Idella Smyer: An Uncommon Woman


For every famous or well-known person in the Old West you can find a hundred who were just as tough and resilient but who never got their name in the history books.

Idella Stephens Smyer was one such woman. I recently ran across her when I was reading about some of our local history.

Idella was born in 1871. Raised by her grandfather who reared her as a boy, she rode horses when she had to be strapped in the saddle. She took to horses like a duck to water and started breaking and training them. Sometimes she rode as a jockey in races.

She didn’t care much for schooling and only went a couple of months a year in the fall after they’d gotten the crops in.

At the age of 15 she married Henry Smyer in Decatur, TX in 1885. She and Henry moved to her 80 acre farm. Her grandfather gave her one heifer as a wedding present. That was the start of their herd. Each year they sold the steers but kept all the heifers.

The first of their 14 children, a daughter named Gertrude, came down with malaria. Idella took her everywhere to try to find a cure. Nothing seemed to work until Idella’s brother, Blue Stephens, came to visit. He worked for the huge XIT Ranch in the Panhandle. He persuaded Idella and Henry that the dry climate would cure Gertrude. So they packed up and headed west.

But passing through Jacksboro, Texas, Henry got a job hauling rock for a new hotel. He and Idella bought a tent and lived there three years. That’s where their second daughter whom Idella named John Willie came into the world. How fitting for a woman who lived life so large to saddle her daughter with a man’s name. I laugh every time I read this part and imagine a man asking John Willie to marry him.

Idella’s idea of raising children was to make them as tough as she could and able to take care of themselves in any situation.

By the time she finished with them, they rode wild horses like the wind, hunted wildcats, wolves, and antelopes. They camped out alone on the prairie and they feared nothing.

Neither did Idella. When her third baby was born she was all by herself. Like everything else in her life, she tackled the task and did what she had to do.

The Smyers made it to the Panhandle in 1892. They settled into an abandoned one room house here in Crosby County and took possession. With wood a scarcity, Idella gathered up an armful of cow chips and had a roaring fire going and within an hour was baking biscuits. (I didn’t know this but cow patties burn hotter than wood.)

Their cattle herd got bigger along with the size of their family. To make extra money, Henry took a job as a freighter. That left the ranch up to Idella to keep going. But she tackled it like everything else in her life-without batting an eyelash.

One day a raging wildfire threatened their house and herd of cattle. Idella gathered all the children who were old enough, gave them a bucket of water, and sent them out to help battle the blaze. They saved the house and only lost a few cattle. Another time when a blizzard swept across the prairie and caused her cattle to drift, Idella put her children into bed to stay warm and gave them strict instructions not to light a fire. Then she headed out to round up the cattle by herself. When she couldn’t get them to stay together so she could herd them into the corral, she managed to get them into a field of maize she was growing. Although the Smyers had meant to take the crop to market, it fed the cows and kept them together. Idella worked for hours in the frigid cold hauling warm water from the well to them. She knew cattle that had a full stomach and their thirst quenched would be content. She was right. She lost not one cow whereas her neighbor lost 250 of his herd. And when she finally dragged herself home to thaw out, she found her children up and dressed and a wonderful meal cooked.

(By the time their children married and left and the town of Lorenzo sprang up in their pasture, Idella and Henry sold off 1,000 head of cattle that all began with one lonely heifer.)

There were always horses to be broken and trained on the Smyers’ farm. In true Idella fashion, she let each child select a horse of their own. The only stipulation was that they break it themselves. And they always did.

Idella had both physical and mental strength. She could brand, rope, and bulldog. She could tail up a weak cow or dose a sick one. She could do anything with a horse and horses had a special place in her heart.

The woman who coupled a merry laugh and a great sense of humor always used her own brand of language-decent but strong. But there was a steely glint in her eye that promised she could hold her own against anyone.

Idella Stephens Smyer died on October 27, 1953 at the age of 83. (She outlived Henry by 14 years.) She had no complaints. She’d lived a full life and had done everything she ever wanted.

