Will and Sarah Lee Fleming, the roamers who homesteaded in Farley, New Mexico

Harold Fleming with granddaughter Annie, c. 1965

My paternal grandfather, Harold Morton Fleming was a rancher who was born in Ohio, but lived much of his life on the high plains of north-eastern New Mexico.  His parents were William James Fleming and Sarah Rebecca Lee, who homesteaded there with their children on one of the sweeping grasslands plateaux above Las Vegas (the New Mexico one, of course), on a lonely stretch with a Farley address a bit north and east from Springer.  Farley no longer appears on the google maps, but when I was born in 1964, my mother remembers visiting her in-laws in a tiny town there, a mile or so away from the Fleming ranch.

Will was the son of immigrants.  His father, Thomas Morton Fleming came to America from Scotland in 1869, when he was 18. His line of Flemings was centered in the Lanarkshire area of Scotland, and my research has (so far) gone back to David Fleming and Janet Arbuckle of Glasgow. Their son William Fleming, was born about 1796, and grew up to be a farmer, and married Isabella Stirling, the daughter of a ‘plowman’. Their son, Robert Fleming, broke with family tradition and became a stoneworker in the limeworks near Glasgow, where he eventually was killed by a slab of rock that fell on him in 1883. His wife was Agnes Morton, and several of their children left Scotland for new opportunities in America.

Thomas Morton Fleming

Thomas Morton Fleming was one of those, and when he arrived in 1869 he was 18 and knew how to work hard. First, he worked for the Union Pacific Railroad setting out ties in Colorado. By 1875, he settled in Jewell County, Kansas, where he met and married Ida Elizabeth Kuhn.

Ida was born in near Zurich, Switzerland, and immigrated to America with her family before 1870 (their story is for a different post).  Thomas and Ida lived in Republic County until about 1902, when they moved to May, in Harper County, Oklahoma.

 

Thomas M Fleming & Ida M Kuhn Fleming

Thomas and Ida Fleming had 12 children, and William James, born in 1885 was their fifth child. He appears in 1900, when he was 15, living with his maternal grandparents, Katherine Baumann and Johan Ulrich Kuhn in Belleville, Kansas.  He would have been about 17 when his parents moved to Oklahoma sometime about 1902, and whether he accompanied them at first, or joined them later I do not know.  Will, as he was called, was in May, OK, at least by 1908 or 09, because he was living there with his parents when he and Sarah Lee met.

Sarah Rebecca Lee was born in 1886 in Pineville, Bell County, Kentucky, the daughter of Stephen Andrew Lee and Rutha Jane Mason, the third of their ten children.  The Lee and Mason families are very interesting, and I will take up their thread in a different post.

For this part of the story, suffice it to say that both the Lee and Mason families have deep Kentucky roots, but about 1900, Steven and Rutha Lee moved to Paulding County, Ohio.  I’m still figuring out why they emigrated out of Kentucky, but I do know that Stephen’s father and at least three of his brothers went there in the late 1800s. The men’s occupations on the census are all listed as Farmer, so it wasn’t some other industry that attracted them – probably just new land and new opportunities.

Rutha Jane Mason Lee, courtesy Cheryl Bada

Tragically, Rutha Jane Mason Lee, died in 1904, shortly after the birth of her tenth baby.

Dale Fleming had this to say about what happened after Rutha died:

“Sarah’s dad … was a big, tall, rawboned guy. He drank a lot, was mean, and when his wife died, the twelve kids scattered like birds to survive.  Sarah went to Oklahoma to live with a cousin.  Sarah was little and slim.  She grew up hard and didn’t expect much.”

Stephen A Lee

Steven Lee remarried to a woman named Sarah Saylor in 1908, the same year that his daughter Sara arrived in May, Oklahoma to earn her keep by working as a nanny for her cousin, Rosa Jane Lee and her husband, Will Sells and their three small children.

The story goes that one Sunday shortly after her arrival, Will Fleming stopped in to pick up his usual walking-to-church companions, and that Sarah was the only one going that day, so he walked with her.  They took a fancy to each other, and were married in 1909, in Doby Springs, Harper County, Oklahoma. Their oldest child, Harold Morton Fleming, was born the next year in Paulding County, Ohio, where Sarah traveled from their home in Bellville, Republic County, Kansas, to have her baby with family around her.  The Kuhn family, Will Fleming’s maternal relatives, was centered in Bellville, Kansas.

In 2000, Mary Sells Bond[1], sat down and recorded some recollections of Sarah Lee Fleming by Faye Sells (age 85 in June 2000) and Susie Crooks (age 100 in September 2000).  The Rosa Jane Lee Sells mentioned here was Sarah’s 1st cousin; their fathers were brothers.  Here is what they remembered:

“Sarah, Rosa’s cousin, came to Oklahoma on the train with Will and Rose Sells to help care for the children.” (best date 1907.  Viola was ca. 4, Hester 3, and baby Donnie perhaps 6 mos.  Reports are that Donnie he was a fussy baby.)  I think both Marvin Chambers and Faye Sells mentioned in about 1998 about Sarah hired out to help clean house or building for Fleming family.  This was Tom Fleming and Ida, parents of Will and another son named Tom.

A letter Grandmother Rosa Jane Lee Sells wrote to her parents in Ohio and dated Feb. 1908, was sent from May [Oklahoma] and mentions Sarah.  In this letter, Donnie takes his first steps one day during Rosa’s writing.  On Friday she reports both a thunder storm and rain the night before and that upon getting up they were about 4 inches of snow and quit snowing at 10 o’clock.  Later, in ‘afternoon Sarah is putting Donnie to sleep.’  They had recently had 4 meals of green onions.  Will and his father were hauling corn and fodder.

