John and Eva Becker Schroeder: Homesteading in Montana 1913-1922

They called it their "honeymoon" trip". But that was always said with an ironic smile. When my grandmother married John Schroeder on September 2, 1913 he had already filed a claim on a homestead twenty miles from Chinook, Montana.

There were also four other families from their South Dakota community, including John's parents, making the move. After several weeks of preparation, John and the menfolk loaded the livestock and boarded an immigrant car of a train headed for Zurich, Montana. John and Eva had four horses, three cows, one pig, a dozen chickens and a dog. 

Several days later, Eva, the other women, the children and Grandpa Schroeder boarded another train headed for the same destination. Even so, they arrived first, since there were frequent stops with the livestock car to exercise animals. So much for their honeymoon!




Soon they were living in an abandoned shed and the race was on. No time could be wasted. Winter was coming and they must build shelter for themselves and their animals. John spent his first days hauling machinery from the train station in Zurich, 14 miles away. Then he had to get lumber. Each trip began at dawn driving the horse team and wagon (sometimes a second wagon was hitched behind) over a rocky trail to town, only to return after dark.


The Schroeder's first home.
They built just one structure, 40 feet long and 28 feet wide, on their own with just a few days of hired help. One end was their living quarters, the other side was the barn and grain bin. They spent that first cold, cold winter working on the inside of their structure. Their wood and coal burning stove kept things fairly warm during the day, but at night they would wrap potatoes and eggs in blankets to keep them from freezing.
Inside their cozy home.

Nevertheless, they enjoyed their new lives.


People had come to Chinook from Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. It had quickly become a fairly large community. A community with a problem: water was scarce. This meant hauling water for family use and livestock. Those who dug wells were seldom rewarded with water. John and Eva had a small creek running through their homestead with occasional holes where water stood even when the creek was dry. John decided to dig here. Sure enough, about seven feet down, he hit water. There was enough to share with neighbors. 


A church had been organized before John and Eva arrived and met in a home. Since most in the community were Christians and Mennonite, they needed a building. They began by building a basement. Using horses pulling a scoop and men picking and shoveling, they soon were worshiping below ground.


Soon the homestead was a busy farm. The cows were milked and the cream churned into butter which was sold for 11 cents a pound. Later, they sold cream. John continued to expand the acreage under cultivation. The field work was done with horses. Often, John had eight horses working at once, a difficult task. The crops were good and in 1915, they had a bumper crop.


A daughter, Emma, was born in 1913 and a son, Edward, in 1917. They bought a Ford car which was used mostly for short trips in the summer. The rocky roads to Chinook were too hard on the tires and because of the cold and snow, they would not use it in the winter.


Still, farmers had to go to town in the winter to sell the cream and buy supplies. The bitter Montana winter would have temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero. John and a friend would go together, leaving at 4 a.m. The horses would eat and rest in town while the men shopped. When a storm developed, the trip home was treacherous. The trail quickly blew full of snow and there were not other signs for direction. They had to trust their horse them to take them home.


It was slow going and they would walk behind the wagon or sled in an effort to get warm. To Eva, waiting at home with their babies, the day seemed endless. Finally late at night, there he was, cold and shivering, but safe.
John and Eva with from right, Edward, Olivia, Emma and Wanda



Then the dry years came. One after another.  There were other problems too: grasshoppers inflicted major damage, they fought gophers for their grain, they had hail, they had to buy feed 30 miles away for their livestock. Some people in the community got discouraged and left, but the Schroeders remembered the good years and persevered. They had two more daughters, Wanda in 1918 and Olivia in 1921. A neighbor moved, so they rented his farm and moved into that house. The house was small, but there was a large barn which they needed for their growing cattle herd. Eventually, they farmed three homesteads. They were working extremely hard and the reward seemed to be even more work just to get by.


Still, 1922 was a year of hope. It rained at the right time! The wheat and winter rye were doing well.  Harvest was coming and John and his brother were preparing the machinery. One Sunday, as they returned from church they noticed a cloud forming and coming up fast. They hurried home and then watched as the rain turned to hail. The crops was completely crushed and so were their dreams. Everything was mortgaged. How could they feed the cattle one more winter? They sold their cattle, horses and machinery and loaded their four children and what they could into their Ford. Then they bid a sad farewell to the place that held so many happy memories.

To read more of John and Eva's story:
Part 1: The Early Years 
Part 2 is this post
Part 3: The Great Depression 
Part 4: The Minnesota Years 
Part 5: Growing Old

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting my blog. Please feel free to leave a comment.