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A Conversation with Slim and June Woffenden

A Conversation with Slim and June Woffenden

This interview first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue. My motivation for visiting with the Woffendens was to query June about her father, Frank Baney. On my first visit we pretty much stuck to that topic, but then I decided that it would be well worthwhile to visit again and expand on what had been alluded to or passed over the first time. June is one of two children who Frank Baney had with Victoria Dunston, his second wife. He married her in 1924 after the death of his first wife Eva Mills two years earlier. June was born in 1928.

Trail: Explaining the number of times I’d come across references to Frank Baney in the old newspapers. “I find it remarkable the number of things that came his way; the various crimes. He always jumped right on it and the way I see it he was a capable man. When did he retire as sheriff?”

June: “1946. I was in Missoula at my first year in the university. I left for college from the courthouse and then at Christmas break because they were up in this house.”

“This house” refers to a house in the heights of west Eureka that was originally built by Elzeor Demers 99 years ago. Frank Baney bought it sometime in the 1930s and retired there in 1946 after having served as sheriff and very briefly a game warden in Lincoln County for nearly 40 years. Until then the Baney family lived in quarters that were part of the courthouse/jail complex in Libby.

Trail: “When did he die?”

June: “June of 1950. He got a blood clot in March and another one in June and that’s what killed him.”

Slim: “He was 69 years old when he died.”

Trail: “I recall reading about your father and mother taking care of some old friend of your dad’s by the name L. C. Duke. Is that where Duke (June’s younger brother) came by his name?”

June: “It was Charles Duke. Duke was named after him.”

Trail: “Do you remember any specific incidents while your dad was the sheriff?”

June: “Well, everybody trusted him and liked him. Of course it was just a story I heard about the bank robbers. The guy that robbed the Libby bank, the insurance offered him $100 if he told him where the stash was and the prisoner said, ‘If Frank Baney holds the hundred I’ll tell you.’ He took them to where the stash was and got his hundred. “We had a couple of kids in jail one time. They were from Chicago and they robbed Fewkes Store up here. They were shocked that some two-bit little county sheriff in a no-place town could get them with a sales slip or something they had for evidence and lock them up.”

Trail: “I was amazed in going through the cemetery records to read that your dad’s name was Frank Rock Baney. How appropriate is that?”

June: “I don’t think it really was (his name). I think it says ‘Frank R.’ on his tombstone.”

I took June at her word given that my information came from the cemetery records rather than the actual tombstone. She went on to explain that “Rock” was a family name on her mother’s side and it might have somehow come from that.

June: “He just picked the R because he thought it sounded more professional than just Frank Baney, ‘cause that’s all he knew. Baney left home at a very young age. He and my mom visited his stepmother in Bemidji, Minnesota and she told him he was named after the head honcho of Austria, Franz Joseph. But the R was just an R. One of the cousins did a genealogy thing and he put Rock. I asked him ‘Where did you get that?’ and he said ‘I don’t know I just heard it someplace.’ ”

Trail: “What kind of a man was he? I get from the pictures that he was rock solid. How tall was he?”

June: “I think he was about 5’ 10". I don’t think he was six feet. It looked like it with his hat on. He wore a hat all the time. Really good muscles. When we lived in the old jail Duke and I used to sit on the running board of our car and watch my dad pull himself up with rings and turn and come back down. And we always hoped he wouldn’t empty his pockets first and sometimes he didn’t and we would get a nickel or some pennies or something. But I can remember being awed by seeing him do that.”

Trail: “Did he have thick hands?”

June: “I think so. All that working with horses and stuff. Ranching.”

Trail: “When you say ranching – when did he have time to ranch?”

June: “He owned the Pine Grove (Ranch) for a long time. My folks thought they’d live there when he retired but they couldn’t get the electrical stuff to fix the house up on the Pine Grove Ranch (because of a post war shortage) so they moved into this house.”

Trail: “Did he work the ranch even before he retired?”

