Today was a day of imagination.
We drove from the Downstream Campground at Ft. Peck lake to Makoshika State Park outside of Glendive, Montana. The drive took us along Hwy 2 east to Wolf Point and then south on Hwy 13 to Circle and from then caught Hwy 200 east to Glendive.
We passed one farm after another; farms that grew perhaps thousands of acres of wheat, an agricultural commodity of Montana. The rolling hills as far as my eye could see were fields and fields of this “gold”.
I know politically farming has had its share of controversy and uproar, I also know the USA exports much of its wheat to foreign countries. But regardless of what I think or you think, these Montanans are hard working people; folks whose legacies come from a grandpa or grandma who came to Montana in the early 1900’s with a promise of gold, a golden crop called wheat.
I absolutely love reading stories about homesteading in Montana. I cannot begin to tell or explain to you what these folks of opportunity did in order to fulfill their dream of owning their own land. The stipulations for “free” land was stiff but when those on the east coast or Midwest were promised land, land, land, 300 acres of undeveloped dirt that would give them an income for life, they took the bait and sold all of their belongings to head west to Montana. Little did they know what they were in for as their gullibility for such promise drove them to sell all and move west.
“Under the original Homestead Act heads of family could claim 160 acres of contiguous government land. To be eligible, an applicant had to be twenty-one years of age, as well as a U.S. citizen, or an alien who had filed for citizenship. Applicants had to live on the homestead for five years and make certain improvements to gain title to the land.
Hypnotized by the powerful sway of a well-financed propaganda machine, homesteaders flooded into Montana. Between 1900 and 1909, a veritable tsunami of settlement descended upon the state, rushing westward across the High Line area north of the Missouri River and engulfing the broad valleys that fed the Yellowstone River. Dozens of new boomtowns, like Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Plentywood, Scobey, Jordan, Rudyard, Ryegate, and Baker appeared out of thin, dry air, like mirages on the rolling plains. (complete article: http://www.distinctlymontana.com/montana-history/frontier-homestead)
My most favorite stories are about women homesteaders. These single women had raw tenacity and guts. Many came with their families, whether a brother or aunt and uncle or cousins, to live in the land of opportunity and plenty. They worked together as a team and cleared the land, tilled the land, planted the land and waited for the promised rainfall to water their wealth; and if they were lucky enough to have summer rains, to harvest the crops in the fall. Some succeeded and others after three or more years of labor gave up and either went home or traveled further west.
Their amazing stories of building and living in a sod-covered house or one room shanties “built out of rough-cut lumber, covering them in tarpaper, and insulating them with dirty rags and discarded newspapers”; walls so thin they could see the light of day through and these little homesteads barely protected them from the heat and dust of summer and the bitter cold of winter. And oh, how they labored in their fields. If they didn’t have plow animals, they became the animal pulling the plow to turn over the land. Such determination is hard for me to comprehend in my lifetime. Whether we are rich or poor, we truly have the life of ease compared to them and sometimes I wonder where did this stock of people go? Have these pioneers disappeared from our history?
Yes and no. Yes, in that the homesteaders were dreamers and risk takers, ambitious and willing. They gave up everything they owned, sold out, to move to a promised land in a place called Montana; a gutsy, raw, hopeful hard working people that worked under back breaking labor. And no, in that I was driving past dreamers and risk takers, ambitious and willing families. They are gutsy, raw and hopeful as they continue working the land not in three hundred acres but thousands of acres, a farm and acreage passed down through the generations to them and they do whatever it takes to keep the farm going under the family name. I admire these Montanans.
I admire my friends who tell their stories of growing up on the farm in rural Montana, or even another state for that matter. Farming and ranching is a part of our US history, my friends are a part of our US history. I try hard to envision their farm house, their chores, their play. I try to picture their mothers and grandmothers gardening; working the soil after the harsh winter snow, planting the vegetables, caring for the garden and in the late summer and early fall, harvesting the garden and begin canning and baking to store their wares in cold storage under the house for wintertime use.
These women, my friends, are gentle and kind. They are also determined and know how to push themselves in overcoming difficulties or obstacles. They don’t let accidents like a spooked horse that stepped on their thigh keep them from the next day’s activity or responsibility. They push themselves in ways that encourage me to go just a little bit farther, to push a little harder, to believe and do, to accomplish and be proud of my achievement. Just as the homesteaders, so my friends are. Maybe that is why I admire them so.
Today I saw rural America. I saw folks in the grocery greet one another with a wave and smile and “how are you doing?”, and really meaning what they ask. I didn’t feel stared down like I didn’t belong and I didn’t feel out of place nor did I feel like a non-entity, a no face and no name. The clerk greeted a gentleman standing in line saying he heard he had a cold and asked how he was feeling. Another couple came into the store and saw someone they knew and they greeted each other genuinely as if they hadn’t seen each other for a while. I wondered if they lived miles apart, each on their own farm and only saw one another in town at the grocery. I wondered, is that what is like in rural America, going to the grocery store becomes a real social event?
We drove past miles of farmed land. We drove past farm houses miles from the next farm house. We drove past abandoned homesteads; old, dilapidated wooden shoe box of a house that barely remains standing yet tells me a story about yesteryear and reminds me of the blood, sweat and tears of hopeful people laboring for the promise of a better future – my future, and yours.
Thank you Montana, and thank you homesteaders of days gone by. And thank you, my friends.
. . . . Photos from our first official u-turn. We couldn’t pass by these old train cars for sale . . . .