Ethel Phoebe Waxham Love
Ethel Phoebe Waxham Love (1882-1959) was neither a celebrity nor a notable historical figure, and what little acclaim was realized after she had died.
But, the love story of this Phi Beta Kappa, Wellesley educated teacher, and John Galloway Love, a Scottish Rancher from Wyoming is emblematic of the times and struggles of the beginning of the 20th century in America.
Ethel had an amazing sense of humor. When a difficult wood stove at last began to function properly, she wrote: “The stove has developed a conscience.”
When she taught for a time at Central High School in Pueblo, Colorado and lived in the home of Mrs. Butler, she wrote to Mr. Love: “Mrs. Butler…is a little war-horse of a woman with a long, thin husband. I’m telling you about her, because she has been improving him for about twenty years, and it is beginning to tell on him.”
She also had a poetic talent, and penned the following in “Aspen Leaves”
O Little leaves in the uneasy wind,
Do you know sorrow, have you heard of pain,
That lingering here, I dream that I may find
The meaning of your chant to wind and rain?
Do I regret far, long forgotten hours
Of life like yours, where only winds astray
Touched the tempestuous leaves and quiet flowers
Until death wandered slow along the way?
Or ‘neath the trees in some life long ago
Did sorrow gently come and gently pass,
Like summer wind over the bending grass,
Did sorrow come, but leave not memory,
Only a shadow on the heart to see
The waving of green branches to and fro?
David Love, her son, penned their love and struggle story as follows:
After their rain-soaked honeymoon, John and Ethel Love moved into the house he had built for her on Muskrat Creek (Wyoming). His ranch was more remote, more barren than anything Ethel had ever seen before. In an area the size of Rhode Island, the Loves were the only inhabitants.
We live the ranchiest kind of ranch life… The sheer aloneness of it is unique — never a light but one’s own, at night. No smoke from another’s fire in sight.
Ethel Waxham Love
John Love’s dream was to build a prosperous future for his new wife — big herds of livestock, abundant orchards and irrigated fields of grain. But during their first winter together, the Loves lost 8,000 sheep and 50 cattle. Ethel lost a baby.
Still they managed to complete one irrigation dam near their home and to begin work on a larger one downstream. But the next winter was the worst since the Great Die-Up of the 1880s. Ethel, pregnant again, had left John alone and gone to Denver for the birth. She and the baby, a son named Allan, had just returned when the spring floods began.
Black clouds, thunder and lightning showed heavy rains up the creek, although we had only showers about the house. All that afternoon John had been chanting happily, “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” in anticipation of water to fill the small reservoirs. I fed the baby and went to bed about nine o’clock. Then Jordan rolled.
Ethel Waxham Love
“There was a violent storm and a lot of flood water came down Muskrat creek. And it invaded the house in the middle of the night. And mother got up out of bed and took the baby in her arms and staggered through the mud up onto the hill to the honeymoon sheep wagon. And my father tried to keep the flood waters out of the house, but to no avail. They came in about two and a half to three feet deep, swirling through the house.”
At daylight we returned to the house. Stench, wreckage and debris met us. The flood… had burst open the front door and swept a tub full of rain water into the dining room. Chairs and other furniture were overturned in deep mud. Mattresses had floated… Kitchenware, groceries and silverware were filthy.
Ethel Waxham Love
Bankers from the town of Lander showed up, surveyed the damage, and brusquely announced that they were foreclosing on Love’s livestock loans.
The aftermath came quickly. Buyers arrived to take over the sheep, sheep wagons, dogs and equipment. John paid his… own cowboys, and they departed… Before he left, the… banker asked, “What will you do with the baby?” I said, “I think I’ll keep him.”
Ethel Waxham Love
“After the flood, my father was of course devastated. All his dreams had gone down the drain. And so he told my mother that he wouldn’t blame her if she left him. She replied, ‘I will never leave you.'”
