Historical Details

Urbanek, Mae and Jerry: Niobrara Memoirs

Courtesy of Our Heritage: Niobrarans and Neighbors, 01/26/2021


by Mae Urbanek

Traveling the long road from Hettinger, N.D. to Denver, Colo. in the fall of 1930, Jerry and I were well impressed with the good crops, nice grassland and numerous homes on old Highway 85, south of the breaks and north of Lusk.  We were looking for a location where we could farm, and we found a place small enough that we could buy:  240 acres from Frank L. McRoberts.   This place was homesteaded by James Elliott in 1914 and sold to A. R. Schultz in 1917. McRoberts bought it in 1928 and sold it to us in 1930.

So in February 1931 we arrived in a Nash coupe pulling most of our possessions behind us in a trailer.   As we had little money, we started farming with horses. In March, Jerry went to the Thrasher farm north of Keeline for seed wheat. Jerry, a native of Czechoslovakia, came to the United States in 1921; became a citizen and joined the Marines and served for three years. We met at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.  In 1928 we went farming in North Dakota with my father, Boyd Byron Bobb.

Jerry had lived most of his life in a city. When thick grey clouds rolled up in the west while he was at Thrashers loading wheat , he did not know a blizzard was com­ing. Mrs. Thrasher warned him, and he headed for home as fast as the old Nash would go.  But the blinding whiteness en­gulfed him before he got to Lusk. Facing the blizzard he managed to get home by watching for the tops of telephone poles along the highway. Some school children perished in this blizzard in Colorado. The next Wyoming legislature passed a law that every schoolhouse must have a telephone. 

In the fall of 1931 Jerry thumbed his way back to North Dakota and drove a team of horses and a wagon loaded with the rest of our possessions back the 350 miles to Lusk.  The story of this trip and the history of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming is told by me in my first book, THE UNCOVERED WAGON, published in 1958.

New neighbors, the Frank Taylors, moved into the Tom Alcorn place, just east of us in 1932.  Drought and depression prices hit hard. In the fall of 1932, the government was buying cattle to save both the farmer and the cattle which were shipped out. We bought three of Jim Mudra’s calves for $8 apiece as they were being driven by our place. The government was paying $20 for a cow. The drought continued through 1934.

Harry Cornell, a good farmer, sowed spring wheat in 1934 and it didn't come up until rain finally fell in the fall. We were all desperately poor. Jerry hauled wood from Harry McCluskey’s place in the breaks for winter fuel. Tooley bought a wagonload of wood from us for $2. We considered him a good friend and the $2 a fortune. Every two weeks Frank Taylors and we took turns going to Lusk to buy a few necessities. This was to save travel expense.

The government made crop-production loans available so farmers could buy seed1 feed, gas and oil. The government also shipped in carloads of wheat for feed in relief of farmers and ranchers. Those receiving this bonus had to swear they were paupers. We received a ton of this ground wheat. We ate some of it ourselves and fed the rest to chickens, cattle and horses. Edgar Reeves, county agricultural agent, was in charge of the distribution. Large land owners received much more than small land owners, but we all welcomed it.

Turkey growing was very popular in the 1930's. Most small farmers had their flocks. It took long hours of hard work to nurse the poults to maturity;  more hard work to dress them for sale in the fall.

Potatoes were another source of income. They were dipped, cut and planted in the spring; cultivated and hoed in the summer; dug and picked up by hand in the fall; then sorted and sold in the winter; a year-long job, involving much hard hand labor. The winter of 1933 was so dry and warm that volunteer potatoes came up in 1934. Crested wheat grass became very popular for both hay and pasture as it could withstand the drought.

In 1932 Jerry worked for Lee Shrum, a prosperous neighboring farmer.  He had to get up at daylight, milk cows and then run the tractor all day, and again milk cows at night.  His wages were $2 a day and we were glad for the job. Meanwhile I was plowing and planting our own place. As I drove those slow old horses how I wished that Jerry could come, even for a day, and speed things up. In 1933 we put up hay on shares for Isaac McConaughey. We mowed and raked the hay with horses and pitched it all by hand. It was good hay and a golden oppor­tunity for us, as we now had a few milk cows and a good old hand-cranked cream separator.

But all was not hard work. Neighbors, lacking money to travel far, often got to­gether at a schoolhouse by the side of the road east of the McCormick place. We played games and put on stunts. Every Fourth of July Harry Cornell loaded all of us in his truck and took us down to the Silver Springs ranch , southwest of Lusk, for a big picnic. We also went enmasse to the C.R. ranch on the Divide, and later   on the Billy Miller and Frank Wilson meadows to picnic, have races and play baseball.   On good fruit years a group of us women rode 10 or more miles in a lumberwagon to pick chokecherries and wild plums in the Breaks. Those were the days of the old hand-cranked telephone when everybody heard every one else's ring. Mollie Stigile and later Liz Klemke always knew all of the news.   When their rings sounded all you had to do to keep up with the latest was to "rubber in".