Faye recalls being in the big block 3-story house of the Tom Flemings or at least where Mr. Fleming had an office in it.  This was located just south of where the state highway runs east and west along south edge of May and just west of the May to Gage road.  For many years that location has been the farm and home place of Cecil Crooks and/or wife Susie.  Faye’s mother, Ida Jones, was a seamstress who helped in the WPA (or whatever the Federal project title was) for sewing women (1935- WWII years), which in May, OK, was in the same building where Mr. Tom Fleming had had his office.

T. M. Fleming moved from May to Waynoka where he bought the Dew Drop Inn Motel and ran it.  Sarah and Will lived in a building there that had tin siding which looked like blocks.

While Sara and Will lived in Waynoka, Faye says she and Hazel [Will and Sarah’s daughter] were in the same school, but she doesn’t think they were in the same grade.  Faye’s folks lived in Waynoka ca. 1924-25.  Her father Charlie Jones, worked at the R R. round house, or at least with the RR.  Fay at one time talked like Will and Sarah might not have lived at Waynoka very long (winter about 1925-26).

Susie Crooks recalls that one of her daughters was born in 1933 while they were living in New Mexico as neighbors to Bill and Sarah Fleming.  The Crooks lived out there around Farley for 3 years.  While there the Fed. Govt. had cattle slaughtered due to drought – no feed for the cattle.  Beef meat was given to people, size depending on number in family.  The Flemings, John & Phoebe Rogers, and the Crooks would get together and cook and can the beef.  They all tried to raise beans, but barely got seed back.  They lived on jack rabbits.

William Fleming and Sarah Lee, c 1909

“Sarah was a little woman, a head, or more, shorter than her sister, Phoebe, and shorter than Bill, her husband.  She had gray hair and was older than me.  Nice lady, I liked her.”

According to Dale Fleming, Will and Sarah ‘traveled a lot’. He said that in 1917, they went overland from Oklahoma  to Colfax County, New Mexico, in covered wagons with a team of ‘big blue’ horses, and homesteaded in Colfax County, along with Sarah’s sister, Phoebe Lee and her husband, John Aseph Rogers; and Will’s sister, Agnes, with her husband, Howard Smith.  Their family ties were strong.

Phoebe Lee, Sarah's sister, with her husband John Aseph Rogers, c. 1915

I find a homestead claim filed by William J. Fleming for 320 acres in Colfax County, New Mexico, filed in Clayton, NM, in July of 1919.  In 1931 he bought another 18 acres in the same area.

Dale told me that “W.J. would work from sunup to sundown for $1.50 a day to supplement the family income. They lived the old pioneer life. They built a little rock house on their homestead and lived there for many years before they could build a bigger house. That old rock house is still standing, although the roof and the floor are gone. They farmed and they worked real hard. Dad died sudden of a heart attack in January of 1965. He was 79 then. He died in a hospital in Springer, (New Mexico).”

The Flemings, from l. to r.: Hazel, Dale, Sarah, Rolland, Will, and Harold

During an interview in 1999, my father, Lee Fleming, remembered the following:

Wm James Fleming was very persevering and worked to instill in the kids this work ethic. His motto was “Patience and Perseverance”; I had a great respect for him. When he died, he was in the field working on his Farmall Tractor that had a hand crank. He was very conservative and well liked in the community. He was a farm auctioneer, and usually didn’t take money for this. He bought his land for about $1 per acre, and sharecropped with his sons. He got 1/3 and his sons got the rest of the proceeds from their crops. He would make loans to them anytime they needed it, and his sons used his farm equipment. When he died, he left about a quarter million dollars to Sarah. She gave this to the kids.”

Sarah Lee and William J Fleming

My mother, Mary Wyles Ogle remembers that Sarah, was “a very petite, energetic, elegant woman.  She was hardworking, and not as poor as many neighbors and other family members.”   Sarah was blind in the last decade of her life as a result of Diabetes, and died of cancer in 1974.

Bob and I visited their homestead site in 2000 or so, I think the summer after Dale Fleming’s death (unfortunately I have misplaced those notes sometime over the past two moves).  The land was no longer in the family, and at that time, was owned by a corporation in Texas.  At any rate, we were definitely trespassing, but I wanted to see the place, and walk on that land where so many of my kin had lived and even died.

Sarah Fleming with her Children: back - Dale, Hazel, Sarah; front - Harold, unknown child, and Rolland

There were pieces of large farm equipment scattered like dinosaurs throughout the property.  There were various outbuildings as well, and a little once-white house, now abandoned and falling to pieces. But the focal point of the homestead was still a large stone building, made, as I recall from large rocks with thick sturdy walls; the work of the grandson of a mason, perhaps.

Fleming Homestead, 2002

As we were poking around the ruins, a sudden hail storm rolled in, as they do in that part of the world in summer, and we took refuge in the stone building, which did have a roof, so I think it was the second house that Will built, and that the smaller stone house, which was in worse shape, was probably the original homestead house.

Fleming Homestead, Rock House, 200

Sarah Lee and Will Fleming

I have a few photos of Sarah and Will.  One of them shows the two of them in their garden.  The image is poor quality, but you can see that she is tiny, and that their garden is large and bountiful.   No doubt they mostly cared that it was bountiful, as these were their vegetables for the year.


[1] Notes from Mary Sells Bond, September 8, 2000, to me via Cheryl Bada, October 2000.  Memories about Sarah Lee Fleming by Faye Sells (age 85 in June) and Susie Crooks (age 100 in September), September 3 – 4, 2000; recorded by Mary Lou Sells Bond.

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2 thoughts on “Will and Sarah Lee Fleming, the roamers who homesteaded in Farley, New Mexico

  1. That is a wonderful story! I know that all of it is true by my recollection. I appreciate you so much for taking the time to record and write this story of our family. You are a wonderful daughter.

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