Tales from the Tread: Margaret Duncan Brown: Shepherdess of the Elk River Valley
February 18, 2014
Beginning in 1918, Margaret Duncan Brown ranched alone for 47 years in the Elk River Valley of Routt County. Brown's "indomitable spirit, her great sensitiveness, perception and philosophy of life" live in her diaries that are the foundation of the book “Shepherdess of the Elk River Valley.”
At noon and 5:30 p.m. Friday, the Tread of Pioneers Museum will host Mary Walker, Brown's descendant, for a presentation on the life and diaries of this most tenacious rancher. To celebrate the centennial of Brown's ranch in Clark, where Walker now lives, Walker will bring some of Brown's memorabilia and diaries to share with the audience.
Margaret Duncan Brown, a teacher by training, and her husband, Dick, always had dreamed of owning a ranch. After moving to their new ranch on the Elk River north of Steamboat Springs, their dream began to fade with the reality of no lights, no running water and a leaky roof. The drudgery of the everyday routine of milking, feeding and cleaning the stalls wore on them, especially in the long cold North Routt winters.
In 1918, the everyday grind turned to heartbreak: "To this day I am appalled by the stark tragedy of life in not knowing what the next moment may have in store for us, at the suddenness with which the inevitable strikes at our complete unpreparedness. Dick had gone to Colorado Springs on business and returned home on Thanksgiving Day, 1918 with a high fever … I had heard people talking of the flu epidemic, but we were too busy to worry. Dick lasted only five days. There is no way to describe that final day when the winter was the most severe and the snow was the deepest I had ever seen. That day I blotted from my diary.
"The next day I took him to Steamboat Springs enroute to the burial in Colorado Springs. There had been so many deaths from the flu epidemic that no coffin was available in Steamboat, so the undertaker used some orange crates. Our train got stuck twice before finally reaching Colorado Springs.
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"After the burial, I felt as if I was crawling back to the ranch, maimed and hurt. I returned home to a cold house. I tried not to look at the medicine bottles crowded onto the little night stand table or the couch drawn next to the stove where Dick had fought his last battle and lost. The room looked indeed as though a battle had been fought in it. A man's life had been lost. He had been the other half of my life.
"After struggling to keep a fire burning in the stove with the snow-clogged stove pipe, I thought how difficult it would be to continue on living among the things that most reminded me of the person I loved so much and lost. I am only glad that they, who pass on, know nothing of the suffering of those who are left behind — the bewildering feeling of starting a day alone and finishing it alone. There was no initiative to plan alone except to do something for the live things on the ranch. I just lived each day to shreds, just ragging it out until nothing was left of the day.
"My original ignorance of the real facts of farm and ranch life was appalling. It had never occurred to me that a woman who had never made her own bread, milked a cow, raised chickens or planted a vegetable garden would experience any great difficulty in doing those things. Now that I was on my own, my original naiveté haunted me. I would just keep on fighting and writing."
And that is just what she did, for 47 years on that North Routt County ranch. "Life on the mountainside that first winter of homesteading was a rewarding experience. I had a snug cabin, a good cook stove, a solid bunk bed, a dog named Spike and lots of books and magazines. My inclination had been toward self-pity, but the complete simplicity of life high up on the mountain, in the little homestead cabin was like a healing balm. The stirring of a zeal for the whole project began to work like yeast and life began to have meaning again."
Editor’s note: Quotes were excerpted from “Shepherdess of the Elk River Valley,” by Margaret Duncan Brown.
Candice Bannister is the executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum in downtown Steamboat Springs.