Story of a woman homesteader

by Administrator on 6 December, 2019 Historical 766 Views
Story of a woman homesteader

Ella Foley Clayton

By Dixie Boyle
Photos courtesy of Dixie Boyle

Ella Foley Clayton left the comforts of city life behind in 1916 to homestead land on a section of New Mexico’s barren, treeless plains near Lucy, a short-lived railroad town east of Willard along present-day Highway 60.

Since Ella was considered frail and sickly, her family thought New Mexico’s dry climate would improve her health. Her husband, Herbert, would remain behind in Topeka, Kansas. America was in the middle of World War I, and he was required to remain on his army post. He was also taking classes toward a law degree. Bidding her husband farewell, Ella and her four children rode the train to New Mexico. They would live on their isolated homestead for the next three years.

We can only guess at why a woman described as sickly would be sent off to shoulder the burdens necessary for survival in what was essentially the Wild West. Perhaps Ella had more help than she let on—or perhaps what was considered frailty was actually the lassitude that overtakes spirited personalities when life becomes too comfortable, and New Mexico’s climate quickly sparked a renewed interest in life. Certainly, her letters home to Herbert outline her travails, but her tone is more matter-of-fact than despairing:

I have learned to hitch up my team for the first time. The horses would not allow me to get close to them and bolted each time I attempted harnessing them to  the wagon. I chased them all over the country for hours before catching them. I have been learning how to milk the cow, although she tries to make it as hard as possible for me by knocking over the bucket and refusing to stand still.

Water was another problem. It was not always readily available for the homesteaders, and many had to wait until they could drill a well. Others hauled water from adjacent homesteads. Ella relayed her own troubles in another letter to her husband: “Have had a time getting water lately—Austin’s well broke down—we hunted water all day yesterday.” She constantly worried about the livestock and even stayed awake at night considering how she could find water for the animals.

The rainy season caused a new set of problems. The country was open range, so before the homesteaders fenced their land, horses and livestock roamed freely in search of water in arroyos and dirt tanks. Ella’s horses were becoming semi-wild as a result. “I have been trying to catch the horses,” she wrote of her frustration. “There has been water in the draws and they don’t always come up—and run like deer when they see me coming. We need a few supplies, but I haven’t been able to get close to the horses for over a week.”

Firewood was also scarce. The AT&SF Railroad Company, which ran through Lucy, used coal and water to operate their steam engines and often left discarded coal near the railroad tracks. Homesteaders in the area gathered this coal to supplement their wood supplies. Yet, while coal kept the railroad running and benefitted the homesteaders as a result, it could also be dangerous, as Ella soon learned. “There was a terrible train accident this afternoon when the boiler exploded, killing the foreman and engineer,” she explained in another letter. “There were pieces of the train scattered for miles as the force of the explosion tore the coaches lose, but none of the passengers were hurt.”

Homesteaders near Lucy often found it difficult to adjust to the weather, especially the blowing dust storms that were frequent during the spring. Of one dust storm that kept her and the children inside for the day, Ella wrote that it, “Just blew like a blizzard all day long . . . It was not cold however. We made some candy and listened to the gramophone and had a fair time anyway.”

Lucy may have reached a population of 200 people during its heyday years between 1915 and 1930. Ella described for her husband the makeup of the town during the time she lived there:
The people living in and around Lucy were the John MacGillivrays, the Mattinglys, the Santa Fe track crews, a family or two across the tracks to the north, including the station agent and his family. The Peal family lived nearby, and others not far away. Austin’s Store and the post office were located south of the tracks across from the railway station.

And life wasn’t all toil and trouble. The locals living in those small homestead communities sponsored singings, dances, literary meetings, and more to fill what little free time they had. An accomplished pianist, Ella found her niche playing at church services, literary meetings, lectures, and parties. When she was not avoiding the wind, chasing her horses, looking for water, or trying to milk a cantankerous cow, she was active in the Missionary Society and Ladies Aid Society, served as chair for the community Christmas party in 1917, and, as a member of the local school board, worked hard to provide books and educational opportunities for the homestead children living in the area.

The move to Lucy did indeed improve Ella’s health. After three years in New Mexico, she and Herbert decided to make their home in Topeka. She sold the homestead to her Baptist neighbors, who converted her house into a church. In the early hours of the morning on November 1, 1919, Ella and her children boarded an eastbound train at the depot in Lucy for Topeka, Kansas, leaving homestead life behind forever.
Ella both liked and disliked her homestead experience but in later years wrote about it with affection. Certainly, when President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave perspective homesteaders the opportunity to own 160 acres of land, the idea was to improve the lives of many Americans who might not otherwise have had a chance at homeownership. And it was good for the country in other ways. Homesteaders were required to build a home and make improvements and live on the land for five years. In later years, the land available for homesteaders was increased to 320 acres, and the time of occupancy was decreased to three years. This caused an exodus of farmers to migrate to unsettled sections of land throughout the American West, helping to settle the last of America’s frontier.

Single women made up approximately 15 percent of the overall homestead population. Many remained on their homesteads forever, while others stayed a few years or months and then returned to more settled sections of the country. While the life of a homesteader was not easy, especially for women like Ella living alone in an isolated setting for the first time, the Act not only allowed single women to own land for the first time in American history but also provided them with a means of support and independence they had not experienced before.




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