Tony Vagneur: Next time you’re ‘cold’ on the chairlift, think of Enoch and William
It’s been a little chilly lately, but not what you’d call really cold. Nothing like the squeak of snow under your feet as you walk along — it makes my heart sing.
But what if you had two sons, many miles from home, no contact, by mail, cellphone or otherwise? An extra cold night might send a chill of worry up your spine, like it undoubtedly did for the grandparents of Enoch and William Bagley.
The Bagley’s lived in wild west Montpelier, Idaho, when the law didn’t come from leather-bound books but rather from necessities on the ground, rightly or wrongly. The land the grandparents had been ranching got “jumped” through an underhanded deal and suddenly there was a need to find hay enough to winter 26 head of cattle and six draft horses. A tall order, coming in October 1878.
A visitor named Andy Westfall, in the image of the grizzly hunter in the movie, “Jeremiah Johnson,” who sometimes went to Montpelier for provisions, often talked of the Thomas Fork Valley, uncivilized to the core with miles and miles of wild hay for the taking and ranches for the having if settlers were strong enough to survive. There were no fences, other than the few corrals the one or two existing ranchers had built.
Into this valley went Enoch and William — Enoch going on 16, William going on 18. They threw a hay mower and rake into their wagon and headed to the Thomas Fork, bringing along the family livestock.
It was sweet success in the beginning; 20 tons of hay were put up, a small cabin built, with a three-legged woodstove, and there was plenty of grass and water for the livestock. Until winter came with a fury, eventually dropping four feet of snow on the ground.
The younger brother, Enoch, went back to Montpelier for winter supplies, which consisted of “three sacks of spuds and two sacks of flour and a side of bacon or a half hog and two small cans of yeast powder.” Think about that when you pick at your gourmet dinner with all its fancy sauces and sides.
The boys got to Thomas Creek by following Indian trails and crossing Montpelier Creek 16 times in good weather; going back to Montpelier involved the same, only in cold winter weather.
Returning to camp on a home-made bob sled, about 1½-feet high, Enoch’s load soon became soaking wet on the creek crossings and in the ensuing blizzard, the load became a solid block of ice. The increasing depth of the snow and the heavy weight of the frozen sled became too much for the horses to pull, and Enoch had to abandon the bob to avoid freezing to death.
His overcoat had become frozen to the load and he had to remove it to escape the icy block that threatened his vitality. He propped the tongue of the bob straight up in the air so they could find it when they returned. He rode one draft horse, leading the other back to their rustic headquarters, arriving around 3 a.m.
At dawn, they started back with four horses, and after spotting the tongue of the bob sticking up above the snow by only a couple of feet, began struggling to get their provisions and horses back to camp without further trauma. Which they did, after dark.
They put the horses in their small cabin with them, so wet and covered with ice they were. As the ice melted and the horses thawed out, they began to fidget and kick, knocking over the stove, breaking the bed, and wearing out their welcome. They were relegated back to the outside world.
With the help of Ol’ Grizz, Andy Westfall, the bear hunter who got them there, they managed to save about 150 pounds of potatoes and the same of flour. The bacon and yeast survived, as well. But it wasn’t enough to get them through six months of winter and they were later forced to snowshoe back to Montpelier for more provisions to push back starvation’s door.
The hay didn’t last, either, but rest assured that through hard work, ingenuity and help from the two existing neighbors, the cattle and horses made it to spring.
There is much more to this story, but there isn’t room to tell it all here. To shorten any of it would be a disservice to the ancestors of my good friend, Jody Bagley, who still ranches in Wyoming with the same spirit inherited from his great-grandfather, William and his great-great uncle, Enoch.
Jody’s ancestors went to the Thomas Fork Valley in 1878. Mine came to Aspen in 1880. He and I have tales to swap.
Think about this story the next time your fingers get cold on the chairlift or your boot heaters stop working.
Taken from “Early Beginnings of Thomas Fork Valley” by Jennie B. Sleight. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.