CURRY, Idaho — Ninety-year-old Dick Tucker has spent most of his life farming near Curry, a tiny town just west of Twin Falls. But his story — and those of most farmers in the area — would have been vastly different if not for the Carey Act of 1894.
In fact, Tucker might not have been born.
Also known as the Federal Desert Land Act, the Carey Act allowed private companies to construct irrigation systems in the semi-arid West and granted land to settlers, who would pay the irrigation companies for water.
At the turn of the 20th century, investors in the Twin Falls Land and Water Co. saw opportunity in harnessing the Snake River to bring life to Idaho’s high desert. Milner Dam was completed in 1905, opening the Twin Falls irrigation tract and supplying water to more than 200,000 acres.
The project was widely promoted to entice people to come to the area to farm the rich volcanic soil and to provide services to the burgeoning population. Newcomers looking for opportunity put down roots and forged a constellation of communities such as Curry and Twin Falls.
They came in pursuit of a better life, pitching tents and proving up homesteads or working for a wage until they could buy land. They built the main streets, schools and churches, raised families and created new lives from the land and water.
What follows is the story of four families.
Dick Tucker’s paternal grandfather, Henry Tucker, was living in Arkansas raising his two young sons — one of whom was Tucker’s father, Ernest.
Henry’s wife had died, and his sister, Alice, was helping to care for the boys. Alice’s husband was keen to leave Arkansas and considering Arizona until a relative shared what he had seen in the Twin Falls area.
When Alice and her husband set out for Idaho in 1910, Henry and the boys went with them.
“There wasn’t anything for them in Arkansas,” Tucker said.
Tucker’s maternal grandfather, Walter Holloway, and his family lived in Missouri. Walter’s brother had passed through the Twin Falls area on his way back from Oregon and saw promise. The clan — including Tucker’s mother, Erma — moved west around 1914.
“Things in Missouri were pretty tough at that time, and he (Walter) came out on his brother’s recommendation,” Tucker said.
Tucker’s grandfather, Henry, worked three years at the Fitzgerald orchard in Buhl, west of Twin Falls, before buying 40 acres at Curry — land Tucker still owns. Tucker’s father continued farming that land and over time bought another 240 acres.
Farming was hard when Tucker was growing up. While steam engines were available for some farming, most was done with horses, mules or using hand tools.
There was no shortage of chores, but Tucker somehow found time to land a paying job at the age of 10.
“The first job I had was stacking loose hay for 25 cents an hour — $2.50 for a 10-hour day,” he said.
The grown men working beside him made 35 cents or more an hour, but “I didn’t get that ’cause I was just a kid,” he said.
Tucker farmed with his dad until enlisting in the Navy at the start of the Korean War. While stationed near Seattle, he met Nancy Evans, whom he married in 1954. They returned to Curry to farm and had two children.
With land he inherited from his father and another 80 acres of his own, Tucker farmed 320 acres until he retired in 1998. He sold most of the land but kept that original 40 acres and another 40-acre parcel for his children.
Like Tucker, Duane Ramseyer, also 90, farmed in the area most of his life and served in the military during the Korean War.
Ramseyer’s father, Homer, was from Ohio and came to Idaho as a bachelor in 1913 seeking opportunity. Homer’s family was Mennonite, and the oldest son generally inherits the family land.
“He (Homer) was the youngest. He left and never practiced again,” Ramseyer said.
Homer came to the Twin Falls area and worked the grain harvest, threshing, sewing grain sacks and filling silos.
“Most single men were fed three times a day and slept anywhere,” he said.
Working the grain harvest led to a full-time job on a farm at Sucker Flat, along the Oregon Trail just north of Curry. Homer purchased the farm in 1917.
“The fellow he was working for was from back East. … he sold him the farm,” Ramseyer said.
Homer soon returned to his hometown in Ohio to marry a woman, Maye, he’d gone to school with, and brought her to Idaho in 1918.
Their farm was 160 acres, and Homer farmed with more than two dozen Percheron horses — gentle giants, Ramseyer said.
“He was a large farmer for his time,” he said.
During the Depression, commodities such as grain had no value whatsoever, so Homer added value by grinding his grain and using it to fatten lambs and pigs.
“We always had a lot of sheep, 700 to 800. In the early days you could just about turn out anywhere and graze, before the Taylor Act,” a 1934 federal law that regulated grazing on public land, he said.
Homer didn’t get his first tractor until the late 1930s, and always had a hired hand or two.
“But we did most of the work ourselves. I had a man’s job,” Ramseyer said.
As a kid, he raked a lot of hay and always had a pen of feeder pigs. He dug potatoes, filling sacks and sewing them closed in the field. He also had some dirty jobs he wasn’t partial to, such as stacking chopped hay in the wind and tromping wool, climbing in the 500- to 800-pound sacks and compacting it.
“Not once in my life did I open the door and say I hate to go to work today. It was there, and I was going to do it,” he said.
The original 160-acre farm Homer purchased is still in the family and was designated a Century Farm in 2017.
Ramseyer married Mary Etta Anderson in 1950 and the couple had four children. Over the years, the farming operation grew to about 800 acres and is now operated by one of Ramseyer’s sons.
Ramseyer retired in 2002 but says he’s always been a farm boy and still is.
“I like everything about it. I learned how to work, and I still know how,” he said.
