Idella Smyer, an Uncommon Woman

For every famous or well-known person in the Old West you can find a hundred who were just as tough and resilient but who never got their name in the history books.

Idella Stephens Smyer was such woman. I ran across her when I was reading about some of local history a few years ago when I lived near Lubbock, Texas. Idella was born in 1871. Raised by her grandfather who reared her as a boy, she rode horses as soon as she could sit up good. They had to strap her in the saddle. She took to horses like a duck to water and later started breaking and training them. Sometimes she rode as a jockey in races.

She didn’t care much for schooling and only went a couple of months a year in the fall after they’d gotten the crops in.

At the age of 15 she married Henry Smyer in Decatur, TX in 1885. She and Henry moved to her 80 acre farm outside of town. Her grandfather gave her one heifer as a wedding present. That was the start of their herd. Each year they sold the steers but kept all the heifers.

The first of their 14 children, a daughter named Gertrude, came down with malaria. Idella took her everywhere to try to find a cure. Nothing seemed to work until Idella’s brother, Blue Stephens, came to visit. He worked for the huge XIT Ranch in the Panhandle. He persuaded Idella and Henry that the dry climate would cure Gertrude. So they packed up and headed west.

But passing through Jacksboro, Texas, Henry got a job hauling rock for a new hotel. He and Idella bought a tent and lived there three years. That’s where their second daughter whom Idella named John Willie came into the world. How fitting for a woman who lived life so large to saddle her daughter with a man’s name. I laugh every time I think of this part and imagine some man asking John Willie to marry him. It’s just too funny.

Idella’s idea of raising children was to make them as tough as she could and able to take care of themselves in any situation.

By the time she finished with them, they rode wild horses like the wind, hunted wildcats, wolves, and antelopes. They camped out alone on the prairie and they feared nothing.

Neither did Idella. When her third baby was born she was all by herself. Like everything else in her life, she tackled the task and did what she had to do.

The Smyers made it to West Texas in 1892. They settled into an abandoned one room house in Crosby County and took possession. With wood a scarcity, Idella gathered up an armful of cow chips and had a roaring fire going and within an hour was baking biscuits.

Their cattle herd got bigger along with the size of their family. To make extra money, Henry took a job as a freighter. That left running the ranch up to Idella. But she tackled it like everything else in her life—without batting an eyelash.

One day a raging wildfire threatened their house and the herd of cattle. Idella gathered all the children who were old enough, gave them a bucket of water, and sent them out to help battle the blaze. They saved the house and only lost a few cattle.

Another time when a blizzard swept across the prairie and caused her cattle to drift, Idella put her children into bed to stay warm and gave them strict instructions not to light a fire. Then she headed out to round up the cattle by herself. But the cattle were contrary and wouldn’t stay together so she managed to get them into a field of maize she was growing. Although the Smyers had meant to take the crop to market, it fed the cows and kept them bunched up. Idella worked for hours in the frigid cold hauling warm water from the well to them. She knew cattle that had a full stomach and their thirst quenched would be content. She was right. She didn’t lose one cow whereas her neighbor lost 250 of his herd. And when she finally dragged herself home to thaw out, she found her children up and dressed and a wonderful meal cooked.

There were always horses to be broken and trained on the Smyers’ farm. In true Idella fashion, she let each child select a horse of their own. The only stipulation was that they break it themselves. You know the end of this story—they always did.

Idella had both physical and mental strength. She could brand, rope, and bulldog. She could tail up a weak cow or dose a sick one. She could do anything with a horse and the majestic animals were dearest to her heart.

The woman who always used her own brand of language—decent but strong—had a merry laugh and a great sense of humor. But there was a steely glint in her eye that promised she could hold her own against anyone.

Idella Stephens Smyer died on October 27, 1953 at the age of 83. (She outlived Henry by 14 years.) She had no complaints. She’d lived a full life and had done everything she ever wanted.

Do you have any ancestors that bear a resemblance to Idella?

My mother comes to mind. She was the strongest woman I’d ever known. I’ve seen her roof a house; fix a car; wipe away tears; kill a chicken, pluck, and cook it; pick and hoe cotton. There was nothing my mother couldn’t find a way do. She was my hero and my friend. I’m just really, really glad though that she didn’t name me John Willie!

About LindaBroday

I'm a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of western historical romance. I love stories of the old West and the people who once lived there. I haunt libraries and museums and can hang out in them for hours. To tell all the stories that are in my head would take a lifetime.


