It's strange how circumstances and influences come
together at certain times in your life, how each affects the
other until the outcome - often unintended - changes you
I was 12 years old and going to school in a little coal
mining town named Edenborn in German Township,
Fayette County, Pa.
Our school was a two-story, red brick building with oiled
wooden floors and individual desks anchored to 2X4
runners. The playground was a mixture of shale, red dog,
and coal ashes from the school's furnace.
Rolling hills - a mixture of fields, briar patches and
woods - surrounded Edenborn. From my seat near the
window I could look across the hills toward the mountains,
a dark undulating line on the horizon called Chestnut
Ridge, where deer and grouse lived, where trout swam in
some of the streams.
My teacher at the time was Pearl Ache, a large blond-
haired lady whose name we found incongruous and
daunting. At the back of Mrs. Ache's room was a three-
foot shelf of paperback books. When we were finished with
our work, we could get a book and read.
One day Mrs. Ache handed me a book that had just
arrived. "Try this," she said.
The book was FOREST PATROL by Jim Kjelgaard, the
story of a forest ranger in the mountains of northern
I couldn't stop reading, and when I'd finished, I read it
again. And again. I took it home and read it, stopping
periodically to peer into the distance at those forested
ridges leading away to the north.
At the end of the year, Mrs. Ache looked at the book's
worn cover and handed it to me. "Keep it," she said.
I did, and I still have it, dog-eared and cover missing.
FOREST PATROL did three things for me; it made me
a reader, a writer and transported me to a world where I
wanted to live, North Central Pennsylvania, the place I've
called home for the last quarter century.
Thirty two years after Mrs. Ache gave me FOREST
PATROL, I wandered into Tom Eggler's place in Gaines
to see what was new in fishing lures. As I was leaving, I
noticed an older lady's name tag - Kjelgaard. I hesitated
and then approached her. "Are you by chance related
to the writer Jim Kjelgaard?" I asked.
She nodded and told me that her husband was Jim's
Stunned. I guess that's the best word. I was so surprised
to find a relative of the man whose books I'd read for years
that I didn't pursue the conversation.
But that meeting lodged itself in my mind, and this past
winter I began making phone calls to Gaines and
eventually discovered that Jim's brother, Henry
Kjelgaard, was alive and living in Friendship, N. Y.
On a snowy day in February I visited Henry and his wife
Ruth to talk about Jim. I discovered a wonderful family
and sat fascinated as I heard first-hand about Jim
Kjelgaard's life growing up in Potter County, graduating
from Galeton High School, becoming an internationally
known writer, the creator of Big Red Stories which in
turn became the basis for the famous Walt Disney movie
of the same name.
Here is that story.
* * * *
- "Kjelgaard's Childhood" -
Jim Kjelgaard was born in New York City on December
10, 1910, the son of Dr. and Mrs. C.W. Kjelgaard.
When he was two years old the family moved to Potter
"My mother came from a wealthy family," Henry
Kjelgaard explained. "Her father owned tugboats, but
when his wife died he married a younger woman. The
children, including my mother, were eliminated from the
will but were given a sum of money. Mom and Dad used
that money to buy 1800 acres up Elk Run in Potter County.
They built a big farmhouse and my father became a
combination farmer and doctor."
As youngsters on the farm, Jim and Henry had their
share of chores to do, and one of those was to bring in the
cows every day for milking.
"One day, Jim got it in his head that it was a good day to
go fishing," Henry said. "We had to have the cows in by 4 in
the afternoon but Jim saw that as wasting too much good
fishing time. So, he convinced me that we ought to bring
the cows in early. We brought them in at noon and went
fishing. Boy, did we get a lickin' over that."
Henry remembers another incident from those days on
"One day Dad got a call that a fellow had fallen down in a
pasture above Marshland. He got Jim and I to go with him.
When we got there, Dad checked the man over and said he
was gone. We had to help load the fellow onto the wagon.
Jim and I each took hold of a leg and Dad lifted him up
under the arms. When we lifted him, he kind of folded in
the middle and the air rushed into his lungs and he made a
grunt. Jim and I dropped our end and ran. The man was
dead, but we never forgot that day."
There were six children in the Kjelgaard family, five
boys - Bob, Winfield, Jim, Hank and John, and one girl,
The outdoors was their playground.
"One time," Henry remembers, "Jim and I were
playing in the fields back of the house when around the hill
comes a big bear. Jim saw it first and yelled to climb the
apply tree. We did. The bear came close then started
away. Jim dropped out of the tree and started screaming
and yelling and ran for the house, but I was too small to get
down. The bear came back, stopped and looked at me. I'll
never forget that. Jim got a big kick out of it."
Bears, it seems, made an impression on Jim Kjelgaard.
