Shot at, cussed at, starved
La Plata County families drawn by 150-year-old act remain
JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald
Wommer. Greer. Short. McCluer. Ludwig. Fassbinder. Frazier. Mason.
Many of the families that formed the backbone of La Plata County in its first few decades came West following the American dream: to own their own land. This dream was possible in large part because of the Homestead Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
President John F. Kennedy, in 1962, called the law “probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted.”
The act, with additional versions Congress approved over the next 50 years, allowed people to homestead anywhere from 160 acres to 640 acres by improving the land and building a small dwelling.
“By and large, people were coming for opportunity; they were coming to establish their families,” said Ruth Lambert, the cultural program director for the San Juan Mountains Association, who has done studies in the county documenting older buildings. “They were not speculators.”
It was a grueling task at best.
James Frazier homesteaded on the Florida Mesa in 1899, when the Ute Strip was opened for staking, and two people were killed in disputes about conflicting claims and boundaries.
He kept a diary for several years, and excerpts are included in Pioneers of the San Juan Country, a history of the area’s early settlers.
“It might appear to some that homesteading would be an interesting experience and adventure,” he wrote in 1904. “I do not think anyone who has been through the racket and privations would want another homestead on the same terms. To be shot at and cussed at and to fight a case of protest and worry, working and starving on a place that might all go to another fellow, is not an enjoyable condition.”
The early years
“I think it was just terrible,” said Barbara Jefferies. Her family has several branches that earned homestead patents, or deeds, including the Wommers, who date back to the late 1870s in the Pine River Valley. “Everything was hard. They dug ditches by hand and wells by hand.”
The Wommer Ditch, which still carries water from the Pine River to farms and ranches in the valley, was dug in 1879 by several homesteaders, including Nicholas Wommer, who started the original homestead with his wife, Elizabeth.
“He wasn’t getting any water down the ditch,” Jefferies said about her great-grandfather Nicholas. “So he rode up to see what was happening. Another homesteader shot him in the head and killed him.”
Elizabeth was left a widow with six children in July 1882, and was still able to file final papers for her homestead the next year and earn her patent. The area was originally part of the summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indian Tribe.
Jefferies’ sister, LaVina Mars, still lives on the Wommer homestead, although the original house is no longer standing.
“When they tore that down, it had bullet holes in it from the Indians,” Mars said. “When there were hostilities, Elizabeth would take her children down by the river and hide them in pairs in the willows, so that if some were found and killed, she wouldn’t lose all of them.”
The Ludwig branch of the family had its own fatality over water: Henry Ludwig killed himself after killing his neighbor Abner Lowell in a shootout when Lowell blocked the water in the ditch.
The family, Jefferies said, thought “it would have been considered self-defense.”
The Wommer family can now claim seven generations in La Plata County.
‘On his 21st birthday’
Based in the southwestern part of La Plata County, the Greer family can trace its roots in La Plata County back to the Baker Party of 1860-61, the first European Americans who came to the southern San Juan Mountains. But it was the third generation, Pat Greer’s father Frank, who homesteaded in the Marvel area in 1903.
Pat Greer, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in 2013, and his wife, Lila, still live on the homestead at Greer Corner.
“My father staked this homestead on his 21st birthday,” Pat Greer said. “He took odd jobs, but was pretty big in cattle. He lost virtually everything during the Depression.”
The homestead didn’t get electricity until 1942 or refrigeration until 1952.
“We would butcher five or six hogs,” Pat Greer said, pointing out the smokehouse that is still standing. “We would smoke hams and bacon, then my mother would can the fresh pork. We didn’t waste anything.”
Except for the nine months he lived in Durango while studying at the high school, he has always lived on the homestead where he was born. But Greer spent 33 years as an engineer for the highway department to support his family.
“It’s a hard area to make a living, but a good place to raise kids,” he said, looking across the acreage he knows so well.
‘Sense of community’
“The isolation was so magnified in those past times,” said Lambert, with the San Juan Mountains Association. “It was an all-day trip to Durango to get supplies for most of them.”
But one thing in particular struck Lambert in her research into the early days of La Plata County’s homesteaders, who had to depend on their neighbors in times of need, and their descendants, who still today are quick to help.
“The thing that really came through was the fact that these people have grown up together, gone through school together, tended to marry each other,” she said. “They seem to have grown up with a sense of community and an understanding that’s how you treat people.”