Written by Lester R. Johnson
We were small ranchers working in Browning to support a herd of cows and a bunch of kids. While on a Sunday drive with Ed Hilton, he mentioned he had leased a spot at St. Mary for a gas station. We had bought a temporary shop from a contractor just before this, to tear down. It was 40 feet square, and new lumber. We offered the building for a combination restaurant and gas station. It was crude, with no electricity or running water, we hauled our water in barrels from St. Mary River. In 1952 we got electricity. We, like most started the restaurant with no experience, only 10 pounds of hamburger and a loaf of bread. Ruth worked from 6 am to 10 pm every day. I ran the ranch but gave it up after three years, and sold the cattle to buy this land on the hill.
In 1957 we made a deal to purchase this land, at the time it was just a bare hill side with a few trees. We rented equipment and made a level spot up off the road. We bought the original log building from Bob Garrow. It was built int he 1940s and was the caretaker’s house at Sherburne Dam (near Many Glacier.) The first few years the dining room and kitchen were located all with in the main log building. The dining room was in the front half and the kitchen in the back. In 1963 was the first year we need to hire a waitress, Ruth and I along with the kids did most of the work.
Every few years we would try to add on. We added the campground in the early 1970s, and the lower dining room in 1977. In 2003, with the help of one of our workers who happened to be an expert carpenter we added the cabins. Our son, Hugo and his sons made all of the furniture for the cabins. Our youngest daughter, Kristin and her son Kyle manage the cafe. Hugo and his youngest son, Hugo Jr. (Snicky) take care of the maintenance for the whole place.
(Lester passed away in 2008 and Ruth in 2014)
A Short Family History
Lester was born, April 27th, 1912, on a ranch out side of Tiger Butte, Montana. He was the oldest son of Hugo Reinold Johnson and Elizabeth Dee (Howard) Johnson. Ruth was the first of three children born to George Stout Collings and Bessie (Shannon) Collings on May 7th, 1919 in Harlowton, Montana. Lester grew up on the family farm in the Red Butte area just south of Great Falls, MT. He attended elementary school at the Red Butte School. He attended high school in Great Falls.
Ruth grew up in the Sun River area with her brother Jack and her sister Dale. From a young age she was active and self sufficient. By the time she was 12 years old Ruth had a cigar box full of rattlesnake rattles from snakes she had killed. She attended school in Fort Shaw, Sun River and Simms.
Lester and Ruth meet at box social which had a dance, it was held at Pleasant View Hall. In 1935 Lester married Ruth Kathryn Collings at the Red Butte Church. They married in the morning and Lester went back to work at the Great Falls Flour Mill that evening. They would go on to be married for 73 wonderful years. Ruth and lester lived many places in Montana, where ever Lester could find work. Shortly after their marriage they moved to Fort Peck then on to Butte. Lester worked in the mines in Butte and Ruth took care of the home and family.
In his 96 years Lester worked a variety of jobs. As a young man he delivered milk with a team and milk wagon in the Eden County just south of Great Falls. He farmed and worked on road jobs using a team of Draft horses. He worked at the 7-UP Gold mine near Lincoln MT. He worked on the Fort Peck Dam, and at the Emma Mine in Butte. He also went to Alaska on a Liberty Ship as a civilian during WWII, building runways for planes.
In 1942, with two small children, a load of hay and a goat they moved by sleigh to Logging Creek. They lived all winter in a two room log cabin where Lester ran a one man saw mill. In the spring they were not able to come out by sleigh so Ruth and both children rode on one work horse while Lester and the goat road on the other. They rode 22 miles to the home of Lester’s aunt and uncle, Fred and Opal Johnson.
During the war Lester worked in Alaska, Ruth lived in Great Falls raising the family. She enjoyed spending time with Lester’s large family the Howard’s, attending many picnics and family gatherings held in the Eden area.
After the death of his father in 1944, Lester and Ruth returned to the family farm to help his mother. In 1946 Lester and Ruth along with their children moved to the Browning area where they ranched with Lester’s cousin, Fred Johnson. They ranched the area for several years. Over the years they gave birth to five children, three girls and two boys.
In the early 1950s Ruth started a restaurant in St. Mary. Ruth began restaurant operations with no running water, no electricity, no experience, ten pounds of hamburger and a loaf of bread. The family lived in a tent behind the restaurant during summer operations for five years. Ruth worked a 6 am to 10pm shift seven days a week. Initially land was leased but when land became available, on the hill, Ruth and Lester purchased 160 acres. This 160 acres is the site where Ruth and Lester established Johnson’s of St. Mary. Ruth and Lester worked side by side creating a cafe, adding a campground and then adding cabins. Ruth and Lester loved the St. Mary area and were happy to make it their permanent home.
Numerous Glacier park rangers and young seasonal help found a summer home with Ruth and Lester. They fed countless people at the “family” table for no charge, because it was just who they were. Many have come back over the years to say “Hi” and acknowledge how important the Johnson’s were in their life. No one was a stranger at Johnson’s.