AoR 84: Perspectives: Memoirs of Habitat and Homesteading in Eastern Montana, with Paul Bechtel

Paul Bechtel is an almost-centenarian, born 1923, whose family was lured to Eastern Montana by hopes of homesteading good land still free for the taking. Reality wasn't quite so gentle in the northern Great Plains in the rainshadow of the Rocky Mountains. He lived in Ekelaka in harsh conditions through the Great Depression and until he joined the U.S. Army in 1941, but his best memories of his entire life are from this era. It was a good place to be a free range child. In this episode, co-hosted with Mark Teske, a wildlife biologist, Paul reminisces about eating sage grouse, measuring dirt tanks, and earning creative car payments in a remote agricultural local economy.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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Today's episode is an interview with a man who lives in Ellensburg, Washington. Who is just months shy of 100 years old. Paul Bechtel grew up in Eastern Montana during the Dust Bowl and Depression. And has fascinating stories about baseball games in the sagebrush. Eating sage grouse, and driving from ranch to ranch to measure the volume of stockwater dirt tanks for the federal government. Paul was also a pilot during World War Two, deployed in Europe and we may be able to share those reminiscences in a future episode. He has cut a wide swath in his nearly 100 years and I'm happy to honor him by offering these stories about childhood on the Western range in his own voice. My co-host in this interview is Mark Teske, a friend of mine and Paul's, and a wildlife biologist who is interested in sage grass, colorful people and the history of people in the West. In case it's a little hard to pickup at the beginning of the interview, his family moved to Southeast Montana from Nebraska by covered wagon in 1914. A 500 mile trip they made in 30 days. They settled Northwest of Ekalaka in a spot chosen because it was one of a few places that had not yet been homesteaded. And they were out of money and they had run out of summer. And they had to get situated before winter. And there was some timber there. Here's the recording with Paul.

>> My name is Mark Teske. And we're sitting here doing an interview, April 5, 2022.

>> And I'm Tip Hudson. And it's the same day as the date for Mark, miraculously. I remember thinking that 2020 was the distant future. The distant future. And I'm not that old so I'm sure at one point 2020 looked pretty far into the future for you Paul.

>> I'm Paul, I'm Paul Bechtel and I'm 99 years old. And I don't know how I got here so quick.

>> Yeah. So, so yeah 99 years old, you seen a lot of changes in technology over the years. We have Model A's and Tesla's in your lifetime, and smart phones, so quite a difference.

>> Stagecoaches to space ships.

>> Yes. Yes from horse and buggy, a saddle horse, to a rocket.

>> So what, you born then in 1921?

>> Twenty-three.

>> Twenty-three.

>> And where were you born?

>> On the ranch in, 15 miles from Ekalaka, Montana.

>> And it's close to the Dakota's border?

>> Yes, near the Dakota.

>> Yeah.

>> South Dakota border. And very isolated. In the early days there were lots of people are, on the Homesteading Act was in operation. There were, almost every piece of land had a shack on it and person there trying to prove upon his, you know, homestead. I think they had to build a shack and be and live there for six months. And proving your property, fencing it in and so forth. And when, my first memories were just, many many people are, great events took place on every weekend. We had, we have a dance every Saturday night, we did just got to one of settler shacks and take everything out of the barn but. And they would have a dance, people would come from all over the country, be wagons and horseback people. And they would stay all night and usually cook their breakfast in the morning before they went home. And, on other occasions they had picnics on Sunday. And the young fellas would go out and find a level spot where you could have a softball game and there wasn't cactus or sagebrush or something in the way. And that has actually, do okay for that particular Sunday. And then they would go out and shoot sage hens. There were sage hens or I can't even believe my memories. The sky was dark and when I took off sometimes, and you hear them coming like a plane coming. And you look up and the skies black, they flew over you and begin to settle on every sage hen that was, who'd land on every side of you. And the little young ones were usually a lighter color than the older ones. And, so on these days when they're going to have the picnic, young guys would go out and shoot the younger sage hens and pull the skin off and dress them right in the field and cut them up. And then they build a couple of big campfires and they had some big skillets. And they'd tie a stick on the handle, so I guess it be away from the fire and they build a couple of fires and start frying sage hen. And they'd fry literally two washtub heaping full of sage hen. And about that time then the people start arriving. And by 12:30, one o'clock they'd be all there and the women would bring potato salad, pies, and cakes, and all kinds, homemade buns and all kinds of things. Homemade things and we eat that chicken. And then they'd have a ballgame. I remember I always eat so much chicken I don't know how in the world anybody ever played ball.

