Many of us have some occasional moments of nostalgia—or perhaps just a bit of curiosity—about life in our parks during what we presume was a less frantic world a generation or two ago. If that's the case, and you'd like to get a peek at life as a ranger and spouse in Yosemite and several other western national parks in the 1930s and 1940s, you'll likely enjoy reading a book that's a parks classic: Bears in my Kitchen.
In May 1930, Margaret Becker was a "city girl" from the East, visiting relatives who lived and worked in Yosemite. She met a ranger named Bill Merrill, it was love at first sight for both, and that October they were married in the "little white courthouse in Mariposa, California."
Minutes after the "I do's" were exchanged, they were on the road to Bill's then-current assignment at Tuolumne Meadows, the first stop in a journey that would eventually take them to adventures in not only Yosemite, but also Olympic National Park, General Grant National Park (now Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks) and Boulder Dam Recreation Area (now Lake Mead National Recreation Area.).
In the early autumn of 1930, the drive to Tuolumne Meadows bore little resemblance to a similar trip today. The ranger's new wife described the unpaved road as "rough, narrow and bumpy, with occasional rocks as large as footballs." In places, the steep roadbed had been blasted out of solid rock, "and wasn't an inch wider than necessary" to accommodate a single vehicle. Occasional pullouts amidst the switchbacks and hairpin curves provided a place for oncoming vehicles to pass, but a little maneuvering might be required: cars headed uphill had the right-of-way, so anyone headed down the mountain had to back up to the nearest pullout!
The newlyweds' peeled log cabin at Tuolumne Meadows served as a combination ranger office and living quarters, and had two small rooms: a combination kitchen and dining area with a wood range for cooking, and a second room, heated by a pot-bellied stove, for everything else. There was no electricity, gas, or indoor plumbing, but plenty of water in the nearby stream, and there was a "little plank house back in the trees, with a crescent cut in the door."
"You'll love it once you get used to it."
"Might seem a little primitive at first," Bill said brightly when he arrived with his bride, "But you'll love it once you get used to it."
Over the years, Margaret Merrill not only "got used to it," but judging by her book, she did indeed learn to love her life as a ranger's wife.
Bears in my Kitchen offers some interesting insights for today's readers into attitudes and policies in the NPS during an earlier era. There have been some changes over the past eighty years or so, and few are more obvious than the subject of wildlife management.
Bear Management Tools Included a Broom and "George the Bear Dog"
During the Merrills' first night in that little cabin in the mountains, a large bear arrived to raid the outside trash can, a routine occurrence in those days. The animal was eventually chased away by the combination of the broom-swinging ranger and a vigorous offensive by George, the ranger's large "bear dog" who was kept on hand for such occasions. George's chase of the bruin over hill and dale, until it was well away from the ranger station, was apparently a common solution to such problems in 1930.
In contrast to today's attempts to "bear-proof" garbage cans, the animals in those years routinely raided trash cans and visited open garbage pits in the vicinity of some campgrounds; the chance to observe their feeding ritual was deemed one of the basic attractions for visitors to the park.
As might be expected, the ranger and his spouse had plenty of encounters with other wildlife, and the rules for indigenous "pets" were apparently considerably more relaxed in those years. When a fawn was abandoned by its mother after a well-intentioned but uninformed tourist brought it to the ranger station, the deer was raised by the Merrills. The animal soon became both a fixture around the ranger station and something of a celebrity himself. Busloads of visitors would stop at the station and unload to take a photo of "Jiggs" the deer, who wore a bell around his neck, suspended from red ribbon, during hunting season.
Communications Were Challenging Before Radios and Cell Phones
The author describes a ranger's duties from a spouse's perspective, including the challenging rescue of two ill-prepared climbers who attempted an ascent of Half Dome, long before such activities had become commonplace--and prior to the advent of helicopters and modern climbing gear. Communications between rangers in the field and headquarters in the 1930s were limited to not-always-reliable telephones, hand-carried messages, and even occasionally notes dropped from a low-flying airplane. There were no two-way radios and certainly no cell phones!
In a later chapter set at Olympic National Park in the 1940s, rudimentary radio communication had arrived in the field, but range and capabilities were limited. During a major forest fire, Mrs. Merrill sat glued to the radio in a ranger station for several days, relaying messages between her husband on the fire line and headquarters. (Interestingly enough, relying on spouses to relay radio messages to and from rangers in the field was a situation which hadn't changed much in some parks as late as the 1980's!)
Yosemite's proximity to Los Angeles apparently made it a favorite with the Hollywood crowd, and guidelines for filming movies in the parks were apparently a bit more relaxed in those years. According to Mrs. Merrill, "in the early days of the movies, there was usually at least one company present shooting pictures in the park. Laurel and Hardy, William Powell, Gary Cooper, Jean Harlow, Fredric March, Wallace Berry—all of them were there at one time or another. I had great fun figure-skating for sport scenes in the news reels and once doubled for a well-known actress in skating, sledding, and skiing sequences ... in the picture she was making."
The Great Depression and the Parks
The Great Depression in the 1930s brought major changes to the entire country, including parks, and under a program called the E.R.A. hundreds of refugees from the Dust Bowl were relocated to General Grant National Park, where a campground was converted to a tent city. The plan was for the men to work in the park on road and trail construction, while their families lived in the camp.
It was a situation that brought its share of challenges to the park staff, including a visit to the ranger station one evening by a tall, lean, refugee from the hills of Kentucky via Oklahoma. A bit of questioning by the ranger soon revealed that the man's young wife was going to "birth a young'un."
Ranger Merrill's response was to congratulate the man, and instruct him to let the ranger know about this event "in plenty of time. It's sixty-five miles from here to the nearest doctor, you know," the ranger reminded his visitor. "When do you expect to become a father?"
"Any minnit," was the reply.
An ambulance arrived an hour after a successful ranger-assisted delivery, and there was a nice follow-up; Ranger Merrill later learned the parents decided to name the boy after him.
The "Blue-jeans Brigade"
During World War II, many park employees left for military service, and those who remained were engaged in various activities on the "home front." Some parks were designated as relocation sites, in case cities on the West Coast were attacked, and ranger spouses, dubbed the "Blue-jeans brigade," learned to fight fires and repair and drive trucks, and were trained in "mechanics, nutrition, home nursing, first aid, canteen work and more."
Expectations for what visitors were allowed to bring into parks were somewhat different in 1930s and 40s, as was the work performed at times by permanent employees, even those with considerable tenure. One example was time spent in the "checking station," as park entrance stations were known in those days.
The term was descriptive; when asked by a visitor at an entrance to the park what his duties at that post entailed, Ranger Merrill replied he was "checking cars—making a record of license numbers, searching for firearms, seeing that no dogs or cats are brought in to frighten the park animals, looking out for criminals and drunks." It was a different world, indeed, and I'll let you ponder the reaction similar guidelines would bring today.
Throughout this couple's years in the parks, there were also rescues, close calls during winter trips into the backcountry, arrests of escaped convicts and other criminals, accident victims to assist, and escorts of VIP's and newspaper reporters on visits to the park.
In some respects, perhaps things haven't changed all that much after all.
Bears in my Kitchen by Margaret Merrill was published in 1956 by McGraw-Hill, and includes a foreword by one of the early leaders of the NPS, Horace M. Albright. Although you'll find a few used copies for sale around the country, the book is now considered a "collectible" and often priced accordingly. Some libraries still have a copy on their shelves, and my local library was able to borrow one for me via interlibrary loan at a very nominal cost.