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John Henry Wilcott:
A Pioneer Twice Over

by D. Llewellyn Drong

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Chapter 4

Part 4: Insight

" upright man who had a
meaningful insight into the world."

     Ethel Frost adds more insight into John Wilcott’s struggles for the Faith and his formidable isolation. She indicates that he never saw another Bahá'í for thirty-five years except for his mother. It was therefore an outstanding occasion when Professor Ward and family visited and gave a lecture in the school house in Winifred where John’s children had attended school. She says "Dad was proud and as enthusiastic as when he entered the Faith!" She adds, "After my husband became a Bahá'í it was grand for father as we constantly kept him in touch with things. It was hard for him to understand Shoghi Effendi, as it was for a lot of the so-called '`Abdu'l-Bahá Bahá'ís'." John’s isolation during the Ascension of `Abdu'l-Bahá and the establishment of the Guardianship meant that an important transition in the Faith passed him by. Ethel Frost moved to Butte, Montana during or after 1936 where it was much easier to be in contact with Bahá'í affairs. John occasionally visited Butte some long time after his daughter’s move and, "so were priviliged to have him meet many Bahá'ís"

     Arithmetic dictates that the Ward visit was in 1946. About 1948, Victoria Bedikian, known to the friends of the time as "Auntie Victoria" was traveling around the United States "on foot". Auntie Victoria had sustained considerable correspondence with many Bahá'ís, especially children, for years. As a lover of children, she often added special features in her correspondence for them. Frost remembers letters "with all her little pretty drawings all made on a hectograph pad." It apparently was because of a network of Bahá'í children’s groups that she had set up that Victoria was able to assist the Wilcott family as per the April 2, 1932 letter quoted above

     Finally, one especially interesting detail seems appropriate here from Ethel Frost’s remembrances that comes from the days of 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "He obeyed everything that Abdul Baha told him. He told him he must 'stay at his post' thus nothing could drag him away. He also told him that he could drink whiskey because it was so cold there and dangerous with the snakes was the cheapest and easiest to buy in the wilderness. You could not convince him that he couldn't till the day he died!" This can make a little sense in the context of the prohibition on drinking in the West not being instated until the early days of the Guardian.

     John Wilcott’s life in the 1940s and 1950s appears to have become a much more comfortable one. Frost says, "Dad farmed until he retired with the government pension at 65 years of age." That would have been 1937. It may have been this time when his section of land was divided. John gave a portion of it to the town of Winifred to be used for a cemetery. To this time, however, it all remains agricultural land except the site of the homestead where the cabin remains and John, Johana and Eliza are buried. Frost recalls, "When I left home in 1936 our ranch consisted of 640 acres." Today, there are 160 acres which is leased for ranching by the family.

      He did continue to do odd jobs for people and get pay for them, or bartered work for goods. John acquired Civil Conservation Corps certificates for welding and sign painting in 1938 and presumably put them to good use. Of course, they always had a garden, and some income came from the leasing of land to area ranchers. Johana, twenty years younger than John, was a certified midwife and, doubtless, had contributed much toward the income of the family for years. She continued her practice. Grandchildren of John and Johana recall, on their visits in the 1950s, having a lot of company their own age of children that Johana had helped deliver and whose parents were close friends. The cabin remained a very nice home that John kept up. Built of log, it was two stories, chinked with concrete and solid. It was heated by a very fine and ornate wood stove. The second well on the homestead since 1911 went dry during the 1930s so John commenced hauling water on a regular basis from a neighbor. He used milk cans and the arrangement met their needs into the 1960s. In 1962 John had electricity and telephone installed at the cabin.

     Snapshots of the family going back to the 1920s and coming down through the 1950s offer windows on pieces of family life. When not working, John maintained the habit of wearing a nice shirt and tie. A family picnic picture shows John and Johana with the three children dressed as if on a Sunday after church, blankets spread for a pleasant time on the grass. Another shows John with a pipe. As an aside, it is intriguing to find, amongst his personal things, his old Alsacian pipes. These were the old fashioned German style of pipe with the tightly curved bit, long cherry wood shank, deep ornate bowl with a lid and decorative cords. Other pictures show farm life; feeding the chickens, moving hay, fixing the roof. One shot shows the result of a successful bird hunt with a good number of pheasant spread out on the autumn snow.

     One particularly striking feature of John in all the photographs of him is his inherent dignity. There is no apparent stoop of age, but always a straight-standing, strong willed and dignified man in them all. He had a full head of hair into his old age which turned fully white. The whole image is one of an upright man who had a meaningful insight into the world.

     On the old family homestead are three graves. One is Eliza’s, who died in 1918, the first woman Bahá'í to settle in Montana for the purpose of teaching the Faith. One is of Johana, a woman who was strong of heart and who impressed others as one as committed to Bahá'u'lláh’s message as her husband. A woman who, foregoing her return to the comforts and lifestyle of St. Louis, married and stood by her husband loyally through the harshest of years and ministered to the needs of her neighbors and of mothers on the prairie. She died in 1962 at the age of seventy. Between the two is the grave of John.

     After the death of Johana, John was brought to Great Falls by his son, Norman. Having spent so much of his life in wild areas and countryside, he was never satisfied with life in even a little city and so stayed in this home almost entirely before his death by old age. But even at this time of his life the Faith was a motivating force to him. Frost recounts that he wanted his death to be the last way that he could teach the Faith, through a Bahá'í funeral. But because the children were scattered, Ethel to Puerto Rico and Wanda (who is not a Bahá'í) to Alaska, Norman, whose religious convictions also laid elsewhere, provided a proper Methodist service for John.

     Today, the family, diverse in their religious convictions (only Ethel is a Bahá'í) and with the variety of viewpoints and feelings every family has, expresses a common pride in John Wilcott. Bahá'ís see him as a Bahá'í pioneer to Montana, settling in a place to teach and establish the Faith in an act of personal sacrifice, fortitude and Faith in God. His family, however, know him personally as a pioneer of the American West, a homesteader whose will with grit, determination and that same faith in the God of us all planted himself in the Montana prairie and let himself become a part of it. This was a man whose determined will brought him to the West and, with faith, brought him through all the trouble the West could give him. John Henry Wilcott was truly a pioneer twice over.
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