Sunday, December 27, 2015

Family farms, legacy and traveling Lakota land


"A traveler has a right to relate and embellish his adventures as he pleases, and it is very impolite to refuse that deference and applause they deserve."
__ Rudolf Erich Raspe, Travels of Baron Munchausen



Lingle, Wyoming, 1985

The Treaty of Fort Laramie, an agreement between the U.S. government and the Ogalala, Miniconjou and Brule bands of the Lakota, Yanktonai Dakota and Arapaho, signed in April of 1868, said the Lakota owned the Black Hills of South Dakota and outlined hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The Powder River area was supposed to be closed to western expansion by white settlers.
That is all history, of course, but I'm a dedicated traveler of such paths.
There was about 10 and half miles, distance by car from Fort Laramie to the Stage Coach Restaurant in Lingle, Wyoming.
I lived in apartments next door to the Stage Coach, and worked across the street. I ate there almost every day, and knew the owners Sam and Wilma Bingham pretty well, I guess, for a traveler, and a newspaper hack. Wilma's sister, Meriam Bremmer, worked at paper years before, and years after I traveled on.
Back then, it was the height of the farm crisis. We ran auction ads, selling off equipment that families had worked years to accumulate, at pennies on the dollar. Times were more than tough.
In the summer, bikers headed for Sturgis rumbled through in groups and individually, often stopping and parking their Harleys diagonally in front of the Stage Coach, or Rose Bros. Tractor, or the Corner Bar that had once been a bank. I think now it is called "Bitch's Corner Bar," since about 2000, but there was trouble about that name, five or six years later.
There was also a little grocery store. A fabulously popular barber shop was run by a local woman then, and the Lingle City Hall and Post Office was nearby. Lingle-Fort Laramie High School educated the masses, and of course, the red-white-and-blue band shell with the American Flag flying out front, sometimes kept them entertained.
I remember the divorced woman who lived behind me in the apartments seem to have her eye on me, and worked for Sam and Wilma at Stage Coach. Meriam protected me, however, and besides that, I was always working, trying the get the latest Lingle Guide or Guernsey Gazette out, at all hours of the night and day. Plenty of time for lunch, though.
Merriam's cowboy rancher husband Dale would meet us over there, and we usually ate at one big table with Wilma and sometimes Sam (unless he was still cooking) and other stragglers we picked up along the way. Beef and Barley Soup. And maybe a sandwich, or something. Almost every day. Wonderful stuff, for sure.
On Friday nights, I would take photos at the first half of the Lingle football game, then jump in the car and drive to Guernsey thirty-some miles away and shoot part of the second half of that game — then run home and soup film in the tiny darkroom at our office in Lingle. Other nights and days were not remarkably different, with Lingle Council, Fort Laramie happenings, Guernsey School Board, and some kind of feature for both.  That was, when you could get the equipment to work.
We set copy on an old Compugraphic VDT, transferred the five-inch floppy to a silver monster in the back running three-inch light sensitive paper out in galleys, and under the cover of night (in the dark room) process a hundred yards at a time (or, at least it seemed like it was that long).
But the meanest piece of equipment in the place was an old address machine that still used metal address plates to mail the paper.  Meriam was really the only one that could make that work.
Though the stuff was old, the equipment was pretty hearty however. I recall more than once, when the Pat Davarn had to bring Torrington copy over from our sister paper in the middle of the night because their newer stuff was not working and he knew our old silver beast typesetter would slowly grind through it.
My history was made up of bear stories mostly at that time. My travels were colored by them. Much of my first two decades had been spent among the Dolores Bears in an idyllic river valley in southwestern Colorado. I don't think the life I had lived to date, was quite as rough as the wind-blown sugar beet farmers and cattle ranchers in Goshen Hole, by comparison. Family owned farms were in deep trouble.
Even Willie Nelson felt like he had to do something, despite his own troubles.
Farm Aid, a benefit concert first held Sept. 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois, was organized by Willie, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Reportedly nudged forward by comments made by Bod Dylan at Live Aid earlier, the three hoped to raise money to help farmers in danger of losing their farms under the crush of mortgage debt.
80,000 people, and performers including Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and others showed up in Champaign,  and raised over $9 million for America's family farmers that September. I was familiar, at least with the name and idea of Champaign, Ill., because I'd heard of it most of my life from the neighbor kids I grew up next-door to. Their parents had moved to Colorado from there, and gone to school at University of Illinois.
The organization is still going strong, but with the money from that first concert, Farm Aid established emergency hotlines for farmers and farm associations. I remember thinking how good an idea that was at the time.  Reason being, I had attended those farmers meetings and seen the anguish on generational agricultural  families about to lose the farm.
Strike that. They were about to lose their whole identity.
While covering a standoff between local police and a long-time farmer who holed himself up in the barn across the road, because he couldn't take the auction process and evaporation of generations of family legacy — I had heard the shot of his own gun that ended it.
Later, in California, I saw a man that lost everything, he said because banks had convinced him to borrow money recklessly prior to the farm crisis. The fellow worked himself to death in his 50s trying to recover ground, and died on the toilet during one of his few breaks in his 18-hour days.
Even their neighbors were sometimes unsympathetic, and of the opinion that they did it to themselves.
The hotlines were a good idea, though. And probably provided gentleness of words — words, like the shot, that can never be taken back.
But as I said, I was just a traveler in that space and time.  According to the treaty of Fort Laramie, the Lakota owned the ground and hunting rights anyway. It was supposed to be closed to white settlers since 1868.
As Willie said, "There is only one map to the journey of life, and it is within your heart."

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