>> So that had been in the 1930s?

>> Yeah it was in the late '20s.

>> Late '20s, early '30s.

>> Yeah. And I suppose the early '30s.

>> Yeah.

>> Half my memories I don't remember exactly the dates, but I know I wasn't very big at the time, so it'd probably in the '20s.

>> When did the family move there? I think there were two different versions of the Homestead Act, the first one was 1862. And I think initially they were offering 640 acres in the West and eventually they realized you couldn't make a living on 640 acres. And so it got expanded.

>> No it was the other way around. They had to, my parents came there in 1914. And they were just at the tail end of the Homesteading. And they had, there was only one place left that hadn't been taken and it wasn't very good land. But they lived there and raised 12 kids on that piece of property and lived there until 1946. After I got out of the service.

>> Yeah.

>> And, living was really tough at that time. And I got a book later on, I always wondered about the history. And I never seen it published anywhere until after I had left, back in, probably in the '50s or '60s I heard about a editor of a paper in the Seattle area. That had taken an interest in the Homesteading Act who had gone out there. So he had to come several summers and spent his summer in a motel down in Baker, Montana, which is not far from Ekalaka. And he just studied the whole state, so he can go around the courthouse and look up the owners for certain areas that he was studying. And then he would find out their names, they're all gone, couldn't find everyone, and then he would attempt to run them down. And find them where they'd moved to so that he could interview them. And he wrote a book. The title of that book is called Badlands. And it explained why the Homesteading Act and of course they were putting the railroads through that time. And the main reason for the Homestead Act was, they wanted this railroad to be put through. And they took over, the government did, they went back East where the railroad was already been built. And there were certain farms, or individuals that had, headed up that work. And they knew how to build a railroad and I think how to organize to get it done and so forth. And so they garnered that together with some of these heads, some of these knowledgeable people. And they made up a brochure. And then in order to do that they were a little deceptive, which I remember a lot of times is. They went up in the Western Montana where lots of green grass and nice homes and fenced in yards. And they took pictures, they took pictures of those. And they made this brochure up and explained how that the land was being homesteaded was free. You come to take it. They distributed those pamphlets all over the East Coast and even in Europe. And people came all the way from Europe to get a homestead because it was right at the time when they started having industrial revolution and it had a downturn. And it was just a lot of people out of work. So, and these boys who wanted to get, you know, rich, come West and you get a homestead. So they come West and government made a deal with the railroad, this railroad [inaudible], if they would put the railroad in, they would give them every other section of land within ten miles of it, each side of the railroad right away. And because they knew that if they put the railroad in they had to have some means of.

>> Provisioning.

>> Operating, yeah operating the railroad.

>> Yeah.

>> And so there was, all they had in those days was the steam engines, steam engine on a railroad. And so they had to have refueling points about every ten miles. If they were getting water, back then if they're going to haul heavy loads it took a lot of water and took a lot of coal, or wood.

>> I was going to say coal or wood was used. Or water.

>> Yeah. So they come through, the railroad companies come through and the big moguls, and they designate a [inaudible] had to be a stop. And they give it a name. And that's how the old, there's old towns, town got its names. Was the railroad moguls and so gave them the names.

>> So who [inaudible] Ekalaka?

>> They wasn't at, it wasn't on the railroad.

>> That wasn't on, okay.

>> It was 32 miles from any railroad or only one road in and one road out that time. And way down in the wilderness. So, that pamphlet brought people from the East Coast, some people had quite a bit of money. You know, they come and they build a big fancy house. There was one built about a mile and half from where my folks homestead at, they built a nice two-story house painted white, had a white picket fence around it. And out in the sagebrush thinking that they kill the sagebrush and on the farm. And so they only lived there about two years and some of the people went by and they saw the curtains flying out the windows, or blowing out the windows, nobody there. Nobody there. They had just determined they couldn't make a living there so they just walked off and left everything. And so, by the time I was, oh 12, 14 years old, the people had left to the point where our nearest neighbor was probably five miles, four or five miles. And you go there today and you can't find trace of anybody that was ever there. And I know where they were and I know where homesteads were at and I know where foundation, it wasn't foundations, they put rocks up under the beams you know. They'd try to make it level and.

>> Yeah.

>> It was just makeshift everything was. But, all the fences now are now only old trails that they use to call roads you know and everything out in the trails. Can't find a sign of any of them anymore.

>> So you have enough people out there have a baseball game.

>> In those days yeah.

>> In those days and then just through time.

