MY HOMESTEAD DAYS IN EASTERN COLORADO by Alta Palmer Murray

The reason that we ever happened to start out on such a thing was that my sister was sick and the doctor told her husband that he would have to get her to a drier climate, but before the first year passed, I doubted that it had been the wise thing to do. I think that was her husband’s way of getting a “Homestead” which he wanted without going through the hardship of getting it himself. He came to Mamma (Mary) and me to see if we would go out and stay with her as he wanted to go back to Iowa to his railroad job. We told him that we would. My father had been dead for years, so my sister’s husband went to Colorado and filed on a homestead, came back and got us passes on the Rock Island Railroad and we started out on one of the longest train rides I had over taken.

 

We had to ride on a local passenger train, as passes were no good on fast trains. We left Esterville, Iowa and rode two nights and two days to get where we were going. We stopped at every station, no matter how small. I got so car sick that I thought I would never see sunny Colorado. The car we were in was full of immigrants like ourselves. When we thought finally that we would surely get there before too much longer, the conductor made us get off at Goodland, Kansas and wait two hours for another train. Well, we got to Arriba, Colorado at 5:30 a.m. in the first week in December 1907. When it was daylight so that I could see the town, I understood why the first train wouldn’t stop there. There was one little hotel!

 

There was a homesteader there to meet us. My brother-in-law had spoken to him when he went out to file and we were to stay with his family until they got our shack ready to live in. We went to the hotel for breakfast. I have never seen a more beautiful morning. It was still dark, and the sky was loaded with stars, and the air was so light that you just couldn’t get enough of it. I think it is still the purest air in the world (unless there is a dust storm).

 

When we got to the hotel, there wasn’t room to step, as the floor was covered with men sleeping. People were coming in so fast for that government land that there was no place for them. We got our breakfast and started for the country – – a ten mile ride behind a large work team that walked every step of the way. I don’t remember how or where we slept at that place we stayed.

 

It only took a few days to put up a tarpaper-covered shack, twelve by fourteen feet, and we moved in. A neighbor and my brother-in-law started digging a well. They got a very good well and we were thankful, as they were hard to get. Folks hauled water from that well for miles around. They would come with barrels in a wagon and fill them pumping all the water by hand. The well never went dry as long as I knew anything about it. Lots of those homesteads never did get water.

 

As soon as the well was dug, Frank, the brother-in-law went back to Iowa. Our homestead was eight miles from town. We had no way to get to town and I wanted the mail so badly that one day I decided to walk to Arriba after it. As there were no fences anyplace, all I had to do was start the right direction and keep going. I was only 17 years old or I would have had more sense, but I wanted the mail. I made the trip fine, but I won’t say I wasn’t a wee bit tired. We had a dozen or more letters and I got a few things we needed at the store and walked back home. I hadn’t been home more than ten minutes, when a man with a nice team and buggy drove up. He had come out from town to see if I would get Christmas dinner for the Hotel. Christmas was about two days away, and he said the cook was leaving and his wife wouldn’t be back home for a. week.

 

Mamma said I could not go alone for she had no idea what shape I would be in the next day after that walk, so my sister went with me. That evening, his wife came home, but he said he couldn’t take us home until after Christmas. My sister and I slept on the floor that night. I feel much better at 68 years old than I did that morning trying to get up off that floor. My sister asked if I could walk home. I said “yes”. I was thinking of our good soddie at home. Even if we did sleep three in the bed, it was a wonderful place to be. We ate breakfast and started for home. We got along very well until we were about one and a half miles from home. We came to an empty shack and I said, “Let’s sit down and rest awhile.” We did, and when we started to get up to go home, I could not get up – not even with Jeannie’s help! So she told me to stay there and she would go home and get Mamma to help get me home. When they got back and got me on my feet, with one of them helping on each side of me, I made it home. I couldn’t pick my feet up, I just slid them. They heated water and gave me a hot bath and rubbed me two or three times during the night. Mamma made me get up in the morning and I kept trying to walk. I sure did hurt! It took me a week to get over that.

