Who says you can’t go home again?
Submitted By Pamela Zortman-Rogers
It was the winter of 2005 and I was sitting at a file cluttered desk in my law office when the phone rang.
At that time, I had been practicing law for about 5 years in a large city 30 miles north of Boston. I expected the call to be from a client or from someone related to a client’s case but instead I heard a woman‘s voice with an accent that I wasn’t yet familiar with.
“Is this Pam Zortman?” she said with a soft almost Midwestern twang but with a Southern twist. Definitely not the Boston accent I was used to, especially since she had pronounced the “r” in Zortman. Even more unusual than the accent, the woman was using my maiden name which I myself hadn’t used since my marriage some 7 years prior.
I hesitantly replied in the affirmative.
“Well this is Candy Kalal. I’m from Zortman, Montana. I got your name from a relative of yours and she told me to call you.”
At this point in time, she had my full attention, not an easy feat.
“Zortman Montana!” I said with a shock, considering that Montana is clear across the country from where I sat in Massachusetts AND that the town shared the same name I was born with. My mind immediately went back to something my Grandpop had told me years earlier when I was a young girl.
He said there was a town out West, in somewhere like Iowa or Wyoming, maybe Montana, and it was named after a relative. He said it was a big gold mining town and went on to tell me about a fortune that his distant cousin had found in gold. I can remember listening in awe to a tale that seemed to me, to be as magical as Cinderella.
When I got a little older, I researched this seemingly tall tale and found out my Grandpop was right. There was a gold mining town in Montana named Zortman, after Oliver “Pete” Zortman, a distant relative of mine.
Candy continued on despite my lack of conversation due to the peculiarity of the call and the wandering of my mind to times long gone by.
“We want to dig up Pete Zortman and have him buried back here in Zortman and we need your help.”
Now I was laughing to myself, the call had gone from surprising to crazy.
How could I possibly help? Did she need to borrow a shovel to dig up a dead body? And who was the relative that gave Candy my name and number, I’d have to call them later and share a snarky “Thanks”!
“Wow!” I said, unsure as to what else to say. With trepidation, I continued, “How can I help you?”
“Well, old Pete is buried in Big Timber and we need a blood relative to fill out some forms with the town clerk to have his remains dug up. ince you’re a lawyer and a blood relative, your cousin Lois told us to call you.”
I paused for a moment, while all this sounded logical, it also sounded insane.
“So you want me to call the clerk and then fill out the forms?” I was kidding myself if I thought this was the only involvement I would have in bringing Pete home.
And that’s how this crazy and fun journey began for Candy and I.
Along the way, we filled in some historical blanks, solved a mystery, made new friends and found a member of the family that we didn’t even know existed.
Oliver “Pete” Zortman
“Pete” was born Oliver Zortman in 1865 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
He descended from Alexander Zartmann, the Zortman family’s patriarch in America. Alexander had two sons, Alexander II and Jacob. Pete and I both hail from the Alexander II branch of the family.
Our family history book states that Pete went west looking for gold. And after many attempts, Pete did find gold and he struck it rich, running a successful mining company in the town that would soon be named after him.
He married Rose Finn, a Wisconsin born school teacher and they had two daughters, Lucille and Helen. It is noted in a history book that Pete is one of only a few men who left Montana with a “good sized fortune.”
Not much is known about Pete after that. We do know he was a Mason from the Chinook lodge and when he was buried in Big Timber in a pauper’s grave, he received Masonic last rights.
It appears that Pete died alone in 1933 from prostate cancer.
So as crazy as it all seemed, I was on board with the disinterment of Pete’s body in Big Timber. I can remember placing the call to the town hall, it went something like this, “Uh, Hi…My name is Pam Zortman. I want to have the body of Pete Zortman dug up from his grave and I was told to call you.”
It was awkward to say the least.
Since my dad was still alive and technically one generation closer to Pete than myself, I had him fill out the clerk’s forms and I returned them to Big Timber.
We were told that Pete had been buried in a “pauper’s grave” in a local cemetery. There was no sign of a grave for his wife, Rose, or of his two daughters, Lucille and Helen.
Where they were was a complete mystery to us, one that would not get looked into until a later date. But first, we had a body to dig up and bring home.
Since I live about 2300 miles from Zortman, I was only able to help by making calls and sending emails.
I would wait patiently for Candy’s calls or emails and revel in all the details of the big Homecoming scheduled for August.
I contacted lots of Zortmans, from Fowler, Kansas to Hollywood, California, about the big event. I would tell them what was planned, see if they could make it and get them in touch with Candy if they could.
We wanted to make sure that lots of Zortmans were at the event. And since Zortman is so remote, we knew that only a few relatives would actually make the trip.
In late August, Candy let me know when Pete was dug up. A few days before the big Homecoming, some local veterinarians went to Big Timber and had a back hoe dig into the just located area where Pete was buried.
After awhile, they hit some wood splinters and some bone.
Apparently the casket had broken into pieces under the weight of water and dirt over some 72 years. But the body was found and brought back in a new casket. Pete was kept in the town fire hall for the big day.
On Aug. 27, Pete Zortman Days began in the tiny town.
I was told by a few relatives who were there that the event was moving. The ability to return a person’s remains to his rightful spot on earth was powerful.
A horse drawn carriage took Pete to the Zortman cemetery. A gravestone paid for by local Masons marked Pete’s final resting place.
I couldn’t make it to the Homecoming due to work but I read about it online and received calls and pictures from candy and relatives that were there. I was a bit surprised when the reburial made news around the world.
The Final Resting Place
I was finally able to make it to Zortman in July of 2013. On a beautiful July day, my husband, John, and I drove from Lewistown to Zortman and just stared in amazement at the beauty that surrounded us as we drove.
