Duane Kolman is focused on old times and oldtimers, these days. Actually, his interest goes back many decades and just may be more pronounced now as he is not far from that stage in his own life.
Duane has several books - waiting to be read - on area history out on his dining room table. His ancestors, the Manloves, settled on Prickly Pear Creek which runs through East Helena. The Michalskis farmed for many years in Wheatland County.
“The oldtimers I knew when I was growing up were an important part of my life. I used to listen to Jess Sterling, Sam Clark, and Jimmy Parkinson tell stories in the Ryegate Bar when I was a youngster. I’m thankful that I grew up in that age with those oldtimers. I’m kind of a bridge between times. We didn’t even have electricity out on the farm back in the 40s.”
Duane remembers frequenting the bars with his great uncles. The Michalski brothers were prominent enough to get invited to Montana’s last (or close to last) hanging which took place in Ryegate in the 1939.
Born in 1938, Kolman grew up in Bozeman with two sisters. But, he hankered to live with his great uncles who owned a farm 10 miles south of Highway 12 and about halfway between Shawmut and Barber on Fish Creek.
“At age 10, I wanted badly to stay all summer with Frank and Joe (cousin John lived 1/4 mile down the road), but by the time the folks were getting ready to go back to Bozeman, I was crying like a baby to go home with them. The following year I braved it and was hooked. I stayed the whole summer and every summer after that.
“At first the attraction was getting away from parental control and my uncles let me do pretty much what I wanted. But that first summer was the start of a love affair that still burns as hot as ever. I began to appreciate the people, the history, the beauty, the solitude and the wide open spaces. I couldn’t wait for the school year to end so I could go back to the ranch.”
They had a wheat farm. A small one. “It took a long time in those days to combine 20 acres with a 6-foot cutting blade. Twenty acres was a good day.” We put hay up using an overshot stacker and a threshing machine for the oats at our place and also Ted Cavils. The rattlesnakes were always thick on the creek and you were very careful when pitching the shocks onto the wagon.
Early on, Duane had to stay at the farmhouse when the uncles went to the fields. “I stayed back and got into trouble.”
Kolman remembers wanting to have the lead of a bullet in his pocket. He figured he could catch one if he shot his uncle’s 22 into a new galvanized wash tub filled with water. He found out that a 22 could go through water AND galvanized metal.
Duane also managed to scrape the side of the uncles new GMC pickup passing by a granary when no one was around. When asked about such damages, he managed to get away with a simple, “Well, I don’t know about that.”
Kolman was a good student at Holy Rosary High School. “But, I had absolutely no desire to go to college.” He soon moved in with Frank and Joe, who never married, and helped them and other area farmers for a few years until the uncles sold out and moved to Shawmut in 1960.
“I started working for Gene and Brownie Clark who had the International Harvester dealership in Ryegate. Ernie Kunesh ran the garage and I started out as his mechanic in 1960. I was very good at tearing things apart, but not so good at getting them back together, according to my mother.
“When I got to the age I could drive, I was always tearing my car apart to see how things worked.
“Dad bought me my first car. But all the bills were my responsibility from there on out. If I didn’t have the money, it didn’t move. We looked at an old Reo and a Cord, but I decided on a 41 Oldsmobile Business Coupe. It cost 75 dollars.”
By the time Duane settled into working for Kunesh and the Clarks, he now knows he already had a drinking problem. “Ernie was a good mechanic, but no businessman. We used to drink our lunches. Beer was always around and we spent plenty of time in the bars. I worked part time as a bartender as soon as I was old enough. Alcohol was common and drinking was pretty acceptable in those days.”
Kolman moved over to the Clark Lumberyard in 1962. When Gene became County Sheriff, Duane got the job of hauling cattle to Billings weekly. He was tasked to make the rounds in Billings and pick up supplies all over town. Often, he didn’t make it back by nightfall because he had extra rounds to make.
Eventually, Whit Pirrie offered him a job at his Texaco station and Duane helped him get into the bulk oil business. Perry had a septic cleaning truck and backhoe for sidelines. Stan Bukowski ran the backhoe.
When Pirrie died, Stan bought the gas station and Duane took over the septic business while continuing as a mechanic working for Stan.
By 1966, Duane was spending a lot of time in Billings having several operations to try to improve the vision in his left eye which had been injured when he was 12. He met his wife Phyllis Pope at the hospital where she was a nurse’s aide. Wed in 1968, their marriage lasted for 27 years. Many of them were rocky. Duane credits Phyllis “for getting me into AA (in 1974) and giving me a son.” Duane is proud of his son Joe who is a research analyst for the Montana Legislature. He is married to Kris Fedro who is an interior designer and photographer. Duane and Joe “enjoyed hunting, camping, fishing, hiking, and just spending time together.”
