Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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Life On the Homestead

Charles Shinkle filed preemption papers on a 160-acre parcel north of Kelly in 1910. His final testimony of proof for Homestead Patent 715943 (1918) documented his setbacks:

19112 acres veg. cattle got it.
19123 acres 1/2 acre veg. 1 ton.
1913No crop
1914No crop too dry.
19153 acres cattle got it.
19163 acres 1 a. veg. 1/4 ton veg.
Cunningham cabin
The Cunningham cabin was a typical Jackson Hole homestead. The "dogtrot-style" log cabin has a sod roof. National Park Service

Anyone who has enjoyed or endured—depending on one's viewpoint—a winter in Jackson Hole might wonder what possessed settlers to believe they could cultivate crops in this valley. Nevertheless, homesteaders believed it—and grew crops here. The overwhelming majority adopted mountain-valley ranching, which dominated the economy of Jackson Hole until the tourist industry gained predominance after the Second World War. [1] Few contemporary accounts of settlement in Jackson Hole exist, and available sources shed little light on the homesteaders' frontier. Reminiscences are found in oral history tapes, newspaper accounts, or memoirs. However, care must be exercised in using these sources, for hand-down stories become embellished and memories are notoriously inaccurate. But, coupled with records such as homestead patent files and knowledge of the homesteaders' frontier in America, reasonable inferences can be made about settlement in Jackson Hole.

For much of the nineteenth century, Americans shared a general perception of the plains west of the Mississippi River as a barren desert. The myth of the Great America Desert persisted through the Civil War. But in 1847, Mormons emigrated to the Great Basin, successfully farming land that appeared impossible to cultivate, and proved the feasibility of agriculture in the arid West. In addition, after the Civil War, open-range cattle ranching prospered on the native grasses of the Great Plains. [2]

These events made two things clear. First, the hunter-woodsmen-farmers of the Old Northwest and Mississippi Valley would have to adapt their agricultural lore and experience to a very different environment. The open-range cattle industry represented such an adaptation. Second, technology could be applied to manipulate the environment, such as the Mormons' construction of an impressive system of canals. After the Civil War, technological improvements enabled homesteaders to cultivate lands where once the possibilities seemed remote. Barbed wire, patented in 1874, provided the practical material for fencing fields on the Great Plains. Also, rapid improvements in farm machinery answered the demand for ways to cultivate the larger acreages needed to earn a living in the West. For example, the plow, which evolved rapidly after 1865, enabled farmers to turn over prairie soils more efficiently. By 1873, manufacturers produced no fewer than 16 effective plows in the United States. [3] Acreage was another consideration. East of the Mississippi River, 80 acres were more than enough to support a family adequately. This was not the case in the West, where less rainfall required 300 or more acres for family farms in most instances. Ranches required thousands of acres, both for grazing and cultivating winter feed. In exceptional cases, a family could earn a good living off 40-60 acres of well-irrigated land in some areas of the West. [4]

The farmer's frontier slowly penetrated the Great Plains in the 1870s and 1880s, creeping to ward the Rockies from the east. From the Salt Lake Valley, Mormon settlers expanded into adjacent areas such as Idaho. Homesteaders first settled in the Teton Basin in Idaho in 1882. In 1887, a drought parched much of the West. The dry weather cycle hit the Great Plains especially hard, as homesteaders faced ruin as crop after crop failed. To compound the problem, the Midwest and foreign countries produced bumper crops, which kept farm product prices drastically low. This resulted in a decade of serious economic and social disruption. Farmers in western Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Colorado suffered the most; it is estimated that an astonishing one-third to one-half went bankrupt. In western Kansas and Nebraska, 100,000 people left their homes. Ghost towns, forlorn and empty, dotted the stark landscape of the high plains. Economic depression, beginning with the Panic of 1893, gripped the nation for five years, complicating the farmers' dilemma. The Populist movement swept the agrarian West in these years as leaders such as Mary Elizabeth Lease urged farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." This was the backdrop of events when settlers breached the mountains to homestead in Jackson Hole. [5]

