Saturday, February 19, 2011

Poetess in The Family...Ruth Harvey Douglass

In honor of Women's History Month, I have chosen to write about Ruth Harvey Douglass. She wrote a wonderful memoir of her family and without it our family would not have the privilege of knowing as much as we do about our ancestors. Ruth left us all a great legacy in the form of her story and beautiful poetry.
Leila Ruth Harvey Douglass, "Poetess"
My husband’s Great Aunt Ruth must have been a wonderful lady. I wish that I could have met her as I am sure that I would have really liked her and I would have loved to have been able to just sit and talk with her. Her ability to recall and tell the story of her early life in Wyoming has served to be a beautiful window into the past for all of her family and so many of the things that she recounted would never have been known by all of her future generations as well as to all of us; the nieces and nephews. Her memories have allowed us all to know our Grandparents and Great Grandparents in ways that would have otherwise been lost to time. Aunt Ruth recounted her life on the open prairies of Wyoming and included several of her own poems which to us are works of written art to be treasured. She titled her story “As I Remember” and it is a very good descriptive story of the early life of a homesteading family in Wyoming. 

Ruth Harvey was born 29 September 1894 in Albia, Monroe County, Iowa to James William Harvey and Fannie (Lee) Harvey.  In 1904, Ruth’s parents relocated to Laramie County, Wyoming and homesteaded very near that of Fannie’s parents, Milton and Hannah (Hyndman) Lee.  It is from the memories of that time that Aunt Ruth wrote her story. Here I would like to share the story and poetry of Leila Ruth (Harvey) Douglass, our beloved “Poetess in the Family.”

“As I Remember”
By Ruth Harvey Douglass

When I was nine in nineteen-four
I stood beside an open door
Where the vast distance I could see
And things looked very new to me
For I was young and liked to roam
In this…Our New Wyoming Home

The canyon hills, pine trees, and prairie grass
With wild flowers all around
And there upon the horizon far
The Rocky Mountains reached the stars.
No one but us could ever know the thrill of that expectation
The building of our new home in Wyoming

It was the first part of July, 1904, when I was nine years old, that we left our home in Burlington, Iowa to make a home in Wyoming.  Before leaving, we went to visit my Father’s parents in Martinsburg, Iowa to bid them good-bye.  My Grandparents decided that as Jim, my Father, was going to make a new home so far away, he would need extra money, so they gave him his share of their estate, which was a great help in buying the things we would need.

To save as much money as we could, father let my brothers Ed and Earl ‘bum’ their way on the railroad to Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.  They left on June 28 and as Ed was the oldest, he had charge of Earl and also enough cash for their food.  When they got to Omaha, in Nebraska, they were picked up by the police and put in jail, as the police thought the boys were running away from home.  They spent the night in jail until the police contacted our parents.  The next day, however, they were permitted to leave and they continued on to Pine Bluffs.  The day was July 4th so the boys took in the celebration put on by the Dolan Boys and other local cowboys.  The next day they walked out to our Grandfather Lee’s farm at Albin.  When they got there our Uncle Pete had received a letter from our parents telling that they would be in Pine Bluffs on July 7th with all of the family, including Ed’s little dog, Coaly.   Thus, when we arrived, all of our family was together again and we were all so very happy.

When we left Martinsburg, there were numerous suitcases and a big basket of lunch so that we would not be hungry on the way.  The train ride seemed endless and I was sick from the smell of bananas in our lunch…the smell seemed to be everywhere…and I never ate another banana for years and can’t say I really like them today.  I can remember constantly bothering my mother with questions.  Every time we saw a river I asked what river that was and when she answered ‘The Platte’ I always repeated ‘The Flat’.

It was my Brother Elmer’s duty to transfer our little dog when we got to Council Bluffs, and that left the suitcases and lunch basket for us to see to.  Each of us had something to look after.  In the rush to get transferred, and everybody seemed t o be in a great hurry, one of the valise straps broke and everything fell out in the aisle and had to be picked up and re-packed.  By that time we were all getting a little tired and our father got very cross.

When we arrived in Pine Bluffs, my mother’s father and brother, Grandad Lee and Uncle Pete, met us with a covered wagon and our things were soon loaded as the household things had been shipped by freight and would be picked up later.  We drove past some ranches far to the north and when we came to a rocky hill, my sister Mary and I wanted to walk up it so they let us off the wagon and we found some pretty little white flower like wax stars and some bluebells.  We saw some yellow sweet peas off a way but Grandad would not let us go get them for fear of rattlesnakes.

Grandad Lee had a team of white horses he called ‘Old Nig’ and ‘Maud’.  He never drove them off a walk so we were all day getting to their homestead.  As I remember, he so loved these two animals that when they died, he could not bear the thought of wolves eating their carcasses so he dug graves and they were buried out back of the barn.