Living in the Northeast we are not accustomed to long flat drives on empty highways. Nor are we accustomed to the sheer beauty of big sky country. It was possibly the most amazing drive of my life. I was in awe.
After about an hour and a half we came across a sign on Highway 191 that said “Zortman” and my heart skipped a beat.
The place that my Grandpop had told me stories about, that I had researched myself as a young adult and then that had come to life through my talks with Candy Kalal was now becoming a reality. We drove down seven mile road, which looked to us like an abandoned dirt road leading to nowhere.
We went directly to the Zortman Motel and we were greeted by Candy Kalal and her husband John.
Even though we had never met before, I felt like I had known Candy my whole life due to the homecoming planning and all the calls we shared during the past 6 years. Candy and John showed us Zortman memorabilia, dinosaur bones, and gold nuggets.
We ate lunch at the Miner’s café where their daughter was our very pleasant waitress.
John shared stories of Zortman with us, fully explaining how gold mining worked. He then drove us in his Ford F350 all around the original claim that Pete owned. There were times when I had to take a deep breath and just go with the flow.
I think it was apparent to John that I wasn’t exactly a backwoods type of girl and Zortman is most certainly in the backwoods.
At the end of the tour, John took us to Pete’s grave in the Zortman cemetery. It was situated in the most beautiful spot you could find in town. As I approached the grave, the trees swayed close by, the fields were as green as green could be, and the mountain views were breathtaking. I declared it was a fit place for a great man. And I was thankful he could rest in this beautiful spot. I then took a moment alone to kneel down by the grave and talk to Pete.
I wanted him to know I was there with him. Pete is family to me even though we’ve never met, but we share the same blood and that means something to me.
I was proud to have helped him to get home. And I was even prouder to share his last name.
As one can imagine, records kept in a mining town during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are hard to locate. That left Candy and I with a lot of questions about Pete and his daughters and what happened to them after they left Zortman.
That’s where Mary Hackett came into play. Mary is a Zortman by way of her mother. Born in Ohio, like many Zortmans, her dad moved them to Montana when she was a little girl and she now lives in Stephensville with her husband, Harvey, a true cowboy. Mary has the same nosey streak in her that I have. We just have to know and in turn, we will stop at nothing to figure it out.
Through countless hours of research Mary was able to find out that Rose had left Pete at some point in time after the turn of the century. There are census records that show Rose and the girls in Washington state, Iowa, and even Hollywood, California.
Mary even uncovered a newspaper article from Big Timber that said that Pete and Rose had renewed their wedding vows. No mention of the girls.
So why did the Zortman girls move so much? We still don’t know. Where did they end up? That we did find out.
It appears that Rose passed away in Santa Rosa, California around 1965. Her obituary mentions both daughters and a grandson, Richard Fugett. Daughter Lucille passed in 2001 in Seminole, Florida. She had no children and never married. Daughter Helen passed in 1962 and was divorced, with one son.
Mary was then able to find a death certificate for Pete’s grandson, Richard Fugett. t stated that he passed away in 1995, from prostate cancer, the same cancer that killed Pete in 1933. It didn’t mention any next of kin so Mary and I just sighed, fearing a dead end.
Mary decided to send me Richard’s death certificate in order to see if there was something she missed. And lucky for us, there was. As I scanned the certificate, I noticed a woman’s name listed as executor. The name didn’t mean anything to me, it was Mary Hermans. So I googled the name with Santa Rosa attached to it. I let out a loud sigh as I found another death notice. This one was from 2007.
It appears Mary had passed but left a husband and a few children. I went back to google and put in Dr. Colin Hermans. I quickly found many links and more importantly, an email address. Not knowing if it would lead to anything, I sent out another “awkward” email, basically asking if he knew a Richard Fugett from Santa Rosa, California.
I was shocked when I received a quick reply. It turned out that Dr. Hermans was Richard’s college roommate. And boy, did he have some stories to tell! It turns out that Richard, a former member of the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was quite a colorful character.
He told me “Dick” had passed in 1995, a fact I already knew.
Dr. Hermans offered his telephone number and I phoned, thankful that he was willing to share his time and memories with me.
Thirty minutes later, I had an overabundance of stories about Dick Fugett. It was obvious that Dick shared Pete’s genes. Pte had led such an adventurous and colorful life, so had Dick Fugett. With a heavy heart I thought of the two men, both relatives whom I wish I had gotten a chance to know but now, never would. But all hope wasn’t lost.
I found out from Dr. Hermans that Dick had a daughter, Kerry.
Named after the county in Ireland where Dick’s maternal grandparents were from. He thought she might be in her early twenties, probably living in California. Another Google search led me to my new relative.
Kerry and I have been communicating via emails since she lives in Ecuador, working with bears at a city zoo.
I smiled a weary smile when I initially communicated with her. It had been a long journey to find her, about 6 years.
Conflicted, I was overjoyed to have found Pete’s great-granddaughter and filled with sadness that she was all that was left of Pete. But the best part of talking with Kerry is that she knew nothing about Pete or the Zortman family and I’ve been able to enlighten her about her famous ancestor. I’m hoping to visit Zortman with her next summer.
Looking back on that first call from Candy Kalel, I never expected all the gifts that have come my way because of it.
I never expected to get to know Pete as well as I have. I most certainly never expected to solve the mystery of Pete’s lineage. I never expected to welcome a new Zortman to our family. Nor did I expect to make new friends or visit new places. I most certainly didn’t think I would visit a remote town in Montana and find it to be one of the most special places on earth with the most special people.
All I can say now is that I’m happy that Pete is home where he belongs.
Who says you can’t go home again?