Fred Sullivan was a good friend of ours and he often came walking from his place in the Breaks about six miles away. He wore a red kerchief around his neck and carried a cane, home-made from a pine tree. Fred had been a stagecoach driver on the Cheyenne­ Deadwood route, and was once hit by an Indian arrow.What tales he could tell! But I was too busy growing potatoes and turkeys in those days so we could buy bread and pay taxes. I did not have time to take notes or ask Fred questions. What an opportunity I missed to get some good history!    

Moisture finally came in 1935. That spring the government issued garden seeds on emergency relief program. Rye, wheat and oats grew lush on the Divide only to be mowed down by heavy hail. Native grass was good and we put up many stacks of it on the Lew Berggren place.

That year the new Highway 85 was being graded through the Berggren land. Once I unhitched my team from the mower and drove to Lusk in a wagon on the new  grade.  When the road was oiled and opened for travel in 1936 we were certainly glad to have the highway moved from in front of our house; glad to get rid of the many people who stop­ped and dipped greasy cans into our drink­ing water tank to fill up their steaming radiators; glad to get rid of the noise and dirt and bother; happy to no longer live by the side of the road where the race of men went by.

In the spring of 1936, we bought an F 12 McCormick-Deering tricycle type of tractor, the first rubber-tired tractor in Niobrara County. But the next spring we traded it back to the company for a McCormick-Deering 25-36 tractor, an eight-foot power-takeoff combine, a disc, plow and drill.  As we moved all this machinery from the Bill Bon­sell place we were indeed proud and happy farmers. More machinery called for more land, so we bought 160 acres near us, home­steaded by Christina Stigile in 1914, from Ed Arnold.  Later we added the William Cohoon pasture homesteaded in 1917; and the Alva C. Smith place homesteaded by Harry E. Millburn in 1913.

We pioneered in strip farming for winter wheat, as our  land was sandy and was  blown by the wind when block-fallowed. Prices were low; only 39¢ a bushel for wheat in 1941. The AAA program with wheat marketing quotas had been started in 1933 but it had not helped the price.

As we were slowing down a little on hard work, I started leading a garden group in the Up and Coming 4-H Club. In later years I shifted to home beautification and forestry.    Velma Brinkerhoff took over gar­dening.  The real thrill of those years was to get away from work for a few days and go to 4-H camp at Mallo Canyon in the Black Hills. I also belonged to the Divide Tum­ble weed extension club. Women also had their yearly camp with other counties at Mallo Canyon in those days.  What fun we had at both camps.,

I loved the Black Hills so much that Jerry and I started going there for two or three days at a time, exploring the beauties of nature and collecting pretty rocks. We were able to do this because we exchanged "chore doing" with Emil Klemkes. Then I started writing poetry. Elsie Christian drew excellent illustrations for my books. My poetry was finally all published in one book, SONGS OF THE SAGE, in 1962.

But back to the ranch. We were raising polled herefords when struck by the bliz­zard of 1949. For days and days the fluffy stuff fell and raced across the prairies in wild white fires driven by the wind. Snow­ banks back of our windbreak were 15 feet tall; roads, even highways were impassable. From daylight until dark we shoveled snow, struggling to get enough hay from a buried stack by the barn for the cattle. Finally the Navy rotary snow plows arrived. Imagine being saved by the U.S. Navy in Wyoming!

But we and the livestock were saved. Snow­ plows even made a road near to our hay stacks in the field. The snow was so deep near the stacks that the snowplow could not get within a hundred feet of them. Then we pulled hay from the stacks with a hand­ operated grapple fork attached to a long cable, and pitched it on to the hayrack.

We, like everyone else, were also glad to buy baled hay that was trucked in.  Air­planes dropped baled hay to snow-stranded cattle and wildlife.

After we had roamed the Black Hills so much, I decided to travel and know Wyoming. While Klemkes still looked after water for our cattle, Jerry and I took trips into the Cloud Peak, Teton, and Bridger Wilderness areas. There is nothing as thrilling as riding horseback with a group of like-minded people into the forests and mountains of our beautiful state.  These trips where the out­fitter furnishes all food and equipment are not any more expensive  per day than driving down a highway, staying at motels and buying meals.  There is adventure, peace, quiet and beauty on these wilderness trips.

Traveling the state also led to writing about it.  So far I have eight published books about Wyoming and its history. Two more are almost finished. This year I took a hiking trip into the Washakie Wilderness area north of Dubois with a group of 21 nature lovers, mostly from the eastern states. If its mountain areas are preserved and not destroyed by lumbering and mining, Wyoming can become the greatest vacation area in the United States. Let us keep our beautiful state the way it is, and not crowd it and pollute it with industry.

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Obituary Urbanek, Elthea (09/10/1903 - 05/29/1995) View Record
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