A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY BACK TO MY FATHER’S HOMESTEAD
Part of my upcoming book deals with my father’s most difficult years when he tried to make a living by homesteading on 360 acres north of my hometown of Terry, Montana.
He grew up in nearby Miles City. At the age of 25 he started a homestead in 1912. He spent more than two decades there before giving up on his dream.
It was my first trip back to the homestead since 1982 when my mother drove me out to Cherry Creek to show me what little remained after decades of harsh winters and searing summer heat.
She never lived out there. She met my father years later, after his wife died. This time my guide was longtime rancher Rob Reukauf, whose ancestors lived near my father. He lives on a ranch four miles or so from my father’s homestead. “There was a lot of heartbreak here,” he said, referring to many others who didn’t survive the Great Depression. They weren’t called “The Dirty Thirties” for nothing. The land dried up and blew away during the long drought. “Grass turned brown,” said Rob.
He recalls playing among the broken-down, abandoned corrals as a kid. He drove me over to Clarke Reservoir, which was built by my dad and others during the 1930s to store precious rain runoff. I counted three or four other smaller dams, all cooperative efforts of the neighbors.
Rob added a bonus to our trip: he drove to a remote area of the Terry Badlands where elk are thriving. It took nearly 30 minutes to reach his favorite viewing spot. “I don’t believe I’ve shown this to more than 40 people,” he said, as we went through a series of gates, deep-rutted trails and waist-high grass.
“I’ve been out for 57 years and I’ve never seen it greener,” he said.
On my way back to Terry at dusk, I saw a half-dozen skittish antelope and a doe mule deer with two fawns. As soon as I stopped the car to take a photo, they high-tailed it off into the orange sunset. It was quite an emotional day, seeing the last vestiges of my father’s futile years on the prairie.
I found two small pieces of shattered glass, either from window panes, glassware or bottles, and a rusty staple nail used on fence posts.
My father, by the way, was born in Miles City in 1887, the year of the super blizzards that killed hundreds of thousands of cattle and horses.
Thanks, Rob, for an experience I never expected and will never forget.