Victims of Circumstance
Smith Family Memories

Robert D. Russell recently came across a cassette tape labeled “Smith Family History” in his mother’s handwriting, she being Frances Smith Russell, born 1918 in Craig, Colorado. On the outside of the tape she also wrote “about 1981” but we don’t think that date is correct for the people recorded on the tape died before 1981. The sound quality is not good but the storytelling and reminiscing are precious. Most of the stories are told by Ernest Smith, Frances’ uncle, with comments by his sister Rosa, Rosa’s daughter Rosie Ellen, and an unidentified woman thought to be Ernest’s lady friend.

Before I relate the stories on the tape a little background will help most readers understand the context. In 1916, William Franklin Smith, his wife, Sarah Frances Buckhanan Smith, and all six of their children pulled up stakes in Oklahoma and headed north and west, by train and wagon, to homestead in undeveloped Moffat County, Colorado. They were encouraged to do so by Robert E. Morris, aka Uncle Bob Morris, a land speculator in Moffat County who was also related to the Smiths, and had lived very near them in Oklahoma. For a detailed account of this family’s big adventure “out west” go to and link to Frances Russell’s Autobiography.

WFSmith FamilyFrom 1916, when they arrived, until the fall of 1924 when the last remnants of the family retreated from Moffat County, the Smith family experienced a broad range of life’s challenges and tragedies - birth, murder, flu epidemic, drought, and deprivation. Ernest Franklin Smith, born April 8, 1902, witnessed it all and lived to reminisce about those years with his older sister Rosa at a small family reunion in Oklahoma sometime prior to September 26, 1980, the date of Ernest’s death. These, then, are some of those memories.


Ernest start out with, "During WWI I worked on a dairy farm for some people we knew back in Oklahoma. They had a girl my age and a boy and girl older than me. Oh, when I was born my mother couldn't nurse me so another woman, family by the name of  (difficult to hear but sounds like Hulse), well she nursed me." One of the women says, "Wet nurse," and Ernest says, “Yes, wet nurse. I thought I was in hog Heaven getting out of Moffat County in, let's see, when did WWI start? Didn't they declare it in 1917 and it was over in about November 1918? Yes, I went there in 1917. Did you know that Jack Dempsey's first wife was the first girl I ever got out on the dance floor?" "Well, I'll be," says one of the women.

Sometime before WWI the Hulse family decided they were going to leave
Oklahoma and move west....they didn't know where they were going but they were going west. They ended up in Utah Valley, Utah Basin, Utah State, (that's the way Ernest describes it) where they bought 100 acres of land with 9 artesian wells on it and a small dairy operation. They moved there with two wagons and two teams of mules and a saddle horse. Rosa says in the background, "Yes, I remember that."

In 1917 the Hulse family came over to White Bear Ranch to visit the Smiths in
Colorado, a distance of about 250 miles. They were driving a brand new 1917 Model T Ford and it took them 3 days to drive it. Back in Oklahoma Frank Smith had borrowed sixty dollars from them so Frank sent (his son) Ernest back to Utah with the Hulse family to work off that debt. He stayed and worked there until Nora died. (Nora was Ernest’s sister-in-law, wife of his brother Tom.) Ernest says his Ma sent word for him to come home because Nora had died and Tom was dying.

Mail TruckOne of the women asks Ernest about the sequence of events when Nora died. He says “We were living in Sunbeam, between Craig and Bare Valley. See, Tom got the mail route from Craig to Sunbeam, a distance of about 45 miles. It took all day to drive it. Now Tom he was always a big shot, he was the manager, and I done all the work.” They laugh. “See, there was a restaurant there, just a plain little building but Ma made sandwiches and there was a room upstairs and that's how it was a hotel, with a room and a restaurant. Old man Carpenter owned the building.” One of the women asks, "So you weren't living in Craig when Nora died?" and Ernest says, “No, we were at Sunbeam and Tom drove out there that day and was awful sick and Ma told him to stay there. One of the woman comments, "I guess Jim took the mail truck, but I don't know."

Rosa says, “It took two of us to take care of Tom, me and Ma, taking turns. Then they came and told Pa that Norie was dead. Pa was there in Craig with Norie, he was staying in Craig with the kids, and I guess Lillie and Floyd were there too. One of the other women says, “Yes, Lillie and Floyd were there.”

