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One Homesteader's Experience

Heritage of the High Country
A History of Del Bonita and Surrounding Districts,
Pages 49 -51
by Cecil Helgeson

I remember a trip to Cut Bank, Montana with my father, Thomas Helgeson, when I was quite young. The wagon was loaded with eighty bushels of wheat. It was pulled by two horses for wheelers and unknowingly, two of the balkiest mules anybody had the privilege of driving for leaders. The mules were borrowed from a neighbor, Roland Swallow of Del Bonita. Hay packed in wool sacks and gunny sacks full of oats were taken for feed. The first mistake was putting these sacks of feed on the back of the load with two mules tied on behind. Not realizing mules have such long necks and reach, we had no oats or sacks on the load at the end of the first quarter mile. We had to go back and sack up some more oats.

A real steep hill a quarter of a mile from home was the reason for not using the leaders till we got downhill. We had to rough lock the wagon, which means taking a log chain and chaining one back wheel so it can't turn, to hold the load back going down steep hills. Our first trouble was crossing a small coulee. The wagon rolled back after we crossed a ditch at the bottom of a coulee. This jerked the mules and we found out what kind of leaders we had, two balky mules that wouldn't tighten a tug. If anybody had been there they would have seen one mad Norwegian. After saying a few blessings to those mules Dad told me to watch the outfit and he would go to Einar Byttet's and get a team of horses. Einar lived about two miles from our farm. After taking the borrowed team back we got on our way again, but not too far.

About six miles farther on was a place we called the Fisher place, where A. 0. Fisher lived at that time. A short distance from this place was a creek fed by springs and runoff water. There were two layers of ice on it. The wagon wheels broke through the first layer. The mules decided this was as good a time as any for a rest, so refused to tighten a tug again. The same story "watch the outfit, I have to go get a team of horses from Mr. Fisher. " The mules were replaced with Fisher's team, but he insisted on driving his own horses. With two drivers it's pretty hard to get all four horses pulling together. Two tries and Mr. Fisher unhooked his team and started to leave. Dad asked where he was going. He said, "Home, I don't make my horses balky for no man. " Dad was a pretty disgusted Norwegian. He had to chop all the ice across that creek before the horses could pull the wagon over. The mules, hooked back on the lead, seemed real satisfied; away we went. That night we made it to John Tangen's place, ten miles from home. We were really making time!

The next day after leaving about 7 A.M. we made it to the south fork of the Milk River. The river ice was breaking up as this was early spring and the ice was melting. The ice wouldn't hold up an eighty bushel load of wheat, so we were stymied again. Milford O'Bray, from Twin River, came from Cut Bank with a light buggy and driving team. He crossed the river to our side, but said we'd never make it across with a load of grain. My father said, "Be damned if I am turning back after spending two days to get here. " Milford told us to make camp as he couldn't help us that day, but would come back early next morning to help us cross. Henry Walburger, who lived on Thorpe Ranch to the south, rode up to the river on the other side. He hollered over and asked where we were headed. My father said, "To Cut Bank with a load of wheat. " Henry said, "I think you have reached the end of the line. You will never make it across this river with that load." My father said, "I'm bringing the load over if I got to carry it over in buckets." Henry said, "if that's the case I'll help you." We took our blankets across and spread them out on the other side of the river. We carried that load of wheat over in buckets and piled it on the blankets. Henry then took his saddle horse and lariat and pulled the wagon out on the ice, where the ice was still joined to the shore. When he got to the middle of the river he had to pull the wagon down river a ways to where the ice was joined to the bank again and got it across. Dad led the horses and mules over one at a time so they wouldn't break through. We then hitched horses and mules to the wagon and loaded the grain, bucket by bucket. We made it to Henry's place that night, two days after we had left home. After leaving in the morning of the third day we arrived at an abandoned farm commonly known in those days as the windmill farm. Most people from our area stayed there whenever they were too late to get to the elevator to get unloaded. The windmill still worked and the well had lots of water for our horses. After getting situated in the house we decided to look for something to eat as we were pretty hungry. Dad found some beans in the cupboard so we started to boil them. After about two hours those beans were just as hard as they were to start with, so we ate them anyway and went to bed.

The fourth day we made it to the elevator, unloaded the grain and went to town to do our shopping for groceries and things our neighbors had ordered, which was always the case when anybody went to town. We started for home and as it got so late we didn't get any farther than back to the old windmill farm, but this time we had plenty to eat. That was the end of the fourth day.

The fifth day we made it back to Henry Walburger's at the Thorpe ranch, and stayed overnight. Next morning Henry said, "You know that river is a lot worse now than when you crossed before so I better go with you and see if you make it across." When we got to the river my dad said he would try it with four head hooked on the wagon. This was in case the wagon broke through, then one team couldn't pull it. About twenty feet out horses and mules broke through the first layer of ice as the river had flooded early that spring and frozen again, thus forming two layers of ice. When we were in about two feet of water and ice, one of our horses broke through the second layer of ice and couldn't get up.

Henry rode out and got the halter rope snubbed onto his saddle horn and pulled the horse back up on his feet. We finally made it across with everything in one piece. We arrived back home that night really late, safe and sound. What a trip.

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Mary Tollestrup