Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A ditch that binds a community

Winter here in northern Wyoming has been mild thus far and I have been taking advantage of the 40 degree days as much as possible in restocking our firewood stores. Yesterday was  degrees and I'm trying to figure which pair of shorts works for this time of year.

My mom has offered to help cut wood yesterday and we did so on the property of a cousin north of town. I was out last week and visited with the cousin and had visited with her for a few hours about various family stories. One thing that came up was an engineering project known as the Interstate Ditch. I had come across references to the ditch in a court case a few weeks ago and have heard it referenced by my mom over the years.

The ditch is an irrigation ditch built in about 1904 to convey water to a handful of farmers near Decker, Montana. The ditch provides water to several acres of land that would otherwise receive very little water for irrigation, besides the nominal spring and summer rains. While talking about the ditch, the cousin said that she had both the ledger and the minute book to the Interstate Ditch Company, of which she was the secretary. Without hesitation, she offered to loan me both, but I said that really the minute book was of more interest.

The book is an ordinary record book, with "Interstate Ditch Co." written in pencil on the cover. The first pages are a draft of proposed by-laws, followed by the by-laws that were approved. The minutes do not provide genealogy records per se, but add to the awareness of how the dynamics of a community organization changes over time.

The stockholders usually held a meeting once a year. Often the meeting was held before the spring irrigation started. What is curious is seeing the names in a somewhat fluid state. While reading the ledger, it was interesting to see the names change as one generation left and another took the spot, or a family name disappeared entirely, to be replaced by a new name.

The early names are ones that I am familiar with by proximity to family that I research, or in the case of E. A. Whitney, by reputation. Whitney was an early resident of Sheridan, Wyoming and continues to have an impact after his death through Whitney Benefits, a philanthropic organization. Whitney assisted the stockholders in the financial start-up of the company and the logistics of the stocks and in all things banking.

This is a unique record as it sheds light on the community workings, albeit an isolated section of a community based on the path of an irrigation ditch. The value is that it also shows what we as genealogists and historians already know--that often the work of people unfamiliar to us in the past has a lasting impact on those of us in the present.

The ditch provided water to the land that would eventually be owned by Preston Wagner, son of William Wagner, who was a neighbor of other kin. William Wagner was also an early president of the ditch company and a substantial shareholder. The land that Preston Wagner homesteaded on is now owned by the cousin who loaned me the minute book, and borders land that my great-grandparents, Ralph and Cora (Williams) DeLapp lived on.

The ditch itself is substantial--an average-sized man would be hard to spot walking in it and might be able to jump across it with a running start. It may be just a ditch to some, yet I find it surprising that something so ordinary has such a complex and rich history.

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