You’ve Never Seen a Marriage Proposal as Disastrous as My Grandfather’s (And He Still Found Love)

Don’t worry: It still ended happily ever after.


In 1885, when his mother died of tuberculosis, my grandfather, John Toner, left Iowa with his father, sister, and brother for a healthier climate. The transcontinental railroad took them to New Mexico’s Gallup Territory, where they did well for a time. But in the late 1880s, years of drought began, eventually sending the family and their 800-some head of cattle across the dry Navajo Reservation in search of better grazing land.

By the mid-1890s, the family had a rented winter homestead in Farmington and spent the warmer months on their ranch in the Upper Piedra area of Colorado. During the slack winter season, Grandpa John would hitch up his work teams and wagons to carry produce and other goods across more than 90 miles of desert between Farmington and Gallup.

On one such trip, while peddling apples house to house in Gallup, he knocked on a door that was promptly opened by Miss Margaret Brown. We don’t know that it was love at first sight, but a romance certainly developed. In fact, by early 1899, the relationship had blossomed into an agreement to marry. Before leaving Farmington for the Colorado ranch, John sent a letter to Margaret in Gallup, asking her to set a date for their wedding.

It was a busy summer for Grandpa John: building a ranch house, constructing an irrigation system, tending the cattle and waiting for Margaret’s response. But time passed and no letter came. He became more and more concerned. What would you think if you had asked someone to marry you, and you never heard back about the wedding? John Toner must have feared that his beloved Margaret had found someone else.


Finally, John and his family trailed the cattle back to their winter quarters in Farmington. As soon as he got there, Grandpa saddled up and rode all the way to Gallup to see Margaret. When he made it to town, the first person he met was one of Margaret’s brothers, who grimaced and told him, “Toner, get out of here. You’re no longer welcome.”

When Grandpa John learned what had happened, he was shocked: He had missed his own wedding! Margaret had indeed mailed a letter with a wedding date, but somehow it hadn’t arrived.

The whole Brown family was angry, and it took much effort for Grandpa to convince them that he hadn’t received Margaret’s letter, and that he himself had suffered greatly over the matter. Finally, the Browns cooled off and welcomed the Toner cowboy into the family. On December 7, 1899, Margaret and John finally married.

That day, they left for their honeymoon trip back to Farmington in a horse-drawn spring wagon with a milk cow trailing behind. They were tired from their long, cold desert trip, but their wedding adventures weren’t over.

When Grandpa helped his bride down from the high wagon box, her voluminous dress billowed and fluttered in the wind, scaring the horses. Grandpa’s team had never seen such a sight in all their lives and frantically began to run away from it—with the milk cow, still tied to the wagon, gamely trying to keep up.

Fortunately, Grandpa had stopped in a basin with only one way out, and he was able to get the team back under control. Everything was fine after that, although that night the cow didn’t produce much milk. Despite the marriage proposal gone wrong, they stayed married the rest of their lives. By the way, the next summer, Margaret’s letter arrived, almost exactly one year late.

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