- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
LAND OF THE BURNT THIGH
EDITH EUDORA KOHL
Drawings by Stephen J. Voorhies
New York, London, Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1938.
TO THE MEMORY OF IDA MARY
A Word of Explanation xxxiii
I A Shack on the Prairie 1
II Down to Grass Roots 16
III "Any Fool Can Set Type" 36
IV The Biggest Lottery in History 46
V No Place for Clinging Vines 64
VI "Utopia" 83
VII Building Empires Overnight 99
VIII Easy as Falling Off a Log 120
IX The Opening of the Rosebud 143
X The Harvest 164
XI The Big Blizzard 185
XII A New America 199
XIII The Thirsty Land 214
XIV The Land of the Burnt Thigh 238
XV Up in Smoke 253
XVI Fallowed Land 268
XVII New Trails 282
A WORD OF EXPLANATION
I have not attempted in this book to write an autobiography. This is not my story—it is the story of the people, the present-day pioneers, who settled on that part of the public lands called the Great American Desert, and wrested a living from it at a personal cost of privation and suffering.
Today there is an infinite deal of talk about dust bowls, of prairie grass which should never have been plowed under for farming, of land which should be abandoned. Yet much of this is the land which during the crucial years of the war was the grain-producing section of the United States. Regiments of men have marched to war with drums beating and flags flying, but the regiments who marched into the desert, and faced fire and thirst, and cold and hunger, and who stayed to build up a new section of the country, a huge empire in the West, have been ignored, and their problems largely misunderstood.
The history of the homesteaders is paradoxical, beginning as it does in the spirit of a great gamble, with the government lotteries with land as the stakes, and developing in a close-knit spirit of mutual helpfulness.
My own part in so tremendous a migration of a people was naturally a slight one, but for me it has been a rewarding adventure, leading men and women onto the land, then against organized interests, and finally into the widespread use of cooperative methods. Most of that story belongs beyond the confines of the present book.
Over thousands of acres today in the West men and women are still fighting to control that last frontier, and wherever there are farmers, the methods of cooperation will spread for decades. It is a good fight. I hope I shall be in it.
E. E. K.
LAND OF THE BURNT THIGH
A SHACK ON THE PRAIRIE
At sunset we came up out of the draw to the crest of the ridge. Perched on the high seat of the old spring wagon, we looked into a desolate land which reached to the horizon on every side. Prairie which had lain untouched since the Creation save for buffalo and roving bands of Indians, its brown grass scorched and crackling from the sun. No trees to break the endless monotony or to provide a moment's respite from the sun.
The driver, sitting stooped over on the front seat, half asleep, straightened up and looked around, sizing up the vacant prairie.
"Well," he announced, "I reckon this might be it."
But this couldn't be it. There was nothing but space, and sun-baked plains, and the sun blazing down on our heads. My sister pulled out the filing papers, looking for the description the United States Land Office had given her: Section 18, Range 77W—about thirty miles from Pierre, South Dakota.
"Three miles from the buffalo waller," our driver said, mumbling to himself, ignoring the official location and looking back as though measuring the distance with his eye. "Yeah, right in here—somewhere."
"But," faltered Ida Mary, "there was to be a house—"
"Thar she is!" he announced, pointing his long whip in the direction of the setting sun. "See that shack over yonder?"
Whipping up the tired team with a flick of the rawhide, he angled off across the trackless prairie. One panic-stricken look at the black, tar-papered shack, standing alone in that barren expanse, and the last spark of our dwindling enthusiasm for homesteading was snuffed out. The house, which had seemed such an extraordinary stroke of luck when we had heard of it, looked like a large but none too substantial packing-box tossed haphazardly on the prairie which crept in at its very door.
The driver stopped the team in front of the shack, threw the lines to the ground, stretched his long, lank frame over the wheel and began to unload the baggage. He pushed open the unbolted door with the grass grown up to the very sill, and set the boxes and trunk inside. Grass. Dry, yellow grass crackling under his feet.
"Here, why don't you get out?" he said sharply. "It's sundown and a long trip back to town."
Automatically we obeyed. As Ida Mary paid him the $20 fee, he stood there for a moment sizing us up. Homesteaders were all in his day's work. They came. Some stayed to prove up the land. Some didn't. We wouldn't.
"Don't 'pear to me like you gals are big enough to homestead." He took his own filled water jug from the wagon and set it down at the door, thus expressing his compassion. Then, as unconcerned as a taxi driver leaving his passengers at a city door, he drove away, leaving us alone.
Ida Mary and I fought down the impulse to run after him, implore him to take us back with him, not to leave us alone with the prairie and the night, with nothing but the packing-box for shelter. I think we were too overwhelmed by the magnitude of our disaster even to ask for help.
We stared after him until the sudden evening chill which comes with the dusk of the frontier roused us to action.
Hesitantly we stepped over the low sill of the little shack, feeling like intruders. Ida Mary, who had been so proud of finding a claim with a house already built, stared at it without a word, her round, young face shadowed by the brim of her straw hat drawn and tired.
It was a typical homestead shack, about 10 x 12 feet, containing only one room, and built of rough, foot-wide boards, with a small cellar window on either side of the room. Like the walls, the door was of wide boards. The whole house was covered on the outside with tar paper. It had obviously been put together with small concern for the fine points of carpentry and none whatever for appearance. It looked as though the first wind would pick it up and send it flying through the air.
It was as unprepossessing within as it was outside. In one corner a homemade bunk was fastened to the wall, with ropes criss-crossed and run through holes in the 2 x 4 inch pieces of lumber which formed the bed, to take the place of springs. In another corner a rusty, two-hole oil stove stood on a drygoods box; above it another box with a shelf in it for a cupboard. Two rickety, homemade chairs completed the furnishings.
We tried to tell ourselves that we were lucky; shacks were not provided for homesteaders, they had to build their own—but Ida Mary had succeeded in finding one not only ready built but furnished as well. We did not deceive ourselves or each other. We were frightened and homesick. Whatever we had pictured in our imaginations, it bore no resemblance to the tar-paper shack without creature comforts; nor had we counted on the desolation of prairie on which we were marooned.
Before darkness should shut us in, we hurriedly scrambled through our provisions for a can of kerosene. Down in the trunk was a small lamp. We got it out and filled it. And then we faced each other, speechless, each knowing the other's fear—afraid to voice it. Matches! They had not been on our list. I fumbled hastily through the old box cupboard with its few dust-covered odds and ends. Back in a corner was an old tobacco can. Something rattled lightly as I picked it up—matches!
We were too weary to light a fire. On a trunk which we used as a table, we spread a cold lunch, tried to swallow a few bites and gave it up. The empty space and the black night had swallowed us up.
"We might as well go to bed," said Ida Mary dully.
"We'll start back home in the morning," I declared, "as soon as it is daylight."
* * * * *
Oddly enough, we had never questioned the impulse which led two young city girls to go alone into unsettled land, homesteading. Our people had been pioneers, always among those who pushed back the frontier. The Ammonses had come up from Tennessee into Illinois in the early days and cleared the timberland along the Mississippi Valley some forty miles out of St. Louis. They built their houses of the hand-hewn logs and became land and stock owners. They were not sturdy pioneers, but they were tenacious.
Some of them went on into what Grandma Ammons called the Santa Fe Bottoms, a low marshy country along the river, where they became wealthy—or well-to-do, at least—by fattening droves of hogs on acorns. Generally speaking, my mother's family ran to professions, and my father's family to land. Though there was father's cousin, Jack Hunter, who had been west and when he came to visit us now and then told wild tales about the frontier to which my sister and I as little children listened wide-eyed. He wove glowing accounts of the range country where he was going to make a million dollars raising cattle. Cousin Jack always talked big.
It was from his highly colored yarns that we had learned all we knew of the West—and from the western magazines which pictured it as an exciting place where people were mostly engaged in shooting one another.
While Ida Mary and I were still very young our mother died, and after that we divided our time between our father's home—he had married again and had a second family to take care of—and the home of his sister. As a result my sister and I came to depend on ourselves and on each other more than two girls of our age usually do.
By the time we were old enough to see that things were not going well financially at home, we knew we must make our own way. Some of the girls we knew talked about "going homesteading" as a wild adventure. They boasted of friends or relatives who had gone to live on a claim as though they had gone lion-hunting in Africa or gold-hunting in Alaska. A homestead. At first thought the idea was absurd. We were both very young; both unusually slight, anything but hardy pioneers; and neither of us had the slightest knowledge of homesteading conditions, or experience extending beyond the conventional, sheltered life of the normal city girl in the first decade of the century.
