John Henry Wilcott:
A Pioneer Twice Over
Part 2: Montana and Marriage
"A man can be a Bahai much easier when
he understands all of God’s work."
In 1877 the U.S. Congress reconsidered the Homestead Act, which provided settlers with 160 acres (a quarter section) of land. This was sufficient to the wetter climates of certain parts of the country, but not to dryer areas of the west where it took more land to yield the same harvest taken from the wetter areas. To remedy this, the Congress passed the Desert Land Act of 1877, which provided 640 acres (one section) at $1.25 an acre to a farmer who showed productivity within three years and irrigated part of the land.
In South Dakota efforts were moving forward in the development of dryland farming. This was an area of critical concern to western farmers striving to make a living in a relatively dry part of the nation that had earned the reputation of "the Great American Desert." While the western prairie had much less annual rainfall than the lands east, it did have enough to sustain agriculture of a careful, considered kind. The dominant issue was always the one of providing enough moisture to raise crops.
By 1900, Hardy Webster Campbell of South Dakota had become well known as a farmer who had explored techniques for preserving moisture in the ground. He had devised a subsurface packer that loosened the topsoil, thus creating a mulch-like layer that would retain moisture in a simultaneously tamped subsoil, especially after discing and harrowing after each rain. By 1905 Campbell’s methods became broadly known, including in Montana.
By 1908, led by the Milwaukee Road, railroads serving Montana in collaboration with Montana businessmen began major promotional campaigns. This was a result of the optimism bred by the aforementioned developments. Michael P. Malone and Richard B. Roeder in their Montana: A History of Two Centuries
list a heady combination of chambers of commerce, banker’s groups, newspaper editors, real estate boomers, the state Bureau of Labor, Agriculture and Industry, state college experts, the Milwaukee Road and the three James J. Hill railroads -- the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern R.R. and the Burlington R.R. -- giving rise to "advertising resources that no one else could match." Malone and Roeder go on to say that the railroads "...used nearly every conceivable method to publicize the fertility of the northern Great Plain and to lure in farmers. They offered prizes for crops and livestock, sponsored farm exhibits, ran agricultural display trains around the country, and spread advertising leaflets and brochures throughout the United States and Europe." The result, of course, was a mass migration of would-be farmers beginning in 1908. Indeed, just north-central Montana had between a thousand and fifteen hundred homestead filings monthly during 1910. On only one spring evening, 250 homesteaders detrained in Havre. The population of Montana rose from 243,329 in 1900 to 376,053 in 1910. The popular idea amongst many of them was the settlement and civilizing of the last great wilderness in America.
It was in this period that John Wilcott arrived in Montana. He settled north of Kendall, which is, in turn, north of Lewistown, a town serviced by the Milwaukee Road. A few years later, the town of Winifred would be established close to and north of his 640-acre homestead, but at the beginning his trade would be in Kendall. He wound up with a section of prairie typical of the area. Near a knoll was a creek variously called Dog Creek, for the prairie dogs residing there, or Sage Creek. A very few small trees grew near the creek and it was there that he and his Mother set up a canvas wall tent which would be their home for a considerable time. It is from here that he wrote to the friends back east through the Bahá'í News. The letter was published in the November 23rd, 1910 edition and prefaced by the editor:
A few interesting letters were received. One of them we publish herewith, believing it will demonstrate what can be accomplished for the spread of the Cause, no matter how adverse the conditions. We are pleased to present this letter from Mr. John H. Wilcott, who will be remembered as a former active member of the Kenosha, Wis., Assembly:
Kendall, Mont., Sept. 12, 1910
To the Bahai News.