Shelter was the primary concern of the arriving settlers and, like the earliest colonists, people on the frontier used the materials provided by nature. On the Great Plains, where wood was scarce, the sod house symbolized the homesteader's frontier. In Jackson Hole, abundant lodgepole pines provided convenient materials for log cabins, the predominant shelter in Jackson Hole, even after the first sawmills appeared in the valley. Most people started out with small one and two-room cabins, which seldom exceeded 18 x 24 feet in dimensions. The dogtrot was a common type, consisting of two cabins joined by a covered breezeway or porch. The Cunningham cabin is a good example of this construction. Builders joined the corners with saddle notches, or squared corners fastened with spikes. Cracks between the logs were daubed with a dirt mortar often reinforced along the bottom with willow wands. Roofs consisted of sapling poles covered with dirt. At first, floors were packed dirt, but settlers installed rough board floors as soon as logs could be sawed by hand, or when the first sawmills provided a ready supply of lumber.

The Budge cabin, built southeast of Blacktail Butte in 1897, was a one-room sod-roofed cabin with one door and one window. The younger Jim Budge recalled water and mud leaking through the roof during rainstorms. To keep the children dry, Mrs. Budge placed them under the kitchen table and covered it with oilcloth. [6] Frances Judge described the small homestead cabin constructed shortly after the turn of the century for her grandmother, Mary Wadams. Judge remembered the cabin as a small sod-roofed dwelling with a "brushed earth floor that had been dampened and swept until it was as hard as cement." Mrs. Wadams tacked white muslin cloth on the ceiling to reflect more light in the cabin and catch dirt from the roof. The interior walls were insulated with pages from old magazines. Rodents were a persistent problem, because there were so many entries. Judge recalled how common it was to see the moving depression of a mouse scurry across the muslin ceiling. Her grandmother prepared a flour paste laced with strychnine to control the rodents. [7] Joe Jones filed on a relinquishment south of Blacktail Butte in 1907, which included a cabin abandoned by the first occupant. When the Jones family arrived, they found that cattle had entered the structure, causing considerable damage to the floor. Joe Jones simply pulled up the boards and turned them over. [8]

As time passed and families grew, homesteaders added on to the original cabin or constructed more elaborate residences. Typical was the whitewashed cabin at Menor's Ferry, which had two distinct additions. By 1904, Jim Budge had added two rooms to his cabin to accommodate a growing family. In 1914, Norm Smith built an addition to provide room for his very large family. The Jim Williams cabin at the Hunter Hereford Ranch has two large wings added in later years. [9] An old photograph of the James and Lydia Uhl residence shows a large cabin with multiple rooms. The R. E. Miller residence, which is extant on the elk refuge, was built after 1892, but prior to 1900. (The W. O. Owen Survey Map of 1892 shows the first Miller cabin located north of the present building.) J. E. Stimson captured the interior of the Miller house; the image shows an affluence not common in Jackson Hole. Pierce Cunningham built a larger house after 1900 north of his first cabin. In 1914, Cunningham's neighbor, Emile Wolff, cut logs for a new and larger home. Bertha Moulton recalled that she and her husband John lived in a small log cabin for the first 17 years of their marriage. They built a pink stucco residence around 1934. [10]

Sawmills provided much-needed lumber for floors, roof, sheathing, and window and door frames. Stephen Leek is credited as the first to introduce a sawmill. He hauled a water-powered mill into the valley from Market Lake, Idaho, in 1893 and set it up on Mill Creek near Wilson, Wyoming. Other sources claim the Whetstone Mining Company hauled a mill into the north end of Jackson Hole around 1889. It is possible that Leek acquired this mill after the failure of the mine. [11]

At any rate, there was at least one sawmill in the valley by 1900, operated by Bonnie Holden for eight months of the year. By 1909, no fewer than three sawmills existed at the south end of the valley. Struthers Burt recalled two active sawmills in Jackson Hole when he and Carncross began constructing the Bar BC in 1912-1913. He recorded the disparaging complaint of one resident, who described the area as "a country where a 12-inch board shrunk an inch a year for 15 years." Lumber could be ordered in advance, but it did not matter much as you took what was delivered and "thanked God for it." Burt called some of the lumber "wanie-edged," a description for boards cut so close to the edge of the log that the bark showed and the board tapered off at one end. Sometimes the edge of a board measured two inches at one end and gradually narrowed to nothing at the other end. The frame addition on the Menor Cabin, built before 1900, suggests that lumber was available. Since, so far as is known, the original roofing on the cabin was board, it implies that lumber was sawn commercially in the valley by 1894, possibly at Leek's water-powered mill. After 1900, frame structures became more common on ranches and farms. In 1919, J. D. "Si" Ferrin set up a water-powered mill to saw lumber for large frame buildings at the Elk Ranch. [12]