We were wholly unfitted for the frontier. We had neither training nor physical stamina for roughing it. When I tried to explain to an uncle of mine that I wanted to go west, to make something of myself, he retorted that "it was a hell of a place to do it." In spite of the discussion which our decision occasioned, we made our plans, deciding to risk the hazards of a raw country alone, cutting ourselves off from the world of everyone and everything we had ever known. And with little money to provide against hardships and emergencies.
At that time the country was emerging from the era of straggling settlers. Immigration was moving west in a steady stream. The tidal wave which swept the West from 1908 to the World War was almost upon us although we could not see it then. But, we thought, there would be new people, new interests, and in the end 160 acres of land for Ida Mary. Perhaps for me the health I had sought so unsuccessfully.
Primarily a quarter-section of land was the reason for almost everyone coming west. As people in the early pioneer days had talked of settling in Nebraska and Kansas and the eastern Dakotas, they now talked about the country lying farther on—the western Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado. Over the Midwest the homestead idea was spreading rapidly to farm and hamlet and city. One heard a great deal about families leaving their farms and going west to get cheap land; of young college men who went out to prove up a quarter-section. The land would always be worth something, and the experience, even for a short time, was a fruitful one in many ways.
To the public, however, not so romantically inclined, the homesteaders were the peasantry of America. Through the early homesteading days folk who "picked up and set themselves down to grub on a piece of land" were not of the world or important to it. But the stream of immigration to the land was widening, flowing steadily on.
How did one go about homesteading? we asked. Well, all you had to do to get a deed to a quarter-section—160 acres of land—was to file on it at the nearest Land Office, live on it eight months, pay the government $1.25 an acre—and the land was yours. Easy as falling off a log!
The only improvement required by the government was some sort of abode as proof that one had made the land his bona-fide residence for the full eight months.
What would that cost? And the whole undertaking? It depended partly on what kind of shack one built and whether he did it himself or hired it done. A shack cost all the way from $25 to $100 or more. Some of those who had families and intended to stay, built cheap two-and three-room houses.
Of course, it cost women who had to hire things done more to homestead. But with grub, fuel and other necessities we figured it would cost not more than $500 all told.
Then we learned of this quarter-section with a shack already built, bunk and all. It had been filed on and the owner had left before proving-up time so that the claim, shack and all, had reverted to the government. We had about $300 saved up, and this was enough, we decided, to cover homesteading expenses, inasmuch as the shack was provided. So we had all but the final payment of $200 to the government, which would be due when we had "made proof."
We decided to let the money for that final payment take care of itself. The thing to do was to get hold of a piece of land before it was all gone. To hear people talk, it was the last day of grace to apply for a claim. They talked like that for ten years. We did not know there were several million acres lying out there between the Missouri and the Pacific waiting to be settled. We would have all winter to figure out how to prove up. And we found that one could get $1000 to $1500 for a raw claim after getting a deed to it.
The claim with the shack on it was in South Dakota, thirty miles from a town called Pierre. We looked that up in the geography to make sure it really existed. But when we tried to get detailed information, facts and figures to help us prepare for what was to come, we got only printed pamphlets of rules and regulations which were of no real help at all. Land Offices were so busy in those days that all they could do was to send out a package of printed information that no one could understand.
Armed with our meager array of facts, we talked to our father—as though the information we gave him so glibly had any real bearing on this precarious undertaking of his two young daughters. Whatever his doubts and hesitations, he let us decide for ourselves; it was only when we boarded the old Bald Eagle at St. Louis one summer day in 1907, bound up the river, that he clung to our hands as though unable to let us go, saying, "I'm afraid you are making a mistake. Take care of yourselves."
"It will be all right," Ida Mary told him cheerfully. "It is only for eight months. Nothing can happen in eight months."
The first emergency arose almost at once. We started up the Mississippi in high spirits, but by the time we reached Moline, Illinois, I was taken from the boat on a stretcher—the aftermath of typhoid fever. It was bad enough to be ill, it was worse to have an unexpected drain on our funds, but worst of all was the fear that someone might file on the claim ahead of us. For a week or ten days I could not travel, but Ida Mary went ahead to attend to the land-filing and the buying of supplies so that we could start for the homestead as soon as I arrived.
The trip from Moline to Pierre I made by train. Ida Mary was at the depot to meet me, and at once we took a ferry across the river to Ft. Pierre. The river was low and the ever-shifting sandbars rose up to meet the skiffs. Ft. Pierre was a typical frontier town, unkempt and unfinished, its business buildings, hotel and stores, none of more than two stories, on the wide dirt road called Main Street. At one end of Main Street flowed the old Missouri, at the other it branched off into trails that lost themselves in the prairie.
Beyond Main Street the houses of the little town were scattered, looking raw and new and uncomfortable, most of them with small, sunburned, stunted gardens. But there was nothing apologetic about Ft. Pierre. "We've done mighty well with what we've had to work with," was its attitude.
Section 18, Range 77W—about thirty miles from Pierre. It seemed more real now. The hotel proprietor promised to find us a claim locator to whom that cryptic number made sense.
The next morning at sun-up we were on our way. At that hour the little homestead town of Ft. Pierre lay quiet. Other homesteaders were ready to start out: a farmer and his wife from Wisconsin, who were busy sandwiching their four children into a wagon already filled with immigrant goods, a cow and horse tied on behind.
At a long table in the fly-specked hotel dining room we ate flapjacks and fried potatoes and drank strong coffee in big heavy cups. Then, at long last, perched on the seat of the claim locator's high spring wagon, we jolted out of town, swerving to let a stagecoach loaded with passengers whip past us, waiting while a team of buffalo ambled past, and finally jogged along the beaten road through the bad lands outside of town.
Beyond the rough bad lands we came upon the prairie. We traveled for miles along a narrow, rutted road crossed now and then by dim trails leading nowhere, it seemed. Our own road dwindled to a rough trail, and the spring wagon lurched over it while we clung to the sides to ease the constant jolting, letting go to pull our hats over our eyes which ached with the glare, or over the back of our necks which were blistered from the sun.
Our frantic haste to arrive while the land lasted seemed absurd now. There was land enough for all who wanted it, and few enough to claim it. All that weary day we saw no people save in the distance a few homesteaders mowing strips of the short dry grass for hay. Now and then we passed a few head of horses and a cow grazing. Here and there over the hot, dusty plain we saw shacks and makeshift houses surrounded by patches of corn or flax or dried-up garden. Why were the houses so scattered, looking as though they had been thrown down at random? "They had to be set on the claims," our locator said dryly.
About noon we stopped at a deserted ranch house, surrounded by corrals—a camp, our driver explained, where some stockman held his cattle overnight in driving them to market. Here we ate a lunch and the locator fed and watered the team, refilling the jars from an old well with its long wooden water troughs.
There the trail ended. Now we struck out over a trackless land that grew rougher the farther we went. To look for a quarter-section here was like looking for a needle in a haystack. It was late summer and the sun beat down on the hot prairie grass and upon our heads. We had driven all day without sign of shade—and save for that brief interval at noon, without sight of water. Our faces and hands were blistered, our throats parched from the hot wind.
This was not the West as I had dreamed of it, not the West even of banditry and violent action. It was a desolate, forgotten land, without vegetation save for the dry, crackling grass, without visible tokens of fertility. Drab and gray and empty. Stubborn, resisting land. Heroics wouldn't count for much here. It would take slow, back-breaking labor, and time, and the action of the seasons to make the prairie bloom. People had said this was no place for two girls. It began to seem that they were right.
And this was the goal of our long journey—the tar-paper shack. We pushed the trunk over in front of the door which had no lock, piled the chairs and suitcases on top of the trunk; spread a comfort over the criss-cross rope bed and threw ourselves across it without undressing. We had no gun or other weapon for protection and were not brave enough to use one had we possessed it.
The little cellar windows which stood halfway between the low ceiling and the floor were nailed shut. But we needed neither window nor door, so far as air was concerned. It poured through the wide cracks like water through a sieve.
While we tossed, too tired and sick at heart to sleep, I asked: "What became of the young man who built this shack?"
"He lived here only a few weeks and abandoned it," Ida Mary explained. "The claim reverted to the government, shack, bunk and all. He couldn't stick it out."
* * * * *
The next morning we awoke to a world flooded with sunshine, and it was the surprise of our lives that we had lived to see it.
Ida started the oil stove and put on the coffee. Wearily I dragged myself out of bed. We fried bacon, made toast, unpacked our few dishes. Discovering that a hinged shelf on the wall was intended for a table, we put it up and set our breakfast on it. We found that we were really hungry.
Our determination to start back home was still unshaken, but we had reckoned without the prairies. We were marooned as on a desert island. And more pressing, even, than some way of getting back to Pierre—and home—was the need for water. We must get a jug of water somewhere. Water didn't come from a tap on the prairies. We began to wonder where it did come from; certainly there wasn't a drop to be found on Ida Mary's claim.
