Pioneer America Remembered: An Idaho Homestead lost
HIgh plains Idaho was once a part of the great American Desert Homestead Act.
High plains drifter
As I drove the Pace Arrow across the High Plains of Northeastern Idaho, on the return trip from Taos, New Mexico; I spotted an abandoned rusted Farmall.
Judging by the tractor's apparent age, as well as its gas, pre-diesel engine, this tractor had set on blocks in the over-farmed field for decades.
Knowing my vintage machines; having at one time owned a cable driven 1940s Cat, I soon guessed that the machine setting in my camera's view finder; was no less than 70 years old.
As I walked across the field to the rusting icon of a bi-gone era, the frost crackled under the boot sole of my size 11s, I pondered the implications of this abandoned once magnificent, as well as expensive; luxury implement for the Farmer of the 1940s. For the Homesteader of the day this machine represented progress. It was for many a farmer the logical transition from animal drawn implements; to gas fired machinery. In the 1940s, this tractor could produce a week's worth of work in a day.
To the Homesteader of the turn of the last century, power equipment represented hope, prestige, as well as the possibility of a brighter sustainable future.
Had the old tractor been left to die by a homesteader that had long giving up the farm? Or was it simply abandoned for a lack of spare parts? Heck, I had no idea…
Perhaps a friendly Banker had long long-ago convinced this aging tractor's owner to replace it with a new one.
None the mater… Reaching down and clutching a handful of dirt, I reckoned it was as dry as a fire in August. Having rained the night before, I was a bit puzzled as to the dryness of the soil.
This dirt no longer had the ability to hold water, rain simply ran off the top of it. The lack of vegetation; even for October, was a bit suspicious.
To me It looked as if the life had been farmed and grazed out of the soil decades past. Except for a passing Jack Rabbit now and then, or a tumble weed blowing down a dirt road, this land appeared to be dead.
Much like my great grandparents of the long bi-gone era of ‘free’ land for anyone willing to work it, this tractor along with its prideful owner had blown away with the dust.
As I surveyed the vista of fields and low hills spread out before me, it brought to mind the struggle of my Montana family, that long ago had fought and lost a war against an unforgiving land; as a handful of good years were replaced by decades of drought.
My Great Grandfather John had been swindled into a losing proposition; by a government farm agency. They had promised bumper crops ! I soon came to the conclusion, as I viewed this old Homestead... that by utilizing modern farming methods, this farmer like countless others had over worked the land. I reckoned that he had most likely moved on to better ground.
The pioneering farmer of the 1800s saw no end to the useful ground. The often overwhelming vastness of space, combined with the freedom of little or no regulation; would result in what I saw before me. In the American West there are millions of desolate acres striped of life supporting top soil. Thin to begin with, all but gone today.
Still, I can’t help but find a beauty in this place.An object left in a dry desert is suspended in a state of preservation. That’s the way of the Desert. Preserved in time, preserved in memory.
Jumping back into my rig and pulling onto the interstate, I was blown away by the natural beauty of a high prairie that over time would be returned to the antelope and buffalo; that once roamed Idaho in the thousands.
As I watched the sun rise in the Eastern sky, it hit me in the head like a hammer knocking the ice of the side of a metal milk bucket... The land would heal itself! long after man would go the way of the bisson, the High Plains of the Idaho West would greet the Sun of morning. The old tractor as with all things man-made, would soon rust into memory.