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Guest Post: 20th Century Covered Wagon Pioneers

By: Kevin Folkman - March 16, 2010

When we think of pioneers traveling cross country in covered wagons, the images of the westward migration of the 19th century normally come to mind. For poorer families, though, horses and wagons continued to be a mode of transportation on into the 20th century. In the case of my wife’s family, they migrated from Idaho to Canada, and then back to Idaho in the years just before World War I, by covered wagon both ways.

Thomas W. Lyons, my wife’s grandfather, was born in Cache County, Utah, in 1875, and later moved with his family to the St. Anthony area of Idaho to start a farm. Times were always hard, and with a large family Thomas Lyons worked at many different types of jobs to help his family establish themselves. In 1898, Thomas’ father died, and the primary responsibility for providing for his mother and four other siblings fell to him. That year, he also met Julina L. Smith whose father was also farming in the area. They married shortly after they met, traveling to Logan to get married in the temple there in December of 1898. The trip to and from the marriage was by horse drawn sleigh, the several week journey doubling as a honeymoon for the young couple.

Thomas worked at mining, farming, and as a butcher. They had two children born in those first few years, but the farming was not very productive. Julina’s brothers and father had recently moved to southern Alberta in Canada, near Lethbridge, to homestead farms, and their good reports convinced Thomas and Julina to uproot themselves and emigrate. Arriving in 1902, they settled first in Magrath, then two years later moved to Raymond, and then a year later relocated the family to the larger town of Taber, where they built a brick home for their growing family.

Some of the Lethbridge area farmers were benefiting from canals and irrigation ditches built by the new settlers, but Thomas, his brothers-in-law, and many other farmers were beyond the reach of the water, depending on rains to grow their grain crops. He again took other work as it came available to supplement farming. He worked as a carpenter for a mining company and other odd jobs that often took him away from home for weeks at a time.

For a few years, the family prospered, but in 1912, hoping to make more money by harvesting their neighbor’s grain, Thomas and a friend bought a threshing machine. The timing turned out be bad; a drought began in 1912 that lasted through the next two years. While the farmers closer to Lethbridge had the benefit of irrigation water, Thomas and his neighbors depended on rains that never came and harvested less grain than they planted as seed in the spring. Limited harvests also meant the threshing business never turned a profit. After two years of this, with the 1914 crops already dried and dead in the ground, the dry farmers of Alberta threw in the towel.

Thomas Lyons, his close friend George Eldredge, brother-in-law Einer Johnson, and several other families loaded their few belongings and many children in covered wagons to return to Idaho. (Thomas appears in this picture, fifth from the left in the back row, helping to hold a colt.) By now, Thomas and Julina had five surviving children, a son and four daughters, three of them born in Canada. Two more sons had died in infancy.

On June 11th, 1914, their wagon train left Taber and headed for the United States via Spokane, Washington. They had little money, limited food, and were often viewed with suspicion in the towns that they passed through. The men, though, took opportunities to work when they could, and took pride in always being able to pay for their food and supplies, either with cash or their labor.

In Moscow, Idaho, the arrival of a wagon train was enough of a novelty that the mayor closed the streets to accommodate the travelers and fed all the children ice cream cones. In Donnelly, Idaho, the men found work building a school house, then hauling 100,000 board feet of lumber from the sawmills to the train depot for loading. As a result of working their way south, the trip took over five months. Finally, flush with a little cash, the families loaded most of their wagons, livestock, and goods on a couple of freight cars, and traveled the final distance from north of Boise to Burley, Idaho in relative comfort.

Upon arriving in Burley the day after Thanksgiving, 1914, the railroad demanded extra cash to unload the goods and livestock, which the families could not pay. Thomas Lyons went to the Burley bank and asked the president of the bank for a loan to pay the railroad and buy enough lumber to build a small cabin. The bank wired Thomas’ banker in Alberta who responded that Thomas Lyons was good for whatever he needed, so Thomas got the loan, unloaded their livestock and goods, and built a cabin.