Rosa continues, "Now Tom was a little bit better. Bick (Ernest) was down with the flu and Jim was down with the flu but me and Ma were okay. It was my turn to stay with Tom. Ma told me, "Now if Tom asks for a cigarette you must tell him no, and don't you tell him that Norie has died." So Rosa said, sure enough Tom asked me for a cigarette, begged for a cigarette and I kept telling him no. I said, “Tom, a cigarette could kill you.” Then Tom said, “Sister, if you'll just give me one puff or drag I'll give you $20.” I told him I don't want your $20 and if Ma finds out she'll probably kill me and you'll die, but I lit up a Camel and let him have several drags on it

Rosa says, Tom did ask me where Norie was and I said, “Tom, she's not here.” And he asked, "Why is she not here?" and I said, "Tom, she died." Well he wanted to get up and go to Craig but Ma wouldn't let him, not until Pa got back. Rosa says, "Now I don't remember when Pa got back and I don't know how Ma got word to Pa as he was in Craig with all those kids. Norie was at the mortuary.” Ernest says, “Norie was there at the mortuary for ten or twelve days”, and Rosa says, “Yes, she was, and Lillie and Floyd were there.”
Nora and Bertha
There is some conversation about Berthie (Bertha was Nora’s younger sister) coming up to stay and help out. They agree, she helped a lot. Then something is said that I can't hear well enough to understand and one of the women says, "So that's how that started" and another says, “Those were hard times. I think people should know how hard that was for everyone. I think our children need to know about those times and that place and how hard it was.” Ernest says, “There's no way to let them know. They can't know without being there themselves.”

Rosa tells this story....Tom had a pallet and slept upstairs and there was another bed and that's where Berthie slept. I was taking care of Ollie. Grandma had Frances (newborn daughter of Nora and Tom) but Ollie stayed with us and me and Bick and Ollie were in the same bed. We could hear Berthie when she would leave her bed and go to Tom's. One night Ollie was having trouble going to sleep when Bick told him "Be still, Tom is a-dallyin' Berthie." They all laugh long and hard after that comment.

Rosa tells this story...."We were livin' at the Bill Batten house (Weld County) and there was a well. We had five water barrels there by the well and had to fill them every day. That took a long time. One day when Hallie was there with Ada Louise, my two girls, you (Rosie Ellen) and Tiny, we found the three of you in those water barrels, playing like you were taking a bath. You had taken your clothes off and were in those barrels, in our drinking water. I didn't whip you girls. I think that's probably the best bath you ever got out there on the prairie." One of the women comments, "at least they took their clothes off" and they laugh.

Ernest Smith on wagonErnest talks about being back in Moffat County again, about water and the scarcity of it...He says, "We were 90 miles from Craig and there were only four places to get water...Elk Springs, Cross Mountain, Maybell, and Craig. Water was scarce." One of the women asks, "Didn't you live by the river?" Ernest says, "Oh, no," but then Rosa says, "When we lived at Lily Park on the White Bear Ranch we walked three miles to school and then we got in a rowboat and rowed across the river and then on to the school. Ma cooked at that ranch and me, Bick, and Julie went to school there." One of the women asks, "Is that the school that Ola took a picture of?" and Ernest says, "No, that was over in the Valley."

Rosa tells this "We hated wearing that long handle underwear. We tried rolling it up but it bunched up between our legs. So there was a serviceberry bush where we stopped off every day and took off our underwear and left it there on the way to school."

Ernest says, "That school was 12 by 14 and there were 9 kids that went to school there."

Ernest tells this story about R. E. "Uncle Bob" Morris. He says, "You know Uncle Bob was in real estate? Well he and Deed were driving a new Model T Ford on the road between Craig and the River, Deed was driving, and he hit a bump and Uncle Bob fell out. He died not too long after that from his injuries." (Note: Bob Morris’ obituary says he died of the flu.)
RE Morris Family
The conversation is about the years over in
Bare Valley, Cross Mountain, Elk Springs, etc. Ernest says that “Poor Hannah (wife of Uncle Bob Morris) was living with those kids in a tent and every day she'd come over to the little four-room house where we lived to get warm, and of course, to get a bite to eat”....they chuckled about Hannah coming to eat as well as get warm.

Then Ernest tells this story about Bernice Lee, a son of Hannah and Bob Morris. (By the way, he pronounces Bernice to rhyme with furnace.)

He said Bernice could sort of play the French harp (harmonica), and one time he was over in
Sidney Valley (Routt County, CO) haying for the Bartholomew family when 16-yr-old Gladys (later to become Bernice's wife) asked him if he could play the French harp. He said he could. The family owned a French harp so Gladys went in the house and came back with it and handed it to Bernice. He blew on it a few times to sort of tune it up, then he asked Gladys "What would you like me to play?" She asks, "Can you play On the Banks of the Wabash?" Someone there interrupted with, "Bernice might be able to play on the banks of the Wabash but he sure as hell can't play in Sidney Valley!" Lots of laughter about that remark.