In the October 1947 issue of "Young Wings", the Junior
Literary Guild newsletter, he tells about an incident that
was later incorporated into the book BUCKSKIN
"Once, as a youngster, I stood on one side of a small
gully and watched five bears coming straight towards me.
My rifle held five bullets. Fortunately, when I got the
biggest bear, the others ran."
As a boy Jim read everything he could get his hands on,
and in spite of the scarcity of money in the household, his
parents provided as many books as possible, from THE
ROVER BOYS to Robert Burns.
- "The Move Into Galeton" -
"My dad was a darn good doctor but a poor
businessman," Henry Kjelgaard says. "Eventually we
sold the farm and moved to Galeton. In those days most of
the streets were dirt. There were more horses than
automobiles. It was the very first time I saw running
water and an inside toilet. I was about five then. World
War I was on."
Dr. Kjelgaard started a stationery business in Galeton
but that soon failed and the family moved from one
apartment to another, eventually settling in a house on
West Main Street.
Putting aside his interest in business, Dr. Kjelgaard
returned to his original profession. On many nights Jim
made the rounds with his father.
"We were poor," Henry recalls. "In those days people
didn't have much money and they paid Dad in eggs,
vegetables and food of one kind or another. My mother
would often tell us boys to down to Pine Creek and catch
a mess of trout. We lived on what we caught and killed,
and we took a lot of fish and game but never more than we
could use. That was the way it was back in those days."
Even in those years Jim began to demonstrate an
interest in writing. He built a desk out of a box and sat in
his room pecking out poems and stories on an ancient
During these years another animal had its impact on
Jim Kjelgaard. "Jim loved dogs," Henry says. "It didn't
matter what kind of dog it was, Jim would bring it home.
And he like raccoons. One time he brought a young coon
home. He kept it in a cage in the house, but one day it got
out and ripped the curtains down. My mother said that
was enough and Jim had to get rid of it."
Jim's love of dogs reveals itself in many of his stories
where dogs or wolves along with boys or young men
become the major characters. "SNOW DOG, STORMY,
and, of course, BIG RED illustrate that affection and
understanding between man and canine.
During the years of Prohibition, Dr. Kjelgaard
discovered a way to supplement his meager income.
"Dad made a good whiskey in a still in the house on West
Main Street in Galeton," Henry says. "He used to put it in
two-gallon kegs and we boys buried it in the chicken yard.
when there was enough, my oldest brother John would
take the whiskey down to Ansonia to a hiding place. There
would be money waiting there and he'd leave the whiskey.
Years later I found out that the fellow buying the whiskey
was a judge over in Wellsboro."
As a boy, Jim Kjelgaard had what Henry describes as
"fits, something like epileptic seizures. Dr. Kjelgaard
took Jim to specialists and eventually got him to Johns
Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where doctors diagnosed
the problem as a tumor. "They drilled a hole in Jim's skull
to relieve the pressure and that worked for a long time."
- "The Outdoorsman" -
As teenagers, Jim and his brothers John and Henry
(who was now called Hank), were always in the outdoors
hunting and fishing. "We used to walk up to the Sunken
Branch, build a lean-to and spend three or four days trout
fishing," Hank says. "Sometimes we'd go up Pine Creek to
where Zeke Musto lived. There was a side creek there and
you could look down into a hole and see brook trout,
hundreds of them and a lot of them 15 to 20 inches long. It
The Kjelgaard boys also hunted. Deer were scarce but
small game, rabbits and grouse, were everywhere. "We
killed as many grouse as our family could eat," Henry
says. "There were lots of bears, too. One time, Jim, John
and myself were going bear hunting. We had an old
32-20 rifle and a shotgun with some punkin balls. When we
were leaving the house about 4 A.M., we found a note from
Dad that said: 'I want you boys to be very careful. That's a
big bear and you're not overly-gunned to get him.' We all
laughed at that."
Dr. and Mrs. Kjelgaard were lenient when it came to
hunting and fishing, but there were limits. Writing in the
February, 1959 issue of "Holiday House News," the
publisher's newsletter, Jim has this to say about the lure
of the mountains and streams surrounding Galeton.
"My brother John and I were so assiduous in our pursuit
of fish and game that quite often we didn't have time to
attend school. This was all to the good until one sad day
when our teachers called at home, after we had been out
for a week, to see if we were seriously ill. John and I took
our meals standing up for the next week."
Looking back on those years in Galeton, life, though
difficult for the Kjelgaards, had its humorous moments.
"When we lived on West Main Street, Jim had a big
airdale dog that was loyal to our family," Henry
remembers, "The circus used to come every year and set
up in the flat above town. One time Jim and I were
watching them set up. They had three big elephants and
they used them to move the heavy wagon around.
