Spring Arrives on Tiny Feet

By Trudie Porter Biggers

Spring is a wonderful time at the Huntley Project Museum as small critters of many varieties begin to make their debut. The most special of all are the baby bunnies that are born by the dozens in tiny dens all over the Museum grounds. These babies will flourish as the new grasses grow, helped along by sunny days and rainy nights.

Along with bunnies and newly hatched birds, scores of third-grade school children visit the museum each spring. Museum employees and volunteers teach these enthusiastic learners how to make home-made butter and ice cream. We also teach the kids how to make rope from twine and everyone enjoys learning to play games originally played by homestead and Native American children.

The Museum provides a unique opportunity for kids both young and old to spend a day in the hard-working though simple atmosphere of a bygone era. Bodies are stressed by chores, but minds are free to focus on a task or wander at will over the prairie.

Nights at the Museum are also lovely with an abundance of starry nights and full moons; leaving light and noise pollution far behind in the city. Listening to the water slowly pushing along the irrigation canal while fish jump and softly land with a plop is another pleasant and peaceful pastime. Crickets sing and doves coo as the wind sifts coolly through the pine boughs and stirs the young leaves.

2018 will bring more evening events at the Huntley Project Museum with opportunities for all visitors to experience nature on her own terms. Adventures in star-gazing as well as stories told by Native Americans will make long-remembered memories.

Daily admission is free unless a special event is taking place. Bring your sweetheart and family and visit us, our gate is always open. 

Sweet Sentiments

By Trudie Porter Biggers

1908 dawned clear and cold on the Huntley Irrigation Project with stars visible in the night sky as temperatures hovered near zero. By the second week of the year snow began to fall across the valley and with the snow, temperatures raised into the high twenties.

Homestead families used the cold weather to seal up cracks around windows and doors, fighting the constant loss of heat each time the door opened. Men mended harnesses, fashioned new soles for shoes and boots and made rope from twine. Stock needed constant feeding and attention. Watering wasn’t necessary if snow covered the ground unless the stock were pinned up, then frozen water troughs proved challenging. Ice was cut from the Yellowstone River and placed in ice houses packed in sawdust in preparation for the summer heat.

Although women no longer worked in their gardens, the cold weather provided time to sew and mend clothing and darn stockings. Girls wore dresses that had been cut down from one of their mother’s with the inside hem being made from different fabric to accommodate the girls growing height. Men’s clothing was remade to fit a growing teenager or child, but once the item became too worn it was eventually cut into quilt squares or torn into strips to be woven into braid rugs.

February 1908 was leap-year and as Valentine’s Day approached many bachelors were on the lookout for a pretty maid. Valentine’s Day dances were held in schools or churches that first year but were later moved to Community Centers.

An enterprising young man with his eye on a special girl had a devil of a time finding just the right way to express his feelings. Flowers were always a favorite with the ladies but in February there were no obliging fields around. Billings was a full days ride and the cards, candies and flowers for purchase there could not be afforded.

If necessity really is the mother of invention, these lads were clearly talented because their Valentine’s offerings to sweethearts and wives were truly lovely. One young man used a piece of leather he had tanned, fashioned a heart which he also colored, then burned his message of love to his sweetheart. Another young man gave a red grosgrain ribbon for his loved one’s hair. Many a husband took time to whittle heart-shaped butter molds or trinket boxes. Others built wooden boxes to hold candles or sewing supplies, then painted brightly colored hearts, trees, cows and homestead houses on the outside.

Although a young lady must wait for the gentleman of her choosing to make the opening move, she always had a handmade gift ready just in case she was presented with a Valentine. Many wives and sweethearts knitted warm woolen mittens or caps. Some created beautiful love notes that had to be opened carefully to divine the message contained inside. Another young woman created a red paper heart carefully woven into a white hand. Swedish brides made beautiful Cardamom braids of bread while German ladies made delicious Butta Glaze or butter balls.

The first Valentine’s Day in 1908 on the Huntley Project was a mid-Winter celebration that brought communities and sweethearts together. Dancing, dinning and sweet stolen kisses brought warmth to cold cheeks and love and laughter to many hearts.

Homestead Christmas


By Trudie Porter Biggers

The first Christmas on the Huntley Irrigation Project was spartan. Families who had come to Montana to stake their claims had proved up their land by building a tar paper shack and by planting through the summer months. The first harvest was bountiful for some, while other homesteaders struggled to drain the alkaline water from their bog-like fields. Ludwig Weidinger described his property as, “Gumbo, not fit for plow nor beast”.

Many women found life isolated on the Montana prairie, feeling alone and cut off from one another. Some were newlyweds just starting out while others arrived with large families. At the end of the day, when a woman might have a moment to reflect on the life she had chosen, she’d wonder about the months ahead, hoping she had preserved enough food for the long winter.

One such woman was Mary Schreuder, who often looked out through her frosted window across the cold, dark prairie. When Mary’s first neighbor arrived she was thrilled beyond measure. She spoke often about how comforting it was to look out into the night and see the light of her neighbor’s lantern shining in the darkness.

As cold weather settled into the valley there were still animals to be fed and chores to be done. Children gathered wood for the stove and eggs from the chicken coop. On Sunday mornings families often rode to church in sleighs pulled by their horses. Church socials and community gatherings were a rich source of much needed companionship and entertainment.

Families deeply appreciated their neighbors because they were wise enough to understand that they needed one another. Many like the Frank Banderob family shared farming equipment. Frank had a team of horses but no wagon. It wasn’t long before Frank met a family who had a wagon but no horses so the two families teamed up to help one another.

By the Christmas of 1908, most homesteaders had experienced a great harvest and felt more secure about their homestead claims. People continued to arrive from the east, mid-west and Canada. Despite the differences in language and culture, all were welcome and accepted as neighbors and friends on the Huntley Irrigation Project.

Remembering Our Diverse Heritage as Americans


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.