Dear servants of Abdul-Baha: -- I know you will be pleased to hear from this part of the West. Although the work of giving the Message is rather slow, we allow no opportunity to pass. Mother and I are the only Bahais around here that we know of, and up to this time we have only had cowboys, shepherds and a few ranchers to talk to, who live many miles apart. My nearest ranchman owned 27 miles long of land which has now been sold to the railroad company. This is the way I reach these people, which may seem strange to you: First of all my claim is just where every one has to make their roundup. Hundreds of cattle are around us all the time. I have a full cowboy’s suit, and I am out with the boys and seem to be as tough as they are, so not to be a tenderfoot. From one to eight come to my tent daily and I am now called "the preacher" for miles around. Well, this is something new to the boys -- some one to talk of God to them -- and yet I seem like one of them. They tell it all over and I frequently meet a new one who has heard of us. One old sheep-keeper, who used to come and rest under a tree in my yard while watching his sheep eat, and to whom I would then talk, regretted so greatly the life he had lived that he told me he was going away from this life after living here thirty years. Before leaving, he came to bid us good-bye and we gave him a good meal. I think the seed had started to grow.
Many of the cowboys shoot game and bring it to us. Of course we have to feed many of them at times, but that is the only way we can reach them. At first some of them did not want to hear anything of God -- said there was no God -- but after some of the great hidden mysteries were explained to them, they became interested, and you would be surprised to see us sitting on a log outside, or in the tent, until 10 o'clock at night.
My dear mother is the only doctor around here for forty-five miles. The land is now all taken up and settlers are coming in rapidly. The cowboys told them that mother was a diploma doctor, so they have started to come after her, traveling from fifteen to twenty miles. She is not a bit slow in giving the Message. A few weeks ago when it was warm, a cowboy came and was resting by the tent. He asked mother if she had anything to read. She gave him one of our Bahai books. He cursed and said: "That is religion. Haven't you any papers?" So she gave him a newspaper from Santa Anna, which was sent to us by a missionary there, to whom I am trying to give the Message, but who has not been able to grasp it yet. Well, this paper told about God, and the cowboy, after looking at it for a while, said: "Why, this is religion -- just as bad as the other book." Mother said: "This is all we have here. We live for God." When I came in with a bunch of prairie chickens he said to me: "Hello, preacher! This is a great place -- nothing to read." I replied that I had just what he wanted, and going to my trunk, brought a book called "Indian Wars and Brave Deeds." Well, you should have seen that man! He was very much pleased and called for a few days until he had finished reading it. He then said: "If there is a God, why did He let those Indians kill those poor people in such a way?" That gave me an opportunity, and now the man begins to read Bahai books and does not curse any more in our tent.
I enjoyed reading Mr Remey’s letter in the Bahai News. I was very much impressed with his statement that when one is out trying to give the Message, he needs encouragement from the other believers. I find it so here and feel that the friends should think more of this. A little of my experience would convince one of the truth of this statement. I have received one letter from Johnstown, two from Chicago, and a few from Mrs. Goodale, of Kenosha, that put new life into me to do more work.
Any literature regarding the Cause will be gladly accepted and handed to some of the new settlers here. These cowboys are all good fellows and tired of this life. They are seeking for something and do not know where to get it -- it is the Message. So when any one goes out to try to give the Message, let us encourage them. In a place like this God is not known. They believe there is no God, no heaven or hell, because they have been taught so. It is not easy and one should be encouraged.
This country is wild with rattlesnakes and wolves. I have killed many snakes, but as the country is now being settled the snakes are disappearing. One was in our tent last night. We heard him rattle. We dare not sleep with an arm outside of the bed. It is getting cold; the mountains are covered with snow and we had four inches of it. We are still in a tent, but I am building a log house. Frost killed nearly all we had, but God giveth and God taketh away -- praise His Name! When I go for mail, I carry a gun because of wild steers. Every one carries a gun because of cattle and snakes.
My mother is 70 years old and keeps up quite well. We have lots of hay on the ground in the tent to keep our feet warm, but we have been laid up with colds. Everything here has to be hauled from Lewistown, forty-five miles. Our nearest place is Kendall, a small town, 5,800 feet high in the mountains -- a gold mining town -- about ten houses built on rocks on the side of the hill. Oil costs 50 cents a gallon, potatoes four cents a pound, etc. Before this cold weather came I used to lie in bed in the morning and take my gun from the side of my pillow and shoot sage hens or prairie chicken. They destroyed my garden, and four of five times a day I used to go around the garden to drive them out and also the rabbits.
I have taken some pictures and send you one of myself now as I go among the boys.