 

An old neighbor had a white cow pony that he said I could ride to town after the mail after that, so I did, to my sorrow. I had never ridden a horse. I was much more used to walking as we had to pick up “cow-chips” for fuel, and I walked miles doing that. The time I rode the pony, I got to town and home again, but it wasn’t feet and legs that hurt me that time.

 

That first winter, we never had a flake of snow and very few cold days. Then when spring came, Mamma put out a big garden. How that ever grew without water, I will never know, but every morning at 4 o’clock, Mamma would get up and hoe that whole garden. What little rain we got, and the work she put into it, gave us a wonderful garden. I think it was the only one in the country. The land men commenced to bring their men that were looking for land out there to show them her garden. She said she sometimes felt like telling them all the work she put in to get it, but the land men never mentioned that. He let them think you put the seed in the ground and that is what you got.

 

We had some neighbors a mile and a half from us that came to our well to get water and one evening when they were there, Mrs. Collins told me that they were going to town in the morning and if I was up there by 8 o’clock, I could go with them. I was there. I got the mail and a few groceries and we got back to the Collins’s about dusk. The wind was blowing terrible, but in those days, it didn’t blow dust for there were no plowed fields. When I started home, I put my mail and things in my skirt and held it up like a sack. I could see the light in our window for they had a lamp setting right in the window on the side facing Collins’s. I walked and walked again that wind with my head down – one could hardly face it.

 

When I looked up, I couldn’t see that light and, by that time, it was real dark and the coyotes were howlin. I heard someone shoot and heard the whizz of the bullet. They all used long range guns. I suppose someone was shooting to scare the coyotes. Whether it did or not, I don’t know, but it sure as the world scared me. I turned may back to the wind and called just as loud as I could and I soon saw a light so started to go to it, but didn’t know who I might find there. When I got close enough so I could see, it was Mamma and Jeannie with the door open. I had gone south of our house and way beyond it. There were no windows in that side of the house, so I was really lost but when I got past the shack and turned around and called the wind carried my voice back so they heard me.

 

There were lots of herds of Texas cattle on the plains. The old settlers said it wasn’t safe even for a man to get off of his horse when you were near them. There were many rattlesnakes – you never walked far without seeing one. I was afraid of them so I just got out of their way, but my sister killed every one she saw and got the rattles.

 

A neighbor lady died and they came for me to set up that night. Another neighbor and I sat up. It was the first time I had ever done a thing like that and it was the longest night that I ever put in. The mice were so thick in that house, you really had to keep awake. The next morning, I started home over those plains. It was about two miles. I got about half way home when I saw a bunch of cattle coming. I expect they were going to water, but when they saw me they started running toward me. I was carrying a parasol. I ran as far as I could, and when I couldn’t run anymore, I put up the parasol and sat down. There wasn’t anything I could do – there was no fence to get under, and they were getting pretty close, hut when I opened my parasol and sat down, they all turned and ran. I got up and went home. It was funny when I told it afterwards, but believe you me, it wasn’t at the time.

 

The next fall, my brother-in-law sent a pass for my sister to go back to Iowa to stay with him. That left Mamma and me alone. He would come out in the summer for a few weeks to have what work done that had to be done to prove up on the claim. The second summer we were out there, Mamma filed on a half-section two miles south of my sister’s on the Republican River. The neighbors got together and helped us build a sod house. We had two rooms. The walls were plastered. It was very nice. I want to tell you that even if our house was a homestead house on the outside, it was very neat, clean and homey on the inside, That second winter, we had lots of snow and it was a good thing for we had to melt snow for our water. That made it fine for water, BUT then we had to kick the cow chips out from under the snow to have anything for fuel.

 

By that time, my sister had an old horse and buggy. They used to bring horses down from Denver that were too old to work on milk wagons and such and sell them cheap, but let me tell you, we loved old Maud and had lots of good laughs about her. She was so afraid that someone would say “Whoa” and she wouldn’t hear it. Whenever Mamma would yawn, she would end it by saying “oh-oh-hum”, and every time, old Maud would stop. I don’t want this to sound like we thought we were having hard times for we didn?t. We had good times together through it all.

