At 9 a.m. Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau will release the records for 1940. I’ll admit that I’m excited. That was “my” census. In 1940 I was counted for the first time and the only time the census takers would find me in my tiny hometown of Warland, Mont., population 48. Not 4,800. Just 48.
Census records are held for 72 years out of regard for confidentiality. The “72-year rule” was put in place in the early 1950s because 72 years was thought to be an average lifetime, and nobody would be left to complain of invasion of privacy. Unpredictable as is our custom, a lot of us are still here, and many make a fine art of complaining.
Of course, I don’t remember the day the census-taker came, but I know that the dust would have been thick on the polished shoes, suits and brightly colored dresses of the enumerators as they made their way along our single dirt street. I would have been one of the watching kids. I would be the one wearing the hair bow the size of downtown Bozeman, and a much-washed cotton dress, carefully ironed by my mom with a flat iron heated and reheated on the wood stove. Everything was always perfectly ironed, even the bed sheets. I didn’t get the perfectly ironed gene.
Warland wasn’t really a town. It was a scattered cluster of tar-paper shacks and an occasional farm house. A few of the section-gang folks lived in box cars. There was a general store kept by the station master. There was a beer hall but no church. There was no library, but I did own a Little Big Book, one of the cube-shaped volumes popular in those days. It was given to me by the station master’s daughter after I whined annoyingly for several hours. Finally her mother made her give me one of her collection of dozens. I was punished for hinting, as expected, but it didn’t matter. I owned a book! No Kindle will ever compete with the feeling of holding the stirring story of Dick Tracy and The Purple Cross Gang in my hands with the genuine flip movie in the corner.
There were only three more census reports from my hometown before it was lost forever. If you look for Warland, Mont., on Google (who could have imagined Google in 1940?), you’ll see an arrow pointing straight down into a broad blue expanse of water. That’s 92-mile-long Lake Koocanusa, which was named using a combination of the three regions that make it: Kootenai, Canada and the United States. In 1972, Warland became a drowned town, flooded by giant Libby Dam. It was one of the dozens of towns and hamlets in at least 31 states that were flooded from the 1940s through the ’70s when the great hydroelectric dams were built.
When Libby Dam was built, the railroad tracks were moved, and the 1,000 people who lived in the nearby town of Rexford were resettled. But the 48 people who made up Warland had to find new homes.
The index of individual names of Warland’s residents won’t be available for a few weeks, but I can hardly wait to see if I can find Mrs. Evans who made the kerosene-flavored pickles or little Dickie Peterson on whom I had such an inordinate 5-year-old crush.
My mother went back to see Warland one last time just before the waters flooded in. All of the houses were gone, except the playhouse my Dad had carefully built by piecing scraps of lumber for the lattice-work porch and the real window seat was still there. I hate to think of it alone down in the water, but I’ll bet it’s standing. They say there’s incredible trout fishing in Lake Koocanusa, and it’s a top recreation area. So I like to think of the trout playing tag in and out of the perfect miniature cupboards.
They say you can’t go home again, and for me that’s true. But when the census report comes out, I’ll see how far this sentimental journey takes me. For at least a little while, I will go home again.