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?


I think my Aunt Martha always knew where the arrowhead was going, but she never let on. Then, toward the end, when all the aunts had read the will, they knew. One afternoon my Aunt Jo said, “Come here, Martha Ann. I have something for you. Martha left you the arrowhead.”

The will says my Aunt Martha left it to me because my name is Martha, too. I’m not sure that was all, though. I think it was more.

I was only five when my grandfather died, but we’d had one experience together, anyway. When I was one or two, my parents took me to Montana to meet him. He liked me a lot and bundled me up and took me out in the cold to visit all his friends up and down Foster Lane.  Of course, I got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital in Billings, St. V’s, just like Hemingway in the “Gambler, the Nun and the Radio.”

I grew up loving books and thinkers. One of those I loved when I was an undergraduate was Thomas Carlyle. Time passed, my interests grew and diverged, and then I “met” Goethe. I read everything I found, and thought about all of it. I had not “met” a mind like his (was there ever a mind like his?) and felt I’d met a “friend.” One day in the university library I happened on the correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle. Of course I checked it out. I read it from cover to cover that night, very moved. Carlyle was young; Goethe was old. Carlyle had promise, intelligence, talent — but a darkness running through his character. Goethe recognized all of this and wrote the letters Carlyle really needed as a young human being, as a thinker and as a writer. I saw in their friendship a reflection of my “friendship” with Goethe. These were letters he might have written to me. I did not know of my grandfather’s love for Carlyle at that point. I learned of it that Christmas when my cousin Greg handed me a well thumbed, well-loved book of Carlyle’s essays that had belonged to my grandfather.

Perhaps my grandfather and I would have been friends. Maybe we would have had many things in common. Maybe we would have walked the fields north of Hardin and talked about ideas. Genealogy says we all resemble our grandparents more than we do our parents. I see my mother’s mother in my appearance. But what of this unknown man? All I know is this arrowhead and that my beloved Aunt Martha treasured it above everything else she owned.