A Little House in the Desert

My love for the west comes naturally, though I have never lived there. My father’s family homesteaded in Arizona (he was two), and I grew up on his family tales and those of my uncles. The most cherished volume in my library is a history — written by my Uncle Morgan –of those homesteading days.

He was a superb salesman as well as a man of many other talents and though I believe his “history” is the only volume he wrote, it is a fascinating and wonderfully written glimpse of the west by a young boy, a teenager and a young adult.

Writing seems to be part of the Potter genes. My grandmother wrote poems and greeting card verses in the early part of the twentieth century, and her mother too was a writer. One uncle was a foreign correspondent, and the other wrote this very readable story of early days in and near Bisbee, Arizona.

But I digress. I picked up the “Potter” history the other day and did nothing for the next day but read again and relish. I thought I would share a few of the stories with you.

My favorite came as my grandfather was moving his family from a comfortable home in Minneapolis to Arizona where wealth and prosperity waited. It was the siren call to the male species that sent so many risking lives and fortunes to travel west.

In this case, they went by train, not covered wagon, but my grandmother’s reaction to the journey was the same as many of the accounts I’ve read of the woman’s view of the journey west.

“It was about noon when we reached the half way point where the future Potter ranch was to be located, and Will (my grandfather) wanted Minnie (my grandmother) to see the Paradise that he had promised her back in Minneapolis a month or two ago; so he had her come out and stand with him on the porch of the caboose so he could point out the landmark he had remembered; and just where he was going to build the most beautiful ranch house she could envision.

“As the train approached the white post designating Heckle (a whistlestop near his proposed ranch), Dad spied the mesa jutting out from the mountains on the right. He said, ‘Look, Minnie. That’s where we are going to live. We’ll . . .

“End of quote, as Mother, being pent up with trepidation during the last few days of gawking through dusty windows and without a bath in God knows how long, threw out her arms in dismay and wailed, ‘Oh, Will, not this! You mean you sold our beautiful home in Minneapolis with its beautiful parks and lakes to come out here to this desert with scarcely a tree?’ With that, her arms still outstretched, her purse strap broke, and all the family valuables, as she was our treasurer, went flying down the roadway, fading from sight as the train finally came to a step about a half mile down the track when the Conductor pulled the emergency signal, warning the engineer to stop.”
The train couldn’t wait, so they put my grandfather off the train, “with Mother in tears, whether in anger or sorrow at the calamity she had caused.”

The story had a happy ending, in that my grandfather found the purse, and also spied a tent a mile off the railroad. A family of homesteaders lived there and drove Dad to the nearest town.

There are so many other stories recounted in the family history. My uncle recounted his first glimpse at what was going to be his father’s “empire,” traveling with him for miles on an overloaded wagon over land with no roads to the ‘homestead.’ A beautiful place, according to my uncle. “We gazed over the beauty of the desert in bloom with spring flowers, cacti, mesquite, grey-green bunch grass, flowing with the slight breeze that stirred up occasional ‘devil’s chariots’ as Dad called the small whirlwinds of dust.”

Then they discovered a slight problem. No water.

On a neighbor’s advice, they finally found water by going to a steep, dry river bed and digging a hole about a foot or two deep. They had to wait a few minute for the hole to fill with water before they could bail it out.

Undaunted, they filled up barrels and returned to the homesite. It was a journey often made in the next months. But the two of them started to build their home while Minnie remained in town with two younger sons. At the end of the first week, my uncle – then eleven – reported being tired but happy. “A few unexpected callouses on our hands, backaches from sleeping on the hard ground, a few burns from handling hot pans, and sunburns turning to healthy tans were the only casualties. We had killed a few rattlesnakes, scorpions and one Gila monster. We were learning the facts of life in the west. As we lay on our blankets at night, the sun setting in a fiery blaze, being quenched as it sunk behind the buttes, we couldn’t fail to fall in love – I did, not with a gal, but with the west.”

It didn’t go exactly as planned. A home was built by my grandfather and eleven-year-old uncle, but my grandfather’s dream of an empire never materialized. The land was too dry for farming or ranching. An attempt to find gold failed. Eventually my grandfather had to find a job in a town named Safford. Temporarily defeated, they moved back to Minneapolis but eventually returned to Bisbee, Arizona where my grandfather worked for the mining company and built houses. The Arizona bug had bitten hard.