There was a family moved out from Iowa our second winter there. Before they got their shack finished, the wife came down with pneumonia. I went and sat up with her a couple of nights – we neighbors took turns. The doctor didn’t have much of a chance in those days, but neither did the patient. He had to drive. He had to drive with a horse and buggy ten miles and nothing to work with then when he got there. They had two little boys. The men could hardly speak Eng1ish, but I don’t know what nationality he was. I never heard the poor wife talk. She died one night when I wasn’t there. If you could have seen that shack!

 

By that time, my uncle and aunt had come out from Omaha to homestead. They lived a few miles from us. Uncle Obb came after Mamma to help lay this lady out and Mamma had one of her sick headaches, so I knew she shouldn’t go, so I went. They had gotten Mrs. Collins, an older woman to help me, but when I got there, she said, “I have never done a thing like this, so I will let you go ahead!” When I pulled the sheet back off of her, she had a cross and her rosary clutched in her hands. We will never know whet that poor soul suffered. I did the best I could. I guess it was all right. There was no undertakers there in those days. A man in town sold caskets. They were put in a pickup and taken to the cemetery. When I got in the buggy with Uncle Obb to go home, the horse shied and I started to shake and I couldn’t stop – even my teeth chattered. When I got home, Mamma wanted to know what the trouble was. I couldn’t tell her. She asked my uncle if I had to lay that lady out, and when he said, “Yes.” Mamma said, “That is the first time she ever saw a corpse.” I had never even been to a funeral. I sat up one night with a corpse, but I didn’t see it. There was a. man sat up with me, and he changes the cloths on her face. Mamma got me to bed and gave me hot coffee and got me calmed down. The funny part of it was that I didn’t even know I was nervous until that horse shied.

 

I went to work in Arriba for the railroad agent’s wife. She was sick and had a two-year-old boy and a baby six months old. It wasn’t hard to see what was the matter with both of them. She nursed the baby. She was high strung and nervous and the milk wasn’t good for the baby. I fixed up a formula – don’t know what kind of a one now, bit it worked. The baby slept in my room, so I would get up with him when he needed anything. The mother got her rest and she was soon fine.

 

Things were working so nicely that way that is the way she left them. I was there over a year. My wages were $2.25 a. week. By that time, I was doing all the housework, baking the bread, a lady in the country did the washing, but I did the ironing. She used to go to Denver for two or three days at a time, but she said she knew things were doing just as well as if she was home. That would please me for I think everyone should get a little praise, bit now I think she was just working me, and I was soft enough to let her. I really liked her a lot – poor soul wasn’t used to being tied down with a couple of babies in a little town for I think she was a city girl. Her husband got tired of her being gone so much, so one day, he said to me, “I think I know how to stop her running around if you will help me.” “The next time she speaks of going to Denver, encourage her, tell her you think it will do her good.” So I did, and when she asked him, he said, ‘Fine, how long are you going to stay?” When she said just a couple of days, he asked her why she didn’t stay a week.

 

It was only a hundred miles to Denver, and she left the next morning. There was one train back from there at 10 p.m. That night her husband said, “I guess I will go down (they lived over the depot) and meet the Mrs. and sure enough, she got off the train. She looked so foolish when she got upstairs and started to cry. She said, “Why did you want me to stay?” He said, “I didn’t.” At least it did keep her home more. One evening I was getting supper and she came out in the kitchen to make some tea. She picked up the teapot and I hadn’t washed it after dinner. She said something about it that didn’t set right with me and I took off my apron and walked out. I went up to the post office to see if there was any-one there from home, but before I got away, she sent her husband up to hire me back and even raised my wages to $2.50 per week, so I went back. I don’t remember how long I stayed after that but during my year in town, I got to know all the young folks around there and the country was full of them by that time, all homesteaders. We had lots of good times. I loved to dance and we had one nearly and we had dances and parties nearly every week.

