Featured Bozemanite: Mel Anderson

Liz Krause Williams  |  Tuesday Jul. 1st, 2014

When I contacted Mel Anderson for an interview, I was surprised by his invitation to “come-on up to the house.”

We were still strangers. His invitation tossed me backwards in time to an era when people trusted strangers. A time before neutral meeting grounds (aka coffee shops). Days when dusty travelers were invited inside for a hot meal and conversation. A time when kindness didn’t have to be earned, it was given freely.
 “Oh. Sure.” I replied with short sentences trying to right my balance. I recovered with “That would be very nice. Thank you.”

I was scheduled to meet with Mel, who is 79 this year, on one of Bozeman’s recent raining days. His open door policy compelled me to take him a token so I stopped at my favorite cupcake bakery to grab a gift for my host. Balancing on my crutches in the rain (I’m part of the 98% of Bozeman with ACL reconstruction), I hobbled to the door. They were closed. No gift for Mel, I was out of time for alternatives.

After successfully relocating to my car without slipping, I turned on Google Navigator and was off to Kelly Canyon. As normal, the Navigator had a special route planned—just for me—taking me on a “short cut” it referred to as “Access” that left me bounced around and my car spackled with mud before returning to the pavement of Kelly Canyon Road. Onward.

I turned up a gravel road watching blue birds flit from fence post to fence post ahead of me. As I pulled into the drive, I felt re-centered by dense green, womb-like feel from the little valley. The clouds were low and misty, trimming the tops of the trees. Thanks to the dreary weather, intensified forest smells filled my nose. The “rrrr-at-tat-tat” of Downy Woodpecker drew my attention and I watched his red head at work.

Mel welcomed me into his home introducing me to June, his wife of 58 years. The three of us sat down in a room filled with family photos and a chiming clock. After exchanging a few niceties, I asked Mel to tell me his life story.

The conversation lifted and danced, just as I imagine Mel and June might dance. Mel leads the story, with a strong and consistent beat. June adds flair with spins and accents at perfectly-timed moments. They’ve been telling stories together their entire lives. They smile wide and laugh easily.

Mel was born in Tacoma Park, Maryland in 1935. He was barely four months old when his parents moved to California. There, he was joined by three younger sisters.

When he was seven years old, Mel’s grandfather passed away leaving his grandmother to manage a small farm. Mel’s parents sent him to look after his grandmother in Iowa. He traveled alone via train all the way to Guthrie Center in train cars filled with service men. It was 1942.

Mel fed chickens, tended garden, picked raspberries, and helped his grandmother around the house. A year later, his parents and sisters joined them. The year after that, his grandmother passed away. They sold the farm and moved to Grand Junction, Colorado—the town Mel considers his childhood hometown.

In the 10th grade, Mel went to boarding school in Loveland, Colorado. It was there, at Campion Academy, that he fell in love with June.

“You were high school sweethearts!?” I cry.

“Yes,” June answers with pride and love in her eyes. June tells this part of the story.

“Mel was very shy. I drew a smiley face and wrote ‘Hi’ on a piece of paper and passed it up to him,” she said, using her finger to draw a smiley face and “Hi” in the air as she spoke.

“As he read it, I could see the red creeping up his neck. Oh! He was shy!”

“Did he write you back?” I asked.

“Ohhh, no. But he did sing to me.”

After the note passing, they were roller skating at play period together. Mel couldn’t find the confidence to talk to June, so he sang to her. He sang Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga.” It’s a song about a wooden Indian who falls in love with an Indian maid

“Too stubborn to ever show a sign,
    Because his heart was made of knotty pine.
    Poor ol Kaw-liga, he never got a kiss,
    Poor ol Kaw-liga, he don’t know what he missed,
    Is it any wonder that his face is red?
    Kaw-liga, that poor ol’ wooden head.”
 
They still have the roller skates June was wearing that day. Fifty-eight years married is rare. The couple’s obvious respect and deep admiration for each other is remarkable. I ask for their secret.

“She says exactly what she thinks,” Mel inserts. Honesty is a priority in their relationship. Another is that they never go to bed angry. Ever.

“It’s easier said than done,” June tells me.

“Yes,” confirms Mel, “there have been times I’ve been discussed having to stay up till 2 a.m. to finish an argument.”

Honesty and addressing issues may have helped the couple manage nearly six decades of couple-conflicts; but, I reckon the fact they genuinely enjoy each other’s company helps too.

