It’s likely that Recluse, Wyo., would never have survived the past 97 years if not for a band of renegade Indians on the Powder River.
They had escaped their reservation, and the cavalry wanted them rounded up. Driving the mule team out of Fort Meade in 1909 was 24-year-old Henry Oedekoven, who was to locate the rebels and haul them to South Dakota.
“He drove a bed wagon (designated for bedrolls) to pick up those Indians,” remembered his late nephew, Jim
Oedekoven. “There were 12 squaws and eight of them carried babies in his wagon on the way back. I remember him saying what a mess that wagon was to clean up.”
Henry had been living near Fort Meade, in the shadow of Bear Butte where his parents had arrived 20 years earlier from Germany. Joseph and Agnes Oedekoven had been sponsored by a church to emigrate to Sturgis, S.D., and farm. She was pregnant and already had five tiny children when they traveled all the way down the Danube River to the Black Sea to board a ship to America.
Agnes would birth 16 babies total — including twins who were born on the Danube. One died and was thrown overboard; the other, named Vincent, was 3 months old when they reached South Dakota.
The family descended from a 17th century man named Odinghofen who wasn’t literate enough to write his name on his marriage certificate. Since there was an 800-year-old village in Germany called Oedekoven and it sounded similar, it would do.
Back in Wyoming, the area between the Powder and Little Powder rivers northwest of Gillette made quite an impression on Henry while he drove those Indians. So he rode back in September with brothers Louis and Vincent to choose home sites.
By 1911, their 18-year-old brother, Fred, decided to follow, and the four claimed their land.
“You could see farther and see less than anywhere in the world,” remembered Fred, who went to work as a cowhand for Pete Ricketts and Fred Whitten.
Oedekoven didn’t mind that not a fence scratched the horizon from the Powder River to Gillette, or that he might ride 10 or 20 days without seeing a soul.
A couple of years later, he married, as did the other boys, with more brothers following. They settled around the original adjoining homesteads that Henry, Louis and Vincent had chosen in 1909. In all, eight Oedekoven brothers — Henry, Vincent, Louis, Fred, Herman, George, Frank and Walter — lived their lives there .
When youngest son Walter was 16, his father deserted Agnes to live in California with a married daughter. So Agnes came along and homesteaded right along with her boys.
“She was a working fool,” said her 83-year-old grandson, Leon Oedekoven. “She’d be out there when they were threshing, driving the team and loading and unloading all that bound grain. And she was a great cook.”
Germans tame the divide
The site where the eight brothers and their mother built homes became known as Recluse.
The moniker came from a post office on an Indian reservation that was so isolated it actually disappeared. A single mother named Addie Reed had known about that lost, remote place, so in 1914 when she began operating a post office out of her house, she used the name.
The office changed hands three times, but in 1924 was taken over by Fred Oedekoven, who also bought Ernest Berry’s general store and founded a repair garage and water well service.
“He had a well in the middle of Recluse Road, and homesteaders would come with their wagons and fill their barrels with drinking water,” said Fred’s grandson, also named Fred, who runs Oedekoven Water and Hot Oil Service today.
The elder Fred, who formerly broke horses for the cavalry, once had his leg broken by a bronc, and he set it himself.
“When I took him to the doctor for X-rays in recent years, the doctor was impressed that someone had set that leg to heal perfectly straight,” said the younger Fred. “Grandpa didn’t comment.”
When the original Fred was elected Campbell County commissioner, his wife Nora took over the post office. She was postmistress and store clerk for 31 years, followed by her daughter-in-law, Edna, for another 22 years; then Edna’s daughter-in-law Connie for 18 years; and finally today, Connie’s niece, Maureen Oedekoven.
During Edna’s tenure, the oil boom of the 1970s brought some 800 people a day into the store, and she ran “the smallest bar in the state of Wyoming.”
Outside the boom, Recluse’s population has fluctuated for nearly a century between seven and 13 – nearly all of whom are named Oedekoven. The land settled by the original four brothers 100 years ago is still being ranched.
Two of the three spreads aren’t large enough to provide a living. But Fred was a cunning entrepreneur. During the Depression, he kept many a struggling homesteader going because he’d sell groceries on credit. Sometimes, he was paid in land, and he bought several places outright. His son, Jim, and daughter-in-law, Edna, kept the ranch going, as well as the store and post office.
Their son, Fred, who also served as a county commissioner, and his wife, Mary Ann, later bought roughly 7,500 acres of other ranches. Much of that is being ranched now by their son, Jason, and his wife, Maureen.
