The Homesteader's World

As the frontier pushed westward to the high plains, many new emigrants found themselves getting off a train into a sea of grass and little else. "There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made," recalled Willa Cather in My Antonia. "I had the feeling that the world was left behind." Homesteaders used what they had - sod "bricks" for construction, buffalo chips for fuel, and the ceaseless wind to pump water from deep underground. Eventually homesteaders progressed from living off - and sometimes in - the land to changing the land to suit their needs. Their innovations came to symbolize mastery over nature, however tenuous that might be.

"We cannot raise too much corn"

A state agriculturalist made this pronouncement in 1876 about the cash crop that became synonymous with Nebraska. By the 1890s, after several failures of traditional crops - oats, barley, and wheat as well as corn - it became clear that plains farmers needed to re-think their methods. Irrigation, dry farming techniques, strip planting and summer fallow fields, along with a hardy strain of winter wheat introduced by Russian Mennonite immigrants, revolutionized grain production on the northern plains. In the 1870s, a typical Nebraska farmer produced food enough each year for four; a hundred years later he fed nearly 60.

Illustration: Typical Eastern Nebraska Frontier Cabin The Comforts of Home

Whether hillside dugouts, grassland soddies or the log cabins common to eastern Nebraska, homestead dwellings were a contrast of makeshift implements and finery salvaged from the old life. Cooks used dried buffalo manure as heating fuel, then served the meal on French china. Potted geraniums in the window competed for attention with wildflowers in bloom atop a sod house roof. Homemakers tacked up muslin sheets to catch falling debris from sod roofs and covered floors with cow skins. Packing crates served as tables and trunks as cradles. Cisterns collected rainwater and children collected fuel. Meals included anything from a wild prairie chicken to store-bought coffee, along with corn and more corn. Agnes Freeman concocted a remedy for ague from prickly ash bark, Peruvian pine bark, Cayenne pepper and brandy. (123K JPEG Image of Frontier Cabin.

Crude as they were, settler's dwellings became beloved homes. Lydia Lyon, for one, had fond memories of her family's Kansas cabin: "The wind whistled through the walls in winter and the dust blew in summer, but we papered the walls with newspapers and made rag carpets for the floor, and thought we were living well."

Prairie Palaces of Nebraska Marble Family in front of Soddie

Homesteaders in the eastern prairie could burrow into hillsides before wooden cabins were built. Newcomers to the flat, treeless grasslands farther west found a durable building material beneath their feet. Buffalo grass was short and tough with a dense tangle of roots; it held its shape when cut. Using a special plow, one could shave enough sod from half an acre of prairie for a 16 by 20-foot house. The sod strips were cut about a foot wide and 4 inches deep, then sliced crosswise into 3-foot slabs. Slabs were laid grass-side-down in double courses and secured with four corner poles. Frames reserved openings for doors and windows. A sturdy ridgepole was laid across forked upright posts. Branches formed rafters on which more sod was laid - grass side up.

Certain advantages kept owners in their homes of "Nebraska Marble" long after lumber was available for housing. Soddies were inexpensive, quick to build, well insulated, tornado-proof and did not burn. On the other hand, they needed constant repair, especially after rainstorms when the roofs dropped dirt, water and sometimes snakes. No wonder pioneer Carrie Lassel Detrick's mother "gave way to the only fit of weeping I ever remember seeing her indulge in," when she first arrived in Kansas and saw the sod house her husband had built. Soddies remained a marvel to easterners. As Mark Twain noted in Roughing It, "It was the first time we had ever seen a man's front yard on top of his house."

The Closing of the Frontier

"The red grass was disappearing, and the whole face of the country was changing," wrote Willa Cather of the vanishing Nebraska prairie in 1918. "There were wooden houses where the old sod dwellings used to be, and little orchards and big red barns." The new century brought mechanization that sped the transition of grassland into farmland. Ultimately, some 1.6 million homestead applications were fulfilled. In 1934, the Homestead Act was repealed, formally ending the pioneer era that had died long before.

Grasshopper Plow New Tools for an Ancient Trade

Promoters of settlement conjured up pictures of a land so fertile "you only have to tickle it with a plow and it will laugh a harvest that will gladden your hearts," as one railroad ad claimed. Migrants who succumbed to this vision were soon disappointed. Turning the Great American Desert into the bountiful heartland took considerable ingenuity. For a start, the dense mat of grass defied ordinary cast-iron plows. In the 1860s, a new plow called the "grasshopper"" appeared. Its steel blade sliced the sod vertically and turned it to one side, opening a furrow for planting. Once crops were sown, sodbusters in the drier climates could not count on sufficient rainfall. Pumping well water became the work of the wind. A special pivoting windmill was invented with adjustable compact blades that withstood high winds. By the turn of the century, windmills stood sentinel over most plains farms. In the early days, cattle herds roamed free, the bane of farmers. Enclosing a quarter section with wooden fencing - if there was wood to be had - was costly. Barbed wire was the simple solution that divided up open range in practice as well as on paper. All these inventions spawned an industry based on specialized equipment for plains farms.

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