Contrary to popular perceptions of sturdy pioneers who secured all they needed from the land, homesteaders in Jackson Hole imported building materials—notably nails, glass, door frames, window frames, and roofing paper. At first, settlers freighted these supplies into the valley from distant communities such as Market Lake and Rexburg, Idaho, but building materials and hardware became available locally when Pap Deloney opened his general mercantile store in 1899. [13]

Thus, using local materials, such as lodgepole pine, and imported hardware and building supplies, settlers developed their farms and ranches. What did a typical homestead look like? The final proof papers of entrants offer some clues, although the detail of descriptions in records varies considerably. Furthermore, desert land entries did not require occupancy, therefore structures were not listed on desert entry papers.

Albert Nelson settled in the Kelly area in 1904. His homestead included a log house, shed, storehouse, stables and other improvements. National Park Service

The earliest settlers on Mormon Row and the Gros Ventre established small cattle ranches. At the present Kelly townsite, Albert Nelson constructed an 18 x 24-foot log house with a shingle roof, a log storehouse, a log living room, a shed, and stables by 1904. North of the Nelson place at Kelly Warm Springs, William Kissenger constructed a 16 x 20-foot log house with three rooms, a log stable, and a log shed. [14]

Southeast of Blacktail Butte at Mormon Row, Jim May had completed a five-room cabin and stables by the time he filed final proof papers in 1901. T. A. Moulton completed a new frame house in 1915. Other structures included a cabin, a granary, a stable, and a hoghouse. The granary suggests he cultivated grain, possibly 90-day oats. Jake Johnson settled on his land in 1909 and built a three-room frame house, two log stables, a storehouse, a root cellar, a hen house, and a granary. Andy Chambers homesteaded a tract in 1912; by 1916, the farmstead consisted of an 18 x 20-foot log house, a 16 x 16-foot stable, and one new dwelling, partially built. The Woodward house was a substantial 20 x 32-foot, one-and-a-half-story log house, consisting of five rooms. It had a stone foundation and a shingle roof. The Harthoorn place consisted of a one-room log house, one incomplete seven-room log house, two log granaries, a large two-story log barn, a hen house, two cellars, and a log machine shed, which became more common with mechanization of farming. [15]

On Antelope Flats, Joe Pfeifer took up a homestead in November 1910 and proved it up with a two-room log home, a barn, and other outbuildings. East of Pfeifer's place and north of Ditch Creek is a hull known as Aspen Ridge. James R. Smith homesteaded the Aspen Ridge Ranch in 1911; by 1916, he had constructed a three-room log dwelling, a log hen house, a cellar, a log barn, and a frame granary. One-half mile east, James Williams homesteaded the Hunter Hereford Ranch, building a square-shaped log cabin and a small horse stable. Just south of Ditch Creek, Ransom "Mickey" Adams took up a relinquishment in 1911 that is the present Teton Science School. Adams built a four-room house, a large two-story barn (18 x 56 feet), a storehouse, a large cattle shed, a shed, a chicken house, a granary, an ice house, and a spring house. One building at the school may date from this period. [16]

On the west side of the Snake River, James Manges built a cellar, smokehouse, barn, stable, and woodshed by 1917. He also built an unusual one-and-one-half story log cabin with four rooms. (This building exists today, although modified.) In this area, homestead structures were similar to those near Blacktail Butte, except that none had granaries, indicating that cultivation was restricted to growing hay.

