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From Kansas to Montana--Biehl family finds its new home in Musselshell County

Lewistown News Argus
Sunday, December 15, 1991
Christmas Edition
by Mary Lou Sennett

     "Pop was a wanderer, I guess. Seems like we always moved a lot."

     Gladys Dixon, born in 1905 in Hornic, Iowa, remembers the sod shanty she lived in when her father, Fred Biehl, homesteaded in Kansas, even though he moved the family again when Gladys was about four.

     Gladys recently realized her family name is Mathison, since Fred was born when her mother was married to a man named Mathison. The five children she had when she married Andrew Biehl used the Biehl name.

     From Kansas, the family moved to a rented farm near Geddes, S.D. When Gladys was six, Fred brought the family to Montana in a covered wagon.

     "There were Mom and Pop, me, Glenn and Alice in the wagon," Gladys recalled. "Alice was just a baby, but Glenn and I thought it was fun. I don't remember that it seemed like too long a trip.

     "We traveled by ourselves and cooked over campfires every night. The strongest memory I have of the whole trip is Pop eating some bad liver one night and getting real sick."

      Fred made a living in Iowa by using his thrashing rake to harvest and thrash for other farmers. Gladys remembered him as a man who worked hard to provide for his family and who wasn't afraid to move to new country if he thought it meant a chance to make a better living.

     "When we lived in Kansas," she said, "Grandpa Biehl and Pop's youngest brother and sister lived with us. I think there must have been a bunkhouse, because, although the sod shanty was fixed up really nice, it couldn't have been too big.

     "In South Dakota," she continued, "we got dried out. There just wasn't enough rain for the crops when we were there, so Pop moved us in the covered wagon to Moore."

      Fred had his big steam engine shipped to Montana by train and when he got to Moore, he used it to plow land for other people: Gladys' mother, Ethel, often went along with a "cook car," where she would cook meals for the men working the fields.

     "Back in Kansas, I was in a cook car that was picked up and turned over in a tornado," Gladys said. "I must have been younger than four, but I can remember that. I got a terrific hit on the head."

     While living in Moore, Fred rented a big ranch, the Bronger place, near Ross Fork.

     "There were springs, trees and a beautiful pond. We had a wonderful spring house where we kept the milk and butter cool. Pop made a fortune there, but for some reason he felt he had to move again," Gladys said.

     "Folks told him not to move to the Musselshell country, but he was determined. He built a beautiful place there. I remember when they dynamited for the cistern. That old cistern's all that's left of the place. They told him there wasn't enough water, and there wasn't. He went broke and we moved back to Ross Fork and rented the Mahoney ranch ."

     When the family lived on the Musselshell, Gladys "adopted" a young coyote that some men gave her. "That coyote loved me," she said. "She followed me when I was out on my horse. One time an eagle got her down and cut her all up. She trusted me enough to let me carry her home on my horse."

     One day when Gladys was at school, one of the hired hands on the ranch shot her pet.

     "He said she'd gotten in the henhouse," Gladys said. "I never forgave him for that."

     Being allowed to go to school was a battle for Gladys and her sisters.

     "Pop didn't hold with having girls get educated," she said. "He said they just got married, anyway. And mom wanted us at home to help her with the work. She thought that was lots more important than school." But Gladys managed to attend school off and on, graduating from eighth grade and finishing about a year of high school.

     During these years of being on the move, the Biehl family continued to grow. Emma and Clarence were born on the ranch near Ross Fork and Fred, Lee, Bryce, Ray and Donald were born on the Musselshell.

     The last three boys died young, but the others grew up, married and had families.

     Glenn married Margaret Frood; Alice married Howard Tilzey, and Emma married Pat McGuire. After he died, she later married John Blazicevich.

     Clarence married Betty Atwater; Fred married Stella Shoemaker and Lee married Louella Corey. The families continued to live in Central Montana.

     In 1925, Gladys married Frank Dixon, whom she'd known for years.

     He and his family had moved to the Musselshell from Kansas and lived five miles from the Biehls.

     "I was about 20," Gladys said. "I'd known Frank about five years, ever since he'd come home from the Army. We were just friends, but gradually began dating.

     "We had a lot of fun doing simple things in those days. We went to the country dances and danced all night. Whole families would pack lunches and meet at the schoolhouse."

     For the first years of their marriage, the Dixons lived in a small house Gladys called a "bungelow" on her parents' place. Frank, a mechanic, worked on engines for people and helped his father-in-law with his machines engines, which were now gas.

     In 1933, the Dixons moved to Lewistown with their infant daughter, Muriel, and bought a house for $95 that they lived in for seven years. Frank got a "regular job with the county" and worked as a mechanic in the county shop until he retired.

     During those years, two more daughters, Anna (who later married Dan Mikulak from New York) and Ruth (who later married Ernie Hruska from Lewistown), were born. The Dixons had lost their first two children, both sons, as infants.

     Ruth remembers growing up in Lewistown in the 1930s and '40s.

     "I liked to go to Jacobs store. It was a clothing store that had a long pulley with a basket. You'd buy something and they'd send it up to the balcony in the basket to be wrapped and for the receipt to be written and then they'd send it down. I always used to rig up something like it at home.

     "The Power store, where Anthony's is now, had tubes that the clerk would put your money in to send it to the bookkeeping department. They were like the tubes banks use now for drive-up banking."

     Frank was not only a mechanic, but enjoyed working with wood and made toys and doll houses for his daughters. One, an intricate log cabin, is now played with by his great-grandchildren.

     Ruth remembers the war years, too.

     "We didn't have much, but nobody did," she said. "My biggest concern was that sugar was rationed and we only got a thin layer of frosting on our birthday cakes. When the war was over, Mom put about an inch of frosting on the cakes and we just loved that. She was a good cook and we always had good things to eat. She worked and cooked and hooked rugs out of old rags.

     "Dad resoled our shoes during the war. I loved watching him cut the leather to fit and tacking it to our shoes. They took us camping and fishing and we never felt that we were missing out on anything."

     Gladys' love for animals began in childhood, although the coyote was really the only pet she was ever allowed. After she was married, there were dogs and many cats. Even now, she provides a home for several cats, most of them quite elderly, who came to her as strays.

     Gladys, as the oldest in a large family that valued girls for how much work they could do, always worked hard around the house and ranch. Even after she was married, she would go back to the Biehl's to help her younger sisters clean house. She also helped them afford books and clothes so they could go to school, since her parents' priorities precluded helping girls get any schooling.

     She began working outside the home to help pay for dental work.

     "When the girls were in high school, I had to have all my teeth pulled," Gladys said. "I remember it cost $50 a tooth. So I got a job cleaning houses to pay the dentist. After I got the dentist paid off, it was kind of nice to have that extra money and I liked working, so I just kept on. I cleaned for some families for 18 or 19 years.

     "When I first started cleaning, there were only me and one other woman doing it," she remembered. "We had all the work we wanted. I was the cleaning person for Rahn's grocery store for seven years. Frank would come and help me clean it."

     After about 20 years of cleaning, Gladys broke her arm and had to quit working.

     "But when it healed, I went back to work," she said. "I was still cleaning houses m my 70s. I guess I just liked to work. The girls were gone and I didn't like to sit around."

     Even at 86, Gladys doesn't like to "sit around." She's been busy this Christmas making batch after batch of Christmas cookies for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

     "It's good to work as much as you can," she said. "You'll get old if you just sit around not doing anything." 

Copyright 1998-2006 - Ann Kramlich and Betty Distad - All Rights Reserved

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