Archive for the ‘Blogs’ Category

HARVESTING: NEARLY THE END

August 1, 2014

There’s not a bunch of information left to give you on the frontier and homesteaders. I’ve pretty much covered the palatable subjects about frontier life and I think I’ll leave the gross ones alone. There are plenty of gross ones, but I doubt you want to read them and I don’t want to write them. Today I’m going to spend a little time talking about harvesting the crops the homesteader was required to plant in order to “prove-up” on a piece of land.

In order to receive homestead papers, some sort of crop needed to be produced on a homestead. This crop needed to be more than hay for livestock or a garden for the family. Farming in Colorado, much like anywhere in the west is an adventure. Some years, like this year, rain comes in a deluge, accompanied by flooding and super saturated land resembling potter’s clay. Other years like the 1930’s no rain comes, a hot wind kills any plant that tries to grow, and dust reigns supreme. This made the odds of harvesting a crop a lot higher than they are at the poker tables in Las Vegas.

Homesteaders tried growing wheat. A few hardy strains of hard, winter wheat were developed which could be harvested in late July. At first the grain was scattered by hand and the grains that fell on fertile ground would sprout in spring and produce a small crop weather permitting. Before horse-drawn machinery, the wheat was cut with a hand held scythe (much like ancient times), bundled and threshed with wooden beater bars. Later the grain was harvested with horse-drawn cutters and eventually the shocks of wheat would be thrown into a horse-powered thresher.

Corn was harvested in a similar manner, but early Colorado farmers learned that corn was not a good dry land crop and grew better near river and creek bottoms.

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HOME, SWEET HOMESTEAD

August 18, 2013

If it weren’t for the Homestead Act of 1862 the western portion of the United States might have remained unpopulated for at least another fifty years or longer. President Abraham Lincoln’s foresight hastened the settlement by offering plots of land, approximately 160 acres at $1 per acre, or for free, if the homesteader was willing to live on the land and work it (read that as putting in some type of viable crop) for at least five years.

Homesteaders had to be at least 21 years of age or the head of a household to take advantage of the Homestead Act. Thus my grandfather who was but 17, was able to claim his portion of the Homestead dream and file for a homestead plot.

Even current day residents of Eastern Colorado will tell you that 160 acres is a pitiful acreage for raising any kind of livestock. Weather in eastern Colorado is totally unpredictable and ranges from the average of 18 inches of moisture a year to a high of 25 inches or a low of 10 or less. This precipitation includes winter snows through summer showers or downpours. This means native pasture grasses are frequently dry or non-existent.

Making a home on the Colorado plains for early homesteaders involved a success rate akin to the gambling odds of winning a million dollars in Las Vegas. The rule for homesteaders was that bigger was always better. Homestead families linked as many 160 acre plots together as possible in order to make a viable ranch living. An old rule for ranchers was that it took 20 acres to feed one cow for a year, so if the ranching homesteader wanted to have enough animals to survive–everyone homesteaded. In addition to the family lands, homesteaders purchased railroad sections to add to their holdings, but I’ll talk about them later.

August 18, 2013

 

For those who’ve picked up my book, Willow Switch, and found it so different from my thriller work, perhaps some explanation is in order. Willow Switch is the fictionalized account of true events. From my personal view, it was a story that needed to be told since it didn’t deal with gold seekers or discontents.

In the late 1870’s probably around 1877 or 1878, Elijah Everitt gave up his Lake Erie fishing fleet and chose to move west. The fleet had burned to the waterline at least three, and perhaps as many as seven times. (It depends on which story version you like.)

Elijah left his oldest son, John Edward, his wife, and young daughter in Ohio. With his youngest son Charles Monroe and a wagon stocked with notions, Elijah began his trek to Denver in the new state of Colorado. Most accounts say the trip took nearly two years, as the men wandered throughout the mid-west peddling their wares to isolated farms and ranches.

Along the way, perhaps somewhere in Iowa, Elijah became ill and was forced to spend several weeks, if not months recuperating. Some of the family suspects the illness may have been tuberculosis which was rampant at that time. Whatever the source, the illness further delayed the trip.

Willow Switch

picks incidents to give the reader a snapshot of the trip, but you can be assured that the men encountered more adversity and calamity that the book relates.

WESTERN EDUCATION 1880’S STYLE

August 18, 2013

By 1800, the eastern states of the United States had a set education pattern. Young people entered the system to reinforce what had already been started at home. Unless the family was devoid of educated members, children had a working knowledge of the alphabet and basic numbers. Using the Bible as a basis for reading, some parents had even taught their children to read. The eastern education system took over from the basics and educated children through at least eighth grade.

West of the Mississippi education took on another form. Other than medium-sized towns where enough children justified a school building, education was left for parents to handle. Far-flung homesteads didn’t warrant the hiring of a schoolmarm or furnishing of a building, desks, and books.

One Colorado resident, Miriam Fonder, began her own school because the children in the area were becoming “ruffians.” Eventually taxes were assessed to pay a minimal teacher’s salary and supplies but were discontinued for a year because of “Indian” problems. According to some stories at one point, a Ute chief and his “braves” stomped into the one-room school, held a book upside-down, and finally stomped out much to the relief of Mrs. Fonder and her students.