Do you have anyone in your family tree that bears a resemblance to Idella?

My mother comes to mind. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. I’ve seen her roof a house; fix a car; wipe away tears; kill a chicken, pluck, and cook it; pick and hoe cotton and rear five children while she did it. There was nothing my mother couldn’t do. She was my hero and my friend.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

34 thoughts on “Idella Smyer: An Uncommon Woman”

  1. What a heroic woman! I loved this post, Linda. As I’m rearing my own kids and hear them complain about taking out the trash and making their beds, I can’t help but wonder if I’m not giving them enough training in how to be tough. I don’t know that I’m ready to hand them a bucket and send them out to fight a fire or give them an unbroken horse to ride, but part of me can’t help but think that if we did a little more of that with our kids, they’d be better prepared to handle the world as adults.

    Something tells me that Idella’s kids wouldn’t return home after college and expect her to do their laundry and cook their meals. They’d be out on their own making lives for themselves, fully capable as she had reared them to be.

  2. Awesome story! What a contrast to today’s service economy with its high unemployment, etc., etc.. I have to wonder what Idella would have to say about the stuff we hear every day on the news.

    About raising “tough” kids… I think our society tends to be overly protective. I don’t want to see dangerous play equipment in parks, but at the same time, sometimes kids need to experience life without safety fences. My experience is that boys especially crave those experiences. It’s why their car insurance is so high! If they don’t take healthy risks, they’ll take unhealthy ones.

    Hmmm… sounds like a theme for a book!

  3. Good Morning, Karen W……..glad you found Idella as interesting as I did. One thing about it she certainly didn’t sit around waiting on a man. Her favorite saying was “I can battle my way.”

    I agree that if we would teach our kids more about how to survive in the world this country would be a lot better off. The majority of adults want to sit back and expect the government to solve all their problems and the kids expect their parents to hand them everything.

    I really enjoyed your To Win Her Heart. A very good story. I’m telling everyone to go out and buy it.

  4. Hi Vicki…….I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Idella. Even in her day she was considered unusual and a little strange. But she did as she saw fit and dared anyone to say anything to her. I agree that we coddle our kids too much. The hardest part of parenting is letting our kids go. It’s human nature to want to protect them and then we get into trouble when they don’t know to cope with problems when they leave the nest.

    I hope you use that theme. Sounds like an excellent story is taking shape.

  5. Finding Idella’s story was like finding a gold mine, Linda. This was an awesome post!

    Although I do have to agree, I chuckled a bit at the poor man getting on one knee for John Willie’s hand. :o)

    My grandmothers came to mind when reading this post. Both were strong pioneer women who endured everything Wyoming could throw at them and walked away with their great senses of humor and grace intact. I really can’t think of anything these two women couldn’t and didn’t do. And though neither one finished school, I can’t think of anyone with more knowledge. When writing a story it’s one of these ladies I always picture as my heroine.


  6. Thanks, Linda! You’re such a sweetheart.

    And Vicki, I think you’re right. We want our kids to be safe, but if we want them to be mature, capable, and self-sufficient as well, we’ve got to let them learn some of life’s lessons first hand.

  7. I think we over protect our kids today. I can remember when I was a kid what ever needed doing we did it. I was even up on a roof one time helping with putting a new roof on. I can’t do it now because I am afraid of heights, but back then it didn’t bother me. I still do a lot of things today that most women wouldn’t do. My son was never made to do the thing I had to do. I was raised in the country where he was in town, so maybe that makes things a little different.

  8. Hi Kirsten…….your grandmothers must’ve been made out of pretty stern stuff. I love the reverence in your tone when you speak of them. Sounds like they’re definitely women to admire and look up to. For some reason we’ve lost that pioneer independence that carried so many families through the hard times. One of the reasons my stories are set in the 1800’s is that I want to preserve their way of life and their unique way of looking at obstacles.

