Saving Grandma's Cabin

Candy's hair-brained idea to keep her family history intact.

Candy's hair-brained idea to keep her family history intact.

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Anybody looking at the rotten foundation logs, the caved in roof, the shoved in southeast corner of the cabin would mark it for demolition. Unless, of course, the old log building represented a piece of family history. Even then a rational person might think it was beyond repair and salvage, would throw up his hands and walk away.

Nobody ever called me totally rational, and that is how a project known in my family as "Candy's hair-brained idea" began.

During the early spring of 2003, ranch hands using a big tractor with a dozer blade pushed in the corner of the cabin so they could ram a drill through a too-small gate. I saw the damage when I drove by on the way to town. For a few weeks, it gnawed at me that the total destruction of the cabin seemed eminent. I lamented the fact to my husband. "We ought to save it," I told him, and he raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps he figured it was idle talk on my part.

But then Steve made a mistake and took me with him to a fertilizer sales dinner, and I found my opportunity. The manager of the ranch was at the same dinner. I walked over to him and asked the vital question: "Could I have that old cabin?" He looked at me as if I'd gone daft. Undaunted, I added, "It was my Grandma's homestead cabin, you know."

Obviously he didn't.

Before he had a chance to sidle away from me, I went for the close, "I'd move it to my house." Now he realized this was his golden opportunity to get an old building out of his way and do so without effort on his part. "Sure, you can have it," he said, as he turned from me and saw Steve, "Whoops, maybe I just said the wrong thing."

That dinner was almost exactly 100 years from the day my Grandma first saw that homestead cabin in southern Wyoming, 10 miles from the then-booming copper mining town of Grand Encampment.

Home, Sweet Home

Wild onions took root on the sod roof of Grandma's homestead cabin and became snacks for my sister and me when we'd climb up the fence and onto the top where we had a view of the horse pasture, barns and corrals, plus our own house across Antelope Creek to the east.

We lived in the big house that had been built circa 1914 by my Grandpa Vyvey to replace the homestead cabin where Grandma spent her first years in America. But the cabin was taken care of well. It was the place where the first of my Grandma's children were born, where she'd made Belgian donuts and rocked her baby girl who died as an infant, where boys rough-housed and where she learned to speak English after her children started attending the one-room Beaver Creek School.

After the new house was built, more children came into the family, including my dad Fox. The older boys still slept in the homestead cabin as it became the first ranch bunkhouse. Eventually it had other uses: tack shed, granary, storage area.

Through the years, other log buildings at the ranch sagged with age, were moved or dismantled, but Grandma's cabin was carefully maintained for more than 90 years. Let me tell you some of the story.

Grandma Vyvey

In 1901, my grandmother, Emma Vermeersch, who worked as a maid for a wealthy family in Moerkerke, Belgium, was making bobbin lace when a very tall, very thin Belgian stopped before her. Peter Verplancke (originally spelled Ver Plancke) was 19 years older than Emma, and he offered her an opportunity she likely never expected would come her way.

Peter had been to America where he claimed a homestead in Wyoming on a small stream that flowed from the Sierra Madre. He told Emma she could marry him and travel with him to America, where she would never have to make bobbin lace again.

My grandmother and Peter arrived on the stagecoach in Grand Encampment in March 1903, and set out on foot for Peter's homestead, 10 miles southeast of town. By the time they reached the Brownlee Ranch five miles from town, Peter was carrying my grandmother into the face of a full-scale blizzard. They spent the night at the Brownlee Ranch and went by wagon on to the homestead, arriving at the cabin that would be their home on March 20.

The homestead was already productive. Exactly when Peter immigrated to America isn't known, but by 1894, he had established himself among a...

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