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Remembering Frontier Man From Erin

March 16, 1986|THOMAS R. LYNCH

This essay, submitted by Margaret Falotico of Hidden Hills, was written in the 1930s by her grandfather, the late Thomas R. Lynch (1885-1957), a Los Angeles attorney. It is a reminiscence about his father, Thomas Lynch, who emigrated from Ireland in 1865. The ranch described here at Sand Hills, Neb., is still in the Lynch family and will be 100 years old this year.

My father, Thomas, was 30 when he landed at New York's Castle Garden, wearing a frock coat of fine English broadcloth, beautifully cut by an Irish tailor. This was in 1865, shortly after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He worked for a time in a St. Louis castor oil refinery. Then he traveled up the Missouri River by steamboat to the territory of Nebraska. With hundreds of other Irish newcomers, he drove spikes on the Union Pacific, the first railroad to span the continent.

He was section boss in 1868 when a rifle was part of the handcar's regular equipment and the Sioux were still hostile. He was in the Black Hills gold rush of '76. He bought his first drove of cattle at Buffalo Park, Kan., in '78. Trailing them north in search of a ranch, he and his herder were run to cover in a settlers' dugout on the banks of the Sappa, while Dull Knife's Cheyennes swept by on their historic flight from their imprisonment in the Indian territory to their old haunts in the Dakota Badlands.

He bought a small place on Medicine Creek in southwestern Nebraska, took up a free timber claim and sent to Chicago for my mother and sisters. There were new herd laws that compelled him to keep his dogies out of the plowed acres of his farmer neighbors. He made his last move, 100 miles northward into the Sand Hills.

More Coyotes Than Men

He was frugal (there's a word that most modern Americans don't know the meaning of). And he knew and loved livestock. So he soon became the wealthiest Catholic within 50 miles of his neighboring cow-town. There were more coyotes then men in that area, no really rich men and only occasional Catholics. A tiny wooden church was built with Father Healy helping the carpenter. Succeeding Irish priests at the town came down a few times every year, a 60-mile train ride.

I was the only boy, a son of his later years. I went to school in Omaha, where I lived with my mother and sisters, and spent a few summers roughing it with my father in the sod ranch house.

Once, dressed all in solemn black, his trousers pulled over the tops of his riding boots, and driving a team of broncos hitched to a heavy wagon, my father took me to Mass. There was no acolyte, no music. After the Ite, missa est the men remained in the resin-blistered pews, while the women and children (except me) waded through the sandy road to the hitching rack.

The celebrant removed his robes and came to the altar rail with a small book in his hand. From this he read the names of his adult male parishioners. "Henry Allen." Henry answered, "Five dollars." "John Brady." The answer was the same. And so was it for Fred Brinmeyer and George La Liberte, the priest repeating the name and the identical sum every time, and noting the "fives" in his book. But when my father's name was called and he sing-songed "five dollars" like the rest, the priest recited, "Thomas Lynch, 25 dollars." This he did without the least hesitation or accentuation. Nobody shuffled or grinned. I cast a startled glance at my father; he made no sign.

Preserved a Reputation

As I went out of the box-like church, holding to his hand--the hand with the twisted little finger, frozen in the great blizzard of '88--I thought that this was probably not the first time that my father's donation had been thus hiked, and that the whole maneuver was a fine example of frontier sagacity. For, look you: In so democratic a community it would have been distasteful to all if my father had boasted of his wealth by offering a greater donation than did his neighbors. Yet it would have been quite unfair had he escaped with so light a tax as the others. In this way, too, my father preserved his reputation (precious to him) as a "tightwad," at the same time he was accorded full recognition as a local Croesus. The pastor, likewise, proved himself a man of wit and understanding. And got the extra $20. Everybody was contented.

There were quite a few thrifty immigrants from Ireland back in the other century who liked to be thought penny-pinchers, desperate bargainers, stingy. These could not be shamed into buying things they didn't want, or paying a premium for style. Perhaps it was some sort of defense complex, for most of them were easy marks for the right touch.

As a rancher, my father fancied the Herefords, famous for their ability to graze afar and come back fat. It was when he first began to cross these beautiful English white faces with his original long-horned Texans that his Irish wit possibly saved his life.

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