Frontier family fights to return home
Since 1878, four generations of Vadis and Howard Stratton's family lived as homesteaders on this mountain, much like TV's "The Waltons," the clan says.The family made electricity with an 1893 waterwheel, powered by a creek shooting downhill through a homemade pipe. Vadis Stratton and her late husband, Howard, who both didn't drink, smoke or cuss, raised seven kids here. Their home was a 1912 log cabin with a wood-burning stove near the original shed-sized 1878 dwelling. They cut timber for nearby Butte's mines and even prospected for gold. Right through last year, Vadis used a wringer washer.It all made for a 19th Century homestead working until the present day. Chester Arthur was president when the government invited covered-wagon pioneers like the Strattons' ancestors to settle the summits and valleys on the Continental Divide.Now the government has ordered the Strattons to leave, evicting the last of the frontier families that had populated this mountain and its namesake hamlet of Highland City, a nearly vanished ghost town founded in the 1860s gold rush.After winning a court ruling in 2005, the U.S. Forest Service declared 81-year-old Vadis Stratton and her son David, 42, illegal squatters in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and forced the matriarch in August to move into a senior citizen home in Butte, an hour's drive away.Stratton, a great-great-grandmother whose brown hair is without gray after nearly a lifetime in the mountains, says the government has wronged her."I feel like I was railroaded out of the place," Stratton said last month in her room at the Continental Gardens home in Butte. Though she had temporarily resided in Butte during her kids' schooling, it's the first time she hasn't been living full time on the mountain in 26 years.Now HUD subsidizes her rent at $3,528 a year. She pays the remainder, $204 a month, from her $545 monthly Social Security check. Her son David is living in a trailer while he fixes up an old Butte house.At the heart of the Forest Service's case is its assertion that the Strattons' claimed 140-acre spread, with its historic 10-acre mill site, was never officially homesteaded and that two previous government authorizations to occupy the land, in the 1930s and `70s, had expired.Stratton's tale has become a cause celebre in Montana, a long-running feud between forest rangers and a family with a place in state history. She is asking to be able to die on the mountain, where her late husband spent his last days before he died in 1994.The family, which moved from California, claims it applied for a homestead in 1912 and in 1913. The 1912 application was withdrawn by the family because the local forest ranger said the land was reserved for an administrative center, which was never built, according to the family and the Forest Service. The service says the 1912 application by Fred Stratton, Howard's father, states that he had "not settled on land," which family members dispute.The subsequent 1913 application, according to the family, was submitted but never processed by the local Forest Service office - which a spokesman disputed."I don't know about that," Forest Service spokesman Jack de Golia said in an e-mail about the 1913 application.The Forest Service granted the family permission to live on the mountain and operate a sawmill in 1939 and then two ore mills in 1979, but by 1980, milling operations ceased, terminating the mill claims and the family's tenancy on the mountain, according to the federal government.By 2000, the Forest Service began informing Vadis and David Stratton that they would have to vacate the land.In December 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Haddon ruled that "the United States is entitled to possession of the property" and that the Forest Service "properly terminated the Strattons' occupancy."Stratton and two of her sons, David and Mark, who represented themselves in court, are appealing, contending they were unlawfully denied a jury trial.The government has owned this mountain land since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and established forest reserves here in the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1905, those reserves came under Forest Service control with the agency's creation, spokesman de Golia said.Stratton's daughter, Alice Lester, 57, of Camarillo, Calif., said her family and forest rangers long enjoyed a gentlemen's agreement about the land.When Howard Stratton told rangers about submitting payment for another homestead application, "the Forest Service said, `Save your money, Howard. Nobody is going to ask you to leave here. Everybody knows the Strattons,'" Lester said."It was a gentlemen's handshake, and all that went by the wayside when these young people (with the Forest Service) came in, and some hot-doggers and young guns said, `We're gonna straighten things out and change the way things are.' And the gentlemen's handshake no longer existed," Lester said.The family is part of Montana's gold mining history. On Highland Mountain in 1989, Stratton's late husband and son Mark found a gold nugget that weighed 27.495 troy ounces and was shaped like a disk big enough to cover the palm of an adult's hand.Called the Highland Centennial Gold Nugget, it's believed to be the seventh-largest nugget ever found in Montana and the largest still in existence; it now sits behind glass in an alarm-rigged safe at the Montana Tech Mineral Museum in Butte.Second-generation homesteader Fred Stratton found another renowned nugget: it weighed only an ounce but was almost a perfect miniature of the Venus de Milo statue, Vadis Stratton said. It was later displayed at the 1933-34 World's Fair in Chicago, family members said.Over the years, the Stratton homestead served as a sanctuary for hikers and motorists who got lost in the woods - including rangers whose vehicles got stuck on the 7-mile dirt road that the family built, members said. Once, the family helped rescue survivors when a small plane crashed on the mountain, members said.The family and Forest Service now accuse each other of acting in bad faith in seeking an arrangement for Vadis Stratton to continue living on the mountain."I believe the Forest Service has bent over backwards trying to accommodate the Strattons, only to be stonewalled," then Forest Supervisor Thomas Reilly wrote in 2003 to the Butte-based Montana Standard newspaper. "The public interest is not served when private parties occupy public land without legal authorization."The Strattons said they offered three mountain parcels they owned - and then all three parcels together - in exchange for keeping their historic spread. At one point, a well-to-do Butte real estate agent even offered prime land in the Elkhorn Mountains on behalf of the family, Lester said. But the service rejected all the offers, she said.All the Forest Service wanted, Stratton charged, was for her to leave the land - without anything immediately offered in its place."Their idea of bending over backwards was forcing me to sign a quitclaim deed giving them everything," Stratton said.For now, the 1913 log cabin is in shambles after vandals broke windows and tossed about clothes and magazines the family left behind. Lester blames the Forest Service for failing to care for the structure.But de Golia said the appeal leaves unclear whether the agency is now the custodian of the structures. "It'