“If you have ever ridden up some mountain canyon when your trail led far above the aspen tops into higher silence… in an open world that seemed so full of God and happiness that you wanted to laugh and sob with the joy of living, then I’m sure you understand why we who have been here must always come back.” Zay Philbrook was one of those eternally drawn to the open mountains of the West.
Zay Philbrook had limited capital but a limitless love for the “glorious heart of Wyoming.” After boarding with a ranger and his family the summer of 1914, Zay was so smitten with her time in the Big Horn mountains that she wanted to stay. With her sister, she rented a small cabin near the town Ten Sleep and searched for land to homestead that suited her means and capabilities. Zay was realistic in her approach to settlement, considering costs of improvements and the physical demands of their completion. The restraints on her funds and time led her to consider a “Timber and Stone” claim. Such claims ranged from 40-160 acres and cost the appraised value of the land and its natural timber or stone. There were no requirements for improvements or time spent occupying the property, so Zay could purchase the patent outright.
With the help of a ranger, Zay discovered a “quiet, happy little valley fenced by red rimrock and timbered buttes, opening to the south to give a view of the Big Horn basin.” At the head of the valley were several springs that emerged from the hillside, forming a stream that ran the length of the valley. Zay wrote that even with her excitement about the property and its future, she hesitated, asking herself, if once started, she could “see the thing through to the end.” She “looked up at the mountains... measured the responsibility,” and decided she could. Zay had found her claim and, in her words, “All the rest was gladness.”
A surveyor came out to inspect the property and establish the claim. Zay, like other “timber and stone” claim holders, had to wait nine months before her patent was officially approved. At that time, she made the necessary payments which totaled $520.70 and included surveying, water and timber rights, the property, and all other fees. She paid an old trapper to build her simple one room cabin and made her own closet, shelves, table, and benches. The single room served many purposes and could be adapted to suit a single woman or a half dozen visitors passing through. Zay described it as such a “cosy, warm little room that one forgets winter is drifting down over long miles of mountainside.”
Economy was considered in all of Zay’s proceedings. She explained her thrift, saying, “Few of us lovers of the West can afford to start such a place just for the pleasure there is in it; we must look for some return for our time and money.” Improvements were viewed as an investment. The property, if necessitated, could be sold for a dude ranch or lambing ground, but Zay’s intentions were to establish a self-supporting ranch. She bought as many horses as she could afford, mainly yearlings. The homestead had only 5-6 irrigable acres and these were cleared of sage brush for a small hay pasture, a vegetable garden, and hardy fruit trees. Vegetables lasted into November and late spring frosts were more of a risk than early fall ones.
Homestead life was often marked by labor, loneliness, and difficulty, but it was also fulfilling and rewarding. Zay counseled prospective homesteaders to “expect some strenuous days,” but also to “know that every day brings fresh happiness, as you help the claim to grow, as the mountains become more friendly.”