Repair of historic Pryor Mountains cabin unearths builder's sad family tale

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Perrin's cabin

This photo courtesy of Patricia Hauser shows her mother, Sylvia Mae Tucker Merrifield, at far right next to Perrin Leander Cummings at the cabin he built on East Pryor Mountain. The photo was taken in the 1920s, prior to Perrin's death in 1927.

“Though it’s just a rough log cabin

Laid up of mountain pine,

It sings a song of cheer to me

Because the home is mine.”

High atop East Pryor Mountain work began this summer to restore a simple log cabin that shelters the tragic and sometimes hazy history of its builder, Perrin Leander Cummings.

Better known by the nickname Pen or Penn, he was a local-born ranch worker, poet and World War I veteran who was killed in an unusual mishap at age 26, right next to the cabin praised in his verse. Maybe because of his youth, or because the accident occurred 92 years ago, the history surrounding the sagging, faded cabin and its builder contains gaps and different versions of the same tale.

“He’s kind of an enigma,” said Don Galvin, a Bureau of Land Management park ranger who has been working to help restore the cabin and along the way has gathered bits of Perrin’s history. “There are a lot of stories.”

The BLM assembled a history of the cabin, the Cummings family and Perrin with the help of local historian Blain Fandrich. He wrote the form that will be submitted to nominate the property for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because it represents a distinctive type of construction.

Information strung together from these different sources paint a picture of a large, close homesteading family in the early 1900s that moved across the Carbon County landscape while farming and ranching. Dates of certain occurrences and details often vary depending on the source, which can be confusing.

Wild horses

Wild horses still roam the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in south-central Montana. In the early 1900s they were often rounded up and sold to canneries.

Back over the days that have vanished

Your mind is inclined to roam

Yes, over youth’s once collected pictures

Of that blessing, a happy home.

Perrin — the fifth of 10 children — was born while his family ranched near Edgar. His father, Clarence Ellsworth Cummings, had traveled west to settle in Billings in 1889, according to his obituary. In contrast, Fandrich’s research showed him arriving in Montana in 1892 after his wife Clara (Abbot) gave birth to their oldest daughter, Blanche (Lufkin). Blanche was born in 1891 in Iowa where the couple had met and wed. Possibly Clara returned to her parents’ home for the birth of her first child.

After three years of operating a livery stable in Billings, Clarence moved his wife and daughter to a homestead on Elbow Creek, west of Edgar, to land that later became known as the Great Western Sugar Co. ranch, according to his obituary. His daughter, Myrtle (Bailey), remembered this era a bit differently, saying Clarence and Clara arrived in 1891 and that her father also helped run the Silver Dollar Saloon in Billings.

In her account, the family’s move to the Edgar area occurred after Oct. 15, 1892, when portions of the old Crow Indian Reservation were opened to homesteading. “Everything became lively at once,” Myrtle wrote.

In 1909 the Cummingses moved to upper Sage Creek. Twenty homestead claims were eventually filed in the area. The Pryor Mountains Forest Reserve had been established three years earlier, land now in the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Clara operated the first post office out of the home in 1910 with Blanche’s help. She had to ride side saddle to deliver the mail on horseback, recalled her granddaughter, Beverly Hagen.

Under repair

Pen or Penn's Cabin is located on Bureau of Land Management property on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. The cabin sits near a large meadow frequented by the horses in the spring.

If neighbor spoke to neighbor.

As love demands of all

The rust would eat the saber,

The gun stay on the wall.

Perrin left his family home in November 1917 to fight in World War I, apparently lying about his age because he wasn't yet 18, the age people could enlist without parental consent. By the time Perrin set off, Blanche was already 26 years old, and their youngest and last sibling, Everett, had just been born to their 44-year-old mother. The year before, Ellsworth Cummings had died at age 18 after suffering from polio 24 hours.

Ellsworth's death

Myrtle recalled her father bringing young Ellsworth home from the ranch where he had been working. “I often wonder what Dad's thoughts were, as he came alone with his feet on rough box of Ellsworth’s casket,” she wrote.

The transition from rural Montana to the city lights of Spokane, Washington’s Fort George Wright for induction into the Army must have been an adventure for young Perrin. From there he was sent to the 325th Aero Squadron, which had just been formed in December 1917 at Kelly Field, Texas.