They went back to living in a sheep wagon while they cleaned out the flood wreckage and began rebuilding. A second son, David, was born, and by the next year, the big dam downstream was finished.
We had a lulling sense of satisfaction and anticipation… awaiting a real test of the dam’s strength. The sky in the west was blackened by a hail storm… It filled the dam, overflowing the spillway. Under the pressure the dam burst… John salvaged five loads of rye and more of winter wheat… This was all he had to show for his years of expensive effort on the dam. “Love’s Labor Lost,” was his summary.
Ethel Waxham Love
John Love was 43 years old. All of his work had ended in ruin. He hired himself out as a common sheepherder for forty dollars a month and started over — yet again.
We keep open house for all who pass… “When did you eat last?” is the correct greeting.
Ethel Waxham Love
One of the riders who came through was a chap named Bill Grace. And he had been rather lively as a young man, and killed somebody, and had been sent to the penitentiary for it. But he was a decent sort, and as my father said, the man needed killing anyway.
But we little boys — we were about ten or eleven years old — we were in kind of awe to be in the presence of this murderer. And it just happened that day that he was at the ranch, we had been out in the castle gardens and had found an enormous rattlesnake. It was five feet nine inches without the head. And that’s a big rattlesnake. And it was beautiful, and we skinned it out ’cause we wanted the skin. And we saw all this beautiful meat and we thought, well, it will make a good supper. So we brought it in and mother took the bones out of it and creamed it and served it on toast. And it was good! And everybody was delighted with it. Especially Bill Grace, who hadn’t had anything like that probably in his life.
And we boys were told not to say anything about this being rattlesnake meat, ’cause it might offend Bill. So, we didn’t. But we couldn’t really quite stay away from the thought. So we were talking about rattlesnake meat and how good it could be. And Bill Grace struck his fist on the table and said, ‘If anybody fed me rattlesnake meat, I would kill’em!’ And there was a dead silence. And then mother passed the plate of rattlesnake meat and said, ‘Have some more chicken, Bill.'”
As the years passed, there were still more setbacks. Fire destroyed one of the ranch buildings. A Wyoming oil boom passed them by. One year, shipping cattle to Omaha ended up costing Love twenty-seven dollars more than he sold them for. Disease took another sheep herd. A bank failed, and with it went the family savings.
John and Ethel Love stayed on at Muskrat Creek for 37 years, and watched their children grow, go off to college, and succeed. Phoebe became a chemist, Allan a design engineer, and David a geologist.
“When they left the ranch for the final time, they really had no choice. They were both sick, they couldn’t get any help, the cattle business was being bureaucratized, and their future on the ranch was nothing. So they were resigned to their fate, knowing that they weren’t going to live much longer. Mother particularly when she left she said, ‘at least I left it clean for the next people.'”
John Love died in 1950. Ethel joined him in 1959.
“I think a lot about my father and in many ways, he is typical of the survivors. After the 1919 winter that pretty much wiped us out, he and I both had to learn to walk again, ’cause we had Spanish influenza and we were sick all winter. And I can still remember us standing together, each leaning on the other, the six-year old boy and the fifty-year old man, and his saying, ‘Well, laddy, we can make it.’ So, of course, we did.”
Ethel Waxman was introduced to me in a book memorializing her letters and journals from 1905 through 1910 – “Lady’s Choice” compiled and edited by Barbara Love & Frances Love Froidevaux.
In this true love story, John immediately fell in love with the young school teacher Ethel. For a very long time, however, Ethel rebuffed every single effort of John to court her; chastising him for writing anything remotely amorous. Yet…she saved every single letter – from the very beginning. Just something to muse.
What is it about some people?
Those who even lived before our time. With some there just seems to be a connection. Perhaps their struggles and successes simply resonate. Maybe, we’ve been there. There’s a hope even that we’ll connect and know each other in eternity.
But for now, Ethel’s integrity and her commitment to John Love plumbs the depth of expectations – “I will never leave you!”