Listen to the Quiet: Part 7
The depression days have been appropriately named, the “Dirty Thirties” - dust storms often times obscuring the very sun in the sky – fierce winds blowing the thistles against the barbed wire fences, which in turn caught much of the moving topsoil which had quite possibly traveled for many miles before coming to rest in the form of grey banks of dust. There have been drier years since, but none took the toll as did these discouraging years endured by the homesteaders in the ‘30s. Summer fallowing, mostly on an experimental basis, was just beginning to appear, but most conservation practices, so common place now, were simply unheard of then on the Montana prairie.
The homesteaders’ grain crops in these days of drought, amounted to practically nothing – but each year, spring seeding was done with hope and a prayer that “this year will be better.” Many were the times that the Chintzes didn’t as much as get their seed back in the fall.
As if the weather wasn’t hardship enough for these struggling people, there was also the scourge of grasshoppers. Clouds of them blotting out the sun – ready to devour anything green. Lizzie tried in vain to protect her cabbage plants from the hungry insects by placing screens over them, but the hoppers eventually won out by managing to crawl under the screens. These pesky insects did provide juicy morsels and also a diversion for the chickens, which didn’t have too much to eat anyway. But this unusual chicken feed rendered the chicken flesh inedible. Eventually, the application of grasshopper poison came to the aid of the settlers. The poisoned bran was devoured by the “hoppers” and did prove effective in eradicating them.
Perhaps mention should be made of the closure of the area’s banks. There was no advance warning – one day a depositor had money in the bank and the next day there was none. The larger depositors did get a bit of buck interest, but it didn’t amount to much. Otto recalls that his wouldn’t have bought a meal, so he told them to keep it. Apparently the banks had lent out too much money over the years without receiving good security. Security was generally in the form of land, which at that time was worth very little. Katherine Arson, across the Frenchman Creek, had proved up on her homestead and desiring to sell it, accepted a check for $500. She kept it a day or two and then took it to the Hinsdale Bank where she was told that the bank wouldn’t honor it. Her land was no longer hers and she was out the $500.
The pinch of the depression was felt in many different ways. Otto and his daughter, Leona, tell about the time that Otto assisted Mark Wright in trailing his cows into Saco. When the town came into view, Mark rode ahead to see about the cattle cars which he had ordered. He found out that his trip had been for nothing as the railroad cars were not in town and no one at the depot knew when they could be expected. Discouraged, the men started trailing the cattle back toward the north country, selling the cattle along the way for $15 a head to whoever had the money – Joe Mavencamp and Locale Edward’s were two of the buyers. These shorthorn cows were big and in their prime – Otto says he helped butcher one which weighed 1,200 pounds. This was a sample of the quality beef raised during those years by Mark Wright on his Frenchman Creek ranch.
Strange as it may seem to young cattlemen of this day and age, Russian thistles were utilized for cattle feed during the depression winters. Otto and the other livestock owners who were in “the same boat,” raked up the thistles while they were still green and juicy and stacked them – the stacks settled gradually and as Otto with his usual wit, so aptly described it, “We dished the thistles out just like hitchhikers!” This handy feed certainly must have been provided by the Almighty, as the cattle found this unusual, monotonous sounding diet much to their liking, thus saving them from possible starvation and their owner from more hardship.
One spring, Otto decided to run for the position of trustee on the Tollefson School Board. His opponent that particular year was Art Eklund, the father of Mrs. Charlie Hayes, who now resides in Malta. It was the usual bad weather on the first Saturday of April, but never-the-less, every eligible voter cast their ballot in this hot election. Perhaps the statement of Mark Right’s to the effect that “Otto deserves the position, as he has always kept up the road to the school,” swayed a few voters, but anyway, Otto won over his opponent by three or four votes. This school district was rather vast and included even the Stuart Brooks across the Frenchman. Otto and the clerk of the school board, Mr. Whitbread, visited that household on one occasion to check on the home tutoring being done by Mrs. Brooke for her daughter, Lois, Mrs. Willard Bowman.
