Before she became the last woman homesteader in America, she became a widow.
Before she became a widow, she married a rough-and-ready bush pilot and raised five children in the Alaskan wild.
Before she married the bush pilot, she moved to Fairbanks to marry a man who turned out to be a scoundrel.
Before she almost married the scoundrel, she was a 23-year-old nurse in Chicago.
Before she was a nurse, she was an inquisitive girl growing up in Eddyville, Neb., the daughter of the mercantile man and his wife and the granddaughter of homesteaders from Saxony, who built a cabin on a hill thick with prairie grass and rattlesnakes.
Now the woman who proved up 160 acres of Alaskan wilderness is 84.
Betty Smith can't remember every detail of her journey, but she does remember the land she forded a river to claim in the spring of 1973.
"It was kind of a heaven."
The last woman homesteader today
The last woman homesteader lives with her son, Bill, and his family in Delta Junction, Alaska, a town of 6,000, 10 miles and a five-minute boat ride from one of the last tracts of land the government granted its citizens.
She's been a widow for more than 40 years now.
Her rough-and-ready pilot was dead six months after Doc Haggland diagnosed him with leukemia in 1971.
The next year, a local scrap dealer was looking for logs to build a cabin when he discovered a forest overlooked by the Bureau of Land Management.
Ten people filed papers that fall for a piece of that forgotten paradise.
A civil servant. A store owner. A politician. Two truck drivers. A carpenter. A high school boy and his widowed mother.
|Betty Smith's children (from left), Patty, Rose, Bill, Pam and Debbie. All Betty's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren still live in Alaska. (Courtesy photo)|
"I was the first one to sign up," Betty said last week.
"The rest of them followed."
Listening in on the other phone, the high school boy -- now a man with white in his beard and 35 years of pipeline-building under his belt -- doesn't disagree.
"You wanted an adventure, didn't you, Mom?"
Before she moved to Chicago, she was a girl growing up ...
Betty's adventures began in Eddyville, a town of 300 northwest of Kearney, where all seven Clouse kids had their turn running the cash register and stocking shelves at their dad's store.
Her grandparents had immigrated to Dawson County in 1879 from Germany and staked their claim a few miles to the south.
Her dad hunted quail and wild turkeys on that land as a boy, crawling up the hills on his belly, Betty said.
Most of his life, he hunted rattlers, too, collecting the tails in a bucket, where they made papery music.
Eventually, her grandparents moved to town, and Betty moved to Grand Island to become a surgical nurse. She took her white cap to Chicago, where the mangled bodies from Skokie Highway came to her hospital to be put back together.
In 1950, she flew to Fairbanks.
She can't remember his name, she said, the scoundrel who sweet-talked her into coming to Alaska Territory, asking her for $300 and then disappearing.
The only man she remembers is that crazy plane mechanic. The man who crashed and ended up in St. Joseph Hospital to mend.
"He just laid there in the bed and shot paper wads at the surgical bell outside the door," his widow said.
"He was a pest. A real tease."
But after Arthur E. Smith was released, he showed up at the young nurse's boarding house and found her having Sunday morning coffee with a friend.
Skip the coffee, he told her. We're going out to breakfast.
And that was the start of another adventure.
Before she became a widow, she married a rough and tumble ...
|Wedding photo of Betty Smith and her bush pilot husband, Art. (Courtesy photo)|
The courtship was brief.
The kids came on like an Alaskan winter, one on top of the other.
Pam, Debbie, Bill, Rosie, Patty.
Art spent his summers mining gold and his winters covered in grease, making planes fly.
Before they started a family, Art would fly hunters into the bush to shoot moose and bear and caribou. Betty bagged a muskrat once and sold the hide to be turned into hats and mittens.
But mostly, before she lost her husband, Betty stayed home -- at the old lodge Art moved across the river and rebuilt -- greeting her kids with homemade bread and blueberry pies when they got off the school bus.
"She had her hands full," Bill said. "She raised us with a Coleman lantern and a propane stove."
Proving up her 160 acres ...
There were some hard times after Art died. Betty hitchhiked to work at the military base, scrubbing floors in the mess hall. She broke her leg and scooted up the stairs to bed on her rear end, never complaining.
She even thought about moving back to Nebraska, to the arms of her family.
|Betty Smith drives the tractor while her son-in-law Denis Bickford and his father, Phil, huck bales and Debbie and Rose Smith stack them. (Courtesy photo)|
Then the scrap man discovered the land.
That first winter, they hauled the Cats and tractors across the frozen river. The homesteaders and their families set up a sawmill.
They cleared forest. Peeled logs. Built cabins.
Betty's was the first cabin, and the nicest.
Hungry men showed up on her doorstep when it was time to eat.
Fried caribou. Moose meat goulash. Fresh vegetables from the garden she grew, bigger than a suburban backyard. Her cookies or wild blueberry pie for dessert.
All five Smith kids worked, picking rocks and sticks from fields, tending animals, cooking, all that laundry. Betty drove a tractor.
Betty and Bill had their names on the deeds, but it was a family endeavor.
The homesteaders had to meet government requirements.
Live on the land seven months the first year and build a domicile.
Live on the land seven months the second year and clear 10 acres.
Live on the land seven months the third year, clear 10 more acres and raise a crop to harvest.
Betty raised oats.
And the fourth year, they could rest. The government granted them title in 1984.
|Wendy White (left), Bill Smith, Betty Smith and Debbie Smith outside their cabin in Alaska. (Courtesy photo)|
Since then, many of the original 10 homesteaders have sold their land. A religious group called Whitestone Farms has formed a community of more than 200 there and bought up businesses in Big Delta across the river.
"The boat landing is full on Sundays with people going to church," Bill said.
But Betty still has her land, and so does Bill.
It's a piece of home.
Her cabin was grand, Betty remembers. And the forest was lovely, spruce, fur, diamond willow, aspen. And the wild strawberries, twice as sweet as any other.
Hard work, she never minded it.
"I wouldn't trade anything in my life, for anything."
But proving an Alaskan homestead was work.
"So how do you feel about the government giving away land for free?" someone once asked Bill.
"Well," he answered, "I wouldn't consider this free."
Back to Nebraska
A sliver of limelight has begun to shine on Betty.
Last summer, a man from the Bureau of Land Management came down to Delta Junction and interviewed her for a book he's writing.
|Betty Smith walks on her homestead toward the Tanana River, which she needs to cross to get to the town of Big Delta. (Courtesy photo)|
She's been invited up to Anchorage for its big Fourth of July parade to ride on a float and wave to the crowds.
But before that, Betty and her daughter, Rose, and Bill and his wife will come back to Nebraska.
They'll be here in May for the official ceremony in Beatrice, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act.
They want to visit Eddyville and the land up the road where the rattlesnakes lived and died. Betty has a brother in Lincoln to visit and a sister in Omaha.
It's been more than 30 years, Bill said.
"We have a lot of history to catch up on."
The last woman homesteader in America is ready.