How the West was Won (lyrics from the theme of the 1962 movie)

Promised land, the land of plenty rich in gold;

Here come the dreamers with Bible, fist, and gun.

Bound for land across the prairie their wagons rolled;

Hell bent for leather, that’s how the West was won.

 

Stride by stride, they tamed the savage prairie land;

Nothing stopped them, no wind, nor rain, nor snow.

Side by side, these pioneers from every land

All pulled together.

That’s how the West was won.

 

Dream by dream, they built a nation from this land.

Forged in freedom for every mother’s son.

Here it is, the beautiful, the promised land.

We won’t forget them – that’s how the West was won.

In May, 2018, I visited Pawnee National Grasslands in north central Colorado, as well as some of the surrounding towns.  These extensive Grasslands are hardly undisturbed prairie habitat, having been exploited over time by cattle barons, farmers, oil and gas developers, and most recently wind farm operators. Homesteaders began moving into the area in the mid-1880s, though the drought years of that decade severely constrained agricultural pursuits in the area. The early 20th century was more prosperous for farmers due to above-average rainfall. Expansion of the Homestead Act coupled with increased grain prices due to World War I saw additional virgin grasslands plowed under. By the early 1930s, however, wheat prices fell and persistent drought (the Dust Bowl) drove agriculture away.

As a complement to the romantic sentiments expressed in the lyrics above, in this exhibit I try to suggest the harsh challenges of making a life on the plains. Even with a car, I found distances to be daunting. I have to imagine that loneliness was pervasive among early homesteaders. Most of the images show some type of interaction between human economic activities and the landscape. Grain silos and other sturdy infrastructure depict successes in taming the prairie. Three of the photographs show details from old grave sites and an abandoned general store in the ghost town of Keota, which was established as a homestead in 1880 by two sisters, and now sit isolated in the middle of the Grasslands.