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Not much is known about Ira Stephens Nelson, author of “On Sarpy Creek”.
What is known is that he spent some time living in Montana as a foster child. It is possible that he lived in the Billings area, where Sarpy Creek is located. (Today there is a highway exit off the interstate highway indicating the location of Sarpy Creek.) He wrote his book in the midst of the Depression, and it was originally published in 1938. Perhaps because the country was shortly swept up in World War II, there was never a second press run and the book soon fell into obscurity. However, an excerpt from the book appears in Joseph Kinsey Howard’s 1949 edition of “Montana Margins: A State Anthology” along with a glowing review of the book.
It is not known what Ira Nelson did with his life, or where he went, or who he knew. The facts are skeletal: he traveled a lot. He married a woman who had three daughters. He died in Georgia, where he was the caretaker and maintenance man for an estate. He never published any other works, though his stepdaughters say he tended to write copiously.
A few years ago, Scott Mainwaring was researching a literary project when he happened across a review of “On Sarpy Creek” which was printed in a teacher’s magazine published in the 1950s. The review sparked his interest, and he found an original copy of the book at the Montana Historical Society. At that point, he became interested in republishing the book and began to search for Ira Nelson in order to ask permission. Several years passed without turning up news of Ira. Then, he and his literary-minded friends hired a private detective. The detective located a recent death certificate for Ira. Ira had been alive during the prolonged search, but died in 1994 just before contact was made. Tragically, he never saw the republication of his book.
His stepdaughters, when contacted, never even knew he had ever written a book.