Life on Muskrat Creek: A Homestead Family in Wyoming
by Ethel Waxham Love and J. David Love, edited by Frances Love Froidevaux and Barbara Love

Lehigh University Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-611-46264-7.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 05/25/2018

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

"Is it true," I asked John, "that it is necessary to kill a Scotsman or agree with him?"

"No," he answered, whether from guile or innocence I never knew.

It is true that we were married June 20, 1910, at my father's house in Denver, and [John] took me to his ranch on Muskrat Creek [in central Wyoming].

"Twenty miles of barbed wire fence enclosed roughly the patented and leased land. Through eight miles of it Muskrat Creek meandered northward, flooded, raged, trickled or slowly dried, depending upon the time of the year, snow and rain, or lack of them. "Muskrat Creek," John spoke of it with pride. For brevity or invective, he called it, "The Rat."

The complete emptiness of the country, treeless, from horizon to horizon, gave me a deeper respect for the men who could endure and make use of the range.

That's Ethel Waxham Love recalling her arrival at Love Ranch, the central Wyoming "empire" of her husband, Scots sheepman and entrepreneur John Love. When they married, Ethel was 28 and John, who had courted her mostly by letter for five years since they met in 1905 at a dance, was 41. They could hardly have been more disparate.

Ethel, born in Hyde Park, Illinois, and raised there and in Denver, Colorado, was a graduate of Wellsley College, with an MA from University of Colorado; a teacher born to a comfortable middle-class household (her father was a doctor).

John, the youngest of five, was born in Wisconsin in comfortable circumstances, but his mother died a few days after his birth, and his father took the family back to Scotland. He died of a heart attack before young John was a teen, so back the children went to America, to be raised by family in Wisconsin. John, bright and a voracious reader, enrolled in college at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1890; he was expelled the following spring for refusing to name his accomplices in a prank. He drifted west to Wyoming and worked as an itinerant sheepherder, sleeping out with his flocks in all weather, until he could file for a brand, claim land, and begin to accumulate his own flocks. By the time he married Ethel in 1910, he had improved Love Ranch with a complex of buildings, hauling the logs from the Wind River Mountains 100 miles away, built two dams on Muskrat Creek for irrigation, and was a "muttonaire" with over 10,000 sheep, 200 cows, and 100 horses. He could, he thought, provide for her in comfort.

Life on Muskrat Creek tells the story of that marriage and the first 15 years John and Ethel lived at Love Ranch. The family they raised included J. David Love, their middle child, the geologist who would go on to fame as the first to explain how Wyoming's iconic Teton Range was formed, and be profiled in writer John McPhee's landmark book, Rising from the Plains.

Ethel's words intertwine with David's recollections in an absorbing tale of both harrowing hardship and great joy. The Love Ranch was never again as prosperous as it was when Ethel and John were married. They weathered disastrous floods, hailstorms, blizzards; near-death in the Spanish flu influenza in 1918; and all manner of strange, dangerous, and sometimes hilarious encounters with livestock, wildlife, and outlaws. The Loves also had family picnics, camping trips to the mountains, weeks-long visits from friends, music, laughter, and a lot of learning from the land and all it offered.

Life on Muskrat Creek is a riveting account of the realities of life on an isolated ranch in the early years of the Twentieth Century, a must-read for all who wonder what life was like back in "the good old days."

Editors: Frances Love Froidevaux (1942-2011) taught French and English as a Second Language (ESL), founded the Bartlesville, Oklahoma, school system's foreign language program, and was the Love family archivist. She edited the first volume of the Love family's remarkable story, Lady's Choice: Ethel Waxham's Journals & Letters, 1905-1910. Barbara Love has worked as an archaeologist, ESL and English professor, academic director of a Japanese/English Institude, and college writing center coordinator.

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