Here comes another old shepherd who likes to come here -- I can hear his voice over the hill calling the sheep, so I must stop writing.
We send all our Bahai love and ask your earnest prayers.
Your servant in His Name,
John H. Wilcott.
This letter reveals much about John Wilcott’s first year in Montana. The mountains he mentions were to the west and were the source of logs for his cabin which he hauled back a few at a time over many miles. It seems he may have acquired them from someone in Kendall. Frost says that he brought logs from the Missouri Breaks area which is also thirty to forty miles away. Kendall was a days' drive away by wagon and had the only post office and stores for miles. The frost he refers to apparently killed his fruit trees which he had brought with him from Wisconsin and which his family remembers as part of his stories. He also brought his camera. He had added photography to his skills and talents somewhere along the journey of his life, and we have photographs of him just at this time. The best known picture of him, which is featured in the 1910 Star of the West
article, shows him on his horse with chaps, hat and holstered pistol. Many Bahá'ís of the present day may remark as to his carrying a gun, which is prominent in that and other pictures he had taken of himself (presumably with his mother’s assistance), but the character and wildness of the land as he describes it illustrate how the gun was a tool of the cowboy of the time. This was ordinary throughout the West. Modern fiction and movies grossly mislead on this point.
As to John Wilcott gaining the reputation as a preacher, Frost relates that John seemed proud of being referred to as the sheep herder’s preacher. Perhaps it was appreciated in a humorous way since, as Frost reminds us, the Sears and Roebuck catalogue was known as the sheep herder’s Bible.
John Wilcott became a prolific letter writer, preparing several in a day. A few have been preserved and filed by the Bahá'í National Archives. The following letters, which tell so vividly his story, are partially edited for some of the spelling and punctuation to render it easier to read by the modern eye.
(9) Kendall, Montana
March 11, 1911
Allah o Abha
Dear Brother Windust your letter at hand. It filled us with joy to read its content. I enjoyed reading about the snow and angel’s feather. I sent it to Kenosha to be read because I really felt it would do them good to read it. Also many other letter which I have received. Some are very good and deep. In my last mail I got 25 letters. I am getting letter from all assemblies. I answer all and send pictures and they all seem to enjoy hearing from out here. We have still very deep snow in front of our house. The snow is higher than the house and the house is 10 feet high. I am sending you some pictures so you can see. If you love snow you would enjoy being here this winter. It would surely do you good -- or any one that is tied up in a city.
Here I am alone with God day after day. I do nothing but lie down and read. Mother is off on another case 23 miles from here to a small town called Dear Trail -- some settlers from Watertown N.Y. All I've done this winter was to split 4 hundred [illegible] for fencing and dig a well. We had to shovel 9 feet of snow to get to the ground so to dig. This is as bad as the North Pole. I got lost last week when I went after my mail. The snow was so bright and a terrible wind that I got blind, then lost my trail and had to make my way in snow to my waist and in places to my neck.
Sunday I walked two miles to give the Message to two young men from Ohio who I have been teaching all summer and winter and thought they had it good. But Sunday I taught them extra good and when I was all done I learned that one of them did not believe a word I had taught him; and still more, he did not believe in God. My heart sank. But I felt that God will bless the words I had spoken to them and in time they will wake up. They come from Christian families. I had a hard trip through the deep snow, but I now do pray God to bless all the seeds which I have sowed that other will grow from them and spread the Cause.
Brother, I know what it is to be locked up in a office or shop. I spent many days in one and used to feel that I could do any other kind of work and how often I would wish to be free out in the open air way off in woods or desert to see what God’s hands has done -- and at last I broke loose and studied much. That is how I became a gardener. I spent 3 years off in the mountains studying all God’s work, worked at a Mr. Willbank cottage in the Adirondack Mountains. Hardly any pay but oh, what enjoyment it was to be my own boss, go fishing, hunting and boating, studying different trees, wild flowers, rocks, most [sic] and insects. What great enjoyment no one knows only those that has been through it all. And I would[n't] change my study for any other.