In the glaring morning sun which blazed on the earth, we saw a shack in the distance, the reflection of the sun on yellow boards. It was farther away than it appeared to be with the bright light against it.
This new home was larger than the regulation shack, and it had a gable—a low-pitched roof—which in itself was a symbol of permanence in contrast to the temporary huts that dotted the plains. It was made of tongue-and-groove drop-siding, which did away with the need of tar paper, and in the homestead country marked a man's prestige and solidity.
We were met at the open door by a pretty, plump young woman. A little girl of seven stood quietly at one side, and a little boy, perhaps five, at the other. As we stood there with the jug she broke into a pleasant laugh. "You've come for water! We have no well, but Huey hauled two barrels this morning from Crooks's, several miles away."
We were led into a large room, clean and cool. After one has been in a low, slant-roofed, tar-papered shack that becomes an oven when the sun shines on it, entering a house with a gable is almost like going into a refrigerator. There wasn't much in the room except beds and a sewing machine. The floor, on which a smaller child was playing, was bare except for a few rag rugs, but shining. An opening led into a small lean-to kitchen with a range in one corner; in the other a large square table spread with a checked tablecloth was set ready for the next meal, and covered with a mosquito bar. The home, the family, gave one a feeling of coming to anchor in a sea of grass and sky.
We learned that the name was Dunn and that they were dirt farmers from Iowa, but they had not come in time to do much farming that season. They had thrown up a makeshift barn as a temporary shelter for the horses and one cow until they could build a real barn—after they found out what the soil would do, Mrs. Dunn explained.
She hurried out to the kitchen, talking as she moved about, and came in with coffee and a plate of oatmeal cookies.
"I am so glad you are going to live here," she told us. "Neighbors within a mile and a half! I won't feel so much alone with neighbors close by to chat with."
We hadn't the courage to tell her that we weren't going to stay.
"You must have found the shack dirty," she said, with a glance at her spotless house. "A bachelor homesteader had it and they are always the worst. They wait until the floor is thick with dirt and grease and then spread newspapers over it to cover up the dirt. You'll have a time getting it fixed as you want it."
We wondered how anyone made a home of a tar-paper shack. To hear Mrs. Dunn's casual remarks, one would think it no more of a problem than redecorating a city home.
As we started on the trek back, she called after us, "Huey will haul you over a keg of water tomorrow."
As soon as we were out of earshot I said, "We can hire Mr. Dunn to take us back to Pierre."
"That's an idea," Ida Mary agreed.
By the time we had walked back the mile and a half—which seemed five in the scorching heat—it was past noon and we were completely exhausted. So we did not get started back to Pierre that day. But we felt a little easier. There was a way to get out.
DOWN TO GRASS ROOTS
There is a lot of sound common sense in the saying about leaving the cage door open. As long as we knew we could be taken back to town we were content to stay for a day or two, and take a look at the country while we were there—by which we meant that we would gaze out over the empty spaces with a little more interest.
We strained our eyes for sight of moving objects, for signs of life. Once we saw a team and wagon moving toward the south. As suddenly as it had appeared it dropped out of sight into a ravine. A horseman crossing the plains faded into the horizon.
As our vision gradually adjusted itself to distance we saw other homestead abodes. The eye "picked up" these little shacks across the plains, one by one.
For years straggling settlers had moved on and off the prairie—and those who stayed barely made a mark on the engulfing spaces. The unyielding, harsh life had routed the majority of homesteaders—they had shut the door behind them and left the land to its own.
All over the plains empty shacks told the tale. They stood there with the grass grown up around them, the unwritten inscription: "This quarter-section has been taken." Dilapidated; the tiny window or two boarded up; boards cracked or fallen apart. They, too, had not been able to weather the hard forces of nature on the frontier. If the shack had gone down, or had been moved in the night by some more ambitious homesteader, there was always the pile of tin cans to mark the spot. They stayed and rusted.
And from the tin cans ye knew them. Bachelors' huts were always surrounded; where there was a woman to do the cooking there were fewer cans. But as a rule the shack dwellers lived out of tin cans like city apartment dwellers.
But for the most part the land was inhabited by coyotes and prairie dogs, with a few herds of range sheep and cattle. Few of the homesteaders were permanent. They stayed their eight months—if they could stick it out—and left at once. Their uneasy stay on the land was like the brief pause of migratory birds or the haphazard drifting of tumble weeds that go rolling across the plains before the wind, landing against a barbed-wire fence or any other object that blocked their way.
The empty shacks reminded one of the phantom towns which men had thrown up breathlessly and abandoned when the search for gold had proved illusory. Only permanency could dig the gold of fertility from the prairie, and thus far the people who had made a brief attempt to cope with it had been in too much of a hurry. Those abandoned quarter-sections had defeated the men who would have taken them.
The main movement over the plains was that of hauling water from the few wells in the country, or from one of two narrow creeks that twisted through the parched land and vanished into dry gulches. They were now as dry as a bone.
"I'd have a well," Huey Dunn said, "if I could stop hauling water long enough to dig one." That was the situation of most of the homesteaders.
Most of these migratory homesteaders wanted the land as an investment—to own it and sell it to some eastern farmer or to a rancher. Some, like Huey Dunn, came to make a permanent home and till the land. These few dirt farmers raised patches of corn, and while the farmers from Iowa and Illinois were scornful of the miniature stalks, the flavor of the sweet corn grown on the dry sod was unsurpassed. The few patches of potatoes were sweet and mealy. But the perfect sod crop was flax. Already the frontier was becoming known for its flax raising.
We saw no large range herds, though there were no herd laws to keep them off private property. One could drive straight as the crow flies from Pierre to Presho, forty or fifty miles, without stopping to open a gate. If one struck a fence around a quarter-section here or there he either got out and cut the wire in two, or drove around the corner of the fence, depending upon how he felt about fences being in the way.
No wonder sheep-herders went crazy, we thought, swallowed up by that sea of brown, dry grass, by the endless monotony of space.
I think what struck us most those first days was the realization that the era of pioneers had not ended with covered wagon days; that there were men and women, thousands of them, in our own times, living under pioneer conditions, fighting the same hardships, the same obstacles, the same primitive surroundings which had beset that earlier generation.
Toward evening, that first day, sitting on the little board platform in front of the door where there was a hint of shade and a suggestion of coolness in the air, we saw two animals approaching.
"I never saw dogs like that, did you?" I said to Ida Mary when they came a little closer.
She jumped up, crying "Wolves!" We had seen one on the road out from Pierre. We ran into the shack, nailed the door shut that night—no risking of trunks or boxes against it—crawled into bed and lay there for hours, afraid to speak out loud.
Huey Dunn came next day with the keg of water. "Wolves?" he said, as we told him of the experience. "They wouldn't hurt anyone, unless they were cornered—or hungry."
"But how," demanded Ida Mary, "were we to tell when they were hungry?"
Huey laughed at that. When the snow lay deep on the ground for a long time after a blizzard, and there was no way to get food, they sometimes attacked sheep or cattle, and they had been known to attack persons, but not often. They generally went in packs to do their foraging.
"Goin' back tomorrow?" Mr. Dunn ejaculated, as we interrupted his talk about the country to ask him to take us to Pierre. "Why, my wife planned on your comin' over to dinner tomorrow." But if we wanted to go the next day—sure, he could take us. Oh, he wouldn't charge us much. As he drove away he called back, "Don't get scared when you hear the coyotes. You'll get used to 'em if you stay."
And that night they howled. We were awakened by the eerie, hair-raising cry that traveled so far over the open prairie and seemed so near; a wild, desolate cry with an uncannily human quality. That mournful sound is as much a part of the prairie as is the wind which blows, unchecked, over the vast stretches, the dreary, inescapable voice of the plains. The first time we heard the coyotes there seemed to be a hundred of them, though there were probably half a dozen. All Huey Dunn's assurance that they were harmless and that it was a nightly occurrence failed to calm us.
When Huey got home his wife asked what he thought of their new neighbors.
"Right nice girls to talk to," Huey said, "but damn poor homesteaders. Beats the devil the kind of people that are taking up land. Can't develop a country with landowners like that. Those girls want to go home. Already. I said you wanted 'em to come over to dinner tomorrow noon. Maybe you can fix up something kinda special."
"I'll drop a few extra spuds into the pot and bake a pan of cornbread—they'll eat it," Mrs. Dunn predicted cheerfully. She was right.
Bringing us back to the claim the next afternoon Huey suddenly remembered that he had promised a neighbor to help string barb-wire the following day. But—sure—he could take us to town 'most any day after that.
The next day we began to discover the women who were living on homesteads and who, in their own way, played so vital a part in developing the West. One of our nearest neighbors—by straining our eyes we could see her little shack perched up against the horizon—put on her starched calico dress and gingham apron and came right over to call. The Widow Fergus, she said she was.