June: “Well he had somebody on it. Boots Coombs would help him. He wasn’t actively ranching. He had horses around.”

Slim: “I’ve heard stories about him when he was a young man riding to Kalispell for a dance.”

Trail: “What kind of a gun did he carry?”

June: “I don’t know. To Slim Do you know?”

Slim: “He had a .38 Special that had ‘Frank Baney, Sheriff’ engraved on it. I don’t know if that was the one he carried.”

June: “He never packed it in a holster that showed.”

Trail: “What kind of father was he?”

June: “He was great. A little bossy, I think.”

Trail: “What makes you say that?”

June: “Well one time there was a plane landed at Libby, an Army plane. They were having trouble and they landed. So then they brought in a bunch of engineers and made a runway for it to take off. So there were a lot of soldiers in town and I was probably a junior in high school and my friend and I thought we’d go downtown and see the soldiers. She came to pick me up and my dad said ‘You’re not going.’ So I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going.’ He had a forceful manner with other people but I never felt it and I’m sure Duke didn’t either. He spanked us on our birthday, one whop for each year. My mother was the disciplinarian in the family. But living in the courthouse was a different experience. It was built in ’36. We moved from the old jail into the court house. The sheriff’s quarters were in one end of the building.”

Trail: “What was different about that?”

June: “Well, you had to be quiet. There were offices all through the building, business being transacted. You couldn’t yell and carry on. We’d come up to our cabin Murray Creek right about where the fish hatchery is. That’s where we did our yelling. On Sunday’s Duke and I would go up in the courtroom and shoot little gliders out onto the lawn. Then we had to go and pick ‘em all up again, but that was fun.”

Trail: “So he was stern, but also tolerant?”

June: “Fair.”

Trail: “There was an incident where a guy was shot in a boxcar in Rexford. Your dad just happened to be on this end of the county. They put him on a train to Spokane and Sheriff Baney rode with him to Troy, questioning him. The guy subsequently died. Then Baney rode the train back to Rexford. There he learned that the suspect’s car had broken down on a bridge. He jumped in his Studebaker or Reo and flew down the road to Jennings and made the arrest. It amazes me the way he seemed to be all over the county.” See sidebar page.

June: “We think of that when we come back from Kalispell, where Lincoln County starts and then clear to Troy (and beyond). My word that’s a big area. And he was just all over the place.”

Trail: “I read about some guy in Stryker who was having mental problems and started threatening the section gang. Here comes Frank up from Libby. I don’t know if he rode the train or not. He rode the train a lot. I suppose he could hop any train he wanted.”

June: “You were talking about the courthouse and us living in it. Of course, for years nobody has lived in it, so when Slim and I moved back from Idaho – we were so excited to be back in Montana – we stopped in Libby on the way up here – this was in 1992 – to get a Montana drivers license. So we’re giving the information and I’m looking around and I said, ‘I used to live in this building.’ This girl looked at me and never made eye contact again. She talked to Slim and filled out the stuff like I was a non-person. Like I was clear nuts! Well no wonder she thought that way. Her whole lifetime it was an office building. It wasn’t living quarters. There wasn’t a kitchen. The folks’ bedroom was just beyond the door of the sheriff’s office.

“When the phone would ring Dad’d get up and get the phone. My bedroom was on the same floor. Duke had a bedroom down – in a cellblock actually – ‘cause there were two places for prisoners there. I finally got a downstairs bedroom. But we had a living room, a dining room and a kitchen.”

Trail: “Do you remember him getting called out a lot at night.”

June: “He got called a lot. He didn’t go out much. But people would call the sheriff and he would just bound out of bed to get the phone. The last year he was wearing out from it all. We’d hear the phone ring and then we’d hear “Aw hell!’ Then he’d go answer the phone. If they needed him off he’d go. An interesting life.

“We had a crazy drunken lady one time in the downstairs cellblock. She was just screaming day and night, “Let me out! Let me out!’ On and on and on. We were bothered by it and my mother said, ‘Well this is a safe place to be. Nobody breaks into a jail.’

