Photo © Mary Lou Ottman

Walking down the streets of Appleton, Colorado, with her husband, John Ottman, in the spring of 1956, Mary Lou Ottman noticed Capper’s Weekly, a “rural American know-how” magazine on the newsstand. It was a magazine her mother used to read in Kansas when she was a girl. Mary bought it and while leafing through the pages she noticed a four-line advertisement for a homestead drawing on the Minidoka Project in southern Idaho. It was for U.S. military veterans like her husband, who had served in the Navy a few years prior to their marriage in 1952. She read it to John with curiosity. Perhaps this was something they should apply for.

Photo Courtesy Mary Lou OttmanJohn was raised in a large farming family. After serving two years in the Navy, he returned home to the farm, renting some of his father’s property along with land in the surrounding area. After his marriage to Mary Lou Pond, the couple began looking for a farm to buy. Narrowing it down to a few farms in the area, they were praying in earnest for the opportunity to own land when Mary spotted the Capper’s Weekly.

After the completion of the Minidoka Dam in 1906 and the discovery by Julion Clawson in 1947 of an immense aquifer running underground through southern Idaho, thousands of acres of irrigated land was made available to settlers. The Minidoka Project made a unique opportunity for military veterans to gamble on their ability to settle the property. If settlers could live on the property for two years, put up homes and outbuildings and improving the ground, they could keep it.  Drawings were held to determine who would get the opportunity to homestead.

With only 150 draws possible, John signed up along with 5,000 other applicants. Surprised, he was picked number 72. This began a whirlwind of changes and challenges in John and Mary’s life that would ultimately be, as John put it “the answer to their prayers.”

Photo © Mary Lou Ottman

Winners of the homesteading lottery take a tour of the Hazelton homesteading project.

They traveled nearly 500 miles from Grand Junction, Colorado to Rupert, Idaho where they were joined with over 100 servicemen eager to settle the land they had been allotted. Handed a topographical map, John and Mary pored over the area looking for strategic criteria:  few head gates on the canal system, low frost areas for raising beans and level ground for irrigation. Having farmed for most his life, John had an advantage over many of his future neighbors by knowing what to look for in quality soil and potential crop yields. He also talked to surrounding neighbors and farming professionals in the area before making a choice.

Narrowing their search down to three specific parcels of land just over 104 acres each (additional acres were added if the property had lava rock on it), service men and women were divided into groups of 10.  One by one the lots were picked in roulette style. John and Mary anxiously watched as their three top choices went unpicked. This left them with their first choice of land in the Hazelton area.

Photo © Mary Lou Ottman

John Ottman holds his daughter Nancy while the well driller drives a steak for the location of the well.

John and Mary Lou Ottman and their two little daughters, 3-year-old Nancy and 18-month-old Kayleen, began moving to southern Idaho in March of 1957. Loading their farm machinery and equipment plus 500 railroad ties into two semi trailer rigs owned by Mary Lou’s father, they caravanned to Idaho with all their belongings in their car and a small pickup truck.  When they arrived in Rupert, it rained for 10 days before they could get to work. John said it was lucky their property was right along a main road leading to Unit Pump A or they wouldn’t have been able to unload.

Like a chain reaction, the needs of creating a new farm began presenting themselves one by one.  A bank was needed. Hazelton State Bank secured the $18,200 loan that was allotted each serviceman.  In addition, McBride Lumber of Rupert provided the building materials for their house and outbuildings, and an excavator was hired to clear and level the land in addition to building water ways. A well driller was also hired to dig a well for culinary purposes while crops were planted.

Photo © Mary Lou Ottman

Wash day was an old washing machine on the porch and clothes drying on a line stretch from the power-pole and the smoke stack of the tractor.

Years earlier in a Home Economics class, Mary Lou had drawn house plans for a class project. Moving to Idaho brought her plans to life and John quipped, “No one could talk her out of them!” The house would have 1,240 square feet, running water and a bathroom – luxuries they had never had before.