    And I still laugh every time I think of John Willie. Saddling her with a name like that must’ve made her extra tough. Reminds me of the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.” LOL

  9. Hi Quilt Lady…….it’s always great to have you comment on one of my blogs. I hope your day is going well. Sounds like you were cut from the same cloth as Idella. Maybe country living does make people more independent. I don’t know. But I sure think the state of economy makes a difference too. We’ll be more apt to do things ourselves rather then call someone if we can’t afford to pay for it.

  10. What a woman, Linda. This actually made me tear up a little. I’m just humbled and inspired.
    She reminds me of the heroines I create that are so strong and to read about Idella and know there were REAL women who were this strong is just exciting.

    My mother-in-law was a tough woman. She started married life in a tiny, ramshackle house with no electricity. She was such a true partner to my father in law. It really took both of them to keep a home going. He was out farming, doing ‘man’s work while she ran the house. But running the house was hard, backbreaking labor. Gardening, canning food over a woodburning stove in the hot summer. Seven sons. If she wanted bread she baked it. If they wanted fried chicken, she went out and grabbed one and killed it, plucked it, cleaned it and cooked it.
    She could cut out a pair of overalls for her sons, in any size without a pattern.
    She could do anything. And she did it with brilliant skill and a wonderful laugh and a generous heart. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever known and I can’t hold a candle to her.

  11. Hi Mary……..I confess that I couldn’t wait for you to read about Idella because she reminded me so much of your Belle (at least I think that’s her name) in The Husband Tree. You write such strong, strong women. None of them wait for men to get them through their problems. They just put their heads down and bulldoze their way through obstacles. It’s always so neat to run across real pioneers who blazed the trail for the women you create. Reading about Idella makes me tear up too and brings a lump to my throat.

    I would like to have met your mother-in-law. She sounds like my mother. Neither had an easy life but then there weren’t very many women back then who did have. I’ve been watching re-runs of The Waltons and I think the show portrays accurately the way life was during the Depression. It was always my favorite show back when it aired. We need more shows like it. But it wouldn’t get good ratings in this day and time. It doesn’t have enough sex and violence in it.

  12. Wonderful post and very inspiring. I agree that as a whole, each generation has gotten “softer.” We want to give our kids everything but that isn’t doing them any favors. Both my kids had part time jobs and now have wonderful work eithics. They helped pay (and still are) for some of their college education. I find they are a lot less spoiled than some of their friends that got free rides. I have to say my mom’s mom and my mom both inspired me. My grandmother came from Sicily and worked a farm with my grandfather as well as cared for her children and house (which they helped quite a bit). My mom is 89 and has lived alone since my dad passed 15 yrs. ago. She worked in their grocery store, hardware store and then in retail while raising my sister and me. Can you believe she still cuts her own grass (electric but still…).

  13. What a fantastic post, Linda, about a fantastic woman. I can’t begin to imagine today’s fifteen-year-olds doing much more than text and whine. Wow. We just tent-camped for two days at our local beach park and I felt like a harried pioneer despite the indoor plumbing nearby, faucets and warm blankets. Sheesh.

    My gramma grew up on a Kansas farm from pioneer stock. I love and admire her to this day. She is my hero. She was a minister’s wife during the depression, with six kids, and she could make something out of nothing. My mom said she had a job interview once and needed something professional to wear: my gram took one of my grandfather’s old suits and remade it for my mom, with a skirt, opposite side buttons. The works.

    This type of woman amazes and humbles me. I think I am the biggest weenie ever. Thanks for this inspiration, Linda. oxoxox

  14. Hi Catslady…….I’m glad you enjoyed my post and that you found Idella as amazing as I did. Wow, I can’t believe your mom still cuts her own grass at 89 years old!! I’d say she’s made of the right stuff. My mom died when she was 86. She still lived alone out in the country twenty-five miles from town and did everything herself. She raised the bar so high I’ll never be able to reach it.

    Congratulations on raising your kids to be self-sufficient. Good for you. They’ll thank you for it.