She sat down, laid her big straw hat on the floor beside her (no, just let it lie there—she always threw it off like that) and made herself comfortable. Her graying hair, parted in the middle and done up in a knot in the back, was freshly and sleekly combed. She was brown as a berry and just the type of hard-working woman to make a good homesteader, with calloused, capable, tireless hands. She was round, bustling and kind. The Widow Fergus had taken up a homestead with her young son.
She looked at the unopened baggage, the dirty shack. Now that was sensible, she said, to rest a few days—it was so nice and quiet out here. Homesick? My, no. There was no time to get homesick. Too much to do getting by on a homestead. Women like the Widow Fergus, we were to discover, had no time for self-pity or lamenting their rigorous, hard lives. They did not, indeed, think in terms of self-pity. And they managed, on the whole, to live rich, satisfying lives and at the same time to prepare the way for easier, pleasanter lives for the women who were to follow them.
When she left she said, "Now, come over, girls, and anything you want, let me know...."
A little later that same day we saw three riders galloping across the plains, headed straight for our shack. They stopped short, swung off their ponies, three girl homesteaders.
They rode astride, wore plain shirtwaists and divided skirts. Two of them wore cheap straw hats much like those worn by farmers in the fields everywhere. They swung from their saddles as easily as though they wore breeches and boots.
"How did you learn we were here?" I asked, curious to know how news could travel over these outlying spaces.
"Huey Dunn told it over at the road ranch while I was waiting there for the mail," the oldest of the girls explained, "so I just rode around and picked up the girls."
One would think they lived in the same city block, so nonchalant was she over the round-up, but "only eighteen miles," she explained easily.
Her name was Wilomene White, she told us, and she came from Chicago. She had been out here most of the time for almost two years—what with leaves of absence in the winter prolonging the term of residence. She was a short, plump woman whom we judged to be in her early thirties, and she had a sense of humor that was an invaluable asset in a country like that. She was an artist and head of her father's household. Her brother was a prominent surgeon in Chicago and for several years Wilomene, besides being active in club work, had been on the board of the Presbyterian Hospital there.
When her health failed from overwork and strenuous public activities, her brother ordered a complete change and plenty of pure fresh air. So with a little group of acquaintances she had come west and taken up a homestead. It was easy to understand that she had found a change—and fresh air. What surprised us was that she took such delight in the country and the pioneer life about her that she no longer wanted to return to her full life in Chicago.
The three girls stayed on and on, talking. Girl homesteaders had no reason for going home. Days and nights, days of the week and month were all the same to them. There were so few places to go, and the distance was so great that it was a custom to stay long enough to make a visit worth while. The moon would come up about ten that night—so nothing mattered. Afraid to ride home in the middle of the night? What was there to fear out here?
Ida Mary and I still hesitated about going far from the shack. The prairie about us was so unsettled, so lacking in trees that there were practically no landmarks for the unaccustomed eye to follow. We became confused as to direction and distance. "Three miles from the buffalo waller," our locator had said. "No trouble to locate your claim." But if we got far enough away from it we couldn't even find the buffalo waller.
Even against our will the bigness and the peace of the open spaces were bound to soak in. Despite the isolation, the hardships and the awful crudeness, we could not but respond to air that was like old wine—as sparkling in the early morning, as mellow in the soft nights. Never were moon and stars so gloriously bright. It was the thinness of the atmosphere that made them appear so near the earth, we were told.
While the middle of the day was often so hot we panted for breath, mornings and evenings were always gloriously cool and invigorating, and we slept. With the two comforters spread on the criss-cross rope bed, we fell asleep and woke ravenously hungry each morning.
That first letter home was a difficult task, and we found it safer to stick to facts—the trip had been pleasant, Ida Mary had filed on the claim. But to prepare for our arrival at home, we added, "There is nothing to worry about. If we think it is best, we will come home." This was eventually sent off after we had discussed what we had better tell our father, and crossed out the sentences that might worry him. "Don't waste so much paper," Ida Mary warned me. "It is thirty miles to another writing tablet."
We were eating supper one evening when four or five coyotes slipped up out of the draw and came close to the shack. Almost one in color with the yellow grass, they stood poised, alert, ready to run at the slightest sound. Graceful little animals, their pointed noses turned upward. A great deal like a collie dog. We did not make a move, but they seemed to sense life in the once deserted cabin, and like a phantom they faded into the night.
Huey Dunn was one of those homesteaders who believed the world (the frontier at least) was not made in a day. He was slow getting around to things. He never did get around to taking Ida Mary and me back to Pierre. And to our dismay a homesteader drove up one day with the big box of household goods we had shipped out. The stage express had brought it out from Pierre to McClure, and it had been hauled the rest of the way by the first homesteader coming our way. Altogether it cost twenty dollars to get that box, and there wasn't ten dollars' worth of stuff in it.
Ida Mary and I had collected the odds and ends it contained from second-hand stores in St. Louis, selecting every article after eager discussion of its future use, picturing its place in our western cabin. We hadn't known about the tar-paper shack then. Its arrival stressed our general disillusionment.
We had now seen the inside of a few shacks over the prairie. The attempts the women had made to convert them into homes were pitiful, although some of them had really accomplished wonders with practically nothing. It is pretty hard to crush the average woman's home-making instinct. The very grimness of the prairie increased their determination to raise a bulwark against it.
Up to now we had been uneasy guests in the shack, ready for flight whenever Huey Dunn got around to taking us back to Pierre. But trying to dig out a few things now and then from grips and trunks without unpacking from top to bottom is an unsatisfactory procedure. So we unpacked.
Then we had to find a place for our things and thought we might as well try to make the cabin more comfortable at the same time, even if we weren't staying. We looked about us. There wasn't much to work with. In the walls of our shack the boards ran up and down with a 2 x 4 scantling midway between floor and ceiling running all the way around the room. This piece of lumber served two purposes. It held the shack together and served as a catch-all for everything from toilet articles to hammer and nails. The room had been lined with patches of building paper, some red, some blue, and finished out with old newspapers.
The patchwork lining had become torn in long cracks where the boards of the shack were split, and through the holes the dry wind drove dust and sand. The shack would have to be relined, for there was not sufficient protection from the weather and we would freeze in the first cold spell.
This regulation shack lining was a great factor in the West's settlement. We should all have frozen to death without it. It came in rolls and was hauled out over the plains like ammunition to an army, and paper factories boomed. There were two kinds—red and blue—and the color indicated the grade. The red was a thinner, inferior quality and cost about three dollars a roll, while the heavy blue cost six. Blue paper on the walls was as much a sign of class on the frontier as blue blood in Boston. We lined our shack with red.
The floor was full of knotholes, and the boards had shrunk, leaving wide cracks between. The bachelor homesteader had left it black with grease. When Huey hauled us an extra keg of water we proceeded to take off at least a few layers.
We were filling the cracks with putty when a bachelor homesteader stopped by and watched the operation in disgust.
"Where you goin' to run your scrub-water," he wanted to know, "with the cracks and knotholes stopped up?"
In the twenty-dollar box was a 6 x 9-foot faded Brussels rug, with a couple of rolls of cheap wallpaper. From a homesteader who was proving up and leaving we bought an old wire cot. With cretonnes we made pillows, stuffed with prairie grass; hung bright curtains at the little windows, which opened by sliding back between strips of wood. In the big wooden box we had also packed a small, light willow rocker. In one corner we nailed up a few boards for a bookcase, painting it bright red. Little by little the old tar-paper shack took on a homelike air.
It is curious how much value a thing has if one has put some effort into it. We were still as disillusioned with the country as we had been the first day, we felt as out of place on a homestead as a coyote sauntering up Fifth Avenue, we felt the tar-paper shack to be the most unhomelike contraption we had ever seen; but from the moment we began to make improvements, transforming the shack, it took on an interest for us out of all proportion to the changes we were able to make. Slowly we were making friends, learning to find space restful and reassuring instead of intimidating, adapting our restless natures to a country that measured time in seasons; imperceptibly we were putting down our first roots into that stubborn soil.
At first we read and reread the letters from home, talking of it constantly and wistfully like exiles, drawn constantly toward the place we had left. Almost without our being aware of it we ceased to feel that we had left St. Louis. It was St. Louis which was receding from us, while we turned more and more toward the new country, identified ourselves with it.
Ida Mary and I woke up one day a few weeks after our arrival to find our grubstake almost gone. Back home we had figured that there were ample funds for filing fees, for transportation and food. Now we began to figure backwards, which we found was a poor way to figure. There was no money to take us back home. We had burned our bridges not only behind but in front of us.
