My grandfather, Fay George Cotton was born in 1878 in the home of his uncle in western Iowa. His father, Truman Earl, died when Grandpa was five and his sister, May, was seven. His mother, Lydia Medders, now a young widow with two children, moved back to Bremer County, Iowa, to live with her father, Aaron Medders. She died when Grandpa was 13 and Aunt May was 15.
In those days, there were no Social Service or welfare agencies. People did for themselves and asked for nothing from anyone. Grandpa and his sister headed west to Nebraska, where she took a job teaching in a country school---by fall, she was a 16 year old School Marm. Grandpa found work as a stable boy and horse handler on the ranch of Buffalo Bill Cody near North Platte. He remembered those days fondly and often told me the horse barns were cleaner and better built than some people's homes. We visted there a few years ago, and it was true!
Grandpa was big man, 6'4", lean and strong. A man that size was a giant in his day. He loved horses and never owned a car, even though he lived until 1966. He thought every kid needed a horse, so he bought me one---an older, gentle buckskin pony. We lived in town, and even though he was far from rich, he paid rent for pasture space across the road, and for the use of the small barn. He carried water to Buck daily, and taught me how to groom him. I can still hear Buck crunching his oats and hay and hear his soft snorts of pleasure, smell that wonderful, musty horse smell, and feel his velvety nose nuzzleing me. Grandpa was right--- every kid should have a horse.
I was an only child. Grandpa had experienced being alone, so he made sure I had a dog and a cat. Bootsie and Tommy would follow me to the barn. Dog, cat, and little girl would lie in the hay beside the buckskin and enjoy each other's company, staying warm even in winter.
The rolling hills of the pasture were where the west began, rising and inviting adventure and imagination. One day when Grandpa and I were walking, talking, and looking for crocus, (Pasque flowers), Bootsie becme agitated and began barking. We walked to see what had her interest, and sunning itself on top of the hill was a huge bullsnake with a great swelling in its middle. Here was a lesson in life and death as grandpa explained the snake must have eaten a rabbit and was taking a nap in the spring sun as it digested its meal.
Sometimes, we sat on a granite boulder on the hillside and viewed the block houses of the 7th Cavalry and the Missouri. Grandpa told me about the journey of Lewis and Clark, and the fate of Custer's men at Little Big Horn. Learning history, botany, biology, animal behavior from Grandpa was a lasting way to learn. And we always took a bouquet of wild flowers home to Grandma.
When winter came, we played dominoes, pickup sticks, gin rummy, and taught ourselves to play Canasta with Life magazine to guide us. I learned to read long before I started school, by sitting on Grandpa's lap and reading Life or the comics. Grandpa, by now in his seventies pulled my sled up to the top of the high hills, then let me take the thrilling ride down. When the blizzards packed snow to the top of our picket fence, Grandpa cut it into squares so we neighborhood kids could build an igloo. He let me hang out with him as he worked with tiny pieces of various kinds and colors of wood and glued in patterns to make cedar chests for his daughters and daughter-in-law.
His love of wood likely came from the days when, as a young man, he worked with the logging horses in the woods of northern Minnesota, hauling logs. He could identify many varieties of wood by the smell. Before he married, he acquired a small piece of land near Richville, Minnesota, cleared it with his favorite team, Blanch and Abner, then built a two story house with the lumber. Grandma birth five children in that house. In 1923, he took a job with the NPRR and he and Grandma moved to Mandan, where he built another home. That is the home of my memories. After his retirement from the NPRR, now in his seventies, he built many stone fireplaces in a new addition in Bismarck.
Weakness was not acceptable to him. In his eighties, when he could no longer walk without a walker, he still raked his own lawn, by crawling with his rake and put the leaves in a bag. This was a man who did much for others, and asked no one to do for him, nor provide for him.
Although he had completed only the eighth grade, he loved to read, could calculate in his head, and had beautiful hand writing. He enjoyed music and asked me to play the piano for him: Tennessee Waltz, Grandfather's Clock, Rock of Ages, Little Brown Church in the Vale, were among his favorites. Although he was a descendent of the Puritan minister of Wintrop Colony, he was not a church goer, but he was a man of spirit.
And he liked kids. He acted as a father to his widowed sister-in law's nine sons. In some ways he was a father or grandfather to the neighbor kids. He enjoyed it when my giggling girl friends came to play or for a pot luck supper. He enjoyed a good joke, and visiting with neighbors and family. In his last years, he enjoyed sitting in the Adirondack lawn chair he had built. In his last years, when I was gone and raising my own family, he enjoyed the three little girls from up the street would who stop and visit. Then he began needing a nap after lunch. Bootsie's had passed and her pup was now 17, and Grandpa's constant companion, including taking a nap with him. Grandma told me after he passed, that one day there was a knock on the door, and there stood the three little girls. "Could Grandpa come out and play?
"Grandpa is taking a nap. I don't think I should wake him." The little faces looked sad, and the girls stood on the steps and thought about it. Then the older one asked, "Could we jsut come in and look at him?"
And they did, quietly standing beside the bed where the white haired old man slept. Then they turned to Grandma, said, "Thank you," then quietly left.
That final visit was a tribute to a good man, who lived a good 87 years and left good memories.