Colorful Character-Jean Duffey
Spring 2020 Issue written and photographed by Cyd Hoefle
The Sweetheart of Sweet Grass County
Jean Duffey gently rocked in the shade of her deck, as she read the paper and enjoyed a cup of coffee.
“I love it here,” she said. “It’s so tranquil. Just look across the meadow, that’s about as pastoral as it gets.”
Jean’s flock of sheep grazed nearby and her one-eyed dog, Imagene, lounged contentedly at her side. Jean has spent almost her entire life on the Duffey Ranch, which was established in 1906 and is located on Deer Creek outside of Big Timber. She’s a grandmother, a great grandmother, a vocal Republican, conservative Lutheran, a pillar in the community and a mother figure to many.
“I suppose I could be called stubborn,” she laughed, “and maybe that’s why I’m still around. I like to stay busy. I’m afraid if I slow down, that’s when I’ll shut down!”
Jean lives at the family homestead where she and her late husband raised five children. After the death of her in-laws and husband, she remodeled the original log home, added on to it, and for years it was a popular bed and breakfast.
“It’s been fun for me,” she said. “We’ve had weddings, retreats and family reunions here. It’s been a wonderful place and I’ve enjoyed sharing it.”
A heart attack two years ago threatened to slow the 87 year old woman down.
“It was a bad one,” she admitted. “The doctor said it was what they call a ‘widow maker.’” Usually one of her daughters checks in on her daily, but on that day, neither of them was available so Jean decided to drive herself to the doctor in Big Timber. She was immediately flown to Billings.
“I guess it was more serious than I thought!” she said.
Jean has recovered well and believes it’s due to refusing to slow down. She loves her sheep and just added several more ewes and two rams to her growing flock. “I like to do chores, look after the sheep, irrigate, anything I can get away with.”
Her children are a large part of why she still lives on the ranch after all these years. “Mary Ann and Tom do try to rein me in now and then,” she laughed, referring to one of her daughters and son-in-law. Her other three daughters and son take turns coming home to help throughout the year.
The bed and breakfast is no longer operating except for special occasions, which includes two weeks in late June when the entire family converges on the ranch. “It’s my favorite time,” Jean said with a smile, “Everyone stays here. The kids play in the creek and there’s lots of visiting. We fix lots of food and just enjoy our time together.”
Reflecting back, Jean said, “I’ve outlived almost all of my friends, but I feel like they left me with their kids and I love that. I have so enjoyed becoming friends with the children of my friends. There are so many of them that are ambitious and doing good things! I like to encourage them because their parents aren’t around to do it.”
It’s important to Jean to remain in contact with her family. “I talk to them often,” she said. “I like to stay in touch. There’s nothing that beats a sit down talk over a cup of coffee.”
On this day, Jean’s list of things to do included irrigating. She fired up the ATV and called for her dog. Bouncing across the hay field and going through two barbed wire gates doesn’t stop her from checking the water multiple times per day and adjusting the valves to make sure that the area she was irrigating was covered enough.
“I’m pretty tough,” she said, “and really, if it’s my time to go, I’m ready. Really I am.”
She had this advice for enjoying life: “Just enjoy it. Don’t get stressed out over things. Stay active and connected and try to laugh every day.”