Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear - For all Your Motorized and Non-Motorized Adventures!

By Betty Vanderwielen

Tracing the Stage Route

Part II


Photo courtesy of UM, Mike Mansfield Library, Archives & Special Collections.

Bearing a U.S. Mail bag on top and the words Seeley Lake Stage on its back window, the Model A mail carrier dropped off and picked up mail at the Greenough Post Office on its route from Missoula to the Swan Valley.

Part I established the rusty Model A Ford in Dick Wolff's backyard is what remains of the 1930s mail delivery vehicle called the Seeley Lake Stage. That vehicle was outfitted by Orlie Coates with a snow mobile kit to make winter service possible in the Seeley Swan Valleys. After its stage career ended the Model A was taken apart, reportedly to make it into a tractor. Though that transformation never occurred, parts and pieces of the Model A were subsequently scattered from Swan Valley to Helena. The Wolff brothers have been chasing down both the pieces and the vehicle's history.

In the 1940s Fred Schisser held the mail contract and Tex Baker drove for him. Baker reports driving both a Ford and a Chevy panel truck. It is unclear whether the Ford is the same one used when Orlie Coates held the contract in 1931. Nor is there any word about whether the Buick was still in operation or had been replaced.

Baker said delivering mail barely paid for the gas. The vehicles got the name "stage" because hauling freight and passengers constituted the real bulk of the business.

"Cabin Fever" quotes Baker as saying, "I hauled a lot of lumberjacks... most of the time they were pretty drunk." He said the men would go into Missoula for "a big toot" on their breaks from logging.

In the summer Baker hauled families to their vacation homes in the Clearwater Valley. The wives and children usually stayed the whole summer, while the husbands traveled back and forth on weekends.

In addition to mail and passengers, Baker regularly picked up five and ten gallon cans of cream from the homesteaders in the valley and delivered them to Missoula's three creameries. On the return trip he hauled groceries and other supplies to the valley stores and residents.

Baker said, "Women were always a 'wantin' me to pick up thread for them. So I'd go searching the stores in Missoula for such and such color to match such and such material."

Seeley Lake resident Gerald Hoover remembers getting a ride on one of those early stages, "Terrible ride!" he said. "It took all day to get from Missoula to Seeley Lake. They used to haul milk and groceries up and bring them to the store here. Half the time the milk would be sour by the time it got here. [In the winter] they'd chain it up or whatever. It was a tough road. In them days it was from McNamara Bridge – that's about the first bridge above Bonner – to the top of Greenough. That was all really tough gravel. Then it was better from there down the hill. Then to Clearwater, and from Clearwater to Seeley Lake those roads were all gravel."

According to "Cabin Fever's" chronology, the "stage" vehicles acquired a permanent parking garage in 1938. Officially labeled "Stage Station Building" on maps of Seeley Lake, it sat north of Rovero's Gas Station and Automobile Repair Facility, which is north of the present-day Rovero's store.

In the early 1980s, the building housing the stage vehicles was sold to Frank and Geri Netherton who turned it into an antique and miscellaneous retail store, though they retained the familiar Stage Station name. In 2012 Nancy and Mark Butcher bought the store and renamed it Blue River Station. They purposely retained the word "station" to help keep the building's history alive.

Nancy Butcher will point out to anyone who is interested the wooden floor of the old station, clearly distinct from the tile flooring of the addition added to the store by the Nethertons. She said customers come in and sometimes tell her bits and pieces about the old building's history and she always enjoys learning new details. So far, she has pieced together that what is now the store's bay window used to be the garage door opening. The driver would pull the car in and the mail would be sorted. Then one stage would go south to Bonner; the other would go north to Swan Lake.

Wolff verified that Orlie Coates' contract was from Bonner to Woodworth to Ovando to Seeley Lake. He also verified a second car transported the mail to Swan Lake.

Wolff and Butcher discussed what a remarkable feat it was to get the mail up to Swan Lake in those days. Wolff said, "There wasn't a road back then, it was just a trail. And you'd get to Salmon Prairie and that was just a swamp. They built a corduroy road [a road paved with logs laid side by side crosswise] across the swamp."

Butcher and Wolff are not the only ones interested in keeping the history of those early postal days alive. In recognition that those early "stages" also brought musicians and entertainers to perform at bars, ranches, resorts and private parties, Alpine Artisans (AAI) announced in their April 2002 newsletter, "In honor of the Seeley Stage and what it has meant to this area, because it is shared history [for both Swan and Seeley Lake valleys], and because it puns so easily and well, Alpine Artisans has decided to call their new performing art series 2 Valleys Stage."

Photo courtesy of UM, Mike Mansfield Library, Archives & Special Collections.

Seeley Lake Stage delivering mail to mailboxes along its route. Packages and other supplies are crammed onto the top.

The logo designed for 2 Valleys Stage (2VS) incorporates the picture of the original Model A Ford. In addition, the programs given out at each 2VS performance bear the logo on the front, while the back of the programs gives a short history of the old stage service, ending with the statement, "Like that Stage of long ago, AAI's 2 Valleys Stage is a vehicle for bringing a rich variety of entertainment, education, and enjoyment to our community."

Having finally gathered all the scattered pieces of the old Seeley Lake Model A "stage," the Wolff brothers plan to restore the vehicle to its original historical condition. Dick Wolff said he looks forward to showing it off in the annual Condon and Seeley Lake July 4th parades. But he said the restoration won't happen for a few years yet. The brothers have accumulated the parts, now they have to find the time.


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