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Relics of a Bygone Era: Homesteading in Wyoming

By: Randy Tucker

Beaver Rim has always had a bit of an atavistic draw to me. I first learned of the area as a youngster hunting rocks with my uncles Chris Pallas and Ralph Gasser. We scoured the hills for agates, petrified wood, jade, and the occasional rattlesnake.

You might say those were my salad days, young, with no responsibilities, on vacation to a place I loved with no cares in a world that seemed to last forever.

Well, those are the joys of youth, and they surely pass much too quickly.

I’ve hunted the rim, taken obscure two-track roads just for the fun of it, and explored much of the area.

We once found a weather balloon, with its plastic shroud ripped by the howling winds that sometimes roar across the basin from the distant Wind River Mountains. I was hunting antelope with my friend from college, Andy Herbst. Andy was a deputy sheriff in the war zone of Los Angeles County.

Weather balloons launched by NOAA are pre-paid to be dropped at any US Post Office. That’s part of the tracking of these unique atmospheric devices. We contemplated having Andy drive back to Los Angles to mail the remnants of the balloon from there, just to mess with the minds of the weather service guys who track the balloons, but in the end, I just dropped it off at the Riverton Post Office, on Main Street.

Relics of a bygone era, along with the spent .50 caliber shells of B-24s and B-17s training their gunners out of the World War II US Army-Air Force Base at Casper in preparation for the most hazardous duty of the war, battling the talented, well equipped Luftwaffe in the skies over Europe.

Relics of a bygone era stirred my imagination this week when my mom gave me a letter my grandfather Eugene Gasser wrote almost a century ago, on April 22, 1923.

Grandpa Gasser had recently immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and was trying to homestead somewhere on Beaver Creek, just below Beaver Rim, northwest of present-day Sweetwater Station.

He spent that first winter on his new homestead with five horses living in a sheep wagon.

The letter home 98 years ago, was written in German but translated by my mom’s cousin Ernst into English.

Mom often tells me I look like grandpa Gasser. I talk like him, and when I sing she says our voices were identical.

Eugene was 59 years old when I was born in 1956. I only knew him as an old man, but his strength was often told of by my uncles. My uncle Eugene, his oldest son, was a powerful man, a legend in the oil fields of Midwest, in Natrona County. My dad related a story when the sons and sons-in-law were messing around one day trying to lift a heavy pipe off a stack.

Gene, my dad, and my other uncles Ralph, Quentin, and Chris couldn’t budge it, but grandpa tested the weight, moved a bit, and lifted it to the amazement of the younger generation.

I often think of what my grandfathers must have been as young men, without my mom and dad, much less me, even a twinkle in his eye.

Back to the letter, it reveals a lonesome young man fighting the forces of nature in a hostile environment, that a more empathetic spirit would never have placed him in.

From April 1923:

“For a couple of days, I have been in the forest to make posts for my own home place. From here to Hans it is a whole journey, about 10 miles. Therefore I am living in a gypsy wagon, for three or four weeks, not in a tent as I had written to mother. Unfortunately, I came into a blizzard yesterday, in a way you can see it only over here. Today also the weather hasn’t changed. To get out of the wagon I have to dig first a tunnel through the snow, but frankly said, I have nothing to seek outdoors, and luckily I have enough wood and food for about 30 days. The wagon is good and has a very good stove. In spite of the storm, I like to live here. Yes, the gypsy life is nicer than you think! For eight days I have not seen any human being, and I think it will be some 14 days until I will see the next. Sorry here I have no ink, that’s the reason I am writing with a pencil. From here to the next farm it’s a distance like between Hallau and Schaffhausen (about 10 miles) Maybe there is a sheep camp with some thousand sheep in the near area. Then too, I’m learning cooking, step by step. Yesterday, I had a misfortune with it. I wanted to cook beans, and since I like beans so much I thought for myself, “Now, for this time I want plenty of them.  For half measure, I filled the pan with bean kernel, but this pan was too small, and in a couple of hours I had two big pans full of bean soup. I knew that the beans expand, but I didn’t know they would expand like a just married wife.”

That was my grandfather’s humor, and outlook on life as a young, strong man living alone in one of the harshest environments in the continental United States.

He passed away at 75 in 1973, when I was 16.

We shared a love of geography, history, agriculture, and a healthy respect for the natural world. He loathed politicians as I do, and had many Native American friends when it was looked down on for white people to associate with the Arapaho and Shoshone people.

Mom tells me we were very much alike. I take that as a compliment.

The excerpt I reprinted here, is a snippet of a much longer letter home.

My grandmother Clara Voch, was still two years from arriving in Fremont County. My grandfather carved out a future for both of them when she finally arrived.

Perhaps the most telltale connection to what once was in Fremont County, and will never be again is the post office he mailed the letter from.

It was postmarked Hailey, Fremont County, Wyoming.

Hailey was a brief settlement on the bottom of Beaver Rim, somewhere between Sweetwater Station and Hudson, big enough to have a post office, but not big enough to survive the tumultuous America of the 1930s.

I often think of those days. A young man battling the elements with just a few horses, an ax, some hand tools, and his 1892 octangle barreled 44-40 Winchester rifle.

He passed almost half a century ago, but his influence on me remains. He was a man among men.

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 ratucker@wyoming.com.

 
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