Idella Smyer, an Uncommon Woman — 8 Comments

  1. Linda- Good morning. What a fantastic story, Idella’s was an amazing woman. She was tough as nails and her keeping her hers together in that blizzard had to of been one of the hardest jobs. I just can’t imagine doing that alone. Thanks for sharing her story with us. I imagine there are many women who were the backbone in taming the Wild West that we will never know. I can’t Think right now who I know was this tough. I know my mom is a workaholic and tough until her recent back Trouble, she was always working and can do anything. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled fir other women who were as tough and never gave up like Idella. Thanks for such a great article.
    Love you sister friend.

    • Hi Miss Tonya……I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Idella. She was one tough lady. Your mom seems to share a lot of Idella’s qualities. Being ill for such a long time can really zap a lot of that out of you. I know one thing–she raised an amazing daughter. You’re the salt of the earth, sister friend.

      Love and great big Texas hugs!

  2. At this point the closest I would say, my mother before her strokes in 2012. When she was born the doctor damaged her at delivery causing her to have cerebral palsy. Her grandfather said to put her away, as she would never amount to anything. She proved them wrong, yes it might have taken her a while to learn how to talk and walk, but once that happened, you couldn’t shut her up and you couldn’t stop her. She learned how to do everything, as her family moved from Iowa to northern Montana, to live on a farm. She was active in 4-h, even won a trip to Chicago with her sewing. She was given a one way train ticket to Des Moines for high school graduation. Once there git a job and supported herself. She moved back to Montana, fell in love with my father, got married. She raised five kids, cleaned her own home, baked, canned, sewed. I was in my 20’s before I knew there was anything wrong with my mom. When she got tired, she walked funny and talked funny. I was 7, before I knew that you could buy bread and cookies in the store. I thought all moms baked, cooked, sewed, and cleaned like my mom. She loved to rake leaves and shovel snow. As she got older the CP started to effected her walking, balance causing her to not be able to do what she did when she was younger. The strokes in 2012 brought the CP back worse then it had ever been. That is also when the mom I grew up with disappeared. In her place was an old, angry Lady.

    • Hi Veda……Great to have you come over. Your mom sounds like Idella. Don’t you dare tell her she couldn’t do anything. I love her fighting spirit and Lord knows she had an uphill climb. That was mean of her grandfather to give up on her that way and want to cast her aside. But that was normal back then. I’m sorry the strokes turned her into someone you didn’t recognize. Maybe it simply got too hard.

      Love you, lady!

  3. What an amazing woman! They really don’t make em’ like that anymore! But the closest I can think of is my mother. She is the strongest woman I know. Growing up she did everything for us kids (my brother, sister and I). She worked hard, sometimes 3 jobs at a time. Then would always have dinner ready for us. She would always tuck me in at night and was there to comfort me. She has had a tough life. From youth into her teens and then her adult life, now as a senior citizen she has severe back problems. She struggles just to walk to the bathroom because her back is so bad. I just pray that she is able to have surgery soon to relieve her pain. Not only that but she has stage 4 Kidney Disease as well. And throughout all of it she always tries to put on a smile for others even though inside she is falling apart. So for me the toughest woman I know is my momma. She’s my hero.

    • Hi Dale…….Thank you for dropping by. I love hearing about your mother. She sounds like a special lady and could be a twin to mine. Mama always had a smile on her face no matter how bad she was hurting. She loved life even with all the hardships and trials. Grab every spare minute you can to be with your mom. Time passes all too quickly.

      Love you, lady!

  4. I’m really glad Mom didn’t name you John Willie too. 🙂 Our mom along with our Aunt Evelyn were a force to be reckoned with. They were fiercely loyal to each other and would stand flat footed and fight a mountain lion if they had to, to protect their families. They were both something special. Idella Smyer was something else. Heck, just 14 children would be enough to put a normal woman in her grave. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this great story, sister!

    • Hi Jan…….I finally got back in! YAY! I’m glad you enjoyed the post about Idella. That woman was something. I agree about Mom and Aunt Evelyn. Those two were something else. But they had to be tough or they couldn’t have survived what they did. Times were so hard when they were having and raising kids during the Depression. I can’t even begin to imagine the daily struggle just to find food. I wouldn’t balk at sifting the weevils out of the flour so I could use it, or washing clothes with nothing to use except a rock. But being homeless with no bed to lay down on at night when you’re dead tired and needing sleep–that would be hard.

      Yes, it’s a grateful heart I have that I’m not named John Willie. Good Lord! Love you, sister! 🙂