Archive for June, 2013


June 27, 2013

Land acquisition came hard for early pioneers. Not only were they required to work the homesteaded land planting crops and making improvements but in most of the West, 160 acres was not a sufficient amount for early ranching or dairy herds. It was estimated several years ago that it took over 10 acres of native grass to feed one cow for one year.

Relief from this quandary came in the form of “railroad sections.” (A section of land is 640 acres or quadruple the 160 acres acquired by homesteading.) To provide financial support for building a railroad across the vast expanse of prairie, railroads like the Union Pacific were granted land amounting to twenty miles on each side of the track to sell. The checkerboard railroad sections were either all even or, in some cases, odd numbered sections, making a hopscotch of land. Most railroad sections were sold at the rate of $1 per acre with the total price going to the railroad coffers. (As an aside, wisely the rail companies retained the mineral rights for these sections, never reverting them to the landowners.)

The addition of “railroad sections” to an existing homestead increased the land holdings quickly. In my upcoming book, COAL CREEK RANCH, Charles and Elijah buy the railroad sections adjoining their property. When the men are able to add this land it makes their holdings increase to an eventual 8 and ¼ sections of land, enough to run horses for pulling merchant carts in Denver and eventually for raising a large herd of cattle.

If the homesteader was able to afford the “railroad section”, he or she could make a significant expansion of their property in a hurry.



June 20, 2013

Wildfires are sweeping across the West. Fueled by dried grass and lack of winter moisture and fanned by winds of over 30 miles-per-hour, fire crews are battling the wind as much as the fire.

This scenario is hardly new. For centuries prairie and timber fires have swept across the west. Started by dry lightning, the kind where no rain appears, fires were as common in the 1800’s as they are in 2013. High winds pushed the fires across dry grasses sending panicked elk, deer, antelope, and buffalo ahead of the deadly flames.

But wind was not always the enemy. As homesteads began to dot the prairie landscape, the need for water was apparent. No ranch or farm could exist without access to water. Land fronting rivers or natural lakes was the first land homesteaded, leaving latecomers with no choice but to dig a well or establish a cistern (a dug out holding pond lined with clay) for saving snow melt and rain. Despite the arid appearance of the land, water could usually be found by digging an 80-to-100-foot well. Once the landowner found water, he could build a wooden tower and add a windmill to pump the water from the ground.

The windmill, looking a bit like the modern wind generator, had blades which when the windmill was turned to face the wind would catch the air and facilitate pumping the water to the surface. Water tanks for livestock were set to hold the well water or a storage tank could be used to hold water for household use. The windmill could be turned off by moving the face of the windmill sideways to the wind and tying off the mill to prevent pumping more water.

Dempster and Aeromotor supplied most of the six-foot long windmill blades that pumped water to the parched prairie but several other smaller companies made blades. Occasionally a talented or impoverished rancher or homesteader would make his own replacement blades if his “store-bought” ones failed.

I promise next week’s blog will be about railroad sections. Just couldn’t get the wind out of my hair this week.


June 6, 2013

Huckster—the word evokes all kinds of sinister images in the modern mind, but in reality the dictionary defines huckster as a peddler. Hucksters in the 1800’s traveled from distant outposts and farmsteads selling notions—pins, needles, and perhaps a yard or two of brightly colored cloth.

The huckster was CNBC or CNN in a wagon. He brought news from the neighbors and the outside world. Far from a flimflam man, he often traded his goods for a good meal or a bit of hay for his livestock.

Traveling in a zigzag pattern over the Nebraska and Kansas plains, it is no wonder that it took my grandfather and his father more than a year to travel from their former home in Erie, Ohio to Denver, Colorado. When they arrived in Denver, they made the easy transition from hucksters to freighters into the Rocky Mountains.

The huckster wagon was a marvelous maze of compartments and cubbies each containing a treasure for a price. Items the pioneers were forced to leave along the westward trail were conjured from the depths of the huckster’s wagon to the delight of homestead husbands and wives. The replacement for broken scissors or a much-needed bottle of horse liniment emerged from the hidden recesses of the huckster’s wagon.

Yes, there were a few questionable traders out there, not my grandfather that I could discover, but for the homesteaders and ranch families of the plains the huckster’s wagon