A century of planting the prairie | TheFencePost.com

A century of planting the prairie

by Barbara Guilford
Cheyenne, Wyo.

Edith Emma (Hardy) Lang, 94 years young, has spent nearly a century in a grand experiment ” making the prairie bloom near Carpenter, Wyo. Dry farming on marginal lands was a long, tough battle with the elements. Today green winter wheat fields stretch into infinity on the horizon complementing occasional red barns, black tile silos and new home construction greet visitors. However, rusting farm machinery, dead automobiles and trucks, and dilapidated outbuildings tell another story. Edith is a real SURVIVOR.

Edith’s father, Claude E. Hardy, came west in July of 1907 after reading about the “Golden Prairie” area in a Cheyenne newspaper. Disembarking from a train in Cheyenne, he walked eastward checking his map for available land parcels. South of Egbert, Wyo., a quarter section ” 160 acres, caught his eye. He liked the lay of the treeless, flat land. He felt a handful of soil. Claude had found the treasure he sought ” virgin soil ” true gold. He made up his mind and immediately set out walking 30 miles back to Cheyenne. He stopped briefly at Wyoming Hereford Ranch for a bit of sleep. In the morning he arose early, continued walking and was on the stoop when the land office opened. Two witnesses watched as he filed his claim on section SW 1/4 T13, R61.

The agricultural potential of the Eastern Wyoming prairies was not the land developers described. Temperature, precipitation, soils and terrain were all factors that had not been observed, recorded or tested. Prairie soils were indeed rich, and the terrain was flat and easily tilled; however the weather was unpredictable.

Wyoming’s long, harsh winters makes it one of the colder states in the nation. There were 138 frost-free days in Cheyenne, and Pine Bluffs averaged 125 frost-free days during the years 1951-1980. Carpenter lies between the two. Precipitation averaged 14.10 inches in Carpenter from 1948-2006, but varies widely from year to year. These golden prairies lie in a direct path of what has become known as “hail alley,” and farmers never know when their crops will be wiped out.

Summer temperatures seldom reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit although the dry heat and wind can be scorching to newly planted crops. July and August are usually the hottest months but snow has been reported in the Cheyenne area every month of the year. If these factors were known in 1908, homesteaders hoping to make their fortunes on free land would have hesitated a great deal longer.

Claude Hardy returned to his land from his home in Kansas in January of 1908 after acquiring tools and supplies. He slept close by, at the unoccupied shack of his friend, Frank Glass. It was bitter cold and Claude wrapped himself in all of the blankets he owned. He soon had his own clapboard dwelling enclosed and heated with a borrowed stove. On March 6, Claude returned to Kansas and made arrangements for railroad immigrant cars. One of these special railroad cars would hold Mr. Hardy’s two horses, two cows, two pigs, and two dozen chickens. Another was to carry a wagon, a buggy, farm implements, baled hay, furniture, and his younger brother, Judd.

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The two brothers arrived in Carpenter aboard the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy train, March 25, 1908. The men formed a caravan and traveled eastward 4 miles on wagon ruts south of town. They were surprised at the large number of shacks that had sprung up like magic. The story was told that at one point a person looked out the window of one homestead shack and saw 40 others. On the first night at Claude’s clapboard shack, the men found themselves in a raging blizzard. The next morning the sun was shining.

Homestead rules required that homesteads be continuously occupied and improved for 5-year period. One-fourth of the claim had to be cultivated each year. Edith still has Claude’s hand-written record of progress. In 1908 he broke the prairie soil and planted 18 acres: 10 acres in wheat, 5 acres in oats, and 3 in cane for animal forage. 1909 saw 115 acres plowed and oats, rye, corn, and garden were planted. Each year during the 5-year proving period, additional acres were cultivated. Makeshift barns and fences for livestock were constructed.

On Dec. 10, 1913, Claude received his patent on the homestead in Cheyenne. He defied snow drifted roads to once again walk to Cheyenne via Egbert, where he luckily caught a train. He made a vow never to sell his land.

To raise capital Claude, Judd, and Frank Glass hired out to help build a new house on the Frank Kendrick homestead. Claude’s skill as a carpenter proved critical, and a real house went up quickly on the prairie. The large home had a kitchen, parlor and bedrooms upstairs. Capital was not Claude’s only reward ” he met and became enamored with Frank’s daughter Lenna. The two were married in a Christmas Day, 1910. The couple retired to Claude’s homestead shack after the happy celebration. Lenna returned to the Kendrick home to give birth to their first child, Edith Emma, on Aug. 12, 1912. Two sons, Richard E. Hardy and Arthur Ainsley Hardy, were born shortly thereafter.

Trees were scarce when homesteaders arrived ” only occasional cottonwoods and willows grew along Crow Creek that meandered through the area. Frank Kendrick once planted a grove of 1,700 willows that attracted agriculturists from colleges at what must have been an early field day. An article with photos appeared in the Cheyenne newspaper. Edith remembered her mother describing the scene with buggies and wagons parked all around the farmstead. It was as if the trees had breathed new life and given credibility to the prairie landscape. The sodbusters began planting trees, cottonwoods, willows, and poplars to shelter their farmsteads from the harsh climate.

