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BESSIE KERLEE MONROE

    It was a mild autumn in the Bitter Root Valley that year. James Decatur Kerlee had purchased the rights to a claim in Tin Cup Canyon and had started "proving up" on the property by building a log cabin for his family, out buildings for the livestock, and digging ditches for irrigation of the fields and water for the cabin. Jim hoped the weather would hold because the windows for the cabin hadn't arrived from Missoula yet, and Mary, who was expecting their seventh child, had blankets hung in the empty window frames to keep the night away. It was September 1888, four months after the family had arrived in Montana from Arkansas.

     Bessie Myrtle Kerlee was born the next day, September 22, 1888. Neighbors from a nearby settlement came up to "midwife" the event, including the good Mrs. Darby, wife of the postmaster. There was no town of Darby when Bessie was born. The next year, an application for a post office came back disapproved because there was already a town of that name, so the postmaster wrote in his own name and the town has been Darby ever since.

     Bessie spent the first eight years of her life on the Tin Cup place, and to her, they were the best years of her life. Although it may not have been the best farm land or had the best location, it was beautiful and it provided all the things the family really needed. Here are some of her memories:
     "There were little patches of wild strawberries down the hill in the creek bottom. a tin cup could be filled in no time, even with our strawberry appetites having their way with part of the sweet fruit. Our mother or one of the big sisters would help us stem the berries and put sugar and cream into the dishes. Add bread and butter and it was a small feast."
     "My joy was great if I could be the first one out of bed in the August mornings to look for a yellow apple in the grass under the tree. There would sometimes be a half a dozen windfalls; and again, none. In the latter case, accidental shaking would bring a ripe apple down into the orchard grass."
     "There was a summer ritual of down-on-knees weeding of rows in the big onion patch that yielded for market as well as for home consumption. Homestead kids learn about weeds right early."
     "In midsummer, we children would carry baskets or big tin pails filled with fresh garden prizes to town, a half mile north, to sell to hotel people where dining rooms provided breakfast, dinner and supper to patrons."
     "Hands clasping silver and nickel coins, the next thing was the general store where the money would buy certain things like soap or coffee for the household."

     This passage from her poem "Home" must have been inspired by their Tin Cup home:

     "And down by the garden gate the spring house, no modern water pipes, but just the spring itself, bubbling from the earth, rock-walled and crystal clear. Deep crocks of creamy milk set about the earthy floor to cool. Wild fruit the children gathered from the woods on the shelf above the spring."

     In 1896, Bessie's parents traded their Tin Cup claim for another quarter section just north of Darby, straddling the county road. Jim and the older boys loaded the family's belongings, including the split rail fences, onto the wagon and hauled them down the canyon and up through Darby to their new ranch. By this time, four more children had been born, so it was a family of thirteen that descended on the town.

     A few years later, Jim and Mary donated a parcel of their land east of the road to the city for a cemetery. Mary named it "Lone Pine Cemetery" for the sentinel pine that stood there.

     The school house was so close to home that the children didn't even have to pack lunches. Bessie was the youngest member of the first graduating class in 1902. Despite her young age, she graduated second in her class, and then began tutoring even younger children, including those of Martin and Elton Bright.

     On December 24, 1907, a nineteen-year old Bessie married Roy Parks Monroe, a young forester. Her wedding was the first in Darby's Saint Thomas Church. Her marriage took her across the back woods of Montana and Idaho with her Forest Ranger husband, and as their family grew, she began writing to supplement their income. They were in Twin Bridges, Montana in 1918 when she got her first job as a correspondent for the Butte Miner newspaper.

     The world nearly ended for Bessie on August 27, 1920, when her husband, Roy Parks Monroe, died suddenly in Hamilton of a heart attack. To make matters worse, she was expecting their sixth child in February. Bessie went home and worked for the weekly Darby Dispatch for a time, but then in 1921, her father, Jim Kerlee, died of exposure in the Nez Perce Pass west of Darby. Bessie moved her family to Hamilton where she became the Bitter Root correspondent for such papers as the Missoulian, the Ravalli Republican, The Western News, the Spokane Spokesman Review, and the Great Falls Tribune. Along with her newspaper writing, she published many articles and poems.

     Bessie's daughter, Ada Monroe Zoske of Hamilton, remembers those days as a continual struggle, always just out of debt or just going back in debt again. They never had any extra, but they never went hungry, even during the Great Depression. But, Bessie had to work all the time to get by. Ada remembers one Christmas when her mother was absent all day covering a murder in Victor. The children fixed dinner and celebrated by themselves, and their mother didn't get home until late that night.

     Bessie taught all of her children to love books and music, and they were encouraged to sing and play instruments. In spite of all the hardships of being a single mother during the depression, all of her six children graduated from high school. "It was a hard struggle," Ada said, "but she was a good mother."

     B.K.Monroe was a tough reporter. Bob Gilluly, editor of a competing newspaper, remembers her as his toughest competition. Every morning when he went to work, his publisher would hand him a stack of Missoulian clippings written by B.K., things she had scooped them on. He would have to rewrite them for their paper a day late. "It was a humbling experience," said Gilluly. Gilluly and another reporter, Ralph Owings, soon met the formidable lady; the three often covering the biggest news stories together. Together they formed the Bitter Root Valley's first press club.

    Bessie was also active in community affairs. She was Secretary of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, a founding member of the Bitter Root Valley Historical Society, and was active in her church, St. Pauls Episcopal Church in Hamilton. B.K. Monroe racked up another "first" when she was named Montana's first "Woman of the Year" by the Montana Federation of Business and Professional Women in 1954. By this time, she had earned bylines in most of the major newspapers in Montana, and was known universally as "B.K." She didn't need a last name.

     Bessie was a prolific writer on Bitter Root Valley history, including many of the articles in Bitterroot Trails, a two-volume set published by the Bitterroot Valley Historical society. She also wrote poems, twenty of which were published in Badge of Honor, an anthology of American poetry. She was the only Montana author included. Her Bitter Root and Other Montana Verse went through five major printings. She was also featured in an article in Readers Digest magazine.

     B.K. became a staff regular on the Ravalli Republic in 1963, and began to write a regular column as well as covering news events. Her column, "B.K. Files," ran every Thursday for nearly a quarter of a century.

    Bessie Myrtle Kerlee Monroe died at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 19, 1986, a few weeks before her 99th birthday. Her daughters were at her side. She was to that time, the nation's oldest working journalist. She was buried in Lone Pine Cemetery beside her husband.

    B.K. always got her copy in on time and she met her last deadline. B.K. Files appeared as usual on Thursday along with her two-page obituary and tributes from her peers from around the west. When notified of her death, Montana Governor, Ted Schwinden, said, "Montana has lost a good neighbor."

     There is a less to be learned from every great story, and so it is with the life of B.K. Monroe. Her determination to provide for her family in the face of terrible adversity was true courage. And her courage turned disaster into triumph, even exceeding what would have been.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Laird Morgan, April 7, 1998