“The Klos Family House: A Memoir and History”

   Larry Klos was born in 1945 to Fred and Lilly Klos and grew up on the Klos homestead south of Plevna. After graduating with a degree in physics from Montana State University, he took an aerospace industry job in Anaheim, California. A year later he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he and his wife Elaine have lived for over 45 years. They reared two sons and have six grandchildren, all of whom live in Texas.

   After retirement from Lockheed Martin, Larry began writing and publishing books about his life and experiences, including his first book, “The Klos Family House”. Although he has been writing professionally and as an avocation for many years, his current works (both nonfiction and fiction) are the first which are published and readily available through Amazon. He returns to Montana periodically to visit family and refresh fond memories of his early years.

   The “Klos Family House” presents the life story of the 95 year old house near Plevna that Larry’s grandparents built and in which his brother and family still live. The story begins with German immigrants homesteading to improve their lives in southeastern Montana during a string of wet years in the early 1900s. It continues through the drought and depression of subsequent years that bankrupted many settlers. The story follows three generations of the Klos family as they successively fight to succeed and as they gradually enlarge the Klos Family House. Additional interleaved chapters provide supporting information and related perspectives as time and modern technology change life in rural Montana.

   Excerpted from the “The Klos Family House” by Larry Klos. (Chapter 2 Plevna Area History)

  There were three main reasons why the nearby town of Plevna, Montana was established and had an initial population boom; those three reasons were the railroad, the homestead act of 1909, and a series of years with lots of rain. The predominant reason that Plevna developed where it did was that it was on the path of the Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railroad (known as the CM&PS or more simply the Milwaukee Road).  Montana was served by 3 major rail companies providing east-west service: the Great Northern at the top of the state, the Northern Pacific Railroad in the center, and the CM&PS towards the south.  The Great Northern was the only privately funded — and successfully built — transcontinental railroad in U.S. history.  In contrast, the Northern Pacific was given land grants by the federal government so that it could borrow money to build its system. The federal government kept every other section of land, and gave it away to homesteaders. The railroad operated across the northern portion of the western United States from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast. It was approved by Congress in 1864 and given nearly 40 million acres of land grants, which it used to raise money in Europe for construction. Construction began in 1870 and the main line opened all the way from the Great Lakes to the Pacific when former president Ulysses S. Grant drove in the final “golden spike” in western Montana on Sept. 8, 1883. The railroad had about 6800 miles of track and served a large area, including extensive trackage all the way through Montana. The main activities were shipping wheat and other farm products, cattle, timber and minerals; bringing in consumer goods, transporting passengers; and selling land.   [All from Wikipedia]

   The CM&PS railroad that goes by Plevna started with a new bridge across the Missouri River at a location now known as Mobridge, South Dakota and was completed as far west as Butte, Montana by 1908.  The Milwaukee Road owners had become aware that without their own route to the Pacific they would be at their competitors’ mercy.  The Milwaukee Road was considered one of the most prosperous, progressive, and enterprising railroads in the U.S. at the time.  Despite concern about possible construction of the Panama Canal and despite the presence of strong competing railroads, a transcontinental line was approved, banking heavily on the growth of traffic to and from the Pacific Northwest.  In 1905 and 1906 the Milwaukee Road incorporated subsidiaries in South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington and construction proceeded rapidly. Construction was also underway to Seattle. The last spike on the line from Butte to the west coast was driven near Garrison, Montana on May 14, 1909.  Local passenger service was established in 1909; through passenger service was inaugurated in May 1911.  [All from Wikipedia]

   Although the railroad, which provided transportation for people and freight, defined where homes could be readily built and produce from famers brought to market, it did not of itself result in a boom of settlement. The second major factor leading to rapid settlement was the enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 which increased the allocation of land to authorized settlers from 160 acres to 320 acres of nonirrigable, nonmineral lands having no merchantable timber.  Not coincidently 1909 is the year Plevna was founded.  The terms of the 1909 Homestead Act fit the dry, mostly flat and treeless Great Plains in southeastern Montana exactly. To claim land, settlers had to establish residency for five years (reduced to 3 years in 1912) with continuous cultivation of other than native grasses.  Before 1910, nearly one fourth of Montana’s population was foreign-born, a proportion that increased greatly after 1910. When more free land was made available and cyclically increased rainfall made prospects good for farming, a new wave of homesteaders flowed into Montana and more than 80,000 additional people, mostly immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany and German nationals who had been living in Russia since the time of Catherine the Great, moved in between 1909 and the early 1920’s. The massive influx of these new farmers, combined with inappropriate cultivation techniques, led to immense land erosion and eventually (in more southern areas) to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  Further, Montana’s weather tends to come in cycles. There can be ten or twenty years of wet weather, followed by ten or twenty years of dry weather.   1909 fell during a wet cycle.  Advertising hype and reports from early settlers painted a rosy picture of the new life on the high Montana prairie.   A few years later the next dry cycle started and by the late 1920’s, 60,000 of the new settlers had packed up and left.  Both farmers and ranchers had exploited the land during the wet years. They’d overgrazed, over farmed, and spread themselves too thinly.  Banks were formed almost on a whim with many failing soon afterwards. [reworded from “montanakids.com”] The financial situation for farmers was made even worse because the price of wheat collapsed from highs of nearly $2.50 per bushel in 1918 to $1.00 a bushel by 1922.

