under which we operated Campfire Lodge was established early on during a fairly busy lunchtime when Mary was working the grill. A man at the counter was complaining loudly about not having any sugar when he said to her, "Your working for me and I want some service!" Mary stopped what she was doing, walked around the grill to the counter where he was and replied as only she can do, "I am one of the owners of this camp. We are here because we want to be. You are our guest and we expect you to act like a guest. Otherwise you may leave right now!" He got red in the face and apologized. Undoubtedly this incident was a topic of conversation around the camp for we almost never had difficulties with our guests during all the years that we owned Campfire..

The wildlife and bird population was intriguing to all of us and especially to children and the guests. Chipmunks and squirrels were plentiful and friendly. One chipmunk which became a camp favorite  was called Ralphy and was fed regularly by all the children. Holly, Ruth Ann’s small daughter was bitten one time when she was feeding it. Dick, being concerned about rabies or any other infection, caught it and then called the doctor to see what he wanted them to do. He told Dick, "Well, unless you plan to eat it, let it go."  Everyone was happy, especially Ralphy. In the early years a cow moose slept in the shelter of our mobile home and occasionally nudge against it in the early morning, then woluld stroll through camp usually before the campers were awake. In the early summer it bore its calf on an island in the middle of the river about 150 yards downstream several years in a row. Across the river from the café the grassy area above the rocky outcropping deer and other animals would feed regularly in the morning and evening. We made it especially inviting by placing a salt block out of sight. This brought a variety of animals at all times of the day since they were rarely bothered by people on that side of the river. Equally entertaining to watch were the Merganser ducks with their families of as many as nine or ten ducklings swim upstream, as each one by one fought the current to get around the rocky outcropping, and having reached the pond above the camp, soon came floating back  bobbing on the ripples to return to Quake Lake. Above were eagles, hawks and osprey soaring and circling, watching for unwary fish near the waters surface and every so often a sand hill crane would flash by and find a perch in a tree to pause and call out in raucous to a distant mate.

One animal episode in camp was not as pleasing. One of the early years several families of skunks decided to establish summer quarters underneath several of the cabins that were open on one or more sides under the floor. They did not come out in the daytime but at dusk they walked around and the guests understandably were not happy when they would come face to face with them on the camp walkways and roads. Fortunately they did not spray anyone. However under one cabin when the people walked around in it, the skunks showed their displeasure by tapping the underside of the floorboards. We tried to coax them out by throwing mothballs under the cabin which we were told skunks do not like. They were right. The skunks threw them right back out! We did not want to shoot them and we did not want them to smell up the camp. We decided to further their education and bought a trap. We set it back of the café and by the river and put a fish or piece of meat in it each evening. Almost every morning we would find a skunk in the trap. With a long stick two of us would take the skunk in the trap to the middle of the river and release it in the fast current where it would drift to the calm waters of the lake two miles below. Within four weeks we had released sixteen skunks. We then put chicken wire over every opening at all the buildings in the camp and never saw a skunk again in Campfire as long as we owned it

Another year a pair of beavers tried to build their home in the river below our camp using aspen as large as six inches in diameter for the project. They must have been young and inexperienced, but very strong. All of the work took place at night and the aspen were taken from our lower meadow.  Each morning we would check and two or three more gone. Some of the trees weighed up to 100 pounds, yet would be several hundred feet from where they had stood. Fortunately they abandoned their project before it was completed and probably moved to Quake Lake or one of the ponds next Beaver Creek.

