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An Outstanding Day in the Wilderness: Exploring an Old Homestead

By: Randy Tucker

One of the hands set the snubbing post way back in 1906. Records in the Niobrara County courthouse in Lusk indicated that property taxes were collected on the land starting that year.

A working ranch in the early days of the 20th century wasn’t much different in appearance from those portrayed by Hollywood in the westerns set in the post-Civil War West.

Appearance is one thin;, reality is another. There are huge differences between the big screen and the true open prairie. Real ranches were endless days of hard work. In the movies and on TV, there are always idle guys hanging around the saloon, ready to be riled up and go off on a lynching spree when a well-spoken huckster riles them up, but that was never reality.

I wandered onto the decaying homestead in May of 2003, after my friend Chico Her Many Horses told me of an incident around Halloween of 1903 at a place called Lightning Creek in northwest Niobrara County.

The magic of digging up old stories, at least in the largely unoccupied areas of the high plains and mountain West, is that you never know what’s waiting just over the next hill.

I had a rough idea of where the Lightning Creek Fight took place from interviewing a few of the old-timers I knew in Lusk who remembered hearing stories of the battle as little kids.

It was somewhere north of Lance Creek. If you’ve never been in the area of Manville, Lance Creek, and Hat Creek, Wyoming, there is a lot of somewhere out there on the windswept, grass-covered hills.

When exploring, I count on getting off track -- it's part of the fun.

I eventually found the battlefield site, but earlier in the day my meanderings found this abandoned homestead.

Driving north from Lance Creek on a two-track road, a branch of the Cheyenne River blocked the path. It was about 25 feet across and only three feet deep. A cottonwood limb plunged into the middle of it sounded the depth.

Runoff fills these usually dry waddies in late spring and early summer. It was May 3, and the runoff was in full flow.

There was a homestead just across the stream. It was a warm morning, so off came my shoes, socks, and pants. I tied them around my neck, along with my camera, and a towel. It didn’t take long to wade across the chilly, fast-moving water.

Niobrara County is rattlesnake country. On a warm day in May, the buzzworms will start coming out of hibernation to find a little sunshine and maybe snag a mouse or prairie dog.  Knowing this, I dried off, put my pants, socks, and shoes back on, then warily moved through the tall dry grass.

New, green grass sprang up around the swaying heads of yellow grass from the season before, but thankfully, there were no rattlesnakes that day.

What remained of the homestead was intriguing. The main house still stood proud against the eroding northwestern wind that blows nearly constantly off the neighboring hills. It was made of cottonwood logs, trimmed out with rough sawn lumber on the doors and windows. Rusting hinges still hung from every opening. The foundation was flagstone, piled up into a wall about 14 inches high all around the perimeter of the building.

Thin three-inch diameter logs served as roof trusses, with rough-cut 1x8 and 1x8 boards supporting a foot of earth. The builders used the native dirt for cover, insulation, and protection from the heat and cold. The dirt insulation was still there almost a century later. The grass growing on top of it matched the surrounding flora.

Outbuildings held rusting cans of oil, decayed burlap bags, and mostly broken jars. A windmill with just one blade remaining stood silent vigil over the property. As a younger man, I’d been hired to work on similar windmills, also in Niobrara County, and knew how they operated. I grabbed the pitman arm, pulled hard one way, and it slipped a bit. I put a little torque the other way and the pump shaft broke loose, moving up and down with a little grinding noise. This old gal would still work with a little oil and reattachment of the other blades lying around downwind from it.

In the grass was a McCormick Deere #7 horse-drawn sickle cutter. It had the longer, seven-foot blade. This horse-drawn, friction-powered sickle mower was made by McCormick Deere from 1929 to 1939. It was very popular on the open grasslands of the prairie east of the Rockies, requiring a three-horse team to pull it.

As a kid, I’d used one pulled behind a small tractor to cut weeds. The sickle was on a block of wood; out of the dirt and the blades were rusty, but looked in good shape otherwise.

I tried to pull the mower, but it wouldn’t budge. The locking hand clutch still moved, so I put it in neutral and tried again. It rolled a few inches into a little berm of earth. I found a fence post, pried under the driveshaft, and lifted the mower over the berm. The mower pulled easier then, while out of gear. Putting the lever back in drive, I pulled it again. The mower blades moved a half-inch and stopped.

Pushing it the other way, they moved back again. After a few minutes of rocking it back and forth, the old sickle mower came to life, sliding the knives along the cutting bar almost like it was back in the Great Depression, albeit with a few screeching noises from the rusted metal being forced to move.

Walking away from the mechanical world of early 20th-century agriculture, I found the round pen where the rancher and his hands once broke horses.

In the center of it was the snubbing post. It was a five-foot-high, deeply crevassed, eight-inch diameter post of Douglas fir. A well-worn section about 42 inches above the ground testified to the marks of a countless number of ropes attached to it as wild horses were broken to lead. The ropes had cut an inch groove all around the post.

Pushing on the post, I found it was as solid as a living tree trunk. Putting my camera down, I put my shoulder against it and pushed as hard as I could – not a wiggle. That post was as solid as the day the boys tamped it deep into the Niobrara County dirt a century before.

Taking inventory of what I’d just surveyed, I filled a digital card on my Pentax camera, realizing I might never be back to this homestead.

It was a step to the past, perhaps a private glimpse into the long lost dreams of an early pioneering family trying to make a living on the often harsh, unforgiving prairie of eastern Wyoming.

There must have been a ranch nearby since I was visited by a friendly blue heeler dog as I started back to the creek. The undulating hills hid this homestead until I was right on top of it driving in, the same must have been true for the place the dog called home.

I waded back across the creek, dried off, and headed back from the two-track road to the narrow gravel road that brought me to this place.

I found the Lightning Creek site a couple of hours later, but the unexpected homestead, with the sturdy snubbing post that stood the test of time, was a little gravy on top of an outstanding day in the wilderness.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

 
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