   The Plevna area was initially, in 1908,  just a side track on the railroad line.  The railroad built a section house as one of the first town buildings.  A Railway Section House is a building located near or next to a section of railroad and is used to house railroad workers and for storage and maintenance of equipment for a section of railroad. In Plevna, the section house was initially the place where everyone came for information and even for lodging.  Telegraph lines provided communication to other stops on the railroad line and to the nation as a whole.  By 1912 other buildings had been added, including a post office in 1909, a train station, and a school building.  The post office was a combination post office, bank, and store.

   The name “Plevna” in the Russian language means “City of Churches”.  When the railroad was being built through the area many of the workers on the rail crews were from Bulgaria.  When the time came to name the new city, officials of the railroad approved a name selected by the workers, which was “Plevna” because Plevna, Bulgaria was a historical site where the Russians had engaged in a great battle with the Turks.  In this 1877–1878 war the Russian and Romanian armies paved the path to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire leading to the restoration of Bulgaria and the independence of Romania. Upon demonstrating to the county commissioners that Plevna had a least 300 inhabitants, the town of Plevna was incorporated in 1916. [Reference 1 and Wikipedia].

   Without the Homestead Act it is likely that southeastern Montana would have been settled much more slowly.  The residency provisions of the Homestead Act also changed the character of the population of the homesteaded areas of the Great Plains.  Most of the homesteaders were immigrants and had come from “village oriented” Europe, where people lived in small towns and commuted to the countryside to care for their animals and fields.  If that pattern had been followed in Plevna, the town would have been much bigger, with famers commuting by foot or horse to their farms.  Instead, each homesteading family was required to live on their land, typically constructing temporary and marginal housing until they obtained full ownership of their homestead.  The Homestead Act thus distributed the population across the countryside and forced each family to maintain the primacy and self sufficiency of the nuclear family  Although homesteads were distributed widely, homestead density was still much greater near the railroad tracks and near the periodic towns which were established along the tracks.  Although three railroads crossed Montana from east to west, there were (and still are) many areas where the distance between competing tracks is more than 100 miles.  Because there were no roads, and because the nominally flat Great Plains actually includes hills, creek beds, rocks, and other obstacles, the homesteading population tended to cluster near the train tracks.  Land further from the tracks remained uninhabited or was used as range land by large ranchers rather than as farm/ranch land by small homesteaders.

   The Plevna 75th anniversary book contains recollections from many of the early homesteaders.  The following five paragraphs contain stories from that anniversary book that provide a snapshot of the time.  Two of them are about the Klos family and three are from neighbors who lived south of Plevna near the Klos homestead.  The last (George Follmer) set of recollections describes land that Christoph and Karoline’s son Fred bought many years later from Herman Follmer (George’s son) and is now part of the Klos family land.

   John Klos, Christoph’s father, arrived in Plevna in 1919 from Roundup, Montana with his wife Louisa.  They had migrated to the USA from Russia in 1906 and lived in Java and Artas South Dakota.  They had 12 children of which only four survived into adulthood.  The surviving children were Marie, Christoph, Eduard, and Theodor. Although Christoph homesteaded in Plevna in 1909, the remainder of the family moved to Roundup in 1914 where they lived until John and Louisa moved to Plevna.  They lived in a home in Plevna where they raised a large garden.  John walked the six miles to his son Christoph’s ranch every morning – both spring and summer—to help when needed.  John passed away in 1936 and Louisa died in 1938.

   Christoph, one of the sons of John and Louisa Klos, was born on October 14, 1884.  His wife Karoline (Wolfer) was born on May 17, 1886.  They homesteaded six miles south of Plevna in 1909.  Eight children were born to them, with two dying in infancy.  The surviving children were: Ernestine, Clara, Fred, Mathilda, and Leah.  The Klos family built a two-room house on their homestead with two large red barns, a large machine shed, a smoke house, and chicken coop.  In 1928 a tornado tore down the machine shed, but left a car inside without a scratch.  Through the years drought, grasshoppers, winds, and beetles made life miserable and their work much harder.  The children attended Prairie Park School.  Christoph Klos died November 7, 1941.  Karolina moved to Plevna in 1942 and lived there until January 19, 1966, when she went to join her husband in the great beyond.  They and their parents are buried in the Plevna cemetery.