It was the incidentals which had cut into our small reserve. The expense of my illness on the road had been heavy. The rest of the money seemed to have evaporated like water in dry air. Fixing up the shack had been an unexpected expense, and we had overlooked the cost of hauling altogether—in a country where everything had to be hauled. We had paid $25 for a stiff old Indian cayuse, the cheapest thing in horseflesh that we could find.
In order to be safe we had figured on standard prices for commodities, but we found that all of them were much higher out here. Coal, the only fuel obtainable, ran as high as $20 a ton, with the hauling and high freight. Merchants blamed the freight cost for the high price of everything from coal to a package of needles.
I laid the blame for our predicament on Huey Dunn. But Ida Mary thought it went farther back than that. It was the fault of the government! Women should not be allowed to file on land.
Regardless of where the blame lay, we were now reduced to a state of self-preservation. Had not the majority of the settlers taken this gambling chance of pulling through somehow, the West would never have been settled.
It is curious how quickly one's animal instinct of survival comes to the fore in primitive lands. If we ran out of bacon we stirred flour into a little grease, added water and a few drops of condensed milk (if we had it) and turned out a filling dish of gravy. If we ran out of coal we pulled the dried prairie grass to burn in the little two-hole monkey stove, which we had bought with the cot. Laundry stoves, some called them.
To keep the water from becoming warm as dishwater we dug a hole in the ground to set the water can in. The earth became so cool at night that anything set down in a shallow hole on the shady side of the house kept cool all day.
We learned that it took twice as long to cook beans or other vegetables in that high altitude; that one must put more flour in the cake and not so much shortening or it would surely fall; that meat hung in the dry air would keep fresh indefinitely—but we had not tasted a bite of fresh meat since we came.
Our homestead not only had a cabin, but it boasted a small patch of sweet corn planted by the first filer on the land. It would make food for both man and beast—for the Ammons girls and the pinto.
It was a frontier saying that homesteading was a gamble: "Yeah, the United States Government is betting you 160 acres of land that you can't live on it eight months." Ida and I weren't betting; we were holding on, living down to the grass roots. The big problem was no longer how to get off the homestead, but how to keep soul and body together on it.
If one were in a country where he could live by foraging—"We can live on jack rabbits next winter," homesteaders would say. But Ida Mary and I would have to depend on someone to get them for us. We realized more every day how unequipped we were for plains life, lacking the sturdy health of most frontier women, both of us unusually small and slight. Back of Ida Mary's round youthful face and steady eyes, however, there were grit and stamina and cool-headed common sense. She would never stampede with the herd. And for all my fragility, I had the will to hang on.
Well, we would eat corncakes with bacon grease a while longer. (They were really good. I became an expert in making them.) And we still had some bacon left, and the corn; a little syrup in the pail would take the place of sugar. Uncle Sam hadn't won that bet yet, on the Ammons homestead, though most of the settlers thought he would.
Three or four miles from the claim was McClure, a ranch house combined with a general store and a post office. Walking there one day for groceries and our mail we passed a group of men lounging in front of the old log ranch house. "Now such as that won't ever be any good to the country," one of them said of us. "What the country needs is people with guts. There ought to be a law against women filing on government land...."
"And against all these city folks coming out here just to get a deed and then leaving the country," added another. "If they ain't going to improve the land they oughtn't to have it."
"Most of 'em take their trunks along when they go to town to prove up," put in the stage driver, "and that's the last you ever see of 'em. They've gone on the next train out."
Landgrabbers, the native westerners called the settlers, no good to the country. And there was a great deal of truth in it. We began to check up on the homesteaders of whom we knew. Probably two-thirds of them would go back home as soon as they proved up, leaving their shack at the mercy of the wind, and the prairie to wait as it had always waited for a conquering hand.
Huey Dunn and the Cooks and the Wickershams were dirt farmers, come to stay. Some of the homesteaders would come back in the summertime, putting out a little patch of garden and a few rows of corn each season. But for the most part there would be no record of these transient guests of the prairie but abandoned shacks. Those who took up claims only as an investment either sold the land for whatever price they could get for it or let it lie there to increase in value.
Some of the old-timers didn't object to this system. "When the land is all taken up, people will have to pay more for it," they explained. But on the whole they eyed with humorous intolerance the settlers who departed, leaving their claims as they had found them.
A great blessing of the plains was the absence of vermin. I do not remember having seen a rat or a weasel on the frontier at that time, and many of the natives had never seen a potato bug or chinch bug or cockroach.
But one day after a short, pelting rain, I came home and opened the door and looked at the moving, crawling walls, and could not believe my eyes. Worms—small, brown, slick worms—an inch to an inch and a half long.
The walls, the door, the ground were alive with them. They were crawling through the cracks into the shack, wriggling along the floor and walls with their tiny, hair-like legs. They infested the plains for miles around. At night one could feel them crawling over the bed.
The neighbors got together to find means of exterminating these obnoxious vermin. We burned sulfur inside and used torches of twisted prairie hay on the outside of the house, just near enough to the walls to scorch the creepers. But as one regiment burned up another came.
One day Ida Mary and I, in doing a little research work of our own—we had no biologists to consult on plagues, and no exterminators—lifted up a wide board platform in front of our shack, and ran screaming. The pests were nested thick and began to scatter rapidly in every direction, a fermenting mass.
They were not dangerous, they injured neither men nor crops, but they were harder to endure than a major disaster. One was aware of them everywhere, on the chair one sat in, on the food one ate, on one's body. They were a crawling, maddening nightmare.
A number of homesteaders were preparing to leave the country—driven out by an army of insects—when, as suddenly as they came, the worms disappeared. Where they came from, where they went, no one knew. I mention this episode as one without precedent or repetition in the history of the frontier, so far as I know.
A number of theories were advanced regarding this worm plague. Some said they had rained down in cell or germ form; others, that they had developed with the sudden moisture from some peculiar embryo in the dry soil. Finding from my own further observation that they were segregated in the damper sections where the soil had not yet dried out after the rain, I concluded they had been bred in the ground.
* * * * *
Our need for money had become acute, but before we were quite desperate a ray of hope appeared. There were quite a few children scattered over the neighborhood, and the homesteaders decided that there must be a school in the center of the district.
The directors found that Ida Mary had taught school a term or two back east, and teachers were scarce as hens' teeth out there, so she got the school at $25 a month. The little schoolhouse was built close to the far end of our claim, which was a mile long instead of half a mile square as it should have been.
We had just finished breakfast one morning when Huey Dunn and another homesteader drove up to the door with their teams, dragging some heavy timbers along.
Huey stood in the door, his old straw hat in hand, with that placid expression on his smooth features. A man of medium height, shoulders slightly rounded; rather gaunt in the middle where the suspenders hitched onto the overalls.
"Came to move your shack," he said in an offhand tone.
"Move it?" we demanded. "Where?"
"To the other end of the claim, over by the schoolhouse. And that's as far as I'm goin' to move you until you prove up," he added. He hadn't moved us off the land when we wanted to go. He would move us up to the line now, but not an inch over it until we had our patent.
The men stuck the timbers under the shack, hitched the horses to it, and Ida Mary and I did the housework en route. Suddenly she laughed: "If we had been trying to get Huey Dunn to move this shack he wouldn't have got to it all winter."
When they set us down on the proper location they tied the shack down by driving stakes two or three feet into the ground, then running wire cords, like clothesline, from the roof of the shack down to the stakes.
"Just luck there hasn't been much wind or this drygoods box would have been turned end over end," Huey said. "Wasn't staked at all."
It was autumn and the air was cold early in the mornings and sweet with the smell of new-mown hay. We hired a homesteader who had a mower to put up hay for us and had a frame made of poles for a small barn and stacked the hay on top around it, against the winter. Most of the settlers first covered this frame with woven wire to keep the stock from eating into the hay. We left ours open between the poles as a self-feeder through which Pinto could eat hay without any work or responsibility on our part.
Then one day Ida Mary went swinging down the trail to her school, a small, sun-bonneted child at each side. The schoolhouse was much like any country school—but smaller and more cheaply built. It had long wooden benches and a rusty stove and in fine weather a dozen or more pupils, who ranged in age from very young children to great farm boys, who towered over Ida Mary, but whom, somehow, she learned to manage effortlessly in that serene fashion of hers. In bad weather, when it was difficult to travel across the prairie, her class dwindled until, at times, she had no pupils at all.
"ANY FOOL CAN SET TYPE"
McClure, South Dakota (it's on the map), was the halfway point on the stage line between Pierre and Presho, three or four miles from our claim. It consisted of the Halfway House, which combined the functions of a general store, a post office, a restaurant, and a news center for the whole community, with the barns and corrals of the old McClure ranch. And set off a few rods from the house there was another building, a small crude affair that looked like a homesteader's shack. Across its rough board front was a sign painted in big black letters:
THE McCLURE PRESS
The first time I saw that sign, I laughed aloud.
