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Reliving life at the fort

 


This is the commencement of a new year for me."

So begins the opening entry of a diary that details life at Fort Assinniboine for a chaplain's wife during the homesteading era of American history. Written by Eliza Shaw Dodd on Sept. 26, 1881, the entry marks not only the author's birthday, but the day U.S. President James A. Garfield was buried.

For the next three years, Dodd would chronicle her experiences and observations of life, survival and entertainment on the last of the major Army bases constructed during the Indian Wars. The diary, recently given to the H. Earl and Margaret Turner Clack Museum Foundation, offers history buffs a rare glimpse of life in the Montana Territory.

The entries are humorous, insightful, occasionally petty, and, for Loy Ann Chvilicek, fun.

"I enjoy the interaction with the Indians and the servants, and the people on the post as well as the local ranchers and businessmen," Chvilicek said. "She always comments on the weather. It doesn't sound like it's changed a whole lot."

Chvilicek was one of the first to read the diary, and on Wednesday acted out portions of it during the Celebrity Luncheon Series sponsored by the Clack Foundation.

Attired in clothing similar to what Dodd might have worn more than a century ago, Chvilicek regaled her attentive audience with historical information about Dodd's family and life on the fort.

"She goes on to describe what her life out there was like," Chvilicek said of the diary. "She writes a lot about daily living, and what was going on out at the fort. I also appreciated what she had to say about her daily chores. It's pretty amazing."

The Dodds moved to the fort in 1879, Chvilicek said. Stephen Dodd was a Presbyterian chaplain with the 25th Infantry unit in Massachusetts when the unit was assigned to Fort Assinniboine. Two years after they arrived, his wife began her diary.

Nearly as rich as the history of the events described in the diary is the history of the diary itself. Gary Wilson, a leading authority on Fort Assinniboine, recalls how the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Society came into possession of it.

"About five years ago, I got a call from a couple who wanted a tour of the fort," he said. "I wasn't feeling all that great and almost canceled. I ended up giving the tour, and at the end, the couple, who had traveled from California to take the tour, handed me a paper bag."

Wrapped in the bag was the diary of Eliza Shaw Dodd.

Wilson approached Chvilicek about researching the diary, and doing a presentation as a Clack Foundation fund-raiser. Chvilicek, who is well-known for hosting Victorian tea parties in Havre and Helena, took on the task with gusto.

"I love history," she said. "I love the old history of different places. So often, it's a mystery."

Using the library in Helena, and a little help from the Mormon church, Chvilicek discovered that Stephen Dodd died in San Diego in 1912, probably explaining how the dairy ended up in California. She has not found any information on the death of Eliza Shaw, but has vowed to keep searching.

Wilson introduced Chvilicek at the Celebrity Luncheon, and gave a brief history of the diary and its characters.

"These people came from such civilized places as New Jersey and Atlanta," Wilson said. "You can imagine the cultural shock when they got here."

Interjected between the diary entries she read, Chvilicek told anecdotes about the Dodds and Fort Assinniboine. She recalled names, ages, hometowns and children of people that Dodd mentioned in her diary.

Although the performance was historical in nature, Chvilicek said her primary motivation for the luncheon was entertainment.

"It's interesting to see the language she uses," Chvilicek said. "She always uses the word 'commence.' And instead of saying 9:30, she says 'nine and a half.' I was surprised at some of the things she said. She has some sharp things to say about other people."

The entries are both mundane and shocking, describing a range of tasks at the fort, from making curtains to the amputation of a soldier's feet. Dodd's writing is both humorous and dark, reflecting her environment and upbringing. She shamelessly ridicules her servants - referring to them as "the laughing stock of the fort" - and describes elaborate military dances.

Officers from other forts in the region would attend the dances at Fort Assinniboine, traveling in caravans to reach their destination, Dodd wrote. The men would ride horseback, and their wives would ride in ambulances, according to the diary.

"I don't think they had the flashing red lights," Chvilicek joked.

Eliza Dodd did not hide her love for sweets. She tells of parties that include such treats as fruit cake, sponge cake, white cake, tarts, candy, biscuits, jelly and ice cream.

"All these people did was bake, bake, bake, bake," Wilson said.

Other entries show Dodd's petty side.

"Mrs. Carol is young and very pleasant. She would be pretty but her hair is straight down to her eyebrows," she wrote.

One of the more humorous entries describes how Dodd forgot her wedding anniversary.

"I opened a napkin at dinner, and a gold piece fell out," she wrote. "Stephen also gave me $5. I was very surprised as I had forgot it was our anniversary."

Another funny entry tells of how the Dodds had trouble moving some belongings into the attic of their house. The two gave up after they "got cross over it and acted like children," she wrote.

Dodd chastised herself for being lazy on a Sunday.

"I slept in. I have not spent this day profitably," she wrote. "My conscience bothers me." According to Wilson, one of the more interesting aspects of the diary is how it demonstrates the prevalence of illness at the fort.

"One thing that really stands out from the diary is how often these people were sick," he said. "They were expected to be sick as much as they were well."

Indeed, Dodd talks of how pleased she was that the servants produced a worthy supper on Thanksgiving, despite being ill.

"They did the best that they could, and made a nice supper, but the turkey was small - only four pounds," she wrote.

The price of goods as told by Dodd is also reflective of a bygone era. She recalls trips to the fort's store, where she purchased bread for 12 cents, a broom for 40 cents, and three chickens for a dollar.

Eliza Dodd showed little emotion while discussing death. She told of the suicide of a Chinese servant, the amputation of a soldier's feet (he later died), and the killing of animals.

"This is the day stray dogs are to be shot," reads the entry for Nov. 27, 1881.

Wednesday's luncheon, which lasted more than an hour, only covered the first year of the diary. Chvilicek said she believes the performance was well received.

"It's tough to say," she said. "This is the first time I've done it, but it sounds like people enjoyed it."

She said that if she does performances in the future, she would like to include more of the diary.

"I'd like to expand a little more, and read from the other years," she said.

Those who missed Wednesday's luncheon should keep posted for future performances of the diary of Dodd, Wilson said, adding that Chvilicek may have more in store for her fans.

"We are planning something that involves the Great Train Robbery," he said. "If it comes together, it should be a lot of fun."

 

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