Friday, May 15, 2015

Homestead Shacks Over Buffalo Tracks

My great grand aunt, Jane (Muir) Beck, was the youngest child of James and Margaret (Semple) Muir. My grandmother always called her Aunt Janie. She married a farmer, Herbert Bartist Beck on 20 June 1912 at Lebanon, Illinois. They had two children in Illinois, Thelma Christena and John Wesley Beck. In 1923 they moved west to Montana and homesteaded land. After my great grandfather retired from the coal mines, he traveled to Montana to visit with his sister, Janie.

From left to right: Robert Muir; his sister, Janie (Muir) Beck, his nephew, John
Wesley Beck from my personal collection

Janie's life seemed so different from the rest of her siblings who mostly stayed in the midwest and worked in coal mines or factories. What was life like in big sky county for Janie and her family?

In 1990 the Roy History Committee published Homestead Shacks Over Buffalo Tracks: History of Northeastern Fergus County. Thelma (Beck) Erickson, Herbert and Janie's daughter provided three articles about her family and their early experiences in Montana. So I'll my first cousin twice removed, Thelma tell the story.

"I, Thelma Beck Erickson, remember my trip to Montana, when I arrived at Roy with my parents and brother, Johnnie on the train. This was a long train ride. The last 22 miles to my uncle John's homestead, we traveled by pickup and car.

In Billings, we saw our first Indians. There was a pow-wow going on and we saw papooses, feathered head dresses, beautiful blankets and real Indians. What a sight for a seven-year-old girl!

It was all green at Trenton, Illinois when we left there and there was snow on the ground at Roy. Uncle John came with his pickup, to haul our trunks and his neighbor, T. L. Petersen came with his car, two-seated with side curtains. The back seat held our suitcases, grub box and some groceries and just enough room for me to sit, while Mr. Petersen and Pop were in the front seat. Mom and Johnnie rode with Uncle John. It was late that night when we finally arrived, for whenever we came to a steep hill, Mom and Johnnie got out and walked and T. L. and Pop would push, as the pickup was weighted down with our possessions. We followed in T. L.'s car.

Janie (Muir) Beck, son John, and husband Herbert Bartist Beck; photograph
from Homestead Shacks Over Buffalo Tracks published by the Roy History

The next morning, the snow was so white and pretty. All the winter wheat that had come up was covered. One of those late spring Montana snow storms. That same year, 2 August 1923, there was snow on Black Butte.

The folks lived in cramped quarters in the three-room shack with Uncle John and Aunt Ethel. He had moved another shack prior to our coming and so, when warmer weather came, my family slept there and we continued to cook and eat with Uncle John. Mom helped with housework, cooking and canning and Pop helped Uncle John while he was filing on our homestead.

At this time, the land was not in one piece. One parcel was right on Crooked Creek with the creek running the full way across. One parcel had been homesteaded and let go so it was again open. This place had a shack with a gabled roof and small dam, plus some old machinery had been left. This was four miles down Crooked Creek. Pop made a road across those four miles and finally got some converts for crossings. He fenced all the land, but there was often trouble with wires being cut, which allowed range cattle, horses and sheep to get in, eat and trample the crop which was so hard to grow.

My first cousin twice removed, John Wesley Beck; courtesy of
Exploring Central Montana's Past: Missouri Breaks Historical Homesteads
published by Bureau of Land Management

The folks got a shack moved onto another parcel Dad owned where we went to live. It was roofed with heavy metal roofing and a slate covered, heavy tar paper was put on the outside. The inside was covered with a heavy pale blue building paper, put up with lath to secure it. Mom made curtains to put around beds and in one corner. We had a cookstove with two doors in the oven, hearth in front and a water reservoir in back, tin stove pipes and a metal roof-jack, so that no wood would be near the paper as they would get hot. We had a brick chimney later. As time went on, another building was added, giving us two rooms. We had one bed and two cots. The kitchen was used as the dining room and a place for the cream separator. Cream was our cash product from milking cows. Later we bought the Garwood house, as this family had moved away, and it was added to our home. It gave us three bedrooms and it had a brick chimney, also a little room that was intended for a bathroom (this was never accomplished) and it was used for a clothes closet. The north room was my special den when I was home. Mom and I did a lot of sewing and made many quilts and rugs.

I started school at Little Crooked and boarded away from home with the Bakers for two terms. They lived at the Little Crooked post office and store, which was on the north side of the Rocky Point Trail, across from the log school building. The building was used as a dance hall, meeting place, voting and for political gatherings. Yes, there were politics then!

The Byford School District #207 was formed and had the first school in 1925-26 term with Hazel Van Heining and Roland Schrier as the teachers. Johnny and I and the younger Jakes children attended. 

Courtesy of Exploring Central Montana's Past: Missouri Breaks Historical Homesteads
; published by Bureau of Land Management

I used to stay with Mabel Cottrell and helped with all her small children and did the milking. With the money I earned, I bought my first pair of patent leather dress shoes with a strap. I cleaned them with Vaseline and put them in a shoe box and wore them for Sunday and special occasions. 

My folks got our first car in 1934 and it was second-hand. This was shortly before I was married. My brother John went right to work on that car and that started him fixing autos and the car business which was the love of his life. As I write his, many old friends and neighbors have gone over the Great Divide and we who are left aren't getting any younger.

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