At the end of World War I, some GIs were given homesteads. I don’t know what criterion was needed, but in 1919, my Grandpa Bill was able to get one. It was south of Dillon, Montana, and east of a town called Armstead. Later, Armstead was torn down and removed when the Clark Canyon Dam was built and flooded the town site in 1964.
To hold onto his land, Grandpa had to “prove up” on it, and this required fences and a cabin. He made the trip from his hometown of Dixon, Montana, twice over two years to accomplish the task. It was 315 miles south by horseback from Dixon to Grandpa's homestead.
Grandpa was riding a fine appaloosa that he got from his friend, Buster Priddy. Buster was going along on the ride to help out. They traveled south through the Bitterroot Valley and over Lost Trail pass. The snow was very deep on the pass. They were able to get through by using one of their horses to break trail. It had been fed grain all winter and was big and powerful.
They spent the summer working on the place and returned home in the fall. Grandpa and Buster came through a small town. As they rode down the main street, a gentleman on a store porch called out to Grandpa, “Hey, kid, how much for the appaloosa?” Grandpa had no intention of selling his horse, so being young and brash, he yelled back an exorbitant price, “$75!” Much to his surprise he heard the man answer, “Sold!”
Grandpa was stunned and quickly said, “I can’t sell my horse now. I’ve got to get back home.” But the man called back, “Son, you put a price on your horse and I met it. The way I see it, he’s my horse now.” Grandpa knew the man was right, rode over to him, and said, “All right, but I need another horse to finish the trip.” The man said, “Take the appaloosa to my ranch and you can have any horse in the corral there for $5. Give this note to the foreman and take your pick.”
The deal was closed and Grandpa and Buster went to the ranch. When they got there, they were met by a man with his arm in a sling. After reading the note, the man didn’t offer a choice of horses, but told Grandpa which one he could take. Of course it was the one who had injured the man's arm, causing it to be in a sling.
They put a pack saddle on the new horse and Grandpa rode one of the pack horses. Several miles later they made camp. The next morning, Grandpa decided to give the new horse a try. He blindfolded him, got the saddle on, and Buster snubbed him to his saddle horn. Grandpa pulled the blind off and was going to step on, but the horse went to pitching instantly and jerked the horn right out of Buster’s saddle. He took off bucking and running towards the ranch. Grandpa and Buster went after him and caught him before he got there. They brought him back to camp and got the pack saddle back on. Finally, Grandpa made it home without any more incidents, but he never did ride that horse again. He sold him to a guy who had a rodeo string!
The next year, Grandpa went back to the cabin with a wagon and supplies but that was the last time. Because of the distance and his desire to stay in his hometown of Dixon, he gave up on the homestead and a squatter took it over.
In the 1980s, my wife Terri and I sold some Hampshire rams to Jim and Henriette McBee, who live just south of Clark Canyon Dam at Red Rock, near the site of Grandpa's cabin. Jim is an outfitter besides being a rancher, and it became an annual event for us to deliver rams and then Jim and I would go elk hunting. I told him the story of Grandpa’s homestead and he was sure it was in Clark Canyon.
Surprisingly, in 1919, Grandpa carried a camera and had taken photos of his cabin. In 1989, with photos in hand, Jim and I were able to find the spot where Grandpa's cabin stood. It sent shivers up my spine and to this day remains a highlight in my life.
Jim recently told me the Clark Canyon Ranch, which included Grandpa’s 160-acre homestead, had sold for $11 million! Imagine Grandpa’s surprise on that!
Read more Western stories by author Ross Middlemist here.