Pine Bluffs, 12 miles away, had Cedar trees that homesteaders first cut for Christmas trees. Cedar wood split straight easily. Four fence posts could be made from one trimmed tree. Those rough-hewn posts were used to enclose livestock around crude makeshift barns until larger houses and barns could be constructed. The fence posts strung with barbed wire were critical to keeping out the wild longhorn cattle stranded along the Chisholm Trail.

Photos of Edith as a child show her watching her mother planting rose bushes and even driving a horse as her father planted wheat by hand. She loved having her hands in the dirt seemed to be very good at pampering plants. Edith discovered the Number One rule for success on prairie planting ” everything that was planted had to be watered. Complicated watering schemes were devised so water did not have to be carried by hand.

Soon the multitude of gardens brought much success. A 14-foot-high, 24-by-36-foot grain palace was constructed for the first Pine Bluffs Harvest Festival, September, 1909. The building’s walls were constructed from grains grown on the golden prairies ” Golden millet, oats, Macaroni wheat, Durham wheat, barley, Turkish millet, and corn ” no two rows alike.

Sunflower stalks welcomed visitors inside to view the vegetables: Peanuts, cantaloupes, pie melons, citrons, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, turnips, rutabagas, cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, onions, summer and winter cucumbers, pomegranates, carrots, beans, peas, kohlrabi, asparagus, beets, and herbs were all displayed.

Edith met Franklin Lang, who lived north of Hillsdale, at church and the two were married on March 31, 1934.The couple soon settled on a farm only 1-1/2 miles from the Hardy homestead. Franklin gathered leftover lumber from torn down buildings at Francis E. Warren AFB in Cheyenne. The couple lived in the basement for 6 years while Edith drew the blueprints for an upper level to accommodate their expanding family. Franklin then gradually built their home.

The couple gathered Cedar seedlings from Pine Bluffs and planted double rows to the north and west of the farmstead. Edith trimmed 4- or 5-inch branches from the cedar trees planted earlier at her parents’ homestead. She threw them away initially before noticing new roots. She quickly retrieved the cuttings, dipped them in rooting compound and planted them in containers of potting soil. The small trees were transplanted to the vegetable gardens. They grew until they reached 2 feet tall before being moved to strategic spots in the yard protecting other plants.

The Cedar and Juniper trees were Edith’s pride and joy. The tree fences were comforting to the family for they protected the buildings and gardens from howling winds. And, they were forever green, dirt grey and almost black in the winter, but nevertheless an aesthetic relief to endless prairie. The tree fences caught the snow and held it back from the homestead shacks and houses during the long Wyoming winters. The water from the accumulated snow brought moisture to the trees in summer.

Edith became quite successful at coddling fruit trees ” apple, pear, cherry and plum. She studied catalogs, hunting fruit trees for short growing seasons. Edith developed strategies and concoctions for combating insects destroying the fruit ” weather was not the only obstacle. For example: To get rid of coddling moths: add 1 cup vinegar, 1/3 cup molasses, and 1/8 teaspoon ammonia to a plastic milk container with a hole cut in the upper half. Add enough water to make 1-1/2 quarts of liquid in the container. Hang from branches all around the fruit trees.

Eventually the farms could not support families with several children. Young men made more money working at other occupations including the railroads in Cheyenne. Population statistics available from the decennial census reveal that the eastern half of Laramie County or the Pine Bluffs District peaked in 1910 with 6,867 people. In 2000 the population was recorded as 3,149 people compared to 3,160 in 1900. The Lang’s five children have replicated the population trends.

Stanley Norman Lang (72) lives 1 mile east of Edith. He has worked at other occupations but still keeps a close eye on Edith and the family’s lands (720 acres of farmland, 440 acres of pasture) that are rented out today. Nathan Fred Lang lives in Maryland, Ronald Franklin Lang resides in California, Cynthia Edith Bodke lives in Ten-Sleep, Wyo., and Linda June Lang lives in Cheyenne.

Edith pointed out that homesteading was a huge experiment and everyone was trying new and different methods for dry land farming. Early success in adverse circumstances made them optimistic about the future. In 1928 a horticultural research station which developed plants that would grow on the high plains was established west of Cheyenne. Homesteaders worked long hours trying to survive on the marginal lands, while slackers retreated ” back to their eastern environs.

Edith remains in her home by choice busying her self with quilting, crocheting, sewing, writing, and always reading. She is an active member of the United Methodist Church of Carpenter playing the piano for many years. Her mind is keen and focused. Her lilting voice tells visitors that she is happy. She explains that she is living in the past and is fortunate she never got hooked on TV.

On Dec. 20, 2006, a quick moving blizzard shut down Carpenter, Wyo. Within a week another blizzard threatened, bringing more havoc. Concerned, I called Edith.

She answered the phone with her lilting, cheerful greeting, “I’m still here! I am quilting butterflies, my Cedars caught the snow and my house is warm.” I talked to her about blizzards she had experienced during her lifetime. She had many stories and told me the only way I could understand was to experience one ” so I drove out to Carpenter.

Although Carpenter received only about 14 inches of snow, strong winds piled drifts 10 feet high on the road south of Carpenter. Trucks moved slowly, one at a time, through the tunnel made by the state snow plows. Bright morning sun shown on the town’s gated cemetery. Snow drifts nearly covered the iron fence which encloses this hallowed place and there are Cedars and Junipers that appear to be embracing those homesteaders buried there long ago who are at sleep.

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