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.