I live in western Montana and have always been intrigued by old abandoned homes and building that I see all over the state. One of the things that always comes to my mind when I see one of these old homesteads is the thought that someone worked very hard to try to make that place a home. Whoever the owners were, I am sure they had no intention of abandoning the place, but somewhere along the line something had caused their plans and lives to change. Now there it sits, abandoned to the whims of the roaming cattle and the timeless wearing down of the weather.
I love to hear the old stories about the west and the homestead years, and I would like to know the stories behind some of those places and what became of the people that lived there. When were they homesteaded? Who was it that attempted to build a life there? These are some of the questions that I want to ask. Most of the time the stories are lost somewhere through the deaths of the brave homesteaders themselves, but some of the information is still there for the finding. You just have to look hard and ask alot of questions.
I am just learning how to find out more information about some of these homesteads. What I find out is often not the full story, but bits and pieces of the story that have survived through their family tree, an old newspaper article, or census information.
There are two such homesteads near where I live that have been abandoned since the 1950’s and for years I just passed them without much thought to who had lived there before. Recently, however, I was speaking to a ranchers wife who moved out to Montana from Iowa in the 1940’s to marry a rancher named Paul Hahn. She recalled some of what had happened to these two homesteads and that got me to do some digging of my own. This is what I was able to discover.
They both started the same way any homestead begins. With an enterprising young man and the homestead act! One of the intriguing things about these particular homesteads was that they were both inhabited by the families that had originally homesteaded them for almost 50 years, so they weren’t one of those flash in the pan homesteads that I have researched before, like the Ball Homestead in Avon, Montana. These two were eventually joined together into one piece of property, but I am getting ahead of myself here.
Before I launch into the story of these properties, let me tell you briefly how someone “proved up” on a homestead in the first place.
The homestead act of 1862 brought immigrants from all over the world to get a free piece of land in the American West. From Oklahoma to the Canadian border in Montana and North Dakota, there were wide expanses of land for the taking.
To take advantage of this opportunity, any person 21 years old or older could go down to the local land office and file his intent to homestead a piece of ground. They paid a $10 filing fee and a commission to the land agent of $2 and he or she was on the road to owning there own property.
Any person 21 years old or older could go down to the local land office and file his intent to homestead a piece of ground.
It may sound simple, but that was not all they had to do. The main stipulation was that the potential owner had to “prove up” on the property. This meant that they had to do three things.
First they had to build a home. It didn’t matter what size it was, it just had to be a dwelling the homesteaders could live in. In fact many of the homes that were built on these properties were thrown up in a hurry and were very small. Sometimes no bigger than a large camping tent now days. That didn’t seem to matter to the homesteaders though, as some of the homesteads that started with extremely small shacks ended up become very successful ranches.
The next requirement was that they had to live on the property. To prove up on your property you had to actually live there. In some of the houses or shall we say “cabins” that were the original dwellings on these places, that must have been miserable indeed, especially during the brutally cold winters in the north.
To prove up on a homestead, you couldn’t JUST live there either, you had to farm it too. Farming is fine if you were lucky enough to have a flat patch of land in a river bottom, but the Rocky Mountains were not miss named. The extremely rocky ground on some of these properties, makes me wonder at the hard work that it took to farm there. Keep in mind that all of that farming had to be done with horses as your only pulling power.
In my mind it comes down to the fact that if you were a proved up homesteader, you were an extremely hard working and determined individual. To them ownership of that little piece of land was worth the work.
When they had lived and farmed the land for a period of 5 years, they had to get two of your close neighbors to sign off that they had indeed fulfilled the requirements. Then they went back to the land office and paid another $6 dollars and were awarded a patent for their very own little piece of property in the west!
This is exactly how the two homesteads in question were started. By determined couples deciding to do what it took to get their own land.
The Whitehead Place
Andrew Whitehead was born in the same year that the homestead act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. This was right after the secession of the Southern States.
Andrew immigrated, along with his brothers, from Canada in 1890. He and his brothers lived and worked in the area around Winston, Montana for many years. In those days, the mining industry was booming all over in the mountains and work was abundant. One of Andrew’s brothers, Charles, was a wood freighter in the area and actually “proved up” on his own homestead of 277 acres in 1918 about 4 or 5 miles down the creek from his brother.