Anne Poland Dip, who had come from Ellen-burg, Wash., to teach at the Tollefson School, recalls that her salary was $65 a month. She boarded at the Chintz home for $15 per month with transportation to and from school “thrown in with the deal.” A few of the teachers at this school, which incidentally closed in the mid-40s, were Bernadine Brand Smith, native of Whitewater and now residing with her family at Glasgow; Ruth Chapel Dull, living at Saco, and the late Bonnie O’Brien Ivanovitch, who lived for many years in the north Whitewater area. The late Mrs. Ed Erickson also taught at this school. The average attendance was from 10 to 15 pupils.
By this time the water situation on the Kientz homestead had been solved with a good well dug close by, after years of hauling water. The prairie had become pock-marked by attempts at locating the elusive water vein. Tests were done with an auger, sometimes water was found but joy was short-lived as it turned out to be alkali. It was figured out that a total of 1,000 feet had been dug altogether in the water searching attempts. The 53-foot present well was dug in 1929, [and] handmade drill and post hole auger were the well drilling tools used. Neighbor Carl Erickson helped install the casing which had been purchased from Henry Math of Whitewater.
The government-sponsored WPA program was a financial shot in the arm for the needy families in those depressing days of the 30s. Jansey Tieden, who became associated with the WPA in Phillips County, offered Otto a foreman’s or “pushers job.” The policy was two weeks of employment then two weeks off in order that more men could be involved. Various types of labor were done, such as fencing, building dams on government land, poisoning gophers; traveling from the Canadian line to the Little Rockies south of Malta. Otto had a different crew each time he went out on the two-week stretches. The government provided tents, even large ones for the horses. Otho Busche and Bill Gust of the Forks community were two of the cooks. Some former WPA workers remembered and most still living in Phillips County are Harry Brown, Archie Ulness, Fred and Jerome Allery, Westley Wright, Otto Schleusner and Oliver Tollefson. At one time, Otto worked at the Legion Health Plunge, now known as the Sleeping Buffalo Recreation Area, and he used tools belonging to Paul Daellenbach of Malta, who was the foreman on that job.
The women at home kept quite busy with chores while Otto was gone during the WPA years. Lizzie kept her eye on the trap line, which they had set on their own land; sometimes finding it necessary to shoot a badger which was unlucky enough to get caught and also shooting coyotes. She always managed to be available when a helping hand was needed, driving a one-horse buggy on errands, raking and stacking hay and even hauling the sacked grain into Saco - Otto taking one wagon and team ahead while Lizzie followed behind. Mishaps during these jaunts makes one think that the horses were actually daring Lizzie to handle them. On one occasion this couple enjoyed a spectacle of brilliant shooting stars in the sky – Otto remarked that this was a sight that they have never seen since.
Saturday night dances every two weeks at the Valleytown schoolhouse relieved the tedium of the work-filled days. The Kientz family, with their multi-talents, was the core of the musical group – Babe and Toots played guitars, Lizzie the organ and Otto on the fiddle, providing a lively time for the neighbors and friends attending. The Kappel sisters lent their voices to the occasions and Walt Hoyer, who in later years was the Malta cop, sometimes brought his fiddle, singing one of his favorites, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” Fiddling required more than ordinary effort for this man, as he had a stub hand, but he managed somehow with a special strap. The hat was passed around during the evening and although the compensation was small, it was appreciated. The music played until the sun came up and when the family arrived home, the cows were milked and the sheep fed before the Kientzes retires.
On Sunday, the church organist didn’t show up for Lutheran services so the preacher, with a twinkle in his eye, asked Otto if perhaps he had brought his fiddle along. Otto says, “The preacher knew full well that I’d been out all night playing for a dance!” The dances at Valleytown had to eventually close down because of an invasion of bootleggers, spoiling the good times for these hard-working people in the area.
Helen DePuydt is a regular contributor to the Courier and a member of a homesteading family in the Saco area. All of her stories are true.