Tag Archives: Farming

Proving Up

Old Homestead Cabin on Sour Dough Road

Inside the one room homestead cabin

Some people say that I’ve “proved up” by lasting over 15 years on the edge of the frontier and behind enemy lines in conservative kinda country. And yes, when I first moved into the simple ranch house with a Sears stand up shower in the basement, I was not in New York City anymore,  Toto.   No whining for me though because everywhere around me there were relics of really really hard times. And, after all,  I could get Pellegrino at Costco.

Few people took advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act to “prove up” in Montana.  At that time you had to stay on the property for  5 years for it to become yours and it was only 160 acres and there were the Indians and outlaws that made it very unappealing.  But in 1909 Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act which doubled the “free” acres to 320.  In 1912, the proving up period was reduced to 3 years plus you were allowed to be 5 months off the land giving a hint of just how hard it would be to make a go of it.  But they, the honyockers, came in droves.  The term probably comes from the derisive term for Slavs as hunyaks.  My father used that term all the time when I was growing up in Illinois.  It probably comes from his father who briefly farmed in the northwest tip of Iowa.

The ranchers had a low opinion of these farmer wannabes and called them names.  They didn’t always used to feel that way.  In the early days of the late 19th century when the rare homesteader showed up, the cattleman called him “pilgrim”.  Much kindlier.  But now they were swarming in and tearing up the sod and turning the grass “wrong side up” and the cattlemen were not too pleased.

These shacks they constructed to prove up were about 12 ft by 14 ft on average with cracks that were stuffed with rags and paper.  The winds of Montana are fierce and often as strong as a low level hurricane.  The family would huddle around a small stove and somehow make it through the raging winter.

But this is cattle country here close to the Yellowstone and butting up against the Absaroka-Beartooth Range.  There were some honyockers here, but most left during the drought (here in Montana spelled and pronounced drouth ) years of 1919 to 1925 when there were 20,000 foreclosures statewide.  So now the place is back to cattle. John Wesley Powell had told Congress back in 1878 that the right size for a ranch in high desert would be 2,560 acres. And that it should be taken care of cooperatively and  with farm residences bunched together and the range should be open and not fenced.  We didn’t listen to him and thousands of people had their lives broken, thousands of animals died,  and thousands of acres have been damaged.  And we keep making the mistakes over again in the name of individualism and profit; boom and bust.

The pictures above and below come from my friends Patty and Tom’s range land north of town.   Montana is a magnificent place, but it is hard country and can be mighty lonely.  So I’m glad to have some friends who can talk cows, fashion, and politics. And they are good keepers of the land.  Like me, Easterners Tom and Patty who have been here twice as long as I,  have proved up too.

My Friends at Work



The Great Leveler



The Great Leveler


Fixing the Leveler


The Weak Link on the Leveler


Death has been called “the great leveler”.  Recently social networking has been called “the great leveler” because it allows small businesses to compete with big business.  But for me the great leveler is when my husband asks me to “help out for a minute”.  A chill always goes down my spine.  What impossible task does he have in store for me? Will it involve getting close to  large whirling pieces of machinery that will rip off my arm or capture my scarf and Isadora Duncan me?  Will it involve large cows charging towards me in an alleyway with only a long stick to fend them off?

I spend most of my day sitting on my butt wrangling with film producers on the phone.  I know a lot about deal making and a fair amount about computers.  I have an almost PhD in theater and film, (except for that dissertation) so I can tell you about Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, and Frank Capra.   But mechanical ability?  Not so much.   A sense of what hydraulics are?  No… not really.   Even watching the women at Janet’s Hair and Nails this morning knitting kids’ hats filled me with wonder and dread.  It looked really hard and I didn’t think my short attention span could tackle such tasks.

“It won’t take long,”  he says. (He always says that).

“Do I need to change shoes?” I query because sometimes it involves cow pies and bull crap.


So we go out the back door  and into the shop yard where he has his tractor attached to a gigantic leveler.  But he also has his diesel flatbed truck backed up against the leveler with the hydraulic arms stretched out lifting a huge chain wrapped around part of the leveler.  These hydraulic arms are used to pick up round bales and then drop them on the ground for the cows to feed.  But now he’s using them to hold the back end of the leveler up.

“Hold this piece  and when I start lifting the back end, you try to put the pin in that hole.  And watch your fingers. It may jerk a little”.

Yes, friends, it’s the “watch your fingers”  part that always has my hair stand on end.  There are a whole lot of guys around here missing digits and I do not want to join the club.

Anyway, it works pretty well  with him using the hydraulics to line up the back end and I guide the narrow piece of metal into the rectangular hole.  But it doesn’t quite line up.  He then tries all kinds of things involving hammering, using a crowbar, putting blocks behind the wheels and then backing the tractor up.  But still off by a couple inches.

“What happened to it?” I said.

“Oh, this piece was weak so I cut another piece and welded it on top.  But looks like the hole I cut needs to be another half inch.  Then I can close that gap and bolt it.  So I don’t think I need you for awhile.”

Just when I was enjoying a beautiful Indian Summer day of 70 degrees and sunshine and doing something really useful and learning a bit about mechanics,  I have to go back into an office.  Pooh.  Well, at least I have all my digits for dialing.

Where the Hammering is Done - The Shop