10,000 Acres Of Family History In Glendive, Montana

On the Svenvold farm

After 19 years together, my husband took me to his father’s childhood home on a farm outside of Glendive, Montana and I met more Svenvolds than I knew existed—cousins and second cousins and cousins once and twice removed.  I’m rich with in-laws I didn’t know I had.  Their grandfather, Rasmus, came from Norway at the end of the 19th century.  He bought a cattle brand at auction to discover there were some 2000 cattle.  In 1909, to take advantage of the Homestead Act he sold the cattle brand and became a rich man.  He didn’t need to farm, so he didn’t.  A gentleman farmer was he. With his cash, he built a state of the art farm house with electricity and running water, married a Norwegian girl from an adjacent farm. Her name was Sandra Waag and she came from Norway to take care of her brother, Ingvald.

The remains of Ingvald’s homestead

Sandra and Rasmus had four boys.  My husband’s father, Harold, was one of those boys.  Some years later, quite ill, a traveling preacher swindled Rasmus for everything but the farm.  Rasmus and his sons never went to church again.  His youngest son, Raleigh, started farming the land to make ends meet, planting high protein wheat as his other brothers went off to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Raleigh and his wife had six children, five boys and a girl.  All of those children were in Glendive this July to celebrate their mother’s 90th birthday.

Some of the Svenvold men

As it happened, my grandmother came to Glendive when she was 6 years old, in 1910.  She came with her little sister and my great grandmother, Glenna.

Glenna was fleeing her husband who had, as my grandmother liked to tell me, “a wandering eye for women.”  In Montana, she became an itinerant school teacher, traveling wherever need led.  There was a lot of need.  Rural one room school houses dotted the landscape and school teachers lasted only briefly. Glenna got schools up and running and then moved on to the next hardship post.

Upper Seven Mile School

What remains inside the Upper Seven Mile School

She left her young daughters in town to fend for themselves.  The landscape hasn’t much changed since Rasmus and Glenna were alive — ravines and gullies, mesas like towers all draped in green.  The Svenvold farm is on a table that sits high above the carved land, over fifteen square miles of wheat and cattle, spreading out like an ocean—one gorgeous farm house, 100 years old, in the middle of it all in which my husband’s father was raised.  I never knew him.  He died before I met his son.  Surrounded by Svenvold men, the highest concentration of them I have ever or ever will encounter, welcoming and warm and loving, I felt I met Mark’s Dad.  I feel I know him now.  Out there in the midst of all this it occurred to both my husband and me how once long ago in 1910 we were both there in our grandparents.  Our daughter said to us, “I have an idea.  Write a novel in which Rasmus and Glenna meet. It could have happened that way. They meet, you know,” and she winked.

She’s Not Afraid

There’s a bull in this picture.  Can you see it?

One bull for about 25 cows.  The bull here is just left of center, the biggest beast in the picture.  His job happens in the summer months.  He can tell a cow is fertile by smelling her pee, literally putting his nose to her.  In November the vet comes to do pregnancy checks.  If a cow isn’t pregnant she’s sent off to McDonald’s.  Ranchers do not eat veal and a child on a ranch learns everything she needs to know about the birds and the bees by the time she’s five or six.

Livia Svenvold McPhee on the Svenvold cattle ranch in Bloomfield outside of Glendive, Montana.  Summer 2011.


Air is water’s ghost, flowing, like water, through its seasons. In the spring, as every child in grade school knows, the northern hemisphere of the earth is tipped toward the sun, and the jet stream, that narrowest and swiftest channel of the river moving at speed aloft, drops southward, in a grand lasso, through Canada into the United States. A cold and dry air mass that has been hovering over the polar cap all winter thus barrels across the country. It would drop as far south as Texas and Louisiana, as it sometimes does, but for an epic collision with the only thing on earth that can stop it: the Maritime tropical air mass thrusting north from the Gulf of Mexico. To the ensuing windswirl, and to the water metaphor that helps describe it, a different–and decidedly mixed–metaphor adheres: as air masses advance and clash and retreat like armies, and then advance and clash again across shifting fronts and flanking lines through the months of April, May, and June.
The land that lies beneath these colliding air masses is home to more violent weather than any place else on the planet: on average, 10,000 severe thunderstorms sweep over the continental United States annually, bringing with them 5,000 floods and 1,000 tornadoes. While tornadoes occur everywhere in the world, fully three-quarters of them strike the United States over a region that encompasses all of the mid-west, most of the east coast, and nearly all of the south. Some maps delimit a region of greatest tornado frequency along an area beginning in South Dakota and extending southward to include most of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and much of Texas—the legendary region of Tornado Alley. But there are several Tornado Alleys, perhaps the most significant being the big, right-hand turn at Oklahomathat reaches eastward through Arkansas, Mississippi, and much of Alabama. If these two alleyways were combined, from the Dakotas to Alabama, they would form a giant, listing L, a soaked sock. Distinctions can and will be made among states about their indigenous features, even about tornadoes, a sort of ill wind boosterism that ranks Texas first in the sheer number of tornadoes, Kansas first in the number of that rarest sort of tornado, the F5, from the Fujita scale of magnitude, with 16 such monstrous tornadoes hitting Kansas over the last fifty years. Then there is the matter of the Palm Sunday Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974, the biggest outbreak of its kind in recorded history, that unleashed 147 tornadoes across 12 states. So prolific were the storms that at one point there were as many as fifteen different tornadoes on the ground simultaneously. Although most did relatively little damage, the super outbreak produced six F5 category tornadoes, two of which had damage paths in excess of a hundred miles. The F4 tornado that swept through Monticello, Indiana, had the longest damage path at 121 miles. This calamitous event, an historical and statistical anomaly in the extreme, is liable, in the manner of the proverbial five hundred pound movie executive, to draw attention away from a seasonal battle that rages no where else with greater apocalyptic fury than in the prairie state of Oklahoma. “Threat maps,” estimating tornado probability invariably place Oklahoma in the center of an oblate zone of concentric rings with Oklahoma City and its surrounding counties forming a bull’s eye. And indeed, more violent tornadoes of magnitude F4 or higher strike Oklahoma than anywhere else on earth—nearly a hundred in the last fifty years. Oklahoma City has been hit more than any city anywhere–112 times by tornadoes in the last hundred years, 17 of those involving two or more tornadoes striking on the same day.
Yet these statistics, of course, are misleading. Most Oklahoman’s live their lives, growing up, marrying, raising children, growing old, passing through life’s stages, its weeks, months, years, and decades–time lived on the human scale–without ever seeing a tornado first hand. Fewer still are the number of people who are directly affected by the destruction of a tornado. The cycles of tornado occurrence and recurrence are played out on a time scale quite beyond the human frame of reference. For each spot on the Oklahoma prairie, a thousand years might pass between one tornado strike and the next, and yet, statistically—relative to other geographical areas—climatologists who study the matter would consider the rate of one-tornado-per-thousand years a veritable tornadic rush hour. Against the backdrop of statistical recurrence, entire generations come and go between tornado strikes, the memory of their destruction ebbing, receding into the historical vanishing point.

