For the Love of Dirt

This is a story about dirt. It includes cowboys and horses, trains and timber, mining and farming, war and politics, and settling the west. It is about hard work and hard times, choices and commitments. It is an American history lesson that spans a century. While it is not unlike most homestead stories in the early 1900’s, this is our story. It is a family tale about the Wortman Homestead, founded one hundred years ago. It is a love story about dirt.


Homestead legislation was a hotly debated political issue at the time. Before the Civil War, the southern states had voted against homestead legislation because they foresaw its ultimate result. Opening the settlement of western territory added to the number and political influence of the Free states. The Free Soil party of 1848-52 and the new Republican Party after 1854 supported the idea of “yeoman farmers” which contrasted sharply with slave owners controlling large estates. The Homestead Act signed into law in May of 1862 allowed any applicant including single women and freed slaves, to put in a claim for up to 160 acres. Forty-seven years later, The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 supposedly encouraged dry-land farming. Most of the low-lying alluvial tracts next to rivers had been claimed. Because the more marginal tracts could not be easily irrigated, legislators doubled the allotment to 320 acres. Unfortunately, for many, legislators grossly underestimated the climate and soil condition of the western plains. The more marginal the tract of land, the more difficult it became to “prove-up” on the homestead. Many did not succeed. However, a century ago, that siren call of free land originated the merging of two families who claimed their marginal tracts next to a seasonal creek called Black Coulee, 45 miles east of Big Sandy through the southern foothills of the diminutive Bear Paw Mountains in south Blaine County.

Leonidas Wortman, born in 1859 in Missouri, came to Montana territory in about 1884. He staked out his claim near Salesville, MT, presently called the Gallatin Gateway, near Bozeman. He then returned home to marry his long-time sweetheart Mary Rosetta Billington. They had five children all born in Salesville. She had an abdominal malady and actually died on the operating table in 1904. Apparently devastated by that loss, Leonidas sold his land in Salesville and moved his young brood to the Kalispell area. He most likely worked as a teamster freighting goods to the mining fields. Leonidas died in 1918, one month shy of 60. The first child of Mary and Leonidas, Rosetta (Rosie) Louisa, born 1888, died at 21 of tuberculosis. Florence Lele, born 1892, became the mother influence. The younger children were James Ernest, born 1894, Alma Lavina, born 1896, and Everett Alexander, my grandfather, born April 16, 1899.

Everett and Jim traveled around western Montana taking whatever jobs were available. They worked as miners, loggers, and cowboys. At some point, Everett learned the skills of  a blacksmith. Florence Wortman married George Howard, a telegraph operator, in 1914, and together they moved to south Blaine County but did not apparently prove up on their homestead. Florence’s persuasive letters however brought her younger brothers to the area where the Homestead was established in 1916. When their father, Leonidas, died in 1918, Everett joined his brother Jim on the homestead.

A little over two miles east of Black Coulee resided another family who came to Montana from Peabody, Kansas. William H. and Mary Ellen Godsey, people of property, had thirteen children. William was reportedly a  man who raised his children to recognize opportunity. His daughter Grace with her husband Harry Bence had moved to Montana where he worked in the mines. His son Bill with his wife Jennie had moved to Idaho, but after a year or so moved to Montana. With his daughter Edna, her husband Claude Loveall, Claude’s folks and the bachelor brother Roy, they rented a freight car and moved to Montana to Homestead in 1912. The brutally cold winter convinced William and Mary that a year in California visiting William’s brother John sounded more pleasant. They returned to Peabody, Kansas. It was another four years before Mary Addaline Godsey Stevens, my grandmother, having left a disappointing marriage in Oklahoma and returned to Peabody with her four young children, was swept toward Montana in a box car with her parents, her children, some chickens, her milk cow, and “old Sam” her horse. She was thirty years old. Needing that all important “grub stake”, she worked at the Blue Moon Cafe in Big Sandy for nearly a year before coming further west to Black Coulee. Her little chunk of ground had a partial building on it from a failed homestead but in the early 1900’s, South Blaine County was a thriving community. There were neighbors and family nearby with tools and willingness to help with the manual labor. It was not long before the little cabin had a new roof, the chickens had a coop, and Addaline had a root cellar. Grandma’s homestead was just south of The Cow Island Trail and a mile from the Wortman boys’ place. No stranger to adversity or hard work, Adde, as Grandma came to be known, needed wages and after placing her children in the care of sister Edna, catching a passing freight wagon into Big Sandy and on to Fort Benton, she washed and ironed clothes in the Chinese laundry.

