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
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
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