Campfire was included in what was designated as a grizzly bear study area containing many square miles. An annual census was taken for several years to determine what was happening to the grizzly population. We never saw the final report but heard that there were eleven grizzlies within the area studied. Only one grizzly was reported in our camp during our ownership. But black and brown bears(one and the same) were another story. The day before we left for home the first year we were walking along the top of the river bank, looked down at some berry bushes and saw a bear feeding. We watched , he looked up, shook his head back and forth, said something that sounded like vamoose so we did back to the café. We always told our guests not to leave food outside or in cars unless in the trunk. Guests with a brand new Toyota convertible with a soft top left some kind of smelly food carefully locked in the trunk. The next morning they awoke to find that a bear had smelled it, torn off the top, ripped out the seat and made off with the food. The owners were furious and blamed us because they felt they and followed our directions. Another year a lady in a trailer baked two apple pies and placed them on the table to cool and left her door open. The smell was irresistible as it wafted through the camp as it proved to be for a bear in the vicinity. It followed its nose to her door, climbed into the trailer and headed for the pies. The woman grabbed a broom, ran at the bear beating it over the head and screaming at the bear, "Get away from my pies!" It was more than the surprised bear could stand and it beat a hasty retreat back out the door, which the woman quickly shut. At another time a bear went to sleep under a trailer and as it moved around underneath it caused the trailer to rock back and forth so the occupants were certain that an earthquake had occurred. One year for several weeks we were visited repeatedly by a bear that would throw back the cover and climb  into the commercial dumpster next to the parking area by the café and leave a big mess all around it. When we tied it down with two-by-fours and heavy rope He took one paw , stuck his claws under the edge of the top and tore it open as if it were a can of sardines. The top was never the same. It became a great item of interest for the town people and we were getting calls form the towns people to find out what time the bear was coming so they could come out and watch. At our campfire we invited the Fish and Game Officer to speak and we timed it so that when he finished we were able to say to what was an unusually large group, "Now if you turn around and go very quietly to the corner of the building you will see the bear coming to look for food." Luckily, there he was. Fish and game set a trap for him and in a few days he was caught and taken thirty miles away and released. He was back in less than a week. The trap was reset and again eventually caught, then transported over fifty miles and we were not bothered again that year.

Various longtime friends, mostly couples from the University or City of Redlands, who also vacationed at Campfire helped us close the camp and also open it each of the remaining years of our ownership. The second year opening, was not without some trauma when I found I had not winterized the old above ground  water pump properly and it was cracked.  We were lucky to find an old gentleman in West Yellowstone who took care of all the wells in the area. He came out right away and installed a new submersible pump so we had water by the end of the day. We now knew that we had a good well getting our water from a depth of forty feet with no draw-down. Several years later after we had turned the water on and that in the pressure tank had been used and replenished with fresh water from the well, we noticed a strange plastic taste. We could not identify what it was but knew the problem would have to be corrected before the camp filled with guests. The Culligan people from Bozeman checked it but were as mystified as we. I thought maybe the plastic pipes were deteriorating. Culligan personnel suggested using a large carbon filter temporarily that did eliminate the bad taste completely. The filter had to be replaced every few days depending on water consumption at a cost of sixty dollars per tank. During July and most of August when we were full we would need a new filter tank every day. A solution was needed now! Finally we decided the well itself had been contaminated in some way. We looked around at every possibility and finally decided that it had to be a leak from the gasoline tank for the gas pump about 60 feet from the well. It didn’t taste like we thought gasoline would taste, but there wasn’t any other possibility. After the new tank was installed the well water was perfect again in about three days and the filter was removed. Withis experience we were not pleased to be dependent on one source of water. Knowing that the water level in our existing well was about the same as the river, we thought we could probably get plenty of water by drilling no more than sixty feet at the upper end of the camp and at the same time increase the water pressure for some of the camp area. Our local well man, Bert, who by now was a good friend who came out to the camp regularly for one our malts or ice cream sundaes recommended a well driller who drill and put in the casing for the usual rate of eighteen dollars a foot and leave it ready for Bert to install the pump and

water pipe. The well driller arrived and we showed him the area where he then selected the spot to drill. All went well — for four or five feet and then he encountered virtually solid rock with few fractures in the hole as he drilled. It was slow going and he earned every penny we paid. I was glad we were not paying by the hour. In the last twenty or thirty feet there were additional fractures, now sufficient enough to keep water filling the pressure tank if everyone was not using water at the same time. We were at more than eighty odd feet when he stopped and the pump was set at eighty feet. About a 300 gallon pressure tank was installed and we tied the two systems together so there would always be water available throughout the camp.

