Historical Details

Willson, Helen McFarlane, Pioneer

Courtesy of Our Heritage: Niobrarans and Neighbors, 02/25/2022

By Susie Mills Walker

One of Lusk's native daughters is Mrs. Helen McFarlane Willson, the daughter of A.E. McFarlane and Mary Jane McFarlane, pioneers of eastern Wyoming. She was born one and one-half miles west of Lusk July 26, 1895. The home of the McFarlane family was a frame building, built by Mr. McFarlane who was a carpenter. The close proximity of wooded hills furnished the fuel supply and the home was lighted with kerosene lamps. Since smart shops were unknown in frontier days, the pioneers' wardrobes were necessarily designed and made at home. There were no fresh vegetable markets and green vegetables were enjoyed only when grown in their own gardens. Wild fruit in the nearby hills was picked in season and utilized for preserves and jellies.

The method of travel was by horseback and in wagons and buggies during the summer and during the winter the travel was by horseback and sleds.

Mrs. Willson relates an interesting happening at the McFarlane ranch when she was a child: "Early one morning, after father had gone out to milk the cow, and mother and the children were still in bed, the dog started barking. I slept in mother's room and my bed was near a window, so she asked me to go to the window and see if I could see what the trouble was. As I looked out, I looked right into the face of a wolf. I screamed and ran to mother's bed. About that time, my father realized something was wrong, since the dog never barked so continuously. He came to the door of the barn just in time to see the wolf run across a draw and up on the side of a nearby hill. Father shot at him but he got away. Often times, too, when the dishwater was thrown out at night, bright eyes gleamed in the darkness only 20 feet from the door. It is thought that often these were coyotes:"

The first cultivated plants near were the gardens for home use, and grain which was planted to produce feed for chickens and the domestic animals. The wild plant life con­sisted of sagebrush, cactus, sand grass, many kinds of wild flowers, choke cherries, both black and yellow currants, cat tails and many kinds of trees -- cottonwoods, box elder, cedar and pine which grew along the rivers and creeks and on nearby hills.

The Great Western Mining and Milling Co. which was located at the old town of Silver Cliff, was purchased by Hugh M. McFarlane of Chicago, and A.E. McFarlane (father of Mrs. Willson) was sent out to take charge of the business. There was a smelter at the mill site, but the mining of silver was not a pro­fitable undertaking and the project was abandoned. The smelter was later torn down.

One mile west of the present town of Lusk was the Deadwood-Cheyenne Stage station and later a small town, mostly tents, was built while the mine was in operation. After the mine was abandoned, the land became the pro­perty of Mrs. Willson's father and it was here the family lived for many years. Later it was sold to the Silver Cliff Dairy. Where the stage barn stood, there is a pile of stones which had been a part of the barn. When the old stage station house was torn down, part of the lumber and several doors were used in the construction of Mrs. Willson's present home in Lusk.

Mrs. Willson's account of Lusk's early day school is interesting: "The school house where I first attended school stood on the present site of the courthouse in Lusk. There were only two rooms and only nine or ten grades. In good weather my brothers, Archie and Jack and I walked and in bad  weather father took us in the buggy or sleigh."

The books used in the course of study when Mrs. Willson attended school in the lower grades were: Barnes Readers, Morton's Elementary Geography, Davis and Pecks Arith­metic. The local newspaper was the Lusk Herald which was established in 1886 and is still in existence at this writing. Mrs.Willson has in her possession several old books: a Complete History of the Two Americas (Illustrated); this history is an unabridged account of all the historical events of the Western Hemisphere and is most complete, containing events not found in smaller histories. The old history was published by A.L. Colburn and Company in 1878 at Chicago, Ill. She also has Brown's Sell Interpretive Family Bible, by Rev. John Brown, D.D., published by Adams and Co. Ltd. Clavering Place Hanover Square, New Castle on Tyne, England.

