Life of Fern Laurine Stoddard Woodbury 1929-2020 Part II: Growing Up on the Ranch

“Fern was born and raised on a ranch near Bancroft, Idaho.”

Even today, Bancroft is remote. The majority of the community is laid out in a grid of four by eleven streets. As of 2018, the population was 348. It was always said that Grandma was born in Bancroft, but in reality, she was born on the family ranch about 9 miles northeast of Bancroft proper in the Kelly Precinct.

On 21 April 1929, Fern Cooper a neighbor of the Stoddard family from Chesterfield, came to assist Opal Gay Coumerilh Stoddard with the birth of her sixth child, a baby girl.[1] In memory of her assistance, the baby was named Fern Laurine Stoddard.

From Opal’s marriage to Ira Stoddard in 1920 and over the years as the Stoddard family grew, they appear to have resided in two main locations: “the old dry farm” and the “Nipper ranch.” Fern’s older sister, Barbara, recalled that she was about five years old when the family moved to the Nipper ranch. Since Barbara was born in 1921, that suggests that the family moved to the Nipper ranch in the spring of about 1926, just three years before Fern’s birth. The move was strongly impressed in Barbara’s memory, because as the family was crossing the canal, the box in which Barbara and her sister, Donna, were sitting was swept off the wagon bed by the high spring runoff.[2] She recalled floating down the canal screaming at the top of the lungs and guessed that “they must have come back and got the box and us.” Even though the family’s primary residence was at the Nipper ranch, photographic evidence of Ira, his brother Henry (or “Hen”) and Fern’s brother Jack at the “old dry farm” suggests that the family continued to use both properties for several more years.[3]   

Uncle Hen, Ira and Jack at the Old Dry Farm ca. 1930

Just a year after Fern’s birth, their family was enumerated in the 1930 U.S. Census in the Kelly Precinct.[4]   They were renting the property and Ira and his brother, Henry, were working as general farmers. Ira and Opal’s six children were enumerated in the household in age order: Barbara, Donna, Hugh (Jack), Robert (Bob), Betty and Fern.

Personal Interview

In later years, on several opportunities I interviewed Fern regarding her growing up years. From some of those interviews we learn the following details:[5]

Me: “What do you remember of your childhood?”

Betty and Fern, ca. 1935

Fern: “When I was a baby, my mother would milk warm milk straight into my baby bottle before feeding me… I remember our Christmas tree had candles, and we lit them only on Christmas Eve… When I was a young girl, my family members called me “Fernie,” when I got old enough that they would start calling me Fern, I would reply. ‘My name isn’t Fern it’s Fernie.’… I feel like I was teased quite a bit when I was younger, especially by my older brothers, so in the future, I did not allow that to happen in my own family… I was very close to my sister Betty, and I did almost anything she asked me to do. I do not remember much about my childhood, but I vaguely remember going to my Mother’s parents’ home.”

Me: “What do you remember about your grandparents?”

Fern: “I did not have very much association with my grandparents. Grandfather Stoddard died before I was born; Grandmother Stoddard was hard of hearing… My grandmother on my mother’s side died quite young, and I know that Grandfather Coumerilh married three times. He did come to see me and Betty once. I remember he took us for a ride, and he might have bought us a little treat or something. I remember that he said to me, ‘I will always remember how pretty you are.’”

Me: “What was it like growing up on the ranch?”

Fern: “Cold… We often would take a bottle or jar of hot water to bed, and when we woke up in the morning, the water would be frozen. In the mornings I would come out and stand by the stove and dress behind a chair in order to keep warn. I decided early on that I never wanted to live in Idaho…

Me: “What were your chores? What animals did you care for?”

“As I was growing up, my work was in the house. I hung clothes on the line, because there were no dryers, I ironed clothes, because there was no permanent press. It was a busy time. We sold eggs; we would either go into town, or people would come and buy them from us. Our family lived out in the country on a ranch. We had chicken, turkey, geese, lambs, pigs, and lots of cattle. Father was a cattle rancher. Out on the range there were sheepherders and they would give the baby lambs, whose mothers had died, to father. One year there were 72 lambs, and we named all of them. We would bottle feed them; this work was left mostly to Betty and me. There was a canal behind our house, and sometimes the lambs would go down and get stuck in the mud. We would have to go down and pull them out, and we did lose some lambs. Once I prayed that father would not sell the lambs, because I wanted them, but he did. Once we had a pet duck. There was a step from our kitchen to the dining room, and when we were walking back and forth the duck would follow us. He would just barely make it over the step, and we would be coming back, and he would have to go back down. There was a big bathtub in the kitchen, and one day we came home and found that the duck had drowned in it. Mother would buy 500 chicks every year. There was a brooder in the back to keep the chicks warn. She would get up several times during the night sometimes in order to keep the chicks from burning themselves, I was a little klutzy and had to be careful not to step on them. The summer that my Grandmother on my father’s side died, I stepped on three nails. One almost went through my foot and got infected. There was also a granary at our house, and sometimes we would take off our shoes, and go play inside it. We took some of the grain to the mill sometimes. I remember we had wild hay alfalfa and it was prickly.”

Me: You grew up during the Great Depression. How did it affect your family?

Betty, Ira, Martha and Fern ca. 1940. Fern and Betty are wearing their flour sack princess style dresses with matching patterns.

Fern: “Because we grew up on a ranch, we always had enough to eat. I don’t know that we were as affected by the Depression as other families. Mother (Martha) was frugal and a good manager. Flour at the mill was bagged in printed cotton sacks. When we went to the mill for flour, we chose the print we liked the best and that’s the flour we bought. It took two sacks to make a princess style dress. Betty and I had several dresses made out of flour sacks.”