 

There were some of those old settlers that thought if a girl would dance, she would do anything. I told Mamma that some of them were talking about us girls because we danced and she said a clean dance never hurt anyone. My blessed little mother was one of the best. She had lots of trouble in her life, bit I never heard her complain.

 

There was a cattle man down the river a few miles from Mamma’s claim that had a large family. Mamma used to help them so she bought a cow and did their washings to pay for it. A nice big black cow, who gave lots of milk. When this neighbor came down on the river bottom to put up hay, he hired us to get dinner for him and his crew. Whenever they came, they brought a load of hay just to be good. By the time they were through haying, we had enough feed for the cow for the winter. The pasture was good all winter unless it was covered with snow. We had a little barn built for her.

 

One morning, Mr. and Mrs. Tom (the cattleman) drove up in a buggy and celled to ask if we wanted a hen. After they had started to town, they found a hen on a nest under the buggy seat, so they gave us the hen and the egg she had layed and went on to town. I suppose you think we ate her, bit we didn’t. We made a little A-house for her and one day she wanted to set, so we went down to Tom’s to buy a setting of eggs, which they gave to us. Every egg hatched, and we were sure proud of those chickens.

 

By this time, I was old enough to take a claim, so I filed on a half-section on the flat that was five miles south of Mamma’s. I didn’t have to live on it for six months, so I stayed with Mamma. through that winter — and such a winter!! That was a record breaker for Colorado and still is. That fall before my sister went east for the winter, she bought a hundred pounds of yellow-shelled corn and wanted us to keep “Old Maud.” We had hay and a barn. I don’?t remember what month the terrible blizzard came, but from that time on, more and more snow would come until there were drifts five and six feet high. We didn’t have enough fuel to keep warm, so when we didn’t have work to do outside, we would go to bed.

 

We saved what few cow chips we had to cook what little we had to cook. Our food supply was getting lower and lower. No one went to town — they couldn’t get through the drifts. One morning when we went to the barn, old Maud dead, but that was what saved our lives. Mamma took some of that corn we were going to feed Maud and made some very good hominy, so for weeks, we lived on hominy and milk. We had no coffee or tea. We had a little wheat for the chickens. We would wash and brown it. Then pound it or grind it, and would drink coffee made from that once in awhile. We set traps where the snow would be blown away from the prairie dog holes and in a little, we would have a “cotton-tail” (rabbit). Another blizzard would come, lasting two or three days and the wind was so strong that it raised the roof a little so the snow could blow in on our bed. Through that blizzard we were in bed most of the time. We would put my parasol up and put the handle down between us and it kept our heads dry. They wouldn’t have been wet in any event, because it was too cold in the house for the snow to melt. Mamma said, “God is good to us, for he sure lets us sleep a lot.”

 

One morning when we opened our eyes, the sun was shining. Mamma got up to open the door. I can still see her tracks in the snow on the floor. When she opened the door, there was snow drifted clear to the top. We always brought the axe and shovel in the house at night in the winter. She got up on a chair and we could push the snow down for about 18 inches. I dressed in some old clothes my brother left there when he joined the Navy. Then we piled things on the chair so I could crawl out into the snow and drag the shovel with me. I drank some hot milk and ate some hominy before. I went out. The drift was against the whole side of the house and back 15 or more feet. We hadn’t seen a living soul for weeks. I started digging my way back to the house. It took hours. Manna would call to ask if I was all right. I would holler, “fine, but getting hungry. What will we have to eat when I get in?” She would say that she thought hominy and milk would be nice for a change. It sure looked good to me when I got that path to the door and I felt like I had moved tons of snow. I bet you that I have never had a Thanksgiving dinner that tested better than hominy and milk did to me that day.

 

The sun was so bright that we could leave the door open and. clean the house up good and not freeze doing it. We were very happy. Soon after that, one morning, we could see a black spot on the snow up on the flat and it was moving our way. When it got there it was two men that lived on the flat. They had families. They had gotten together and made a sled with a box on it and were going to try to get to town. There were going to get a few things for as many as they could. I know that they were going to get us a 10 pound sack of flour and some side pork. The men had to walk the whole way. It must have been 18 miles from their place to town as it was ten miles from Mamma’s. They said not to look for them until they got back.