   The following excerpt provides an example of the early houses of the times.  This one is from the story of Jacob and Elizabeth Ehret who homesteaded 4 miles south of Plevna in 1910 “Their first house was one-room, plastered with mud and straw.  Another room was added later.  In 1916 carpenters were hired to build the bigger house.  They had four children at the time.  Community life centered around friendship with close neighbors they were fortunate to have, and around a little country church they attended two miles west of there.  During the busy seasons in the fields, they often walked to church so the horses had a day to rest. . . The Ehret children had all their elementary education at the Prairie Park School.  One year there were over forty students in eight grades with just one teacher.

  The following quote describes early homesteads and homestead life.  “Mr. and Mrs. Matt Ehret and family came to Baker, Montana, in the spring of 1909 to live on a homestead eight miles southwest of Baker in an immigrant box car.  They brought with them their seed, four horses, four cows, one brood sow and a little farm machinery.  They built a sod house and a sod barn for their livestock. . . .  There was a small grocery store in Baker at that time.  This country was a wide open range country.  There were no fences – just dug-outs where a few homesteaders had settled.  This country was a cattle, sheep, and horse country at the time.  Livestock was running at large – mostly where there were springs and live creeks of water for the livestock to drink.  The homesteaders moved to eastern Montana after the Milwaukee Railroad was finished.  People started small businesses in 1910 in Baker and Plevna.  Grain elevators and lumber yards were built and people began building homes and barns.  They mined their own coal for heat and dug their own wells for drinking water and for their livestock. . . . At that time there were no doctors in the community.  The children in our family were all delivered by a midwife.  My folks . . lived off of egg and cream money they received for their groceries.  Every homesteader had a shotgun and they used them to get meat, which consisted of jackrabbits, prairie chickens, and antelope.  They raised a lot of vegetables and potatoes, also. . . . All of our family began working in the fields at the age of ten.  We did all the farming using horse power.  . . . In 1915, my dad and Henry Huether and George Huether bought a steam engine and threshing machine to thresh their crops and those of their neighbors.  The grain was hauled to the granaries with wagons. . . . in the winter months this grain was hauled to the elevators with wagons. . . . In 1930, a great depression known as the Hoover depression hit our country.  Combined with drought and grasshoppers, most of the farmers went broke.”

   The following excerpts about the George Follmer family provide another example of early Montana life.  “In 1910 the family immigrated to the United States from Bremin, Germany, and settled in Plevna, Montana with their four children.  They stayed with relatives for a few years, then in 1917 they homesteaded thirteen miles southwest of Plevna.  The first house was a small sod building which later became a chicken coop.  Later they built a bigger house made of sod that was plowed up and cut with spades to 24” by 24”, one block on top of another, just as you would with bricks.  Mud was used in between to hold the sod together.  The roof was made in the same manner, with a few pieces of small wood to hold the sod.  It was a three roomed house, with two bedrooms and a kitchen and living room all in one.  It was finished off with special mud made from dirt and fine straw and water mixed well so it would make a smooth surface.  This mixture was put on the whole house, on the outside walls and on the roof.  This mixture had to be reapplied almost every year, depending on how much it rained.  The inside also had a smooth finish and was painted.  The floor was of dirt, until later when a painted wood floor was added.  Each room in the house had from two to three big windows, about 4’ by 4’.  Each room measured about 20’ x 18’.  All twelve children were raised in this home.  By the time the younger ones were born, the older ones were married or worked out.  I remember how mother baked 8 to 10 loaves of bread twice a week, and at least 12 or 13 kuchen every Saturday.  By the time Sunday night came the kuchen was gone.  It was a real treat for all of us.  Since there was no refrigeration or freezer, the bread was kept in a bread box that held from 8 to 10 loaves.  Meat was kept in a granary in the winter, hanging from the ceiling.  Whenever you wanted a steak you had to work quite hard to cut or saw off the portion that was needed for supper.  When chicken was being planned for a meal, you would have to run it down or have the dog catch it for you, butcher it, and eat the same day.  We rarely had eggs to eat during the winter months because the hens wouldn’t lay because of the cold. . . . I remember starting out at 4 p.m. to get the milk cows on foot every day.  It would be at least 6 p.m., sometimes in the dark, before we got back.  We cooked over a wood and coal range so wood and coal had to be carried in every night and stacked in a box next to the stove.  Kerosene lights had to be filled with kerosene twice a week.  In later years we had a wind charger that was hooked up to a battery, and electric lights were provided that way.  We would always hope for lots of wind during that time.  We heated the house with a pot-bellied stove which sat in the middle of the house.  . . . We had one clothes closet which held a few clothes.  The rest were hung on a rack or put on the wall and covered with a sheet.  We had a wooden washing machine that had a long handle, and you would push it back and forth.  Washing took all day long.  We made our own soap with lye and lard.  In later years, we put in a kitchen sink.  The drainage was just a pipe from the sink that ran outside.  The water would run down in a ditch away from the house.  We thought that was pretty modern.”