Meanwhile, up the creek, Jim and Ev Wortman of solid German stock were going about the business of erecting cabins. They spent the first year in a dug out lean-to next to the spring. With their work horses and logging knowledge, they cut and drug timber off the nearby hills to build each of them a cabin. They too had root cellar, a chicken coop and eventually a  log barn, and a blacksmith shop. People came from all around for two things from Ev Wortman: getting horses shod and a haircut.

Even though Addaline and Everett were neighborly and no doubt noticed each other, the flu epidemic cemented their relationship. It is one thing to assist a neighbor with her roofing issues, but it is another to render medical attention to a woman and her children all suffering  from the flu. Perhaps my Grandmother knew that she would always be safe with my Grandfather. She knew after he tended her livestock, hauled in water, kept the wood box full and a fire going, and fed and bathed all of them, that he would always take care of  her and her children. History proved the truth in that romantic notion. Addaline was eleven years older than Everett and there was much frowning from Ev’s big sister, Florence, about the match, but the two were married on May 16, 1922, in Havre, MT. They lived fifty-three years together here on the Homestead until the end of their love story in 1975 when they died just one week apart.

Their marriage wrought more than a homestead and two children, my father, Jim Richard (Dick) Wortman, born in 1922, and his sister Betty Eileen, born in 1924. A simple choice, using simple tools, they cleared land of rocks and sagebrush, planted and harvested crops and a massive garden, canned produce, kept chickens for eggs, cut fence posts out of nearby coulees and dug post holes. Using an ax and shovel and the ever-present team of horses, using the strength of their backs and convictions, they literally chopped and dug a life out of Black Coulee.Without a milk cow and a garden, there was no butter or spuds to put it on. That vital root cellar had to be full before fall or it would be a lean winter. They butchered their own chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows. They even made a little wine and whisky. In the winter, there was more wood needed for a fire, ice chopped open for livestock, and blocks of ice cut to put in the root cellar under saw dust or straw. My Grandfather, called Pa, was a master with an ax. It was all about survival, not necessarily prospering, but they were entirely self-sufficient. Country folks still needed sacks of flour, sugar, and coffee from time to time though, so occasionally town trips happened, but the mail carrier became everyone’s best friend. Still, working away from the homestead part of the year was — and remains — necessary. For example, my father was born in Denton because his parents were working with a threshing crew there. My grandparents’ partnership, their choice, infused a respect, at least in me, for making a commitment to building something beyond them.

They played just as hard as they worked. Although one-room school houses became community halls, many would hold parties in their houses. There was “Fiddling Swede” up the creek, Blotto’s to the east, Walker’s to the West, to name a few. Great Uncle Jim, Dad’s namesake, was reportedly the fiddler. Dad and his sister Betty would sneak up outside of Uncle Jim’s cabin and listen to him play impossibly fast reels and jigs. Great Uncle Jim suffered mustard gas poisoning in the war and died at 42. Pa learned to play the fiddle by purchasing gramophone records and practicing with them (much to Grandma’s dismay) until he could play the tune. At these parties, the kids asleep on the floor or in one another’s beds, Grandma played a slide guitar on her lap with Pa fiddling, and handful of neighbors danced around making the glass chimneys of the kerosene lamps jiggle. Anyone who had an instrument came and played. There were no closing hours, only a long wagon ride home at dawn in time to milk the cow. In addition, every community prepared a baseball field for their team. The Sourdough Flats team here with Pa pitching and Dad catching would go down to the Missouri River to play the team from Winnifred. They played the Chinook Valley Owls who were reportedly tough to beat. Dad grumbled once about that, saying the town boys had more time to practice and less work to do. Taking a baseball to the eye was just another right-of-passage around here as Dad lobbed one toward us kids out in the yard.

