Idella Smyer - Profile of Lorenzo CitizenA stout, elderly woman fidgeted about the waiting room of the offices of Dr. Sam Dunn, Lubbock. At intervals she asked for Dr. Dunn. "Dr. Dunn is engaged. He will see you presently," was the answer, repeated in the patient manner of a long suffering receptionist. An hour passed with many questions and much squirming on the part of the old lady.
Suddenly she lunged down the hall toward a room marked "Private". Several attempted to check her progress, but she swept them aside as a spring wind scatters debris on a Panhandle street, saying grimly, "I'm going to see Sam Dunn." She pounded on the door. It opened, disclosing the doctor and a patient.
"My goodness, Aunt Dell! Was that you? I can't see you, I'm busy."
"Well, you certainly can see me. I'm not goin' to wait around here all day." Dr. Dunn protested but his patient kindly interposed, "Go on and talk to your aunt, Dr. Dunn. I can wait." (an aside--Aunt Dell's real name was Idella, but everyone called her Aunt Dell). That 'Aunt Dell' had done the work. He examined her throat and recommended a slight operation to be performed by his assistant.
"Well, he can do it, but you couldn't cut on a dog of mine."
"I'd like to cut into you, Aunt Dell," returned the doctor, laughing. "I'd like to see what you are made of."
He returned to his patient who did not know that "Aunt Dell" was no relative of Dr. Dunn, but was a lifelong friend who had watched his progress with pride.
The assistant performed the operation.
This was 'Aunt Dell's' first trip to Lubbock since parking meters had been installed. When she finished her shopping, she stared at the little ticket under her windshield wiper. Shortly after, she marched into the police station, ticket in hand. "This says that you'll give me a dollar for this ticket," she said. "No, no, ma'am it says that you'll give me a dollar for over parking."
"Well, the way I read it, it says that you'll give me a dollar and I need that dollar for I'm collecting money for the Lorenzo Cemetery. As to paying you five cents for over parking, I'd have you know, young man, that I've hitched where I pleased ever since I could put this town in a teacup, and I'm goin' to do it as long as I please. Now give that dollar for the cemetery an' let me go."
The officer gave her a dollar and tore up the ticket. "Aunt Dell" took up twenty-two dollars right in that police station and left without paying for over parking.
When Idella Smyer made up her mind what she was to do, she did it and no one ever turned her from her course. In forty minutes after her operation, she was driving homeward over the prairies.
Idella Stephens, as a girl, showed the same characteristics as Idella the woman. She and her brother, J.W. (Blue) Stephens were reared by their grandfather, George Gwynn down below Rhome in Wise County.
Idella was reared as a boy. She rode when she was so small she was strapped into a saddle, but it was not long until she was breaking and training race horses and acting as a jockey in races.
She got little schooling. A month or two after crops were gathered in the fall, that was all. Teachers were incompetent and school was not attractive to Idella. She preferred race track, or the stables and corrals.
As she grew older she turned down many offers of marriage but when Henry Smyer came into the neighborhood, she changed her mind. She was fifteen when they married on November 19, 1885. The ceremony was performed in the family home in the town of Aurora, and a big dinner followed with turkey, dressing, cakes, pies, made of dried peaches, as women knew little about canning.
Her dress was made of lace bunting of a shade between gray and yellow and was trimmed with silk lace. It had a tight fitting bodice with six seams in the back, and a box tail like a man's frock coat. It had an over skirt, and was so full that ten yards were used to make the dress, which was lined throughout with a stiff dress lining. She wore a bustle but did not need to wear a hoop skirt as the stiff lining was enough.
She and Henry moved to her eighty acres farm. Her grandfather gave her a heifer as a wedding gift and from it they started their herd. Each year they sold the steers and kept the heifers, and their little bunch of cattle rapidly increased.
Their first child, Gertrude, was always ill of malaria, and they often took trips to different places hoping to build up her health. Blue Stephens came home from the Panhandle five years after Idella's marriage and told them of the wonderful climate of that region. Idella made up her mind. "Henry, you may have this little eighty acres of land if you want it. I'm tired of taking a young'un around, trying to get her well. I'm going with Blue."
When "Blue" Stephens started back to his job with the XIT's the next Sunday, Idella and her baby were with him. Henry came too.
Blue went on to his Panhandle job, but Henry got work at Jacksboro hauling rock for the first hotel in the town. Henry rented a two room house for ten dollars a month. In two weeks the owner came and told the Smyers that he had a chance to sell the house, and would give them twenty-one dollars to buy a tent. They set it up in the back yard of a lady who let Henry use her corrals for his horses and get water at her well. They lived there three years.