  15. Hi Tanya…….you’re more than welcome for the inspiration. I had to laugh though when you told about camping on the beach for two days in a tent and felt like a harried pioneer. We’re all so spoiled and I certainly am. One thing I read about Idella that I didn’t have room for in the post was that 45 minutes after Idella had surgery in her later years she checked herself out of the hospital and drove home by herself across the plains. She lived about twenty miles from Lubbock. Every time I’ve had to have surgery I stay in the hospital until they have to kick me out and then I go straight to bed when I get home. So yes, I join you in weenie-hood. LOL

  16. I think a lot of ‘women’s lib’ came along pretty late in this country simply because men NEEDED a woman to make a home. There was no one saying a woman wasn’t a true and full and essential partner in the family because no man (or woman) was stupid enough to not realize a woman’s value.

    Then I don’t know what happened. Maybe housework got easier? Or money became the measurement of value, so that meant a job that earned money was more important that a job that ran a home.

    I suppose we can blame Thomas Edison. All those electrical appliances.

  17. Mary…….you’re probably right. Technology ruined everything. LOL But, I for one am glad we have our modern conveniences. It would kill me to cook over a wood stove and do laundry on a rub board. Just think about having to wash all those long dresses and petticoats with yards and yards of material on a rub board.

  18. HI, Linda…I thought I had a busy day until I read your blog about Idella! I guess we are busy today in different ways. I have always admired the many skills of my husband. He is a farmer, rancher, and an oil man for his profession, and is hands on in all his work,but he is also an expert mechanic, plumber, welder, electrician, etc… But he does not take out trash! I think all of his skills have been self taught because he has always lived so far out in the country.

  19. Hi Tretha……..I’m glad you had a free minute and come over to read about Idella. I can’t believe none of your family knew her. Y’all know just about everyone because you’ve been here so long. I agree about James. He’s pretty amazing. He has the same pioneer spirit Idella and her husband had. I don’t think too many husbands do take out the trash. I guess they consider that women’s work. LOL

  20. Hi Tracy…….glad you enjoyed reading about Idella and her family. And I can hear the preacher ask, “George, do you take John to be your lawfully wedded wife?” That would sure turn heads all right.

  21. Hi Linda, I’m back checking my post for tomorrow and had to laugh, fellow sister in weenie-hood LOL.

    As for hospitals: I’ve had two surgeries over the years, and I milked each to the enth degree. I remember one, I wasn’t supposed to drive for three weeks. It was about the 19th day and our daughter desperately needed a ride to volleyball practice and I just smothered her with guilt LOL.

  22. My mother was one of the toughest persons I’ve
    ever known. She had to be to raise nine children
    back in the late 1930s to the 1960s. She cooked,
    cleaned, chased kids, sewed clothes for us,
    volunteered in the PTO in all the schools we
    attended, drove Daddy to the hospital when he
    had a ruptured appendix (She had never driven an
    automobile before & it was a standard!),arranged our religion classes by inviting an order of Sisters to teach the children of our area in our home, and headed up the committee that added a chapel to our parish church! (I was married in the chapel that Mother built!) When Daddy passed away in 1970, she went to work outside of the house for the first time and was quite successful in her new career!

  23. Loved reading about a strong woman. Your question made me think of my sister who can definately do it all. As a teen she wanted to go to mechanics school but that was at a time when that was not something that women did, so she was sent to secretarial school. She became one of the handiest women to ever have around. She can build anything or take anything apart and repair it. Writing this makes me realize that perhaps I need to tell her how much I admire her.

  24. Tanya, my sister in weenie-hood. I think when guts and toughness were given out the good Lord skipped right over me. I must’ve been in the wrong line. Or else He ran out before He got to me. 🙂

  25. Hi Pat C………Sounds like your mother and mine were kin to each other. They both did whatever the situation called for–without whimpering or whining or making excuses. They just plunged in and did it.

