Working your way home – Local man reminisces on a life rooted in Ennis

Ennis resident Don Neville stands next to a pile of old barn wood in his backyard. Neville turns the wood into unique picture frames. Photo by Greg Lemon

Ennis resident Don Neville stands next to a pile of old barn wood in his backyard. Neville turns the wood into unique picture frames. Photo by Greg Lemon

Don Neville’s entrance into this world nearly 80 years ago was fairly humble to hear him tell it.

“I was born on the street of Ennis and I now live one block from where I was born, that’s all the farther I got in life,” Neville said with a sly chuckle.

However, in the 80 years between then and now, he has seen a lot of things come to pass and has lived and worked all over the Northwest.

Neville, who worked on major construction projects around the region, has helped build freeways, bridges and major dams.

“There’s never been a dull moment,” he said.

Neville’s a quiet man, who likes to tell stories that make people laugh. Most people know him by his nickname “Kid,” which his dad gave him when he was young.

Neville was born in a little room in the Fitzgerald Hotel, which was located in Ennis about where the Lone Elk Mall is. The room he was born in was actually a small cabin separate from the hotel. It was a common place for people to go when they were sick and needed a doctor, Neville said.

His birth announcement in The Madisonian was tucked at the end of Ennis community news.

“A son was born to Mr. and Mrs. Ed Neville February 7, 1931, at the Fitzgerald hotel in Ennis. Mrs. J.A. McAllister is nurse in charge.”

Don Neville was born in Ennis and grew up in the Madison Valley. Here he is as a 3-year-old. Submitted photo

Don Neville was born in Ennis and grew up in the Madison Valley. Here he is as a 3-year-old. Submitted photo

News of Neville’s grand arrival into the world was immediately followed by news of the Ennis town basketball team.

“Saturday evening the basketball town team of Ennis was defeated by the Montana Power boys of Bozeman. The score, which doesn’t look very good in print, was 65 to 15.”

Neville was born to Ed and Annie Neville. Ed was a cowboy and ranch hand around the Madison Valley and Annie did several cooking jobs and spent most of her working years cooking at the school.

Ed came to Ennis from Loveland, Colo. Annie was born here, and was part of the Thexton clan.

Unbeknownst to his parents, Neville was born with a hearing impairment. It wasn’t discovered until he tried to make his way to his father through a corral full of wild horses. His parents tried shouting at him to stop, fearful he would be tromped by the animals, but the 3-year-old boy never heard them.

His handicap would allow him to hear some noise, but made learning in school difficult.

“I was around my dad when he was cussing and I did hear that,” Neville laughed.

In 1949 he got a hearing aid, the first one in the valley and it made a wonderful difference.

Neville was one of five children born to Ed and Annie and the only boy. He has three sisters, Mary Ann, Pearl and Darlene. Tragically, one sister died as an infant.

“We lived all over the valley at different times, where ever work was,” he said. “I knew everybody in the valley then.”

A couple of his closest friends growing up still live in town, Chuck Armitage and Jack Kirby.

In those days, Neville traipsed up and down the valley hunting and fishing and working odd jobs at local ranches when he wasn’t in school or playing basketball.

It was a Madison Valley much different, in some ways, than it is now, he said. The road through town was dirt and went straight across the river to Jeffers. Ennis had about 200 residents and a good fisherman could catch his limit of 15 fish just about anywhere on the river.

One his favorite activities growing up, was waterfowl hunting. He remembers vividly the first goose he shot.

As a kid, Neville couldn’t afford a shotgun so he borrowed one from either Jack Beal or Ed Olson, who was the superintendent at the school.

“One day I stopped at the barber shop and bought a $3 goose call,” he said.

He took his call and Olson’s shotgun and headed down to the bridge at the edge of town. He blew on the call and pretty soon a flock of geese showed up flying south along the river.

Neville wasn’t sure if they were responding to his call or just happened by, but nevertheless they were out of range, so he hopped on his bike, dropped off Olson’s shotgun and started riding his bike for home.

“I’m blowin’ the goose call riding my bike up the street of Ennis,” he said.

Pretty soon he saw another flock of geese heading right toward town. Neville just happened to be by Beal’s house, so he ran in and quickly borrowed the shotgun and as the flock flew over town he brought one down from Beal’s back porch.

“Everybody in town saw that goose going and wondered who’d done that,” Neville said with a grin. “Luckily the game warden wasn’t in town.”

Like most boys in Ennis, Neville played basketball and the high school team during his years, was pretty good.

He remembers one game with Twin Bridges that went into two overtimes. Ennis had a chance to win it on free throws, but couldn’t convert. But with time ticking away in the second overtime, Neville tipped in a rebound for the victory. His team that year took third in the district.

After high school, Neville’s first job was to help reroute the road from Ennis to Virginia City, placing it in its current location. On his first construction job, Neville ran a dump truck for $10 a day. In subsequent years, the pay and responsibility increased as he travelled across the Northwest.

Neville worked on building the highway between West Yellowstone and Bozeman, back when no one was living in Big Sky.

In Lewiston, Idaho he worked to build the Little Goose and Lower Granite Dams on the lower Snake River, which helped bring barges up the river all the way to the edge of Idaho.

In Lewiston Neville married Lavon Baler from Driggs, Idaho in 1961. A year later the couple had a daughter, Bonney.

The couple stayed in Lewiston for 13 years before moving on following the work, just like his father did when he was a child.

Another big project Neville worked on was the last piece of Interstate 84 near American Falls. From the back of a piece of heavy equipment, Neville saw rivers dammed, Interstates built and old dusty farm roads paved and communities connected.

Neville and his wife divorced in 1985 and in 1991 he retired and two years later returned to Ennis to take care of his mother.

Don Neville shows off his small shop where he spends time crafty his handmade picture frames. Photo by Greg Lemon

Don Neville shows off his small shop where he spends time crafty his handmade picture frames. Photo by Greg Lemon

Now he keeps busy building picture frames in his cozy wood shop. His material of choice is either old barnwood or old cedar fence posts. Not one to sit and twiddle his thumbs, Neville picked up the hobby about 10 years ago.

The old slats of barnwood and stacks of fence posts dominate his back yard. To the unknowing eye, it may look like junk. But Neville knows well how to pull the beauty out of the old wood.

He’s also become quite a dancer over the past few years, as he frequently hits the dance floor with his close friend Karen Shores. The pair finds a dance floor and some music to twirl to at least once a week, he said.

He said the first time he asked Shores out to dinner, she said no. But when he asked her to a dance, she said yes.

Along with his dancing and his picture frames, Neville checks in on old friends around town and helps deliver meals on wheels.

“In the meantime, I’m always in trouble,” he said with a big smile.

One Response to Working your way home – Local man reminisces on a life rooted in Ennis

  1. Shylea Wingard says:

    I always get a kick out of Don at the basketball games or at church. It was nice to learn more about his life. Good article.

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