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Jim Kjelgaard - From the
 Bigwoods to Hollywood 
by Dave Drakula 
   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 
the farm. 
   "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." 
Henry says. 
                        - "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 
was terrific." 
   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 
Waldo Emerson." 
   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. 
to Galeton. 
   "They made quite a sight and sound driving into town." 
Hank remembers. 
   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 
name Edna." 
   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 
into Mexico. 
   "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 
brain tumor. 
                             - "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 
and wildlife. 
   "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 
without it. 
   "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." 
                                          * * * * * 
In Conclusion: 
   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 
Jim Kjelgaard. 
   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. 
                                   * * * * * 
Author's Note: 
  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