The Ekalaka Eagle - Your Community Builder




courtesy photo

FIGURE 1: Joe & Ada Curry at their Box Elder homestead after the horrific March, 1920 blizzard. Note that Joe has a shovel in his right hand.

by Sherry Farwell, Ned Summers & Marguerite Goeders Rozelle


CURRY: Joe Curry was born in Missouri in 1874 and his father (Robert) died in 1878 from lingering wounds received during the Civil War. An attractive lass named Ada Short caught Joe's eye and they were married in 1899. Joe got tired of working in coal mines for minimal pay at various locations in Missouri. After communicating with their Harrington family friends that had moved to Montana, Joe decided to head west, establish a homestead, and then send for his family. He joined the Will Keltner family (Mrs. Keltner was Joe's sister) as they traveled to Belle Fourche and then to southeastern Montana. Joe and the Keltner's filed adjacent homestead applications on open land along Box Elder Creek in 1908 and built two shacks on the land claims. Ada with three small children (Leta, Eula, & LaEuna) then took the train from Missouri to Whitewood, SD where Joe met them in June for the long wagon ride to their new home. Joe's brother, James and his family, came west in 1910 and filed a homestead application on a 160-acre place directly east of Joe's claim. However, James and his family quickly changed their minds about this experiment and departed for Alabama. Another of Joe Curry's sisters and her husband, John Hepburn, came from Missouri and filed a homestead claim on land north of Joe Curry's place. The Hepburn's left in 1924 and returned to Missouri. In 1915, the Keltner family sold their original homestead adjacent to Joe Curry's, but a short time later purchased the McElfresh place several miles south on Box Elder. Joe and Ada expanded their family with the births of Claudia in 1901 (married Lee Phelps), Robert in 1911 (killed in WW II), Ralph in 1913 (married Marjorie Keith), Joie in 1916 (married Marie Heim), and James in 1919 (married Clarice Overn). Fortunately, Joe and Ada had constructed a new 6-room house in 1915 so they had space for their growing family. The photograph in Figure 1 shows Joe and Ada standing in front of a "white building" after the blizzard of March 15, 1920. In 1924, Joe and Ada moved to the Will Keltner place where they spent the rest of their lives ranching and farming. One of their older daughters, Leta married Ernest Taylor and they lived about 70 years on the original Joe Curry homestead. After marriage, Joie, Ralph and Jimmy operated their own ranches along Box Elder. Joie and Ralph formed a partnership and then purchased the former Harrison & George Sykes ranch in 1945. They subsequently dissolved the partnership and Joie and Marie purchased the Herbert Beskins place to the north in 1946. Joie and Marie raised their family of Carole, Jim, Wayne, Candy, Colleen, Jerome (Bobo), LaEuna (Dunie), April and Erwin on their Box Elder sheep & cattle ranch. Ralph and Marjorie stayed on the former Harrison & George Sykes place and raised their family of Marla, Margie and Kim on their cattle ranch. James returned from military service in 1946, married Clarice and their Box Elder-raised family consists of Darrel, Robert, Richard, Tom, Joseph, Clarice and Christina.

