By ELLA MAE HOWARD
You would have to overturn a lot of stones in Powder River County, probably a big chunk of Carter County, and some of the south end of Custer County to find a soul who does not know Lyman Amsden and his Broadus, MT., Corner Store.
“I don’t know how they know my name, but when they need propane, they always ask for Lyman,” said the owner of the Lyman’s Corner Store, which is there because 13 years ago, it was going to be left empty, and Amsden did not want to see that happen, so he and his wife, Anne, took it on.
Amsden, 91, stands something less than 6 feet. Short, cropped gray hair can be seen when the baseball cap comes off. Scales would say his weight is not much more than a few pounds over what he weighed when he enlisted in the Navy some 70 years ago. He has no slump to his shoulders. His fingers still work a deck of cards as if they were strings on a concert violin. And the rascal twinkle in his eyes that caused his Mom and Dad to shake their heads in agreement, “that’s our youngest son”—it’s still there.
Amsden’s favorite spot in the store is where you can touch his collection of WWII era items needed to charge and shoot the big guns on his Navy ship, the USS Formoe. The veteran explained how he loaded 3-inch shells into the ship’s anti-aircraft gunnery and slipped behind the gun to pull the trigger: It was easy to feel the emotion that remained in this man after all the years of his walking the deck of his ship.
Big gun shells share the wall with photographs of his brother Bill, who saw action at Iwo Jima and Art at Guadalcanal, images of the Formoe, and portraits of his family…as well as a photo of the King of Sweden, a dead-ringer for Amsden.
A large black-and-white of a man on horseback dominates the right-hand side of Amsden’s Corner Store wall. It’s his Dad. In the background, a log house and out buildings of the homestead era can be seen. “It was my home, where I was raised,” he said.
Amsden remembers his father Ralph as a firm disciplinarian, who laid the law down for his five sons and one daughter. When the boys had an interest in smoking and drinking, Mr. Amsden told them that as long as they were living under his roof, they would not drink or smoke.
With a quick laugh, Amsden did admit to smoking one cigarette under his Dad’s roof. A cowboy rode through the Amsden’s homestead and stopped to use the outhouse. In the process of taking care of business, he left a handrolled cigarette on the seat. Young Amsden found it, lit it, and had a smoke. At dinner that evening, Ralph asked his family who had been smoking. “Everyone looked at me, but I didn’t get whipped,” said Amsden.
During the long days of summer, the Amsden boys had plenty of time to test their parents’ patience, and the 1910 homestead, which sat on the dividing ridge about 10 miles north of Broadus, provided plenty of room for the boys to get away after they had crossed their father’s line.
Amsden laughed as he remembered the day he and his brothers had gotten on top of the roof of the house. The boys knew better than to get on the dirt roof, but they did it anyway, and when they were heard their father snap the razer strap, four of the five boys jumped off and ran to the farthest corners of the homestead. One boy was too small to jump and had to crawl down.
“Dad got me with the whip,” said Amsdan, “The other boys stayed hidden all day.”
His first memory of the town of Broadus, he recalled, was back in the 30’s, when his family saw a Tom Gilmore staged rodeo on the east side of the town. He remembered this trip, not for the rodeo action, but for the first time he had ever seen a hamburger. “I had never seen anything like a hamburger.” Father Ralph gave each of the children a silver dollar, part of which they were allowed to spend, and part of which they were expected to save. After the rodeo as the family returned home in the work wagon, the kids were asked if any of them had any money left over.
Amsden had no money in his pocket. He had spent every part of that silver dollar on hamburgers.
It was during a trip to their neighbors’ house that the Amsden family heard the news of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.
“For some reason, our radio wasn’t working, probably the batteries were dead, so we hadn’t heard about the attack,” Amsden remarked. “I don’t think I understood the gravity of the news. I wasn’t that old.” But the Japanese attack would change the course of life for the five Amsden boys.
Two of the boys volunteered right away, leaving their jobs at the CC camp to join the Army. Amsden wanted to follow his brothers, but he was only 17, and his Father would not let him go. When he turned 18, Amsden met with the Draft Board, and in a few months, he caught the train in Miles City and headed for San Diego.
By the time Amsden got into the Navy, the war was winding down. Most of his WWII service was spent training other young men in the protocol of firing the big deck-mounted guns. He did spend 11 months in the Philippines then left the Navy after the war.
When the Korean War broke out, he signed up for four years. He got into a 16-week training school.
“I wanted to shoot those big guns,” he said. “Plus it was a job, there wasn’t much for work around Broadus.” Things changed rather quickly for the young man from Southeastern Montana when one day, he left blank gun cartridges in a tool box. A supervisor found the shells and gave him a good chewing out. It didn’t take Amsden long to realize that the “chewing out” had dampened his excitement for the military, so he left the service and came home to Broadus.
“I hung around the bars, swamping and dealing cards,” he said. “Anything to make some money.” He took work running a wheel barrow. It wasn’t much fun, so when his brother asked him to come to work for him, Amsden put down the wheel barrow and started learning how to get electricity moving through a maze of wires, switches, and boxes. He never had to run a wheel barrow again. For 50 years, Lyman Amsden was the best-known and busiest electrician in Powder River County. He looked out the window of his Corner Store and said, “I wired pretty much everything in this town. Not the IGA store or the new elementary school, all the rest though.”
Amsden met his wife, Anne, in high school. She was the sister of the girl whom he thought he would marry. But as life moved along, she married someone else. Amsden turned his focus to Anne Earley. Next year, the couple will celebrate 60 years together.
Then there is the Lymen Amsden who has been the elected mayor of Broadus for 23-and-a-half years. He got beat once, but in the subsequent election, folks re-elected him mayor again. He is proud of the appreciation plaque the folks of Broadus gave him, which says, “Thanks for keeping the ship afloat.”