Each year the Forest Service made an inspection of the camp to see how well we were doing and to make suggestions and recommendations for improvements they wanted. Their first request was improvement of the electrical wiring running from the main switch box to all of the structures. We had noticed connector problems with corroded aluminum wire and other places where wires were rubbing on tree limbs so we agreed to do this early the following year. We knew this could be an expensive procedure because there was only one electrical contractor in West Yellowstone. He was busy most of the time during the summer and charged what the market would bear. When we returned the next summer the electrician was busy. In the middle of July a young man stopped by for breakfast and as we visited I learned that he was an electrical contractor licensed in Montana and looking for work. We talked about our needs and he was very interested in helping us. After looking at what was involved he agreed to do the job for food, lodging, time and material with his hourly rate about half of what the local electrician would charge. I offered to help him to cut down on the length of time required and he was very agreeable, even though I knew little about electricity. This was the kind ofjob that really needed two to do it efficiently. The materials we required could only be purchased from the electrician in West Yellowstone unless we drove to Bozeman 100 miles away. When the local electrician discovered what was happening he was furious and complained to the state. However everything was legal although we did pay $17 for an electrical permit to do the work. During the entire time that he worked on the project he did not have to turn off the entire system. He did wear gloves, however, that could withstand 10,000 volts of electricity. I learned a lot that was very helpful through the years for minor problems that occurred. The worst one occurred at night during a windy storm when a live wire to the furthest cabin broke. Rather than shut down power to all the cabins, I put on heavy gloves and while Mary steadied a wooden ladder and shined a flashlight so I could see, I spliced the wires back together. On another occasion when the camp was about 2/3 full during a cold storm with lots of wind, the Montana power line parted. Everything electric including the water supply was off for sixteen hours. Since propane was used for cooking, no one went without food, but there were many complaints about not being able to flush the toilets. We pointed out to them that all they had to do was take a pail to the river for water and then pour it into the tank and flush. Few had even thought of that. The reason power was off so long was because it went through eight miles of heavily forested area just before reaching our camp and it all had to be checked, mostly in the dark before the break was found and repaired.

The young people who helped, except for the second year when we invited four young people from Redlands, continued to be selected by Dick and Ruth Ann. They were an intelligent and talented group who contributed greatly to the success of our operation. Each group was given a tour of Yellowstone Park, Virginia City and Nevada City. Their alternate days off were used for many other activities they were interested in doing. As Ruth Ann’s daughter Holly grew to a mature four year old and then a “grown up” five she, too, part of the time was a waitress in the café or a helper cleaning cabins and loved to trail around with the girls where they were working. Almost all of the young people had some talent to show and they took part in skits and played instruments or sang at some of our campfire programs. Several girls went horseback riding at a large secluded ranch, where in her exuberance, one girl emulated except for her shorts Lady Godiva, as she galloped across the pasture. Another very attractive young lady also must have been uninhibited although it did not show at Campfire, for the following year she was featured in the Playboy Magazine as a Playmate of the Month. We were told that she used the money she earned to pay for a trip to Hawaii for her parents. Three of the girls worked for us more than one summer, and one of them still comes back every year for the summer and is employed in West Yellowstone, but keeps a small trailer at Campfire where she stays when not working.

