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Homesteading in Montana

(2nd & 3rd generation
Morlan and Curry familes)


Morlan Home Adaline (Curry) Morlan
(great-grandmother)
by her Montana Home(about 1914)

Morlan Home Same structure (about 1923)
being used as a school house

Sometime between 1896 & 1900, William and Dora (Curry) Carr went to live and ranch near Whitewood, South Dakota. Whitewood is near the Montana / South Dakota border in Lawrence County, the northern part of the Black Hills.

Dora (Curry) Carr was the sister of Adaline (Curry) Morlan, Bill Gillett's great-grandmother. Their home was the starting point for most of the Curry homesteaders going to Montana.

A friend of the Curry's from their days in Lamar, Missouri, Charles Harrington, had gone to Carter County, Montana, to homestead in 1897 and had kept in touch with the Currys. They were probably the biggest factor in settling in Carter County, Montana.

This was the start of the movement by the Currys and Morlans to homestead in Montana.

About 1908, Joseph and Ada (Short) Curry and William and Sarah (Curry) Keltner decided to take the challenge and homestead in Montana. Joseph Curry and Sarah (Curry) Keltner were also the brother and sister of Adaline (Curry) Morlan. At the time, Joseph was about 34 years old and Sarah was about 47 years old.

In the spring of 1908, after shipping their belongings to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, Joseph Curry and the Keltners took a train to the South Dakota town. The family of Joseph Curry stayed in Barton County, Missouri, until their home was built.

The families filed their homestead papers in Carter County, Montana, for 160 acres each on April 11, 1908, and shacks were built to live in. The shacks were built as close together as possible but later, when the surveyor came, the Keltner home was required to be moved as it wasn't on their property. The homes ended up being about half a mile apart.

In May of 1908, Ada (Short) Curry, the wife of Joseph Curry, with her three daughters ranging in age from three to seven years old, took a train to Whitewood, South Dakota. They stayed with the Carr family until Joseph Curry could pick them up. About mid-June they were settled in their new homes. Leta (Curry) Taylor later told the following stories and problems they had in their travels by wagon from Whitewood to the Belltower area of Carter County.

To compound their weight and space problems, when passing thru Belle Fourche they had to purchase a sheep wagon stove to cook on. One night while camping on the Little Missouri River their horses, although hobbled, strayed away. It took over half a day to find them. They also had problems with the rain and mosquitos. They had to eat their meals in a large netting type tent to protect themselves from the mosquitos. The trip was over 100 miles and probably took 3 days.

One of the major problems of homesteading was clearing the land of sagebrush so they could plant their gardens and fields as it was required they live off the land. The best way to clear the land was by chopping the sagebrush down with a hoe when the ground was hard, mainly in the winter. It took Joseph three years to clear his land.

Homesteading was not an easy life; most of them ended up ranching either with cattle or sheep besides raising the required garden. To bring money into the home for supplies and the necessities of life, most of the men had to hire themselves out to other ranchers in the area and also worked on the wheat harvest. Most of the winters were severe and water was a major problem.

In 1909 they were joined by the family of their brother, James W. Curry. That family didn't stay very long as they didn't care for Montana and the problems associated with homesteading. They left within the year.

About 1910 they were joined by their sister's family, John and Maude (Curry) Hepburn.

Sometime after December 29, 1910, when my great-grandfather, Erwin C. Morlan, died, Samuel (Fred) and Sylvia (Saunders) Morlan, George's brother's family, also went to Montana to homestead with their mother, Adaline (Curry) Morlan.

The country was in a deep depression. George Morlan was only getting work three days a week while working on the railroad in Fort Madison and less was visualized. Therefore when Lyda (Kelly) Morlan's mother, Sarah (McClane) Kelly, died September 23, 1912, the George Morlans decided to join their relatives in Montana.

So in the dead of the winter of 1913
       George Morlan (33 years old)
       his wife, Lyda May (Kelly) Morlan (27 years old)
       their son, George Erwin Morlan (4 years old)
       Lyda's father, Freeman Kelly (67 years old)
left Iowa and traveled by covered wagon to Montana to homestead.

They lost several head of horses on the way. They took with them a upright piano. This piano had a lot of miles on it -- from Iowa -- to Montana -- to Southern Missouri -- to Oklahoma -- to about six locations in Kansas City -- before being damaged in a fire in 1937.

The driving distance today is about 1,000 miles; but, in those days, it was probably 1,200 miles. Since they were in a horse-drawn covered wagon, they probably only traveled 20 to 30 miles a day. As it was in the dead of winter, there were probably a number of days they could not travel because of the weather. It amazes me they could find the Belltower area because the roads were all dirt and unmarked. They may have done a lot of back tracking

All the families settled in the Belltower area of Carter County, Montana. Carter County is located in the extreme southeast corner of Montana with Belltower about 25 miles southeast of Ekalaka. Actually when the Currys and Morlans moved to Montana it wasn't called Carter County but Fallon County. The county split into two counties in 1914 with Ekalaka becoming the county seat for Carter County.

