Books, Bride Train (1870s), Climax (1988), Climax (contemporary), Climax Montana, General, Location, Research, Snippets, Tanner's Ford

Donny Frost explains tradition of sharing wives

Excerpt from The Merry Widow of Tanner’s Ford, which takes place in 1988. Donny Adams is helping Marci Meshevski with barn chores. It’s the morning after she moved in with Simon MacDougal to care for him due to his broken leg. Cover of The Merry Widow of Tanner's Ford

“Few men are suited to share their wife with a brother, cousin, or close friend,” said Donny. He didn’t stop working, or look at her. “But ranchers in Tanner’s Ford, and a few others, have been doing it for generations. It started in 1870 after the war ended and gold was discovered. All sorts of men headed west for gold, land, or just to escape bad memories. That left many women in the East without a chance for a husband, especially ones with education or an attitude. Back then were at least 300 single men for every available woman in Montana Territory, so a Bride Train was set up to haul those unmarried women here.”

He caught her eye and grinned. “Mostly, the women who rode that train didn’t fit Eastern society. They refused the husband their father chose, were too outspoken to be acceptable, were too tall, or not pretty enough. They figured they had a better chance of finding a husband and gaining a family out here, so hopped on the train. The ones who came to Tanner’s Ford married three men each.”

1870s housework

Cleaning up after breakfast, 1870s: Nevada City living history museum (photo by Reece Butler)

“Nobody objected?”

“The aunts wouldn’t let us kids see those diaries, but from the way they blushed when anyone asked, I figure they were happy. Most of them had a bunch of children.”

His grin faded to serious. He set his fork down again. She stopped as well.

“You have to understand, Marci, that there was a lot of danger back then. Everything was done by men, women, children, or animals.”

“The more people, the more workers,” she said.

“Exactly. Having three men share the ranch and family worked well. If one of them died, there were two more to keep things going. Bad things could happen to widows left alone.”

“It makes sense the way you explain it.”

“The next generation dropped mostly to two husbands each, so it was three adults. It’s stayed that way since. If you grow up with two dads, and half the kids in school do as well, it’s normal to you. It’s just the new people coming in who look at us strange.” He winked. “Though there’s some outside women who don’t mind having two men love them. Aggie being one. We met her at college. She was a country girl at heart, but her family loved their tiny tenth-storey downtown apartment. We invited her to visit for a weekend, and, well, we’ve got four kids now.”

Right side of cabin, everything nearby for cooking. Nevada City

Right side of cabin, everything nearby for cooking. Nevada City

She smiled in reaction to his slight flush. “If Keith’s anything like you, Aggie made a smart decision. I lived the so-called good life in the city. I had the clothes, the house, and the wealthy, self-important husband who ignored me unless I was convenient to him.”

“You had the trappings of a house, but none of the heart of a home.”

Marci slowly nodded. “I don’t think Ted had a heart. I was bored and unhappy, but trapped in a marriage I didn’t know how to escape. But he died, so now I’m free.”

Her mother got almost nothing from the men who’d left her pregnant and alone. But at least they’d had access to electricity, running water, heat, and warm clothes, unlike the pioneer women. Most people today didn’t have to work sixteen hours a day just to survive, though her mother did because she had too much pride to take charity. Their single-wide trailer wasn’t much bigger than the original MacDougal cabin, which was now Simon’s kitchen.

“Those women must have been strong to put up with three men while living in a small cabin, working dawn to dark,” she said.

“They were,” replied Donny. “Beth Elliott was the first. She married Trace, along with his twin brothers Simon and Jack, in 1871. Your Simon was real fond of her. She used to read him stories from her journals.” Donny chuckled. “We found out later she skipped parts because she didn’t want him to hear all the shenanigans she and the others got up to.”

Early morning view from MacDougal ranch, across the valley, photo by Reece Butler, 2010

Early morning view from MacDougal ranch, across the valley, photo by Reece Butler, 2010

“He’s not my Simon,” she muttered to herself as she put her hand on her back and stretched out.

His face suddenly appeared over the stall. He winked. “Maybe you’ll cuddle by the fireplace and take turns reading them out loud. Could be you’ll act out a few scenes as well. Great-Granny Elliott was wild.”

“You saw me in the kitchen!” she squeaked. She knew her face flamed. He waved it off.

“That table’s been used for generations to bring pleasure, both physical and food-wise. Just like the matching one at the Rocking E.” His slow smile reached his eyes. “I guess whatever you were up to this morning makes you an honorary member of the family.”

She groaned and covered her face.

“Don’t get all embarrassed, Marci. You were doing nothing that me, Keith, and Aggie haven’t done. Mind you, there ain’t much that the three of us haven’t tried at some time or another.” His chuckle sounded so kind that she had to look at him. Donny gave her another big wink.

“Beth Elliott enjoyed the body God gave her and didn’t hold back. ” heard a couple of my aunts giggling after reading about her taking all three husbands on a picnic at the Double Diamond’s hot spring. They must have been in their eighties but nothing can stop a determined woman, especially three men who’ve loved her for over fifty years.”

She heard the sound of his high-stacked wheelbarrow trundle away. Someone had actually stayed married that long, and still loved each other, physically and emotionally? Was there something in the water here?

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