GILLETTE — Many of us travel rural roads in Campbell County wondering how wide open the countryside must have been before homesteaders began to arrive in large numbers from 1919-30.
Vera Brown doesn’t have to imagine. She lived through it.
The Recluse resident celebrated her 105th birthday Monday, even as the community party her family planned for the longest-tenured Campbell County resident had to be canceled because of coronavirus restrictions.
But it is quite an achievement for the homesteader whose family arrived a year after her father filed on the land near Elk Creek, about 45 miles north of Gillette.
It was 1925 and Brown, her mother, and younger brother made the journey from California to Gillette by passenger train. She was 10 years old at the time.
“It took us about five days to come out,” Brown said. “It seemed like the train was awful slow.”
They’d get off the train at stops when they could, sometimes for as much as 10 minutes, she said. The train stopped a lot, with post offices located every 10 to 20 miles along the route.
Unlike today, there were no fences or gates between homesteads. But like today, there always seemed to be mud and wind. It was something you had to contend with every year, nearly every season.
“There were a lot of homesteads that just had small pastures,” Brown recalled. “You could go across the river (Little Powder) and there were no fences. You could go for miles around here and never open a gate.”
Brown recalled that when she turned 100. She still has those memories at 105, a life marked by good health, humor and determination to do what has to be done.
“The wind was blowing so hard,” the spry, feisty pioneer recalled five years ago of her arrival in Gillette. “The wind was blowing dirt, all the dirt by the railroad tracks.”
Like many who traveled to Wyoming to homestead, her family may have felt like they had landed in the middle of nowhere.
“It was different,” Brown said of the town of more than 5,000 at the time. “There was a wooden sidewalk and only one block had pavement. ... (And) it was always blowing.”
But there were no thoughts of leaving, either.
Her father came to Wyoming in search of a home and a steady job. He was a painter and paperhanger by trade.
Fred Davis, father of former Gillette mayor Cliff Davis, knew of some land in Campbell County still available to homesteaders. He was a friend of Vera’s father, Louis A. “Pop” Stephenson, and encouraged them to come to Wyoming.
Pop ended up working in town on weekdays and returning to the homestead on weekends. It was 4-5 miles to their mailbox and mail was delivered once a week. Brown said she and her brother had to walk to get the mail — sometimes they were lucky enough to ride a horse.
Each day she had to take the wagon the same distance to Elk Creek, where she had to load four to five barrels of water for their use at home. Things got even tougher in 1930 when her mother and 4-year-old niece were killed and their home burned to the ground. It was ignited by powder used in cartridges to reach coal in their underground mine 200 to 300 feet from their home.
She was 15 and her brother was three years younger. She knew she had to stay on to help raise him.
“We walked everywhere,” Brown recalled.
But that was probably a good thing. The roads were often a mess.
They rode to town about twice a year to buy groceries and goods they needed for the next year. The roads, including what later became Highway 14-16, were little more than rough, muddy, two-lane paths.
It was a hard-working life and Brown developed into an independent woman who married an Elk Creek country school classmate, Donald L. Brown Sr., in 1938.
The Stephensons, though, never left, even in the difficult years of the Great Depression that forced many homesteaders to sell their cattle and land.
“They never got far,” Brown said of her family. “They liked it here and they just wanted to do things for themselves. Dad was real good at his job. He even did some painting on the high school.”
She was of the same stock, even when she began raising her own family at the age of 23.
Brown passed that ethic to her own children and it’s been taught for more generations of the family.
She is the matriarch of five generations. Among them is her 15-year-old great-grandson Joby Coates, born 90 years to the day Brown was.
At 105, Brown is still determined to live life her way. She walks from her home each day to share meals with her youngest son and his family in their home next door, and she still takes care of three cats and a dog.
She buys her groceries at Walmart — or at least she did before the coronavirus kept her at home — refusing to use one of its scooters. She said she prefers to walk “on my own two feet.”
And this coronavirus pandemic? Well, she’s survived plenty of other times of sickness, including the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 when she was a small child.
“I’m feeling good,” Brown said.
She recalls having to stay in bed, isolated from her family and not allowed to go to school for what seemed like weeks and weeks about other times when sickness was spreading.
“I’ve never had to take a lot of medicines. I was only real sick a couple of times,” Brown said, adding that, “We didn’t go to the doctor every time we sneezed.”
Her mother gave her a recipe for a chest rub for colds. It’s a remedy the family still uses.
“I’m still getting along pretty good,” Vera said, adding that she hasn’t done anything special to become Campbell County’s longest tenured resident. It’s a question many people still ask her.
“There’s no special reason,” she said, “just history, I guess.”