" Well, Jim's airdale thought they were infringing on
family property and he started nipping and barking at
them and chased them all down into Pine Creek. Jim and I
took off for home."
- "Always A Writer" -
According to Hank, Jim continued writing during his
years at Galeton High School. "He was always sending out
stories to hunting and fishing magazines and they were
always being rejected."
However, in his senior year in 1928, Jim finally sold a
story. His payment was a two-year subscription to the
magazine, but when the next issue appeared and his story
was featured on the cover he declared, "I felt like a
combination of Shakespeare, Zane Grey, and Ralph
During the Depression years, John, Jim and Hank used
to work on the potato farms at Germania. They worked
from daylight to dark and got 50 cents a day. According to
Hank, Jim stood about 5'10", had blond hair and bright
blue eyes. He was husky and a hard worker.
The Kjelgaard boys were also trappers and spent many
hours working Potter County's streams for mink and
Upon his graduation from high school in 1928, Jim and a
Galeton friend, Stanley Cool, decided to spend the winter
trapping. They spent three months in a camp at Ansonia.
When it was time to come with their furs, all the tires on
Stanley's car, a 1922 Model T Ford, went flat. So, the two
intrepid trappers filled the tires with sod and drove it back.
"They made quite a sight and sound driving into town."
Finding a job after high school became a major
objective for the Kjelgaard boys. They took anything that
came along, and that included ditch digging.
"John, Jim and I got a job digging a ditch for Sam
Brendel about 8 miles above Galeton," Henry say. "The
ditch was four to five feet deep and 100 rods long. It went
right through the woods, so we had lots of tree roots and
rocks to work on. We earned $100 for that job, which was a
lot of money back then, and we gave it to our parents. I
remember that job because we used to walk to work, dig
ditch, and then walk home."
As the decade of the '30s' arrived, so did a new type of
employment - guiding hunters. The hunters arrived on
trains, stayed in local homes, camps, or hotels and were
led into the woods by the Kjelgaards.
"Some fellows were good hunters and some weren't."
Hank says. "I remember one hunt up near Cherry
Springs. Jim had a man from New Jersey on watch and
John and I were driving. We put out a big buck and he went
right toward Jim and his hunter. Then we heard all this
shooting. When we got there, Jim was shaking his head.
The buck had come up and stood right in front of the man,
who emptied his gun, then reloaded and emptied it again.
He shot himself out of shells and the deer just walked
"There were times when we did shoot deer for fellas if
they really wanted one. We sold deer, too, and got
anywhere from $5 to $15 for a buck. One year we killed a
hugh buck that had a 28 inch spread. We got $25 for that
deer, and I often wonder what kind of story that man told
when he got home."
John Kjelgaard finally got a job as a forest ranger in
Cross Fork during the early 1930's, and Jim rented a camp
and he and Hank spent time with him. Jim used those
experiences as the basis for his first book, FOREST
PATROL, which was published by Holiday House in 1941.
- "Bigwoods Influence" -
Today, when reading FOREST PATROL, it 's easy to
see the resemblances between the fictional town of Pine
Hill and the real town of Cross Fork. The characters, John
Beldin, Lew Bangorst, Poley Harris, Fred Cramer, are
based on people Jim Kjelgaard met and knew in Potter
With the acceptance of more stories in magazines like
Fur-Fish-Game, Argosy, and Liberty, Jim Kjelgaard had
become a writer.
According to Holiday House News, Jim began
corresponding with Eddie Dressen, a member of a
writer's group in Milwaukee and a fan of his work.
"At first Jim didn't know it, but he finally discovered
that Eddie was Edna," Hank says. "She didn't like the
Eventually, Jim traveled to Milwaukee to meet
"Eddie." A romance developed and they married.
Milwaukee was the place to go, John traveled there to visit
Jim, met Eddie's sister, and they were married.
For most of the 1930's and early '40's Jim and Eddie
lived in Milwaukee.
During World War II, Jim tried to enlist, but because of
his physical problem he was deferred. So, he went to work
in a torpedo plant in Milwaukee. At night he wrote, and
when the war was over he became a full-time writer.
Jim's second book, REBEL SIEGE, is a story of the
American Revolution in the South an is still highly
regarded as a fine piece of historical fiction for young
Once Kjelgaard became a full-time writer, he began
making trips to gather information for stories. He
traveled to northern Canada, throughout the Rockies, and
"Jim told me a story about being up in Canada," Hank
says, " He was hunting grizzly and he killed one. Then the
guide spotted a wolf and he wanted Jim to shoot it. But, Jim
wouldn't. The guide couldn't understand it, but Jim said it
was too much like a dog."