Girls and boys were assigned every type of work except the very heaviest tasks and repairing or re -roofing the buildings. When they were on duty but no work was required in the cabins or café, we sent them to Cabin Creek where they would take rocks as large as they could handle and throw them along the bank on the Campfire side. It gave additional bank protection and was also good exercise for them, rather than just sitting around. One girl had a mishap while on a ladder painting the upper corner of the café porch. The girl, ladder and a full gallon of Campfire red paint all tumbled to the floor as a startled bat flew into her face. The floor, instead of the corner, received a fresh coat of what paint could be salvaged. A boy was assigned to cut a four inch thick limb hanging over the road to the cabins with a handsaw. It wasn’t until someone looked outside to check on his progress that we noticed he was sitting on the wrong side of the limb and about to fall eight feet to the ground unless he changed his position. He did. Another boy doing some roof repair and working with a can of tar was discovered too late wearing a pair almost new white duck pants. They were a total loss. One of the girls working in the café one noon saw a couple walk in and dashed into the kitchen and said she could not work in the café right now. When asked what the problem was she said that the lady in the café was the wife of her minister and she was with another man. She was excused until they left after lunch. All young people were instructed to wash all their clothes before they packed to go home. Everyone complied except one boy who stubbornly refused. When asked why he objected, he replied, “If I go home with clean clothes my mother will know that I have learned how and I’ll always have to do it at home.” Better than some excuses we heard!

In 1978 a small home overlooking Hebgen Lake was advertised for sale all summer. No one bought it so we decided to look since the price seemed reasonable. We prepared an offer and reached agreement in time to complete the sale before we went home. The next year after Dick and Ruth Ann arrived we stayed at the house each night after closing time and Mary and Ruth Ann used it once a week for a Ladies Day Out for women at the camp to gather for crafts, games , visiting and refreshments while the husbands were fishing or doing other things. One other activity we celebrated annually was our Summer Christmas. This event was based on an unusual snow fall two feet deep on the 25th of August in the early sixties which paralyzed all movement throughout Yellowstone Park. Old Faithful Inn was full and no one knew how to entertain the guests. Someone suggested that they celebrate Christmas at Yellowstone.

It was an instant success and has been celebrated by many in the park and West Yellowstone area ever since. We cooked a special Christmas dinner each year on August 25th using various themes and served it at noon with taffy pulls, singing and games afterwards.

Over the years fishing continued to be one of the majors attractions for men and some of the women who came to Campfire. As Russell, a baby at the beginning, grew large enough to hold a rod and coordinated so he could reel in a fish his ability was equal to many of the men when he reached the ageof five or six. One day when a camper in the café was complaining to Dick about how poor the fishing was and his not catching any, Dick turned to Russell and said, “Russ, take this man out there and show him how to catch a fish.” Russ got his rod, put a grasshopper on the hook, cast it out into the river back of the café and luckily hooked a trout with the first cast. There were no more complaints from that camper. Just above the camp and Cabin Creek there is a large pool with a broad expanse of grass on one side. Two attractive young ladies from Sweden who were staying in the camp crossed over Cabin Creek to the grassy area, stripped bare to the waist and lay down to enjoy the warmth of the sun. Two records were set that day -the largest number of fishermen to fish that pool at one time and the greatest number of lines to get tangled while fishing in that pool. Thereafter the area was referred to as nude beach. Once a year the outlet to the river from Hebgen Lake was closed down for about fifteen minutes to four CFS {cubic feet a second} from its usual flow of between 900 and 1200 CFS so the condition of the core of the dam could be examined. All the children and many adults would rush into the river bed to hunt for fishing equipment and lures that had been lost on rocks or weeds. It was a bonanza for the ones who knew where to look. At the upper end of Quake Lake the silt build up from above had filled in so much in three years that the four boat slips that Campfire owners had previously built no longer could be used. Instead we built a platform above the high water line between three dead trees close to the bank but in the water. Two boats could be moored there and it served as a good fishing platform when no boats were present. It is still in use today, mostly for fishing. When we talked with fishermen at the camp we encouraged them to not waste the fish they caught, to not exceed the limit and practice catch and release with any that they would eat unless the fish had been injured and would not survive. Dick froze some of those he caught for smoking. We had an old refrigerator that still had all its shelves but was useless otherwise. The pan holding the chips for smoke was placed in the bottom and the fish that had been soaked overnight in his secret formula were placed on all the wire trays inside the box. The fish that were smoked this way were delicious.

