“On a Saturday night, the neighbors would bring cookies and we’d all play Penny Ante. And because our house was one of the only ones with running water, there was always someone rotating in and out of the game to take a bath,” tells Wilma (Lodema), Robison Burgess.
In 1955, Lodema, Wade (her late husband), and his mother and stepdad all moved to the Basin to start farming. “I never planned to marry a farmer,” tells Wilma. “In fact, I thought I’d shopped around really well for a husband but when we moved, he farmed. It turned out to be an adventure that I would never change.”
Soon after the Robison’s moved here, a neighboring farm came up for sale. This particular farmer had lived on the farm for a few months before his wife arrived. She took a look, then announced that this was not for her before leaving. The Robison’s bought the farm for $1,800 dollars. “It was a desolate country here. When I first laid my eyes on the miles of sagebrush and sand, I thought my husband had lost his mind. I remember telling my mother, ‘I married him for better or worse, but this is terrible.’
The dust blew like you can’t even imagine. I’m not sure I would have ever made it had I not been through The Depression with a family of eleven.”
Once they settled in things started to become normal, or as normal as pioneer life would be. Wilma got a teaching job in Kennewick at East Gate Elementary. Then later transferred to Park Middle School and then to Desert Hills. In Kennewick, she taught for 45 years (1955-2000). “Not every day, but a lot of them, when I would drive by farmhouses on my way to teach at the school, I would pick up empty cream cans. I would put as many of them in my car as I could fit, then at school, I would fill them up with water and drop them back off on my way home.”
In 1956, some wood barracks in Kennewick became available for housing. The Robison’s had some relatives and a few local boys help them jack up one barracks and prepare to move it. Once it was jacked up, they couldn’t get a permit to move it. “We talked Cope Moving into helping us out, and at midnight one night, we moved that house. As we drove it down the road, I rode on the top of the house to tell the driver when they needed to slow down and also lifted up overhead wires. We eventually made it to the Richland Y where we were to meet the ferry that would transport the barracks up and across the river. We missed the ferry by two hours.”
The family had to lower the house and wait six weeks before they could complete the move. Their house was one of the few with running water. “Everyone came to my house to shower,” Lodema explained. “It didn’t matter if I was at school or home, someone was always there taking a bath. That’s how our Saturday night cookies and game playing started. We would play games and someone would always be in the shower. Even though I had running water, about once a week I’d drive our flatbed trailer around and deliver water to families. I would take that flatbed trailer and add a few kids to the load, not necessarily mine but someone’s, and we’d drive around and load up empty cream cans. We’d take them to the community well, fill them up and then deliver the full cans back to the houses.”
Trees were obsolete out here. “Every time I went to town, someone would say, ‘Bring back tree seeds.’” While tree seeds weren’t available to purchase, they did transplant some trees. Many folks went down to Chiawana Park, dug up trees and brought them back to the farmsteads. These were fast-growing native trees that were hardy. “We have three trees at the home place that were transplanted from the park.”
Wade and Lodema gave the land for the community center on the corner of Taylor Flats and Sagemoor. They worked tirelessly to get the powers-to-be to approve the project and provide funding. This was the hub for activities that were held in the early days. “There’s probably not a church in the Basin that didn’t hold some of its first meetings here,” tells Lodema.
Wade and Lodema worked hard at establishing their crops and also began a sheep farm. “We would go to auctions and buy old ewes for about a dollar each and bring them home. They would have triplets but no milk, so we set up a milking station with lots of milk bottles and the little lambs would just nurse there.
During lambing season, I’d stop by Tony and Pearl’s (Jarra Jarra) sheep camp on Glade road on my way home from teaching school, buy the bummer lambs from them and nurse them to life. Early on, we didn’t have pens so when they were lambing we had to watch them closely. Any babies that weren’t healthy became my babies. I’d work to keep them alive.
One night a man came to the door. I had two lambs in pails of warm water with their heads hanging over the buckets and one in the oven. The man couldn’t believe his eyes. But you had to keep them warm somehow and try to save them. I always marked the ones I saved. I said those were mine.”
Around this time, Mr. Adamson, who had daily carpooled with Lodema to town, passed away suddenly. Wade was a pallbearer at his funeral. The night of the funeral, Wade also suddenly passed away at age 34 from a heart attack. Lodema left with her 6-year-old son and her daughter who would be born in just three weeks, returned to Oklahoma to bury her husband. She was ready to sell all and return to Oklahoma for good but was encouraged by a friend to wait a year before making any big decisions.
During this time, Lodema realized the value of the friendships her family had developed in a short time in the Basin and knew she needed to stay and continue on here. “Would I do it over again? Yes, I would,” answers Lodema. “I learned from all the things I had to do. You learn to make it, even through death. The best part was the people. I don’t know of any group of people that could start what we started back then and have that stick-to-it-ness that we did.