The Rocky Mountain Tops are etched against the sky
And golden eagles fly from lofty crags where purple shadows lie
Serenity and jewel-like brilliance of sunset on distant hill
A horse and rider pause to drink their fill.
All is quite but the evening breeze
The sun sinks to rest behind distant trees.

How different everything looked to us, from Iowa, with miles and miles of prairie and in the sky, large white clouds that floated by with the wind and made big shadows on the ground.  Mary and I would run to see if we could stay in these shadows.  Our grandparent’s house was made of logs and had two rooms and we also thought that was very unusual.


I stand looking at the old log house
built by my grandparents in the early nineteen hundreds.
Walls still solid as that day,
the roof now badly in need of repair.
The windows and doors listening for those who come no more
and in the shadows, can it be myself
or the shadows of others before me?  I touch these old log walls
remembering…..and I am not alone.

Our folks made a trip to Cheyenne to file on the land we had picked out for our home.  One half section of land:  Section 4, township 17, range 60.  Half of this was to be Elmer’s and half for our father.  To us, it would be the finest home in the world because it was ours and we were together.

Our father had $750.00 and when we started our new life, he first bought a team of horses for $300.00 and we named them ‘Dick’ and ‘Dan’.   He bought a low wheeled wagon with a flat bed on it to haul the things we needed to build our place to live.  He paid $15.00 f or it and bought harness for the horses for $28.00.  Our placer was near some canyons where there was plenty of pine trees and dry wood to burn.  Father and my brothers went to the canyons and made fence posts and hauled them to town where they were sold for 15 cents each and that is how we got our money for groceries that winter.   They also realized enough money to buy a high wheeled wagon with a grain box for $80.00 and a McCormack mowing machine for $50.00.

Our house was to be dug down into the ground three feet and then completely boxed in with lumber to give walls a six foot height.  It measured thirty two feed in length and had two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen, each sixteen by sixteen.  The roof was a peak on which was covered with tar paper and a layer of sod.  After this was done, the dirt they dug out was placed back against the walls up to the eaves.  Both north and south ends had one small window that could be opened and the door was in the south end too.  About five steps led up to another door which was our entry so that we could get out in case we were drifted in by snow.  On one side of this entry were some shelves where mother had pans of milk.  This type of house was called a dugout.  Half was on Elmer’s land and half on ours.

My mother was quite proud of it as we had a wooden floor and most people in those days only had a dirt floor and dirt steps, which soon wore off to no steps at all.  Mother had brought her ‘Ingrain’ carpet and this went over a layer of paper covered with straw to make it soft.  I can see her yet…down on her knees stretching the carped with the carpet stretcher and tacking it down along the walls.  She made a curtain of white muslin to divide the two rooms and she put her curtain rods high above the windows as the lace curtains were long ones.  There were two beds and Mary slept on a cot and I on a leather sofa.  The three boys slept in one bed.

In the Kitchen was a small stove, a work table for the water pail, etc., and a red painted ‘safe’ for the dishes and silver.  As I remember, there was a wooden sugar pail that held exactly ten pounds and it even had a wooden lid that fit down over the top with a rim.  Our table was made of boards, large enough to seat the seven of us and we had long benches to sit on.  By the door was the wash bench and on the door, the roller towels hung.  There was a mirror and a case to keep the comb in.  I can still see today the stack of flour and corn meal in the corner….it reached to the ceiling….four sacks piled criss cross to the layer.  Mother wouldn’t use yellow corn meal…it had to be white.  As I remember the flour was ‘Triple X’.  Granny Lee had told mother that it was so far from town that we should have on hand a thousand pounds of flour and plenty of corn meal, plus about four gallons of Swift’s lard and a quantity of baking powder.  We also had lots of dried fruit.

The tables and the benches that were made of boards by our father,
The little four-hole stove would hardly cook for seven.
Our bed ticks that were filled with straw that rustled when we turned
which reminded us of mice and many other things.

Our clothes were warm, we girls had button shoes
And if they needed fixing our father did that too.
His tools were called a last and stand
With shoe nails and an awl
These he used to make them new
And useful once again.

Our underwear was made of Triple X flour sacks
But we didn’t care about that.
We didn’t know of mini skirts
Or even skin tight slacks.
The dresses were made of calico
In what was called ‘sack aprons’
To us these were as fine
As any Paris creation.

Our barn was made by setting two rows of poles, one row inside the other, and these were covered on two sides with woven w ire s o that the center could be filled and tamped in with straw.  We got the first straw from an old stack at a neighbor’s farm.  There were two doors, one for the horses to go in and one by the mangers near the hay stacks.  The roof was straw weighted down by wire and rocks.  I can remember that the horse named Dick was ornery about being tied up.  He broke every rope by pulling back and shaking his head, so my father said he would break him of that and from then on Dick was secured by a chain.  When our first grain crop was being threshed, all the straw was blown over the barn and that made it nice and warm.