>> Within ten years there wasn't enough to, you couldn't of found out there. Make a baseball game. But those ten years were the, I have the best memories I think of my whole life. It was just a great time.

>> I just kind of marvel with that, you know when think of baseball games is hotdogs.

>> Yeah.

>> And you had sage grouse. That's the.

>> Sage hens yeah.

>> Yeah, isn't that something.

>> Game food. Yeah. There's a, WSU use to have a research station up south of Wenatchee here a little ways. And the guy that was there for about 25 years, 30 years, Tom Brannon, says that there are, I don't remember, several dozen known homesteads just in that, there was about maybe 1,000 acre area that encompassed the research station. And there were several dozen homestead sites in that area and every one of them of them starved out.

>> Oh yeah, yeah, there's no way they could make a living, even in modern times, where you got all the machines. You still need, couldn't depend on, when I lived there I was born and raised there until I was 19, went in the service. I never saw one good year. It just grasshoppers, or the hail, or and drought, or something, early freeze ruin the crops, or something. I mean it just, I've been back there a couple of times when they did have a good year, boy that grass got up that high you know. I never saw, never saw one, most years you could see grasshopper, I mean you could see a jack rabbit run three miles away from the dust.

>> Yeah.

>> He kicked up.

>> That's amazing. I recall you purchasing a Model A with jack rabbit money.

>> Yeah.

>> Why don't you tell a little bit about that.

>> Oh yeah. That was when I got out of high school in '41. I had a job, first I got a job, well first I had a job for the soil conservation service. It was, and they needed people to go and measure the, they had the farmers doing things for, to preserve the, what you call it, the land and the soil and develop the land and they paid them to put in stockwater, to [inaudible] dams in and it draws to hold the water for stock and so on. And they were paying not to put crops in in some cases. Because the wheat, you know, it had [inaudible] up and down and sometimes wheat would be, it gets so cheap that the farmers couldn't afford to.

>> Harvest it.

>> Harvest it. Then so they would pay the farmers so much an acre not to plant wheat. And you have to go out and measure the fields that these people said they had, that they weren't planting. And measure the amount of Earth that they had. And move to put in these stockwater dams and so on. And, so I took a job to visit the farmers as designated by the conservation office in that town. So happened that there was a young guy there that was, he was trying to learn to be a mechanic and he was working for the only guy in town that had a filling station, or any kind of intent to do any repair on vehicles. He had a job there working for him. And the guy had a dealership for Dodge's there at that little garage. I don't think he sold more than three Dodge's a year, maybe if that much at all. But this kid because he was working for the dealer, the dealer gave him a, let him have one for almost wholesale price. And so he bought this new car but the kid wasn't making enough to make the payments on it. So he said well if you take that car he said and use it, and just pay me simple little mileage, you can use it and I think he said, if you can make payments, I forgotten how quick the deal was exactly. But anyway, I had this brand new Dodge car. To go to these farmers places and I remember, go out to the farmer and I was meeting people I had never seen before, which Carter County is a big county there. And, so I'd go in in the morning and these farmers, you know, they're hungry for fellowship. You know [inaudible] those farms didn't a way of getting anywhere and probably three, four months you'd never see anybody hardly. When you come in there to do this job they'd be right there watching and talking to you all the time. Starved for fellowship. So they'd invite you back for dinner or back for any [inaudible] upset if you didn't come. So I found myself backtracking every noon and every evening to honor, invitation, so I never had to worry about board. You know, it just getting back the office at night and I gotten up the mileage from them [inaudible]. So, I had that job first.

>> So you were just shopping with a measuring tape?

>> Yeah tape and a level and what have you, you know.

>> Doing the calculations and going onto your paperwork.

>> Yeah, that's all.

>> Yeah.

>> Very simple it was.

>> Yeah.

>> And so then the, I got a job after that I got a job shoveling coal. Had a guy there with a little flat ton truck and Ekalaka is 32 miles from Baker where the railroads at. And so he'd order a carload, a train carload of coal, flat car, not a flat car, but the sides are up there probably four foot higher, five and he had a load of coal come in, a car of coal and he put on the siding. And then he'd hire a couple of kids like me to go with him and shovel the coal off that, off the car in the back of the truck. And then we'd have to ride with him back down, he's like in [inaudible]. So I was working at that, I was tough as nails, I was strong and tough.

>> Knew how to work a shovel.

>> Oh yeah. And that's another thing, yeah, yeah. But I worked at that for quite a while and then, what was the thing we were?

>> Oh on the jack rabbits.

