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Homesteading in Montana
Phil and Georgetta
My Grandmother Arrives in Montana
Georgetta settled back as the train pulled out of Milbank, her eyes tearing up a bit as she recalled the faces of her family, waving goodbye until she was out of sight; her sisters, mama and papa, her new sister-in-law, Zada. If it hadn’t been for Zada keeping her occupied, keeping her mind off her loneliness….. Well, her waiting would be over soon. Phil was waiting for her at the end of the line, in Montana.
She closed her eyes. It was a long trip from South Dakota to the plains of Montana. Though she dozed off and on, she clutched her bag closely. It was a diverse group of people traveling toward the homestead land and she slept with one eye open, so to speak.
Georgetta was a newlywed, but no “spring chicken.” She was a full 25 years old, had been a teacher since the age of 17. She’d met Phil while boarding at the home of a family near the school she taught in Milbank, South Dakota. Phil was a strikingly handsome man, but rather shy. Georgetta was a dark-haired beauty herself, and Phil noticed her but wasn’t bold enough to ask her out. Finally, after what seemed forever, he asked her if she’d like to take a buggy ride. Once the ice was broken, they spent as much time together as was appropriate for a school marm and a shy bachelor. . When they weren’t going to social events, they would write back and forth. Eventually, in a dark room where they were developing photographs, Phil asked Georgetta to marry him. They were both 25 years old.
On a Tuesday, April 3, 1917, they had a wedding ceremony and spent their honeymoon in a hotel in Milbank… a full day and a half. Then they stayed with Phil’s parents, and by Monday, Georgetta was back to teaching school. Over the weekend, they had packed Phil’s trunk and began to prepare for his train trip to Montana, where he and two of his best friends were planning to homestead.
They had been married only 9 days when Phil and his friends left on the train. His brother’s wife Zada kept Phil’s new bride company until the initial loneliness passed. Going back to work had been tedious, but necessary to pass the time. When at last school was out on May 29th, Georgetta began planning her own trip west, packing, sewing, mending, sorting. What to leave behind? Sadly, she left her piano with one of her sisters. One of her first purchases she’d made with her meager teaching wages, she’d paid $10 a month until it was paid in full in 1912. But there would be no room for a piano in the sod house Phil and she would be living in until a real home was built. Maybe she’d be able to have it shipped out later……..
She’d written to Phil to let him know her arrival time at the train station in Scobey, Montana. When at last she arrived in the little northeast Montana town, her heart pounded with excitement to see him again after being apart for two months. The porter helped her step from the train, and she took a first look at the newly-formed town on the prairie. Wide, dirt streets were deeply rutted from the full wagons, the horses, buggies, and the occasional automobile. As others came from the train, they were greeted by their friends and loved ones. Embraces, hand-shakes, kisses, and glad greetings were all around, but no one came forward for her. There was no strong, handsome husband anywhere in the throng. She received many admiring glances, and even some open stares, from the various male passengers or greeters before they went on their way towards whatever life lay ahead of them. Before long, she was the only person left at the station. She sat stiffly on the depot bench, parcels and baggage beside her, looking expectantly up and down the road. Surely, he must know she was there. It was a two day horse and buggy ride from Butte Creek to Scobey. Maybe he had been delayed; maybe there had been rain and he had to take the long way around the creek. The station manager checked on her frequently, bringing her a cup of water, offering assistance, assuring her that her husband would be here soon, no doubt. But time went on, and no Phil, no message.
Finally, the manager came once again to speak to the anxious young woman. “It’s nearly dusk, Ma’am. I would suggest you go get something to eat, and consider spending the night at the hotel up the street. I’m sure your husband will get here as soon as he can. But I need to close up the depot and I don’t want to leave you alone here. Please, let me escort you up the street and help you get settled.”
Reluctantly, Georgetta allowed the manager to assist her. He signaled to a young boy to help with the bags, and then walked with her to the busy café just a block up the street. She realized how hungry she was when the aroma of home-style cooking wafted from the building. She thanked the manager politely, as he once again assured her he would tell her husband where she was as soon as he arrived. The hotel wasn’t far and the young man who’d carried her bags said he would return to help her within an hour. The beautiful school marm then walked into a café that looked like a work camp chow hall.