Playing ball and music became as much a part of the legacy as the skill to use an ax. Dad was playing the drums in a one-room school-house when a buxom blonde girl from Chinook walked in and hooked that young cowboy’s heart. Eulela May Ness, born January 12, 1932, in Dodson, MT, had lived her childhood with her two younger sisters in Bullwhacker, a miserably harsh, dry coulee several miles east of Pa and Grandma’s Homestead. She lived with her Grandparents, Josephine and P.S. Gilmore, while her Dad, Gordon Ness, worked on the West Coast. It was prewar years and work was hard to find here. Her Mom, Annie, living in Chinook, was too ill to manage three young girls. When they were old enough, they attended high school in Chinook. Dad was smitten at that dance, and soon they became a couple, marrying on November 21st, 1947.

Grandma and Pa took them under their wing and into the house as they began their married life. The homestead cabin became too small however when Dick and Lela’s first daughter Christine Vey made her entrance and they moved down to Uncle Lee’s place. Lee Stevens, Dad’s half-brother, had his place adjacent to but further south down the bench below Grandma’s. Houses moved from off the prairie and attached together made our home. That working-away-from-the-homestead policy was immediately put into effect as Dad, Mom, baby Christine, Aunt Betty with first baby Mike and Charlie Rutherford, went to work “skinnin’ cat” near Fort Peck. It was 1954 before electricity came to the community. Dad helped as a lineman, working with John Broesder, the line boss. Mom recalls going to town to buy an electric toaster, radio and coffee pot. That February their second daughter, Glenna Lou, was born. Three years later, their third daughter, Gayla Marie came on board, and in 1961, I was born. Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie had their second son, Ross, in December of 1960. Mom and Dad harvested and hayed and farmed and ranched as a team for sixty-five years! When Pa and Grandma passed, Mom and Dad swapped again with Uncle Lee and we moved back up to the homestead.

South Blaine County, Black Coulee specifically, is not the best ground. It is rock and clay and shale banks. Thirty below in the winter is as common as 95 above in the summer. Annual precipitation averages ten inches. The soil supports sagebrush and cactus well, but will seal over in a hot year and hold seeds until the conditions are right, then bloom into a stunning display of plants as hardy as the people who have lived on it. It is “next year” country. It will break your heart and crush your will one year, and flood you with joy and ambition the next. It is only dirt, but it is ours.

I find I am living with ghosts.  I can lay my hands on the actual tools that carved century old logs into a home. I need only step to the barn to hear Pa’s great cheerful guffaw or sit on the upturned corner post of Grandma’s garden to feel them with me. I am living in a renovated one-room schoolhouse with cupboards Pa made for the old house. On the back of one of the drawers are tiny little numbers, carpentry notes in Pa’s handwriting. To see them is to feel like I am working with him. My grandparents and my parents infused their love into every broad ax handle, every log, every fence post. Yes, I have dug a toilet hole by hand, and I do dig post holes with a shovel, and I can wield an ax well enough. If my back allows, I can trim a horse’s hoof and I am learning to play slide guitar. I grow a tiny garden and freeze rather than can anything. Grandma would raise an eyebrow at that, and the fact that I do not have a root cellar … or a husband. She might have been disappointed in me for that, not for my independence or feminism, but because this place requires a team. Dad is gone now too and a century of conviction is on my shoulders. The “proving up” for this marginal piece of dry-land homestead is more personal now and the emotional scenery is changing. I am getting comfortable with being just a placeholder for the next generation. I fervently hope that somewhere Addaline and Everett Wortman feel content with that and maybe even approve.

Credit for genealogy research goes to Gayla Wortman Oehmcke.



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Crazy Aunt Tracy

Re-inventing yourself can be tricky. After Dad passed, ranching wasn't any fun without him, so my 87-year-old Mom, three cats, two horses, and the dog came with me to twenty acres in the middle of Charlie Russell country. (C.M. Russell's horse probably pooped in my barn.) Now that Mom has joined Dad in the universe, I am full-on into the next chapter. Stand by for Montana entertainment of note and garden and landscape challenges!

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