The Rancher's Wife

The life of Evelyn Mantle was much like other frontier women’s—hard and lonely, yet rewarding—except hers was in the 20th century.
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The life of Evelyn Mantle was much like other frontier women’s—hard and lonely, yet rewarding—except hers was in the 20th century.
ranchwife

My mother, Evelyn Fuller, was 14 years old in 1921 when her family arrived in Colorado. Originally from a suburb of Syracuse, New York, the family had migrated west for better opportunities and, after stops in Nebraska and Arizona, took advantage of the Homestead Act to settle on Blue Mountain. The Fuller homestead was 100 miles west of Craig, Colo. and 40 miles east of the tiny town of Jensen, Utah. Most people got their mail in Jensen but had to travel 20 miles further yet to get groceries and supplies in Vernal, Utah.

Only a few people had cars, and nearly all lived in small, dirt-floored cabins like the Fullers did. The young men in the area were poor, hard-working farmers and ranchers, and many, like Evelyn’s dad, worked the local coal mine. These boys did not stir my young mother’s heart. She dreamed of meeting a real cowboy, like the ones she’d seen in magazines, dashing and handsome. One day her luck changed. The cowboy of her dreams galloped up to her very door and swung gracefully off a prancing horse and introduced himself.

“Hello, I’m Charley Mantle, your neighbor across the creek there and a little way up Roundtop Mountain,” said the man. “I came by to meet you folks.”

He wore a big Stetson hat, cowboy boots, and a snow-white shirt with a black silk scarf tied loosely at his throat. Evelyn could hardly speak but managed to introduce him to her parents and brother, Frank. They visited a good while, and Charley told them about himself. He was raised in the area and broke horses for a living at his Blue Mountain horse camp. He’d also built up a small herd of cattle on his homestead down on the Yampa River in the deep canyons at the foot of Blue Mountain. Charley and his siblings had basically raised themselves after their parents both died in the same year (wagon wreck, Dad; childbirth, Mom) when Charley was 13. The proper young girl from New York instantly fell in love with this cowboy many years her senior. At 27, he wasn’t interested in a horse-crazy 14-year-old girl at first, but the man who would become my father eventually fell deeply in love.

In August 1926, after five years of ginger courtship, the young couple rode and drove the 40-plus miles to Vernal, Utah, got married by a justice of the peace, then rode another 30 miles to spend their wedding night at a friend’s. They rode the remaining 10 miles back to Evelyn’s parents the next day, packed all their earthly possessions on two packhorses, said a tearful goodbye to her parents, and rode off to their new home down in the canyons. Evelyn’s spirits soared. She had everything she wanted. Charley set a brisk pace, as they only had about five hours of daylight left.

The big open valleys on Blue Mountain narrowed into limestone formations and, as they approached the deep gorge of the Yampa River 2,000 feet below, craggy terrain covered with juniper and piñon trees. For the first time, Evelyn saw the sheer, rose- and lavender-colored walls of stone and the deep purple shadows of her husband’s country with the ominous name: Hells Canyon Gorge (which gets its name from the vicious floods that roar down it from snowmelt and after rainstorms). The horse’s iron-shod hooves made sharp, brisk clatter on the rocky trail, and Evelyn was hard-pressed to dodge the trees with her body and the rocks with her legs on the decent. Far below the cliffs she caught a brief glimpse of the Yampa River, appearing from time to time as a shining ribbon where it cut a tortuous way through the rock.

Finally, after the three-day whirlwind and a total of 100 miles in the saddle (a portend of their rough life together), Hells Canyon burst from fury to tranquility at a gate-like rock formation only the Lord could have made. Two nearly touching pillars jutted from the canyon and formed a natural gateway that marked her new territory. This fertile bottomland was where Charley’s cattle grazed. Breathless at the beauty and wonder of it all, the optimistic young bride fell heart and soul for this place. It would be her home for the next 40 years.

harley’s homestead cabin was 12 feet by 12 feet and had a dirt floor and a packed dirt roof. There was a set of corrals nearby and a root cellar, but alas no outhouse. He had built the cabin of salvaged driftwood and logs from an old log cabin that had been accidentally destroyed by dynamite. There was just enough daylight left to unpack and carry everything inside. Furniture consisted of a rickety table and two chairs.

