Old Montana Homestead
Yesterday we went hiking and came across an old homestead. It made me think about the family homestead of my Timms family and how we debated how old it was.
Many in our family had all heard and been told stories about the Timms place; many similar others quite different. As this debate went on we fortunately had someone in our family who is in the architecture business. His knowledge and insight really helped us when we were asking questions and when historical folks came out to look at the family site.
In the Midwest the preservation of a family homestead, such as the one my Uncle Sherm lived in, even if covered and added on to is unusual. Many original homesteads and structures no longer exist. I think that they were lost to progress. I can remember growing up as farms got larger and absorbed other farms, older homesteads were torn or burned down to make row for more corn and beans. It always seemed sad to me and I wanted to walk through them before they were gone, down to feel and see the history before it was lost.
In Montana there seem to be an abundance of abandon homesteads still preserved. I think two things contribute to this abundance. First our dry weather causes very slow rot and decay. Second we have much less cultivated ground here. In open range, ranchers don’t have the same need to get rid of a homestead as you do when your livelihood is based on the number of bushels of corn and acre can produce. Cattle wander in and out of old homesteads until nature and time causes them to collapse.
I love to find old ranch and mine sites and wander through them. I wonder what made the family choose this spot to stop and build a home, how long they stayed and why they left. Usually not much is left there but my imagination and questions.
I just finished reading a book about women homesteading in Montana. As a person fascinated by family history it was not only interesting, but also educational. I learned about how the original homestead act was modified over time to meet changing desired outcome by our government.
The original homestead act was signed by Abe Lincoln in 1862 to encourage settlement of lands west of the Mississippi. A person could go West and file an application for 160 acres, improve the land and then file for deed.
The first change acknowledged dryland farming. This came about as settlers moved father west into lands that were less suited to the farming as known in the lush farmlands of the Midwest. The conditions were much harsher with less rain, requiring more land to produce a crop that could support a family. This change would allow homesteaders to file for 320 acres.
The next change came to allow stock ranching. This allowed a homesteader to file for 640 acres, and the improvements no longer required you to cultivate your land, but instead you needed to manage it for grazing.
One of the most interesting things I learned about homesteading is that the US was unique in that free people over the age of 21, who were head of household could file for land. This included women which was unheard of in other countries that had homesteading. Women came from Canada and other countries for the free lands. I also learned that a single woman had a fair number of recognized rights, and yet when she married she lost almost all of them. She could apply for a homestead as a single woman, but if she married the government could not figure out what to do with her and the land she had started to homestead. She often lost that homestead.
This book inspired me to go back and look at land records again to see if I may have women in my family who started out as homesteaders but in the end either their husband became the owner or they lost it all together.