Friday, May 19, 2017

A Letter: Stories of Homesteading

Letters. For many years after I married, I used to spend Sunday afternoons writing letter to my parents 500 miles away and to my siblings scattered here and there. Regularly, for years, my aunts and my mother penned letters to each other. My mother kept all the letters and now I have some of them. Many of those letters have helped me piece together the family history. Being a genealogist, family history is my passion and letters are crucial. It pains me that people no longer write letters. Yes, they communicate other ways, but the beauty and intimacy of letters are gone.

Once in a while, the impact of letters takes my breath away. This past week it happened again when I received an e-mail message from my cousin, Jill. She had found a letter among her mother’s papers that she found fascinating. The writer, Edith Hillier, had been a close friend of Jill’s and my grandmother, Mary Troutman. Gracefully worded and filled with stories of the Hillier family’s adventures homesteading in Montana, the letter is a treasure. Jill wondered if we could locate Edith’s descendants to see if they would like to have the letter.

Well, you know I took the challenge.

Since Edith had been my grandmother’s friend, I figured, I ought to be able to find her living in Wayne County Nebraska at some point in time. And, I did. She lived in Brenna Precinct in 1920, same precinct where my grandparents lived. She was age 37 (about four years older than Grandma Mary), married to W. R. Hillier; they had two children, Anabel, age 11, and Ralph, age 9. Mr. Hillier was working as a hired man for W. K. Dobeneker.1

I found that Edith Irene Hall had married William R. Hillier on 20 June 1907 in Hennepin County, Minnesota,2and that’s where they lived in 1910. They had a one-year-old daughter Laura A. (for Anabel?). William worked as a carpenter.3

When William registered for the World War I draft, the family lived in Hennepin County, Minnesota, his next of kin: Edith Irene Hillier.4 Doesn’t that appear as if they have lived in Minnesota for at least eleven years, then moved to Nebraska between 1918 and 1920?

But no. In telling the homesteading stories, Edith says children are three and four years old.5 That sets this homesteading tale at about 1913-14.

Without this letter, would the family know Edith and William had homesteaded? Maybe there were stories. Maybe Edith entertained her grandchildren with homesteading tales. But, maybe, not. What a treasure the letter could be for the family!

So I built a Hillier family tree on Ancestry and posted a scanned copy of the letter for the Hillier descendants to find. I hope they enjoy it.

Here is an excerpt:
Excerpt from Edith Hillier letter to Neville Troutman, 1957.
Edith also tells about a horse falling through the roof of her dugout henhouse where she kept “a lovely bunch of Buff Orpingtons” she had “raised by hand.” The roof of the dugout was covered with boards and straw. Foraging for food on a snowy winter night when temperatures dipped below zero, the horse found the straw and his hind legs fell through the roof. Edith tried to free it, but it was too frightened.6

She hitched her horse to a buggy, wrapped her children in blankets, loaded them into the buggy and set out to get help. She tells about driving her horse through snow up to its belly and taking hours to go four miles. She was terrified her children would freeze, but she made it to a neighbor’s homestead, and the man set off to town two miles away to get Edith’s husband.7

When the family returned to the homestead the horse was dead. They couldn’t get it out of the henhouse, so they just buried it there in the hillside. She moved her prize chickens into the family’s shanty (temporarily, I hope). She added, “That was one of the many things that made me tough.”8

Buff Orpington, photo by Rebekah Noble, used with permission.
The letter also revealed tidbits about my Aunt Neville’s family, but I’ll save that for later.

1 1920 U. S. census, Brenna precinct, Wayne County, Nebraska, population schedule, enumeration district [ED] 218, p. 4-B, dwelling 288, family 300, William R. Riley family; digital image ( : accessed 15 May 2017); NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 1003.
2 “Minnesota/u002C Marriages Index/u002C, 1849-1950,” database, ( : accessed 15 May 2017), entry for William R Hillier and Edith I Hall, 20 June 1907; citing Hennepin County. 
3 1910 U. S. census, Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota, population schedule, enumeration district [ED] 205, p. 13-B, dwelling 70, family n/a, W. K. Dobenecker, see W. R. Hillier and Edith Hillier; digital image ( : accessed 15 May 2017); NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 706.
4 “U. S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” images (, accessed 15 May 2017), card for William Riley Hillier, serial number 3481, Local Draft Board, Hennepin County, Minnesota. 
5 Edith Hillier, Atkinson, Michigan, to Neville Lamson, letter, 17 October 1957; relates information about homesteading in Montana and other news about her family; privately held by Jill Gran [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Pierce, Nebraska.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

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