Now, this great Cause is another great study which I love day by day and it goes hand in hand with what I know of the great nature. So every thing becomes plain to me and some time when I think it over I fill right up with joy to know that I know these both. A man can be a Bahai much easier when he understands all of God’s work. It comes to him so plain that he can see it easy and makes it easy to tell others of this truth. If every Bahai could make a study of flowers, trees, rocks, birds, most [sic] and all God’s hand work he would become the happiest man on earth. We are all driven too hard in this world and no time to look at God’s grand work which is for us to understand and know. And I have just begun -- I mean to push on and study more of it. I wish I could have all the Bahais with me. On a trip in California I saw wonderful things that thousands of others could see. Because they did not understand God’s work I saw so much in one place that I felt ready to die, thinking I had seen all of God’s grand work. Here where I am isn't much to see, only great prairies and mountains. But in other parts of Montana God has left great things for us to enjoy.
Well, Brother, write again [illegible] time. Love to you all, also the Assemblies.
Your Brother Wilcott.
If I get a crop this summer I will be all right, but if not I will be lost. But it is all in God’s hands. If he sees fit he will bless us. This is a good place to try a Bahai. He will either grow or fall. He will surely not stand still. I believe one winter is about all I want up here because of my Mother. She is all discouraged with the deep snow and cold and lonesome life and she is old and wants a better home than this for what few years she has got to live. But it was my health and teaching that brought me here and I [illegible] God will bless me for it all.
In among those that I am teaching are many women and children and they are begging of me to start a Sunday school. But I cannot see my way through it, because as it is we have hard work to live because there is so many that come here to eat because they know a Christian will not turn them out and they are really starving. Three families here are going around from settlers to settlers begging for food and if I would start a school I would have to feed many more. And what can a man do when he hardly can get enough to live on himself? And yet we cannot teach other and not live the life, so I feed all that comes so far. I am depending on my crop of wheat.
John Wilcott’s postscript in this letter can be understood more with this quote from Malone and Roeder about a sampling of the homesteaders of this time: "Beyond dispute many of them lacked farming experience, and this simple fact undoubtedly caused hundreds to fail. In a sample of fifty-eight farmers in a 'typical township' of Montana’s north-central 'triangle' region, agricultural expert M.L. Wilson found in 1922 only twenty-three who listed their former occupation as 'farmer'. Among the others, Wilson found two physicians, two school teachers, three 'Maiden Ladies', six musicians, two wrestlers, and one 'World Rover'." Doubtless, John and Eliza found themselves witnessing the difficulties of those who had failed early and were forced to consider the risks impinging on themselves.
(9) Kendall, Montana
June 26, 1911
Allah o Abha
Dear Brother, your letter at hand. Dear Brother, the reason I did not send for the Star of the West is because I am at present out of cash. I have 22 cents to my name. I need and would like the Star but cannot afford it just now, and will have to wait till I get ahold of some money some where. I am still working in the Cause. I have some new neighbor [to] enlist in it.
God has given us a good crop so far. My wheat is up to my neck.
My mother has been very sick but is now better.
Always remember if I do not read the Star I am with you all just the same and my prayers are for all the friends that they may become strong.
I am gaining in health fast this summer and working hard building fences to keep cattle out.
I am sending you a view of my place taken a few days ago. It looks different than it did in winter. I have a fine garden as good as any town east.
We would like to hear from Chicago if ever you get a chance to spare a few minutes.
Your Brother and Sister in the Cause, John H. Wilcott
[illegible] love to all.
The next portion of the story can be picked up by Frost.
"Somewhere between 1914 and 1916 he met my mother. He went to a ranch 20 miles away to buy some vegetables and he met her in the cabbage patch cutting a large cabbage. She was a beautiful 21 year old German girl (he was 43 years old at that time). She was accidentally there taking care of a relative’s relative who had just had twins. She expected to return to her brothers in St. Louis and then on to her parents in Germany, but dad convinced her to marry him so they were married November 11th, 1916...Mother taught father how to run the ranch, plant gardens, wheat and other crops. She insists that he never knew how to hitch up a team of horses when she met him! They raised chickens, turkeys, geese, pigs, cattle, etc.... "
"My mother and grandmother never got along and dad had to build a separate place for my grandmother....I was born the next September. My grandmother died a year later from hardening of the arteries. (I see dad has on the tombstone of my grandmother, 1919. I think it was 1918 because my sister was born in January 1919, and she died right before then). My brother was born two years after my sister."
