Harriet Beckert, Part Two
Yesterday we brought you part one of Harriet Beckert’s story. She was an acclaimed opera star until collapsing on stage with blood coming from her eyes, ears and mouth. With her music career cut short, Beckert decided to go to Killdeer, ND, where she had purchased land sight unseen. Her partner and older brother, Ed, died in the 1918 flu epidemic, but Harriet decided to stick it out. The following spring she returned and bought 160 more acres, 25 sheep, and 15 cows.
Harriet was fiercely independent and resourceful, but her cattle-raising neighbors were mighty unhappy when she fenced her land. In fact, they tried to drive her from the Badlands by cutting her fences and by hiding horseshoes to damage her machinery when she worked her crops. But she was too formidable to give in.
Beckert spent her winters in Chicago, and every spring she returned to the H Lazy T. Soon, she added a barn, a two-story brick house complete with electricity and running water, and a bunkhouse for her hired hands.
The stock market crash of 1929 destroyed many people, but Harriet had always invested in land rather than stock, and wasn’t as hard hit as others. The severe drought of the next decade, however, forced her to sell most of her livestock due to lack of feed.
Creative and adaptive, Harriet noticed Chicago women sporting fox furs, so she decided to raise silver fox the following spring. The business did very well and got her through the Depression.
An idea that didn’t do quite as well was raising frogs for gourmet restaurants back east. She built ponds and installed lights to attract bugs for the frogs to eat – but when she actually introduced the amphibians, the lights and the croaking kept everybody awake. Her hired men were amused by her fearless ideas, but they also respected her for admitting defeat when she failed.
Beckert’s ranch eventually grew to 3,520 acres covered with thousands of sheep and Hereford cattle. She was one of the first ranchers in the area to raise and milk dairy cattle, and because she was so well read, many came to her for advice on both new and old ranching practices.
Harriet’s age didn’t slow her down much. In her 60s, she figured she could save money with her own elevator – so she bought one from the town of Zenith and moved it to her ranch. Her spread was, by then, one of the most efficient in the country, thanks in part to her innovative building ideas. When one of her early barns burned down, for example, she erected a domed, L-shaped barn in its place. People made fun of the revolutionary design, but they were forced to eat their words when it was featured on the cover of the National Dairy Magazine.
After overcoming great odds to merit her ranch a success, “the crazy lady from Chicago” was invited to be a charter member of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame – the brainchild of a Kansas City garment manufacturer who wanted to pay tribute to the great men and women who pioneered the west.
Harriet was tremendously proud of what she had accomplished on her ‘little ranch’ and felt the organization was a wonderful idea. She wrote a sizable check to cover North Dakota’s membership and personally presented it to the board of trustees to thank them for inviting her to join such elite company. A bronze bust of Harriet – and one of her dog, Arno – are on display in the Hall of Fame.
Harriet sold her ranch in 1975 – after 60 years of ranching. The once famous opera star was by then 97; she died three years later in Chicago.
Wallace, Irving. Stardust to Prairie Dust, 1976. Theo. Gaus’ Sons, Inc. Brooklyn, NY.
50 Years in the Saddle: Looking Back Down the Trail. 50 Years in the Saddle Book Committee, 1990. Quality Quick Print, Dickinson, & Associated Printers, Grafton.
Minot Daily News. June 14, 1980: p 11.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm