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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Old Fences, Old Cabins, and Rhubarb

Walking The Same Ground

5

“Old Fences, Old Cabins, and Rhubarb”

Over the years I have probably removed, repaired, and rebuilt at least a hundred miles of fence in Custer County. This served as an excellent course in some of the unwritten history of the Wet Mountain Valley.

Each spring, for several years, my sons, Jason and Jarod, and I fixed fence on Harold and Milla Vickerman’s pasture east of the airport. it ran up against the national forest to the East and part of it bordered the Bar-H Ranch which lay to the South.

The elevation was over 9000 feet and grass was slow coming. Also, the early vegetation sometimes included a bumper crop of loco weed, so the cattle didn’t often get up there until late June.

Harold told me how, when he was a boy, they used to load a wagon with posts and wire and spend the day building fence. He didn’t mention anything about the dynamite, which I was sure they probably needed to put some posts into places that were almost solid rock.

How long it took for the repair work depended on winter snowfall and its wind-formed drifts which would determine the travel routes of the elk.

After a while you learn how to read the stories of fence. One summer we encountered a fifty yard stretch of fence with a story line that was clearly written in blood.

A herd of probably 40 or so elk had gotten spooked. They had hit the fence on a dead run pulling fence posts out of the ground, stretching wire until it broke, and dragging both 100 feet out into the pasture. Blood, fur, and flesh adorned tangled barbed wire and deformed T-posts bearing witness to the carnage. It took us a few hours to clear the wreckage and re-build the fence.

We would usually stop for lunch on the highest ground in the pasture, and in the early years, we could not see a rooftop in any direction. However, this would change as the Bar-H sold and surrounding land was sub-divided.

As this happened, people began to complain that part of their 35 acres was inside the Vickerman pasture. Of course, this was probably true as most of the old fences did not follow the property line perfectly. One afternoon, Milla and I measured out one complaint to determine the extent of the error.

I suggested a plan, “Give him a hundred dollars for his one tenth of an acre, and we’ll go home.” We couldn’t move the fence for a hundred dollars and, at that time, a thousand dollars an acre was about market price. I suppose the other option is that he would just have to live with it.

Odds were that he probably wouldn’t keep the property very long anyway. In 2001, when the new high school was built, only 11% of the voters had lived here for 20 years.

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Before the ski area came to town, Muddy road, cut between Tony and Joe Blei’s, and went straight up the hill toward Geneva Hunt’s place and Chuck and Phyllis Kastendieck’s cabin. When the ski area was built, Muddy was curved to the South to accommodate skiers. and a new road was extended connecting it with Hermit Road to the north.

The job of taking out the fence along the old road fell to me. Usually, when removing fence, I would roll the old wire, however, that was not going to work this time. The wire had been nailed to just about every tree even close to being in line with the two corners, and as the trees had grown over the years, the wire was now embedded four inches deep into the wood. This meant that the wire had to be cut at each tree, providing an abundance of three or four foot lengths. The strongest ones would latter become transplants for other fences.

At the lower end of the road, I encountered a fence repair job from several decades earlier. The story it told seemed pretty obvious. All of the strands had broken, and they were too short to be reconnected. I’m sure that there must have been no extra wire lying around at the time.

However, as luck would have it, there was an old set of bed springs close by. They were about the same height as the fence, so why not? The springs had been attached to all four strands of wire and this served nicely to fill the gap. In time, aspens had grown up through the springs bonding them to the trees.

I cut the aspens off at the base, and with my 1958 Massey Ferguson and a twenty foot chain, yanked out the whole conglomeration in one piece.

I have seen gaps in fence repaired with baling wire, clothes line, barn wood, tree limbs and, yes, bed springs. In the absence of spare barbed wire, whatever was at hand was used. As I removed some of these “masterpieces” I could almost hear the ghosts of the old fence riders say as they walked away. “Oh well, I’ll never be back here again.” I can’t remember for sure, but a couple of these “works of art” may even have had my signature on them.

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Jim Christoff, who delivered mail in the 1950’s, told me that the old house in the Blizzardine area had once been the Earl Hansen place. I think that later it was owned by Gus Watkins and then one of his daughters, either Barb Stock or Mary Lou Livengood. When I was there, a couple of sheds and the house were still standing. As I entered one of the sheds; I found, written, in pencil, on the wall things like: “1921—planted 100 pounds of snow peas.” Other records were kept as well, including the price of oats and the yield of potatoes for a given year. I wish I had taken a picture.

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Raymond and Helen Koch once lived in a two story house at the corner of Schoolfield and Willow. When new owners began to tear down the old house, they discovered, as was the case with many old homes, a log cabin inside. I bought it with the idea of adding it onto our house we were going to build. The logs were hand hewn and they had compound dove tailed corners. The cabin had obviously been moved before, as each log had been numbered with Roman numerals. In the chinking, I found fabric scraps from old shirts or dresses as well as pieces of newspaper written in German. Like barb wire repairs, chink joints were often filled with whatever was nearby.

My rebuilding plan did not work out and I sold the cabin to Dr. Robert Hamilton. Mike Pearl and I re-assembled the cabin on the Babcock’s Hole Ranch South of Wetmore where it still stands.

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While repairing fence in the Froze Creek area (or was it Antelope Creek?), I came across an old log cabin which had the remains of a bay window. The short logs used to make the curve of the window spoke of human patience long ago that worked to make this wilderness home special. When I got there, over a hundred years later, the roof was gone and some crows had nested in the corner.

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Fence jobs often took me to old homesteads tucked away in little canyons, where I would find the remnants of human presence and effort: rusted farm implements, roofless cabins, broken wagon wheels, and shards of glass and stoneware. If they could talk, oh, what stories they could tell!

In the midst of the ghostly silence of these relics, I found one survivor—Rhubarb! It was first known to be used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes 5000 years ago, and its culinary use in America dates back to the late 1700‘s.

Some Rhubarb plants have been reported to be more than a hundred years old. People have come and gone over the last century, but this resilient perennial which had provided pies for early settlers was still thriving when I passed by.

Hundreds of stories have been written on these mountains and prairies, written with the sweat and blood of earlier generations in wood, rock, dirt, and barb wire. Most of the stories have completely faded from all living memory. I am reminded of the words, in the Psalms, of the ancient Hebrew king, David:

As for man, his days are like grass,

he flourishes like a flower of the field;

the wind blows over it and it is gone,

and its place remembers it no more.





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