>> On the jack rabbits. So, I got all sort of done with this and it was in winter, in December I guess it was. And the rabbit, we had a snow and the rabbits turned white in the fall when it snows, jack rabbits. And the jack rabbits turned white and the crazy snow went off. And so I was going, first I this Model A Ford, I had heard about that Model A Ford somebody said he had it. A guy in town there had a Model A Ford he wanted to sell. And of course you couldn't sell anything, nobody had any money and. So I went and talked with him I said, what do you want for that Model A Ford? Sixty-five dollars. And it was a good Model A Ford. And I said, well, I said I don't have $65 right now but I got $15 in my pocket, I said I've been working for this on the coal thing. And then I said would you take that and let me have the car? I didn't think he would. Yeah, he did that. So, I took that car and I always had my 22 there and so I thought oh well I got to go home and show my folks what I did you know. So I had about five stock gates that you had to open drive thru and then close. I got to about the third one on the way into the ranch and I looked up on the, an arm sticking up there and saw something quite in the sagebrush. On the southeast side of knoll and the sun was shining. It was cold, it was chilly though and the wind, December of course. And, so I thought well that must be a rabbit. So I took my 22 and walked up there, sure enough, I plunked him and I got to looking around and there's another one. I plunked him. By the time I got back to the car I had ten rabbits. So, I thought, my goodness what are they doing here on this side of the slope, I wonder, there's knob over there, I wonder if they're doing that over there too. So I got in the car and I thought I see the sagebrush went over there, sure enough. And I got another ten. Well I'll share the whole thing, a couple hours later I went home and I had 85 rabbits in the back of my. I had to get a piece of wire to wire the trunk lid down, keep them in there. And I knew that I could get 25 cents piece for them. And that was exactly what an hours hard labor was, 25 cents. And I had, that's what I got for shoveling that coal. So I told my mom, get me something to eat I said I'm going back to town. So she did. And says, I'll be back. And so I went to town and I sold them rabbits. And got me five gallons more gas in the car and two boxes of 22 shells. Come home, got up the next morning, by noon I had 95 rabbits again. So I did that for about three weeks. And I paid for the car, of course $20, you know, everyday for about three days I had the car paid for. By the time I got done I had about $300 in my pocket.

>> Wow!

>> And I tell you, you couldn't make $300, nobody caught on until, I killed about all rabbits in the country. Before they caught on. And my neighbor he finally caught on and he run me off his place. He wanted them himself.

>> Yeah.

>> And then he come back and apologized.

>> So what were they used for?

>> I have no idea.

>> And you didn't have to even.

>> No, you just throw.

>> You never skin them?

>> Nope.

>> It's just the full rack.

>> No, just throw in the car, throw them out.

>> Wow!

>> I don't know what they did there, but they gave me 25 cents.

>> Anything to do the war?

>> Oh I'm sure it did, but I don't know what. That was in '41, you see they were already fighting at that time.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> I had no idea I'd be going at that time yet.

>> Yeah. My mom talks about picking milk weed pods.

>> Yeah.

>> Through the war to stuff life jackets with.

>> Oh I didn't know.

>> And so that the white fluff, the milk weed was, they'd stuff a life jacket with it and it provided enough buoyancy for that purpose. So that's just an interesting early recollection of hers.

>> I didn't know that, of course we didn't have enough of the milk weed around.

>> Yeah.

>> I use to use it for warts, the milk in the stem. I don't know whether it did any good or not, but I heard it did. I had quite a few warts in our hands in those days. I'd put it on there, very diligently. You'd see a plant I'd go and pull the stem off and.

>> Well they look good now so.

>> Yeah, all gone. I'm just one big wart now. Yeah.

>> You mentioned the sagebrush, what was the rest of the plank community like?

>> The rest of the what?

>> Plank community. This would be, you know, mostly short grass prairie, I'm curious what you remember.

>> Well the two things that you remember the most are the sagebrush and cactus.

>> Yeah.

>> Cactus was just, the cactus it grow in the ground, you couldn't step anywhere with that. It was just everywhere.

>> So no going barefoot?

>> You know I got, my folks couldn't afford shoes in the summer. I had one, one pair a year. You get them in the year when you start to school. And by the time you're done actually kid like I was, your toes were sticking out. And you just took your shoes off and went barefooted. I got calluses a quarter inch thick on the bottom of my feet. I could walk right in the cactus but if, you still didn't get around the sides. But I, the rocks are nothing bothering me. But I have to get your shoes two, three sizes bigger in the fall because your feet would, if you jump in the callus you know and swell up on you.