“So my dad opened the outside door and said, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ And the lady said, ‘What are you in here for you old grey-haired somethin’?’ My dad said, ‘The same as you. Don’t make so much noise.’ So he shut the door and she started, ‘Let us out! Let us out!’ We laughed. Oh well, so much for that.”

Trail: “I read that he didn’t drink. Is that a fact?”

June: “No. He never touched it. He’d go into a bar and somebody would say, ‘Frank! Let me buy you a drink!’ He’d say: ‘What day is it? (You say) it’s Tuesday? Oh I never drink on Tuesday.’ ”

Trail: “Did he smoke?”

June: “No.”

Trail: “A very temperate man.”

June: “He liked to get with a bunch of guys and go hunting every year.”

Frank Baney and such friends as Boots Coombs, George McGlenn, Oscar Roholt, Perl Zook, Jim Broderick and Enos Campbell formed a loosely knit group known as the Friendly Sons of Rest. They built a cabin some distance up Grave Creek and went there to hunt each fall in the 1930s and 1940s. The cabin was destroyed by an avalanche in 1949, being vacant at the time. Enos Campbell was one of the oldest of oldtimers, riding through the Tobacco Plains country as a boy on his way to the gold diggings on Wild Horse Creek.

Trail: “Did you know Enos Campbell?”

June: “Uncle Enos. And Aunt Mary, his wife.”

As explained in prior issues, Uncle Enos and Aunt Mary were childless, but had surrogate nieces and nephews throughout the valley. But Enos and Frank were pretty tight. One of the fascinating things to me was the way the sheriff and Victoria Baney combined work with pleasure in delivering someone to Warm Springs State Hospital or to the penitentiary at Deer Lodge. I recounted one such incident to June where her parents dropped someone off at one of the institutions and then drove to an air show in Spokane.

June: “We never got to go to an air show when Duke and I went along. We’d go with them depending on the prisoner or the patient for Warm Springs. “Lots of times. My dad liked my mother to drive. She was a good driver. Well he liked to drive too and one lady was going to Warm Springs. Dad was driving, she was in the front seat and Duke and I and Mom were in the back seat. And she poked Dad with a hatpin. So he stopped the car and said to her, ‘We’re going to ride in the back. I’m going to sit with you and you’re not going to do that anymore.’

“And so Mama was driving and Duke and I were in the front. Boy, I was pretty scared – and quiet. She pulls into a gas station and a guy comes out, ‘Can I help you Lady?’ “And this voice from the back comes out, ‘She ain’t no lady!’ Anyway, Dad went on and delivered the dear soul to Warm Springs. And then we did that going to Deer Lodge too, but we always had to sit in the car. One time Slim and I went by Deer Lodge and they give tours of the old prison now. I said, ‘You know, I’d like to see what that looks like inside. I sat outside this gate for lots of times.’ ‘Cause it took quite a while. We’d get there at night and they’d call from the tower to open the door to let my dad and the prisoner in. And he’d be in there for quite a while. Then he’d come back and we’d get to go and have supper finally. It was quite a trip to Deer Lodge.”

Trail: “Did you ever talk to them?”

June: “No, we weren’t supposed to talk to them so we didn’t. They were the bad people.”

Trail: “Were they in cuffs?”

June: “No, we never went with anybody in hand cuffs. When he went on a train with a prisoner he put an Oregon boot on them so it wouldn’t show.”

Trail: “What’s an Oregon boot?”

June: “Well, it’s a metal thing that fastens on your foot. I don’t know what it weighs. Twenty pounds or something.”

Slim: “It was like a ball and chain only more subtle.”