Across the ocean
Evelyn Bohrn LeClair, who will turn 89 this month, took a different path to the area. Her father, Michael, and his brother lived in Austria and in the early 1900s decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new life.
Each passenger on the ship had to have at least $50 to board, and they only had $50 between them. One brother got to the front of the line and the other went to the back. After the first brother showed his money to get on board, he somehow got it to the other brother — who also successfully boarded.
They landed in eastern Canada, and Michael worked his way west doing construction. Along the way, he heard about opportunity in southern Idaho and in 1907 made his way to Twin Falls.
“He liked the seasons and never left,” LeClair said.
He found a job with the fledgling Twin Falls Feed & Ice Co. and became Twin Falls’ first iceman.
LeClair’s mother, Bertha, landed in nearby Kimberly, having traveled by covered wagon from Rock Springs, Wyo., with her family. Her father had found work in Kimberly as a butcher and came out ahead of the family.
After Michael and Bertha were married, they lived in Twin Falls in the summer and in the winter harvested ice from a pond north of Twin Falls.
About the time LeClair was born in 1930, her parents bought a 40-acre farm south of Curry. But it was the Great Depression, and times were tough.
“My father was lucky. He had an insurance policy he could borrow from, or he would have lost the farm,” she said.
She had chores before catching the bus to school — feeding chickens and watering the pigs.
“And I helped stack hay all the time,” she said.
Kids always went to school — even if it snowed. The school had only a single pot-bellied stove for heat, and they might stay just long enough to get their school work, but “we still came to school,” she said.
LeClair’s parents sold the farm in 1948 and moved to town. But her dad stayed connected to the farming community, irrigating for local farmers when they were away.
LeClair went to beauty school and became a hairdresser. She married Lloyd LeClair in 1952 and they bought a motel in the area and ran it for 34 years. The couple had two children.
“I was born and raised here, and I’m going to die here,” LeClair said.
Karen Hirai Olen’s roots in the area were the product of war. She was born in the Minidoka Japanese internment camp, northeast of Twin Falls, in 1943.
The internment camps were a reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, resulting in the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans.
Olen’s father and mother, Tom and Dorothy, and their parents and other family members were first evacuated to Camp Harmony at the Puyallup fairgrounds in Washington in 1942. Tom was 30 at the time and Dorothy was 25, and they had married just before their evacuation.
Tom’s parents operated a truck farm outside Tacoma, and Dorothy’s parents ran a grocery store in Seattle. They had immigrated to the U.S. in about 1910, and both Tom and Dorothy were born in the U.S.
The officials operating the Minidoka camp were recruiting Japanese captives at Puyallup to help open the new camp ahead of the mass transfer of detainees.
“They asked for volunteers, and my dad said, ‘Why not?’” Olen said.
It was mass chaos at Camp Harmony — a euphemism she finds incredible — and they were going to end up at Minidoka anyway, she said.
Dorothy, who had worked as a secretary at a lumber company since graduating from high school, became secretary to the project director at Minidoka. Tom, who had also worked for the lumber company, was put in charge of trucking. He was responsible for transporting the detainees — more than 9,000 — from a local railroad spur to the camp when they arrived in Idaho.
He was also in charge of sending out work crews from the camp to help area farmers, who faced a shortage of help due to the war.
One of those farms was at Curry. It was owned by Tom Alworth, an attorney. Alworth offered Tom a job running the farm when the detainees were released from Minidoka as the war ended.
Tom started farming the Alworth place with horses due to the gasoline shortage. He also knew how to weld but wouldn’t take money for helping out neighbors. Instead, they might give him half a side of pork. Neighboring farmers would also bring over extra produce such as 100 pounds of potatoes, onions or squash.
“That’s country. We didn’t know anyone who went hungry. If people needed food, it was provided,” Olen said.
Everyone knew each other through church or the neighborhood, and people took care of each other, she said.
Tom ran the farm at Curry until 1963 when Alworth’s son took it over. After that, he sharecropped on another farm until retiring in 1990 after his son and farming partner was killed in an automobile accident.
Olen was 1 1/2 years old when her family left the internment camp. Her parents never talked about the experience.
“We had no idea what the camp meant, and we grew up here,” she said.
After graduating from Idaho State University, Olen moved to California and worked for Los Angeles County. She married Terry Olen in 1980. After retiring, she returned to the Twin Falls area with her husband to care for her elderly mother.
River of life
The Twin Falls irrigation system is touted by many as the most successful project developed under the Carey Act.
In February of 1908, the Twin Falls News published an article by Fred Lockley of the Pacific Monthly noting how irrigation was transforming Twin Falls County.
“Three years ago this was desert with a population not to exceed 300 people,” Lockley wrote. “Today the same territory has a population of over 10,000 people. There are more than 1,500 farms with at least 100,000 acres being cultivated.”
For so many farmers, this was a land of opportunity.
It certainly was for Dick Tucker and his family.
His grandfather and father made their living from the land nourished by the Snake River, and Tucker did the same — farming for nearly seven decades.
“I was lucky, and I had the opportunities. I enjoyed farming, and I did pretty well,” he said.
But like so many others, that wouldn’t have happened if not for his forbears’ pioneering spirit and hard work.
And the plentiful water and rich soil, where crops and families grew.