Yaak community pitches in to save local landmark
The Federal Building mid-restoration. Photo courtesy Shirley Karuzas.
Restored Federal Building
Crash Karuzas and Bruce Sagen stand in front of the restored Federal Building. Photo courtesy Shirley Karuzas.
by Shirley Karuzas, for the Kootenai ValleyRecord
March 18, 2008
We went to the Troy post office all those years ago to find out what our new address would be. After explaining where our new home was and what roads we had to drive to get to it, we were awarded with our new address, Route 1, and told to put our box in the Federal Building. The post office clerk would let Ruby know that she had another box on her route.
The Federal Building was a 13- by 15-foot log building, a bent hasp for a door latch, windows with no glass, a rickety table and three other mail boxes. At three quarters of a mile away, we lived closest to the end- of-the-route mail building; the other customers drove about nine miles to pick up their mail.
When we put our box in the Federal Building, Ruby Garrett had been delivering mail in the Yaak for nearly 20 years. At a time when loggers, log trucks and civilians all ran CB radios to call out our mile markers so we could make way for oncoming traffic, Ruby, in her old pickup, drove as if she owned the road. We all, loaded log trucks to horseback riders, looked out for her and got out of the way.
The door to the Federal Building was hand-hewn and about three inches thick, the heavy door sagged on old iron hinges and in the winter, as the door jamb swelled, the door got to the point where it only opened about a foot and a half. Returning from work one day with the chain saw in the truck, my husband, Crash, decided to do us all a favor and trim the bottom off the door. Several weeks later when he ran into Ruby, he asked her what she thought of his improvement.
“Are you the so and so that did that?” she said. “I had my arms full of packages, I got right up to the door and leaned my hip against it and gave a good strong shove – I went flying into the building and packages scattered around me on the floor.”
Mail delivery was three days a week, then five days a week. Ruby retired and we all got assigned new addresses with numbers and road names. Mail delivery increased to six days a week and the road was widened and paved. Nobody needed CB radios, new neighbors moved in, and more mail boxes stacked up in the Federal Building.
Jim Calvi has done extensive research on the history and settlement of the Yaak Valley. He reports that from the 1910 settlement of the upper Yaak until the 1925 completion of a road through the Yaak Valley over Dodge Summit and into Rexford, the residents of the upper Yaak received their mail from Gateway, a town located on the Kootenai River near the Canadian border. Neighbors would pick up mail when making supply runs to Gateway and, for a brief period of time from 1914 to 1917, mail was brought from Gateway and distributed from a post office located at the Weber ranch near the Upper Ford. With the completion of the Yaak Road, mail delivery to the upper Yaak commenced from Troy, via the post office at the Betzer homestead near the present community of Yaak.
The Federal Building was constructed by early homesteader Gus Schultz between 1922 and 1926. It carries Schultz’s distinctive log notching style. The building originally had a wood stove so that residents could keep warm while waiting for the once a week mail delivery. Although, according to one of Calvi’s sources Alma Phillips, “most of the time, we would congregate at Speed’s, especially when Warren Wallace was carrying the mail as he ate his lunch there… or we would go in and visit with Sam Runyan when he was living just behind the Federal Building.”
There is an abiding myth that the Federal Building was once a stage stop on a route from Leonia, on the Kootenai River near the Idaho boarder, to Gateway. While I cannot confirm this myth, the early mail carriers would pick up supplies and groceries for local people and deliver them along with the mail. Dennis Welch remembers his father, V.R. “Duke” Welch who delivered mail to the Yaak from the late 1940s until his accident with a logging truck on Stonechest grade in 1959. Welch recalls that when his dad began the Yaak route, he had to get a surplus Dodge Power Wagon to negotiate the springtime lake, bog and creek that passed for the Upper Ford Road, the access to the Federal Building. Duke Welch would always pick up groceries or supplies; “the customers left a list and money and Dad would do the shopping”.