"What on earth is a newspaper doing out here?" I asked Mr. Randall, the proprietor of the Halfway House.
"It's a final-proof sheet," he answered, not realizing that the brief explanation could mean little to a stranger.
These final-proof sheets, however, were becoming an important branch of the western newspaper industry, popping up over the frontier for the sole purpose of publishing the proof notices of the homesteaders. As required by the government, each settler must have published for five consecutive weeks in the paper nearest his land, his intention to make proof (secure title to the land) with the names of witnesses to attest that he had lived up to the rules and regulations prescribed by the government.
Also, according to government ruling, such newspapers were to be paid five dollars by the landholder for each final proof published, and any contestant to a settler's right to the land must pay a publication fee. Thereby a new enterprise was created—the "final-proof" newspaper.
These weeklies carried small news items with a smattering of advertising from surrounding trade centers. But they were made up mostly of "proofs" and ready-printed material supplied by the newspaper syndicates that furnished the prints; leaving one or two blank sheets, as required by the publisher for home print. The McClure Press had two six-column pages of home print, including the legal notices.
This paper was a proof sheet, pure and simple, run by a girl homesteader who had worked on a Minneapolis paper. Myrtle Combs was a hammer-and-tongs printer. She threw the type together, threw it onto the press and off again; slammed the print-shop door shut; mounted her old white horse, and with a gallon pail—filled with water at the trough—tied to the saddlehorn, went loping back to her claim four or five miles away. But Myrtle could be depended upon to get out the notices, which was all the owner required.
One day when I went for the mail she called to me: "Say! You want the job of running this newspaper? I'm proving up. Going home."
We needed the extra money badly. Proving-up time came in early spring. To get our deed and go home would require nearly $300, which Ida's $25 a month would not cover. Besides, I felt that I had been a heavy expense to Ida Mary because of my illness on the road, and I did not want to continue to be a burden to her. She had succeeded in finding a way to earn money and I was eager to do my own part.
I didn't know as much about running a newspaper as a hog knows about Sunday. It was a hard, dirty job which I was not physically equipped to handle. But I had lived on a homestead long enough to learn some fundamental things: that while a woman had more independence here than in any other part of the world, she was expected to contribute as much as a man—not in the same way, it is true, but to the same degree; that people who fought the frontier had to be prepared to meet any emergency; that the person who wasn't willing to try anything once wasn't equipped to be a settler. I'd try it, anyhow.
"Any fool can learn to set type," Myrtle said cheerfully. "Then throw it into the 'form' [the iron rectangle the size of the page in which the columns of set-up type are encased, ready to print]. If it don't stick, here's a box of matches. Whittle 'em down and just keep sticking 'em in where the type's loose until it does stick."
She locked the form by means of hammering tight together two wedge-shaped iron pieces, several sets of them between type and iron frame which were supposed to hold the type in the form like a vise; raised it carefully, and there remained on the tin-covered make-up table about a quarter of a column of the set type. She slammed the form down in place again, unlocked it with an iron thing she called the key, inserted more leads and slugs between the lines of type, jamming them closer together.
"If you need more leads or slugs between the lines," she said, "here's some condensed milk cans—just take these"—and she held up a pair of long shears—"and cut you some leads." She suited the words to action; took the mallet and smoothed the edges of the oblong she had cut. I watched her ink the roller, run it over the form on the press, put the blank paper on, give the press a few turns, and behold! the printed page.
With this somewhat limited training I proceeded to get out the paper. I knew absolutely nothing about mechanics and it was a hard job. Then a belated thought struck me. Perhaps I should ask the owner for the job, or at any rate inform him that I had taken it. From The Press I found the publisher's name was E. L. Senn. I learned that he owned a long string of proof sheets. A monopoly out here on the raw prairie. Folks said he was close as the bark on a tree and heartless as a Wall Street corporation.
With this encouragement I decided to ask for $10 a week. Myrtle had received only $8. Of course, I had no experience as a printer, but I explained to Mr. Senn my plans for pushing the business so that he would be able to afford that extra $2 a week. Of my experience as a typesetter I wisely said nothing.
While I waited for the owner's reply I went on getting out the paper. There was no holding up an issue of a "proof" newspaper; like the show, it must go on! The Department of the Interior running our public lands saw to that. Friday's paper might come out the following Monday or Wednesday, but it must come out. That word "consecutive" in the proof law was an awful stickler. But everyone who had hung around the print shop watching Myrtle work, took a hand helping me.
When the publisher replied to my letter he asked me about my experience as a printer and added: "I don't know whether you are worth $2 a week more than Myrtle or not, but anybody that has the nerve you exhibit in asking for it no doubt deserves it. Moreover, I like to flatter such youthful vanity."
He called it nerve, and I had thought I was as retiring as an antelope. But the main reason for his granting my demand was that he could not find anyone else to do the work on short notice. Printers were not to be picked up on every quarter-section.
I made no reply to this letter. A week later I was perched on my high stool at the nonpareil (a small six-point type) case when the stage rolled in from Presho. Into the print shop walked a well-dressed stranger, a slender, energetic man of medium height. He looked things over—including me. And so I found myself face to face with the proof-sheet king.
It did not take long to find out how little I knew about printing a newspaper. So in desperation I laid before him an ambitious plan for adding subscriptions and another page of home print filled with advertising from Pierre.
The trip alone, he reminded me, would cost all of $10, probably $15. "And besides," he added, "if you did get ads you couldn't set them up." With that final fling at my inefficiency he took the stage on to Pierre.
The average newspaperman would have sneered at these plains printing outfits, and thrown the junk out on the prairie to be buried under the snowdrifts; but not many of us were eligible to the title. The McClure Press consisted of a few cases of old type, a couple of "forms," an ink roller and a pot of ink; a tin slab laid on top of a rough frame for a make-up table. Completing the outfit was a hand press—that's what they called it, but it needed a ten-horsepower motor to run it; a flat press which went back and forth under a heavy iron roller that was turned with a crank like a clothes wringer. My whole outfit seemed to have come from Noah's ark.
Most of the type was nicked, having suffered from the blows of Myrtle's wooden hammer. She used the hammer when it failed to make a smooth surface in the form that would pass under the roller. Readers had to guess at about half the news I printed, and the United States Land Office developed a sort of character system of deciphering the notices which I filed every week.
But running proof notices was not merely the blacksmith job that Myrtle had made it appear. It required accuracy to the nth degree. The proofs ran something like this:
Blanche M. Bartine of McClure, S. D., who made Homestead Entry No. 216, Serial No. 04267, for the South One-half of the NE 1/4 and North One-half of SE 1/4 of Section 9, Township 108 North, Range 78 West of the Fifth Principal Meridian, has filed notice of intention to make final computation proof to establish claim, etc., etc.
Then the names of four witnesses were added and the signature of the Land Office Register of that district.
One day a man went to town with a string of witnesses to prove up. He intended to go on to Iowa without returning to the claim. That night he walked angrily into the print shop and laid a copy of his published notice before me, together with a note from the Land Office. I had him proving up somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean, having given the wrong meridian. For that typographical error the man must wait until I republished the notice. Washington, so the man at Pierre said, was not granting deeds for claims in mid-ocean. One can't be inexact with the government's red tape.
But, on the whole, the work was not as trivial as it may appear. With every proof notice published in these obscure proof sheets 160 acres of wasteland passed into privately owned farm units—and for this gigantic public works project there was not a cent appropriated either by State or Federal government.
One day when the corn was in the milk—that season which the Indians celebrate with their famous corn dance—we saw Wilomene White streaking across the plains on old Buckskin, her knock-kneed pony. Wilomene was a familiar sight on the prairie, and the sight of her short, plump figure, jolting up and down in a stiff gallop, as though she were on a wooden horse, water keg hanging from her saddlehorn—just in case she should come across any water—was welcome wherever she went. "It doesn't matter whether it's illness or a civic problem or a hoedown, Wilomene is always called on," people said. And she was repaid for every hardship she went through by the fun she had telling about it, while her rich, contagious laughter rang over the whole country.
Today there was no water keg bouncing up and down behind old Buckskin. That in itself was ominous. For all his deformity and declining years, she descended on us like Paul Revere.
She galloped up, dismounted, jerked a Chicago newspaper out of the saddlebag, and pointed to a big black headline.
"Look at this. The reservation is going to be thrown open. The East is all excited. There will be thousands out here to register at the Land Office in Pierre—railroads are going to run special trains—"
"What reservation?" we wanted to know.
"The Indian reservation, just across the fence," Wilomene explained. The "fence" was merely a string of barbed wire, miles long, which marked the boundary of our territory and separated it from the Indian reservation.
I glanced at the paper announcing the great opening of the Lower Brule by the United States Government which was to take place that fall, some hundred thousand acres of homestead land. Here we were at the very door of that Opening and had to be told about it by eastern newspapers, so completely cut off from the world we were.
