Jack McDermott was a city boy but he grew up watching romantic westerns on TV, filling him with a longing to homestead a piece of land in Oregon as a sort of cowboy-pioneer.
His problem was that, being a New Yorker, he knew virtually nothing about it. His big stroke of luck was migrating to the Rogue Valley in the mid-1970s, finding 40 acres in the Lake Creek area and, best of all, becoming friends with his next-door neighbor — Henry Pech, a modern-day mountain man who knew the ways of the wild, and his wife, Marguerite.
Henry Pech taught him everything needed to survive in the backcountry, said McDermott, who recently published the story of those years, “The Legend of Henry Pech,” and will give a reading-signing at 2 p.m., Saturday, June 2, at the Medford Barnes & Noble, 1400 Biddle Road.
“He was a modern-day pioneer and taught me a lot of practical knowledge for country living,” said McDermott, in a phone interview from his present home in Pennsylvania. His trip to Southern Oregon will include fishing on the Rogue, a passion he picked up in his days with Pech.
“He was about in his late 60s to early 70s in those days and lived on land homesteaded by his mother and father in the late 1800s,” says McDermott. “He was quite a man and really made an impression on me. A lot of what he taught me was practical living and common sense, but you still need to be taught it.”
For example, McDermott thought he’d get into beekeeping, doing it the proper way, but Pech taught him to sit by the creek and wait for wild bees to show him.
“He tracked them. He watched them drink from the creek and would follow them for miles into the backcountry, where he’d find a hive in a hollow tree. He’d cut down the tree, and we shared honey from the hive.”
Pech and McDermott would hang out and shop at the nearby general store, where they warmed their boots by a big pot-bellied stove.
“He built a sawmill out of old tractor parts and would cut and plane shingles for the house I built and lived in. He had a huge potato patch, and a butcher shop in his barn where I learned to butcher deer, bear and elk. Pigs were different. You can’t get their hides off. You have to boil it and scrape it, trying to get the pork, ham, bacon and pork chops.”
McDermott notes, “Especially for someone from New York, it was a real eye-opening experience for me. I learned lots of things I never would have learned, and we raised a son and daughter there. They enjoyed it. … Writing this book, I felt I had to pay tribute to Henry. He was such a great guy and helped me so much. I wanted to pay him back.”
The mountain man’s daughter, Marlene Lois Pech, now 74 and living in Merlin, grew up on her dad’s farm, and remembers McDermott, saying, “He was an honest, hard-working man, out to learn all he could, and my dad had a really fun time with him.
“Jack’s garden was totally weedless. He wanted to live off the land, though we didn’t really have to. We canned everything. We’d go over to Klamath Falls and pick up the little potatoes in the field and canned them for stews and hash browns.”
Pech had three children, Henry, Jack and Marlene, all of whom still live in the Rogue Valley. Dwight Pech, the son of Jack Pech, still owns and lives on the Lake Creek property, working as a cabinet maker for his company, DP Countertop. Marlene says Dwight, like his grandfather, “is a mountain man, hunting, fishing and gardening. He and all the grandchildren knew him and helped him a lot.”
Pech’s son Hank, 83, of Sam’s Valley, recalls the author as “hard-working, lived off the land, a very interesting man, interested in everything.”
Of his childhood in Lake Creek, Hank says, “Growing up there was fantastic. It couldn’t have been no better. My dad lived his whole life up there. It’s not like it was back then. We had not many people or roads. If someone put up their hay, all the neighbors would get together and put their hay in. If they raised a pole barn, everyone would get together and cook a big meal and raise it.”
The blurb from Barnes & Noble calls the book a “nostalgic reflection on the life and quiet wisdom of a true mountain man … who lived a simple, yet refined lifestyle.” Proceeds from book sales, it adds, will benefit Lake Creek Historical Society.
The children of Henry Pech will be at the Barnes & Noble book signing.
Marlene, though she wasn’t supposed to read the book before its launch, says, “I love it. It’s my dad. It’s him and Jack, sitting out on the lawn having a beer.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.