In 1955, Mrs. Madge Austin Wade gave an interview to The Sheridan Press about her pioneer life in the “…days before there was a Sheridan.” It still makes interesting reading.
Mrs. Wade was only 6 weeks old when she arrived from Kansas with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Austin, and her 4.5-year-old brother, in the spring of 1881. They settled in Big Horn on land they homesteaded below what is today known as the Canyon Ranch on Little Goose creek.
Mrs. Wade shared many stories in her interview. The ones about hospitality in the old days were notable. In her day, Mrs. Wade said that “…courtesy to callers in those early days meant hospitality to all travelers but never curiosity. It simply wasn’t healthy. The host neither asked the name of his visitor or where he came from. He might safely ask ‘What may we call you?’ but that was the extent of it.”
This caution stemmed from the fact that noted desperados had visited the area before. Mrs. Wade clearly remembered the dugout on Little Goose Creek where Big Horn now stands that had been used by the James gang as a hideout during the fall and winter of 1878 and 1879. Mrs. Wade believed that “…every person in the country suffered from the depredations of the gang.”
On the other side of the hospitality equation, the travelers had a code as well. Their courtesy forbade them from wearing their guns in the house when “womenfolk” were present. “They parked them outside on their saddles along with their spurs, another integral part of Western gear.”
Mrs. Wade remembered one very vivid instance when her uncle, a Texas Ranger, was a houseguest. Two “gentlemen,” showed up and, as was the custom, stowed their guns on their saddles but asked that their horses, after they were fed and watered, be stationed near the door to the house. Apparently, Mrs. Wade’s uncle, the visiting Texas Ranger, recognized the two visitors and rushed into the house to take his place at the table, directly opposite the two visitors. “Nothing was said but the two visitors were noticeably moved and kept their hands within sight.” When the visitors left they offered to pay for their meal but were refused. Western hospitality would not allow payment.
When the visitors left, Mrs. Wade’s uncle revealed that he had chased the two men all over the state of Texas at one time and considered them to be very dangerous characters.
Another interesting and frequent visitor to the Austin household was Frank Canton who later turned into a “bitter killer during the Johnson County war.” Mrs. Wade remembered that she “often sat on his lap and considered him one of the kindest of men.”
Mr. Austin, Mrs. Wade’s father, provided much fodder for fond memories. He was a wheelwright or carpenter by trade and was as busy as “the proverbial cranberry merchant” in building new homes and businesses in Big Horn and Sheridan. As a sideline, he built coffins of native pine lumber and “adorned “them with commercial trimmings. He was a hardy soul as well.
One bitterly cold winter day, Mr. Austin was building a coffin for a recently departed Big Horn school teacher. But, he found that he was out of trimmings to finish the job. Mr. Austin was known to be a great walker so he didn’t think twice about walking to Sheridan from his Big Horn ranch home to purchase the trimmings. He made the trip successfully, but it was so cold that when he got home his long beard was frozen solid to his chest. Mrs. Austin had to thaw it out in a pan of hot water.
Coincidentally, Mr. Austin lived to be 93 years old and died in 1943. It is also ironic that his wife died much earlier, in 1896, and she was the first person in the community to be buried in a commercial casket that had been shipped in.
Pioneer women like Mrs. Wade had a plethora of interesting stories; sadly, most of them are lost to history.
So whenever we run across some of these stories, we should resurrect some of them to give a glimpse of what life was like in those early days; and to honor the folks that helped settle this country.
Such was Mrs. Madge Austin Wade, who, incidentally, was one of the four members who graduated from the 1909 nurses training program at Sheridan hospital. She was a nurse for 40 years.
Tom Ringley was re-elected as a county commissioner in 2012. He is the author of four books. Ringley grew up in Sheridan and returned home in 1990 after 27 years as an Air Force officer. He has been involved with the local hospital foundation, the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo and has been the facilities director at the county fairgrounds.