>> I was just looking this morning at a ecological site description from that part of the country. And the section on climatic features said that this [inaudible] climate is characterized by cold winters, hot summers, low humidity, light rainfall and much sunshine. And extremes in temperature are typical.

>> Oh yeah.

>> It said there were few natural barriers on the Northern Great Plains and the winds move freely across the Plains and account for rapid changes in temperature. Seasonal precipitation is often limiting for plant growth. And that describes what, every year was different and none of them were good.

>> Yeah that's right, it was just, in my experience there were, they do have periodically. And this was kind of a deception when they first started the Homesteading Act. There was some good years. And grass grew tall, you know and people were really enthused. And there was probably four, five, six years when everyone had good weather. Comes in cycles I guess. And, so they put the railroad through and seemed like there were, everything was warm, just went, the brochure had spelled it out you know. And so the banks come in, bankers come in these little spots and they put, started banks. And they began to loan these people, these homesteaders money to buy big equipment because they had pipe dreams about plowing the country up and planting wheat or perhaps you know making a fortune. And so, they loan them money and got these great big tractors and things. And I remember one puzzle when I grew up I never did find the puzzle. Actually the puzzle nobody knew. But in a draw, got out of sight, you didn't see until you got there. It was a great big ole steam driven tractor, I mean a great big tank on the thing and wheels seven feet high. Just totally out of place out there. How in the world did that get there, nobody knew where it came from. But when I read this book the guy wrote, the answer was in that. It was these bankers that come in and loaned the people money to buy the big heavy equipment. Really tear the ground up you know. And then about the time they got the tractors, the rain went away. And so they just had no way of paying for it, I'm sure somebody lost a lot of money on that but. But the ranchers, the banker was, if you unwise enough to loan the money to some of those people, you lost you know.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> Or if the rancher had money enough to buy it, he lost it, somebody lost it.

>> So you spent quite a bit of time on a horse?

>> Oh yeah. Yeah. But that was, I'd spend hours, and hours, and hours on horses.

>> So you guys had livestock and not crops?

>> Oh no we had, we had, we tried to grow everything. We find a good spot of level spot. That looked like it, you got the sagebrush off you'd might grow something. We, my dad had several, quite a few acres that he planted. He planted wheat, and he planted corn, and so on. But, but the ground was hard [inaudible], meant like you buy for, put in canals to be [inaudible]. That land that my dad got was, about half of it was, part of which would be, oh maybe five, six feet wide and say ten feet long. And they'd be flat as a, I mean it just absolutely flat. And if it rained, if it rained a half an inch, that half an inch of water would be right there. It wouldn't go in the ground. Because the betonite, that whole thing was bentonite. And that water would sit there until it evaporated. And you could take a knife after it was gone and go down, that water wouldn't soak in the ground for in all that time. And about half the land he had was that kind of ground.

>> Wow!

>> And he didn't worry about, he'd just go ahead and, because it'd be sagebrush's growing around these ponds, you know where the soil was a little better I guess. And he just followed the whole thing and there would be patches in the field where you couldn't hardly get anything to grow because of the soil. But then patches where it grew pretty good so. It was just a patchwork kind of farming we did. And I remember we use to didn't have any machinery. I can remember the corn where my dad would make a stone boat. You know what a stone boat is? That's a thing you drag behind a horse, put a couple of timbers and then you have cross timbers. And he had one old horse that go down the row of corn and my brother would be on side and my dad would take and cut the corner of the stone boat off on a 45 degree angle. And he take an old plow share and sharpen it up good and put a fastener there, on both sides. And my brother had a little horse starting down the aisle and grabbing the stalks of corn like this and it would cut, this would cut it off. Stack in between us. And as soon as we got enough for a shuck we just stop the horse and setup a shuck. Tie it up and we get back on the stone boat, that's how we harvested our corn. And of course it was, the corn was still in the stalk, you know. So we take it out and just stack it like you would hay. And then the winter we'd go out and we would feed the stocks and leaves, dried up leaves to the animals and take the corn and husk it and shell it out. Take a, had a sheller and we'd shell out and crack it the best we could for the chickens and the birds and so on. That's how we kept the animals going.

>> And they would be enough, the animals or the birds wouldn't deplete it?

>> We had, no you have grouse, lots of grouse.

>> Yeah.

>> You set a trap, a couple of traps on the top of the corn stack and morning you have grouse for dinner.

>> So they would sit on it and eat it and then you'd guys would get them.

