Remembering Our Diverse Heritage as Americans

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By Trudie Porter Biggers

Summer fell into Fall, and with it the rain and cool temperatures followed. As I began decorating our home with touches of autumn leaves, cattails and pumpkins, I thought back to those who originally homesteaded on the Huntley Irrigation Project. Although the rain would have brought welcome relief from the summer heat, each family would be thinking of the coming winter and hoping they had stored enough to make it through.

The first families who came to the Huntley Project settled in areas with others from their homeland. Swede’s took homesteads close to one another in Huntley, German’s in Ballantine, the Volga German’s from Russia in another area and so on, each gathering with those who spoke their language. As time passed, most new-comers learned English in order to pass their citizenship test.

This was their ultimate goal, to become Americans and to own their own property in a country where freedom and protection were guaranteed to all. The man of the house almost always gained his citizenship first, while his wife and children who were born outside the country worked toward that goal. No matter where these families originated from, each sat down to the evening meal and were encouraged by their fathers and mothers to, “Speak English, we are Americans now!”.

Free public education was a highly respected opportunity and every family took full advantage of it. In many one-room school houses across the Huntley Project, children learned English and went home to teach their parents and grandparents. A large percentage of high school graduates went on to college at Polytechnic in Billings or other schools throughout Montana. Parents wanted their children to have every opportunity that they themselves had missed.

Numerous churches were built on the Huntley Irrigation Project. In fact, churches were erected before the schools, with many originally starting out in tents. Although religions differed from one group to another, these early homesteaders held deeply personal spiritual beliefs and were grateful to be able to openly worship and exercise their faith without fear of reprisal.

Each homesteader took tremendous pride in being an American and were grateful for opportunities and blessings that were nearly unheard of in their native land. The differences in the cultural heritage represented by those first homesteaders has mellowed somewhat over the last 110 years. But a drive along the back roads of the community reveal a rich and diverse heritage that families remember still. Although the names on the mailboxes may read: Gabel, Kindsfather, Tennyson or Grosskop, each and every one of them are Americans.

 

Huntley Project Museum Proposed Building Addition

The Huntley Project Museum of Irrigated Agriculture has proposed a new two-story building addition. Plans for the new addition have been completed by Al Rapacz from Schutz Foss Architects. The new addition is contingent upon being awarded the Montana Tourism Infrastructure grant. This grant phase will close on September 30, 2017. If the Huntley Project Museum is awarded the grant, notification will come on or before December 15, 2017 and work will begin on the new addition in the Spring of 2018. Come in to the Museum to see the full rendering of the plans.

Check back to see the latest news about our exciting new venture!

Huntley Irrigation Project Oral Histories

                                            Banderob children with award-winning silver laced wyandotte chickens and dog bismarck

                                            Banderob children with award-winning silver laced wyandotte chickens and dog bismarck

By Trudie Porter Biggers

Armed with my MacBook Pro laptop computer and a generous grant from the Montana History Foundation, I set out in April, 2016 to interview folks whose parents or grandparents originally homesteaded on the Huntley Irrigation Project.

With a list of questions and a deep respect for those more chronologically gifted than myself, I first visited the home of 96-year-old Tom Tennyson and began digitally recording Mr. Tennyson’s memories. Tom’s father, John Henry Tennyson, was the blacksmith who shod the horses of the engineers, surveyors and workers as they labored to build the Huntley Irrigation canal. Work commenced in 1905 and the main canal was completed in late June, 1907. John Henry Tennyson later married and homesteaded his own parcel of land on the project close to other families who had immigrated from Sweden. He also became the first Deputy Sheriff of the Huntley Project.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 2016 I had the great privilege of interviewing fourteen amazing people who descended from the first families on the project. As well as sharing their stories, they also entrusted me with priceless heirloom family portraits which I uploaded and digitized.

Many of the Oral Histories participant’s families were known as, ‘Volga Germans from Russia’. As I listened to their stories, a fascination to know more about the history of this group of immigrants took root in my heart. Today I know a great deal more about their journeys than I did eighteen months ago, but not nearly as much as I would like. Participant families were not only from Russia, but from Germany, Sweden, Holland, Mexico, the British Isles and many other countries.

The Huntley Irrigation Project Oral Histories include recorded memories from the following; Katherine Davidson Anderson, Barbara Banderob, Margaret Oxenreider Caster, Mary Eunice Sanborn Cummins, Milburn F. Fark, Jr., Ruth Ann Chesterman Farnes, Bill Kraske, Ron Ohlin, Phyllis Sherman Rapp, Dorwin Schreuder, Tom Tennyson, Lydia Oblander Walters, Ed Weidinger and Phyllis Reiter Weidinger. An excellent history of the Huntley Valley prior to and following the completion of the Project was also recorded from Ken Kephart, superintendent of the Southern Agricultural Research Center.

With the help of Dave Shearer at the Billings City Library, these recordings were then uploaded to the Montana Memory Project website at montanamemory.org. These audio histories are free to the public by visiting the website listed above. By late Autumn 2017, I will also have over two hundred fifty vintage photographs uploaded to the same site.

Generations yet to be born will listen to these recordings and hear the stories and experiences of people whose voices will soon be gone. Please join me in hearing their incredible stories of ingenuity, faith, perseverance and ultimately, success.

For more information about the Huntley Irrigation Project Oral Histories, contact oral historian Trudie Porter Biggers at trudimus@msn.com or go directly to montanamemory.org.