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.
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
Prairie Palaces of Nebraska Marble
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.
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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