>> Oh yeah you get in a trap and you trap one. Or, on the real cold winter mornings we had some trees on our creek along the, they were pretty good high trees and you go out there in the morning and it was ten below or 20 below and you look and be grouse in that tree. And if you very carefully, it wouldn't fly, they didn't want to fly it was cold. So you go out and you could get fairly close to the tree and they would just sit there. And, but you find the one at the bottom or you shoot the bottom one they all sit there. If you got one above the bottom one the other one would fly and then they'd all follow him. But if you just followed up and get the bottom one each time, you get as many as you wanted for dinner. Done that many times.

>> Where those sharp-tail grouse you know? Where they kind of white when they flashed their tail?

>> No, they were pretty good size grouse.

>> Yeah. But not sage grouse, they were different type.

>> No sage hen is, that's a whole different, yeah, yeah.

>> Yeah, yeah.

>> They're a bigger bird.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah. Yeah and they'd eat the sage, the grouse don't do that.

>> Yeah, yeah I was thinking that they're not tree nesters, or tree roosters.

>> Yeah.

>> Typically so.

>> Yeah, lots of memories back here at home.

>> Yeah that period of time seemed to have been, it looked like you came in right in the middle of a series of, you know, natural disturbances that were bad.

>> Yeah.

>> Right there was the decade long drought that.

>> Yeah that's right.

>> That caused the Dust Bowl. And then after that I think there was a period of time that was unusually cold. But even in this part of the country, [inaudible] said that in the 1940s and '50s there were lots of winters that were cold enough that they had ears and tails falling off cattle. And we haven't had that kind of weather.

>> Yeah I seen it 30 below for 30 days back in those days. Yeah it has warmed up. I don't believe in global warming like the people pushing nowadays, but it's just a cycles of things go through.

>> You had cattle then what did they eat in the winter time?

>> That was a problem with our times. So corn of it, was part of it.

>> Yeah.

>> And we put the corn up, anything we could salvage. They had a few little places down below, we had a creek the meandered down, it was a dry creek unless you got a cloud burst above or rain above then it would come down through there. But, it didn't run, it was no springs in it to keep it running. So, but we had some big holes there that became water for quite a long time. And, so what these meadows that they had, very small meadows, but the, because of the spring runoff and so on it would come down the creek, snow runoff. And would seep in and water a little meadows in there and that's what my dad, every little dinky piece of ground down at the creek level we drop hay on it. And then scatter all up and down the creeks. What a job getting it in.

>> Just enough extra moisture there to.

>> Yeah just enough.

>> Bring up the crop.

>> So it isn't tall enough to cut.

>> Yeah. And it never was a real time for the stalk you know. It was tough.

>> So on your time on horseback and just generally living out there, deer, antelope around?

>> No the people had eaten all the deer and antelope. I never hardly saw one a long time I lived there. I went back, oh it's been 30 years ago, longer than that, and I went back about 40 years ago I guess. Back down to the old place. And of course my folks have been gone about 75 years now. Going back down there, the old place was, I could hardly recognize things you know. But, I saw there was deer and antelope down in there at that time, and wild turkeys. Well we, it wasn't like that in there earlier. They'd been eaten if they'd been there.

>> Yeah.

>> Because it was no game laws you know. And by the time I left there you couldn't hardly find a sage hen.

>> Yeah.

>> But that was another thing that caused that. They brought the China pheasant in. When they brought the China pheasant in, the China pheasant sought out and destroyed the nests of old sage hens and rouse. So, hardly anything, any rouse or sage hen found there anymore. But, sage hen, I mean but the Chinese pheasant is doing well.

>> Yeah, yeah, it's everywhere.

>> Yeah.

>> So I was recalling too about the, picking up bones off the prairie.

>> Oh yeah, yeah. That was, see I had ridden prairie from the rag-land horses and cattle and so on for years. And I had, not deliberately, but sort of mentally I do remember where there was a pile of bones.

>> Yeah.

>> I remembered where those bones were at. And when I got done with that rabbit thing. I think there were, the government wanted bones too, I suppose they were making fertilizers, I don't know what they were doing out of it. But, I thought well here's another thing I can, that was in '41 again.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And I must have picked up probably 100 buffalo heads with horns still on it, the skulls you know. Could sell them for $100 now.

>> Yeah.

>> I just threw them in the trailer and sold them by the ton. Got about, one year a lumber wagon was, a box about that wide and about that deep with a sideboards on it. And about, what, ten feet along, eight feet along, I don't know, something like that. And I got probably three, four loads of them out of [inaudible] the railroad, sold them. And I didn't make a lot of money on them, but I made probably, probably made 20, $30 a load. I forgotten what I got out of them.