 

About ten or eleven o’clock that night, they rapped on our door. They were nearly frozen and hungry. One of their horses was down in a snowdrift about a half-mile back where they crossed the river. They brought our flour and side pork and asked if we could get them something to eat — said they couldn’t go any further that night. While they were getting their horse out of the snow (they put them in our barn and fed them), I made some biscuits and Mamma fried side pork and made gravy and hominy. When they came in, we ate with them. Boy, I can taste that yet. We all ate like we were starved. We gave them our nice warm bed, they deserved it and we had a. single cot we put up and Mamma and I laid down on that with our clothes on and rested until morning.

They got up before daylight and went out to take care of their hoses and we got breakfast. They had brought a pound of coffee too. It wasn’t too long after that ’til the roads were opened up again. Enough people got to going to town in the same track to open it. Everyone were good neighbors. No one ever went to town without stopping to ask others if they could bring things for then.

 

A few years ago, when my husband and I were out in Colorado visiting, we heard that one of those two men and his wife lived in town and that he was blind and ill and in his eighties, so we went to see him. My husband had never met him. We had a long visit about old homestead days and a good laugh about that night. We promised that whenever we came back, we would come and see them. He died soon after that but his wife still lives there, and I always stop to see her. Back to the homestead.

 

After I filed my claim, as I said, I stayed with Mamma that winter. We had a blizzard that winter that I will always remember. My youngest brother was home for a short stay. Homesteading was too rough for him to stay around long, but we really showed him how rough it could get. We did have food — even had a few sacks of coal. We had baked a. batch of bread the morning the blizzard started. As I said, in those days, a blizzard lasted three days. The roof of Mamma’s Soddy had gone through so many storms like that. In the middle of the afternoon of the third day, my brother said that the roof had raised more. You see, the roof was our ceiling. It was called a box-car roof. We had nails in the rafters where we hung our clothes. Mamma said, “We had better get some things down into the cave.” She had a good cave. I don’t mean by that, that it was cemented for it wasn’t, but that dirt floor was just as hard as cement, and clean. She spread an old quilt on the floor. Then we carried the mattress off our bed down and the bedding and made up a nice warm bed. It was only a few steps from the house, but how we ever got things down there in that blinding blizzard, I will never know. We took a table and a lamp, our can of brand — by that time, we didn’t dare take time to take much more. Then we went down there and hoped there would be no cattle drift over there and get on the cave or we would have had company in the cave. The way they bunch up in a storm, if they had ever got on the caves they would have gone through.

 

We all three got in bed. My brother told stories about some of his wild trips. When we got hungry, we sat up in bed and took a loaf of bread and pulled hunks off of it, and Mamma had some apple butter in the cave, which we had canned that summer. We thought we were getting along fine until about 7 o’clock, we heard an extra loud bang and Mamma. said, “There it goes!” My brother got out and stuck his head out the door and sure enough, the roof was gone. There wasn’t a thing we could do, so we went to sleep. In the morning, when we went up out of the cave, it was beautiful. You couldn’t see a black spot anywhere. The sun was shining, the wind all gone. It was so bright one could hardly keep their eyes open. You should have seen the inside of our cozy little house. Snow a. foot or two high on everything. The clothes that were hanging on the rafters were all gone. I remember we had a picture of a white dove. It was a memorial for my father. It had been fastened up there somewhere. It was gone too.

 

Nearly everyone had field glasses and the neighbors could see that something was wrong, and they commenced coming up to help us move to my sister’s house. We soon put up a 14 x 14 foot frame house, bit it wasn’t as nice as our Soddy.