The ceiling and walls of the Federal Building were covered with cardboard, the preferred, or perhaps just the most available, insulation of the early homesteaders. The roof was shingled with larch shakes, the flooring was rough-cut one inch boards which, by the 1980s, had a few soft spots. The building provided cozy shelter for various rodents, most objectionably pack rats and skunks. Trees had grown up tightly around the building and it had settled so completely into its site that it looked and felt like it had sprouted on the spot and grown there like a mushroom.
On a dreary rainy day in the late summer of 2005 Crash met Dan, one of the neighbors, at the mail building. Due to the weather, their attention was drawn to the problem of the rotten shake roof and subsequent serious leaks which would soon destroy the building. Dan suggested, “this winter when we have some time, let’s get together and slap some tin up there to keep things dry.”
Crash mentioned the plan in passing to the county road crew who were working at the time on the ongoing improvement of the Upper Ford road. Bruce Sagen, from the county crew, considered the repair of the roof of the Federal Building. As the plow driver for the upper Yaak, he had watched as this unique building deteriorated. In its current location the mail building created a hazard. Residents stopped in the road on the off ramp of a blind bridge to check their mail. In the winter the problem was where to put the snow in this congested place so the mail lady and residents could park and turn around.
After a few more roadside meetings between Bruce and Crash, a plan was hatched to renovate the building, move it several feet back from the road edge and clear a parking area complete with hitching rail. The boss of the Troy road crew, Ron Downey, took the plan to Commissioner John Konzen, who approved the donation of labor and equipment from the road crew and funding for materials for the renovation.
During slack time that fall, the county crew cleared and leveled the building site and parking area. In the shop they built a foundation out of old bridge timbers, floored it, oiled it for a long winter, installed it at the new site and covered it with the ubiquitous blue tarp. The following spring, when the snow was gone and the roads too soft to begin summer work, the reconstruction began.
Planning and coordination fell to Crash. He met with Betty, the mail lady, and discussed possibilities for continuing mail service while the construction was in progress. The solution was to park our farm wagon at the site and put everyone’s mail boxes on it. The following Monday, with Dave and Terry from the county crew, removal of the old shake roof began.
The renovation of a log building is similar to building with Lincoln Logs, except each notch is an individual and only fits with its original mate, and a piece of heavy machinery is required for the game. All the logs, purlins and gable bracing were labeled and numbered. Crash evaluated the relative soundness of each log and replaced three of the lower logs. On the basis of soundness alone, a few more logs should have been replaced but they had initials, pencil notations and other historic graffiti, so they were retained.
The deconstruction of this local landmark created a lively interest in the neighborhood and several people stopped to make sure that the building was not slated for demolition. Many neighbors pitched in with materials. When the shakes came up short to finish the traditional two layer larch shake roof, Crash grabbed some salvaged from the renovation of one of the Schultz homestead cabins. When the chinking ran out several neighbors donated the chinking left from their own building projects.
Two neighbors in particular added to the final completion of the renovation. Colin built a rustic set of log steps at the entrance and became the most popular builder on the project, as everyone appreciated the security of steps over the slippery slope that provided entrance to the old building. Bob Thomas, with the help of Jed White, located, refurbished and installed the antique door and windows.
The Federal Building – a bit of whimsy, a gift of humor from our neighbors before us. While the Federal Building no longer shelters homesteaders waiting for a weekly mail delivery, it is a reminder of a time when trips to town were rare and the mail might include news from far distant family or a piece of window pane or some sugar or flour. The Federal Building is still the end of the mail route and still brings neighbors together in chance meetings. The Federal Building brought the community together to preserve a bit of history.
Editor’s Note: See the March 17, 2008 edition of the Kootenai Valley Record for the printed version of this story. The Kootenai Valley Record publishes once a week, on Monday, in Libby, Montana. They are a locally owned community newspaper, located at 403 Mineral Avenue in Libby. For in-county and out-of-county subscription information, call 406-293-2424, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.