It was a clean little cabin, nonetheless. In the “kitchen” corner, there was a tin dishpan, a tub, a washboard, a big pot for heating water, and a new water bucket with an enamel dipper. Water had to be carried from a spring about 50 yards from the house. In the 40 years that Evelyn lived on the Mantle Ranch, she never had electricity, telephone, or running water. Most startling of all, there was no road—not even a wagon road—until almost two decades later. All supplies had to be brought in over 40 miles by packhorses.

The wood box was full, and Charley soon had the small wood cookstove hot, the cabin’s only heat source. He served his new bride a steaming cup of coffee. Supper followed. It was jerky gravy made with milk, hot biscuits, and canned tomatoes. They drank water from a set of four new enamel coffee cups. Charley explained that some of their friends had gotten together and bought them some new stuff as a wedding gift. He was excited about the best wedding gift of all: a new double-bed mattress, which they had promised to deliver somehow.

The bed was in the corner, a shallow box made of strong, slender poles and sturdy legs to hold it off the dirt floor. Inside the box, an intricate weaving of taught rawhide supported a lumpy, old straw-filled mattress and two dirty crushed-feather pillows with no pillowcases. A top blanket and a bottom blanket covered the mattress, with a beeswax-treated tarp spread over it all. Too tired to care, Evelyn crawled in with the man she loved and had one of the best night’s sleep of her life.

Next morning Charley was up at daybreak. He started a fire in the stove and put on the coffee pot. After awaking Evelyn, he made sure to disappear from the cabin while she dressed. Returning with a bucket of cold, sweet spring water, he put it on the crooked board that served as a washstand outside the door. Evelyn brought in the washbasin and filled it with hot water from the kettle, then took it back outside and mixed cold water with the hot, and washed up; Charley did the same, carefully shaving with his straight razor that hung on the wall above the washbasin—a morning routine they would repeat many times.

The next spring, after their first winter together, Charley chose a luckless young horse from his training corral and plowed a nice, big garden spot. The rows were crooked and uneven, since the young horse objected to his job. Charley slowly got control and was secretly proud when his rows became straight and even. Evelyn bragged shamefully on him and soon the garden was prepared. Side by side they planted and watered and weeded. It was a proud moment when the first radish was mature enough to eat. Charley found he sort of liked gardening and even learned to eat most of the vegetables.

On lonely days when Charley was off chasing wild horses, Evelyn would ride over to visit her nearest neighbor, 10 miles away. Mrs. Chew had a huge family and was a masterful ranch wife. She taught Evelyn to bake, what to cook and how to cook it, and how to prepare, plant, and grow a garden, including how to harvest, store, preserve, and can. After one of his trips, Charley met Evelyn at the Chew ranch. When they got ready to leave, he found seven hens and one rooster in gunny sacks tied to their saddles to take home. A proud and sensitive man, he was glad none of his friends were around to witness the charity. Evelyn was as kind and gentle as Charley was rough and gruff.

They built a cozy lean-to for Evelyn’s chickens against the towering, sun-warmed cliff behind the house, and her girls began producing eggs right away. One day she came stomping up to Charley and demanded he teach her to shoot “right now!” A skunk had eaten all her eggs, and she had seen a bobcat lurking around. She was very proud of her chickens and quickly became deadly with a gun. No predator, be it beast or hawk or owl, was ever safe around her domain again.

In January 1927, Evelyn realized she was pregnant. And within three years, she already had two boys, Charley Jr. and Pat. During that period, a relentless drought moved in to compound the Great Depression. And to add to the misery, a great number of Mormon crickets hatched out on Blue Mountain. These shiny black or brown, flightless creatures were about two inches long and made a high-pitched, menacing chirping sound that filled the air. They moved relentlessly in flocks and left nothing behind—no vegetation, saddles, fence posts, hides, or even bark on trees was safe.