By the time Joe was born, Virgil Higgins (section foreman in Ryegate) induced Duane to leave his regular job and give the Milwaukee Railroad a try. “I lasted three days. We were on a track crew near Cardwell. I was working between two huge track leveling machines. They left my ears buzzing. I was lonesome and I really missed little Joe.”
When he got back home, his job with Stan had been filled. But, Jack Todd at the Texaco in Harlowton needed help. So, Duane ventured in this direction in 1970. After living in Ryegate in a house, then a trailer, Duane and Phyllis and Joe moved over to Shawmut into the house which his uncles had left him on their deaths. Duane commuted to Harlowton for 13 years.
“After nine months with Todd, Gene Leary asked me to come to work for him. When I got my first pay check, I noticed that he paid me more than we had agreed on. Gene said, ‘I found out that you were worth more.’”
Duane fondly remembers working for Gene with old Tim Wojtowick taking up space from time to time at the Leary Exxon station (across from the present Engineers Depot). Kolman was employed by Leary for 20 years until Leary sold the station to Pie Page.
Gene and Evy Leary are “wonderful people. I’m very fortunate to have had them for employers. Evy came to help out at the station whenever we needed it. The kids even got involved. Gene was the backup mechanic for me. The Leary's are another family that was good for the community. Gene was on the School Board, Fire Department, and Kiwanis Club.”
“I had good employers over the years, especially the Leary's and the Freesers. They were the best.”
Kolman was the first certified auto mechanic in Harlowton. Shortly after going to work for Leary, Duane had to run the station for several months when Gene was hospitalized in Billings for an aneurysm. We stayed in Learys house and Phyllis took care of Terry, Dan, and Pat.
The Kolman family moved to Harlowton in 1983 as Joe was growing up. Phyllis worked as director of the Senior Center and later managed the Graves Hotel. The Kolmans even put in a bid in to buy the old hotel. “Luckily, we didn’t get it. Bob and Donna Conley did.”
Phyllis eventually resurrected The Toggery in the old Kalberg building (between Biegels and NAPA) in the mid 80s. Kahlberg had previously sold men’s clothes there and CA Buckley had a shop there for a time as well. Phyllis’s women’s clothing business eventually became The Toggery Flowers and Fashions and moved up to the present location for Snowy Mountain Coffee.
By that time, Duane was working for the Pages who had purchased the Exxon station from Gene Leary in the early 90s. “I never got tired of the work or the people. I enjoyed the customers. But, I didn’t want the responsibility of the business end of things.”
Apparently, Pie’s daughter handled that, but not very well. Until Pie sold to the Crostons in the late 90s. By then, Duane and Phyllis had divorced. Phyllis eventually sold out and moved away.
Kolman worked fulltime for Jim Freeser at NAPA until retirement in 2003. Then, 2 days a week along with 2 more days at Painters Ace Hardware. He finally retired for good in 2008.
Life isn’t and wasn’t all work for Duane Kolman. “I love to sing, but not professionally. I sang in church when I was a kid. I led the midnight mass procession on Christmas Eve at Holy Rosary Parish singing Silent Night for three years in a row until my voice changed.
“I went to a Catholic school. The nuns thought I needed to learn to play the piano, but I just got stubborn. Mother made a deal with me. She bought me a Boy Scout shirt in trade for taking lessons. Which I did for a couple years. But, I still can't read music or play an instrument.”
Kolman’s major participation in music in recent years has been in the annual Kiwanis Show. Duane was a member of the Kiwanis Club for 25 years. “I enjoyed it tremendously. Gene Leary got me to join. I put a lot of years in as flag chairman.
“But, I’m quiet and shy and hate to get up in front of people. So, I was able to get out of being Club President.”
It seems that Kiwanis got Duane into golfing. Which followed on a period when he was addicted to cameras and photography. Phyllis bought his first camera, but Duane went on to spend lots of money and time on the hobby. “It opened up new horizons for me. I was able to see the beauty around me that I had missed for years.”
“Then, I got hooked from the start on golf. I sold my boat and motor and went overboard on golf. Years ago, there was a picture in the paper showing the tire tracks from my golf cart in the snow on the golf course. I would shoot from one bare patch to the other in my coveralls and gloves. It was a good stress release.” But, Duane admits he probably overdid it a bit. Kolman still has his clubs, but didn’t golf once last year.
