Born January 1, 1918, Francis McNall has lived the last 96 years of his life on a ranch outside of Sandpoint, Idaho. I was lucky enough to meet him in person, and the time I spent with him that wintry afternoon was delightful. On the kitchen table, old photographs were scattered about. Francis moved from one to the next as he told me stories of traveling in horse-drawn wagons, living in a one-room cabin, raising cattle, teaching school, dancing, love and family. He moved easily through his memories of the last 100 years, tearing up several times as he reminisced. It was endearing. His sincerity and expressions of gratitude, so evident in his stories, brought me close to tears more than once.
Francis moved with his family to the 80-acre ranch north of Sandpoint in 1922, when he was just 4 years old. “Dad drove the four-horse team pulling two wagons. The first wagon was loaded with chickens, pigs and a goose—because Grandma had said you can’t be pioneers without a goose for your down pillows. The second wagon had all the household goods.” Francis’ uncle followed behind on horseback and brought along five cows. The family traveled like this for 120 miles to settle in their new home.
Their new home was a one-room cabin. It was 14-by-16 feet and had just enough room for a kitchen stove, a table and beds. “It was tight for us,” Francis admits with a chuckle. “And we had company! My uncle and cousins stayed with us, too.”
Developing the ranch made work for everyone. Francis remembers helping with the cows at just 5 years old. His younger sister, Lois, also had chores but was a little less helpful he admits with a laugh and a tear. Giving the cows hay during the winter months was one of his chores. As a small boy, he struggled with the full-size pitchfork but felt responsible for the task. Everything then was done by hand, even the milking. Francis started early each morning to bring the cows in from pasture and do the milking by 6am. Francis didn’t have a favorite job caring for the cattle. “I just liked to be with them.”
When they weren’t working, a favorite pastime for Francis, his sister and cousins was playing “horse.” They used a small children’s wagon and would take turns pulling, pretending to be the horse. Francis’ favorite role in this game was to be the skinner (the driver).
Francis has good memories of life on the ranch. He speaks fondly of the horse-drawn mower his father used to cut hay with and working with him to clear portions of the land. They used dynamite to blow up tree stumps and horses to pull out the large chunks. Francis remembers the Long Bridge across Lake Pend Oreille when it was simply a wooden bridge. Highway 95 was a dirt road. And he rode the train for one penny per mile. These were different times, for sure! While reminiscing, Francis tears up frequently. He apologizes and says with a laugh, “I can’t talk about this without crying. It doesn’t matter if it’s sad or good!” Obviously, these memories are of times and people near to his heart.
After graduating from high school, Francis attended the University of Idaho, where he earned a degree in agriculture. He then returned home to the ranch. “They put me through school,” he says of his parents. “I wanted to come back and help Dad.” Francis also began organizing community dances. “During the war, dances became [the thing] to do. We held them at Grouse Creek School.” Dance-goers paid a dime for admission, and this included a dinner of a tuna sandwich, cookies and Kool-Aid.
On what would have been a routine visit to the local Ice and Fuel store, Francis met Beverly. She and her uncle were working when Francis walked into the store. Beverly’s uncle gave her a teasing poke and said, “Beverly, there’s the man for you!” Francis and Beverly spent time together at the community dances, fell in love and were married.
The couple raised seven children together. They lived on the ranch and Francis started teaching school at Northside Elementary in 1957. He taught there for 23 years. Often Francis had 30 or more children in his classroom. Thirty-nine students was the highest number he ever had, and “that was a little too many,” he admits.
Francis was determined to change the stigma of attending a country school. He worked to ensure his students had the same level of education children in the city had access to. It became his personal ambition. Tom Albertson, current principal of Sandpoint High School, was one of Mr. McNall’s former students. “I remember he got me through learning my states and capitals. I don’t think I could have done that without him. He was a very kind man and had good discipline in the classroom. He pushed us to do and try things we wouldn’t have probably done. I have very fond memories of being in his classroom.”
Francis was a teacher in more ways than just the classroom. Janice, Francis’ daughter, explains that her father was always out at recess playing baseball and other games with the students. And during inclement weather in the wintertime, children were invited to spend their inside recess in Mr. McNall’s room learning to dance. He taught the children the waltz, square dance and ballroom dance.
Janice admits that, when she was young, working on the ranch wasn’t something she always enjoyed. “But now,” she reflects, “those are some of my best memories—being with Dad on the ranch. He would tell stories of bringing the cows up the ridge and squirt milk into our mouths while we sat on stools across the milking stall.” Janice and her family recognize what a gem they have in their father. A granddaughter is working to organize pictures and record Francis’ stories, and the entire family gathered to celebrate his 100th birthday on New Year’s Day.
Family life is everything to Francis. He remembers coming home from school to be received by his three little girls. “They made a fuss over me!” He admits tearfully, “That was quite a good feeling.”
Francis is grateful to have lived his life here. “Look at it. It’s beautiful! This is my home.” And, with 100 years of experience, Francis has earned the right to give a little advice. “Go to church,” he says, “and don’t forget to pray.” Then he adds, “Forgive. Don’t hold grudges and brood over what happened in the past. It tears you to pieces.”
Francis has indeed built a legacy. He and Beverly were married for 69 years. They have seven children, 19 grandchildren and 33 great grandchildren. He loves his family, and the tears flow freely as he expresses his gratitude for how they care for him.
As I stood to leave Francis, I was sincerely thankful for the time he spent with me. I felt refocused on what is important for my own life. I thanked him, and he replied with his simple charm, “Thank you for making a nice afternoon for me.”