On August 15, we’ll be hosting an open house at the home Nels and Emma built in 1887. It made the National Register of Historic Places last year. More details on that are available here.
In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August.
Cottonwoods weren’t the only variety of tree there, but I can’t check on the species because the grove is gone now. Trees have a lifespan, and these started theirs in 1887. The last of their bones were shoved to the side to make way for crops a few years ago.
It was bad science that encouraged Congress to pass the Timber Culture Act in 1873. Those were the days when people believed that “rain will follow the plow.” They also believed planting trees would alter the climate and ecology of the Great Plains.
This belief was a perfect example of the common mistake of confusing cause with effect. Trees and plows did not bring milder weather and rain. They were the result of more favorable weather and rain.
The original Timber Culture Act called for participating farmers to plant 40 acres of trees on their 160 acres. However, in 1878, Congress reduced that requirement to 10 acres of trees.
Nels Just knew a good deal when he saw one. He applied for acreage under the act in 1887. On May 21, 1890, he received the first Timber Culture patent in Idaho after “proving up.” One had to prove that at least 675 trees were still standing. He, his wife Emma, their children, and hired men had planted hundreds of “slim switches,” as Agnes Just Reid wrote about the origin of the grove in which I whiled away hours. Hundreds of cottonwoods lined a half-mile ditch bank, leading to the family homestead, providing shade in a few years and eventually a stately entrance to the property.
Planting ten acres of trees did not bring rain to the Great Plains or to southeastern Idaho. Nels had to get the water to the trees through a series of canals and ditches he sometimes dug by hand and sometimes contracted for with diggers and blasters.
Many historians consider the Timber Culture Act a failure. Most trees planted in the Great Plains died from a lack of water. In the arid West, where irrigation was a part of farm life from the very beginning, the trees did better. In any case, Congress repealed the act in 1891.
The grove Nels and Emma planted provided shade for cattle and a pleasant place for the family to hold reunions, beginning in 1904. Over the years, the family started having reunions at homes and occasionally parks in Bingham and Bonneville counties. Finally, in 1999 we came back to the grove one last time for our get-together. Many of the old trees were dying off then; their purpose fulfilled long ago.