Trail: “Did he ever suffer from the wound he received down here in the train yard?” (See The Trail, Spring 2003, Sheriff Baney Gunned Down)

June: “Oh I imagine. ‘The Mayo Clinic?’ Slim interjected. I can’t remember why he went to the Mayo Clinic. But they found a hole in his ribs. That (the shooting) was a lot of years ago. Eva (his first wife) was still alive ‘cause they called her and she came up on the train. Beryl Holgren wrote a book about my dad (‘Forty Years a Montana Law Enforcer’). My mother (Baney’s second wife) proof read it. Beryl wrote that Eva came up on the train walked into his room and the blood was running through the mattress onto the floor. Mother said that could not be so she (Holgren) changed it. “Dad respected everybody from the crooks to the governor.”

Trail: “Was he soft-spoken?”

June: “I think so. I don’t remember him raising his voice.”

Trail: “He impressed me as the kind of guy where a prudent man would see his strength. That’s what I see in pictures of him.”

Slim: “He had piercing eyes.” The man who would become Frank Baney’s son-in-law would notice such things.

June: “He was really a good shot. He’d go to turkey shoots and win three or four turkeys and come home with none for Mother ‘cause he gave them away to some poor guy that needed the turkey for his family.”

Trail: “Recreationally, did you go on picnics, camping?”

June: “To him recreation was buying pipe from a mine in Troy and having us go down and take it apart and take it to sell in Spokane. It was work.”

Slim: “Well you came up to Murray Creek a lot.”

June: “We came to Murray Creek, but not for picnics. We’d come to Murray Creek ‘cause Dad had to serve papers on somebody.”

Trail: “This pipe…”

June: “There was an old mine down by Troy. That’s where they bought the crib that I was in. My mother bought the furniture from the mine owner’s wife. There was pipe underground with metal connections. So we would dig them up and undo the connections and haul them off on a trailer behind the car. And Duke and I took turns going to help him. I’m sure we were not very much help. But we had a good time doing it.”

Trail: “So he was an enterprising man.”

June: “He was always busy doing something.”

Trail: “I wonder what kind of a salary he made.”

June: “I don’t know. $150 a month, maybe.”

June: “When he was in the office he was always reading law books; Blackstone law books. He had a whole set of them. He was always looking up something.”

Slim: “He was very wise with his money management. What did they say? He lost $40,000 when the bank went down?”

June: “I don’t think I ever heard how much he lost when the Farmers and Merchants collapsed.”

Slim: “June has a bunch of (blank) checks that were left over from the bank.”

June: “We took those checks to school to the bookkeeping class to practice writing checks.”

Trail: “You were in college in 1950 when your dad died, did you finish college?”

June: “Yes, I got my degree in pharmacy.”

Trail: “Did you work as a druggist?”

June: “We moved to Idaho and I did mostly relief work like when a druggist wanted two weeks off to go elk hunting.”

Trail: “How did you meet Slim?”

June: “The university (of Montana).”

Slim got a degree in forestry and went to work out of the Rexford Ranger Station, a short while later transferring to Libby. It was there that June went to work at the Corner Drug Store where she was required to serve a one year apprenticeship in order to qualify for a state license, this in addition to five years of course work. Slim, having joined the army was sent to North Carolina, where June eventually joined him. After the army it was back to Rexford and then to Idaho where he polished off his career, retiring in 1992. But getting June to join him in North Carolina was not a straight forward process for Slim.

June: “When I went to work at the drug store I told him (the druggist) that I would work there for a year. So we (she and Slim) had several phone conversations arguing about that and I thought I won. But then I went to work one day and Will said, ‘I understand you’re quitting.’ I said, ‘No I’m not!’ He said, ‘Well I guess I’ll have to fire you because I think if your husband is in the army and he’s in the United States then you ought to go.’ So I went.” Obviously Slim had been pulling strings behind the scene.

Trail: “I know you have some kids.”

June: “Six of them.”

Trail: “And you still found time to substitute at the pharmacy?”

June: “I was glad to substitute!”

Trail: “Obviously you didn’t have six kids because you didn’t understand the science of reproduction.”

June: Fortunately they both laughed. “Two of them were born to us and we adopted four.”