The main ranch also includes the old homestead of Uncle Walter, who willed it to Mary Ann after she nursed him during his final days. Walter’s death at 92 in 1994 marked the end of the original Recluse Oedekoven brothers.
The Oedekoven Ranch
A later brother named George, who homesteaded in 1920, relinquished early and bought a ranch in 1935 around Rawhide, where the family of his son, Gilbert, remains. Gilbert’s nephew, Byron Oedekoven, was a longtime Campbell County sheriff.
Meanwhile, the two homesteads chosen in 1909 by Henry and Vincent are still going strong. Louis was 46 when he was killed in the fall of 1933 digging out a spring that caved in on him. He’d never married, and Vincent ended up with his homestead.
“Louis was the cowboy of the Oedekovens,” said Vincent’s son, Leon, who lives on the site of Louis’ relocated shack.
Meanwhile Vincent, who had just $14 in his pocket when he and his brothers arrived in Recluse, hauled logs 20 miles to build his house. He once found a group of Indians camping on his property when he went to gather his milk cows.
“They fired on him, thinking he’d come to steal their horses,” said Leon, who used to break horses for $15 a head and help neighbors for 50 cents a day.
Leon took over the ranch in 1952 and followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by marrying a girl from Bavaria, Germany. That marriage didn’t work, so at 38 Leon married a gal named Anne. She had three children, and they had three more together.
Leon was the first to build a rodeo arena in Recluse (a 1977 Empire Magazine photo caught steer trippers Milt Williams, Bill Neal and Mel Potter hanging out at the Recluse store). At 83, Leon no longer ropes, but on Aug. 1, he was out cutting 100 acres of hay, and he still raises a handful of buffalo.
His son, Vincent (“Sonny”) Oedekoven, 38, lives on his grandfather’s homestead site and raises about 150 black Angus cattle on the 3,000-acre spread, plus hay and some oats and wheat. Sonny and his wife, Paige, do things horseback, along with four kids that include Sonny’s 13-year-old son, Vincent Joseph Oedekoven. Despite working full-time for an oil company, Sonny keeps ranching because he “loves the lifestyle.”
The Have Not Ranch
On the other side of four and a half miles of fence line is the 1,200-acre “Have Not Ranch” founded by Henry — the third of the 16 children. Together with Louis, Henry broke horses and raised them instead of cattle early on.
“Grandpa told me that back in 1909, ‘You could sell a good broke horse for $400, but a cow was worth $100,’” said his grandson, Clifford.
Henry was 42 and out working on a threshing machine when it chopped his left hand off at the wrist. Knowing his wife was three weeks from giving birth, Henry held the bloody stump out of eyesight and muttered simply that he’d hurt his hand.
“Louis took him to Gillette, but there was no doctor in town,” said Clifford. “By the time they got home, it was daylight. They went on to Sheridan, and by that afternoon gangrene had set in, so they cut it off above the elbow.”
Henry was left-handed, but his daughter-in-law, Neva, said the loss never slowed him down. He sold his broodmares, invested in a few commercial Herefords and got more into farming. His two boys would stand on boxes and hand him tools, and he rigged his tractor’s hand clutch to work using his stump. He managed to build things, too.
“He’d put a big nail in the palm of his hand and jam it in the wood, so he could hammer it,” remembered Clifford, 51. “He had a pretty good callous on his hand from doing that.”
His brother, Vincent, helped him for years, and Clifford’s father, Duane, was bringing in the team with a load of wheat by the time he was 7 years old, after which they scooped the harvest into the granary by hand.
When Duane took over in 1959, he continued farming heavily. Clifford and his wife, Sharyl, have gotten away from that in favor of 75 head of cattle — and coal mining to foot the bills. Clifford has worked for 12 years for Cordero Rojo, while his son, Jason, works at Black Thunder and his two sons-in-law both work at Buckskin.
At a large Oedekoven reunion in recent years, a German named Carl Oedekoven appeared bearing photos of the ancient village near Bonn.
“He figures there are more Oedekovens in Recluse than are left in Germany,” Neva said.
If that’s true, they can thank the teamster in the family, who first spotted the tiny settlement 35 miles northwest of Gillette. Today, it remains one of the last places in America where you can send a letter addressed simply with the name and “Recluse, WY.”
Julie Mankin is a contributing reporter to the News Record. She spent more than two decades of her life on a Campbell County ranch.