Ernest tells about when he and his family were living out in eastern Colorado, 35 miles from Greeley in Weld County. One day he drove his '26 Chevrolet pickup with some kind of a lumber cover over it to Greeley to buy groceries and stopped in Ault for gas. There was a man there working beneath a roaster, a new looking roadster, and Ernest thought the man was drunk. He told Ernest his car broke down, he was broke, and he needed to get somewhere, asking Ernest did he know anybody locally who might want to buy his car. Ernest said, “No, I don' much do you want for it?” The man said, "I'll take $25 for it.” Ernest told the group listening, "Gosh darn, I had $25 so I bought it." He took his groceries home then came back and hooked onto the roadster and towed it home. He looked it over and determined the only thing wrong was the universal joint had gone out and said you could buy those for $1.50. He fixed it and drove that car for three years or so. He said he always kept gas in it and made sure it would start because he knew he was going to have to make that 35-mile trip to the hospital soon to take Hallie to have her baby. Sure enough, late one night (November 10, 1930) Hallie woke him up at 11:00 and said they had to get to the hospital. Vonnie Belle was born at 1 a.m. The women listening to Ernest talk all said, "That's too close!" and he said, “Yes, that was cutting it too close.”

Smith GirlsErnest talks of what took place after Frank Smith and his son Jim were killed in Moffat County on October 5, 1921. One of the women asks "how long did Grandma stay on there?" And after a bit of discussion when everybody is talking over the top of one another it's agreed she was gone before Christmas. Ernest says he took his mother and sister Julie to Palisade, Nebraska where Rosa and Art Fairchild were living, then Art took the three of them to the train. Ernest traveled as far as Denver with his mother and sister. The women went on to Oklahoma, and he stayed in Denver where he worked on the Moffat Tunnel for 6 months or so. Later he met a guy from Chicago and the two of them teamed up and went to Oregon and Washington and got jobs at a cannery in Oregon.

Rosa says, "Tom Smith got took, so he took Art and Bick!" They were all quiet for a moment and then muttered agreement with that. Someone asked how did Tom Smith ever end up in Weld County and another recalled he married Chloe and her family was from there. Lots of "Oh, right, yes, now I remember," and a brief discussion about Chloe's father and brother, last name Callendar. Someone said Weld County was almost as bad as Bare Mountain. Then they talk about how to get to Bick's place from Purcell and about how Rosa lived not far from Purcell also....and they mention the Prairie View School.

Ernest says when he got back from working about 4 months at the cannery he came back to
Weld County. Rosa says, “Yes, me and Art were working corn on the Cox place. Bick had his wagon and me and Art had our wagon. One day we were working the corn, working hard, and I looked over and Bick was a sittin’ on top of his wagon and I said to Art, “Why in the hell are we working so hard and Bick is sitting over there?" So Art yelled over to him and asked "Why aren't you working?" and Ernest said, "I don't want to make a lot of money just to leave it for somebody else." That got some good laughs out of everybody. (Nobody ever made a lot of money picking corn.)

Rosa asks Ernest, "Who was that family we were picking corn for there in Weld County? She was skimpy with the food. So me and Art and Bick hatched a plan to let her know we needed more food at breakfast. In those days the plate was passed around at the table so when the plate of eggs got to Art he took two eggs and passed the plate to Ernest. Ernest took two eggs and passed the plate to me. There was only one egg on that plate so I passed, I didn't take one. There were more people sitting at that table and there weren't enough eggs! The next morning there were more eggs cooked and put out for breakfast.”

The next story is about when Ernest had a horse step on his ankle.
Rosa says, “I don't think you were thrown from the horse,” and he comes back with, “Oh yes, I was, and then the tender (man in charge of the horses) brought the horse around and that's when it stepped on my ankle.” He had a cast put on it, Rosa comments that Art paid for the cast, but it really got to bothering him so Ernest asked Rosa, “Help me put a hole in this cast right about here because it's hurting me something awful.” Rosa says, Art wasn’t home to disagree, so we did. The two of them managed to bore a hole in the cast and they could see boils on his ankle so Rosa got the breast pump and pumped on those boils. Ernest said he couldn’t walk on it for about three years, he rode a horse instead. They laughed at that. He then must have pulled down his sock and showed them the scars for they ooohed and awwwed and Ernest told them that he showed that scarred ankle to a doctor years later and told him, "You'd better never set an ankle like that!" and the doctor said, "That ankle wasn't set, it was bandaged."

This discussion begins with how terrible the blizzard of March 1931 was in Weld County, how whole dairy herds froze where they stood and their hind ends and udders froze. Ernest tells about his own dairy cows whose udders froze but he had to milk them each day anyway and how that's the worst suffering he's ever witnessed. There were more nasty details of suffering and loss and then Ernest said, “But we had plenty of feed for our cows. We had cane and corn and bean plants.” Then Rosa said, “Somehow, even over in Bare Valley, we never suffered from lack of food.” Another woman asks did you have deer over there and Rosa says, “yes, always had wild meat.” Ernest said Tom and Floyd kept them in meat.”

