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Bart Mahaffie Part III — To Colorado for land of his own

Previous posts in this series: 

Bart Mahaffie Part I — Introduction

Bart Mahaffie Part II — Childhood and education

We don’t have an account of Bart Mahaffie’s 1915 move to Colorado to homestead. But to bring the story into view, the passage below tells it as if we do. It makes the best conjectures possible from news accounts, old photos, family and public records, and other settlers’ reminiscences. The boxed passages are from a 1915 guide for homesteaders. 1)Free Homestead Lands of Colorado Described: A Handbook for Settlers. George Samuel Clason. Clason map Company, 1915 – Colorado – 318 pages.


In the late winter of 1915, Bart Mahaffie, raised on a western Oklahoma homestead was working in the farm mortgage business in Oklahoma City. But the idea of securing his own place would not stop tumbling in his thoughts. He’d had his fill of the farm mortgage business. He’d lived in Dallas and then Oklahoma City. City life didn’t suit him.

With his job, Bart spent a lot of time with stock men, and the chatter among them would so often turn to the land you could homestead, if you went west. Some men were going, for sure. A lot more said they might or they wished they could.

Word of the land to be had also came in newspaper ads, pamphlets, annotated maps, and books. Bart borrowed “Free Homestead Lands in Colorado Described: A Handbook for Settlers” from a rancher in Hobart. The book was plain about the hard work it would take, but it got him excited about Colorado and the chance to have his own ranch there.

“Colorado has over 300 sun shiny days each year. Those who lived in damp foggy countries can appreciate the desirability of this. Unquestionably it is one of our greatest assets and combined with clear bracing atmosphere gives a vim and enthusiasm to our citizens that accounts for their physical and mental activities. It is rare indeed to find anyone with whom the climate of Colorado does not agree. Many who come to this State suffering from diseases in their incipiency become well and strong.”

He wasn’t married. He had nothing to keep him back. Twenty-some years back, his father had made his way west for land. So could Bart. After all, he knew a lot about stock raising.

It was time to give notice and make plans. Bart’s folks, Doc and Mollie, understood. He had their blessing. And Doc offered to help with a loan, a wagon, and a team of horses.

When the weather warmed, Bart made his plan. His best prospects were in southeastern Colorado. By wagon, the journey was 400 miles. That meant at least 20 days on the road. His Hobart friend Dick Cline said he’d go along for the adventure of it. So in the late spring, they hitched a team to a light spring wagon and said goodbye to their families. Mollie snapped a picture of the young men as they started off.*

“Bart and Dick Cline starting to Colorado, 1915”

They were 25 days on the trail, out through the Oklahoma Panhandle and then up into Colorado. They arrived, exhausted from the journey, in Lamar, where the Federal Land Office was. The town lay on the Santa Fe Trail. At the Eastern end, in Kansas, Bart’s grandfather and grandmother had operated a stage coach stop back in the 1860s.

Dick and Bart secured their gear and horses at a stable and took a room in town. The next day they found their way to a saloon and listened to the stories sweeping around about the claims to be had. Bart took it all in, there were truths to be found among the lies and tall tales and opinions.

One old fellow nodded his head towards the country outside, “you can’t find better soil for crops and gardens if you get rain.”

“There’s good land still to be had, but a man needs to hurry before it’s gone or too far from town,” they heard.

“Well, you’re already going thirty or forty miles, for good land,” another man said in response.

The next morning they called at the General Land Office and collected a map that showed available sections.

“Look fellas,” the clerk said, “understand, by the time you get to a spot, or get back here to claim on it, someone else may have filed.”

They needed to work fast. Bart and Dick jumped on their horses and started south. They worked their way south and west following Rule Creek toward Walker Canyon and Hackberry Springs, a promsing in Las Animas County. At over 30 miles, it was most of two days on the wagon road that ran along the creek. They camped the second night on Rule Creek.

A rancher living near the creek rode over to say hello. He sent his daughter to bring them a pail of hot beef stew from their kitchen.

“Happy to have fine young fellas like you in these parts,” the rancher said.

The man pointed some promising sections out on Bart’s map, and then rode with them up a nearby ridge to point the way.

Bart found land he liked in that north east corner of Las Animas County, some bottom land in a narrow valley, and the bluffs on either side.

They met another man who would be Bart’s neighbor. Bert Thomas operated the post office out of his ranch just to the southeast.

“Welcome to Rule, Colorado,” Bert said.

Dick asked him, “Well just where is the town?”

“The stock raising industry is one that few people outside of the stockmen understand or realize the possibilities of. Ten acres of average Colorado land will support one cow the year round. On a 320-acre homestead, the settler can graze twenty-five head of stock, and have sufficient land for a kitchen garden and plenty to cultivate in fodder crops for the winter feeding.”

“It ain’t a town,” Bert said, “It’s this here post office and the folks that live around it.”