"What good will that do us?" practical Ida Mary inquired.
"It will help develop this section of the country and bring up the price of our land!"
That was worth considering, but Ida Mary and I were not dealing in futures just then. We were too busy putting away winter food—corn and the chokecherries we had found along a dry creek bank; patching the tar paper on the shack. Like most of the settlers we were busier than cranberry merchants, getting ready for the long winter. But there is a great satisfaction in doing simple, fundamental things with one's hands.
That evening, however, I picked up the pamphlet on the Opening which Wilomene had left. It announced that the United States Government would open the Lower Brule reservation to entry for homesteading on a given date. At this time any American citizen eligible as a claimholder could register "as an entry" in the Drawing for a homestead. And after the registrations were closed there would be a "drawing out" up to the number of claims on the reservation. Eligible persons were to register at the United States Land Offices most conveniently located—and designated by the General Land Office in Washington—for a quarter-section of the land.
The next day I was a stage passenger on the return trip to Pierre to get detailed information on the Lower Brule Opening from the United States Land Office. With a new and reckless abandon I listed the expenditure and received a prompt reply from the proof magnate. "I note an unauthorized expense of $10—trip to Pierre. You are getting to be an unruly outlaw of a printer."
Then I forgot the coming Land Opening. There were days, that early fall, when McClure was lifeless and I would work all day without seeing a human being anywhere over the plains. In the drowsiness of mid-afternoons the clicking of my type falling into the stick and the pounding of the form with the mallet would echo through the broad silence.
And one day in October the stage driver rushed into the shop, shouting, "Say, Printer! She's open! Blowed wide open!"
THE BIGGEST LOTTERY IN HISTORY
It is an extraordinary fact that one of the most gigantic, and certainly the most rapid, land settlements in the history of the United States has been little known and little recognized, either for its vast scope or its far-reaching importance.
The passing of the frontier, with its profound effects upon American life, is not a part of our early history. It ended with the World War. The trek of early settlers in covered wagons, the swift and colorful growth of the cattle kingdom, the land rush at Cimarron are a part of our familiar history. But the greatest of all these expansion movements was at its height within the twentieth century with 100,000,000 acres of Public Land opened by the government for settlement, waste land which in a few seasons produced crops, supported villages, towns, and finally cities, in their lightning growth.
In a sense the United States Government conducted a vast lottery, with land as stakes, and hundreds of thousands of men and women gambling their time and strength and hope on the future of the West.
The land so lavishly disposed of was the white man's last raid on the Indian. The period of bloody warfare was long past. The last struggle against confiscation of Indian land was over, and the Indians were segregated, through treaties, on tracts designated by the government, "like the cattle on the range being driven back to winter pasture or the buffalo driven off the plains," to which they mournfully compared their fate. And if there is anything an Indian hates it is boundaries.
The migration and settlement of vast numbers of people has changed world history time and time again. And the Americans have been a migrating people. From the early years of their first settlement of the colonies there had been a steady movement toward the West. Without the West with its great Public Lands the United States as it has become could hardly have existed. While there was a frontier to develop, land for the small owner, there would always be independence.
European theories might influence the East from time to time, but there was always a means of escape for the man or woman oppressed by labor conditions, by tendencies to establish class distinctions. Public Land! On the land men must face primitive conditions as best they could, but they were independent because the land was their own, their earnings their own.
For many years the Public Land seemed inexhaustible; it was not until the Civil War had been waged for two years, with the country disrupted by conflict, and people looking—as they will in times of disaster—for a place where they might be at peace, that they realized the desirable land at the government's disposal was gone. But there remained the land of the red men, and white settlers looked on it and found it good. They raised a clamor for it, and the most determined staked out their claims and lived on it regardless of treaty.
As a result, the government yielded to public pressure and took over the land from the Indians, forcing them back once more. It wasn't quite as simple as it sounds, of course; it took some twenty-five years and nearly a thousand battles of one kind and another to do it. But at the end of that time the land again had been absorbed by the people, settled in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862, and the demand continued.
The government then bought Oklahoma from the Indians in 1889. It was impossible to satisfy all those who wanted homesteads and difficult to choose those who should have them. A plan was therefore hit upon to give everyone a chance. On the day of the Oklahoma Opening, throngs of white settlers stood at the boundary and at a given signal rushed upon the land, taking it by speed and strategy and trickery—and too often by violence.
Within twenty-four hours the land was occupied; within a week there were frame buildings over the prairie, and villages and towns followed at a speed inconceivable to the foreign nations which looked on, breathless and staggered at the energy of a people who measured the building of a western empire not by generations but by seasons.
And the demand for land continued. There was a depression in the East and jobs were hard to get; with the growth of factories many young men and women had flocked from farms and villages to cities, and they were not finding conditions to their liking. They wanted to return to the life they knew best, the life of the farm. In the more populous sections the price of land was rising and was already beyond the reach of many pocketbooks. There remained only Public Land—land which was allotted to the Indians.
The government, accordingly, began to withdraw from the Indian Allotments great tracts, by further treaties and deals, slashing boundary lines, relegating the Indians to the unceded part of the land. The great tracts thus acquired were then surveyed into quarter-sections and thrown open to homesteading. In order to prevent the violence which had attended the Oklahoma land opening, a new method was hit upon. A proclamation was issued by President Theodore Roosevelt, announcing the opening of land on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation.
As I had learned on that flying trip to Pierre, the operation of the plan was very simple. Land-seekers were to register at the Land Office in Pierre, making an affidavit showing their qualifications to enter, at which time each would receive a number. On a given day, October 12, 1907, the numbered envelopes containing the affidavits, which had been deposited in large containers, fastened and sealed so that they could not be opened, were to be drawn by lot, after having been thoroughly mixed—as many numbers drawn as there were quarter-sections to dispose of. The first person whose number corresponded with the number drawn had first choice of the land.
Government posters and advertisements for the land opening were published in every section of the country. And along with the government publicity appeared the advertisements of the railroads. For them increased population in this area was a crying need. While we had drowsed through the lazy autumn days, advertising campaigns were shrieking to the people all over the country of the last frontier.
And that October day "it blowed wide open!"
* * * * *
Into the little town of Pierre they swarmed—by train, by stagecoach, by automobile, by wagon, on foot—men and women from every part of the country, from almost every state—people who had been crowded out of cities, people who wanted to settle as real dirt farmers, people who wanted cheap land, and the inevitable trailers who were come prepared to profit by someone else's good luck.
Like a thundering herd they stampeded the United States Land Office at Pierre. "The Strip! The Strip!" one heard on every side. It was called the Strip because the tract was long and narrow. One day the little frontier town of Pierre drowsed through a hot afternoon, and the broad plains lay tenantless, devoid of any sign that men had passed that way. The next day the region swarmed with strangers.
Sturdy, ruddy-faced farmers, pale-looking city boys, young girls alert, laughing—all sons and daughters of America—not an immigrant peasant among them; plumbers and lawyers, failures and people weary of routine, young men from agricultural colleges eager to try scientific methods of farming and older men from Europe prepared to use the methods they had found good for generations; raucous land agents and quiet racketeers alert for some way of making easy money from the tense, anxious, excited throng.
For many of that jostling, bewildered, desperately anxious throng the land was their last chance to establish themselves. And yet the atmosphere was that of a local fair, loud with shouting, with barkers crying their wares, with the exclamations of wonder of people looking upon a new country. And the air was heavy with the tense excitement and suspense that attends any gambling game.
McClure, the Halfway House, where my little print shop had been thrown up, was the only stopping place in that part of the country and at the end of the main road from Pierre to the reservation, which lay some five miles on across the prairie.
All that day the landseekers pushed their way into the shed annex which served as a dining room of the Halfway House, and filled the table which stretched from end to end. If there was no room for them, they ate lunches from the store's food supply at the counter. We who had grown accustomed to the sight of empty prairie, to whom the arrival of the stage from Pierre was an event, were overwhelmed by the confusion, the avalanche of people, shouting, pushing, asking questions, moving steadily across the trackless plains toward the reservation.
Every homesteader who had a tug that would fasten over a doubletree, a wagon that could still squeak, or a flivver that had a bolt in it, went into the transportation business—hauling the seekers from Pierre or from McClure to look at the land.
A generation before people had migrated in little groups in covered wagons to find new land. Now they came by automobile and railroad in colonies, like a great tidal wave, but the spirit that drove them was still the pioneer spirit, and the conditions to be faced were essentially the same—the stubborn earth, and painful labor, drought and famine and cold, and the revolving cycle of the seasons.
"Shucks, it's simple as tying your shoe," stage driver Bill assured the excited, confused landseekers. "Jest take enough grub to last a coupla days and a bottle or two of strong whisky and git in line at the Land Office."