As the children’s population increased some pioneers solved the education in a manner similar to the Rattlesnake School District in eastern Colorado where the school was placed on skids (later on wheels) and moved to the place of greatest school population.

What follows are a couple of questions from an 1895’s Kansas Eighth Grade Final school test which may give you a better idea of why an eighth grade education was sufficient. Unfortunately, I have no idea where this test came from so can’t attribute it to its proper owner.

4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.

WAGONS WEST!

August 18, 2013

They look so wonderful in old movies and Western television shows!  Those sleek, frequently white, horses pulling pioneer wagons and stages across the lush green Western prairie.  BUT, here is the reality.  Commonly, horses were not used in pulling wagons or stagecoaches across the plains.  Even the heartiest Percheron or Clydesdales weren’t used for the drudgery of wagon pulling in most cases.  Why?  Those handsome steeds were too expensive.

So, now you ask, what did they use?  Most wagons and stagecoaches were pulled by mules. Not nearly as romantic as those white horses, but more dependable and less likely to step in a hole or a wagon rut and break a leg.  The other animal of choice was the ox.  The lumbering oxen made slow progress, only about seven miles per day.  Small wonder it took months to reach the gold fields of California or Colorado.  Many folks who headed for the gold fields chose to walk.  They could make better daily mileage by walking than the ox team.

With animals another problem faced migrating pioneers.  Water and animal food were a constant concern.  Once they left the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, pioneers learned that many of the water sources in the West were rushing torrents in spring and dried sand in summer.  Water barrels helped with the problem, but the miles between places to fill barrels were long. 

So wipe those romantic ideas out of your brain.  Traveling West was a grueling, dry, miserable undertaking, and horses need not apply.

SUPPLIES ON THE MOVE

July 25, 2013

The increase in western population in the late 1800’s presented a problem. As towns grew from a muddy street/path to hard packed dirt and gravel less of the residents were able to hunt wild game or bison for food. Meat was scarce and located further from the population. In addition, staples like flour, sugar, tea, and coffee had to be shipped from eastern centers to the western towns. Enter the freighters, a hearty group who brought staples from the shipping hub of Fort Riley, Kansas over the 687 miles to the emerging towns of the plains—in this case—Denver.

Over 100 million pounds of freight traveled in “doubles” in the span from 1859 when gold was discovered in Colorado to the appearance of the railroad in the 1880’s. “Doubles” was the term used by freighters for two wagons joined together by securing the tongue of the rear wagon under the front wagon with the whole set-up being pulled by a six or eight hitch oxen team. A slow, dusty trip to be sure, but financially rewarding at the end.

By the time, my grandfather and great-grandfather began freighting in 1878 and 1879, most of the activity was confined to moving supplies to Colorado mountain towns. Gold, silver, and lead miners were busy pulling precious ores from the ground and lacked the inclination to cease their activities long enough to supply themselves with meat. Everitt and Sons established a meat market along Larimer Street and supplied the mountain towns via wagons. To keep the meat from spoiling, the men used blocks of ice cut from frozen lakes topped with wheat straw to pack around the beef sides. Coupled with the cooler mountain climate, they were able to freight fresh meat to mining towns throughout the summer months. With the arrival of spring, fresh fruits and vegetables from local gardens were added to the meat supplies transported to hungry miners.

MY GRANDFATHER WAS A HUCKSTER

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

100th Anniversary Celebration

May 21, 2013

100 years old. Quite a feat. I’m not 100, but the pioneer built Ruth Chapel in Parker, Colorado turned 100 on May 13, 2013. A community celebration sponsored by the town of Parker and the Parker Area Historical Society on May 18th featured hay rides, tours of the chapel, and refreshments of the era accompanied by music from a “brass band.”

I was fortunate to be included in the festivities and spent the morning handing out celebratory red carnations to the ladies. Also briefly neglecting my carnation duties, I had my photo taken in front of the “motor car” which added color and interest to the morning.

The story of Ruth Chapel is similar to other historic buildings throughout the West. Female residents of the area decided it was time for some childhood religious training so began a Sunday School that met in the local school in the 1880’s. Later circuit riding ministers held monthly services in the school. In the early 1900’s, the community was in need of a church. George Parker one of the co-founders of the town, which bears his name, sold the church property for $1 and later school superintendent, Dr. Heath, donated the land. The building had one paid worker, construction supervisor William Holmes; the remaining workers were local ranchers and farmers who donated their time and skills to build the small church.

It didn’t matter the religious affiliation of the worker; the community banded together to get the job done. The basement was excavated with a horse drawn scraper and local families contributed the building’s light plant and furnace.

By the 1913 completion date, Dr. Heath had passed away but the building was dedicated in memory of his daughter who had passed away before the Heaths came to Colorado. It was called the Ruth Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church.

Like all community endeavors, membership in the church waxed and waned with the area population sometimes counting less than ten attendees until the Parker community began to grow in the early 1980’s. The Methodist church out grew the building and purchased the vacant school building next door. The Ruth Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 and after being purchased by the Town of Parker has become the site of small weddings and similar events.