The George Morlans arrived in Montana in the spring of 1914, just in time to plant a crop on his mother's place. They found a place of their own about 4 miles east of their mothers and just south of his brothers. There they built a home of part dug-out and part lumber and started their life of homesteading.

George, like most of the other men homesteading, besides working on his own farm also worked in the wheat harvest and on other ranches in the area. Most of their lives the George Morlan family and their mother had lived in or near cities where supplies and services were available. This made it harder for them to adjust to the new life.

Their land was mainly flat with slightly rolling hills. Per Erwin Morlan, their son, the George Morlan home was not nearly as nice as Adaline (Curry) Morlan's home pictured above.

Their daughter, Atha (Morlan) Gillett, (Bill Gillett's mother) was born there October 4, 1914. The nearest doctor was in Ekalaka, Montana, about 30 miles to the north.

Land patents that were issued were normally issued for land up to 160 acres but sometimes greater. They were required to live on the land for 5 years, grow crops or make improvements. The land was free but a filing fee was charged. Both Fred and George Morlan had 320-acre patents. About once a year the families were required to go to South Dakota for supplies.


Status of their homesteads

Joseph C. Curry and Ada (Short) Curry
They obtained an 160-acre patent in sections 23 & 24 of range 59-E plus a lot in the town of Belltower, Montana. Their land was northeast of where the George Morlans ended up homesteading.

Their daughter, Leta (Curry) Taylor, supplied a great deal of the information on the Curry family. Leta was born February 10, 1903, in Lamar, Missouri. She lived her entire remaining life in Carter County, Montana. She died July 29, 1994, at the age of 91. The Joseph Curry family was the only family to stay in the area. The Joseph Curry's sold their land to their daughter and her husband, Ernest Taylor.

Joseph Curry was born in September of 1874 in Lamar, Barton County, Missouri. He married Ada May Short in 1899. She was born December 1878 in Canton, Ohio, the daughter of Samuel and Katherine (Willenmaw) Short. They were the parents of ten children with the first dying early in life before going to Montana. While in Missouri , Joseph worked in the mines around Carthage, Webb City, and Joplin, Missouri.

During their second year in Montana, 1910, Joseph helped build the first school house in the area. He was also on the school board for many years.

In 1915 Joseph Curry built a new 6-room house replacing the shack the family had lived in for seven years. This house was used until 1965.

The family experienced hard winters, dry summers, low-water and high-water seasons.

After the Keltners moved back to Missouri in 1924, the Currys bought their ranch. During the depression of the 1930s, money was at a premium but water was even more so. Joseph Curry bought a gasoline engine, water pump and 400 feet of pipe and pumped water from Box Elder Creek to water his garden and cows. With a few hogs, cows, chickens and the garden they were able to survive the drought and depression.

Ada (Short) Curry died January 30, 1937, in Elgin, Montana, at the age of 58. Joseph died in Ekalaka, Carter County, Montana, March 31, 1948, at the age of 73.

James W. Curry
About 1909 James Curry and family came to Montana to homestead. They filed on a 160-acre site just east of the Joseph Curry ranch. He was about 50 years old at the time. They left Montana that same year as he and his wife, Sally, did not care for Montana or the problems associated with homesteading. They moved to Perry County, Alabama.

James died 13 years later in 1922 about 63 years old.

Sarah Elizabeth (Curry) Keltner and William E. Keltner
In 1908, like the Joseph Currys, they obtained a 160-acre patent in sections 25 & 26 of range 59-E plus a lot in the town of Belltower, Montana. Their lands were next to each other.

Sarah was born in March of 1861 in Iowa while William was born November 1854 in Ohio. They were the parents of two children but both died early in life in Missouri.

In 1915 the Keltners sold their homestead and went to Salem, Oregon, to live after a short visit to Missouri. Before the year was out they were back in Montana buying the Scout McElfresh ranch.

A neighbor, Beth McElfresh, told a couple of stories about the Keltners.

While her husband, Scout, was in South Dakota one of their work horses was badly cut on the wire fence. She couldn't stop the bleeding and therefore she rode to her neighbor's ranch, the Keltners. William was able to tie the artery and stop the bleeding.

In 1909 the McElfreshs were having a well dug. Again Scout was away with his wife alone on the ranch. The men digging the well were instructed to place boards over the then 12-foot-deep hole, but they only placed poles over the hole. As luck would have it, a work horse stepped on the poles and fell in the well. Again Beth rode to the Keltners for help. With the help of two other neighbors, William was able to get the horse out.

In 1924 the Keltners left Montana again for Missouri. At the time Sarah was about 63 years old while William was about 70 years old. Sarah died shortly thereafter.
Maude (Curry) Hepburn and John Hepburn
After arriving in Montana in 1910, the Hepburns obtained a 160-acre patent in sections 23 & 24 of range 59-E. Their property also adjoined the Curry property.

Maude was born in January 1877. She married John Hepburn while still in Missouri. They were the parents of two daughters. Both daughters were the tallest in their class at schools in Montana, even taller than most boys.

