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Across the Fence: Discovering Ed Stemler
March 28, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
It was a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about the abandoned wagons on Lodgepole Creek, which were discovered by Capt. Eugene F. Ware and also the legend of “66” Mountain. The thread that connected those two pieces of Nebraska/Wyoming history was a mysterious and incredible story told by Wyoming homesteader, Ed Stemler and recorded by Grant L. Shumway in his voluminous ‘History of Western Nebraska.’

At the time, I could find no further references to Mr. Stemler. However, this past week I acquired a book at auction, then realized it was a duplicate of a book that my daughter Jamie had already given to me on the occasion of a past birthday. ‘Trails, Rails and Travails’ is a Wyoming Centennial volume covering the history of LaGrange, Wyoming. This excellent volume was compiled and edited by Elizabeth Wilkinson Johnson and other volunteers from the LaGrange community. My rediscovery of this rare and invaluable historical account (of which I now have two) of that region from 1889 to 1989 includes additional information about the colorful Wyoming pioneer, Ed Stemler.

Ed Stemler was perhaps one of our region’s most consummate western storytellers. He was also a hardworking, resourceful and successful ‘cowboy turned rancher’ on the Wyoming range near Horse Creek. It is also recorded that Mr. Stemler was a fiddle player extraordinaire.

Ed Stemler was a native of Prussia whose parents came to America and settled in Ohio in 1857. Born October 14 1852, Ed was only five years old when his family reached the eastern shores of the continent. No doubt this youthful experience was reflected in his later life and I can imagine him, as a small boy, on that long and eventful voyage across the Atlantic. Perhaps he had occasion to stand, wide-eyed and entranced, amidst a group of good-natured sailors, listening to their wild tales of seafaring adventures.

Those stories may have afforded him a brief but influential tutorial on storytelling. I can see him standing at the ships massive wooden railing, his chin resting on his hands, as he stared across the vast and rolling sea and wondered what lay ahead.

Ed’s early years in Ohio may well be forgotten and perhaps those many days of staring across the open sea left him with a lingering sense of wonder about what lay ahead. No matter what the reason, at nineteen years of age, young Ed Stemler left Ohio to cross a seemingly endless ocean of tall prairie grass as he made his way west. Ed wanted to be a cowboy and he did what was needed to achieve that dream.

Following Lodgepole Creek and the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad, Ed arrived in Wyoming Territory at the ‘Magic City of the Plains’ also known as Cheyenne, on July 4th, 1872. The bustling cow town was alive with the wild celebrations of Independence Day. The staccato crackling of firecrackers was accompanied by the echoing blasts of gunfire as overly enthusiastic cowboys shot holes in the sky while their wobbly-legged compadres staggered to the next saloon.

Ed’s lack of fear, concerning hard work, soon landed him a job as a freighter. At that time, many freighting companies were busy hauling supplies to the gold fields of Dakota Territory and to the U.S. forts along the Oregon Trail, as well as the Rose Bud Agency on the Sioux Reservation. For the next several years Ed drove oxen and mule teams from Sidney, Nebraska to Cheyenne then on to Fort Fetterman, Fort Laramie and north to the Black Hills.

As a freighter, muleskinner and bullwhacker I’m fairly confident that Ed’s storytelling skills expanded dramatically and his propensity for embellishment was cultivated.

Ed could also play the fiddle; a fact that made him much appreciated at many a cowboy dance. Ed had taught himself to play and made his ‘music’ in a most unusual way. Ed played left-handed and fingered the strings with his right hand. Perhaps a left-handed fiddle player is not too unusual, but Ed played with the neck of the fiddle pointing vertically upward and the sound box sitting on his leg. When playing horseback, Ed would rest the fiddle on the pommel of the saddle.

A well-known writer of the times, one Mrs. Stickney, visited a round-up dance in LaGrange and in her published story described Ed as a “bow-legged, left-handed, red-headed and freckle-faced fiddler, who played with the violin standing on its head.”

