Following the footsteps of the hearty homesteaders

Hannah Gross, NLJ Correspondent

Photo by Hannah Gross/NLJ

Tour participants of the Weston County Historical Society’s Fall 2022 Trek stopped by the old Darlington School on Lynch Road outside of Newcastle. Children of the early Weston County homesteaders who attended these centrally located schoolhouses often had to walk or ride horseback, according to Latal Fisher in “Early Day Memories.” Although the Darlington School has long been abandoned, the remains of a stove and chalkboard can still be seen through the windows.


The homesteaders who poured their hearts and souls into creating a legacy is being preserved in Weston County by the ranchers who continue to work from sunup to sundown on the land passed down to them by their ancestors, and that legacy was on display for those fortunate enough to participate in a historic tour of those ranches.

Forty-three people boarded a school bus at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 24 to travel through history along the middle section of the Cheyenne River to tour a bevy of historic homesteads on the Fall 2022 Trek, organized by the Weston County Historical Society. 

The tour began at the Texas Trail historical marker on State Highway 450 and ended with the AU7 ranch, with several stops in between. Guest speakers joined the tour to share their research, which included family stories of the homesteads that characterize the cowboy way of life and the heart of  the people who founded the Weston County area.

“By doing this kind of history or having ‘indoor sit-down presentations or personal interviews with people,’ we document the history of our county, our state, and our friends/family that have preceded us. If we don’t document it, there is a good chance that it will be lost forever,” said Mike Jording, historical society president.

According to a booklet compiled by the society for tour participants, the Cheyenne River is “295 miles long and drains about 24,250 square miles, 40% of that in Wyoming.” Many families braved the elements of the Wild West, with all of the accompanying hardships, and this river is what “tied them together.” 

An excerpt from “Early Day Memories” by Latal Fisher, who homesteaded in the Hampshire, Wyoming, area states that the government gave each person 320 acres. The land had to be fenced, a house had to be built, and at least 40 acres had to be plowed. The homesteader had to reside on the land at least six months of every year for a period of three years to obtain ownership. 

“Later the government allowed another 320 acres — that was called the additional,” Fisher says in his book. “At that time the government allowed all oil and mineral rights to go with the original 320 acres but reserved the rights on the additional.” 

Jording said about 6% (in some places, as high as 13%) of Wyoming homesteaders were single women. Crook County claims the largest percentage of these notable females.

Jording kicked off the tour by presenting his research on the Texas Trail, which was used to migrate large herds of cattle from Texas to Wyoming, Montana and Canada in the 1860s. He explained that in addition to cattle, the Texas Trail also migrated cultures to Wyoming that still influence the present ranching lifestyle. 

For example, words like “dogie,” “pen” and “cowboy” were derived from the Carolinian/Jamaican influence. The Texas culture also brought in ranching practices, including castration, twice-a-year roundups and brandings.

Rural schools played an important role in the development of Weston County, so the tour group stopped at the old Darlington School building, which can be seen on Lynch Road. Other schools that once occupied the area include the Seven Mile School in Niobrara County and the Sherwin and Dixon schools in Weston County. 

Virginia Bruce Reimer, mother of local retired doctor Lanny Reimer, was one of these early schoolteachers. According to “Weston County Wyoming — the First 100 Years,” Reimer taught six hours a day and “had to be janitor, bus driver, nurse, office girl and playground supervisor.” Her monthly wages averaged $65-$70.

Another prominent teacher, Lucinda Sackett, only had an eighth grade education but “was an excellent teacher” at the Dixon School, according to “Early Day Memories.” 

Gideon Dixon, who attended the Dixon school for eight years, remembers traveling up to the Darlington School to have picnics on Black Thunder. He said they would gather ice from the Black Thunder Creek in burlap sacks to make homemade ice cream. 

Nearby the Darlington School is the Bruce Olney gravesite, which is marked by a small, fenced-in wooden cross. Not much was known about Olney, but a few months ago, Lucas Keeler decided to turn his curiosity into a research project. 

“I think it’s incredibly important that we don’t lose history and that Mr. Olney’s grave is just not a little fenced spot along the Lynch Road in the middle of nowhere, essentially, that nobody knows about,” Keeler said. 

Olney was born in 1883 in Minneapolis, Kansas, to Catherine and Corydon Olney, who was a Civil War lieutenant. Olney worked as a clerk in the first grocery store chain in Kansas City, known as White Brothers Grocery.

Although Corydon had died, the Olney family came to Wyoming in 1921 to homestead over 2,000 acres. In January 1929, Bruce and his brother Roy sold their homesteads to Len Sherwin, who also owned the nearby 4W ranch, which was the next stop of the tour. 

According to the historical society booklet, Sherwin purchased the 4W ranch in 1923. This ranch was founded by Cheyenne businessman J.W. Hammond in 1878. The ranch is still in the Sherwin family today because it is operated by Sherwin’s granddaughter Jean Harshbarger and her husband, Bob, who provided a background on the ranch for the bus group. 

Coming all the way from Lander, Gary Wolfe was the next guest speaker of the tour for his knowledge on the “sandstone home” once occupied by the Pettit and Wolfe families, of whom he is a descendant. 

“I remember my dad and my uncles always talking about the homesteads, and our crazy grandad that lived here and had a few quirks here and there. I remember, as far back as I can, asking my dad to take me to the homestead, so I can see all this stuff,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe’s great-grandparents, Abraham and Rebecca Pettit, homesteaded near the Wolfe family homestead, which their only daughter Fannie married into in 1915. 

She married Charles Wolfe, originally a wheat producer from Kansas. However, he was a heavy gambler and lost his money, which eventually led their family to the Cheyenne River around 1925. Interestingly, watermelons were the first cash crop of the Wolfe family homestead. 

Abraham Pettit decided to join their westward journey after he was ostracized by his family, and according to the historical society booklet, he later lived for about five years in a small, hollowed-out cave, which became known as the “Wolfe Den.” 

Gary said Pettit was the one who enlarged the cave, so although the den was “Wolfe family affiliated,” it wasn’t necessarily Wolfe “family structured” and is more accurately the “Pettit Cave.” 

The tour group took a lunch break at the Slagle Ranch, which was formerly the Dixon homestead, as Gideon Dixon provided what he knew about his family’s history.

The day ended at the AU7 ranch, where Bob Stoddard gave a brief presentation on the ranch that was established in 1880 and which he bought in 1989. The historical society booklet said AU7 hosted many guests because Bessie Carlson, wife of Charles Carlson (part owner of the sheep business at AU7), was “company-minded.” 

Stoddard said the book “Pulling Leather,” by blacksmith Reuben Mullins, is a good source on the history of AU7.

The tour came to an end in the late afternoon, and history had come alive at each of these sites that once belonged to the homesteaders who founded the Weston County area. 

“It is important for us to remember the sacrifices and hardships people lived with to have a ‘better life.’ The stories of their hardships may not sound ‘better’ to us, but for them, it was. Life’s struggles have led many people to begin new lives in Wyoming and Weston County,” Jording said. “It happened 150 years ago, and it happens today. We are part of an independent lot of people who appreciate those traits of people before us.”

News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
14 W. Main St.
P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
Fax: (307) 746-2660

Email Us