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A Swiss farm boy in the New World

Jun 23, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

My grandfather amazed me as one of the smartest and strongest men I ever met.

The connections that we make in our feeble attempts to understand the passage of time can seem as eternal as a mountain range or as transient as a dream that evaporates at the first light of day.

When my grandfather was born in Hallau, Switzerland, in November of 1897, William McKinley was the president of the United States. Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire, and Otto Von Bismarck was in the final six months of a life that unified Germany a generation before.

Eugene Gasser Sr. packed a lot into his 75 years on this Earth.

In August 1914 as the guns of war rumbled across Europe he and several friends were caught in nearby Germany when the border was closed after war was declared. They were traveling on motorcycles and couldn't get back home with the borders blocked. They sold their bikes, purchased cross-country skis, hiked high into the mountains where the borders were not patrolled, and made it back home on skis and on foot.

The Swiss farm boy graduated with a bachelor's degree in agriculture from Schaffausen, Switzerland, in 1919.

Eugene loved horses. He enlisted in the Swiss Cavalry in 1920. He served for two years and on Oct. 25, 1921 he won the Swiss Cavalry horsemanship competition on a horse named Gallipoli. The competition included racing, cross-country riding and high jumping. I've seen the photo of my 23-year old grandfather in the prime of his life, clearing 7 feet 3 inches on Gallipoli's back.

Many decades in the future, he told me one afternoon why he had left the comforts of Switzerland to take his chances in the wilds of western America.

The tragedy of World War I took a toll on him, but the subsequent starvation and punishment of the German people after the war was more than he ever wanted to see again. Knowing that people were starving outside warehouses full of food all across Germany created a bitter atmosphere that fermented into the insanity of fascism just a few years later.

On Aug. 7, 1922 Eugene boarded the T.S.S. Rotterdam, a passenger ship with the Holland-America Line sailing out of Rotterdam. He never returned to Switzerland again.

He boarded a westbound train in New York City and arrived a few days later in Lander.

With just a rifle, a wagon, a few tools and his wits, he homesteaded on Beaver Creek about 25 miles southeast of Lander. From 1898 to 1924 a post office operated nearby at Hailey, Wyo. Attempts were made to rename Hailey to Beaver but the few people in the area barely kept the post office opened, and it closed just a quarter century later.

In 1923 he wrote a letter home to his sister, Hulda, back in Switzerland and indicated he would like to raise horses, but the glut of horses after World War I crippled the market and his plans for a horse ranch never came to be.

He called his home a "gypsy wagon," and he lived alone for three years at Beaver Creek in a world devoid of electricity, telephones, radio, television and all the other "necessities" of our modern world.

While attending college in Schaffausen he met my grandmother, Clara Emma Vock. She was seven years younger and from a wealthy railroad family in Schaffhausen. Her story will come later. She left the only home she had ever known for America and arrived in Lander on Feb. 24, 1925. They were married the next day and began their life together at Beaver Creek.

That setup didn't last long. Clara couldn't stand the isolation. They left Beaver Creek at the end of that first summer. Eugene worked for local Swiss farmers in the little agricultural town of Riverton.

Their first child, Eugene Jr., was born on Jan. 11, 1926. Tragedy struck the young couple in the winter of 1927, when a fire in their rented home destroyed almost all of their meager possessions. Four more children eventually were born ,with Ruth arriving in 1928, Ralph in 1930, Jeanette in 1935, and finally Nellie in 1938.

Eugene farmed, worked the tie drive and in the oil fields, and amazed me as one of the smartest and strongest men I ever met.

I often wish I could discuss history, geography and world politics with my grandfather. As a youngster we spoke about geography a bit, but it always seemed like he was quizzing me. By junior high I had a knack for maps, history and political trends, and he would describe areas of Germany, Italy, France or Greece that I had only read about but that he had seen.

His quick wit and habit of always finding a way to slightly annoy Grandma made him a funny old man to hang around with. I can still smell the cigar smoke in his old Dodge and sometimes think I can hear that car's horn honking the three familiar toots he always hit to let Grandma know he was home.

A five-acre portion of our property was purchased by my grandfather from Ed Barnes in 1938 and lies adjacent to Gasser Road, which bears his name.

He walked as a child with people who were alive when Napoleon terrorized Europe and knew men who fought in the American Civil War. The links we have with friends and families from distant generations give continuity to our lives and provide an unbreakable connection to the past.

We have a Gasser family reunion coming up in just a couple of weeks. My grandparents would be proud of what they started nearly a century ago.

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