How I Found Vie Garber
By Samuel Western
Writing this article came as a pleasant coda to a larger project.
I had known the Garbers, or a branch of the family, for nearly 35 years. We were neighbors in Big Horn, our children attended the same school and as the decades passed, I met more of the extended family. These were salt-of-the-earth folks, involved in excavating, reservoir building and agriculture. They’d been here since territorial times. They were also big on community, supporting public schools and – not incidentally – history. The Garbers were a clan of readers.
It didn’t take much of a dive into Sheridan County’s past before I bumped into the name Vie Willits Garber. In fact, it was impossible to explore the founding and evolution of the town of Big Horn without reading about Vie and her contributions to documenting its history.
About a year ago, Roy Garber, one of Vie’s grandsons, approached me about writing a family history. I demurred at first. I’d done several of these before and found the task demanding, complicated and, in the end, financially disappointing.
But typical of the Garber style, Roy came back and said, “well, what do you need?” We worked out a deal.
I was granted a quartet of advantages.
First, the family had squirreled away hundreds of original documents, including letters written by Vie’s father, James Orr Willits, documenting his 1881 journey through Wyoming looking for a homestead. Lucid and descriptive, these offered a remarkable lens on the frontier West. The family also had scores of photos, personal letters, land patents and a thick file of documents from Vie’s time at the University of Wyoming.
Secondly, the Garber family had previously hired an archivist, Sue Castaneda, to piece together a family history, including genealogy. That book gave me valuable baseline information.
Thirdly, when Vie was alive, numerous historians as well as family members had interviewed her and most of the interviews were transcribed. These offered many insights.
Lastly, I had great communication with the family. One of Vie’s granddaughters, Patricia Garber Mahon, is a retired academic. She is a fine writer, organized, and willing to answer any questions I had. She’d usually respond to any query within 24 hours.
This family history will be a public document. It’s currently being vetted by the family.
Serendipitously, this editing period coincided with WyoHistory.org’s query about writing Vie’s story. That was an easy answer. I had the original documents still at hand, the subject fresh on my mind.
It’s important to note that while Vie played a major role in the Garber family, other facets of their lives have historical significance, including the reservoirs Vie’s father and her grandsons built in the Bighorns.
Vie’s eldest grandson, Orr, died in an accident in 1961. However, through his letters I realized Orr was among the first to understand that the era of agricultural expansion in Sheridan County was over. Land was too expensive, and ranchers and farmers now had to produce more with what they had. That meant adequate irrigation. But it wasn’t only water; over the years the Garbers adapted and listened to markets. They were, in essence, forerunners in niche agriculture.
Like Vie, they liked putting theory into practice.