>> And you transported them where, to what town?

>> I had to go to the railroad down to Baker.

>> Oh to Baker.

>> I had an a Model A Ford, I put a hitch on the back and my dad had an old trailer that he used, I think it had a horse trailer in it, but rigged up a hitch to put on the back of the car. And I used that old Model A Ford and that trailer over the hills through the cactus beds everywhere. And time I got there in that old Model A Ford in about a years time it wasn't worth much.

>> Were those skulls from recently buffalo, recently living buffalo that had died natural death or were they old skulls?

>> No they were old white, they were weathered you know.

>> Where there any living buffalo at the time?

>> No, I never, no.

>> Yeah.

>> No they would all, the only way you knew there had been buffalo in the country is the skeletons out there.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> Were there maybe other people when you were taking them to the railroad? Or were the, you didn't other folks bringing?

>> At that time no.

>> Yeah.

>> Most people wouldn't subject their cars to that sagebrush and cactus. I went down there since and I wanted to go up to my, the old schools at. We walked three miles to school over the hills. We had kind of wore a trail you know, through the cactus and over the sagebrush and so on. And, but they got a road where the old horses and lumber wagon all they had in those days get back and forth. And I knew where they went so you know, but, by the time I got there at that time the roads were pretty well eliminated. And, if there was a go, I mean if the washer, a heavy downpour and they, you know, washed the trail out and made a gully out of it or something you know. But, I started down the [inaudible] and I thought oh goodness sake's. This need tires and understand that. Cactus, so I backed off. Never got up there. So, it's interesting to go back there and just see things you know. There's not a soul alive that I know in there [inaudible]. They're all up on Boot Hill. I go up on Boot Hill, I know everybody there. Even the old, I was the old undertakers assistant when I was in high school for a while. And I, even he's up there now. Boot Hill.

>> Yeah.

>> Yep.

>> So every time I go back East, I go back East every year at the present time.

>> Oh yeah.

>> And we go just North of that, through Plevna.

>> Oh yeah there's Plevna, there's Baker.

>> And then Baker.

>> Yeah, yeah.

>> And then into North Dakota.

>> Yeah, yeah.

>> But, yeah I've just thought about, venturing South.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah, but checking out that part of the world.

>> Yep. There's not a whole lot to check out over there.

>> Ekalaka is still there as a town.

>> Yeah it's stripped down, really trimmed down. It's only about 300 people now I think. It was about 1,000 around. But it's, you know, I don't know how in the world the 300 living there. If the people at, I guess that land where, in that whole area where I was living there's a guy by the name of, what was the circus?

>> Barnum and Bailey, the Ringling Brothers.

>> Ringling Brothers, yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> The Ringling Brothers owns all that land, just lays there and, I don't know if they do anything with it. So, there was one farmer that was there when I went into the see the old place and he had it kind of roped off and I had quite a time getting permission from him to go in. He didn't want me to go in there. He got to asking me questions and I guess the answers he finally said, well I, he says, I can't keep you from [inaudible]. So I went in and had a camper on my pickup and I went, Joyce and I went in and stayed overnight there.

>> Yeah.

>> I got up in the morning and I looked up the canyon, up the creek and there was something black up there, looked like a bear from where I was at, couldn't tell what in the world what is that moving around up there. So I kept watching, kept watching, pretty soon that thing started down our direction. And so we said, let's get in the camper. You know so we don't spook whatever it is. So I got in the camper and it kept coming closer and closer. It was a little gobbler. And it's strutting around there. Couldn't see very good. Got my glasses out then, that thing and this old gobbler was three gobblers and one hen. And they come down to see that, they're curious bird you know. And here they saw this camper down there and it hadn't been there before I imagine. I couldn't see what's going on through, they got a mind if and so they come down and they walk, circled the camper a time or two. Just looking that thing over. And they went off and went out of sight and [inaudible].

>> So were there plenty of coyotes around or foxes?

>> No they had them pretty well killed out.

>> Interesting.

>> My older brothers helped kill them out.

>> Yeah.

>> Was it shooting?

>> Yeah.

>> Poison?

>> It was shooting.

>> Yeah.

>> Later on I'm sure they poisoned them. But in the days I was there they didn't do that. My brothers, that was a big sport for them you know.

>> Yeah.

>> Shot them for hides or just because they were pests on the livestock?

>> They just, mainly just to say I got one you know.

>> Yeah.

>> Kind of a contest in the community.

>> Yeah.

>> Everybody knew about it.

>> Right.