Kjelgaards's third book, BIG RED, made him famous.
By the time it was reissued in 1956, it had sold a total of
225,000 copies in various editions and had been published
in several foreign countries.
A newspaper clipping from the Elmira paper carries
the headline "Kjelgaard Volume is Book of Month Club
Selection." According to the article, Mr. Kjelgaard,
author of over 20 books and hundreds of short stories, has
had his THE COMING OF THE MORMONS chosen by the
Book of the Month Club as its No. 1 selection for March."
The article goes on to say that Jim has been a guest of his
parents for five days but had left to travel to Canada on
assignment for Esquire magazine.
It was Jim's last trip home. Unbeknownst to his
thousands of fans, Jim Kjelgaard had suffered from a
combination of severe arthritis and the reoccurrence of a
- "End of the Trail" -
"My mother died in 1955 and Jim wasn't able to get back
for the funeral. That's when I knew something was
wrong," Hank says.
After many years in Milwaukee, Jim and Eddie moved
to Phoenix where doctors felt the climate would be more
comfortable for him.
"He liked the Southwest, the desert," Hank says. "As
long as he could be outdoors, he was happy."
On July 12, 1959, Jim Kjelgaard took his own life at his
home in Phoenix.
"We got the call," Hank remembers, "Jim was gone.
The pain had become unbearable. He simply couldn't take
it any longer."
Hank recalls that for months after his death letters
addressed to Jim continued to arrive. "People didn't know
he was dead. And a lot of the mail came from young
people, folks who just liked his stories or wanted to talk
about becoming a writer. And, you know something
Eddie answered every one of those letters.
"I always felt bad that Jim didn't get to see the movie
"Big Red." Walt Disney brought it out later in 1959, but
Jim was gone."
Mrs. Jim Kjelgaard, who died several years ago, wrote
the following tribute to her husband in 1960 and titled it
"He Walked With Giant Strides."
"For 20 years Jim Kjelgaard suffered agonizing pain
and rose above it. He was the grandest, bravest person we
we ever knew. The endless procession of doctors, clinics,
hospitals, the eternal medicines - they took their toll, but
to the world he presented an always smiling face, a
delightful humor, a never-ending kindness to humanity
"And he grew more ill. This past year Jim seldom left
the house, but he wrote eight books, charming, delightful,
wonderful books - in one year...
"He helped people everywhere. I am getting letters now
to prove it. He was never too tired or ill to help a kid, nor to
further the project dear to him, preservation of forests
"Jim Kjelgaard had to the moment of the end, a brilliant
- incisively brilliant mind of incredible scope. His
thoughtfulness and generosity was beyond ordinary
belief. He gave his family, friends, and readers 20 years of
inspiring wisdom and courage. We will be sorely tried
"He walked with the strides of a giant and we ordinary
folk had to trot along as best we could, and now he
deserves - and has earned - accolades and prayers for the
peace he has.
"We want everyone everywhere to know that we are
terribly proud of Jim Kjelgaard. And that the unfailing
courage he showed for two decades will inspire us all of
our lives. Nothing he ever did was small or petty - he was
to great a being for earthly pettiness.
"His sick body is gone and he will again tread higher
peaks, proudly and grandly - as we love and know him."
* * * * *
A recent book by Nancy Atwell deals with getting young
people to read and write. Atwell did a survey of authors
and listed the top three choices of boys. One of those was
As a reading teacher for 27 years, I've used that
opportunity to introduce young people to Jim Kjelgaard.
What a wonderful thing it is to see a youngster peering into
the pages of FOREST PATROL or BIG RED or OUTLAW
RED, oblivious to the world around them, entranced by
this marvelous story teller.
I suppose I see some of myself in that scene, a kid's
imagination sprung loose to roam the Rasca District, to
feel the silky coat of an Irish setter, to shiver under the
wintry blasts inside a trapper's cabin, to gaze at ridges
rolling away under the purple mists of autumn.
In discussing his work, Jim Kjelgaard said he held to
one standard: "I believe," he said, "that in presuming to
write for young people, or for anyone else, the least the
author owes is the best he can give."
Jim Kjelgaard did that, and we are the richer for it.
* * * * *
I wish to thank Mr. and Mrs. Henry Kjelgaard of
Friendship, N. Y. for their time, the invaluable photos and
background information, and most of all for their trust in
me to present the story of Jim Kjelgaard.
From the Mountain Journal, Volume 8, Number 4, July/September 1990--reproduced with permission by David Drakula
Special thanks to Tim and Jude
Fontenot for leading me to this wonderful article.
Background graphic from dust jacket of Forest
Patrol - 1941, permission to
display granted by Holiday House, Inc.
Last Updated January 15, 1999