They rode fast back to Lamar in one 35-mile day. Bart secured the land by filing his first claim, a half-section, 320 acres. He was benefiting from the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which raised the size of an allowable claim for just this sort of dry acreage.

Likely a range stray at Bart’s well

With the claim secured, it was time to get to work improving the land. Before being opened for homesteading, the area had been open range land, with the JJ brand cattle of the Pairie Cattle Company grazing all through it.

“Listen young man,” Bart’s neighbor told him, “The J.J. cattle like to get into the fields and eat our crops. You’re fencing them out, more’n you’re fencing your own in. When feed and water gets scarce in the rangeland, they’ll come for yours.”

Pen for cattle and horses

In any case, by law Bart had to improve his land for livestock and put up at least a one-room house. And he had to cultivate a portion of it. If he did so and lived and worked the land for three years, it would be his.

Dick Cline had a few weeks to help out. The two men gathered a wagonful of supplies in Lamar, and planned straightaway to fix a pen for cattle and a place to keep some laying hens. They buildt a corral out of the crooked trunks of cedar and pinyon trees they dragged down off on the bluffs.

“It is a simple life but far from an easy life. One who has not lived on a homestead cannot realize the things to be done or the disadvantage under which most of them must be accomplished. To start out, the settler has fences to build, a home to build, a barn, chicken houses and pig pens, and usually a well to dig.”

They got to work putting up a house.  At least the main material was free and close by. Bart built his house out of the red-brown sandstone plentiful in the area. They laid the rough stones for the walls, and brought windows and hardware back from town on each trip. They roofed the house with sheets of tin and weighted them down against the prairie winds with more stones.

Rock house on Bart’s ranch

A couple of neighbors came by to help lift timbers up onto the rock house for its roof. Bart hadn’t been afraid to ask for help. He’d already learned some of the ways of the folks in the County.

Folks along Rule Creek had told him, “Listen, we want to be good neighbors and help out, but when we do we expect you to pay back and we will get along fine if you do.”

And some men from the nearby ranch were happy to come and help.

“Those who realize best the problems a settler must confront advise that he should have at least three milch cows, one or more sows, and some chickens to start in with. With this livestock as well as a good team and wagon, he is assured of a good living for his family and the ability to plow his land and take care of his crops. The cows supply the necessary cream and milk for the family and also provide more or less butter and cream to be sold or traded at the store. Many a successful settler, however, has made his start without most of these things. Oftentimes, his principal asset is a willing wife and a family of hungry children. Rabbits, grouse, and fish have helped out the larder at many critical times.”

Bart was glad to have Dick as long as he could. After Dick went home, he’d try to get a neighbor or two to help out from time to time. He wrote the home folks that he sure hoped his father and Beatty could come out that summer and see his place and maybe lend a hand.

After four weeks, he took Dick to town for a train home. Then Bart settled in to work the ranch on his own.

The days were long and hard. There was never enough daylight, even in June and July, to get enough done. But Bart made progress and felt the pride of seeing his place come into shape.

He soon brought a few head of cattle to get his herd started. He dubbed the homestead “The 500 Ranch” registering “500” as his brand.

Bart and helpers branding cattle, 1918

Men from the neighboring homesteads came to help out with branding and other work a man on his own would struggle to do. In return, Bart helped them where he could. The neighbors came to count on him as a willing and able hand.

Learning to manage ranch life meant learning to live off the land. Bart had heard folks on Lamar say you could tell how long a homesteader would last on his claim by the pile of tins cans around his house. If it was a big heap, he wouldn’t last. But if a fellow lived on beans and what he could raise and hunt, he would make it.

Bart on a horse bearing the 500 brand

In the first months, Bart grew to have a sense of the wildness of the area. The countryside had its share of wild animals, some useful to hunt, and some troublesome. Skunks, jackrabbits, possum, all sorts of creatures turned up, generally when you didn’t expect or want it. There were coyotes and wolves too, more of a threat to a stockman’s investment.

Bart with his horse and dog Wiggles

It wasn’t all hard work. George Heckler’s place, a mile or so off, was a sort of headquarters for the area bachelors. Bart made a visit when he could. The men would gather there, and fix up some Mexican beans, deer or antelope meat or mulligan stew, dried apples, rice and raisins and sour dough biscuits. It was a welcome break from the lonely ranch. But going home from George Hecker’s always made the 500 Ranch seem even lonelier.


*It’s quite possible that Bart and Dick did not take a wagon all the way to Colorado. They may have driven in a motor vehicle, or taken trains. HERE is a look at the arguments on either side of the question.

Later post in this series: 

Bart Mahaffie Part IV — The flu reaches the 500 Ranch

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1 Free Homestead Lands of Colorado Described: A Handbook for Settlers. George Samuel Clason. Clason map Company, 1915 – Colorado – 318 pages.
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