By W.D. Nottingham

Early settlers in Montana were ranchers attracted by free grazing on the “open range.” Their cattle were able to roam over large distances only to be brought together during roundups. Brands identified ownership, and stock was separated accordingly. Important to ranchers were two things besides grass, those being wood and water.

In 1909 the Enlarged Homestead Act, coupled with railroad access, brought homesteaders by the thousands to Montana’s prairies. Most had no knowledge of farming, the weather, and other key factors for success. The ranchers, now aware of the many problems, watched in amazement as these neophytes selected their 320 acres at locations with no water or wood for heat. My great aunt exclaimed to me that one family settled on “our pasture” which of course had been “open range.”

What seemed to be foolish actions soon brought descriptive terms in play, one being the “scissorbill.” This bird is actually the curlew, a bird with a long curved bill often seen on the open prairie… a bird of the prairie. I remember when my rancher father used to tease my homesteader mother about being a scissorbill, and she countered calling him a hillbilly.

Many homesteaders had great difficulty just surviving on “free” government land totally unsuitable as advertised. Life was so difficult, in fact, that about two-thirds of them had to give up. My rancher grandfather saw this and grew a large garden. He would then give starving homesteaders wagonloads of potatoes.

Ancestors of the smart, hardworking, and lucky homesteaders that were successful are the farmers of today, several generations removed from those adventuresome pioneers that the ranchers called “scissorbills.”

Humor is part of history and should be remembered just as past good times and bad.

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