TAYLOR: Edwin T. Taylor, his son Edwin A. and two daughters filed four homestead claims in 1916 on the west side of Box Elder Creek. In 1917, Edwin T., his wife, Myrtle, and their 14 children moved from Iowa to the claim sites. Their fourth oldest child, Ernest, was drafted into the service in 1918 and returned to the new homesteads after being discharged in 1919. All the family except Edwin A. and Ernest returned to Iowa in 1920. Edwin A, was a teacher and married another educator, Mary Wiseman in 1925. They purchased the John Hepburn homestead in 1926 and lived on this cattle ranch for nineteen years. (In later years, the Bill Mader family bought this place from the Edwin A. Taylor estate.) Edwin A. and Mary had six children: Emma Lea, Doris, Wayne, Reva, Ivyl, and Carl. In 1945, Edwin A. leased their ranch to John Brindly and moved his family to Missoula so the children would have access to a university. Ernest married Leta Curry and they lived on her father's homestead, but their ranch also included the other Taylor homesteads. Their marriage was blessed with five children: Keith (married Darlene Hoyer), Vincent (single), Phyliss (married Ron Purdum), Selma (married Warren Johns), and Marieta (married Gene Holter). Fortunately for the three authors of this Sykes-Belltower historical summary, Ernest compiled some essential history of his community and family. As he notes in Shifting Scenes, Vol. II, p 854, the weather and financial depression during the mid-1930's left him broke and he was fortunate to find employment with the WPA, which was the only thing that allowed the family to survive. Similar stories from other area families mark the tragic and haunting times experienced by most area families during the "dirty & busted thirties". The Ernest Taylor family on Box Elder did survive, Ernest and Leta lived on their place until health issues finally caused them to move to Ekalaka. Shown in Figure 2 is the iconic cable foot bridge that spanned Box Elder at the Ernie Taylor ranch. Their son, Vince, purchased his parent's ranch in 1975 and continued to operate it until his death in 1994. Prior to Vince's passing, his sister Phyllis spent the summer of 1993 with him on the place where they were raised. She said this was a very special time, which is easily understood by those of us who departed a ranch home to pursue other dreams, but never left in spirit. Although this ranch is now under different ownership, it is still often called the Taylor Place.

COONS: Fred and Lena Coons with their young daughter, Mildred, arrived on Box Elder Creek in 1911 and settled on the 160-acre homestead they had purchased in 1910. They lived in a 12' x 30' tarpaper shack and carried water from Box Elder. During their initial years on Box Elder, Fred mainly worked for others while Lena was responsible for taking care of their land, garden, crops and livestock. A few years later, Fred and Lena filed their own homestead claim on another 160 acres. Their place may have been the first one in the county to have a planted shelter belt for livestock. The Coons family then grew with the addition of Sylvia, Harvey, Edward and Chester. A two-story house with a rainwater cistern was built to replace the shack and accommodate the growing family. Mildred Coons Lavell's memoir contains the following humorous story. "Lena saved all the newspapers and magazines and used them to line the inside of the house to keep out the wind. One day Fred found Lena standing on the table with her head looking upward. He asked her what she was doing. Oh, I am reading. I forgot to read the last installment of an interesting story in the Comfort Magazine and here it is, but upside down!" Relatives of Lena and Fred (the Morgan, Thomas, Chatterbuck, Way, & Shane families) also came to the Box Elder area and either filed claims or bought existing places relatively close to Fred and Lena. These relatives always stayed for a while on the Coon's place and enjoyed the hardy meals prepared by Lena. Fred was well known in the community for his poems, songs, stories and willingness to help neighbors. Lena accomplished her wide range of tasks despite poor eyesight that finally resulted in complete blindness prior to her death. However, Lena's eye problems did not prevent her from becoming the neighborhood's midwife that delivered at least twenty babies. In later years, Mildred married Lee Lavell and three of their children (Dorothy, Bill, Martha) were babies delivered by Lena in the Coon's house. Yes, this is the same Bill Lavell that contributes articles to the Eagle! Sylvia married Joe Christianson and Edward married Edna Thomas. When Edward died from cancer, Edna sold their place to Ernest Taylor and moved to Baker. Harvey and Chester were members of the military during WW II. After the war, Harvey married Ita Peabody and Chester married Beverly Chenoweth. Fred and Lena helped them get started by adding some extra land for their two son's sheep businesses. The Harvey and Chester Coons' families were important contributing members of the Sykes-Belltower and Ekalaka communities during the ensuing years.

