The memoirs of John Joseph Vandiver give insights into how hard families who left their familiar homeland of Choestoe, Union County, and moved west had to work in order to make a living. Going west was not an easy landfall for jobs or security.
John Joseph remained in Drake’s Creek, Arkansas from 1895 until 1898 where his father had a farm and John Joseph worked an extra job cutting railroad ties. When he was twenty, he boarded the train in Arkansas to travel to Greeley, Colorado where his older brother, William J. (known as Bill) had moved. The young men worked on the Charles Robinson farm for $20 per month. But when the harvests were in, the jobs were out.
They heard jobs might be available in Laramie, Wyoming. Checking into the Custer Hotel there, they learned that a Mr. Thornton at Rock River sixty miles west of Laramie was looking for ranch hands. The two Vandiver brothers boarded a train westward to Lookout and then walked twelve miles to the Thornton Ranch. They were hired to feed the stock and herd sheep. For about a year they worked on the Thornton and the William Taylor Ranches near Rock Creek.
During the rough winter of 1899, the Vandiver lads worked with the survey crew for the Union Pacific Railroad. Things were not going so well with John Joseph and Bill’s parents down in Arkansas. John Floyd Edward Vandiver and his wife, Rhoda Lucinda Souther, loaded up the family remaining at home and in the spring of 1899 joined the two older boys at Rock Creek. In May of 1900 they relocated to Little Medicine, Wyoming, to the John J. Burnett Ranch.
John Joseph writes of this period: “It was hard going in those times. About all the work available was herding sheep. I spent two winters making railroad ties in southern Wyoming near the Colorado line in three feet of snow. I went on the tie (railroad ties) drive down the Medicine Bow River in the spring of 1902.”
John Joseph’s next move was to Seattle, Washington in June, 1902. There he got what work he could at various labor, among which was in a brick yard, at a sawmill, at a logging camp, driving a meat wagon for a packing house, and working on the Bear Ranch. It was not that he was inept at any of these jobs and was fired only to have to find another. Jobs were scarce. His determination to make his own way always seemed to land him in another job.
His parents followed John Joseph’s lead. In the fall of 1903, J. F. E. and Rhoda Vandiver sold what stock they had at Little Medicine, Wyoming and moved to Okanogan, Washington, where the elder Vandiver paid $800 for a lease on some land that had a log cabin and a school house between Okanogan and Malott at a site called Pleasant Valley. It was a good move, as the children still at home—Sarah, Nell, Hartwell, Calla and Jess—had a place to attend school. Older brother Bill joined them at Pleasant Valley. Bill and John Joseph worked about ten miles from home at the Last Chance Mine during the winter months, cutting firewood for the mine workers, batching in an old log cabin and doing their own cooking. In the summers of 1904 and 1905, they helped their father with the ranch work at Pleasant Valley.
With some earlier experience on a survey team, John Joseph went to Seattle, Washington in the early spring of 1906, where he worked with the Oregon and Washington Survey Crew, working on the line that paralleled the Northern Pacific from Portland to Seattle. That job was finished in the fall. His next employment was surveying for a rail line and terminal at Catalla, Alaska. Seven feet of snow were on the ground when he arrived there in March, 1907. With that job finished, he returned to Yakima, Washington where he got work with the Reclamation Service surveying for canals: the Tieton and Ellensburg.
He decided to further his education. He took a three-month course in the Seattle YMCA School and following that was admitted to the University of Washington in February, 1910. He wrote of the keen competition with younger, better-prepared students. His education helped him to gain better employment with the Reclamation Service where he oversaw various engineering projects in the Tieton Canyon, on Rimrock Dam and elsewhere.
While he was a student at the University, he met and fell in love with Lula Mae Estee of Gibson City, Illinois. They were married in Yakima on May 23, 1914. To them were born two children, Ada Margaret (1915) and John Henry (1916).
When World War I stopped progress on the Reclamation Service dam and canal projects, John Joseph Vandiver started work as a carpenter, with little experience in this field. However, with his determination and willingness to work, he was able to progress and provide for his family.
Sometimes we put an aura on the idea to “go west, young man,” as if the adventure will be laced with success and prosperity. The life story of John Joseph Vandiver and his family who migrated from the Choestoe Valley in 1895 to find their way in Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Washington state shows that it was not an easy road but one requiring hard work, ingenuity and adaptability. These characteristics he had learned early in life as he worked on the farm settled by his grandfather J. John Souther in the shadow of Bald Mountain. They did not disappear in mountain mists but remained as guiding principles throughout Vandiver’s life.
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 10, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.