It was while in North Carolina that Slim and June adopted their first child. Both committed Christians, they believe that the one-year old with medical problems came into their life for good reason. They undertook years of medical expense, not only with him, but with some of the other children.

June: “Those were the days when you could pay five dollars a month on a medical bill. Pay and pay and pay.”

Trail: To Slim. “Did you get into forestry because you liked outdoors?”

Slim: “I grew up in Pasadena. I always liked being outdoors. I went up into the high Sierras and did a lot of hiking and fishing and stuff. I always loved the outdoors. I think my mother had something to do with it. She was born in Wyoming.”

Just when I thought June was a staid, conservative, God-fearing mother of six, I learned that there was an entirely different side to her. Slim explained that in 1951, about the time they got married, he sold his 1940 Chevy for $100, which they blew on a one-week honeymoon in Glacier Park. June had bought a 1951 Chevy pickup which she kept for many years, eventually passing it along to a son. By then it had developed quite a history.

June: “I just got rid of my pickup a few months ago. We’d turned it into a racin’ rig. It would do a 12-second quarter mile.”

Trail: I was incredulous. “A dragster?”

A Conversation with Slim and June Woffenden

June: “With the line-lock and stuff. Slim would stay home with the six kids and I’d go racing.”

Trail: “Are you serious? Did you drive it?”

June: “Oh yes!”

Slim: “We had a friend in Post Falls. He had a shop and he was a…”

June: “A mechanic.”

Slim: “…but he loved driving fast rigs, dragsters. Rita (the mechanic’s wife) took a liking to June and he told June, ‘You ought to drive my pickup. It’d be great to see a gray-haired lady down there draggin.’ And so he started taking her to the races. So then he said, ‘We ought to make your pickup into a dragster.’ So he just started in on it. Built an engine for it. Put a rear-end in it. And a line-lock.”

Trail: “How old was she when she started driving? I mean you said a grey-haired lady.”

Slim: “Well, she was 50, I think, when she started.”

My tape ended there and it was just as well. Where could we go from there? June raced for six or seven years before hanging up her helmet. It’s yet one more example of the pitfall of judging a book by the cover. I went to Slim’s and June’s house to learn about her locally famous father and found more; a pharmacist, a mother of six and a dragster driver. Slim? I knew all along that he was a forest ranger and no doubt a good one at that. Though past 80, Slim remains a capably bicycle rider. For that he is an inspiration.

Cutline for couple: Slim and June met while matriculating in Missoula. He pursued a degree in forestry while she studied to become a pharmacist.

Cutline for pickup racer: June “Go Granny Go” Woffenden bought the 1951 Chevy pickup new and later souped it up as a drag racer. The decal on the side reads in part, “Jesus loves drag racers too!”

Gary Montgomery

About the Author: Gary Montgomery, a resident to the Tobacco Valley for over four decades, has worked in a variety of vocations common to the area including logging, saw mills, Christmas trees, public education, U. S. Forest Service, ranching and operating his own photo processing and printing business. For the last 23 years he has largely written and published a quarterly historical magazine called The Trail and formerly the Tobacco Plains Journal. Along with articles reprinted from historical newspapers, vintage photographs, personal diaries and other remembrances, he has interviewed over 115 oldtimers, each one with his or her unique view of history, both local and international. Montgomery can be contacted via his website: www.thetrailmag.com.

Tags: history Gary Montgomery

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Northwestern Montana is a charming area of quaint towns, millions of acres of state and federal land, hiking, camping, waterfalls, rock climbing, fishing and hunting, skiing and snowmobiling. We offer an impressive collection of shops, art galleries, golf courses, bed and breakfasts, spas, and restaurants not to mention annual events such as the Bull Thing, the Ten Lakes Snowmobile Fun Run, and the Eureka Montana Quilt Show. Enjoy the outdoors and the small town spirit that makes you feel right at home. Stay for a short trip, or meet with a realtor to find out about owning your own little piece of Montana real estate.

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