Another daughter was born to them the first year. They named her John Willie. "Blue Stephens" real name was John, and the son of the lady where they lived was named Willie, so John Willie started life, a girl with two boys names.
The Smyers moved on to a point in Knox County. They squatted on a railroad section. They had no idea who owned it and nobody seemed interested in it, so they broke out land enough for a crop and dug a well. Henry did the digging, Idella hauled off the dirt. They built a one room house, but Idella killed off so many coyotes that the bounty enabled her to add a shed room.
When a baby was born to them in this house, Henry started for a doctor, but Idella sent a woman to call him back. She was alone when the child came.
They lived in Knox County fifteen months, then in 1892 set out for the Plains. In the country below Dickens, a wagon road was being blazed through the low timber. The Smyer wagon was one of the first to pass that way, bumping over the stumps still standing.
They moved north and camped near the Hank Smith place in Floyd County. Next morning the entire Smith family came to get acquainted, and to bid the Smyers welcome to the Panhandle.
The Smyers drove up to a place that had a one room box house with a little furniture in it. They took possession, and began to make it homelike. The stove was full of ashes. Idella called her husband, "Henry, did you ever see so many ashes in your life? What on earth did that man burn in this stove?" Henry laughed at Idella, cleaned out the ashes, filled the stove with cow chips, poured kerosene on them, and in a few minutes that stove was so hot that Idella could cook bread. They had sour dough biscuits, fried bacon, coffee, and "Lick", or syrup.
Idella came to like cow chips fuel and long afterwards she said she would go a mile to smell once again the peculiar tang that arose from it. Never had she eaten food that tasted so delicious as food cooked with the surface coal of the prairies.
Every year or two a new baby came, the family and the responsibilities increased. Every year their cattle herd grew larger as heifers became mothers. Henry farmed and kept horses and cattle and sold steers but he had to get out and run a freight wagon to make a living for his family. The burden of the cattle business rested on Idella and the children.
Idella met every emergency without whimpering. When fire broke out in New Mexico and ran across the country, headed towards Idella's house, she sent all the children who were able to carry a bucket of water out on the prairie near the house, telling them that if they saw burning cow chips blowing and setting fire to the grass, to head it off and pour water on it. She splashed water on the feed stack and the grass about the house. Together they saved the house and the feed.
A blizzard found Idella alone with four children and a bunch of cattle that began to drift. She put all four children in one bed to keep warm, told them not to light a fire on any account, then set out to turn the cattle back.
Those cattle hated to face that north wind. Just as she would fight the herd back nearly to the corrals, a cow would break back toward the South, and the others would follow. She had a field of good maize, which Henry meant to sell. By working for hours, she supplied them with water warm from the well. Cattle that were not thirsty and were warm with food lost all desire to drift even from a norther, so she left them and went to the house, worn out, almost frozen.
She dreaded making a fire and feeding the hungry children and herself, but it was afternoon and this was her next urgent duty. She found a fire going, the children up and dressed and a good meal cooked. An old bachelor, Marion Reed, furiously angry, was waiting for Idella. "Mrs. Smyer, you have no right to have children. Here you are, out saving a bunch of cattle and letting your children starve and maybe freeze. You are the worst mother I have ever knew. You haven't a bit of sense."
"Is that what you think, Bud? Well, that's too bad. Anyway, I use the sense I have. You must remember that I can have more children, but I can't have any more cows. They cost money.
The bachelor had no idea that Idella was joking. He did not appreciate the heroism of the woman but he had to grant that Idella was a good cattle woman for she did not lose a head while one neighbor lost two hundred fifty head, and all the neighborhood suffered. When neighbors challenged her judgement in letting cattle trample down that maize, she said, "Why, I just let those cows wrestle for themselves instead of hauling feed to 'em'".
On some Sundays the Smyers went into Estacado to the Quaker meeting. Don't guess they ever had a preacher. After they sang a song or two, one man would get up and say a few words. Then another fellow a way across the room would get up and talk a while and then some other one, and that was all there was to their meeting. They were mighty fine folks and good neighbors.
Estacado wasn't much of a town then. Quaker, Charles Holmes, had a store and post office and there were a few families, the Coxes, the Hunts, the Holmes, and others living there. They called everyone, young and old, by the first name and said "thee and thou".
I got those twelve children off to church by bathing them all on Saturday. We'd take dinner to church and all the families would eat together. Had to cook a lot on Saturday. Spent the day at church; had service morning and afternoon." But the Smyers did not often go to church. There were too many of them to get ready; often there was a new baby to be considered. Besides Henry was usually out and gone, freighting here and there, so Idella and Gertie and John Willie, who lived up to both of their names, and the boys and girls who followed those two older girls, had to look after the stock. There always were horses to be broken. Idella Smyer let each child pick out the horse he wanted on condition that the child would break and train. Gertie selected a five year old that was hard to break, but when she finally got it under control, it would not let anyone but Gertie ride it. Those girls could ride like cowboys.
