By Denny Dressman
It may seem a bit odd to begin a book review with a reference to the book’s ending, but in this case, Jean Gray’s final passage in “Homesteading Haxtun and the High Plains” (The History Press, $19.99) captures the power of this fine history of a hearty northeastern Colorado town.
Quoting from Wayne C. Lee’s book, Scotty Philip: The Man Who Saved The Buffalo, Gray compares Philip’s observation of the survival instincts of buffalo in a Plains blizzard with the sturdy determination and teamwork of the early settlers who founded Haxtun and surrounding towns:
“That same spirit of ‘standing together’ allowed the pioneers to tame the High Plains, and it still happens in rural areas and small towns across America today.”
A Kansas native who became publisher of Haxtun’s weekly newspaper, The Herald, Gray knows and appreciates the depth of the heritage of Haxtun and small towns all across rural America. Her book provides a well-researched, fascinatingly detailed account of her adopted home’s origins and evolution through the decades since its founding in the 1880s. (The Bibliography, with almost 60 entries, is testament to the depth of her research.)
The book is organized topically but in a way that’s also more or less chronological, beginning with “Prairie, Indians and Buffalo” and ending with “Lessons In Survival.”
Throughout nine chapters and one hundred and thirty-plus pages, readers learn about the strong early residents who started in sod homes and walked great distances to claim their land; about pivotal events that shaped not only the town of Haxtun but life on the Eastern Plains; the origin of the site of the town of Haxtun—sold to the Lincoln Land Company by early homesteaders Alice Strohm and Kate (Fletcher) Edwards in 1887; and about life then and now.
Fifty-six historic photos, drawn from personal collections and public archives, plus four early maps, add immeasurably to narrative. Each, truly, is worth an additional thousand words, as the saying goes. (A snapshot of three hunters with nearly a hundred rabbits hanging by their ankles is quite a sight!)
No history of any Great Plains location would be complete, of course, without giving ample attention to water, farming, and the changing landscape. Around the turn of the century, wells were dug by hand. A subsection of Chapter Three titled “Water, A Coveted Resource,” provides a two-week record of what it took to dig to a depth of 176 feet to find water. Chapter Five, “Prairie Becomes Dust Bowl,” recounts the ordeal of the Dust Bowl, The Great Depression in the heartland of America, and the eventual formation of the Haxtun Soil Conservation District.
Many entertaining anecdotes of daily life enliven the narrative, as well.
Who could possibly not enjoy, and in some way relate to, the elopement adventure of George Hoschouer and his 18-year-old bride-to-be, Helen Baldwin, who by Gray’s account, together eluded Helen’s father after a ”thrilling chase over pastures and sand creeks” in January 1929?
Likewise, the vaudeville skit that’s preserved in Chapter Seven is a classic for the ages. Without giving it away, it has to do with “Mister Banes” predicting the weather based on “a little sausage.” Depending on your sense of humor, it’s sure to produce a smirk, a smile, a chuckle or an outright guffaw.
The back cover of “Homesteading Haxtun and the High Plains” invites readers to “Discover the Untold Story of the High Plains.” This book indeed tells that story. Every school, library and museum in Colorado would be richer by including it in their historical collections.
(Denny Dressman was a newspaper reporter, editor and senior executive for 43 years, including 25 in Colorado. He is the author of five books and editor of several others.)