Life in Burley was still somewhat tenuous; Thomas and his oldest son, Ivan, took carpentry work wherever they could find it when they weren’t working in Idaho. Over the next thirty years, Thomas and several of his sons traveled to New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Arizona to find carpentry work when there was not enough work in Burley and the surrounding area. Eventually, Thomas and Julina raised a family of eleven surviving children in Burley, including my wife’s father, Bryant, the last of four boys at the end of the family. Julina died in 1940 and Thomas died in 1957; both are buried in Burley where they raised their family.

As a footnote, three of the four oldest daughters, having been born in Canada, were Canadian citizens but rarely left Southern Idaho for most of their lives. As luck would have it, one of my wife’s aunts traveled to Mexico with her son and his family for a vacation in the 1980s only to be held at the border on their return because she was not a U.S. citizen, and, like two of her sisters, had never naturalized. Eventually reason prevailed, and the pioneer who had journeyed hundreds of miles by wagon train from Canada as a child was allowed to board a jet plane and fly back from Mexico to Idaho and her home.



17 Comments »

  1. Thank you for this article! My great-grandparents Joseph Kimball Crapo and Orby Ann Harmon Crapo took their family from the Idaho/Wyoming border to near this same area in Alberta in about the same time frame. My grandmother, Vivian Nina Crapo Larsen was born in Gleichen, Alberta and her early years were spent there. Without looking at her history this morning, I remember that she was a pre-teen (like 10) when her family had to give up and move back to Star Valley, Wyoming in about the same era (might have been the early 20’s) and settled in the Fairview Ward.

    Due to the economic difficulties in the 1890’s and the attractiveness of the wheat farming in southern Alberta, many Mormon families were drawn up there. Then like Joseph Smith’s family 100 years before them in the 1810-1815 era, they suffered many weather anomalies that ruined their crops.

    This just touched me personally today. I like the border crossing part at the end. It caused me to email my uncle to find out if my departed gramdmother was ever naturalized or not!

    Comment by Allison Sullivan — March 16, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  2. Wow — what a cool story. I started reading and immediately got thinking, “I hope there’s a photo, I hope there’s a photo . . .” And voila! A great photo with lots of personality.

    This post was fantastic. And as I’m an Idahoan, it was great fun to read about their journeyings through the best of all the States.

    P.S. I think it’s admirable of you to help publish your wife’s family history. I’ve never spent much time at all finding out my wife’s family history . . .

    Comment by Hunter — March 16, 2010 @ 10:03 am

  3. Allison, knowing a few farmers in my family, I’ve learned that irrigation revolutionized farming in the Western US and Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. The farmers in Alberta within reach of the canals got through those drought years, where the dry farmers could see a decade of good yields get wiped out in one or two dry years. Thus, all the forced relocations. It’s interesting to note that Thomas Lyons, apart from a large garden and a cow, never again depended on farming as a primary source of income after the move to Burley.

    Hunter, glad you liked the pictures. There was one more that is in pretty bad shape that I didn’t include, that has the name of somebody’s wild west show painted on the wagon canvas. It’s partly visible in the second picture. That would imply that they had to purchase wagons and outfit wherever and however they could. There is a lot of cool stuff in my wife’s family history going all the way back to Nauvoo. If Ardis is amenable, there could be a couple more guest posts. :)

    Comment by kevinf — March 16, 2010 @ 10:29 am

  4. At about that same time that the drought was making life so hard for the Alberta farmers, it was doing the same for my great-grandparents farm in eastern Arizona.

    And they used nearly identical language to describe their difficulties–the water in the ditch didn’t make it as far as their farm.

    I’m curious, though–do you have any idea what route they took from Taber to Spokane? The Rockies are pretty rugged, and I can think of a lot of routes they wouldn’t have wanted to take!

    By the way, a great post! Thanks Kevin.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 16, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  5. Mark,

    I don’t know the exact route. We have a couple of accounts, one told by Thomas Lyons the year before he died, and one written by one of his three daughters born in Canada. Neither of them is very detailed about the exact route, and no place names are used until they get to Spokane and on into Idaho, so it’s hard to tell.