Perrin’s service was short lived. Fifteen months after enlisting he was discharged in February 1918 via a surgeon’s certificate for being 50% disabled, about half-a-year before Germany surrendered. The nature of his injury is unknown, but he apparently never served overseas.

Log work

National Park Service restoration specialist Josh Scheffler works this summer on reparations to a cabin in the Pryor Mountains. Montana employers expect to see roughly 62,000 annual job openings in the next 10 years.

Now they come with pack and sombrero,

Over ridges hill and dale

Say they guess they'll have to put me

In a labeled can to sell.

Perrin’s mother died in 1921 at the age of 49 after twice undergoing surgery for a liver ailment. Her death left care of four children under age 15 to the rest of the family. The youngest child, Everett, was 3.

After his mother’s death, Perrin’s father moved the family to Wyoming, where he worked farming and ranching in the Powell and Cody areas. It appears Perrin didn’t make that move, electing to stay in Carbon County.

Back then, before the wild horse range was formed in 1968 to protect the Pryor Mountains’ mustangs, the animals were routinely rounded up and sold for meat for $3 to $10 a head. Perrin must not have approved. A poem he wrote disparages the practice, noting how humans had driven the horses from the fertile grazing lands in the valleys to the “bleak and dreary hills,” but still wouldn’t leave the animals alone.

It was after his family left Sage Creek that Perrin built the cabin near the top of 8,700-foot East Pryor Mountain, about 10 miles from the Cummings’ old homestead.

The cabin still sits along the edge of a large meadow, a popular portion of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. In the past the BLM said the cabin was built in 1911 as a temporary shelter for workers cutting ties to be sold to the railroad or mines in Carbon County.

Fandrich’s research shows Perrin filing a homestead claim on the lands surrounding the cabin in 1921, but he was able to pay only half of the filing fee, or $8.50. The other half was paid a month later. That summer Perrin may have begun building the cabin.

According to Myrtle, Perrin stayed in the cabin during the winter in order to obtain legal title to the property. 

Myrtle wrote that Perrin’s filing for a legal right to the land was a “sore spot” with other neighbors on the mountain and along nearby Crooked Creek. “These folks caused Penn a lot of grief and stole everything they could get their hands on that he labored so hard without much equipment to get to his filing,” she wrote.

“I guess he built the cabin up there to be close to the wild horses,” Myrtle told BLM research intern David Harvey for his “General Historical Survey of the Pryor Mountains” in 1978. Yet in her own written account Myrtle said Perrin “didn’t really care about horses” and termed the cabin’s location as “god forsaken.”

Perrin “likely whiled away some of the alone time at his cabin by writing poetry,” Fandrich wrote. Some of the 11 poems attributed to Perrin contain winter scenes, the mountains and a common theme of loneliness and heartache.

Possibly he was pining for his young sweetheart, Sylvia Mae Tucker, who grew up in Bearcreek, a coal mining town just over the hill from Red Lodge. She was nine years younger than Perrin. “She loved him all her life,” said Tucker’s daughter, Patricia Hauser.

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Before

Before work began this summer Pen's Cabin had fallen into disrepair despite being rehabilitated at least twice before.

At evening time when shadows creep,

And I am all alone

I hear that distant calling from

My little mountain home.

More than $47,000 was obtained by BLM archaeologist Jennifer Macy to pay for repairs to Perrin’s cabin. The one-room log structure, 22 feet long and 17 feet wide, is getting a new floor, window shutter hardware, chinking and a new roof.

Work began this fall with the replacement of the sill, or bottom log, which had rotted. Gravel was hauled in as fill underneath the floor and a barrier installed to thwart rodents.

The National Park Service historic building preservation crew has done much of the hands-on work. The Park Service oversees operation of the adjoining Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The BLM’s Don Galvin and Ryan Bradshaw have also pitched in. Galvin hauled the logs and gravel over the rocky, rutted route to the top of the mountain from Lovell, Wyoming — a nine-hour one-way trip.

The workers ran out of time before winter struck the high country. Rather than fight the cold and snow, the cabin has been jacketed in a wrapping of Tyvek for protection while awaiting further work next summer.

Perrin and Clarence Cummings

This undated photo reportedly shows Clarence E. Cummings, an early Carbon County homesteader, at left, with his son Perrin Leander Cummings, known as Pen or Penn.

