Passaic: From Grassland to Grassland

Van Leer Homestead. Insert, John and Clara Van Leer. Photo Clearmont Historic Group

Passaic was a community in Sheridan County, that was settled around 1914. Named for the town of Passaic, NJ, by early resident John Van Leer, the community thrived for over 20 years, despite the fact that, unlike most early Wyoming towns, was not located along a railroad line.

Passaic was started by homesteaders. During the later half of the 19th and the early part of the 20th Century, many enterprising people moved west to take advantage of ‘free-land’. The Homestead Act of 1862 was a way of distributing public land to private owners. Over 200 million acres of land was claimed and settled under this act. In Wyoming a total 67,315 homesteaders proved up. The total acreage of homesteaded land was 18,225,327.

Location of Passaic. Photo by Ira Roadifer

With the homestead act, the rules for claiming your land were simple. You had to be over 21; be a citizen of the United States; never have borne arms against US; and be the head of a household. After paying a small filing fee, you could claim a 160 acre parcel of land.

The only catch was the homesteader had to ‘prove up’ on the land within three to five years. That is to live on the land, build a residence, make improvements, then apply for a deed. If requirements were met, the title was given and the land was theirs.

Settlers from all walks of life came west, immigrants, farmers without land, single women, and former slaves worked to meet the challenge of “proving up”.

In a 1919 Sheridan Enterprise public notice for claiming the land after proving up:

NOTICE FOR REPUBLICATION (Coal Land-Waiver filed) Department of Interior, U.S. Land Office at Buffalo, Wyoming, January 29, 1919. Notice in hereby given that George Washington Smith, of Clearmont, Wyoming, who, on June 8, 1915, made Homestead entry. No. 07571, for SE 1/2 SE 1/4 Section 8, NW ¼ NE 1/4 E1/2 E 1/2 Section 17, NE 1/4, NE1/4 Section 20, Township R7 N., Range 78 W., 6th ‘ Principal Meridian, has filed notice of Intention to make final three year proof, to establish claim to the land above described, before Fred A. Lohse, United States Commissioner’ at Clearmont, Wyoming, on the 18th day of March, 1919.

Claimant names as witnesses: Ora Schenffer. William Dooley, Fred L. Reynolds, Pere Whedon, all of Passaic, Wyoming RALPH R. READ. Register.

The Coy King Sawmill. Lumber was needed for homes and schools. Photo Clearmont Historical Group

Ira Roadier, Clearmont, who has researched Sheridan County homesteaders for several years, counted over 100 homesteads in the prime area of the Passaic country during the 20s and 30s.

With so many people in the area, mail delivery was important. People ordered clothing and dry goods from the Montgomery Ward, (Monkey Ward) and Sears and Roebuck catalogs. Also, letters from family back east were looked eagerly looked forward to by resident in the isolated community.

In the Sheridan Post on Tuesday, May 19, 1914. The equipment for the new post office at Passaic, on the head of Cabin creek, came down via Arvada Saturday. Mrs. Emma M. Jennings is postmistress. The route will be from Clearmont to Passaic, which will make it much more convenient for settlers on the heads of Buffalo and Squaw creek.

In an early Polk Directory, it states, “Passaic is a county post office 27 miles Northeast of Clearmont, which is on the CB&QRR shipping point. Stage to Clearmont Fare, $2.00 to Sayle, Mont., $2.00 to Quetus, Mont., $1.50.

The directory said Mrs. C.M. Van Leer was postmaster. Many of the early postmasters were women, and the post officers were located in the postmaster’s homes. Emma M. Jennings was the 1st postmaster, from 1914 to 1916; then Susie Miller 1916 to 1918, Harey Compher, 1918-1920; Lowell (Nix) Green 1920-1922; Clara VanLeer, 1922-1937.

When Clara VanLeer gave up her post in 1937, Oscar Cunningham took over the position in 1937, and continued running it out of the VanLeer home He held the post until it 1940. Glen Shatzer was last Post Master of Passaic 1940-42. Glen’s mother Evalyce was teacher at Passaic.

Sheridan Post, December 1919 – NEW MAIL CARRIER ON PASSAIC ROUTE Fred Williams is again carrying the mail from Clearmont to Passaic. Mr. Williams was the first mail carrier and it seems natural to have him on the job. Mrs. John Rigsby was a passenger with Mr. Williams Monday. Mrs. Rigsby stayed over night at the Williams home so as to take the stage to her home at Quietus, Mont. on the following morning.

Believed to be the Jennings house, and the first Post Office. Photo Clearmont Historical Group

Later, the mail service got faster, as people began driving automobiles.

Sheridan Post, July 1922. W. F. Brittian of Quietus, Montana, will be the new mail carrier from Passaic to Clearmont. Mr. Brittian has purchased a new Dodge truck and will make his first trip on Monday, July 3rd. Mr. Brittian will also carry the mail from Passaic to Sayle, Montana, beginning on Monday July 3rd.

Passaic was district 42, and encompassed 180 miles and was, at one time, the third largest voting district in Sheridan County.

There were several small rural schools in the area of Passaic at one time: Cabin Creek School; French Creek School; Green School; K School; LX Bar School; Dooley School; Whedon School; Smith School and the Ritchie School. Most of these schools started in the 20s and closed in the late 1930s, but the Green School operated until 1962.

Passaic was considered a community, and not a town, there were no stores, so most people did their shopping in Clearmont. In an article about Passaic, written by Thomas J. McCarthy, whose family homesteaded near Passaic, said, “It was a thriving community….(but) to get groceries, you went to Clearmont. With a good, lively team and starting early in the morning, the trip could be made in a day.” He added that going the Sheridan with a team and wagon took two days.

There was, however a school, post office, a doctor, (one of the early homesteaders was a Doctor Earl Whedon, who also had an office in Sheridan), a lawyer and a community hall.

Marker at the Green Ranch, one of the original homesteaders in the Passaic area. Photo by Ira Roadifer

Many Wyoming ranches were started as homesteads, some ranchers purchased adjourning homesteads when their neighbors decide that the farming in arid Wyoming was too hard a way to make a living.

In the Passaic-Buffalo Creek area, the majority of the homesteaders sold to John Kendrick and eventually, the various Kendrick ranches included over 210,000 acres in Sheridan and Campbell Counties.

One such homesteader sold out and left a note on his homestead door: 20 miles to water, 40 miles to wood, I’m leaving this damn place and I’m leaving it for good.

Grazing land, much today as it was before the coming of the homesteaders. Ira Roadifer photo

Today, there is nothing left of the thriving community. The community post office closed in 1942, and the Green School closed in 1962. In July of 2000, a wild fire swept the area, and burned what was left of the Passaic community hall and one residence.

The land has now returned to grass lands for ranchers cattle, much like it was before the influx of homesteaders moved west to try their luck making a living on the high, dry plains.

The Clearmont Historical Group is searching information on Passaic for an upcoming book. Email Sandy Hinz at clearmonthistory@gmail.com or call 307-758-4685.



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