June and Mel were engaged on her high school graduation day and married a year later. By the time June was 24 years old, all four of their children were born—three girls and a boy.

“Kids raising kids,” Mel tells me.

That was exactly how he wanted it. Mel’s mother was a nurse and his father was a carpenter; both were older when they had children. They were away from home a lot. Mel wanted to get married young, have children young and grow up with them.

After high school, Mel took night classes in auto body work. After a couple of years bouncing around Utah and Wyoming, the young family settled in Casper, Wyoming. He worked at Shellenberger Chevrolet in the body shop and had his own business called Wyoming Auto and Trader Rebuilders. He specialized in trailers—horse trailers, camp trailers, flatbeds, goosenecks—anything that needed body work. His little business thrived in part because of insurance work from hail damage and wind.

When his oldest daughter, Penny, reached high school age, the family looked for boarding school options. Penny saw a picture of the old Mount Ellis ski hill up Bear Canyon. The picture featured deep, snow covered slopes and lighted night skiing. She was enrolled in Mount Ellis Academy the next year.

During Penny’s second year at the academy in 1973, Mel and his mother visited. Already in love with the Gallatin Valley, the family had been toying with the idea of moving to the area. It was Saturday night and Mel got a lead from a friend that a man up Bear Canyon might be selling his property. Sunday morning, Mel called the guy to inquire.

“We just decided to move last night! If you want the property, I’ll give you one month to get things in order to have first chance before I put it on the market.”

Mel had two properties in Casper he needed to off-load before he could commit. He drove home Sunday and got a call from his Casper realtor that night. One of his properties had sold over the weekend and the realtor was bringing out the contract Monday.

While finishing the paperwork to sell one property, Mel’s realtor asked if he had interest in getting rid of his other property. Everything fell effortlessly into place. From Saturday to Monday, the Anderson’s went from thinking about moving to finding the perfect home in Bozeman and selling both their Casper properties. Good luck? A greater power? No matter how or why, they always knew they were meant to be in Bozeman.

This is really just the beginning of Mel’s story. While the rain continued to send heavy drops down outside, he told me about finding the property off of Frontage Road where he built his auto body shop business, Bullwhacker Industries. He told me stories of digging footers and being waylaid by storms dropping three feet of snow, and of taking his crew horseback riding up New World Gulch when it was too wet to build.

They raised their family on hard work and camping trips. The girls are tough enough to tow stranded travelers out of mud bogs. I heard about their twelve grandkids and the trappings of family holidays.

I learned that he found an untapped business niche for working on trailers (both repair and custom building)—in addition to regular body work on vehicles. Bushwhacker Industries earned a reputation for honesty—direct, no-nonsense honesty. It’s a company you can trust to do a great job and give you the facts about the vehicles and the work.

I heard about business partners that became life-long friends, and the price of gas bumping to $1 per gallon affecting business enough that Mel started buying and restoring Subarus to diversify. We talked about Vaughn, Mel and June’s son, taking over the business when Mel “retired” (aka, a two week vacation in 1997) and now his grandson dabbling in the business too. I loved hearing about the custom–built trailers and campers.

He shared some interesting connections between his life and the life of the Rouse brothers who were part of Bozeman’s earliest years. I learned that he was inspired to name his company “Bullwhacker Industries” after reading C.C. Rouse’s book, “Montana Bullwhacker” and giggled at the fact they occasionally get calls looking for the bull artificial insemination company in town.
 
In reality, Mel’s story fits better in a book than an article. For now, I’ll leave you with this: Mel has a steel-trap of a memory that leaves me jealous at forty-four years his junior. He’s a local history buff. He is warm, kind, and genuine. His relationship with June is something to admire. He’s easy to be with and a natural storyteller. He’s direct, but gentle. And he’s filled with love, for his family and his wife, for his friends and extended family, and for life.

And he’s a vegetarian. Has been his entire life. Never tasted meat. That surprised too.
 
As I drove down the canyon after our chat, I could see the clouds starting to break up in the valley. The Tobacco Roots were showing again. The same blue birds escorted me out and I found myself wishing Mel, June, and I were friends. Our damp afternoon together balanced me, crutches and all.

Mel and June Anderson live in the Gallatin Valley and are “retired” from their family-owned business, Bullwhacker Industries. When he’s not at the shop, look for him in the mountains, on a Montana back road, or headed to Utah for some sun and warmth.

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