Hard Living

I’ve got it so easy. Here I sit in my comfy chair sipping a cup of flavored coffee, thinking about my ancestors. Those people had some hard living! My great grandfather, Lester Dudley “LD” Moore, came to Colorado in 1910. He and his brothers and father, and some other relatives, came here because their dad had tuberculosis, and the Colorado air was supposed to help. Like most homesteaders, they worked cooperatively with one another on adjacent homesteads. The homesteads were out on the prairie about a mile outside of Truckton. Truckton is eight miles south of Yoder, which in turn is about 28 miles east of Colorado Springs. It’s hard to imagine choosing to live so far away from civilization, but they made a go of it, building first on one farm, then on the next. That first winter, the men lived in a “soddy,” a sod hut carved out of the edge of a creek bank, covered with boards, and insulated with sod.

The next summer, LD sent for his wife, Mary Ellen. Married at 19, I’m sure the prospect of riding the train to Colorado from Kentucky was daunting. After a few months at the homestead, she found herself expecting their first child. Having a child in such isolated surroundings was impractical, so after contacting some family in Rye, it was decided that she would stay with them over the winter, and they would assist with the birth. LD hitched up the horses and drove her overland to Rye, about 40 miles from the homestead. In February, my great uncle Neville, “Neb” was born. My grandma told the story that the weather on the trip home was so cold that her mother walked most of the way holding Neb so they could keep warm. It was a three-day trip, and at night they slept under the wagon, waking in the morning with frost on their boots and blankets.

The Moores made a go of it and had three more children: Thelma (my grandma), Leroy “Bud,” and Barbara. As neighbors began to acquire adjacent homesteads, quite a little community began to form, and before they knew it, they built their first church, at the corner of Boone Highway and Shear Rd.

A baptism at the little prairie church, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

A baptism at the little prairie church, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

Part of the deal with the “free land” the government gave homesteaders at the time was that, in exchange for ownership, these pioneers had to “prove up” their land. In seven years, the minimum time commitment, homesteaders had to plant trees, sink a well, raise crops or cattle, and show a profit from their efforts, or they would be in default.

Bringing in the crop, circa 1917. That might be Neb in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

Bringing in the crop, circa 1917. That might be Neb in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

Every month, LD would hitch up the team and drive into town for supplies. The trip took two days, and he camped overnight in Corral Bluffs near the creek. The store was on the corner of what is now Boulder and Platte, what was then the edge of Colorado Springs. They were barely scraping by, but living the dream: owning their own place and raising a family together.

My grandma told the story of riding the bus to the Ellicott School. She said the seats on the bus were made of steel, and in the winter they had to sweep the snow off the seats before they could sit down. I asked, “Didn’t the bus have windows?” to which she replied, “Well, yes, but there wasn’t any glass in them.” Talk about hard living. I used to complain about a 90-minute bus ride. At least my bus was heated!

The homestead wasn’t doing very well despite the erection of a windmill and near Herculean efforts by LD and his family. On a handshake deal, he had taken a loan to build that windmill, but he had to put the whole farm up as collateral.

The windmill on the homestead, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

The windmill on the homestead, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

The deal fell through, and the shyster with the “handshake deal” took off with the deed to the homestead. The family was forced to move into Colorado Springs. LD built Mary a house; in fact, he built lots of them. Our family has been in the homebuilding business ever since.

One night, LD heard live music coming from a local house, so he stopped in. There he met my grandpa, Dick Winters, who had travelled here with a couple of cousins the old fashioned way: they earned it.

Several months earlier, Dick and his cousins decided to travel west to see if the jobs were better in Colorado. Coming from Kentucky as the Moores did, they had a deep foundation in bluegrass music, and got pretty good at earning money by playing a few tunes at roadhouses and passing the hat afterward. The band bought an old Model T Ford for eight dollars, painted it red, and headed out, stopping to play when they needed gas money. My dad tells the story of when the rod bearings would go out on the car, they’d drain the oil, flip the car onto its side, remove the pan, cut a hank off one of their belts, and wrap it around the crank shaft. Then they’d put the pan back on, flip the car back upright, fill it back up with oil, and go as long as they could. Not one of them had a belt left to hold up his pants when they got to Colorado Springs. Their plan was to get to Denver, but their car finally gave out, so they stayed here. My grandpa, Richard “Dick” Winters, had five siblings, all of whom ended up following him to Colorado: Juanita “Tootsie,” Kenneth “Ham,” Lucian Jr. “June,” Dorothy “Dottie,” and Allie Jean “Jean.” Their parents, Lucian Edward “LE” and Almo “Tennie” came too. I mention these names because people don’t use nicknames much anymore, and some of these don’t seem to have much logic behind them—but they are fun to say (There’s a “Doodle” and a “Dodie” in the family tree too, but that’s another story).

The Moore and the Winters families also knew each other because Bud and Neb were bricklayers, and Dick’s day job was “hod carrier” (hod carriers schlep the cement to the bricklayers in a “hod”). My grandma tells the story of how she met my grandpa: LD had taught all his kids how to drive, but grandma was never very good at it. One time she was driving back home after a night out with Tootsie, my grandpa’s sister, when they slid off the road and into the ditch about a mile from the house. The girls didn’t have any choice but to walk home and get help from grandma’s brother, Neb. He got his car and pulled them out of the ditch. My grandma said that’s how Neb and Tootsie started dating. Wanting to fix up her brother Dick, Tootsie brought him on a date with Neb, and told Neb to bring Thelma. They all hit it off, so the foursome began doing all sorts of things together. Eventually the couples got married. So, when Jeff Foxworthy jokes about “If your family tree doesn’t fork. . . .” Well mine does, but it crosses back on itself. My dad and his “double” cousin look more alike than my dad and his brother do.

Tootsie (right) with her parents and parents-in-law, The Moores and the Winters (my great-grandparents). We think this photo was taken near the top of Pikes Peak, circa 1937. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

Tootsie (right) with her parents and parents-in-law, The Moores and the Winters (my great-grandparents). We think this photo was taken near the top of Pikes Peak, circa 1937. Photo courtesy of Rusty Winters.

I grew up with a fondness for old family anecdotes, and I think that’s the best way to preserve a family’s history. Yes, I can go on Ancestry.com and trace my lineage back to the Revolutionary War, but it’s not the same as hearing about how my family lived. I can look up “homesteader” on Wikipedia to get some idea of what life was like back then, but the stories of my family really make it all come to life. It seems what my family went through in the early part of the century was pretty typical for homesteaders, so my story may help shed light on what life was like.

It was hard living on the prairie back in the early 1900s, and when I landed a teaching job at Ellicott in 1997, one of the things I mentioned at my interview was that my grandma used to be a student there. I taught out there for 15 years, and every time I saw the sunset from my classroom windows, I thought about my great grandparents and their struggle to survive on what can be a beautiful yet unyielding prairie. Today, as I sit here sipping my coffee, I’m grateful I don’t have to struggle like my forbearers did. I am glad they left me a legacy to be proud of . . . but I’m not planning on passing down any of their names.