When men were tough, and women were tougher
A new book on what life was like for Montana homesteaders in the early 20th century

Dream Chasers of the West:
A Homestead Family of Glacier Park

Betty Wettstein M.Ed. ’72
300 pages
Log Cabin Publishing

With the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, and attracted by huge plots of fertile farm land available for only a small filing fee, thousands of families surged west to settle what would become the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, and California. Yet until the early 20th century, Montana remained largely unpopulated.

It wasn’t until the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 that settlers, lured by cheap loans and bargain one-way tickets on the Great Northern Railroad, began to trickle into Big Sky Country. There, they braved bone-numbing blizzards, brutal summer droughts, and near-total isolation, not to mention grasshoppers “that could reduce bounteous crops to bare dirt in a matter of minutes.”

One of these early Montana homesteaders was Clara Augusta Miller, Betty Wettstein’s great-aunt. In her book Dream Chasers of the West, Wettstein tells the story of Clara’s life, of how an unmarried woman from Long Prairie, Minn., “searching for independence,” ventured west alone to carve out a life on the frontier.

The author, a retired schoolteacher, conducted three years of interviews and research to write the book, and the prose is punctuated with photos and letters written by Clara, friends, and family members dating back to 1913.

That year, Clara arrived in Rudyard, Mont., to discover little more than an outpost amid a sea of prairie grass. A cousin had already found her a “soddy” (a house made from sod) eight miles out of town, and he encouraged her to plant flax. But without any rain, her flax and other crops died in the intense summer heat.

As a respite, she engaged in a fling with a local nicknamed the Land Man, whose letters left her scrubbing floors “with wild abandon in an attempt to eradicate immodest fantasies.” That relationship went south, though, when he bilked Clara out of her life savings in a shady land deal, leaving her destitute. Things got worse when a wildfire scorched her property and nearly killed her.

Clara eventually landed a job at the Browning Mercantile, where she befriended one of the customers, Glenn Smiley, a tall, attractive man in his early 40s who’d moved from Iowa to Lubec, Mont., after the death of his wife. Clara was stunned when he suddenly proposed marriage. “You’re a hard worker and fun to be with,” Glenn said. “I need someone to watch over my cattle and care for my house when I’m logging in the summer, and you need a place to live. We could help each other.” They married in 1915.

Life in Lubec, on the southern edge of the newly formed Glacier National Park, had its own challenges. Because there was no nearby train station, people had to jump off a moving Great Northern simply to get to the property. (Upon the birth of her daughter and her return home from the doctor, Clara threw her two-year-old son off the train, tossed the newborn to the waiting Glenn, and then jumped off with all their stuff.) And with Glenn, whom Clara called Mr. Smiley, off in the woods logging for months on end, Clara was racked with boredom and homesickness. With postage a steep two cents a letter, her family in Minnesota rarely wrote.

Then there was the weather. During Clara’s first winter in Lubec, in one 24-hour period, the temperature dropped 100 degrees, from 44 to minus 56. On one occasion, a violent winter storm ripped the roof clean off the Smileys’ log cabin, forcing the family to flee to the barn and hunker down with the animals. After that, Clara would tie a rope around her son, GC, whenever he was playing outside on windy days, so that he wouldn’t blow away. Arriving at the door with his toys, he’d announce, “I’m ready, Ma. Tie me up!”

Another time, Clara was milking their cow when suddenly the cow kicked Clara onto her back. When she tried to get up, she discovered she’d broken her kneecap. With Glenn gone and GC bound to his rope, unable to help, Clara crawled to the cabin, applied horse liniment to her knee, eased the two halves of her kneecap back together, and tied it tight with neckerchiefs. Thereafter, she limped through her chores with the help of a walking stick.

By the early 1920s, Glacier Park’s economy was booming, thanks to an increasing influx of tourists. Glenn opened a meat market and, later, a corner store called Glacier Cash Grocery, where Clara’s home-baked bread was a big hit. (Now known as the Brown House, the store still stands and is home to the Smiley Memorial Museum.) In addition, the Smileys bought a new piece of property in town and built a four-room log house and a couple of rental cabins.

But in 1928 Glenn fell seriously ill while out drumming up support for the Democratic ticket. Clara summoned a doctor, even though Glenn had no patience for doctors. A violent struggle ensued as several men held down Glenn, now delirious, while the doctor administered a shot. It was no use: Glenn died the next day.

Over the following months, stricken with grief, Clara found she couldn’t keep up with the house, store, rental cabins, and children all by herself, and decided to move her family back to Minnesota. She delivered the kids to her sister, Emma, in Minnesota, then returned to Glacier Park to finalize the sale of the property, promising her children she’d see them again in a few weeks.

Then came Oct. 24, 1929: Black Thursday. With the collapse of Wall Street and the onset of the Great Depression, Clara’s buyer backed out of the deal. She couldn’t afford to bring her children back to Montana, nor could she abandon her property. With Glacier Park’s tourist economy in tatters and no other way to sustain herself, she left for Great Falls, Mont., where she got a job as a housekeeper at a rooming house, laboring from dawn ’til bedtime for $20 a month.

She drifted from job to job at various ranches across western Montana, and she began writing stories about her experiences, one of which was finally published in the Great Falls Tribune. It was years before she reunited with her children and returned to Glacier Park, where she lived another 20 years before passing away peacefully on Dec. 28, 1965. She is buried in a small cemetery on the Montana prairie, “where her spirit soars with the strength of an eagle and the gentleness of a butterfly just as it did in life.”

--Andy Boynton

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