Harry J. Benjamin, age 88, lifelong Toole County resident and retired farmer, died at his home in Shelby on May 11, 2020 as a result of old age.
Harry was born March 18, 1932 to Clarence Elonzo “Lon” and Berta (Duncan) Benjamin in Toole County, Montana. His mother’s family (Tucker and Eva Lena Duncan) came from Missouri and settled south of Galata on land now part of the Sisk Ranch. His father’s folks (John and Laura Benjamin) came from Indiana via Kendrick, Idaho, and settled south of Devon.
As a boy, Harry learned to work hard and long, and he had to grow up fast when his older brother, Wallace, died suddenly during harvest in 1943. This experience left a lasting impression on Harry that he spoke about often throughout his life. Harry left school before completing eighth grade, preferring work on the farm. Harry married Jeane Fortune in May 1949. At age 17, they were too young to marry in Montana, so they traveled to Denver with their mothers as chaperones, where it was legal to marry if a parent consented. They started life together in Spokane, Wash., where they lived in a 16’ camper and Harry worked at a service station. After a year, they were asked to come home to the Devon farm, where they settled on Harry’s grandpa John Benjamin’s homestead and remained for 60 years, farming and raising their family.
Harry’s first tractor was a McCormick WD6. In 1950, he put 900 hours on it, pulling a 10’ cultivator. The next year, with a WD9 and a bigger plow, he managed to only put 500 hours. Harry enjoyed farm work and building things in the shop. His older brother, Norman, was a big help to him, especially in early years when their Dad had just died and they were raising families side-by-side and building the house, shop, grain bins and storage sheds.
In the 1960s, Harry sold office supplies and equipment from a mobile van, was a federal crop insurance adjuster and was a distributor for some of the early Medical Alert phone devices on the market.
Harry had been raised to fear the Lord. As a young man, he maybe got “too busy” for this few years, but at around the age of 30, Harry renewed his commitment to the Lord, and this grew in importance for him more and more as he got older. He loved to share about how his parents came to hear the Gospel in the late 1920s. In 1966, Harry and Jeane began inviting folks to attend the annual Christian convention at their farm, and Harry truly loved the privilege of having people come year after year and enjoy meetings and fellowship.
In the early 1970s, Harry was among 23 Devon area neighbors who worked together to develop a community water system. Harry and Jeane turned the farm over to the kids, and spent five years in the Flathead valley, developing a subdivision named Fountain Farms. Next, they bought an empty Safeway building in Great Falls and converted it into a boutique mall, operating their own Highwire Pies & Restaurant for a few years and renting out space to a variety of salons, retail shops, and offices. The 2 J’s Grocery was the first tenant and they are still in the building today. Harry was proud of Jeane and her 35 flavors of pie fresh daily. They also operated a contract U.S. Post Office in the same building until they sold the entire complex in 1994.
Harry loved to entertain kids, and developed a traveling business out of his custom built pedal tractors and other toys. Harry and Jeane took this on the road for several years, entertaining kids at fairs and carnivals from Northern B.C. all the way to Louisiana. At age 68, Harry had an idea for a deep ripping plow that could install water pipes below the frostline, about five feet deep. The machine was successful and soon became a full time business, Triangle Pipeline Company, with several trucks, Cats, and other equipment. Harry sold this business to his dedicated employees, the Johannessen Brothers, of Loring, Mont., in 2005.
To make room for the next generation on the farm, Harry and Jeane moved to Shelby in 2010, where Harry quickly became a community grandpa, helping with the community gardens, building toys and features for the fair parades, and restoring a 1930s water display for the Splash Park. His volunteer work at the High School Vo-Ed shop earned him an honorary high school diploma in 2013. The Carousel Rest Area project in his final years was a real joy to him, and he appreciated the support and respect the community gave it. He especially valued the many deep friendships gained over the years, in all of these projects.
Harry is survived by his wife of 71 years, Jeane; and their seven children, Jerry, Lloyd, Cliff, Marlene, Marvin, Shirley and Steve; along with two nieces they raised, Juanita Anderson and Roberta Clouser; as well as grand and great-grandchildren, a large extended family and many special neighbors and friends. Of his 10 siblings, his sister, Phoebe Surrat, is still living. Harry and Jeane lost an infant daughter, Laurie, in 1951.
Burial with a brief service for local family has taken place in the Devon, Mont., cemetery, where Harry prepared a native headstone several years ago that reads: “Fair are the prospects all ahead!”