Many prominent people from various parts of the world visited Campfire during our years of ownership. One morning Dick and a friend were fishing in a boat on the far side of the river where it enters Quake Lake. They noticed a couple dressed and ready to fly fish, some black limousines and a number of men dressed in dark suits who stationed themselves at strategic positions along the top of the bank to see in all directions. Dick and his friend were catching fish regularly and since there was lots of fishing room, the couple waded out into the river and began casting. They were soon recognized as President Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. He was an experienced fly fisherman but on that day was unsuccessful. They did not talk to Dick who might have been of some help. They and their entourage left the area later without stopping at Campfire. At another time the director and stars of the TV program Gunsmoke who Dick knew during his school days did come by for a brief visit. Late one morning Paul Allen, at that time a member of Fortnightly Club, accompanied by Dr. Stillman Berry drove in and parked by the café. They joined us for lunch and we had a good visit. They were on their way to Dr. Berry’s beloved Winnecook Ranch in central Montana. After lunch they walked all through the camp as Dr. Berry looked closely at a number of things of interest to him. He picked up a snail shell in an untrampled moist area, looked at it carefully and exclaimed that he had never seen this type of snail before and didn’t think it was classified. He then put it in his shirt pocket and they returned to their car and continued on to his ranch. Pat Barnes known world wide as an authority, writer and expert in fly fishing had a shop in West Yellowstone and came to Campfire for one of our campfire programs and gave a demonstration and talked about fishing in the Yellowstone area. He has since retired and sold his shop to Bob Jacklin who has replaced him at least nationally as a leading authority in fly fishing. Bob has been a friend for at least twenty years and frequently stopped at our camp with his clients for lunch or dinner during guiding trips.

Other memorable happenings occurred at our camp - good, bad, sad and otherwise. On a beautiful afternoon there was a delightful wedding amongst the trees and wild flowers. An unsuccessful suicide attempt by a distraught fellow who set his camper on fire with him in it caused a brief time of concern. Both the man, who disappeared, and the camper, which we finally disposed of, survived. A fisherman fishing across the river from camp slipped and broke his leg. With great effort and careful handling, Dick was able to bring him back across the river where he was taken to town for medical attention. Bert Fields, the well expert and our good friend, was sitting at the counter in the café enjoying a dish of ice cream when he suddenly collapsed and slumped to the floor. The paramedics were unable to revive him, for he had suffered a stroke and died a few days later without regaining consciousness.

A Time to Sell

During our fifth summer at Campfire, although we had no special problems and everything went relatively well, we were all ready to admit that there was a lot of work and little time for relaxation, no time to visit other places in Montana, and not even enough free time for fishing as we would have liked. Also retirement for Dick and Ruth Ann was many years in the future and because the income from the camp was insufficient to support them for the rest of the year at their present standard of living. In fact Mary expressed it clearly and in her usual direct manner when she said she knew all she needed and wanted to know about running a resort at the end of two years. By the end of the summer we had all agreed that the following year we would let it be known that Campfire was for sale. The following summer we let selected realtors know that it was for sale but we did not list it. Some of our guests also had asked about buying it in the past but none of them so far were seriously interested or else had no financial ability to purchase it. However, during the middle of summer in our seventh year of operation, the husband and daughter of a family who had been coming to Campfire for many years told us that they and a related couple moving from Savage, Minnesota (where the winters are even colder than Montana) wanted to buy Campfire after we closed it. The details of the sale were finalized and approved by all parties and after we closed the camp we turned over the keys to the new owners.


Nineteen years later Campfire lives on and the camp itself continues to be improved. Cabins have had metal roofs installed, interiors improved with better plumbing, new furniture in some, additions and remodeling for others, all adding to their comfort without changing the rustic character of the camp. A new public laundry and rest room building in place of the old storage shed and an enlargement of the camping area and additional camping spaces have been provided. We visit the camp often during the summer to eat at the café and to visit old friends who still come to Campfire each year. Dick and Ruth Ann have a small house near ours that also overlooks Hebgen Lake and there are some other houses in the same area occupied in the summer by Redlands friends and from various other areas. Our seven years at Campfire is a memorable experience that we cherish and now we truly can go fishing forever.

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