Mrs. Willson related the following in­ formation about the early day stagecoaches and trains: "The ruts in the old Cheyenne­ Deadwood Stage trail went right past our door and I understand the telegraph line followed this, previous to the coming of the railroad. The Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad came through Lusk in 1886, so was making regular schedules by the time of my birth in 1895. The trains were visible about three-fourths of a mile from the house."

Early Lusk was entertained with home talent plays which were presented by the churches and other organizations on dif­ferent occasions. These dramatics were always enjoyed by the pioneers and to pre­sent them was a source of pleasure to the actors. On the 4th of July the pioneers always had a barbecue, at which time one or more large beefs were roasted and with the addition of bread, butter, pickles, coffee and pie, making a dinner that attracted hundreds of people. The day's entertainment consisted of horse racing, foot races, wagon races, ball games and bucking contests and the day was finished with fireworks and a big dance usually on a pavilion built for the purpose.

Indians were sometimes a source of great annoyance when they came through the country - they almost always did a lot of begging and at times the pioneers were subjected to what was known as an "Indian Scare". Mrs. Willson re­lates such an incident which happened to her family, "My mother and father received such a fright while living in the abandoned Cheyenne - Deadwood stage station after Silver Cliff, or Lusk, had moved to its present site. Word had gone around that the Indians on the Rosebud Reservation were on the warpath and naturally everyone was just a little nervous. One night father and mother were awakened by what sounded like gun fire in the distance. Being apprehen­sive of the Indian uprising, they felt sure the Indians would soon be upon them. They talked the situation over and had decided to cross the creek and seek refuge in the abandoned tunnel of a large hill about one-fourth mile distance, formerly worked by the Great Western Mining and Milling Co. Just as this decision was reached they discovered the "gun-fire" was only the crackling of the tin roof in the wind."

Mrs. Willson has great talent in writing past accounts of pioneer history. She is the author of "Reminiscences of the Founding and Growth of Lusk", an article on "The Spanish Diggings", and a paper of "Historical Research." This paper is very interesting and instructive. She is a school teacher, a newspaper reporter and a clerk. She is a member of the P.E.O. Sisterhood of Lusk. It was before this organization that Mrs. Willson read "Historical Sites of Wyoming".

The McFarlane and Willson families are known and highly respected in Wyoming and hold an enviable social position. Their part in the upbuilding of the state and home community is well known. "Going Forward" seems to have been their motto.

On June 6, 1917 Helen McFarlane was married to Joseph C. Manning at Harrison, Nebr. He passed on at Casper, Wyo. in July, 1923. One son, Joseph Astin, was born to this union.

On August 17, 1927 she married Glen I. Willson, at Lusk. They have a son, Robert Rae.

Appendix as of August 1971:

Mr. Willson sold his interest in the Lusk Motor Garage in 1952 and shortly there­ after bought a Conoco station in Cheyenne where he and his wife, Helen Willson, bought a home and resided for three and one-half years. In 1955 he sold the Conoco station and he and Helen moved back to Lusk where the Lusk Motor Garage was again purchased and retained for approximately three years and sold again. The Willsons retain their residence in Lusk.

Both sons were in the service. Joe Manning served in India where he had charge of the planes that flew "the hump". Bob was in Japan and both boys came back with the rank of captain.

Joe married Miss Phyllis DeGroot of Lusk and they have two children; a son, Joseph and a daughter, Diane. Joe was a consulting engineer for an aircraft corpora­tion and he and his family resided at Arlington, Texas. Joe died on Feb. 25, 1970 at Arlington, Texas and was buried at the Lusk Cemetery on March 1, 1970.

Bob Willson married Mrs. Sarah Mauldin and they have three sons: Brandon, Reede and Gregg. Sarah has a daughter by a previous marriage, Claudia, who is now married and is Mrs. William Harber. Bob works for the United States Navy and he and his family reside at Camarillo, Calif.

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Record Type Name
Obituary Willson, Helen (11/30/1894 - 09/24/1979) View Record