Little House on the Prairie?

Throughout my valley are log cabins. Some of them have been taken care of, some of them have been abandoned, some of them are slanting against the wind, some of them — well you can’t hardly tell what they are or were other than the trees planted as a windbreak in a rectangle around a house-sized open space that was once a homestead.

We tend to think that those houses were from the Wild West and the Frontier Days but not necessarily. Here’s my mom’s family in the 1920s. The house had been there a while. Most of their kids were born in it.


You can see how the window had been put in to replace a door and the structure itself had been added to a few times. It was a lousy place to live, by all reports. I heard seemingly endless stories of pasting newspapers to the inside walls to keep the wind out. The wind would have been fierce, too, on the high plains of Montana and desperately cold in winter. Believe me, I know my deep love of winter hinges on having a heated house.

My grandparents were settlers, but this cabin (which they had not built, anyway) on the plains was not their first Montana home. They’d come from Iowa and settled first in the Clark’s Fork valley in the town of Belfry but, according to my mom, the hills and trees there (it’s beautiful) had given my grandma claustrophobia so they ended up here. Apparently my grandmother — like this granddaughter — had a thing about seeing the horizon.

I think, also, their move might have had something to do with the death of their son, Martin. I know it broke my grandmother’s heart. Maybe she didn’t want to live there any more because of that. She’s not here to ask, so…

I’ve been there but I can’t say exactly where it is. I believe it had a Hardin, MT address. When the kids grew up enough to get jobs, sometime in the 1930s, the family moved into Hardin, a real town, and I think life might have been easier.

Here’s most of the family in front of the house in Hardin. Grandfather, the prophetic looking bearded guy in the overalls. Grandma is behind my mom who’s in the front row, Dutch boy haircut, wide collar, looking down and at the camera at the same time — one of her all time favorite poses I learned from looking at a lot of photos. There is an extra girl in this photo and one son is missing. My aunt Florence (who was working) is in the fur collared coat.

Settling the frontier is a big theme here on what is still kind of a frontier. Plenty of people in the San Luis Valley sport the license plate that sets them apart as descending from original settlers.

Like them, I’m proud of my family, its courage and resilience. I love my local history museum, the Rio Grande County Museum, because it’s a safe home for the relics of settlers’ lives, and, what’s more, their stories.

There’s a similar museum in Hardin, Montana — The Bighorn County Museum — that contains photos and stories of my own family. It’s one of those amazing museums that covers a few acres and on which old buildings have been moved, erected and restored. They have an entire camp from one of the places where my uncles worked, the enormous Campbell Wheat Farms. In the museum you can see their thumbprint sized faces in more than one photo of this historic farming operation. The Campbell Farming Corporation had 95,000 acres under cultivation. It shut down in 1987. Flying into Billings from Denver, I could look down from the plane onto the Pryor Mountains, and see fields of wheat that might have been visible from space. I don’t know.

One of the buildings at the Bighorn County Museum is a one room schoolhouse, the Halfway School, which played a role in my mom’s stories about dancing with cowboys. There is the German Lutheran Church with its German Bible and hymn books. Museums like this are more than places to see old stuff.

I guess if I lived in Montana (Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania) I could sport a license plate like this, but I don’t think I would. I had an epiphany in Switzerland in 1997 and realized I would NOT have emigrated. I’d have changed my religion. But then, how do I know who I would have been back in the 17th century?

10 thoughts on “Little House on the Prairie?

  1. I admire those who risked everything and settled in the unexplored and untamed lands. I had a friend whose family lived in a log cabin – she talked about the constant upkeep to the caulking between the logs and the seeming loosing battle against the bugs – mostly carpenter ants and termites… She said she would never in a million years voluntarily live in a log cabin. I suppose back in the early 1900s you had to do what you could to get by.

    • I found a photo of one of my ancestor’s (early 18th century) original cabins in Pennsylvania. Tiny and built over a stream, why I do not know. My mom said the worst pestilence problem they had was prairie rattlers that would sometimes sun themselves on the windowsills. During the depression, with the drought, they couldn’t even grow things. I dunno, they were tough.

  2. Fascinating glimpse into your family history.

    I would argue that the house your mom grew up in during the early 1920s in Montana qualifies as “frontier days.” More a state of mind (and lack of electricity and plumbing) than date. Makes for hardy people.

    Small, local museums are critical to preserving this heritage. Also key are the personal stories of those who lived through those times. Sadly, too many stories die with those who would tell them, too modest to believe they have anything worthwhile to share.

    • That house certainly might’ve been built in frontier days, but the lack of plumbing etc seems to have been pretty common 100 years ago on farms. Even the little house in Billings my grandma eventually lived in didn’t get indoor plumbing until my uncles built her a bathroom in the late 40s. Not just a bathroom, either. The pump sat outside the back door. My grandma still used it to fill her wringer washing machine. Other parts of Billings were ahead of that, but at the time, her house was on the outskirts of town, surrounded by acreage. I guess it was evolutionary and slowed down by the Depression and the War.

  3. It is so unique to be able to say you met some of the original settlers to your area. In my family the first settlers were long gone before I was born, but some of their stories live on.

    • I haven’t met any original settlers here. It was too long ago. I’ve met their descendants. The Hispanic settlers arrived here in the 16th century and the various other Europeans came over a period of time from the early 19th century to the 30s. Those stories are priceless, aren’t they?

  4. What a incredible history to have. I guess if we all knew our full histories many of us could potentially have relatives in similar situations but perhaps not such close family as yours Martha. I love exploring the museums that represent the real life of people my dad made sure we had a full understanding or life in Australia, and ensured we knew of the struggles of our indigenous people Aboriginals. Not the white(excuse the pun)washed history we were taught at school. Thank You for sharing this. I am fascinated by rural history and the struggles.

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