Idella Smyer's idea of training children was to make them tough, able to take care of themselves in any emergency. Nothing daunted a Smyer. They rode wild horses, they drove like the wind, they hunted wildcats, wolves and antelopes. They camped out alone. They feared nothing.
When Sid was seven years old, some of the neighboring cowboys dared him to ride his Shetland pony through the store in Emma, operated by John Witt, who started up in business in Amarillo, decided Amarillo would never be a town so he moved to Emma, which then had a promise. Sid made his pony walk up the stops of the porch, through the store and out of the back door. John Witt, laughing, followed Sid with a treat of candy. An old man of the neighborhood, looking on, declared it was his duty to bring Sid up before the grand jury for this. Maybe that would check such a wild child in his downward path. "Well, it's my store," said John Witt, "and if I do not see fit to bring charges against Sid, I don't see why you would. It was just a boy's fun and I didn't mind a bit."
Sid went that gait most of his life, and it is said that when the Smyers bought a car, the third car in Lorenzo, Sid took it out in the pasture to see if he could turn it over. Those Smyer children broke up car after car, for the old people, but Henry and Idella made little protest. There were always more cars.
But there were many years of hardships before they had a car. Years when they all worked hard and saved and bought more and more land until the Smyers owned seven sections of fine land. "It took guts and nerve to get along then," said Mrs. Smyer, long afterward. "Now it takes a pretty face."
Henry freighted for fifteen years. He hauled from store to ranch and ranch to ranch. He used to go down in Garza County to get salt from the lakes and to see to his customers.
"Folks were honest in early days," said Idella. "Henry took feed enough to supply his team, going and coming. In order to lighten his load, he came back, too. He'd load on his wagon and feed his team until he got home. Folks were neighborly, too; everyone helped everyone else."
Mrs. John Witt saved Idella's life. The doctor had given Idella up to die one night. She had dysentery and nothing would check it. John Witt went over to see her about two o'clock. He hurried back to report Idella's condition. Mrs. Witt got up at once; they killed a chicken; she boiled the gizzard and sent the broth to Idella who was cured by morning.
Everyday something happened on the Smyer Ranch. Henry once chanced to have a day off. He remarked to Idella and Gertie, "Let's have some fun. Let's break some broncs." In a little while, Wes Dalton came by and stared about him in amazement. The three were on wild horses, each going his different way. Any direction West looked in that pasture there was a bronc, pitching and running. There was plenty of fun on the Smyer ranch for about an hour.
Idella Smyer was a woman of unusual strength, both physical and mental. She ran the ranch, made plans for the family, made business deals. She handled situations without gloves, using plain cowboy English and going straight to the heart of a situation. she could brand, rope, bulldog; she could tail up a weak cow, or dose a sick one; she could do anything with a horse, and horses were dearest to her heart.
Idella reared a strong brood. Someone asked her how she got all those children bathed. "Just round'em up and run them through the tank," she answered, for nothing ever soured Idella's sense of humor.
The children grew to womanhood and manhood and married off. When the Santa Fe railroad built toward the Smyer ranch the town of Lorenzo was started in their pasture, and the Smyers built the first big residence in town, about a mile from the old home place. Henry built a store and a cafe, then sold out. They sold off their cattle 1,000 head, started with a heifer.
When the Smyers had been married fifty years, they invited their friends to a reception. About two hundred fifty folks were there. Idella determined to duplicate her wedding dress, that basque with six seams in the back. She sat down with paper and scissors to figure out a pattern. Her daughter-in-law offered to make the dress for her, but Idella said, "No, I'll make my own dress." She finally worked out her pattern and made her dress.
Idella Smyer always used her own brand of language, decent but strong; she had her merry laugh, but there was a steely glint in her eye when she was making a decision, and nothing could turn her. If Dr. Dunn were to cut into her to find what she was made of, he no doubt would find iron and sunshine.
A characteristic speech of hers was, "I can battle my way." Idella Smyer always battled her way, but with so much kindness of heart, that she is still the much loved 'Aunt Dell' to her neighbors.
Mrs. Joe Jennings, Chester Maxey, Mrs. William Scarbrough and John R. Green are grandchildren of Aunt Dell. The home place she speaks of, is the house and barn east of Lorenzo.Written by Laura V. Hamner
Submitted by Euleta Poulson
Copied from The Lorenzo Leader, Tuesday, June 22, 1976, 9th year, 18th issue.
From the book "Once Upon A Plain" by Carroll Wayne Wallace, Sr. and Sydna E. Wallace ©2000
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