Stagecoach Mary and Cowboy Eddy
When I was a teenager, I got a job chauffeuring an old cowboy named Eddy Lemire. He had had a few accidents in town, and his eyes were bad, so the judge took his driver’s license. He needed rides to the store, to the cattle auctions, and on occasion to the local bars to look for his son Larry who sometimes took the truck and went on a drunken bender. I would get out of school and walk in the door and the phone would ring, and Eddy would say, “I need to go to town.”
He had an old maroon Chrysler and he would drive it to the gate. I would open the gate and get in the front seat, drive though, close the gate, jump in the front seat again and head to town.
Eddy was the last of the real Montana cowboys, or at least I thought so. He didn’t think of himself as a cowboy though, or a rancher. He was a cattle buyer. He bought cows at the auction and the semi would drop them off at his place, and they would wander in his fields across from my folks’ house and eat grass, and over the months he would, “Fatten ‘em up!” Then the semi would come, take them back to the auction and he would sell them, for a profit.
Eddy had been a rodeo champ and had rode bulls in Madison Square Garden in New York when he was young. We had lots of long talks, and he told me many stories about his life as we drove around Great Falls, going from bar to bar, looking for Larry and the truck, mostly the truck. It was a red 1974 Ford 4-wheel drive and it was all beat to Hell from cow work. Eddy had bought it new off the Bison Ford showroom floor and he loved it. He wanted it and he needed it, because even though I drove him to town and to the store, he still drove around on his property working cows.
He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and put one to his lips, gesturing to me with the pack, and a questioning nod. He offered me one, as he always did, and I declined, like I always did. “Were your folk pioneers Eddy?” I asked. Eddy laughed as he exhaled. A rattling cough followed, an old hard cough you could feel. Then he said, “I was an orphan. I didn’t know my folks. I grew up on St. Peters Mission.
“Where is that?” I asked. “Outside of Cascade about 10 miles,” he said. “What was it like growing up there?” I asked.
“Fine! It was good. Lots of other kids. We were a long way from town, and that’s where I learned about cows and horses, working at the mission. It’s up at the foot of the mountains on the Rocky Mountain Front. Just the kids and the cows and the horses and the nuns!” He laughed again, followed by another cough. “We never saw anybody, anybody except the mail lady. She came every few days, and stayed the night when the weather was bad. She was something else. She was big, she smoked cigars, she dressed like a man and she was as black as a stovepipe!” He laughed again, and again he coughed.
“They say she cussed like a sailor, but she didn’t do it around the kids, or at least I never heard her.” Eddy sat quiet for a moment as the memories rolled back in his mind. “She loved to scare us, tease us really, but she was just playing. The little ones were told she would eat you if your bad, and sometimes she made us believers. They called her Stagecoach Mary because she used a stagecoach to deliver mail. She brought supplies from the train in Cascade and delivered them to the mission. She always made it, no matter what the weather was like. One Christmas we had a blizzard and she was late. The nuns were expecting her. The road was drifting in and we all were worried. After supper, and long after dark we heard her shouting outside. She made it! She had gotten stuck in a snow drift and had to abandon the stagecoach. She put the mail in her backpack and snowshoed the rest of the way to the mission. She brought us peanuts, for all the kids. We got a big bag of peanuts for Christmas. It wasn’t much but it was the best peanuts I ever had. Peanuts don’t taste like that anymore.” Eddy looked out the window.
“What ever happen to her?” I asked.
“She stopped bringing the mail when I was about 9. She was old. She retired. She lived in Cascade until she died. Everybody knew her. She was a good lady.”
The St. Peters Mission is located 10 and a half miles outside of Cascade down the Old Mission Road. It was established in 1865 to bring Christianity to the Blackfeet Indians. It is a pleasant road in the summer, in a pickup, but wagon travel in winter must have been a nightmare. Along the way you pass Square Butte and not one but two nuclear missile silos. When you reach the mission, what is left is the remains of an old stone church, some old cabins and barns and a cemetery on top of the hill and a sign marking the place and giving a brief history.
Mary Fields was born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee in 1832. In 1895 she became the first African-American female mail carrier in the United States. She was awarded a rural mail contract to deliver mail and goods from Cascade, Montana to the St. Peters Mission. She was given the job because of her skill and speed and hitching up a team of horses.
Mary first came to Montana because her friend Mother Superior Amadeus had been sent there. Mother Amadeus had gotten sick and Mary came from Ohio to care for her. She never left Montana again. She worked at the Mission doing maintenance and gardening until she got in an argument one day with a white male janitor. They both pulled guns on each other. After the incident the Bishop from Great Falls demanded Mary leave the mission. She later got a job delivering the mission’s mail.
She was known for outrageous behavior, smoking cigars, drinking, cussing, having gunfights and fistfights with men, wearing men’s clothing and acting in general like she didn’t give a damn what you think! She was six feet tall. There are amazing tales of her fighting off bandits or packs of wolves on her mail route as well as stories of her drinking in bars with men in a time when you just didn’t do that. The stories of her toughness change in her later years. She babysat many Cascade children and loved to tend to the flowers in her garden. She also loved baseball and helped the local team mending their uniforms and taking care of the bats and equipment.
She was beloved in Cascade and when her health was failing, the town mayor brought her to the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, Montana where she lingered until she died. They buried her in Cascade at the Hillside Cemetery along her mail route.
Mary was 63 when she took on her mail route. A lot can happen in a person’s life in that many years. I can’t imagine how tough her life must have been up to that point. One thing is clear. By the time she arrived in Montana she was defiant, unapologetic and tough as nails, and she didn’t give a, ‘Good God damn!’ what anybody thought about the way she dressed or talked or acted.
In 1959, Montana born movie star Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony Magazine about Mary Fields. He said of her, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw breath, or a .38.”
I came home from school one day and I could see the flashing lights of an ambulance coming from Eddy’s house on the hilltop. I walked up the hill to see what was going on. I got there just in time to see them carry old Eddy away.
I was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral, though my dad did the actual heavy lifting. As I sat and listened to the sermon, I smiled to myself. I started to laugh. I was imagining Eddy and Mary up in Heaven eating peanuts. Later, outside, standing with a group of cowboys, I did something I shouldn’t have. I had my first cigarette.
Merle Travis Peterson
The Merle Travis Band
Merle Travis Peterson is a writer, producer, musician, historian and former Johnny Cash tribute artist from Great Falls, Montana. He has appeared on national TV and has performed all over the United States.
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