| HISTORIC WYOBRASKA |
Huntley, Wyoming wasn’t always just an abandoned school on the side of Highway 92, a post office in a house, and a former church once inhabited by goats. It was once a thriving community, filled with the hopes and dreams of marginalized people who had crossed over 5000 miles of continents and oceans to create it.
| BEGINING OF DREAMS
When we think of minority homesteaders in WyoBraska, our thoughts often turn to towns like Empire, Wyoming, the historic settlement of African-Americans that straddled the Wyoming/Nebraska state line. However, another group of pioneers that you probably have no idea existed in WyoBraska braved the rugged landscape of eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, seeking a better life for themselves and their children than the filth, poverty, and danger that they had left behind.
Between 1881 and 1924, an estimated 3 million Eastern European Jews, disillusioned with life in the Pale of Settlement and in very real danger of complete annihilation courtesy of the Russian government, poured into the United States.
The majority of Jewish immigrants to the New World had previously been employed in the manufacture of clothing, along with other sectors of the textile industry. Most had never been closer to a farm or ranch than your average modern-day city dweller who thinks that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Possibly the lone defining characteristic that has been true far and wide since the end of the first millennium, is that Jews typically did not farm. In an 1897 list of Jewish Occupations in the Pale of Settlement, agriculture ranks #64 in the listing of professions, employing only 2% of the workforce. Even prostitution occupied a greater share of the Eastern European Jewish workforce than farming did.
That didn’t stop organizations such as the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or the philanthropist Baron de Hirsch from attempting to lure these immigrants west with promises of an idyllic rural life on the high plains of Wyoming and Nebraska. It wasn’t a hard sell.
Life in cities such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh was crowded, noisy, and all too often dangerous. Countless numbers of women and children toiled in sweatshops from six a.m. until 11 p.m., seven days a week, cutting and sewing clothing for as little as fifty cents a day. Sweatshops were not only unethical and miserable places to work in, they were often deadly. In the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, nearly half of the 146 workers who were killed were teenage Jewish girls. Life at home, with no privacy or clean water, and the knowledge that you could die in a fire in your death trap of a tenement building at any given moment was no better.
One visit to an average tenement building occupied by Eastern European Jewish families is described as follows:
“I have found in three rooms a father, mother, twelve children, and six boarders. They sleep on the half-made clothing for beds. I found that several people slept in a sub-cellar four feet by six, on a pile of clothing that was being made.”
To these immigrants packed together like sardines in districts such as Manhattan’s Lower East Side, with a population density of over 700 people per acre, the opportunity to move west and become self-sufficient farmers, free of their lives in squalid apartments where disease and crime were rampant and open sewage ran down the streets, must have seemed like a dream come true.
In 1879, Harry Fieldman was born in Jassy (YAH-see) Romania. Little is known of his childhood or youth until he was old enough to enlist in the Romanian Army. By the end of the 19th century, as Harry was obtaining the rank of Colonel, Jassy had become the center of anti-semitism in Romania. One day, while Harry was standing in formation, his commanding officer read aloud a proclamation stating that henceforth, Jews would no longer be allowed to hold the rank of either commissioned or non-commissioned officer in the Romanian Army. Harry Fieldman, an educated man who spoke seven languages, was then humiliated in front of the entire army by having his stripes torn from his uniform.
After 10 years of military service, still angered by the injustices that he had suffered, he and a group of his fellow Jews set out for the promised land of the United States. They walked from Jassy to a port on the French coast, a distance of approximately 1500 miles, before they were apprehended and forcibly returned to Romania. After his return to his home country, Harry married a woman named Rose Hacker, and they had a son named Frank Morris.
Harry never gave up on his dream of coming to America, and once again set off on foot with a party of fellow Jewish travelers. After they reached France, they received assistance from the wealthy Baron von Rothschild in obtaining their passage to the United States.
| THE FIELDMANS
Harry Fieldman had been a baker in his homeland, but after gaining entry to America through Ellis Island, the only work that he could find was as a dishwasher in a large hotel in New York City. He finally found his way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where after a year of employment as a baker, he had managed to save enough money to send for Rose and Frank. They arrived in New York City in the spring of 1900.
Around this time, the Fieldmans learned that the United States Government would give any adult who was the head of their household 160 acres of land in the western half of the country if they would agree to homestead the acreage for at least five years. In 1905, a group of Jews formed and delegated a man named Sam Paris (also spelled “Parris”) to travel out west, observe the conditions of this free land, and report back to them. They must have liked what they heard, because in June of 1906, six families, including the Fieldmans, boarded a train in Pittsburgh and headed for the Wild West. After three days, they finally reached Mitchell, Nebraska, which at that time was the end of the rail line. They were still over twenty miles from their destination, present-day Huntley, Wyoming. Mitchell at this time consisted of little more than a general store and several saloons, and the party was forced to spend their nights sleeping in the stalls of the livery stable. After several days, they obtained horses, wagons, a few tools, and some provisions, and finally reached the end of their long journey. A rancher named Clarence Jones allowed them to camp on his land. Jones also transported a party of settlers consisting of Harry Fieldman, Sam Paris, Hyman Rinder, Simon Silverstein, and a man named Padolosky 70 miles to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where on July 6th, 1906, they filed their homestead claims.