(If you want to understand more about the violent weather the rips across the south, read Big Weather. Written by Mark Svenvold, poet, nonfiction writer, my husband.)

On The Wing Of An Airplane


About once a week a stranger visits my site by googling “girls in patent leather boots.”  I don’t want to know what he is hoping to find, but on his quest he stumbles upon my sister and me.  As far as as I can remember I have never written a post about or used the term “patent leather boots.” So be it.  Now I am.  As a little girl I wanted white patent leather boots so badly I wrote it on my Christmas list for three years in a row.  (My parents searched and searched, but could not find them in a child’s size.)  Jenny had black patent leather boots, therefore I wanted white — the same but different, maybe even better.  In this picture, I’m wearing white knee socks.  From a distance, I hoped, they looked like leather.  We’re standing on the wing of my mother’s divorce lawyer’s airplane.  His name was Henry Hill and he used to fly over our house upside down just for fun.  “Oh there’s Henry,” Mom would say, rushing out to the deck, looking up at the sky.  And there he was, swooping all around, flirting with my mother even though both were involved with others.  The plane would disappear, but before long he’d show up with a girl on his arm for a dip in the steamy indoor swimming pool, the water so hot it wrinkled your skin, underwater speakers playing Neil Young and Bob Dylan — the little kids (there were ten of us in all) told to stay out because it was “adult time” in the pool.  In the summers, Henry would fly us up to Maine to dig clams for an afternoon. Here, in the picture, we’re near Prout’s Neck.  I have no idea what we’re staring at, but I love our contrasting expressions: Jenny is a little skeptical, mouth pinched closed, hoping, though, to be disproven; I’m a little in awe, a bit afraid.  I can feel the cool salt air, smell it mixed with pine.  We don’t have pierced ears yet and last year’s dresses are more fashionable now because we’ve grown taller.  Our mother has tied bows at the end of our braids.  I’m clutching Juicy Fruit.  Even so, with those boots and the desire for another pair, the adventures having already begun, jetting around with a divorce lawyer, we’re reaching forward toward the adult world.

And here we are.  Almost 40 years have passed.  The divorce lawyer has died.  Jenny has stopped getting older.  (Her birthdays ended when she turned 37.  It’s a neat trick.)  Skeptical, hopeful, in awe, a little bit afraid, many adventures, Jenny still by my side.

Jenny McPhee

Rainbow Trout Caught With A Willow Switch Rod

Wildhorse Creek, Idaho

Bob Griswold, handsomest cowboy in the Sawtooth’s, cut a willow branch with a knife, tied on some line and a hook, placed a bright red salmon egg on the end of the hook and let Livia drop it in Wildhorse Creek, in a pool close to the bank.  She pulled out three trout.  Bob made a campfire and set up a cast iron pan at the edge of it, on some rocks.  Livia, bitten, went back with her willow switch rod to catch another and she did, immediately.  Alone, she wasn’t sure what to do with the fish as it flopped about on the bank.  Another friend, Matt, showed her what to do, and then gave a lesson in gutting the fish.  Livia cleaned her own.  Others caught a river char, and Leandro McPhee, on his tenth birthday, caught the longest trout of all.  On a sunny bank of a creek in a valley of the Sawtooth’s, we ate butter fried fish with lemon.  I thought of my grandmother 100 years ago, a six year old, in Montana, in the wilderness, fishing with nothing more than a switch, catching dinner for her mother and little sister — in what was then, for them, with no money and little food, something of a necessity.

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