Ernest SmithErnest then tells about how he and Jim had a wagon and they delivered food and supplies to various families in the valley and one day they came across an old guy who said he had some pigs for sale. Ernest said in all the five years they lived in the valley (Ernest left in 1921 so didn’t live there the full eight years Tom did) they had never had any pork. They went and looked at those pigs and bought them from him. Ernest said they weren't poorly, they weighed about 80 pounds a piece. So they took them home but they had no feed for them, so they killed them. “Well,” Rosa says, “this is what Ernest did. The pigs were penned up in one side of the chicken house and Ernest didn't want to waste any bullets on them so he went out there with a hammer. Well, those pigs were running around everywhere but Ernest was able to grab one of them and smacked him real good with a hammer but the pig got loose and then Ernest couldn't tell which one he'd smacked.” Everybody started laughing at that memory.

Still on the subject of what they found to eat over there in the valley in Moffat County, one of the women asks, did you fish? Ernest replies, “Oh, no, never.” He said, “The river was only about 2 miles north of us but it was about 3,000 feet below. There was a trail from top down to the river below but I never rode a horse down it.”

Then he tells about local rancher Charlie Mantle and how he bought a registered bull and was herding it down to the lower land by the river. This was at Pat’s Hole, Ernest remembers. Charlie was on horseback behind the bull and at one point the bull balked, afraid to go any further so Charlie crowded him and the bull reacted and fell about 500 feet until he landed in the top of a pine tree. Ernest says that the bull's skeleton is probably still in that pine tree. “No”, he said, “I never had the nerve to ride a horse down that trail to the river.”

Now, Rosa tells that the family had a Holstein steer....she had to think about that a minute and then decided, that yes, it was a steer. It liked to bunch up with Fray Baker's cattle. So, the Smiths butchered that Holstein and Bick threw the hide up over the wood pile. She mentions that they were not on speaking terms with Fray Baker but can't remember why. In a day or so Fray Baker shows up at the Smith place and wants to know about the hide, whose cow that was, so Bick tells him to climb up there and check it out for yourself. Rosa laughs and so do the others. She repeats, Bick said just climb up there and check that brand out yourself.....(end of story; Bob thinks the key word here is Holstein, that if Fray Baker had climbed up and looked at the hair side of the hide he would have seen it was a Holstein, and they knew that, and were teasing him by challenging him to do that.)

After that story Ernest goes on to talk about Fray Baker, where he lived there in the valley, how he took care of his mother until she died, how he gathered up a bunch of wild horses, worked them, drove them all the way to Craig, packed them with saddlebags of corn, came back to Bare Valley, and made whiskey with the corn. Ernest mentions how Baker had to gather a lot of glass jugs and bottles for his project and then he stored the whiskey for about three years in a cave or inside a hill, and sold it for about $6,000. Rosa mentions that at one time Fray Baker and Frank Smith had a fight, but doesn’t elaborate.

 Ernest starts this next memory with, "Yeah, Tom got the contract and I did the work, hauling the mail, that is. We had a team of horses hitched to a 4x6 wagon bed with two wheels" of the women says "a cart", and Ernest says, "Yeah, a cart, and some of those places we drove you were glad you didn't have anything more to haul up those hills. It was 32 miles to
Cross Mountain. When William was born Tom didn't leave the house for two months (laughter from the women) so I (Ernest) slept in the basement - there was a little post office there- and in the morning I'd load up the mail, 10 or 12 bags of it, and set off to deliver it. Some of those people had to travel five or six miles to get their mail. Then when the bags were empty I'd take them back.

Right about this point in the tape the group talks about recent attempts (in the 1970s) to visit the homestead....that's what they all call it, the homestead. Anyway, Ernest says he got as far as Elk Springs but the folks there at the only restaurant told him it had been so wet and muddy they didn't think he could get to the homestead in his car so he didn't try. The people there talked to him about several of the families he knew, Lindsey was one of the family names mentioned. Rosie Ellen says she wishes she could go there to the homestead and just sit! Ernest asks, "Have you been back there?" She says, “Last year we came up from Provo, Utah to Vernal.” “How far is the homestead from the highway?” she asks Ernest. Ernest replies, "Coming from what direction?" She says, “From Vernal.” He says, about 45 miles. There is some confusion now as he tries to figure out how close she got...he asks, “Were you on highway 40, did you get to Maybell, or Elk Springs,” and she clarifies it by saying, "We didn't get any closer than Vernal, then we took a left and went to Flaming Gorge.” They discuss how the Yampa River meets the Green River and how Vernal is ‘just over the mountain’ from Blue Mountain.

We’re at the end of the tape now and someone says, "Oh that Pioneer Spirit, it was never for me.” Ernest agrees, “No, I never had a pioneer spirit.” Rosa says it all with this comment, "We were victims of circumstance."

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