These stories can also be heard Sunday mornings around 10 am on WILD 102’s “Looking Back in Time” program. Each week’s radio story will be posted in its entirety here on our website.
Weekly radio stories are researched, compiled, and read by Sheila Winstead, RCHS Board Member.
Available recordings are also linked to the Wild 102 “Looking Back in Time” page.
April 30, 2023
In the June 27, 1968 issue of the Roseau Times-Region, an article appeared telling about the retirement of Ralph
Thompson. I’ll read that to you today.
Ralph Thompson, who made $92 the first year he began work with the Forest Service and spent many hours in the
tower dreaming up ways to make extra money, ended 35 years of service Sunday when he was officially retired at a
party held in Warroad. Ralph, whose biggest pleasure has been his friendship “with fine people” has handled one of the biggest districts in the state and had one of the best records. “Not one major fire!” He will help out through this fire season.
His friends in Forestry will tell you he is one of the most conscientious men in the service and his record shows it.
Ralph has not missed a day, nor taken a day’s sick leave, in the 35 years it has moved from tower to forestry
patrolman to district ranger and district forester. “I had to stick with it and give it the best I had,” Ralph told the
Times-Region. He credits the people and his fellow department workers for much of his record.
“I started with the Forest Service on April 1, 1933 right here!” he smiled. Then the pine were small, the settlers were on every section and depression was rife. “It was about that time they started moving settlers out of the forest
area,” he recalled.
Ralph had come from Wisconsin and was digging out peat fires with the state supposed to pay 25 cents per hour,
the county 15 cents and the Township 10 cents. “I wound up getting 15 cents so when I heard Bill Schmechal say
there was an opening for a tower man at $2 per day, I wrote to Dick Willems and asked for the job.” Schmechal was forestry patrolman in the area at that time. Willems told Ralph to come to Warroad and write an examination, so he walked 22 miles to Roseau, took the train to Warroad, wrote the exam and walked back in the dead of winter.
“My wife and I got married that year … I made $92 that first year in the tower and made some more building dams,” he recalled. People brought them a few “goodies” and “with love, we made it that first year,” he twinkled. He had built his house before they were married so they had a place to live. “People starting today don’t realize what folks put up with in those days to scratch a living,” Ralph recalled. “The first 11 years I worked I didn’t make as much as I did last year,” he shook his head. “We scratched for a living and were willing to work at anything.”
That was the cause of one of his most “interesting” experiences. “I used to sit in the tower those first two years and
figure things that I could make when I got down. I figured out a fool proof skunk trap one time … but it misfired and I really got it!” he laughed. He had put the trap at the mouth of a skunk den expecting to catch the animal. He didn’t… so he dug him out. “ I grabbed him by the tail and held him up so he couldn’t get me and tried to stuff him in thehold in the trap. He was quicker than I was and grabbed the edges of the hole. I got it square between the eyes!” He had a dinner date at the Schmechal’s that night and knocked on the door to tell Bill he couldn’t make it as he was “Skunky.” Bill said, “We’ve smelled skunk before,” Ralph recalled. He told him to come in. “I did and Bill said, ‘Get the hell out of here!’” Ralph did! To top off the story Ralph found his skunk skinned and hung over the trap. “I didn’t even get the pelt!”
Ralph’s chief interest has been fire prevention. “I’ve always tried to get across that prevention is better than
suppression and in my part of the forest there has only been four fires in 25 years,” he said. Two were started by
chain saws and covered small areas; two were started by lightning and were not large either. “People have been fire
conscious here,” he said.
When he started as patrolman he had a “Model-T I bought for $10, half a dozen pump tanks, shovels and axes … andover two million acres of territory.” He shepherded the area with loving care and it stands today as a tribute to his dedication.
Ralph also handled timber sales for the state and cruised a lot of timber. At times he made up to 19 miles a day on
snowshoes “Bill used to call me ‘the little greyhound,’” he laughed. He has always loved to appear before school
children for talks and movies as well as working with Scouts in making them conservation minded. “I’ve always had excellent cooperation,” he said.
There have been problems in his work … like the time he donned snowshoes and walked 32 miles in two days to
collect $1140 from people who had cut timber illegally. “But the timber cutting program averaged about $100,000 in timber sales to the settlers every year so it was well worth it,” he said. He has also averaged planting about 200,000 trees each year, too!
The biggest problem has been unauthorized fires … “the farther west, the bigger the problem …” but most have
been contained without great damage. “The district is to be split now with a District Forester near Greenbush and
one in the proposed new station along 89 west of here,’ he said. “That should help the problem.”
There have been other things, too … like the time he and his wife planned to go visit a neighbor and were almost out the door when they met the couple coming to visit them! ‘Just as we left, the telephone jingled … like it often did in extreme cold (it was 40 degrees below zero). Just for the heck of it I picked it up and heard a voice say, ‘I’m freezing to death!” Ralph was astounded. He told the man to look at the number on the phone box but it was so dark he couldn’t see it and didn’t have matches. “The roads were blocked so I couldn’t get to him so I called Dick Willems and Dick talked to him,” Ralph recalled.
They told the man to stay at the telephone box and they would try to get to him from Warroad. They got a thermos
of hot coffee, some whiskey and took off. They found tracks around a box in Hiwood and raced down the road
where they found the man. “He fell into the truck,” Ralph said. The man had walked from a lumber camp headed for Williams but had gone 18 miles in the opposite direction! The strangest part of the story is that someone had
forgotten to release a switch on the line, as they were supposed to do, and yet the call came through to Ralph. “It
was surely an act of God,” he said.
The anxiety over fire has been one of the burdens of his job but Ralph feels it has been worth it. He remembers a
fool hen who used to come to the station whenever she heard the pump go. She’d drink and return to the forest. He
remembers pet squirrels and the sunny days in the wilderness … the hunting and the friends.
“Now I plan to fix up the home place … raise more strawberries and raspberries and make things out of wood. That’s my hobby.” That and planting trees which he also plans to do. He plans to stay on to help the new District Forester get oriented (he’s William Jones, Wannaska). Ralph can look at the fine forest he’s protected for so many years and feel well rewarded for his work (which has included much advise to other segments of the conservation department, too); and can refer to letters from Regional Forester Arthur Keenan and C B. Burkman, Director of the Department of Lands and Forests, for the appreciation of his co-workers. Both praised his loyalty and devotion to duty. “Association with men like yourself has made me extremely proud to be a member of this organization,” Burkman said. “I have always known you to be one of the best district foresters in the state service.”
“We know you have been most conscientious and exacting in your work and have put in many extra hours, evenings and weekends for which you never claimed credit,” echoes Keenan. “You have earned the respect of not only your working assistants but also the people of your district.” And that’s a good salute to a man who has earned a long and leisurely retirement!
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