    Where in eastern Arizona were your great-grandparents? The stories about trying to build a dam on the Little Colorado and Silver Creek for irrigation are fascinating. And without water, farming was tough in Arizona. John D. Lee talks about spending most of his waking hours while hiding in Moencopi (Tuba City) in the 1870’s hauling water by hand from the small springs to just grow a subsistence crop.

    Comment by kevinf — March 16, 2010 @ 11:14 am

  6. First in St. Johns, and then on to Eagar–which is where the drought nearly drove them under.

    The best line about the failures of the dam building was someone’s statement that “it looks as if we’re just not worth a dam.”

    And I know where Silver Creek is–anyone with Snowflake ties should, shouldn’t they one? Although why they thought that muddy water looked like silver is beyond me.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 16, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  7. If I knew how to edit comments, I’d fix that ghastly error in that last paragraph.

    You’d think I learned grammar from Facebook.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 16, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  8. if Ardis is amenable

    Ardis is soooooo amenable.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  9. One more anecdote from Arizona: Many years ago I attended Pioneer Day celebrations in St. Johns. At the church services on Sunday, an elderly woman told about her family’s experience as covered wagon pioneers in Eastern Arizona about the same time period as this story.

    Very interesting post, Kevin, and man, you guys are setting the bar high for guest posts!

    Comment by Researcher — March 16, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  10. “Times were always hard” farming in St. Anthony. Ha ha. All of my ancestors from Eastern Idaho(including my mother)could relate to that understatement.

    Comment by Clark — March 16, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  11. Ohh kevinf! I’d LOVE to see that photo of the Wild West Show ad on the wagon canvas. The presentation of “the West” via such shows and other public entertainments like Cycloramas, slide show/lectures and stereo photography is connected to a couple of things I’m currently working on. Would you be willing to send me a copy via email?

    (For personal interest only. Naturally, I would get your permission if I wanted to use it in any way.)

    Here’s my email: MinaAbril [at]gmail [dot]com

    (I’m fine with giving my addy out here. If it’s not cool with you, Ardis, please delete and pass my info on to kevinf if possible.)

    [It’s fine with me, Mina — I edited it a little to disguise it from the spambots, though. — AEP]

    Comment by Mina — March 16, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  12. Mina, I’ll need to scan it tomorrow and get it into a jpg format. It’s a photocopy of an old, torn photograph, but what’s left of it is not too bad. Give me a day or two.

    Comment by kevinf — March 16, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

  13. This is an absolutely fascinating post. Like others have mentioned, the photos really added to the story.

    Comment by Maurine — March 16, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  14. It’s really interesting to think about the changes that took place during a single lifetime. These Lyons children who traveled months at a time over what we now think of as relatively short distances were later able to board flights to Mexico for something as simple as a tropical vacation in places at much farther distances. Makes me realize that my generation only just barely avoided these physically challenging lives that my recent relatives had to endure.

    Comment by JakeF — March 17, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

  15. How ’bout that. The wonders of Keepa never cease. I just got through editing a history sketch of my Great Grandmother. In 1911, they went up to Canada to try the farming bit and only lasted a year, coming back to Ogden in 1912.

    And speaking of undocumented aliens from the south, three brothers-in-law went up together but they only had permits for two to enter Canada. They went by train and the story is that one hid in the equipment car when the Canadian officials came through. The Mounties did not get that man.

    Thanks, Kevin!

    Comment by Grant — July 22, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

  16. Looking on FamilySearch I couldn’t find “Bryant” listed as a child. The youngest they have listed is an Oran Wayne born in 1920. Also looking at FamilySearch they had a second wife listed for Thomas Lyons as well as for Edward Arthur. Interesting. Also on FamilySearch is a photo of Edward and Cytha with the following inscription at the bottom, “Aunt Ellen and Uncle Ted Smith. Grandma’s only sister. She married a Smith.” Interesting that she went by Ellen and he must of gone by Ted, at least to some. I’m thinking about creating an Edward Arthur Facebook page for descendants. It would be great for sharing information.

    Comment by Rebekah N — January 19, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

  17. Rebekah, thanks for your several comments on Edward Arthur Smith. I’ll make sure that Kevin Folkman, your cousin, sees what you’ve said.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 19, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

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