Finally Ed’s opportunity to engage in the work that had fueled his dream, of coming west, came in 1878 when he hired on to cowboy with the Union Cattle Company whose headquarters were at the Bridle Bit Ranch near Chugwater, Wyoming. From that day forward, Ed would be a cowboy, working on the Bridle Bit and other local ranches until he would later patent his own homestead and begin to build a ranch of his own.

Long, cold nights in winter cow camp, conversation around a spring roundup fire and the fall gather, present opportunities for elaborate storytelling. No doubt it was during those days that Ed began to finely tune and skillfully hone his storytelling ability. I don’t doubt that Ed spent many hours entertaining his friends with his elaborate, well-crafted stories. Perhaps, some of them were entirely true or at least, somewhat based on certain verifiable facts.

In the spring of 1885, Ed’s solitary, carefree days on cowboy wages must have taken a turn toward a more domesticated way of life. On the 22nd of April, Miss Ettie Teasdale became Mrs. Ed Stemler. Ed’s land patent, along with his mother-in-law’s patent, would be the first homestead on the northern slopes of “66” Mountain.

Ed skillfully built the Stemler home on Horse Creek near a free-flowing spring that provided a constant flow of fresh, cold water to the house. The log structure had a living room, a dining room, a large kitchen and two small bedrooms. Two of the living room walls contained only four individual logs, yet the ceilings were nine feet high. Unique to the typical homestead dwelling, Ed built a bay window in the living room with a panoramic vista of the southern hills from the Nebraska plains in to the east to Bear Mountain in the west.

Tom Rivington, a writer for the Gering Courier, enjoyed a friendship with Mr. Stemler in Ed’s later years and recorded some of the stories he told. One of those stories related a method he used to catch fish.

Ed insisted that he had tamed the fish in the Platte River so that they would come to him whenever they heard him playing a flute. He had built a holding gate at the place where Horse Creek dumped into the Platte River. Whenever soldiers from Fort Laramie or a roving band of Indians would come by and want a meal of fish, Ed would take his flute to the gate and play ‘Down on the Swanee River.’ As soon as they heard Ed’s flute, thousands of fish would swim up Horse Creek in droves, like hogs coming in to a call. Once past the gate, Ed would swing it closed and his friends would help themselves to all the fish they wanted. “Some of them fish were five feet long,” Ed claimed.

In the fall of 1914, after 29 years together, Ettie Teasdale-Stemler passed away and left behind a heartbroken cowboy, three daughters and two sons. Shortly thereafter, Ed sold the homestead and bought another ranch south of LaGrange. During his time as a rancher near the community of LaGrange, Wyoming in the vicinity of “66” Mountain, Ed Stemler became a successful and well-known cattleman as well as a treasured friend to those who knew him. Many remember his stories.

The story of the massacre of sixty-six emigrants, on the slopes of the mountain that stretches across the Nebraska/Wyoming line, is one that has been told and retold many times. The telling of the tale in “Trails, Rails and Travails” is similar to the account in Shumway’s “History of Western Nebraska.” Although Shumway gives no dates, Johnson’s history of LaGrange pinpoints Mr. Stemler’s arrival in the west in 1872, eight years after Capt. Ware and his men discovered the abandoned wagon train. The likelihood that Mr. Stemler accompanied those lost emigrants to “66” Mountain, several years before he ever came west, requires an agile imagination. The possibility that he heard the story, embellished its telling and inserted himself into the story is possible and highly likely. Or, perhaps Mr. Stemler was the recipient of a vision or vivid dream that, to him, made the unrecorded event seem real.

Nevertheless, to those who Ed Stemler told the tale, in muted and mysterious tones, he would admonish them to tell no one and pledged them to secrecy for fear that others might think him to be demented. Ah, what better way to keep the story alive to be told and retold around the dying embers of a cow-camp fire where ghostly images dance, just beyond the flickering light.

Ed Stemler, pioneer, cowboy, homesteader and cattleman, teller of tales and fiddle player extraordinaire, died on the street of LaGrange in December of 1933. He had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and half of the North American continent to live the dream he dreamed. He was 81 years young.
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