We didn’t have a well yet so water was hauled on the flat bed wagon, five barrels at a time.  One was for drinking and was always covered by a cloth.  The rest was for the stock.

One winter it snowed for nineteen days and nights and the snow was so deep it covered the fences and our stock walked over the top on the drifts.  Our dugout was drifted all around and we had to burn the lamp all day, too, for the windows were drifted in.  We could not g o to get water so we melted snow in the wash boiler to drink and for the stock.  We  couldn’t get the chickens dug out for snow drifted in as fast as the men could dig it out, but they had food and were nice and warm so laid their eggs as usual.

One night when we were eating supper late at night a wild animal screamed and our calf that was staked out bawled at the same time.  Father took the gun and the boys took the lantern and ran outside but the animal had run off by then.  Several years later Uncle Pete
and a neighbor named Wad Robinson shot this unwelcome night visitor over in the canyons behind John McMann’s.  I can’t remember if it was a cougar or a panther.  It was very large and had paws as large as saucers and long claws which were half torn off when he was dying on the rocks.  They sent the hide away to have it tanned but Wad claimed the company said it was no good.  Uncle Pete was always a little doubtful of Wad’s story.


I hear it sighing in the pines
Along the canyon walls
Of years gone by so long ago
When I was but a child.

I hear it in the prairie grass,
The bluebells on the hill,
The sea of waving wheat
That my father tilled.

I hear it in the dust storms,
And in the falling snow;
I hear my sister’s laughter
As we ran through drifts of snow.

It blows the clouds across the sky
To lay shadows as they go sweeping by.
I hear a symphony of soft, warm winds
to bring the flowers in spring.

I hear it in dry corn fields
Now that it is fall
Autumn leaves on the trees
Make patterns on the wall.

I would not leave my home again
No matter what the cost
If I could hear these winds again
That I am dreaming of.

Father and my brothers helped dig potatoes around the country and go fifty bushel for eating and seed.  They also worked at the threshing around the country and bought two sows so we could get a start of hogs.  We also bought two brockle-faced heifers and old ‘Tex’, a nice gentle milk cow.  As I remember, the heifers would run off every chance they got and return to their home way over on Horse Creek near LaGrange.  Old Tex always followed us around as she liked to eat any potato peelings that might be thrown out.  We put up lots of prairie hay for our neighbors and for ourselves.  We obtained a sack of white beans from Grandad Lee and Uncle Pete.  At one time I remember we had sixty four pounds of frozen jack rabbits hanging on the north side of the house.  The canyons were just full of small sand rabbits which were just as good eating as chicken.  We had some chickens and they had a cave for their place to roost.  In winter a lighted lantern was hung in it when the snow got deep and the door had to be closed.

Once when my father went to town he brought home a new estate stove for my mother and she was so pleased, for the old small one really wasn’t large enough for seven of us.  I had heard her say it burned everything that went in the oven or else it wouldn’t get hot enough to bake anything.  When fall came, the excitement of father getting our winter supplies was a great day.  He brought boxes of dried fruits and a great big box of crackers.  In those days they were in wooden boxes as big as an egg crate.  We always had raisins, prunes, dried apples and sometimes peaches.  We not only made stewed fruit of them but pies, too.

My father made a cave not far from the house to keep our vegetables and the big barrels of cured meat and kraut in.   We butchered from four to five hogs at a time and papa never rested until the last bit was taken care of.  It all had to be done at once.  There was lard rendering and we girls ground sausage to fry into cakes which were then placed in stone jars and covered with hot lard.  By then he had the hams and shoulders and side meat put into the barrels and covered with brine that held up an egg.  All bones had to be cooked and the head made into head cheese.  Mother was weary when all was finished and often wished he would not kill so many at once, but he was thinking about the feeding of them.  If a beef was butchered in those days it was quartered, wrapped in cloth and hung outside up high and the pure mountain air formed a crust on the outside and it didn’t spoil or flies didn’t bother it.

To be continued... 

Poetess in the Family, Ruth Harvey Douglass- part two: here
Poetess in the Family, Ruth Harvey Douglass- part three: here
Poetess in the Family, Ruth Harvey Douglass- part four: here

All stories, poetry and photographs in this series are owned and copyrighted © by the Harvey and Hopkins families and may not be reprinted without the permission of the family. Contact clchopkins[at]gmail[dot]com

1 comment:

  1. Cheri - WOW! What a story! How great is it that you have all this tale along with the poetry. I am looking forward to reading more.

    Don't know if I've told you this or not but my mother was a Troyer..most of what I know on the Troyers are those from northern Indiana near Elkhart.