GROSS: David Gross Sr. married Rosena Weigel and they had four children (John, Mike, Lille, and Joseph) who were all born in Newton, Iowa. Rosena Weigel had two children (George & Jesse Weigel) prior to her marriage to David. In 1910, the Gross/Weigel family moved from Iowa to Nebraska and then to a homestead claim west of Belltower Rock. When the four Gross kids became adults, they also established homesteads in the Sykes-Belltower region. John Gross married Edith Gillette and they lived on a homestead near the Joe Shuffield place and the headwaters of Devils Creek on the western edge of the Long Pines. In 1917 they purchased their first Model T car and in 1924 they bought their first radio, a threshing machine and an iron-wheeled tractor. John and Edith had two kids, Elizabeth and George. After becoming adults, Elizabeth married Chet Hamilton of Elgin in 1938 and George married Virginia Fowler in 1940. Upon the death of John and Edith in the 1960's, George and Virginia continued to live on the homestead until it was sold to Dave and Vonnie (Allan) Gross. Dave and Vonnie along with their children (Steve, Shelly & Casey) then moved their ranch headquarters from the homestead place near Belltower Rock to a location north of the Sherrill Farwell ranch. Dave's parents were Mike and Mary (Etta) Wickham Gross who lived on the original David and Rosena homesteads west of Belltower Rock. In addition to Dave, Mike and Etta had five other children: Milton, Francis, Mikie, Rosena, & Dorene. Dave and Dorene are the two with longer term connections to the Sykes-Belltower and Ekalaka communities. Dorene married Dave Mrnak, who was raised on a ranch along Box Elder in the Elgin area. Dorene and Dave Mrnak subsequently worked and lived in Minnesota for many years before returning to Ekalaka. Dave and Vonnie operated a ranch in the Sykes-Belltower area until the family moved to Ekalaka and then to Gillette, WY. Dave Gross was a unique, humorous character and he enjoyed his life and family until his death in 2017. Lilly Gross, the only daughter of David Sr. and Rosena, married William Smith. After Willian passed away, Lilly married Dewain Hulsizer and they lived in Idaho. The other son of David Sr. and Rosena, Joseph Sr., married Grace Naugle in 1915. They had six kids: Joseph Jr., Ellsworth, Kenyon, Eva, Gladys, and Isabelle. Joseph Sr. and Grace lived with their children in the Arp community south of Sykes-Belltower. Ben E. Gross, the son of David Gross from a previous marriage, also established a homestead in the vicinity of his father's claim. Ben's wife was Milinda and they did a combination of farming and ranching. In 1917, they started the Gross Belltower Store as a business venture.

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FIGURE 2: An early "Walk-the-Planks" foot bridge over Box Elder Creek near the Ernest Taylor and Fred Coons Ranches.

OTHER PROMINENT HOMESTEADERS: It would be remiss to not at least mention the names of certain other early settlers that impacted the development of Sykes-Belltower. John Lenihan obtained homestead patents in 1915-23 for claims in the Devils Creek area on which he had a cattle ranch. The John Neece family purchased the Lenihan place in 1944. During 1914-16 the Lewis Leigh family homesteaded some relatively level property north of the George H. Farwell ranch. Herman and Lucmilla Christiansen bought the Leigh property in 1928. (The Christiansen/Berry/Roadifer family history is presented in Volume 4 of Shifting Scenes.) Fred and Belle Wasnuk purchased the Christiansen place in 1954 and the Wasnuk family (including Parnell, Flora Belle, Marcia, Gary) lived there during the 1960's. The Horace & Lela Hardy family received homestead patents during 1917-20 for property located near the present Sykes Bridge over Box Elder Creek. Their homesteads contained the site of the original Sykes Post Office & Store on the east side of the creek and the later ranch houses of the Homer Harrington, Sam Rutledge, Dick Hartgrove, Cliff Glade, Ray Gentry, and Don Wolf families on the northwest side of the creek. The homesteads patents just to the west and north of the Hardy place were owned by Nathan & Eva Witham, who arrived here in 1915. One of their sons was Amos Witham, who married Nellie Pearl Lane. Nellie's grandfather, John D. Lane, was a member of Colonel Walker's Central Division of the Powder River Indian Expedition that traveled through Carter County in 1865. Emil & Anna Brice had homestead patents to the strips of land along present HWY 323 where the other Belltower Post Office & Store was located in later years. The Brices arrived on this claim in 1914 and used a portion of their home for the initial Brice dry goods store. Additional information about the different community stores and post offices will be included in Part III of this historical narrative. To respect the sovereignty of neighboring communities like Elgin, Ridgeway, Arp, Tie Creek, etc., certain prominent regional settlers were excluded from this targeted summary of Sykes-Belltower. We sincerely hope that other authors will capture and preserve the important history of these distinct communities and their people.

... to be continued


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