Bigfork's Favorite Firefighter
Joe Nelson - Founder of the Bigfork Fire Department
By LAURA BEHENNA
Bigfork Eagle - posted Aug 02, 2007
Bigfork native Joe Nelson, 94, and his wife Flo were just 24 and 18 years old when they married in 1937.
This October they'll celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. And they still call each other "honey."
Born in Kalispell in 1913, Joe grew up in Bigfork, where his father ran the hydropower station at the dam on the Swan River. Joe often delivered his father's lunch to him at work.
"My brother and I visited Dad a lot," Joe said.
Back then, today's Swan River Nature Trail was then Bigfork's main road. Cottonwood trees grew along Main Street, where you could still get your horse shoed.
For fun, kids liked to jump off the old steel bridge into the river. Their biggest entertainment event of the year was watching the logs from Swan Lake's five logging camps float down the river toward Bigfork Bay. Sometimes Joe and his friends would play hooky from school and paddle a boat out to the two small islands that used to stand just outside the bay.
Joe played with Effie Dockstader, another Bigfork native, on Bigfork's Main Street when they were children.
"I had a brother but no sisters, so I made Effie my sister," he said.
In 1924, when he was 11, Joe's mother developed tuberculosis and the family moved to Arizona to help her get well, which she did. Young Joe made some close friends during his five years there. When he was 24, he decided to go visit his old Arizona buddies.
Eighteen-year-old Florine Gilcrease and her friend Bob liked to go out dancing at a popular dance hall in Prescott, Ariz. That's where her friend introduced her to Joe one evening.
"He was known as the wild man from Montana," she said.
"No one will dance with me," Joe told her. "Will you?"
Local girls didn't dance with strangers, Flo explained, but she told Joe she would.
Five months later they were married and boarding a bus to go to Bigfork.
"I followed this handsome man home," Flo said. "It was quite a culture shock for me."
She was used to Arizona farming towns where Indian, Mexican and white children all went to school together, and Bigfork's heavily Scandinavian culture took some getting used to. In addition, Bigforkers were taken aback at her freely expressed opinions.
"I always spoke out about everything," she said. "But Bigfork was so good to us. I loved everything about the Scandinavians. And they found out I wasn't so bad after all."
Except for five years Joe worked for a steamship company in Seattle in the 1940s, the couple lived in Bigfork. It seemed natural for Joe to follow in his father's footsteps in his choice of profession. He ran the hydrostation for 32 years, from 1945 to 1976. His children would come to visit him at work, just as he had done with his father.
Joe recalls that when he was about 8 years old, a store called Horn & Smith on the corner of Electric and Grand avenues burned down. He watched the fire from a nearby hill, marveling at the noise as boxes of ammunition exploded. Locals formed a bucket brigade, passing buckets of water from hand to hand, but it was too little too late.
"There was no way in hell they could put that fire out," Joe said.
As an adult, he joined the all-volunteer Bigfork Fire Department. When he was 32, he agreed to be fire chief, a job no one else wanted and that he knew "absolutely nothing" about at the time, he said.
"We had a beat-up Studebaker touring car for a firetruck," he said.
"It was right after World War II, and they needed a young person," Flo added.
Joe served as fire chief for the next 39 years. He worked shifts all hours of the day and night at the firehouse.
"I just devoted myself to Bigfork," he said. "That fireman stuff just got into me and I couldn't leave it alone. I told Flo it was like my church."
"I think he found his calling [as a firefighter]," Flo said. "He did it well; he was appreciated. Joe's attitude has always been like that -- nothing stops him from what he feels is right."
"I had a lot of good help," Joe said. "No matter what I said, they always agreed."
During his first year with the fire department, its volunteers paid the bills out of their own pockets. Joe could see they had to form an official fire district to get tax funding for basic fire services. To save on the expense of having the area surveyed for defining the district's boundaries, Joe decided the department would adopt School District 38's boundaries. Nonetheless, "we were called all over the valley" on fires, he said.
Joe's childhood playmate, Effie Dockstader, was a trained nurse who volunteered her time as a caregiver for Bigfork residents, including the fire department. She and Joe went out on many emergency calls.
"If he knew someone was hurt, he'd call Effie and away they'd go," Flo said.
Joe always attended the annual "fire school," where firefighters received professional training. "No matter where it was, I'd go," he said.
He helped organize the state Fire Chiefs Association and served as its president. He lobbied for years to get the state to provide pensions for retired firefighters, including volunteers. He himself receives such a pension now. He was instrumental in getting a Mutual Aid agreement signed among all the fire departments in the valley, allowing them to help each other out on big fires.
The Bigfork Fire Department raised money with regular fundraising events, especially the annual Firemen's Ball, held every New Year's Eve at the Odd Fellows' Hall, where the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts is now. The ball had a slogan: "You come to our dance and we'll come to your fire," Joe said.
When it got too expensive to hire an orchestra, the department abandoned the ball in favor of more modest events, including dances, bingo parties and box socials, where donated lunches in boxes would be auctioned off.
Joe broke a leg when he fell off a horse in 1955. The damaged leg bothered him for the next five years until he asked to have it amputated in 1960, but health problems couldn't keep him away from the firehouse.
"He never missed a fire except when he was in Spokane at the hospital," Flo said.
As their children grew up, Flo worked as a cook at the school, a phone operator, and later as a proofreader and typesetter at the Daily Inter Lake. The newspaper offered her a job as sports editor, but she didn't want to work on Saturday nights. She managed KOFI radio's office for eight years. As busy as they were, the couple scheduled time to chauffeur high school cheerleaders and Future Homemakers of America girls, including their daughters, to their events around the state.
"That was our entertainment, packing those kids around," Joe said. That's when they weren't showing movies at the Odd Fellows' Hall five nights a week, or playing pinochle with their friends. Bigfork may have been a small town, but for Flo and Joe Nelson, it was a busy one.
"We've had a real good, interesting life," Flo said. "We never made a million dollars, but we've never been without anything, and we've been a lot of places. We've been lucky."