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Monday, 25 April 2011

A few signs of spring; and some thoughts on the Danish settlers who came here in 1904.

I’m getting behind. I can’t believe it. All this time at my disposal – 15 to 16 waking hours every single day – and I’m struggling to find time to record what I’m doing.

Yesterday I had an excuse: no Internet all day. I should point out that I only get a signal up at the ranch house; and although that’s less than two miles away it can take me a little while to get there. Generally 7-8 minutes, occasionally 15. It’s the trail, which is steep at the beginning, deeply rutted and very bumpy; and when it flattens out the corrugations give your bones a thorough shaking. So sometimes I crawl along at little more than walking pace. Other times there are cattle standing there, right in front of the vehicle. And of course I always pause at the top of the rise because I can get a phone signal, and I might just get an incoming text. Yesterday – football results day – I made the trip three times. When I was twenty or so I imagined that, being grown up now, I would soon put such foolishness behind me. Ha!

It’s still unseasonably cool, my thermometer registering a high around 54 the last couple of days; and it remains cloudy, windy too; but that’s good walking weather, and I’ve been getting out on a few short hikes along the south side of the Niobrara. It meanders so much that while at times I’m looking down a steep bluff, 200 feet to the river directly below me, at other times I’m as much as half a mile from its banks.

The pictures I’ve posted today are about the sandhills: what they’re made of. At a casual glance, you think you’re seeing mile after mile of nothing but grass, a uniform thatch of it. In fact it’s a mixture of grasses, herbs, flowers, soapweed and cedar, with plenty of bare spots in between. This whole dune system, the most extensive in the western hemisphere, is pretty much held together by the hungry roots of these grasses, sedges and shrubs, but once a bald patch appears, the wind will start to work on it, and soon you have what they call a blow-out.

Counteracting the destructive work of the wind are tenacious plants eager to fill the gap – or give it a try. One of the pictures I’ve put up shows one of several juniper seedlings I spotted today. I’m not quite sure what the other is, yet. It looks to me rather like a member of the rose family with its seven leaves and red stem, but I dare say it’ll turn out to be something completely different.

While I was up at the ranch this morning Kitty handed me a slim folder containing some historical information about the family who constructed the red house. There are a few photographs too, and I’m going to see if I can get those scanned so that I can share them.

Briefly, the story goes as follows. In 1890 Holger Arent, a cabinet-maker born in Denmark in 1864, met and courted Hedvig Petersen on board the ship that was taking them both to America. She had a brother homesteading just south of Merriman. They married, settling in Omaha, where he had relatives. For some years they ran a confectionery and cigar store.

Times were tough, and in 1904 Holger filed on a claim under the Homestead Act, taking the whole family to live in a dug-out, then a soddy, right down here beside the Niobrara. A dug-out is just what it sounds like – a sort of hollow as found, for example, in the bank of a river, to be extended inward or outward as time and materials permitted. Plenty of settlers started out that way, and plenty then graduated to the sod-house, built, quite literally, of sod which would be laid like a course of bricks. With walls eighteen inches thick, they were cosy in winter and cool in summer. There was very little timber around, so people collected buffalo chips in the early days, cow-chips later on. For ‘chips’ read ‘turds’.

The Arents raised eight children down by the river. It was only after their father died, aged 59 (so that would be 1923) that they built this house that I am privileged to be staying in. There was an insurance policy on Holger’s life which yielded $800, enough to invest in some materials. They bought cement from town, but otherwise used native sand and a home-made mould to fashion every one of the blocks that make up this sturdy old place.

Most years the Arents gather from around the country and descend on the red house to picnic and celebrate their common ancestry. With a little luck, I might get to meet them this year.

Either tomorrow or Tuesday I am going to venture to Valentine. I’ll try to make a point of scanning these pictures of the old place so that I can put them up here. There’s more to tell about the Arents, but there’s plenty of time for that. Right now I have to get back to an everyday story of North Yorkshire coppers. Then I’ll be off to bed with Mari Sandoz – well, her book The Tom-Walker.

1 comment:

  1. We tend to complain bitterly about our modern lives - rising expenses of fuel and food and the sheer cost of getting things done - but would we, with such cool self-belief, uproot our lives to move to an alien landscape, to live in a dwelling fashioned out of a riverbank? Then believe ourselves lucky to be able to move into a sodhouse?

    It beggars belief that this is a mere hundred years ago.


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