Ruth Hepburn told the following about going to Montana and their homesteading days:

It was 1910, the plan was that Maude and her two daughters, Ruth and Dorothy, would go to South Dakota and Montana to visit their relatives. Therefore they traveled by train to Deadwood, South Dakota, to visit the Carrs. Then Ida Carr, their then 19-year-old daughter took the Hepburns by a spring wagon to the Montana homes of the Currys and Keltners. It was a three-day trip to get there. On the way the horses bolted when they went thru a rattlesnake den. The Hepburns were almost thrown from the wagon.
In a few weeks John Hepburn joined them. After he saw the land, they decided to join her brothers and sisters in the homesteading adventure and filed on a 160-acre site.

Ruth indicated her father had high hopes but wasn't the most practical man. He brought in two dairy cows and a bull and was going to start a dairy farm. He was also going to change the farming ideas over to alfalfa and other new crops. Most of his ideas never worked due to the short, dry summers and cold, bitter winters.

It was due to one of those bitter winters that the Hepburns lost everything. They became discouraged and returned to Missouri. But after a four-year stay in Missouri, the family was back in Montana to enjoy the rough life. They returned to their ranch as it was only rented when they left.

Schooling was also a problem with small schools set up around the area. High schools were established in the late 1910's and early 1920's but were still a long way from most of their students. Ruth ended up going to the State Normal School at Spearfish, South Dakota, to become a teacher.

The Hepburns stayed in the area until 1924 when they gave up and moved back to Missouri. At the time Maude would have been about 47 years old. After some time they moved to either Butte or Lawrence County, South Dakota, as they were buried in Whitewood, South Dakota.

John Hepburn died about 1927 and his wife, Maude (Curry) Hepburn, died in 1939 about 62 years old. Both were buried in Whitewood, Lawrence County, South Dakota.

Adaline (Curry) Morlan (My great-grandmother)
She obtained a 160-acre patent in sections 13 & 24 in range 59-E about 1911 or 1912 about 4 miles west of her sons' and brothers' ranches. She was about 58 years old at the time.

Adaline stayed in the area until about 1917. She was in the area about 6 years. It is unknown if she received full credit for the land by meeting the homesteading requirements and if she sold her land or just gave it up when she returned to Missouri.

George E. Morlan and Lyda May (Kelly) Morlan
      & her father, Freeman Kelly
About 1914 they obtained a 320-acre patent in sections 27 & 34 in range 60-E. They did not receive the official papers until after they left the area (August 22, 1918).

They left the area about 1917 meaning they were in the area about three and half years, not long enough to have control over their land.

Samuel F. (Fred) Morlan and Sylvia (Saunders) Morlan
About 1911 or 1912 they obtained a 320-acre patent in section 27 in range 60-E. They did not receive the official papers until after they left the area (June 12, 1918).

They left the area about 1917 meaning they were in the area about six years and long enough to have control over their land. It is not known if they sold or just gave their land up when they left the area.

In 1917 all the Morlan clans had left the area mainly because of World War I and because of the hard work and bitter winters. Adaline (Curry) Morlan went back to Marceline, Missouri, to live with her daughter, Cora (Morlan) Waller. She died there September 19, 1937, at the age of 84. Samuel (Fred) Morlan and his family went to live in Kansas City, Missouri. George Morlan and his family (with Freeman Kelly) went to southern Missouri to live on a 40-acre farm in Mountain View, Missouri.

Changes in the area:

The population for Carter county in 1920 was about 3,000 and rose to 4,100 in 1930 but has declined since to 1,500 in 2005.

A majority of the roads are still gravel. Most of the towns, like Sykes and Belltower, have gradually disappeared. Although Belltower still appears on most maps, a number of the maps disagree with the exact location. The largest town in Carter County was, and still is, Ekalaka, Montana. It now has a population of slightly over 400, probably one of the smallest county seats in the nation.

Farming and stock raising (including sheep) were the principal industries in 1920 and still are.

One other sister of Adaline (Curry) Morlan homesteaded -- this time in South Dakota.

Dora (Curry) Carr and William Carr

They obtained two 320-acre patents for a total of 640 acres in sections 20, 21, 26 & 27 in range 5-E of Butte County, South Dakota, plus a lot in the town of Newell. This is just north of the Black Hills. Their relocation was between 1896 and 1900 as their third daughter was born in February of 1896 in Barton County, Missouri, and then they appeared in the 1900 census for South Dakota.

Dora was born in December 16, 1871, in Barton County, Missouri. She married William Francis Carr April 20, 1890, in Barton County, Missouri. He was born September 30, 1863, in Clark County, Missouri, the son of Peter and Caroline (Weekley) Carr. Census records indicate he was born in Iowa. They were the parents of seven children.

After moving to South Dakota, they spent their entire life there.

Dora died February 26, 1945, at the age of 73 while William died January 24, 1938, at the age of 74. Both are buried at Whitewood, Lawrence County, South Dakota.