The woman Ethel Frost is introducing here is Johana Schmidt who came from St. Louis, Missouri. She was the mother to the only children John had. Ethel’s sister was named Wanda, her brother, Norman. All three are still alive at this writing.
By this time, Winifred was an established community, for the wedding was held there at the M.E. (Methodist Episcopal) parsonage on November 14th according to a local newspaper clipping. John Wilcott presented his wife with an opal diamond wedding ring during the ceremony. A large quantity of flowers was brought up from Helena and was cause for remark by many. Johana had a huge bouquet and wore a light blue silk gown. John had a full dress suit. The couple was conveyed to the Wilcott home by an automobile owned and driven by friend Hubert Armstrong. Thirty guests attended the wedding dinner. In the evening the townspeople serenaded the couple. The local Times newspaper described Johana as cultured, charming and amiable and John as honest, handsome, enterprising and "a man whom any woman could well be proud to call husband." In this frontier setting, all of this made for a most impressive occasion.
Nov. 21, 1916
Allah o Abha
Dear beloved Brothers and Sisters in the Cause. I am very happy and wish you all to know of it. I was married Nov. 14. I am sending you a copy of our marriage [sic] which you may use if you see fit to do so. I am doing well out here and God has taken away from me this year and yet he has given me the sweetest girl around. We both love Him and try hard to do what He wishes us to. My wife is not a Bahai or has she heard of it. But she is a good true girl and I know she loves to do what is right.
I am your Brother in the Cause and would love to have some Believer write to Mrs. Wilcott in German if there is such in the Assembly.
Yours very truly,
Mr. and Mrs. Wilcott
There is only little indication of what difficulties arose between mother and wife. There is nothing to indicate that it was anything major, although family members express sorrow over much of what transpired after John’s marriage to Johana. Eventually, when the original cabin was moved from the ground near the creek to the top of the nearby knoll and added on to, Eliza set up housekeeping in the old cabin which became a wing attached to the larger new one. The root of any difficulties has been said to lie in Johana’s views on the Faith. However, she remained with John to her death in 1962. Frost recounts,
"...I was not raised a Bahá'í and my mother, being very opposed to the Faith, destroyed most everything. I did see some little books or pamphlets with the number nine on them and knew my father cherished them and would tell people about them. Also my father had a hand made Greatest Name, embroidered in purple silk thread. He said it was made by a Hindu princess and the last we knew of her is that she was old and lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Well, this Greatest Name dad had framed in a very heavy black and gold frame. He said that this was the Bahá'í colors and the way it should be. And for a side interest, this Greatest Name was not destroyed and hung above my bed and I am the only one to have become a Bahá'í!"
However, other observations made of Johana tell a much different story. Nellie Thompson Mereness, a Bahá'í from Butte who had lived in Great Falls from 1948 through 1953 met Johana and John during their visits to their son there. She wrote,
"In all fairness to my dear and trustworthy friend, Johana Wilcott and her belief and steadfastness in Bahá'u'lláh there is no doubt. I was very close to her during my stay in Great Falls and heard her express many times her belief in His teachings and would someday be one of us. Due to her husband’s poor eyesight she had for years read his newsletter to him along with the Gleanings, her favorite book. Johana was self schooled in the Faith but due to lack of encouragement and someone to talk to she could not express herself. The soil of that human heart was deeply plowed and furrowed with trials and tribulations. So when the seed was planted it took hold and will continue to grow and develop eternally. My deepest and sincerest affections to Johana and John Wilcott. May God bless them.
It would seem that the matter of destroyed materials was others' misinterpretation of the kind of major housecleaning we all do from time to time, accompanied by an unawareness that anything would have historical value. Certainly, many of John’s remarks in his letters support Mereness' view. In one documentable instance, quoted below from a December 25, 1932 letter, he even signs his correspondence, "From your Bahai Brother and Sister...