Winters, droughts and floods highlighted days on the MT prairie for Kentucky native

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Stella Kegley moved to Montana in March of 1913 and was greeted in subzero temperatures.

Pioneer Women

Stella Kegley came to Montana from Kentucky in March 1913 because her father-in-law had heard Montana was a wonderful, beautiful state where it was easy to make money.

“When we left Kentucky the flowers were all in bloom, the fruit trees were blooming everywhere. We got out to Wibaux, arrived here on the 14th, 45 degrees below zero, snow up to a horse’s back,” Kegley told participants of a 1985 reception for pioneer women.

Kegley’s father-in-law thought that everyone in Kentucky should come out to Montana, file on a claim, live on it three months out of a year for three years, prove up on it and then it would be theirs, she explained.

Following his father’s advice, Kegley’s husband decided to share in this fortune, so three days before her 19th birthday, they, and two other families, boarded the train in Winchester, Ken. and rolled into Wibaux three days later, she said.

The three families spent their first night in Montana at the Chapel Hotel in Wibaux and then set out by bobsled for her father-in-law’s place. Roads were blocked by snow so they didn’t get far and spent their second night in a granary, trying to sleep on grain sacks full of grain. It was a week before they made it to “Dad Kegley’s” ranch, she said.

The next year she and her husband filed on a claim about four miles from his father. The land was in North Dakota, but they filed in Montana and built a little 9-foot by 12-foot shack.

“It was so cold when you washed your dishes, the dish cloth would freeze in your hand,” she said. “If you had an oil cloth on your table and wiped it off, you’d better catch your dishes as they hit the table, because they’d slide on off on the floor.”

Their furniture was orange crates and apple boxes. They slept on the floor. To wash clothes they carried the water up the hill, heated it on the stove they’d rescued from a deserted homestead shack, used lots of homemade lye soap, and boiled the clothes to get them clean. “We weren’t completely crazy, but it did help,” she said.

The country was wild, no schools, no churches, no neighbors, no other women and not much law. Any homestead shack left unoccupied for a time would likely be torn down and hauled away.

“You’d come back, there wouldn’t be nothing there,” she said.

There were lots of rattlesnakes and lots of Texas longhorn steers, however. One day her husband was out plowing and had asked her to bring him a drink of water in the afternoon. She went up a little hill to get on the level and as she reached the top, six or eight steers appeared and started for her, she said.

Her husband had left a disc in the field where he had been farming so she ran for it and climbed up on the seat, scared stiff. He saw her surrounded by the steers, jumped off his plow, grabbed one of the horses from the team pulling the plow, jumped on it bare-back, rode down and chased them away.

“Hadn’t been for that he saw me, they’d have made mincemeat out of me, I tell you, in just a very short time,” she related.

One winter her husband took a load of flax into market, 40 miles with a bobsled, so was gone three days. The second day he was gone, a man came to the back door, rapped and asked for her husband. When she told him her husband had gone to Wibaux, he opened the door, walked in and stood there looking around, she said.

Her husband had left his revolver with her. She went into another room to get it. When she walked back in holding the revolver, the man looked at her, opened the door and walked out.

“Now I couldn’t have hit the side of that shack,” she said, adding, “Of course, he didn’t know that.

In 1916 there was rumor that Montana was going to come to an end. Lots of people got scared, gave their stuff away and took off. She let the talk go in one ear and out the other because nobody on earth knows when the world is coming to an end, she said.

One afternoon she rode over to the Skaar Post Office to pick up their mail and the postmaster asked her why she wasn’t afraid to be away from home, explaining this was the day Montana was to come to an end. She passed off the remark, got her mail and started riding home.

“I had to go about three and a half miles and it was only a cow trail,” she said. “About 2:30, or something like that, all of a sudden it got just as dark as night.”

Thinking maybe the prophecy was true, she sat in her saddle, petrified, but decided to give the old Bay saddle horse the rein and let him take her home. About ten minutes later it started getting light, the sun came out and she realized it had just been an eclipse, she said.

In 1919, a drought hit. They forfeited the rights to their claim and left, returning to Wibaux in 1925, in time for the flood of 1929. They were living on the north end of Wibaux and the flood waters came into their house, up to the windows. They didn’t have a second floor, so she raised the windows for the water to go through, thinking maybe she would be okay, she said.

When she realized remaining in the house wasn’t an option she walked out to rescuers, holding a month-old baby up above the water which was running over her shoulders.

“That was a pretty close call,” she said.

(A full transcript of the 1985 reception for pioneer women of Dawson County will be available at the Frontier Gateway Museum.)

Reach Cindy Mullet at crmullet@midrivers.com

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