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Published March 15, 2010, 08:14 AM

Historical perspective

TOWNER, N.D. — When things look bad, a lot of us have been raised to remember the old adage, “well, it could be worse.”

By: Ryan Taylor, Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — When things look bad, a lot of us have been raised to remember the old adage, “well, it could be worse.”

There’s some twisted sense of comfort that comes from that upside down reminder of how good we have it.

I’ve been working on our ranch history for some time. Looking at the photo of my great-grandparents’ tiny homestead shack with none of today’s conveniences or technologies to battle the loneliness of a long winter, it makes me thankful for all we have.

The first homestead filed by my family on the ranch was in 1903, so the ranch is 107 years old this year. They weren’t all easy years.

Another old saying you hear: “The West was hell on horses and women.” I tend to think that the horses maybe had it better than the women.

My great-grandmother left a pretty nice house in lush, green, settled Indiana to come with her family to a homestead shack on the semi-arid and desolate sandhills of north-central North Dakota. Family lore says she cried for a month straight. I don’t doubt it a bit.

She had five children. She’d lost a set of twins at birth and a boy as an infant and brought her two living sons with her and her husband to become Dakota horse and cattle ranchers.

They survived alright, put together some land and livestock, and began building up their ranch. Then in November 1921, her youngest son, just 20 years old, was hit by a grown steer when working cattle and died of the internal injuries 17 days later. He was the baby boy, the apple of their eye, a talented guy who could teach country school, play piano and cowboy.

Just a few months later, her husband died at 61 years of age from a rupture and blood poisoning. Her older son had married a local country school teacher, and he worked hard to fill the void on the ranch with his father and brother gone.

That next winter, he went to visit a neighbor whose wife had just given birth. The home had smallpox in it, and he was unvaccinated. He got smallpox and died in February at the age of 32. His two sons were 1 and 3 years old, and his wife was six months pregnant with a girl who would be born in May.

The West was sure proving hellacious for at least two women, my grandmother and great-grandmother. But they didn’t give up, sell the place and move back east. They kept the land and kept some cattle to run with a neighbor. And, although they moved into town with those three small children, the ranch still was intact when my father moved back out at the age of 18.

My family is pretty similar to my grandmother’s. They had two boys then a girl in four years time. We had two boys then a girl in four years time. She raised hers alone with her mother-in-law with no breadwinner through the Great Depression. Our two-parent home with all of today’s luxuries is no comparison. My wife and I know that no matter what, “it could be worse.”

Our ranch is a contender this year for possible induction into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame ranch division. If we make it, I’d consider it an honor won not by the land or the livestock raised on it, but won by two widowed women who, despite broken hearts, everything else about them was pretty darn strong.

They already had seen the worst. They knew if they hung on, it would get better.