The day Charley spotted a flock of them approaching his range, he rode his horse hard to all the neighbors, ordering them to grab something to make noise with. Everyone rode and circled the cricket flock from the side and rear and, with a loud din, managed to drive them down into the confines of the narrow cliffs of upper Hells Canyon. The men roped and dragged sagebrush and cedar limbs to make walls and to force the crickets further down Hells Canyon. Evelyn procured some cans of kerosene, and they doused the brush and set it afire. The bewildered crickets fled down into the Yampa River, which was running high, and got swept up. As far as the eye could see, a long black line of crickets appeared on the crest of the river. The rangeland had been saved, and everyone cheered the victory. The weary ranchers ate and rested together before the long climb back to their cabins.

Life was hard for Evelyn. Survival for her family was a full-time struggle. She even had to use an axe to loosen Charley’s frozen boots from his stirrups one time, after a life-or-death winter ride. Without proper supplies, her family would have starved when the winter snows made Blue Mountain impassable. Enough food and supplies had to be stored up to last through each winter.

To wash clothes, she would carry buckets of water from the creek and fill a steel barrel suspended over a fire. When the water was hot, she got out her washtub, washboard, and a bar of her homemade lye soap. She scrubbed each garment, rinsed it, wrung it out, and dried it over handy sage bushes. For her babies’ cloth diapers, she scrubbed, rinsed, and bleached them in the sun to assure no rubbing and rashes on baby bottoms. I always knew her hands to be red and rough and chapped, but oh so gentle and tender. She plowed and planted, irrigated, picked and canned from her enormous garden and orchard. She canned hundreds of quarts of food on her wood-burning stove. Charley didn’t help much with household chores. His interests were mostly with the livestock.

On March 9, 1933, Evelyn was riding her horse to Vernal for the birth of her third baby when her horse stumbled just 10 miles into the long journey. Evelyn went into labor, and Charley barely got her back on her horse and to the Chew ranch before I was born, their baby girl, Queeda Evelyn. The tiny one-room cabin could no longer fit three children and two adults, and Evelyn began serious planning for a new house. Logs were felled and seasoned and other building supplies brought in, but a monstrous flood in Hells Canyon, which nearly killed the whole family, caused them to rethink the location of the house. They chose a new site situated above any danger of flood, and a lovely four-bedroom, full-basement log house was completed in 1939. Evelyn did most of the finish work herself, including the cabinetry and oak floors. There was still no running water in the house, however.

Two more little boys were eventually born, making a total of five children, and the Mantles also built a log schoolhouse in order to accommodate the rules of Moffat County and get a teacher assigned to live and teach at the ranch. Evelyn completed all of the required paperwork and made numerous long rides out to town to get supplies for the school and arrange for teachers. One terrible winter, the teacher who had committed to come to the ranch and teach backed out. Not to be defeated, Evelyn spent the winter with her children in a dangerously cold little cabin in Bear Valley on the snow-bound east end of Blue Mountain so they could attend school there. Charley stayed at the ranch to care for the livestock and bring them supplies. It was a sacrifice of mind and body, but anything was worth it to Charley and Evelyn to educate their kids. Having only completed fourth grade, Charley knew the value of an education.

When World War II broke out, all the young women went into defense jobs, leaving no teachers available for the Mantle’s school. (The Mantles finally built their own road to the ranch in this period and bought a Jeep, which helped access immeasurably.) Evelyn went to Craig to talk to the superintendent of schools and was granted an emergency teaching certificate, given the circumstances. She taught her five children and the four Chew children in the one-room schoolhouse on the ranch. The children had to go to the superintendent’s office in Craig to take proficiency tests before they could be advanced to the next grade. Her students always passed. The children boarded out and graduated from high school, and three went on to graduate from college.

Like anyone, I remember my childhood fondly, but the burden of that life on my mother ended up being greater than she could bear. Evelyn eventually left the canyon and settled with family in Boulder, Colo., where she died of natural causes in 1977 at 70 years old. Charley, ever the pioneering recluse, left to start a ranch in Latin America, where he died (likely murdered) in 1972. Charley was a very hard man, and my parents severe life together broke the back of their relationship.

Looking back, it’s amazing to me how little free time we all had—and how much free time people have today. It was all my parents could do to just stay alive. The ranch work never ceased, which is why education was so important to them. How can people today erode school systems and squander young people’s opportunity for self-advancement? I’m proud to say that all five of us Mantle children went on to become self-sufficient and resourceful—like our mother.

We did well by our parents, ever the young bride and her dashing cowboy in our minds.