Life on the high plains of eastern Wyoming was certainly nothing like the newspaper advertisements and pamphlets portraying the land as a modern Garden of Eden, however. The first homes of these pioneers were semi-dugout structures, partially dug into the side of a hill. The ends and fronts were built up with rocks, picked up on Rattlesnake Hill, piled on wooden sleds, and hauled by the women of the families to their homesites, sometimes as far as two or three miles away. The entire structure was then plastered with mud both inside and out, creating a relatively comfortable and easy-to-heat home until a frame house could be built.
The claims of “best-irrigated land in the West” were nothing more than a fabrication created by land speculators. Goshen County, Wyoming receives an average of only 15 inches a year of precipitation, less than half of the United States average of 38 inches per year. The promised irrigation ditches of the North Platte River Project were still in the planning stages well into the 1920s.
A 1907 Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society report about the Goshen County residents stated,
“These settlers could not have possibly made a more injudicious selection. The precipitation being less than ten inches, the land can not be worked without irrigation and although included in the Government reclamation plan, it will take at least five years before the promised irrigation can be had.”
Water for all of the settlers, their crops, and their livestock had to be carried in buckets from Horse Creek, a distance of over two miles each way. Small dams were built in an attempt to catch runoff water in the infrequent summer rains, and in the brutal Wyoming winters, snow was gathered and melted for water. The wide-open landscape, with the nearest town being Torrington, 11 miles away, must have seemed like an alien planet to people accustomed to living cheek by jowl.
Members of the community often found a way to confront adversity and hardship through humor, though. A story is told of a new doctor who came to Torrington and was called on to visit an ill homesteader. Not being familiar with the homesteaders, he asked Doctor Barbee, who practiced medicine for many years in Torrington, for advice before making his house call. Doctor Barbee told him to look around to see what the patient had been eating. “If you see a lot of potato peelings, he probably has nothing but potatoes to eat. If you see a lot of eggshells, he’s probably been eating too many eggs, etc. Just tell him to have a more balanced diet.”
So, the young doctor went to see the patient. Sure enough, the man had stomach trouble. The doctor looked around but didn’t see any potato peelings, egg shells, or anything else to give him a clue about the homesteader’s diet. Finally, he looked under the bed and saw a pile of horse harnesses. He told the patient that he would just have to quit eating so many horses!
The first child in the community was born on October 3rd, 1906, a son of Sam Paris and his wife, Rachel. They named him Wyoming Benjamin Paris.
In 1908, more Jewish families had migrated to Wyoming, and a one-room school, called the Jewish School, was built on the site of the present Huntley School. By 1910, the population had risen to 93 individuals, and a Yiddish-speaking teacher had to be hired to instruct the children. Religious services were held in private homes, and later, on High Holidays, in the schoolhouse. A Torah was purchased and brought from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was kept in a private home until some time in the 1920s, when most of the settlers, broken by financial difficulties, dry weather, and the unforgiving landscape, had sold their farms and moved on to new lives in cities like Cheyenne and Denver.
Also in 1908, a post office called Allen was established on the Wyoming/Nebraska state line, five miles east of the Jewish settlements. It became a meeting place for the area farmers but fell into decline when Union Pacific announced their intention to open a rail depot and switch yard in 1921 and name it Huntley, in honor of their Chief Engineer, R. L. Huntley.
In 1921, a lumber yard was established, and lots were being sold in town, priced from $250 to $500. By February 1922, Huntley was experiencing a building boom. A rail depot, section house, hardware store, and general merchandise store were all under construction.
By 1924, Allen’s post office had been closed, and the community was soon a distant memory.
Drought, combined with the negative farm economics of the 1920s, created tensions between neighbors and within families. Many had left shortly after their arrival, unable to adjust to the harsh realities of life on the High Plains, and turned their land back over to the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, while others sold their homesteads and left for greener pastures as soon as their required five years of residence was fulfilled.
The Fieldman family were the last Jewish homesteaders to leave Huntley. Rose passed away in 1946, and Harry followed her in 1949. Their daughter, Sarah, married and moved to Lyman, Nebraska, three miles from where she was born.
Frank had taken over the family farm in 1922, and in 1942 was grievously injured when a bull broke his back. By 1952, he had rented the farm to a tenant and moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he was employed at F. E. Warren Air Force Base. While searching for photographs of the Jewish School and the Huntley homesteaders in 1968, he suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 68. He is buried near his parents in the Mount Sinai Jewish Cemetery in Cheyenne.
| IN THE FIELD
These are photographs made in the field for this story. On September 02, 2022 we began including more images in each story. We had so many left over we figured we should share them with our readers, and supporters.