The din of voices stilled a bit when they looked up to see Georgetta standing hesitantly at the door, but the curiosity was short-lived as they resumed their visiting and laughing. The evening was young, and this was just the beginning. A good meal, then on to the saloons and dancing and drinking! Georgetta realized she was one of a very few women in the Café, but quickly found a seat and waited for the over-worked waitress to get to her. When at last she placed her order, she’d nearly lost her appetite from worry of what could have happened to Phil, and concern for her well-being in this new, wild prairie town. Was there even a sheriff here? It was a Friday night, and she was beginning to fear for her well-being. She ordered a bowl of soup and ate it as quickly as politely possible. As promised, the young man appeared and was ready to help her up the street.
Dusk had fallen, and the dim lights of the street made it difficult to discern the type of establishment in which she was planning to spend the night. Walking up the street, she was grateful for the presence of the young man as a chaperone, in what appeared to Georgetta as a town full of rowdy men, planning on an all-night drunk. Thanking the young man, who refused any monetary compensation, Georgetta proceeded to check into the hotel. The lobby seemed unusually full of people who didn’t seem to be checking in, and the newlywed grew concerned about this establishment as well. Her apprehension grew as she realized the name of the hotel was “One-eyed Molly’s.” She ignored the openly curious looks from the men in the lobby, and even from the woman who worked behind the counter, and proceeded to find her room, this time handling her own bags as she went up the steps. She didn’t want anyone to actually know the exact room in which she was staying, so she refused the many offers of help bringing her bags up the steep flight of stairs.
Her room was simple, with a four-poster bed, a chest of drawers, a small table for holding the wash basin and pitcher, a hand towel and wash cloth, and one window. Georgetta quickly pulled the curtains at the window before washing the train dust from her face. She felt sick to her stomach with worry. Worry that Phil had never received her letter; worry that she was stuck in a wild lawless town on a Friday night and no chaperone to defend her honor, and worry about what she would do tomorrow if Phil still didn’t show up. As the evening became night, the raucous noise from the street grew louder and to her, more frightening. Pushing the chest of drawers in front of the locked door, she turned down the lamp and lay down on the bed, fully clothed, eyes wide open. After what seemed like hours, she finally dozed off into a fitful sleep.
Morning dawned quiet and clear, a beautiful June Montana day on the horizon. Georgetta again used her wash basin to freshen up, hope springing anew that Phil would be here today. Surely, he would! She changed into another traveling outfit, then descended the stairway with her bags once again. There was a well-mannered man behind the counter this morning, who greeted her cordially and asked how her stay had been. She responded politely, not mentioning that she’d barely had a wink of sleep, but his pleasant demeanor heightened her hopes for a better day.
Once again, she entered the Café of the night before. The morning crowd was much less formidable in Georgetta’s eyes and she felt more sociable as well. She nodded politely towards those who touched their caps in greeting or to others who ventured a friendly greeting towards the lovely stranger. She ordered a light breakfast and was soon on her way. She noted that in the Saturday morning light, the town seemed more “tame” as she watched the early-rising, hard-working people hauling various cargo in their wagons, frequenting the hardware stores and lumber yards, going about their daily business of building a new home, a new town, a new county. She made her way back to the depot and the station manager greeted her with a smile, assuring her that her husband was bound to come today.
But as the day grew longer, still no Phil. Georgetta felt sick with fear and worry. What had happened? Was he okay? Maybe he fell from his horse and was lying somewhere in the 30-mile barren prairie between Scobey and Butte Creek, and no one knew he was there. Maybe he was sorry he’d married her and didn’t want to come and get her. She sadly stood up to ask the station manager when the train would be returning to Milbank, and searched her pocketbook for the correct amount of train fare.
Suddenly, there was a cloud of dust that caused her to look up from her sad reverie. Something about the urgency of the driver stirred up hope again within her. And within minutes, she was in Phil’s arms once again. He had also been sick with worry, as he had just received her letter yesterday … the day of her arrival. He had been in a camp with his friends, tending sheep nearby and hadn’t gotten the mail until getting home yesterday. He’d set out immediately and driven his team of horses as long as he dared, until it got dark. He’d been up before dawn to start out again, afraid she would go home if he didn’t get there in time. Georgetta’s doubts and fears melted away as her husband loaded her belongings onto the wagon and gently helped her onto the seat next to him. He suggested they stay the night, but she said she’d rather camp out on the prairie with him tonight, as she couldn’t wait to start her new life with him in their new home. The newlyweds picked up a few belongings, then set out at a leisurely pace, in no hurry now that they had each other. Georgetta, smiling happily, waved at the station manager as they passed by the depot. He politely doffed his hat and returned the smile and wave, then turned back to his work. A train was coming in shortly, bringing new homesteaders, new life, new hope. He put up a silent prayer for all of them, hoping all of their dreams would come true.