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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

It’s some time since I mentioned the Arents, the people who first settled where the red house is and built it, by hand.

When Holger Arent and his wife Hedvig (formerly Petersen) came out to this part of Nebraska she already had two brothers on a homestead to the south, somewhere along the Snake river. Peter had come first, and by 1893 was ready to send for his brother Julius and their mother. Hedvig was supposed to have come three years earlier, and did indeed set sail from Denmark in 1890; but she met young Holger on the voyage across the Atlantic, stayed with him in Omaha and got married.

By the time they arrived out here in the Sandhills in 1904 they had eight children in tow – and proceeded to fashion a first dwelling the traditional way. They dug a hollow out of the river-bank.

It’s years since I first read about dug-outs – probably in Willa Cather’s frontier novels – but I’ve never really sat and thought about it. It’s what a lot of our ancestors did, nothing more, nothing less.  Except that we call them cavemen. Of course, when you reach out and touch the river-banks here you can see that it made a degree of sense in a land that lacked trees, hard rocks or any of the customary building materials. If you go down to the bluffs, where they’re made of firm, but easily crumbled limestone – yes, it’s easy to see that you could fashion a decent living space out of that; and it would have virtue of being cool. Clean too. But crumbly. A lot of it you can break apart with your fingers

Clearly they were a little cramped in their dug-out, this family of ten, so they added a room to the front of the cave, built, the record says, of stone – which they apparently gathered from the river-bed and cemented together.

Holger, you may recall, was a cabinet-maker. He broke up packing-cases, gathered willow from along the river, and built the family’s furniture. Reading between the lines, I would guess they had left their business in Omaha with very little in the way of assets. Think about it. You have a family of ten, you live in a thriving city, you run a cigar and confectionery store, and one day you pack up, hop on the train, and go to live in a hole in the ground in cattle country. It’s surely not a decision you would take lightly. Things must have been pretty desperate.

We are told (I have been given access to a few precious written accounts) that the dug-out had a roof of chicken wire, covered with canvas and straw – and that there were “lots of rattlesnakes”.

The Arents had at least some cattle, and the children were kept busy seeing that their stock didn’t mingle with the herds belonging to the neighbouring rancher – who at this time must have been Bartlett Richards, although in the scant reminiscences that I have seen he isn’t mentioned by name.

Before long the family put up a single-storey sod-house, comprising two rooms. The walls were eighteen inches thick, providing insulation against the summer heat and the winter cold. The roof was made of willow poles covered with more sod. With the nearest wood for fuel being seven miles away along the Snake, the children were sent out to gather cow-chips for the stove. They had no proper shoes, just ‘moccasins’ fashioned out of old overalls. I have to say I feel for them: the other day I knelt down too a little too close to a prickly pear and was forced to utter a number of profanities.

The Arent children had plenty of contact with the Natives who would come down from the reservation, just to the north, set up their tipis and pick wild berries which they would form into cakes and dry in the sun and wind for winter food. They’d strip the bark off the red willow and smoke it. And then they’d come and try to trade for the Arents’ dogs. They had quite a liking for dog-meat.

It’s interesting to note that in those early days the family drank river water. They took precautions of course: they always left it for the sand to settle before they drank it.

The Arents stayed in their soddy until Holger died, towards Christmas 1923, aged 59. Hedvig received a life insurance pay-out of $800, and it was part of that money which allowed her and her sons to build the house I am now staying in. The cement blocks were formed in a home-made wooden mould, using sand from the river-banks.

So, the pictures. Not the best quality, being scanned from photo-copies, but they show a young Holger and Hedvig, a shot of the rear elevation of the red house (in amongst a clutch of images), and finally a footbridge that was constructed across the river, probably where the trail still crosses it now – although the bridge is long gone.

I’m writing this in the comfort of a hotel room in Rapid City, where I arrived last night to collect my buddy Chainsaw Phil from the airport. Time to hit that dusty trail and head on back to the Sandhills.

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