GROWING UP MONTANA STYLE (excerpt from Knocking on Doors)

Peggy Erickson–Prompt Me! What was it like growing up in Montana?

 

In 1976 I embarked on my working career in a world of middle aged white men who seemed positively ancient to my 21-year-old, Japanese American eyes. No class or social group at college prepared me for this first job in agribusiness smack in the middle of the American Breadbasket. But I actually had a very solid background that prepared me to succeed. I had the luxury of unique and varied experiences that made me the person able to rise to mid-level management in a conservative Midwestern corporation.

I grew up in a small town in eastern Montana where the high school graduating class in 1972 was right around 120 kids. As a child, I remember long summer days, hot and dusty, riding my white Welsh/Shetland pony, Princess, around the family farm, creating adventures in my mind as I roamed the fields and climbed on farm equipment. I played alone a lot—as the youngest of eight kids, my nearest siblings were brothers, three and five years older than I. In kid years, that’s a lifetime. The galvanized Gleaner combine with front steps to the cab and back steps to the engine and gas tank became my playhouse, reimagined as a parlor, porch and kitchen. I learned early to catch my horse and saddle up so I’d have “transportation.” The 160-acre home place was my playground, but our farm was actually a conglomeration of several farms and acreages, at the time around 750-1000 acres. I’d ride Princess around the outbuildings and equipment of the home place and then years later I’d ride one of the saddle horses down to the Big Horn River to dream among the cottonwoods and willows.

Our home place was the hub of the farm business. The house was a large-for-its-day two story, with four bedrooms/two baths, home to eight kids and two parents. Near new in the 1940’s when my parents first moved in, my dad bought it from Roy Cool, the man who helped him get out of the Japanese internment camp and employed him to work for the Holly Sugar Corporation. It was a mile from town, but in the summer, we might as well have been 20 miles out. When the last day of school liberated my classmates, it was a prison sentence for me, stuck on the farm–I wouldn’t see my schoolmates until the following fall. It wasn’t that we didn’t get to town, but my summers were busy working or playing on the farm, not doing “town” things. We didn’t go to movies and organized sports like baseball didn’t exist for girls. I would write letters to town friends who lived less than a mile away. We were a big family and close as families go; but when I was six, my sisters’ ages ranged from 13-17 so we had little in common.

The early 1960’s was an era when going to college was the exception, not the rule. Most girls had limited options, like being a homemaker, school teacher, nurse. Most boys I knew had limited options, too—farmer, mechanic, truck driver, insurance salesman. Only one classmate, Diane, had a dad who was a lawyer, one boy’s dad worked at the bank.

But the tipping point was approaching: as the youngest of our family of eight, I observed my sisters as they became women. They came of age in the late 50s early 60s and followed the traditional path of marriage and family with careers of secretary, beautician and schoolteacher. I came of age in the turbulence of the late 60s hippy generation and emerging women’s movement—a totally different world.

My dad made it clear that the boys would inherit the farm, so college wasn’t even on the radar for Tom, my oldest brother. My middle brother, Harry, had a passion and talent for art. It was 1967 and he went to Eastern Montana College for a teaching degree in art, but he never taught. His one option led back to the farm. Robert, who graduated in 1969 and was three years my senior, got wrestling scholarship offers from several schools, ended up going to Montana State University in Bozeman for one wrestling season, then returned to the family farm. He gave me the best advice for college. He said, “Any average guy can pass college courses, you just have to study.” Advice he himself didn’t take, but I did.

This environment, as limited as it was, allowed me to flourish and dream. I was raised in the comfort of a prospering 1960s economy, within the confines of a traditional family structure, with an emerging women’s liberation movement. When I graduated in 1972, I had already experienced how to be independent, how to reach out beyond boundaries and that it was OK to be different.

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