They never returned to their little house in the desert, but the stories while there are many and colorful. And my grandmother who was so horrified at seeing the desert that was to become her home wrote this poem on leaving it:

“I sit in my humble doorway,
But I’m richer far than most,
For my doorway reaches to the skies,
Which is more than others boast.

And my air is undiluted
By dust and soot and smoke,
And my sun spilled down unhampered
When the golden morning broke.

Ah, men have cluttered the city
But God leaves the desert free,
Free for the healing of body and soul,
With only Himself and me.”

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12 thoughts on “A Little House in the Desert”

  1. What a delightful story, Pat. You do come by your story-telling genes naturally. Your Uncle Morgan was a gem. I could just imagine your grandmother’s chagrin at seeing the barren place her husband was bringing her to. I don’t think I could have been impressed to go – I love western stories, but I like my modern conveniences more.

  2. The poem really hit me. I loved all of this, Pat; you evoked so much emotion and so many “scenes” in my imagination. What terrific fodder your ancestors left you for your stories. But I totally agree with Cheryl. I love reading about the old West, but I love my indoor plumbing, Visa card, and antibiotics to name a few LOL. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  3. Hi Pat! Loved reading your account of your grandparent’s attempt to settle in Arizona. It would’ve been such a drastic switch to move from Minnesota to Arizona! My gosh. I can only imagine your grandmother’s horror at the stark landscape. I’m glad they found her purse and what money they possessed. Her heart must’ve sunk when it spilled onto the train tracks. These kind of stories really spark my imagination. You’re so lucky to have those written accounts. They’re invaluable. I don’t think my grandparents could even read, much less write. I wish they had’ve though. The verbal stories have faded over time and I don’t have anything to show what kind of people they were like. That’s sad.

    Yes, I can see why you came by writing honestly. It was inevitable. You’re so talented. Keep those stories coming! 🙂

  4. Pat, I loved this! Fascinating reading, and how fortunate you are to have this bit of your family’s history preserved for you. That your Uncle Morgan took the time to write is pricless!

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Pat, what a wonderful history you have! I loved reading this. I can’t blame your grandparents for falling in love with Arizona. Of all places, I fell in love with it, too. There’s such a variety of climate and landscapes within a relatively short distance. It’s great that you had people in your family who wrote. Your grandmother’s poem goes straight to the heart.

    I’ve always been fascinated with finding out about my ancestors. No easy task because no one before me seemed interested and had no answers. I am a bit concerned that my own son shows this same disinterest in where he came from.

    Lovely post! :o)

  6. Pat – Thanks for sharing your story and your grandmother’s poem. I see where you got your writing talent! It’s so funny for me, since I was born in New York, a real citified girl and I have a true love of the American West too. But my ancestors were from Europe and I know they didn’t travel west when they got here.
    But my father loved history and made true events come alive with his storytelling abilities and that’s how I came to love the West!

  7. That poem was wonderful. For your grandma to have come that far in her adjustment to the west just shows she was a true pioneer. I loved the stories that got passed down.
    Thanks for sharing them.
    I know of some old letters from my grandmother that seem to have always floated just out of my reach. I’m going to get more serious about tracking them down.

  8. Pat- you have been truly blessed with having such a rich collection of real life experience and history recorded in your family. And your grandmother’s poem has me almost in tears. It’s just beautiful.

    If only we were all so lucky to have that kind of family history at our fingertips! There’s a lot about my family history that I don’t know anything about and it pains my heart to know I may never know as much as I would like. I only have one living grandmother left on my dad’s side and no great-grands. The only stories I know are the ones I’ve been told and even those get confused and jumbled in my mind from time to time.

    Thanks so much for sharing this today.

  9. It reminds us all, I think, to try to keep a written record for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We look back and think how primitive life was in Arizona only a hundred years ago. I always wonder if people a hundred years hence will look back and wonder how we ever got along with only a microwave, fridge, an auto that drives on roads and . . . well, I leave it to you.

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