Pauline – A life well lived by a pioneer woman

I wrote this piece four years ago when Pauline Welty was about to turn 101 years old. She was a neighbor of ours when we moved here in 1971. I took piano lessons from her a few times and worked at her dairy farm milking her herd of Holstein and Jersey milk cows. I did a little farming for her as well, irrigating, stacking hay, and cultivating corn. She was an icon of the area between Kinnear and Pavillion for many years. Pauline passed way Sunday morning at the incredible age of 105 years. Imagine a life that spanned almost the entire 20th century and extended into our own time. It was amazing, almost as amazing as her memory when I interviewed her the last time just before her 101st birthday.  Here is the piece:


Penicillin was a generation away. The news was all about the war in Europe and America was determined to remain out of it under President Woodrow Wilson.  Polio was still the scourge of summer, it was six years before WOK went on the air as the first radio station in Arkansas and 35 years before CBS produced its first hit television show I Love Lucy when Pauline Dierks was born in Stuttgart, Arkansas. A late-season tornado tore up the adjoining countryside to mark the event on December 8, 1916

Pauline Welty will soon be 101 years old and a personal witness to the vast changes that have swept across America over the last century.

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She was just a little girl on the farm in Arkansas when her parents Carl Fredrick and Helen Erica (Wirsing) Dierks moved the family across the plains to near Greeley in the now defunct Goodrich, Colorado in 1920.

Eight younger siblings were born there but the drought that produced the Dust Bowl in the early 1930’s bordered Goodrich and the worst of it was just a few miles east.

“Dad had been renting the farm and decided he didn’t want to rent anymore,” Pauline said. “So we moved to Wyoming to homestead.”

Pauline Dierks with her parents and eight brothers and sisters {h/t Barbara Rohn}

The 11 members of the Dierks family moved to Wyoming where he and his new son-in-law Theodore Roosevelt Stearns (born in 1903 and named after the flamboyant president) took a couple of the final homesteads in Fremont County.

Dierks opened up the present-day Meyer’s place on Shetland Road, Ted cleared the sagebrush on the place that would become known as one of the Stearn’s dairies and his brother Art Stearn’s homesteaded just to the east on modern-day Gabe’s Road on property now owned by Tim Davis.

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Ted and Pauline Stearns {h/t Barbara Rohn}

Henry and Sadie Schmidt joined the Dierks on their move from Colorado along with the Sheeles family and all lived together in one rented house in Riverton until their first homes were complete on the homestead.

“The coyotes howled so much it gave you shivers down your back,” Pauline said.

Their first home was built of rough-cut 1×4 inch lumber and covered in tar paper with no insulation. Only a wood stove kept the family from freezing in the frigid winters of central Fremont County.

Legendary mountain man Jake Korell lived nearby on the rented Roy Walker dairy that was purchased by Luther and Jeanette Tucker in 1971.  Korell trapped the coyotes in the 1940’s and 50’s eliminating many of them.

Ted and Pauline began farming in 1936 between Kinnear and Pavillion.

“We planted grain to start,” Pauline said. “We tried a small patch of sugar beets but that was too much work. We farmed with horses and one huge, monstrous tractor.”

Farms like the Stearns homestead utilized water from the newly created Riverton Project. Starting in 1922 the project was the culmination of 16 years of work dating back to 1906 and the ill-fated Wyoming Central Irrigation Company. Wastewater began flowing into a 225-acre depression east of the Stearns farm called Dry Lake and as the water began to rise the sunken depression of cattails and migratory waterfowl grew into modern-day Ocean Lake.

They moved a piano into Karl Dierks’s living room and it started Mt. Hope Lutheran Church.  The church was later built in Kinnear but moved to Glenrock in 1976.

Demand for milk increased as America became embroiled in a war with Japan, Italy, and Germany in 1941 and the young farming couple acquired a few cows and entered the dairy farming business.

“We started milking by hand for the Morning Star Dairy in Riverton,” Pauline said.

It was hard work in the days before electricity arrived, when power finally came to rural Fremont County the dairy industry boomed. But before REA brought in the magic of the electrical grid Ted purchased an automatic milking machine and a generator in the summer of 1944.

Four generations of pioneer women {h/t Barbara Rohn}

Their son Bob was born that year and Pauline was limited in milking, gardening, and farm chores by the imminent birth of their son.

“We started milking about 100 cows in the late 40’s,” Pauline said. “My husband built the barn and we bought the equipment.  They picked up the milk every other day in a big truck and hauled it to Riverton.

Their milking herd was primarily Holstein’s but they milked eight Jersey cows as well to increase the butter fat content of the milk. Jersey milk is considerably richer in fat and dairies pay higher rates for higher milk fat.

In the 1950s and 60s there were 42 dairy farms in Fremont County, all members of the Mountain Empire Dairyman’s Association that sent raw milk to various locations in Riverton. 

Dairies operated by the Mund and Sackman families along with Morning Star Dairy owned by the Peck Family pasteurized milk and sold it to stores in Riverton and to schools in Fremont County.

The Stearn’s farm sold Grade A milk to Morning Star beginning in 1955 but they also sold cream to the Basketeria in Pavillion, the Crowheart Store, the Riverton Creamery and a cooperative creamery in Hudson famous for their ice cream.

Generations of young children tried to get up early enough to catch the Morning Star milkman delivering milk, cream and butter in the wee hours of the morning in those little insulated silver boxes, but few ever succeeded.

The Stearns family along with nearly everyone else in the Pavillion / Kinnear area that owned a milk cow separated cream by hand in a hand-cranked separator and traded it at the Pay and Save Market in Riverton for groceries.  Cash rarely exchanged hands as farmer and merchant bartered for cream and eggs well into the early 1970s.

In 1970 Cream of Weber purchased Morning Star and there were no more independent dairies in Fremont County.

The dairy farming business soon began to decline.

“My husband died in 1971 and my son Bob took over the dairy,” Pauline said. “He was through with college. We quit milking and a woman near Lander had the last dairy in the county. Now there aren’t any in the whole state.”

The family quit milking in 1977 and sold the herd.  A year later they sold the farm and Pauline moved to town, eventually marrying the late Carl Welty.

The changes she’s witnessed over the last century are mind-boggling.

“Before electricity, we didn’t have television, we didn’t even have a radio,” she said. “Without electric lights, you went to bed with the sun.”

Pauline Welty lived to be 105 years old {h/t Barbara Rohn}

They played cards with neighbors on occasion and the children played with cousins and kids from neighboring farms but aside from school, there weren’t many organized activities.

Pauline remains sharp but is legally blind and lives in the Wind River Health Care and Rehabilitation Center on Forrest Drive in Riverton but her heart remains on the windswept hill of her farm.

“I miss the work. I have so many idle hours I didn’t have before,” Pauline said. “It kept us busy.”

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