He was brutally bludgeoned on the head with a chunk of metal in a sock and then robbed!
Charles had a terrible incident befall him in July of 1889. He was brutally bludgeoned on the head with a chunk of metal in a sock and then robbed. The account was printed in the Helena Montana Newspaper of the time which was called “The Helena Independent”. After reading that article, I know why my parents were always so worried about those carnival ride operators when I was a kid.
Andrew Whitehead married Miss Annie Brodick of Canton, Montana (Canton Montana is now under Canyon Ferry Lake) on October 3rd of 1894. Anna as she is called in later United States Census forms was 12 years younger than Andrew.
Exactly when Andrew and his young wife began living on the land he was later to homestead, I was unable to find out, but on the fifth of November in 1908, he had “proved up” on a plot of land next to beautiful Beaver Creek, in a place then called Iron Age, Montana. Because of the 5 years of farming that were required to prove up on a homestead, they must have lived there since at least 1903, which is 110 years ago at the time of this writing.
They had four children, all boys and they named them James, Charles, William and Hugh Whitehead. These four children grew up on the homestead and were friends with the neighboring family, the Geiger’s.
The Geiger Place
William Geiger was born in Pennsylvania in July of 1868. He married Katherine (Katie) Blaisdell, who was born in the Montana Territory in about 1875. They were married in Helena Montana in 1899 and were living in Helena Ward 1, Montana at the time.
It wasn’t until October 1st of 1913 that William Geiger was awarded a land patent on the land adjoining the Whitehead property. Since it was required that a homesteader build a house, improve the land and farm it for 5 years before being awarded the patent, the Geigers had to have been on the land since at least 1908.
William and Katie had only one child, a daughter named Verna. Verna was born on March 2, 1905. I don’t know how many other girls lived in the area, but with all the miners around and the four Whitehead boys living less than a mile away, I wonder if Verna’s father walked around with a loaded shotgun slung across his back. I think I might have.
Two Homesteads Become One
I can just imagine the attention that Verna got from the Whitehead boys and I wonder if there was a bit of jealousy when she chose to give all of her affection to the youngest of the boys and the one closest in age to herself, Hugh Whitehead. Even if she did cause a stir, she married Hugh in 1924. At that time they lived at the Whitehead homestead which they must have purchased from Hughes parents.
Side Note: At the time of the 1940 census, Andrew Whitehead (Hughes father) was renting a house in Helena Montana for $10 a month. Anna Whitehead (Hughes mother) was living with Hugh and Verna on the homestead at Iron Age, Montana. I don’t know why they were separated. Andrew was 80 years old at that time and possibly was living in some kind of retirement home. That is completely speculation, but is one possible explanation.
Sometime between about 1945 and 1950 Hugh and Verna inherited the Geiger homestead and the two neighboring places then became one. Leaving the Geiger home vacant, they lived in the Whitehead house on Beaver Creek. The couple raised beef cattle on the their little ranch and also ran a small dairy. They sold the milk from their dairy to families in Winston, Montana which was just 3 miles down the creek and a major entertainment and supply hub for the miners in the area.
It was not long, however, that they ran into financial trouble and were in a bit of a pickle, owing money to a couple of prominent ranchers in the area. One of the ranches was Arthur Diehl, who had settled in the Winston area well before the turn of that century.
The End of the Whitehead – Geiger Legacy
In 1955, Paul and Dorothy Hahn were driven from their picturesque ranch on the banks of the Missouri river to make way for the new Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Because of this, Paul needed land for his cattle and purchased the Whitehead and Geiger place, paying off their debts to the local ranchers.
This was the end of the Whitehead – Geiger ownership of the land. Today the Hahn Ranch in Townsend, MT still owns the property and grazes cattle on it in the summer and fall. It is a picturesque area and with wonderful grass. Beaver Creek runs through the property past the old Whitehead buildings and there is a spring coming out of the ground next to the Geiger house.
Many of the buildings still stand, though they were abandoned more than 60 years ago. They stand in the grass and whisper of a different time. I am sure there are so many stories about the people that enjoyed those two places that now are lost in time forever, but at least we now know a little about the two homesteads that were joined together by marriage.
It was over 100 years ago that the Whiteheads and Geigers “proved up” on their homesteads. The weathered remains of the buildings where these old west pioneers lived and raised their families are all that is left to tell the story of their life in the west.