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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

I learned a few things from the visitors yesterday, bits and pieces help piece together this history of the red house. Number one, they pointed out the site of the wind-pump, clearly visible in this photograph, which I guess must have been taken from across the river.

I have just been outside again to check, and, yes, there are still the remains of a stone well-casing out there, behind the garage, along with a couple of galvanised jags of metal which must have been part of the frame that supported the rig. You can also see, in this picture, what the family say is the old dug-out, twenty or thirty yards in front of the wind-pump and to the left – although by this time it was probably used as a root-cellar. That raises the question in my mind, what is the house with the pitched roof? It’s certainly not this one. Is it an earlier, timber home that was knocked down?

This place is built on quite a slope, and the Arents put up a solid retaining wall to either side of the front elevation, presumably to hold back the upper part of the garden. That’s still there, although it’s slightly misshapen now, and there are gaps in it. I’m tempted to conclude that it was built of the same stones that formed the front of the dug-out, which, we are told, were taken from the river. In fact, I’d be willing to bet it was.

When the visitors showed up I was worried that I might be intruding on a family affair, but they made me feel very welcome, and seemed to enjoy talking about their connections with the place.

Frances, who featured in yesterday's pictures, is the daughter of Margaret, (far left in this picture).

She told me that she lived here for a year or two in the early 1940s, when she was in high school. I didn’t quite understand why she had been sent here, but it had to do with the fact that Hedvig had died (in 1941) and the house was about to be sold. The sale would mark the end of the Arents’ association with the house they’d only built as recently as 1924.

Someone reminisced about how the Indians used to come down from Pine Ridge every autumn to camp along the river and pick berries, and how fascinated they were by the little blonde-haired tribe that the Arents were raising. So taken were they with one child – I forget which one – that they wanted to make a trade and take the kid home with them. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘You mean, swap one of their children for one of the Arents?’  ‘Oh no, not a child – they were offering goods!’ It made Hedvig jumpy every time they came back over the next few years.

On the subject of the retaining wall, one of the guys, who works as an electrician at the world’s largest rail marshalling yard, just outside North Platte, had some cheering news for me. He passed it on just as we were saying goodbye. He’d just seen a large bull-snake, which had been sunning itself on the grass out the back, slithering in between the stones.

As people tend to be when they’re about to get in the car and drive back to civilisation, he was perfectly calm about it. ‘They eat rattlers,’ he said. ‘Hunt them down and eat them. As soon as the rattlers smell them, they keep away.’

Did I feel reassured? Well, yes I did, until someone added – quite unnecessarily – that these critturs also like to hang out in cellars. Did my informant know that that’s where the washing-machine is? I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Before they left, Keevin, the son of Phil Arent (3rd from the right in the family picture), told me that he and his wife Dottie are leading lights in the Sandhills Discovery Experience ( and urged me to come along to their next event, which takes place in Ainsworth on 13-15 July. As well as lectures on Sandhills geography and geology, there will be a Fossil Dig, a Plum Creek Tour and… a Steak Dinner Workshop. Education with grub? Try and keep me away!

Today I went up to look at the graveyard that sits on Matt & Kitty’s land, over towards the highway. As far as I can see just a handful of Arents are buried there: Holger, Hedvig, and their son Martin, who died shortly after his mother.

The cemetery was looking very neat after its clean-up job. I know that Kitty mowed the grass the other day, and it looks as though a lot of the flowers have been replaced.

The flag too has been repaired or spruced up: it was looking pretty tattered last week and there had been talk of taking it down. I gather that you may fly the flag in daylight, but if it is to be on display at night it must, by law, be illuminated. At least, that’s according to a conversation I overheard a few days ago. I did notice, in fact, that one of the ranchers along Highway has a couple of those sun-powered lamps atop the flag-pole that stands at his entrance.

So here are the graves of Holger and Hedvig, who settled here and raised eight children on their little spread.

The family told me that as far as they know there was only the traditional 160-acre holding down here, that they never claimed the additional 480 available under the Kincaid Act (1904). In the greater scheme of things they weren’t really here for very long, but over a century since they came to live  down by the river they are still remembered, talked about with affection, and honoured. I think we’d all settle for that.

Post-script: I mentioned yesterday a glass of single malt, and I have to hold up my hands and say ‘guilty as charged.’

There is a bottle of Glenlivet sitting on the work-counter here.  Half-full – or half-empty. To my knowledge it’s been here since last September. I’ve sat here many a chilly evening since I first arrived, occasionally wrapping my sleeping bag around me as the snow flew outside, and all the time knowing that a certain warm glow was available. I wasn’t particularly cold last night. I simply cracked.

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