By: Randy Tucker
My grandfather Eugene Gasser was born near Lucerne, Switzerland in 1897. Raised on a farm, he learned to love the outdoors and eventually earned a degree in agriculture from a nearby university.
As a carefree 16-year old, he and some friends were across the border in Germany in August of 1914 when World War I broke out, and the border with Switzerland was closed. Eugene and his three friends were riding double on a pair of motorcycles. Mandatory enlistment for all German men was in effect, and they had no way to prove they were Swiss citizens.They sold the motorcycles, purchased touring skies, and hitchhiked high into the mountains that bordered the two nations.
They crossed into the alpine region of the Alps and hiked and skied along glaciers back home to Lucerne.
Grandpa joined the Swiss cavalry and won the Army’s 1916 equestrian jumping competition, taking a gold medal while clearing 7-4 on his horse.
His love of country quickly diminished when he was sent on sentry duty after the Armistice in November of 1918 to guard grocery stores and banks in Germany.
He told me one afternoon as I helped him on his Wyoming farm, “I never want to see that again. Sitting on a corner with a rifle, keeping starving people back from food. I hated Germany, hated Europe, hated war and wanted a new life.”
He found that new life in Wyoming where his college degree meant little, but his raw strength, knowledge of animals, and expertise with his 1892 octagonal barreled 44-40 lever action Winchester rifle found him alone in a sheep wagon with a couple of herd dogs tending 3,000 head of ewes one winter.
He sent for my grandmother back in Switzerland. Clara Voch was the daughter of a wealthy Swiss railroad magnet. She grew up in finishing schools and spoke German, Italian, French, and English fluently.
She said goodbye to her pampered life and followed Eugene to an uncertain future in the wilderness that was 1920s Wyoming.
This story is about my grandmother and her transition from an aristocratic life to the grind of living as a woman on the frontier.
The couple homesteaded a ranch called the Bar Gee at the foot of Black Mountain on the northwest edge of the Wind River Indian Reservation. My grandfather made friends quickly with many men of the Shoshone tribe, and his ability as a hunter and woodsman was respected among them.
The depression officially hit America in October 1929, but it hit Wyoming and other rural areas much sooner.
My grandfather often hired gangs of men to help clear land, cut trees, and build fence for the owners of the homestead he was creating, and it was up to my grandmother to feed them.
That’s where the story of this aristocratic Swiss girl and her aptitude with a rifle and shotgun comes into being.
One week, she had to feed a dozen-and-a-half men. Breakfast was an endless line of pancakes, and lunch featured her incredible home-baked bread with butter and jam. I can attest to the unforgettable taste of grandma Gasser’s cooking, and I’m sure the men, 50 or more years my elder, appreciated it too.
Dinner was another issue. Working men wanted meat for dinner, and while there was plenty of beef, the diet became too routine. The buffalo were almost extinct, and there was a moratorium in the west on elk hunting, since “tuskers” had almost eradicated the elk for their ivory teeth.
Deer were regulated by the state game and fish as well, and it took a lot of them to feed that many men.
Grandma turned to cottontail rabbits to break up the monotony on the menu.
Rabbits cycle in the mountain west from just a few to so many they crowd the prairie. It was one of those bumper years in the mid 1920s for the cottontail.
Grandma had a single shot .22 rifle and a box of shells with only 21 short rounds when she set out one morning after making a few dozen loaves of bread and setting them aside to rise.
Family legend has it that she came back with 22 rabbits. She told me one of the shells was a dud, and she actually took all 22 rabbits with just 20 shots. Yes, she shot through a couple of them that were so close one .22 round was able to take a pair.
The men had rabbit stew that evening.
They raised chickens on the homestead, but the hens were her pride and joy, and she’d never consider eating them. In Wyoming in the 1920s before cheat grass destroyed much of their habitat, sage grouse, often called prairie chickens by native Wyomingites, were abundant.
They were so abundant that when grandma went out to throw corn and oats to the chickens as they grazed in the surrounding sage brush, the grouse would mix with the White Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks, and Rhode Island Reds.
Clara walked out with a wheel barrow one morning, tossing grain to the chickens. She carried a single shot Harrington Richardson .410 shotgun with her in the wheel barrow.
She took a couple dozen sage hens in her rounds that morning, plucked them all, cleaned them, and made another meal for the crew of the tasty native bird.
It was all in a day’s work for an amazing woman who made the transition from pampered princess in civilized Switzerland to frontier wife and mother in the unsettled wilderness of Wyoming.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].