Tom Ross: Early homesteaders were Yampa Valley's 1st locavores

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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— It comes as no surprise that the earliest locavores in the Yampa Valley were the pioneers who filed for a 160-acre homestead and paid the federal government $1.25 per acre.

If those folks didn’t eat locally produced food, they didn’t eat. But you might be surprised at the lengths they sometimes went to in order to survive on the food they either raised, grew or hunted.

Take eggs for example. Diane Holly, a member of the board of the Community Agriculture Alliance, told an audience at the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday that her grandparents, Albert and Minnie Hitchens, kept laying hens and relied on their eggs not only for food but a steady trickle of cash. That modest cash flow helped them to go to the store in MacGregor (the now defunct town that was just west of present day Milner) to trade a case of eggs for some of those staples they couldn’t produce themselves.

The Hitchens’ flock of hens stopped laying eggs every winter and in addition to missing the cash flow, the family resorted to some unusual means of keeping some eggs fresh enough to eat throughout the winter.

“Because my grandfather had a a lot of pigs, he kept a big barrel of lard from the pigs and they used to push eggs down into the lard to keep them fresh,” Holly said.

Marsha Daughenbaugh, director of the Community Agriculture Alliance, said other pioneers would store eggs in cold water, changing the water frequently, but that probably didn’t keep the eggs as fresh for as long as the lard method.

“I think our ancestors probably ate some marginal food,” Daughenbaugh said.

The occasion for this week’s talk at the Tread of Pioneers was National Ag Week. It was billed by the slogan: Naked and Hungry: Where would you be without agriculture?

Agriculture is a passion for both women. Daughenbaugh grew up on a ranch in the Elk River Valley and among her fondest memories are the days when ranchers from that area came together to drive cattle down the county road to the rail yards in Steamboat Springs. The last of those drives was in about 1970. After that, there was too much traffic on the road to make the cattle drives practical, but Daughenbaugh still recalls the camaraderie.

“I learned so much from those folks about their true love of the land and their lifestyle,” she said.

One of the toughest facts of life for Routt County’s earliest homesteaders, Daughenbaugh said, was that in this climate, 160 acres wasn’t enough to support a family.

The families that endured here typically purchase the abandoned homesteads of those who sometimes did not make it beyond a year or two.

Holly provided a glimpse of that reality, speaking in the voice of a Routt County pioneer, Doc Utterback: “People came from all over, but a lot gave up because of weather and soil. We bought out their homesteads. Mother worked like the dickens. She milked cows and kept a large garden with taters, cabbages, rutabagas, beets and peas. There was no running down to the store and buying it out of a carton or a tin can.”

Holly’s great-grandparents, James and Emma Hitchens, emigrated to the United States from England in the 19th century.

James came first in 1874 and worked in the gold and silver mines in Central City until he could stake his claim east of present-day Milner. James Hitchens then returned to England, married Emma, had a child and returned to the U.S. in 1886 to work in a mine in Pennsylvania. After years of hardship, the young family finally came west to the Yampa Valley and obtained a patent on their land in 1889 — the document bears the signature of President William McKinley.

James spent the first winter working in the coal mine at MacGregor, using what hours of daylight he could find to hand dig the families' water well 6 feet at a time. When a pipe finally was run from the well to the house, it marked the first time they didn’t have to travel a mile in each direction to the Yampa River to get water.

A great deal has changed since then, and only a few ranchers continue to drive their cattle down county roads in the spring.

“Trailing cattle down the roads is almost a thing of the past because of all the cars and bicycles,” Daughenbaugh said. “Cattle don’t seem to understand bicycles at all. Most people are trucking their cattle now. If you ever see a cattle drive, take a photo, because it’s going to be a thing of the past. But don’t get out to take the picture.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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