    Glad we both had excellent strong mothers. I think that’s the reason we turned out so well. Thanks for coming by.

  26. Hi Connie……..Your sister sounds amazing and definitely cut from the same cloth as Idella. Yes, don’t forget to tell her how much she means to you. You never know when it’ll be too late.

    Thanks for stopping by and joining the chat! I always love seeing your name here.

  27. Idella was certainly something else. I think the strength and abilities of women have been under rated for years. For all the credit that men get, in most cases it was the women who kept the family/farm/ranch running smoothly. How often have we heard about the men leaving for months at a time. Who do they think kept things going while they were gone? Not only did the women keep up their own chores but they took over the men’s jobs too.

    My paternal grandmother was very much one who lived the old way of life. She did work in a mill when young, that is where she met my grandfather. They had 7 children, loosing one to a ruptured appendix when he was 7 or 9. She made quilts from the scraps my grandfather brought home from the shirt factory. The were nothing fancy, just squares that were tacked. She always had a vegetable garden and canned the vegetables for the rest of the year. I am sure the children helped her until they left home. I would go over and help her weed when I was a kid, and brought my children over to help when I got older. She did all her own work around the house, both house work and yard work. Her house was always spotless. She had an old Singer treadle sewing machine and that was all she ever used. It is now one of my prized possessions. We all had fits finding her on a ladder fixing something by herself when she was well into her 80’s. I don’t think she was sick a day in her life. She had a dizzy spell one December and they put her in the hospital for tests but didn’t find anything wrong. She was standing in the hall talking to the nurse about being discharged the next day, when she just fell into the nurses arms dead. A good way to go. She would have hated to be an invalid.

    She was born Nov. 30, 1897 and died Dec. 21, 1983

  28. I meant to mention that I have finished the first 3 stories in GIVE ME A TEXAS OUTLAW. I enjoyed TROUBLE IN PETTICOATS. This is the second of these anthologies I have read and I will be looking forward to the next. Any older ones I need to look for?

  29. Hi Patricia B……..your grandmother sounded like a tough pioneer woman. Those women were amazing and so was your grandmother. And they never said a word, just quietly did what needed to be done. I’m sure you carry many fond memories.

    Thank you for the compliment about Trouble in Petticoats. I had a great time writing it. And I think it more resembles those old western TV shows than anything I’ve done in a while.

    Our earlier anthologies are:

    Then we have A TEXAS CHRISTMAS coming out in October and BE MY TEXAS VALENTINE in January.

    Thank you for stopping by.

  30. I have GIVE ME A TEXAS RANGER and really enjoyed it.

    I’ll be looking for the other two and looking forward to the Christmas and Valentine offerings.

  31. What an amazing woman! Loved this. Even today, farm life requires kids (boys and girls) to pony up, not to the extent Idella had to, but it’ll do. I’ve cut, rake, baled and hauled hay. I’ve milked cows, pulled calves in freezing rain, and been caught in stampede. I’ve worked on tractors, and rushed to finished shingling the roof before a thunderstorm.

    You know what I did during the 6 weeks off the “office job” when my oldest was born? My tiny baby and I ferried cows to the stockyard for my Cowboy while he was at his day job in construction! lol I remember pulling over on the side of the highway because my son was screaming for his bottle. I fed the kid, burped him, then finished the trip.

    And the women are strong in our family. My maternal grandmother used to move the WALLS in her house when she got tired of them where they were. I’m transcribing guest posts for my blog from my husband’s 93 Year Young grandmother. The first is going up soon.

  32. Hi Pam……thanks for stopping by. Glad my post caught your attention. Sounds like you had/have a lot of strong women in your family. I think strong women are the cornerstone to a family. They’re the glue that holds everything together. I can’t imagine ferrying cows to the stockyard with an infant. You’re definitely of pioneer stock!

  33. Patricia B…….I’m glad you enjoyed our Texas Ranger stories. My story in that one was a finalist in the National Readers’ Choice Award. That was a huge honor.

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