They rented a small trailer to live in for four months while their “dream home” was being built.  Using some of the railroad ties to make a porch, their ringer washer sat next door to the trailer.  Conveniently close by, their clothes dried on a clothesline strung from the power pole to the exhaust pipe on the tractor.  When the basement was finished, they moved in and began painting the house themselves.

When picking out their property the lay of the land was deceiving, John later observed.  Looking across a section of land, the sagebrush looked even, but what they found was that the brush underneath at the top of a field was short where there was less water while the brush at the bottom was tall. Sagebrush was cleared with a long 12-14 foot V-blade that ran six inches underground to dig up the base of the brush.  It was turned into windrows by hay rakes covered with corrugated pipe and burned at night with army flamethrowers.  John remembers the burning sagebrush was “a sight to see and the smell was wonderful.”

Photo © Mary Lou Ottman

After the sagebrush was cut, big rakes were used to pile the brush to be burned.

Working the ground after removing the sagebrush left it powdery and hard to work with. Often the ditch banks would wash out and Mary sewed canvas sleeves that attached to the siphon tubes to prevent erosion.  But frequent spring rains helped to temper the soil, allowing the dirt to compact and the ditch beds to solidify. Through careful planning and hard work, their first crop of grain, sugar beets, beans and potatoes were successful. The trees they brought from Colorado were replanted three times before they found a way to protect them from the rabbits. Today some of the same trees they planted over 50 years ago still grow around their home.

Photo © Mary Lou Ottman

The Ottman farm a few years after they settled in 1957.

Along with Nancy and Kayleen, three more children – Mark, Connie, and Gary (who eventually bought the farm and expanded) – were born into the family and raised on the homestead in Hazelton. Many of their new neighbors found themselves unprepared for the rigors of homesteading and sold out after the two years were up. Through a concerted family effort, the Ottmans succeeded in homesteading their property.

Over the next several decades, John would be honored numerous times in his farming career for excellence in crop production and soil conservation. He also served on many boards and committees in the area.  Mary excelled in gardening, raising flowers and sewing. She was well known at craft fairs and farmer’s markets for her baking, flowers and crafts. And both John and Mary have served faithfully in their church, acknowledging it as a great source of their strength.

Photo © Jason Lugo

John & Mary Lou Ottman still live in the same house they built when they homesteaded Hazelton.

Today, John and Mary Lou still live in their “dream home” on the farm they homesteaded over half a century. Little changes have been made to the immediate surroundings, proving the foresight both John and Mary had for the future. As the Ottmans reflect over the past 54 years they note, “It wasn’t until after that first harvest was completed the fall of 1957 that we realized picking up Capper’s Weekly was the answer to our prayers.”

About the author

Paula D. Webb - Paula grew up on a ranch south of Grace, Idaho. From the time she learned to form letters, she’s loved writing. Earning her degree in English/Professional Writing, Paula has written for several publications. She also loves walking, baking artisan breads, music and most of all, being a wife and mother.

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5 comments

Christie Lewis

What a great article! Good job Paula!

Really a nice article. Congradulations!!

Jerry Meireis

Great article on some wonderful people. Have known John and MaryLou for a number of years and they are in part, the reason we live in such a wonderful country and a beautiful valley. Their tenacity for life and unwavering trust of God should inspire us all. Keep up the good work

Tallon Bennett

I worked on this farm with Gary ottman it was an awsome experience. Gary and his family are wonderful people and have tought me alot this is knowledge that i appreciate learning and will rember and enjoy sharing with family and friends for many years to come. Gary told me alot about when his dad and mom first started the farm and how the farm has changed so much.The summer i worked there i watched it change more and more. Thank you ottman family

Ardis (Drake) Kenney

My parents, Harry & Dorothy Drake, were also homesteaders in the Kasota District. This is the first article I have found in all my searching that relates the historical significance of the “GI Homesteaders.” I would love to hear from other families who have had this experience. It would be my dream to put something together outlining the homesteading experience of this era.
I remember John and MaryLou very fondly. This is a beautifully written story.