The settlers were almost as excited as the landseekers. For many of them it was the first opportunity they had had since their arrival to earn a cash dollar. And while the gambling fever was high it was easy to persuade the newcomers to spend what they could. Coffee, sandwiches, foods of every description were prepared in great quantities and disposed of to clamoring hordes. It seemed a pity I couldn't find some way of making some money too. I would. Without wasting time I wrote some verses on the land opening, made a drawing to accompany them, and sent it to a printer at Pierre to have postcards made of it.
Wilomene White had made some belts and hatbands of snakeskins, and she planned to put them, together with my cards, wherever we could sell them as souvenirs.
I rode in at daylight for the cards, but the town was already astir. People stood in line in front of the Land Office waiting to get in to register. Some of them had stood there all night. Some sat on the steps, cold, hungry and exhausted. But they had come a long way and could not afford to miss their chance.
Every train that came in was loaded with men and women. The little state capital became a bedlam, and the Land Office was besieged. They crawled along in a line that did not seem to move; they munched little lunches; a few fainted from exhaustion and hunger. But they never gave up.
Here at last was news that was news—for which the press of the country, and Europe, clamored. These land openings were a phenomenon in the settling of new territory, beyond the conception of foreign countries. Reporters, magazine writers, free lancers pushed in for their stories of the spectacular event.
The mere size of it, the gambling element, the surging mobs who had risked something to take part in it were material for stories. The real hero of the stories, of course, was the land itself—the last frontier. There were a few who pondered on what its passing would mean to the country as a whole.
I ordered 500 extra ready-prints by wire from the Newspaper Union and persuaded a bronco-buster to turn the old press for me.
Bronco Benny rode bucking horses during the day for the entertainment of the tenderfeet passing through and helped me at night, relating in a soft western drawl the events of the day as he worked: "Did you see that little red-headed gal—wanted one o' my spurs as a souvenir—haw haw!"
"Bronco, wait a minute," I would interrupt; "you've ruined that paper. Spread a little more ink."
"And I says, 'You shore, Miss, you don't want the pony throwed in?'" pushing the roller lazily back and forth over the inking table then across the form on the press. "She ups and takes a snapshot," he rambled on.
To my delight the postcards were selling like hot cakes at ten cents a piece. The Ammons's finances were looking up. In many homes today, throughout the country, there must exist yellowed copies of the card, the only tangible reminder of an unsuccessful gamble in the government lottery.
At midnight one night an old spring wagon rattled up to the shack and we heard the voice of a man—one of the locators who had been hauling seekers. He held out a handful of small change. "Here," he said proudly; "I sold every card. And here"—he pulled out a note and a small package. The note read:
"Your poem is very clever, but your drawing is damn poor. If I'm a Lucky Number I'll see you in the spring. In the meantime, for heaven's sake, don't try any more art. Stick to poetry." It was signed "Alexander Van Leshout," and was accompanied by a ready-to-print cut.
This newspaper cartoonist from Milwaukee was only one of many people from strange walks of life who entered that lottery. There were others whose background was equally alien to life in a homestead cabin, who came to see the West while it was still unchanged, drawn for reasons of personal adventure, or because the romantic legends of the West attracted them. People drawn by the intangibles, the freedom of great space, the touch of the wind on their faces, a return to the simple elements of living.
Standing in the dreary lines in the Land Office where some of them waited for as long as two days and nights at a time, we saw farmers, business men, self-assured boys, white-haired men and women.
A gray-haired woman in her late sixties, holding tightly to an old white-whiskered man, kept saying encouragingly: "Just hold on a little longer, Pa." And whenever we passed we heard her asking of those about her: "Where you from? We're from Blue Springs." The Land Office recorded the man as David Wagor.
It was not necessary to be a naturalized citizen in order to register, but it was necessary to have filed intention to become a citizen. One must be either single or the head of a family; wives, therefore, could not register. For that reason we were interested in a frail young woman, a mere girl, sagging under the weight of a baby on her arm, patiently waiting her turn. She was shabbily dressed, with a trace of gentility in clothes and manner. Whether she was a widow or unmarried only the Land Office knew, but it pinched the heart to realize the straits of a fragile girl who was ready to undertake the burden of a homestead alone.
"You are getting to be an outlaw printer," the proof king wrote me. "You were not authorized to incur this additional expense." But, catching the excitement of the crowds and perhaps a little of their gambling spirit, I was not upset by his reproof. I filled the paper with the news items about the Opening and sold out every copy to the landseekers passing through.
The plains never slept now. All night vehicles rattled over the hard prairies. Settlers on their way home, starting for Pierre, hurried by in the middle of the night. Art Fergus's team of scrubby broncos were so tired they didn't even balk in harness. Flivvers bumped over the rough ground, chugging like threshing machines.
The westerners (every man's son of us had become a full-fledged native overnight and swelled with pride as the tenderfeet said "You westerners") responded exuberantly to the sudden life about us. Cowboys rode in from the far ranges for one helluva time. They didn't kowtow to this "draw-land" game, but they could play draw poker. And they wasn't gamblin' for no homestead—you couldn't give 'em one. But they'd stake two or three months' wages on cards. They rode hell-for-leather down the streets, gaudy outfits glittering in the sun. With spurs clicking they swung the eastern gals at a big dance. And the dignity of the state capital be damned!
The whole prairie was in holiday mood. Ida Mary dismissed school at noon—no one cared whether school kept or not—and we put on our prettiest dresses to join the crowd. Through the throngs pushed the land locators. They stood on curbs, in front of the Land Office and the hotels, grabbing and holding onto their prospects like leeches. They had been accustomed to landing a settler once in a blue moon, driving the "prospect" over miles of plain, showing him land in various remote districts in the hope that he would find some to suit him. Now they had dozens clamoring for every quarter-section. This was their golden harvest. Nearly all the seekers were too avid for land to be particular about its location, and many of them too ignorant of the soil to know which was the best.
"Plumb locoed," Bill described the excited seekers. "The government's charging $2.50 to $4.00 an acre for that land. I drive 'em right over vacant homesteads just as good for $1.25. Think they'll look at it? No-siree!"
But we are a gambling people and the grass on the other side of the reservation fence looked a lot better.
After they registered, most of the landseekers wanted to see the land and pick out a claim—just in case they won one. The chances of winning must have seemed slim with that avalanche of people registering, and the results would not be known until the Drawing, which would be a week or more after the entry closed.
Late one afternoon a crowd stood on the border of the Strip, on the outside of the old barb-wire fence that divided it from the rest of space. And the wire gate stood open. The landseekers who had driven over the land stood looking across it, sobered. I think it occurred to them for the first time that this was a land where one had to begin at the beginning.
The buffalo and the Indian had each had his day on this land, and each had gone without leaving a trace. It was untouched. And as far as the eye could see, it stretched, golden under the rays of the setting sun. Whether the magnitude of the task ahead frightened or exhilarated them, the landseekers were all a little awed at that moment. Even I, seeing the endless sweep of that sea of golden grass, forgot for the moment the dry crackling sound of it under wheel and foot, and the awful monotony of its endlessness which could be so nerve-racking.
And by the gods, the grass was higher and thicker on the other side of the fence! "How rich the soil must be to raise grass like that," they said to each other. Groups of men and women gathered closer together as though for some unconscious protection against the emptiness. Around the fence stood vehicles of all descriptions, saddle horses, and a few ponies on which cowboys sat lazily, looking on. Even those who had come only for adventure were silenced. They felt the challenge of the land and were no longer in a mood to scoff.
Standing at that barb-wire fence was like standing at the gate of the Promised Land. And the only way in was through the casual drawing of numbers. They stood long, staring at the land which lay so golden in the sun, and which only a few could possess.
There were more real dirt farmers represented here than there had been in most of the homestead projects—men who were equipped to farm. But they were still in the minority. They picked up handfuls of the earth that the locators turned over with spades, let it sift through their fingers and pronounced it good. A rich loam, not so heavy or black as the soil back east, but better adapted, perhaps, to the climate. Aside from the farmers nobody seemed to know or care anything about the soil or precipitation. And, ironically enough, it occurred to no one to ask about the water supply.
"The land back east is too high-priced," the city laborer declared, "we can never hope to own any of it."
"We'd rather risk the hazards of a raw country," said the tenant farmer, "than be tenants always."
"We'll sell our eastern land at a high price," said the landowners, "and improve new land."
"My mother took in washing to save money," said an earnest-faced boy, "so I could make this trip. But if I win a whole quarter-section (and how big a quarter-section looked to a city dweller!) I'll make a good home for her."
A middle-aged widow from Keokuk told the group about her: "I mortgaged my cottage to come. The boys are growing up and it's their only chance to own land."