South of Menor's Ferry, homesteaders tried to establish farms and ranches along the narrow strip of land between the Snake River and the moraines and benches at the foot of the Teton Range. Charles Ilse homesteaded the meadow flat just north of Stewart Draw in 1910. His buildings included a two-room log and frame residence and a root cellar. In 1914, William Grant filed an entry next to Ilse. He constructed a seven-room log-and-frame house, a barn, and a chicken house. In the late 1920s, wranglers Shadwick Hobbs and Lewis Fleming filed stock-raising entries south of the JY Ranch. Although they were never developed into full-scale working ranches, their homestead cabins still exist. The Fleming cabin is now the Lower Granite Canyon patrol cabin, while Hobbs's "Starvation" cabin is located on Granite Creek, south of the Granite Canyon Trail. Neither homestead appears to have been developed. Lewis Fleming died in 1926, while Hobbs never established a working ranch headquarters at his cabin. [17]

In the Spread Creek-Buffalo Fork area, more homesteads were devoted to cattle ranching. In 1904, the Uhl ranch consisted of a house, store house, shop, spring house, wagon house, smoke house, stables, and sheds. Pierce Cunningham had built a house, stables, and sheds by 1904. Later homesteads in this area were very similar. Otto Kusche homesteaded what later became the headquarters of the Elk Ranch; he built a house, barn, storeroom, and cellar. None of the present structures at Elk Ranch are associated with Kusche's homestead. Si Ferrin began the nucleus of his short-lived ranching empire in 1908; with his wife and ten children, he constructed a residence, barns, and other outbuildings. In 1911, Gottfried Feuz settled on 160 acres with his wife and seven children. By 1917, his homestead consisted of a log house (18 x 36 feet), store house, stable, cattle shed, two hen houses, and cellar. [18]

Chambers homestead
Andy Chambers homesteaded a tract on Mormon Row in 1912. By 1916, the farmstead included this 18 x 20-foot log house. Arnold Thallheimer

Based on records, the typical homestead in Jackson Hole consisted of a two-room house, usually built of logs. Frame dwellings were more common after 1900. Barns, stables, and storehouses were common outbuildings at both ranches and farms. Granaries and cellars suggested an emphasis on farming, rather than cattle ranching. Everyone tried to live with a relative degree of self-sufficiency. A number of settlers built smokehouses to cure wild game, especially elk. Hen houses indicate the importance of poultry. Hoghouses were much less common, but some settlers kept pigs for personal consumption and, perhaps, sale.

Along with remnant cabins, the buck-rail fence has come to symbolize the homesteaders' frontier in Jackson Hole. Also referred to as a buck-and-pole, buck-and-rail, or four-pole leaning fence, it was the dominant fencing in the first years of settlement, simply because lodgepole pine provided a ready supply of material. The myth prevails that settlers used this type of fence because it requires no post hole, resting instead on the crossed bucks at each end of the panel. Pioneers reputedly preferred this fence because digging holes in the cobble-laden soils of Jackson Hole was back-breaking work. This is not true. Digging post holes is hard work, but so is cutting and hauling lodgepole pine. A buck-rail fence represented a considerable investment of time and labor. After 1900, barbed wire was introduced in the valley and became the dominant type of fence. If settlers described fences in their proof papers, as often as not they installed "post and 3 wire fence." Homesteaders who continued to construct buck-rail fencing may not have possessed the capital to purchase barbed wire. John Moulton's homestead was typical of many. He constructed a buck-rail fence around his residence, but closed off most of his farm with barbed wire. He recalled that some neighbors objected to the barbed wire, fearing it would injure livestock. If there was concern, it was short-lived, for most of the homesteaders on Mormon Row installed barbed-wire fences.

Occasionally, variations appeared such as a two pole two-wire buck fence, a modified buck-rail fence that used barbed wire. Post-and-wire fences were sometimes topped with a pole spiked into the posts. These are good fences to use in wildlife migratory routes, for ungulates such as elk and deer can jump them easily without much danger of entangling themselves in the barbed wire. By the 1920s, steel fence posts made their appearance. [19] The buck-rail fence appears frequently in scenic photographs of the park, and their rustic appeal is apparent. However, a post-and-wire fence was more practical for farmers and ranchers. They cost less, took less time to put up, and required less maintenance. The buck-rail fence regained popularity in the 1920s because of its aesthetic appeal, as dude ranches and tourist facilities became more predominant.

Residing for five years on a 160-acre tract was one major requirement of the Homestead Act of 1862; the law also required the entrant to cultivate the land. Most settlers established small cattle ranches and cultivated hay for winter feed. Farmers grew grain crops, primarily 90-day oats that were suitable for areas like Mormon Row. Elevation and climate combined to restrict the growing season for crops. The valley has an average of 60 frost-free days per year. Cyclic weather patterns such as severe winters or occasional droughts prove even more disastrous in a country with such a short growing season.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004