Now the sheep and elk have vanished

They have fled the mountain range

With just here and there a drifter

Or an up turned skull remains.

From the cabin visitors can see what may have attracted Perrin to the lofty location. The structure sits next to a large meadow, filled with wildflowers in spring, called Wild Horse Park. From the high vantage of the steep mountains travelers can view the southern end of Bighorn Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and the Devils Playground.

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When thunder booms across the landscape the echo that reverberates through the canyon sounds as if it is being forced through a massive metal culvert.

The public is welcome to stay at the cabin. No fee is charged. Many of those who visited in the past have written or carved their names on the inside of the cabin’s logs. Macy took photographs of the graffiti on her last visit to the cabin.

“That cabin has been pretty popular with the horse people,” Macy said. “Now it will be a little more comfortable.”

The repair is just the latest to preserve the cabin, in 2003 the Backcountry Horsemen and the BLM cooperated to make improvements to ensure the structure didn’t collapse. Another BLM document shows repairs in the 1970s.

Winterized

Now wrapped for protection against the winter weather, repairs to Pen's Cabin will be completed in the summer of 2020.

Don’t press your little troubles

On the friend you chance to meet

And complain about the weather,

Of the cold or of the heat.

You are better off most likely

Than the man you’re talking to

So bottle up your troubles

Whatever else you do.

The homestead-era lifestyle that Perrin extolled in his prose is what also led to his death on June 9, 1927. While working unbroken horses with his younger brother in a corral built next to the cabin, one of the animals struck or jumped the fence, knocking a post loose. The 26-year-old Perrin was struck so forcefully in the chest by the pole that he never regained consciousness, according to a Billings Gazette news article. Myrtle wrote a different tale: After being hit and knocked down, Perrin got to his feet, ran across the corral and died standing in his brother’s arms.

Perrin's death

After attaching Perrin’s body to a board that was lashed down to the back seat of their Chevy, Myrtle and her husband drove the muddy road back to Bridger and the undertaker’s that same June day. “This was an ordeal for all of us,” Myrtle wrote. “Penn was decent sort of man, didn’t drink, smoke or swear. He sought the better things in life and we just couldn’t seem to give him up at that age.”

With Perrin gone, the land reverted in 1928 to the federal government’s General Land Office, the predecessor of the BLM. Myrtle recalled it differently, saying her father sold the land to a nearby family of Serbian sheepherders.

No entry

Visitation to the old cabin was prohibited after it fell into disrepair.

If all who hate would love us

And all our loves were true,

The stars that swing above us

Would brighten into blue.

The World War I veteran was buried at Rockvale Cemetery. A white military headstone marks his grave with the date of his death, but no birth date. Maybe because he had lied on his enlistment paper the Cummings family thought it better to leave his actual birth date off the tombstone rather than publicly acknowledge the lie.

Posted on a find-a-grave website containing Perrin’s tombstone is an old black-and-white photograph showing a group of five standing in the doorway of what appears to be his cabin. The caption reads: “Far right, Sylvia Mae Tucker, Perrin L. Cummings. On behalf of Sylvia Mae Tucker who was Perrin’s sweetheart at the age of 16.”

The girl, dressed in bib overalls, is holding the antlers of a mule deer. The man identified as Perrin appears to be holding a skull. A lanky cowboy at far left, bearing a resemblance to Clarence, smokes a cigarette as two youngsters crowd the doorway, one wearing a sombrero.

Tucker, who later in life married a cowboy and became Sylvia Merrifield, gave the photo to her daughter to ensure it would never be destroyed. Also inherited was a book of melancholy poems Tucker had written after Perrin’s death. “She talks a lot about the cabin,” said her daughter, Patricia Hauser.

One of her mother’s last wishes was to have a portion of her ashes laid to rest at Perrin’s grave, a wish Hauser and her sister carried out after their mother died in 2002 at age 92. “To us, it was really sad,” she said.

Thanks to a simple cabin built in the woods, Perrin Leander Cummings’ family legacy still lives on in the Pryor Mountains, a different sort of monument to his life and love of the region.

“The sacrifice the early homesteader endured cannot and is not appreciated,” Myrtle wrote. “They were a rugged group of individuals, and can never be repaid for their efforts."

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