City Councilman for 18 years, Duane Kolman ran when his good friend and golf buddy, Dick Freier, bowed out from the Council. “Everybody has solutions for the city’s problems. They sit back and complain, but not many will step forward to really help out.”
Duane remembers mayors Oscar Biegel who “didn’t pay much attention to rules and regulations” and Rick Billadeaux. “He knew what he was talking about. He got a lot done. In a small town, you don’t get things done if you always follow the rules.”
On the Public Library Board for many years, Kolman learned a lot about rules when trying to get the new library up and running. “I made a lot of decisions and then told the Council later what we were doing to get the project completed.” Rumor has it the Duane painted the library pretty much by himself. Kolman is proud of the library and rightly so. He is also thankful for Dave Wallace’s help in getting solar panels on the library roof to help defray some of the energy costs for the building.
Duane Kolman has been a mechanic and motorhead for most of his life. He only has four vehicles at the moment. One is Uncle John’s Diamond T Truck. Kolman tells about a Chicago shoe manufacturer in the 30s who wanted a better looking truck. “He designed (especially the cab) and built trucks using Hercules engines and IH heaters, Delco distributors and starters, along with various other brand parts. The brand merged with White Motor and later Reo. Then, they moved into heavier trucks in the 60s.”
The Hauges bought Uncle John’s old 44 Diamond T at an estate auction in the 50s. It was most recently licensed in 1959. When the next to last Hauge died, Duane made an offer which he had to raise substantially to make a deal. Duane and Mike Miller trailered the truck and barely got it to Harlo. A harrowing story they can tell you. Duane has it running now and able to drive it in the annual parade. It is generally on display next to his house on West Highway 12.
The Audrey Snow Story “goes clear back to when we were kids. Our lives have been intermingled without us realizing it.”
“We went out a few times when we were young, as she lived in Barber. I was friends with her cousins, Sid and Burt Bartz. Her aunt Myrtle Fletcher and Duane’s mother were good friends in Bozeman for years before Myrtle and her husband sold the family appliance business and moved to Ryegate and later Billings. Eventually, Myrtle’s husband died and she remarried Duane’s father-in-law, Phil Pope.”
“We saw each other in later years at the annual Bartz family reunions. Phil would take Myrtle who was trying to get us together. It was a gradual development and we noticed each other more after Audrey’s husband died in 2001.”
Duane and Audrey have no plans to marry. They are enjoying their retirement friendship. “We have a good relationship. Why ruin it with marriage? We are both keeping our places. Hers in Onalaska, Washington, and mine in Harlowton.”
Duane will be heading to Washington in June after helping his mother celebrate her 90th birthday. “I would like to travel more with Audrey. We want to see Montana and Washington first. We do that already, taking different routes, every time we drive between our homes.”
It seems that there is a line of people waiting for Mr. Kolman to get back into woodworking and the framing business. “It’s another thing that I got into whole hog. I would still like to get back to it. But Audrey and I have been spending so much time fixing up our places, I just haven’t had the time. I keep thinking I will get at it this winter. Lots of people are asking for frames, but I just can’t commit. I have got to be in the mood and have the time.”
Morning Sun Yellow Pony got Duane started building frames for art and mirrors after he had purchased one of her framed beaded art pieces. “I took her method and improved it some. I have been interested in Indian history for quite a few years and have always been an admirer of Chief Joseph.”
Duane has made over 100 custom juniper frames since he began the hobby/work over 10 years ago. It is quite an involved process which starts with old juniper fence posts and go through grinding, sanding, cutting and sealing stages. More recently, Duane took up making wooden barreled pens using a miniature lathe. His frames are on display at Diana’s Quilts and pens at Painters Ace Hardware.
Duane Kolman has quite a few years to look back at now. And, who knows how many yet to come? “I used to have a fear of death but I don’t really any more because of my faith in God, my Higher Power. I feel that once I got sober, I tried to live a good life. I was 35 when I sobered up and I asked God for 35 more to make things right.”
AA has been a major influence in Duane Kolman’s life. “I once told my son who was writing an article on miracles, ‘If you want to see miracles, go to an AA meeting. Each person there is an example of a miracle.’ People in AA have helped me when I had a tough row to hoe. Living sober is tough. Especially when people are taught to go for a pill whenever they have a problem.
“It’s kind of comforting to know that I can go anywhere in the world and walk in on a meeting and be welcomed with open arms. Help is there and anywhere if I need it.”
“I have been fortunate to live in these times.”