Me: “What do you remember about your parents?”

Fern: “I don’t remember much about my mother. (For more information on Opal, see the previous article about her life). Father remarried, and my stepmother was very nice. She was a good cook and a hard worker, and she taught me a lot. Her name was Martha Jane Scott, she was a widow. Her maiden name was Rickman, and she was from North Carolina. (For more memories about Martha, see the previous article we wrote about her life).

Dad had many friends. He was well liked in the community… I perceived him as being and honest, hardworking man… He also knew many Indians and was able to communicate with them. As a young child, I was frightened of the Indians when they came by in a wagon. We used to call the field across the road from our house the Indian field. Evidently, that was a place where they could camp. Sometimes they’d come to the door and say “Bread” asking for food. When I saw them coming, I’d run and hide under the bed. However, if Dad was there, I might venture out and stand close beside him while he talked to them. I was impressed that he could communicate with them.

[Dad] liked Gene Autry movies so we often went as a family to see them. I remember listening to the radio on winter nights. Often it was the cowboy music from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They advertised Color Back which was a hair dressing. We had some and Dad used it, But I don’t believe it brought the color back. He had very nice hair and I enjoyed combing it. He also liked peanuts very well, so I shelled peanuts for him. He was much more proficient at it than I was, but I felt good it I could shell a few peanuts to give to my Dad.”

Where was the Ranch?

Last year, I took a trip to Bancroft. We passed the school, the church, several abandoned buildings, and eventually found the small cemetery where Ira and Mattie are buried. As we drove out of town, we saw the sign pointing to Chesterfield. I wondered, “where was the ranch where Fern was born?” I did not have the chance to ask Fern before her death, but with some clues from family memories and original documentation, I believe I have found the ranch where Fern was born and grew up.

The 1940 U.S. Census enumeration shows Fern and her family still residing on the same ranch.[6] Though the rural houses and farms of the Kelly precinct were not numbered or addressed in the census, several neighbors of the family remained consistent between the 1930 and 1940 census suggesting that they continued to live in the same neighborhood. Also, when Mattie answered the enumerators questions, she reported that Ira and his children had resided at the “same house” in 1935 – a declaration that did not apply to herself or her sons Raymond R. and Raleigh J. Scott who were only reported to be living in the “same place” in 1935. By 1940, Barbara and Donna had already left home, but Jack, Bob, Betty, and Fern were still living in the household. The family was still renting the property for 120 dollars per month.

From family reminisces, we find some details which help in the identification of the property. The ranch was fairly remote. They called it the “Nipper Ranch.” There was a canal behind the house. There was a granary. There was a large field across the road. Fern also recalled that they lived near the Portneuf River. Finally, in the family archives of Frank and Fern, there are several photographs of the ranch when Fern was young as well as more recent photographs of a visit to the abandoned buildings on the property.

The ranch house where Fern grew up.
The granary, corral, and buildings on the family ranch.

In the divorce decree of Ira Stoddard and Opal Coumerilh dated 13 May 1938, five pieces of real estate were described and later declared to be the sole and separate property of Ira and his brother Henry. Three of these properties, in which Ira had a one-half interest, were described as follows:

  • Southeast quarter; Southeast quarter of the Northeast quarter, Section 7, Township 7, South Range 39 East of the Boise Meridian, in Bannock County, Idaho;
  • Southwest quarter of the Northwest quarter; West Half of the Southwest quarter, Section 8, Township 7, South Range 39 East of the Boise Meridian, in Bannock County, Idaho, and
  • East Half of the Northeast quarter of Section 18, Township 7 South Range 39 East of the Boise Meridian, in Bannock County, Idaho.

Using earthsurvey.us, and the section, township and range numbers above, I found the corresponding property.[7] A ranch located on Stalker Road between Nipper Road and Coffman Road.

Property of Ira Stoddard as described in his 1938 divorce record. Boundaries of the property on which the family resided are outlined in red.

 Perhaps the family called it the Nipper Ranch because of its proximity to Nipper Road. Behind the farm buildings and cutting through the center of the property is Downey Canal, likely the same canal where Grandma had to save her sheep. Just east of the property, winds the Portneuf River. Zooming in on the farm buildings, one can just make out the presence of a granary and corral matching those in the family pictures.

It seems I have found the destination for my next trip to Bancroft.

Fern grew up on a ranch near Bancroft during the Great Depression. Did you have ancestors who grew up in similar circumstances? What memories did they share with you? Feel free to leave a note in the comments.


[1] Fern Laurine Stoddard Woodbury, “Fern Stoddard Woodbury Personal History,” undated, p. 1.

[2] Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard and Barbara Rose, “Stoddard Family Reminisces,” 1983, p. 8

[3] Frank and Fern Woodbury Family Archive, 0002 Frank and Fern Woodbury Photo Box, Family History Farm Photos.

[4] 1930 U.S. Census (population schedule), Kelly, Bannock, Idaho, ED 51, sheet 2A, Ira Stoddard household, https://www.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.  

[5] Fern Laurine Stoddard Woodbury, “The Personal History of Fern Laurine Stoddard,” recorded by Paul Woodbury, October 2004, p. 1.

[6] 1940 U.S. Census (population schedule), Kelly, Bannock, Idaho, ED 3-49, sheet 2B, Ira Stoddard household, https://www.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[7] EarthSurvey, http://www.earthsurvey.us/maps/mobile.html, accessed June 2020.

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