 

That spring, I got a shack put up on my claim and a neighbor broke up land that I was required to have plowed for the first crop. We had him plow an acre or so near the house and Mamma and I planted sweet corn and Mexican beans. We would hoe them but I didn’t know much about such things, bit I would take care of them the way Mamma told me to. When the sweet corn was ready, we dried corn and I mean we dried corn. We would pick a wash boiler full after it was all husked and the silks taken off. Then we would scald it. I forgot to tell you that we struck a spring on my claim when they were digging a post hole and put a half barrel in it so we had water but had to carry it up a hill. Mamma stayed up with me while we were taking care of the corn. When we had it all dried, we had two 48 pound flour sacks full of dried corn. It is the best ever. Then Mamma went back to her place.

 

I was such a coward, how I suffered staying there alone at night — it was bad enough in the daytime. Mamma made me promise I would never start down to her place unless I started early enough to get there before dark — it was five miles. It was just getting disk one evening when I thought I couldn’t stay alone another night, but I knew I didn’t dare start that late, hut I went outdoors and Mamma walked around the corner of my house. I was so happy that I cried. How I slept that night. With her beside me, I wasn’t afraid of anything.

 

My oldest brother’s wife was sick in Iowa. He was a conductor on the railroad back there. The doctors said that she had tuberculosis, so he moved his family out to Colorado and took a claim. They had four children and were very short of money so the beans and dried corn came very handy.

 

One day, I went down to Mamma’s and told her the beans were all dead and felt pretty bad to think of all the work we had put into them. She said she would go home with me and look at them. She put a blanket on the ground and said, “Come on now, lets go pull some.” When I asked what for, she said just to show me how dead they were. So we pulled beans and piled them up on the blanket and walked back and forth over them and even pounded them with boards. Then we took the vines off, and you should have seen the nice beans. They had been ready to harvest, they weren’t dead. I hadn’t put much force in the work until I saw some results. Then how I did work! I don’t remember how long it took us but we harvested the whole crop of beans and got three flour sacks full. That was good eating that winter. We took a sack full of dried corn arid a sack of beans to my brother, and gave away lots more corn and beans that winter.

 

Hugo, Colorado was our county sent. My oldest brother and I had to go over there. It was eighteen or twenty miles. He had business there and had to be there. The weather didn?t look too good as we had to go in an open buggy, one horse. I think her name was “Queen.” If it wasn’t, it should have been — or something even nicer. We got through with our business about noon. By that time, it had started to snow. We had eighteen miles to go so ate our dinner at the hotel. When we had finished, we were having a blizzard. The people at the hotel said it wasn’t safe for us to start home, but my brother said he had to go as there were chores to do and his wife wasn’t able to look after things. I said that if he went, I was going.

 

I had on a long wool knit scarf, which we cut in two. The folks at the hotel helped us get bundled up to start for home. How we over got home, I don’t know. That blessed horse just took us there. There were icicles frozen on her nose. I was so cold, my brother would ask real often if my feet were cold. Once when he asked, I said they didn’t feel cold any longer. He drove behind a deserted shack out of the wind and said we had to get out. I didn’t want to for I had just gotten warm, but he said that was why I had to. He helped me out and when my feet touched the ground, I fell down. There was no feeling whatever in them. We stomped our feet until they began to hurt. They had started to freeze.

 

Mamma had gone up to stay with my sister-in-law while we were gone. That was a mile and a half from her place so when we got to Mamma’s, there was no fire. We tried to build one, but we were both shaking so from cold that we couldn’t get the lifter in the hole to take the lids off the stove, so we just clawed them off, got a fire started and made some hot coffee. Then my brother told me to go to bed and he went on home. Mamma got home. Whether or not he brought her or she walked, I have forgotten, but I have never forgotten that trip.

 

The rest of the story:

Alta Palmer Murray sold her acreage to an adjoining homesteader after settling her claim then went back east. She married Glenn Murray in Iowa. After living there a few years, they, with their two little girls, moved back to Eastern Colorado not far from where she had homesteaded. There they raised a family of four daughters and a son. This was during the depression and dust bowl years. There was not much money, but the family enjoyed a good life. Later, they moved to Southwest Nebraska where Alta spent her last thirty years near one of her daughters.