>> You got some like that, little bracket.

>> No foxes that you recall?

>> I never, no never saw a fox.

>> And prairie dogs?

>> Yeah, there were prairie dogs but they, they had them pretty well eliminated.

>> Yeah.

>> Before I left there, they poisoned them.

>> Yeah.

>> And, but they are kind of dangerous if you're riding a horse you know. Horse could break a leg.

>> Yeah.

>> Step in a whole and break a leg with.

>> And the rider didn't do very well then either.

>> Yeah that's true. So they, yeah that was a place prairie dog town I guess it would call, prairie dog town. It wasn't very far from our house. And the, I think the government, yeah, poisoned, put them on and first thing you know there weren't any. And I don't know, they're not very many of those left now, they gotten rid of most of them.

>> Yeah, they tried to bring some back in places.

>> Yeah, it's kind of funny though, that old couple that lived in Ekalaka and my parents knew them, kind of friendly with them. They took a, my parents went to visit them one time and I was pretty small. They took me along and this family had about four or five little prairie dogs in the house. They had got them when they were babies. You know just like little dogs. You know we're afraid, bark at you. They were about that long, about that high.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> Huh.

>> Yep. I remember that.

>> Uh-hum.

>> That impressed me. Yeah. Yeah they were, they got the first airplane they got in the town. That's when, I don't remember what the date was. But it must have been when I was about 12 years old, something like that. First planes were coming out kind of and so there was a couple of people in the town that had a little money and they thought, my goodness we got to get one of them. We could take people for rides and we could, we could make some money with that thing, with an airplane. So they picked one of the young men in the town that seemed to be interested and they sent him to learn to fly. And they got this airplane and they didn't have any airport, but they had a pasture out there outside of town. A little bit rise on it you know. He managed to get it in there and out and fly around there. Pretty soon he crashed it. It was the end of that.

>> The plane and him or just the plane?

>> No, he made it, he [inaudible]. But, pretty tricky not to survive one of them. They didn't have much spring in the wheels in those days.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And like they have nowadays they got reason taking up a shock. So they didn't have that stuff in those days. Kind of like coming down in the lumber wagon.

>> Got I want to ask you about it, I'm not sure I read far enough in your book when you left Montana?

>> When I left Montana when I went in the service.

>> Yeah, okay.

>> I come back and my dad, he had the idea that he'd give me the farm when I came back to it. You know, my experience there was, he wasn't given me much. And besides that I figured if I had taken the farm from him he wouldn't have gone very far. And he would've oversee and trying to tell me what to do. It wouldn't work out very well so. I told him, no I said, the government has offered to put me through school and I'm going to take them up on it.

>> You said you were the second youngest?

>> Yeah.

>> How old would he have been then when you left going to the service?

>> How old was he?

>> Yeah.

>> He would've been 15 when I was.

>> Your father.

>> Oh my father?

>> Yeah.

>> I don't understand the question quite.

>> I'm wondering, yeah you were saying he probably needed to continue farming because he wouldn't have a lot of other options. How old was he?

>> He was 62.

>> When you went in service, yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> I was thinking he had to be quite a bit older.

>> He was 62 when I got out of the service.

>> Okay.

>> Yeah. Yeah and then I, my older brother had been in the service also and he got out of the service a little bit before I did. So when I decided to do this he wanted to go with me. So, the two of us went yeah. He was a radio technician and he was going, he had been repairing radios, that was quite a thing in those days. So he was going to continue that, but he went with me and was going to do that and the town we were in. And when he saw me bringing the books home. He got to looking at them, I'm going to go register. So he went register and he went through college too. He became an electrical engineer. And so, three months after that incident where I went off to school it was in January of '46. My folks got busy and had a big sale and sold the farm. And then they called me and wanted me to come and drive them to California. So I stopped what I was doing for a bit and I drove them down there and my brothers were building houses down there and so they built them a brand new house. My mom thought she had gone to heaven.

>> Yeah I'm sure.

>> She only lived three years after that.

>> Wow!

>> But, she, but she had a new house. Didn't think she'd ever have such a thing. Like you were camped out down there in Montana all them years ago, 32 years, camped out. Most of them got old while they were there.

>> Yeah.

>> Tough years, tough times. Yeah.

>> Thank you for listening the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona. And funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own. And does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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Mentioned Resources

The book Paul refers to by an author who lived in Seattle for a time is "Bad Land: An American Romance", by Jonathan Raban, ISBN 0679759069.

The 1862 Homestead Act originally offered 160 acres. Additional info here.


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