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Monday, 18 April 2011

Thinking about early Nebraska homesteaders



I believe the word is ‘dreek’. It’s a Scottish one, and, with a whole pint of Scottish blood in my veins (from my paternal grandmother’s people), I am claiming the right to use it. It think it’s the best word to describe the way it is out there this morning: grey, damp, drizzly, misty and cold. It was 37 degrees when I stuck my head out first thing, and here we are, ten o’clock, and still 37. In fact, as I put this up it's snowing again, determinedly. As if to set the tone for a dismal day, there on the back of Lightning’s pick-up are a pair of dead calves. Weaklings that never quite got the hang of feeding. But here's a photo of a live one, with its mom, helping themselves to the horses' hay.

Yesterday I was watching Matt unload a bale of hay for the animals that are still in the pen. There are fewer and fewer each day now, with barely a dozen heifers left to give birth. Each bale is a substantial, drum-shaped thing, perhaps five feet in diameter, three or four thick. It’s all grown right here on the ranch. This year it’s millet; in other years it might be alfalfa, a crop that can be left in the ground for three or four years and will produce three cuttings annually, and a thousand bales. Millet has to be sown afresh each spring, but the single crop yields just as well - 1045 bales this last year.

Not far from the ranch house is the Center Pivot Irrigation rig (CPI) that makes the hay crop possible. When you fly over these western states you see great swathes of land patterned by these crop circles, each one watered but the long rotating arm, each one fed by underground reserves. You can see that the cultivated area under each one is substantial, but I was surprised when Matt told me that it was as much as 130 acres. Compare that with the standard acreage under the Homestead Act, which was 160. That was considered enough land to feed and support a family, back in the days when a brood of six or eight children was unexceptional.

It probably was enough land back in the well-watered counties of eastern Nebraska, where the first homestead was claimed by one Daniel Freeman in 1862. (There’s a superb museum on the site, just outside of Beatrice, well worth a visit.) But the further west the settlers pushed – and as the century progressed they homesteaded way up into Wyoming and Montana – the less viable the proposition was likely to be.

The often violent conflict between cattlemen and sod-busters, was, in part, caused by land-hungry families from the east trying their hand at conventional farming on land that was better suited to cattle – and on farms that were way too small. Up in the Dakotas, some settlers did do okay for a year or two – if they were lucky, if they avoided the years of locusts, drought or prairie fire – but the soils soon wore out, or blew away in a dry year; or prices fell as more and more land came under cultivation. Why did Laura Ingalls Wilder’s folk keep moving on from one Little House to the next? Because they failed, over and over. Re-reading those books some years ago, I was shocked at how much pain lay under their blithe tone.

Mari Sandoz’ father, the irascible and obstinate Old Jules, fought the cattleman all his days – generally through the medium of the law, but at times at the point of a gun. His own brother, Emil, was shot dead on his front porch by one of the cattlemen’s hired killers, not so very far from here. Ironic, then, that his children – not Mari, of course - grew up and went into ranching. Ironic, but more or less inevitable.

I have read the first section of my friend Kim’s book, the letters Mari wrote in support of Native peoples. I was particularly struck by a passage in which she talks about the changing ways in which people viewed the Indians:

“Once the Sioux and Cheyenne were a romantic, wondrous people, to be visited by foreign princes and lords and by sick and unhappy writers from Boston. Then came the time when the majority wanted their land, so they were made out as subhuman, as beasts; and men who killed them, or said they did, became heroes.”


Mice. I keep coming back to them. They have opened up a new front – or more probably they were on the work counter all along. Anyway, I’ve been setting a trap up there the last couple of nights, and bingo. Got two in a row.

Today may be a day to stay at home and write – after I’ve gone down to the cellar and put the extra heaters on. Another day or two and I’ll be visiting Chadron, some 80 miles west of here. It already seems like a mighty venture, and Chadron is looming in my mind as a mighty metropolis with its 5000-plus population. My nearest town, Merriman, boasts 118, but it has a post office, a gas station, a diner, a farm supplies store – and of course an airstrip. I had lunch in the diner the other day, and was frankly disappointed at not having my photograph taken. The walls are covered with hundreds – possibly thousands – of Polaroid shots of anybody and everybody who comes through the door. Maybe next time.