Plains Settlers: Steinke Family Struggled to Establish Nebraska Homestead

Louis Steinke went through the ringer, and many animals, to improve his Nebraska homestead.

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My father, John Steinke, lived 83 years in Perkins County, Nebraska, before his death in 1977. Some years ago he wrote an account of life on his father's Nebraska homestead, a story which spanned 30 years from 1883, when the claim was filed, to about the time of World War I, when the character of farming, as he knew it, was changing with the introduction of big farm machines.

The following paragraphs are based on material in my father's original manuscript:

After my dad, Louis Steinke, filed on a homestead northeast of Verango, Nebraska, he returned to Buffalo County to await the next year's spring when he would bring his wife, in a covered wagon, to Perkins County (or Keith County as it was called then). They lived in the wagon until a 12- by 16-foot frame shack could be completed.

Dad helped build the High Line Railroad thru west Nebraska. He drove mules hitched to a scraper to smooth the grade for the tracks. After two years he had saved a little money and in 1888 he was able to replace the shack with a two-room sod house. The first child born to the family died and was buried on the homestead, for there were no cemeteries in the area at the time of his death. All the other children in the family were born and reared on that farm.

When the horses which had pulled his wagon West died, he bought a yoke of oxen which he used to break sod. The oxen also made weekly trips to Big Springs for the family's water which was hauled home in barrels. None was ever wasted, so we all washed in the same water.

Later Dad traded those oxen for horses, and after one died and he had no money to buy a replacement, he broke a milk cow to work with a horse as a team.

The years of 1894-1896 were trying times. In 1894, the drought was bad; the corn grew only about a foot before it burned up. Dad put clothes in a sack and walked to Greeley, Colorado, where he picked potatoes, earning money so we could eat thru the winter.

The next spring was dry, too. Dad sowed spring wheat; it didn't sprout. He sowed oats; they didn't come up. And then he planted corn. In June a little rain fell, and wheat, oats, and corn all came up together.

That year Dad had some pigs, but he had raised no feed for them and he could not find any feed in the country. He took them to Ogallala, where he did his trading, hoping he could sell them. When no sale was possible, he drove into an alley and turned them loose. Someone, he hoped, would pick them up and feed them.

When the drought broke after several successive dry years, the rains came and crops grew better. But new hazards appeared. The area suffered hail-outs several times. And then the grasshoppers came. The pests ate everything in sight: all the foliage, curtains at the windows-just about ate the harness off the horse's back!

Before the dry years there were three or four families on every other section (the alternate sections were railroad land then). By late 1896 so many families had left that there were only five left in our township.

The antelopes in herds of 25 or more came to the range around our soddy. We children used to chase them. Never caught a one!

We walked to school about 31/2 miles northwest of our home. If the weather was so bad that we couldn't walk, we stayed at home; nobody took us to school. To keep our feet warm on cold days we wrapped grain sacks around our shoes.

In those days we had only three months of school, for there was little money to pay the teacher. At that rate it took years to get thru the eighth grade, and it was nothing for kids of 18 or 20 years old to be going to school.

Butchering was a big winter job. Every family rendered lard, and cured and smoked ham, shoulder and bacon. We saved the intestines of animals, and cleaned them by pouring water thru them and scraping. When they were thin, they were suitable for sausage casings. We slipped the casing over a piece of cow horn, and holding the horn in one hand, we used the other hand to stuff the sausage into the casing. We made blood sausage, liver sausage, and several other kinds. They were tied like modern-day bologna sausages and smoked.

About 1901 Dad put down a well. It was drilled by horse power and took nearly a year to complete. With a water supply at hand, Dad began to add cattle.

It was my job to watch the cattle and sometimes I walked miles to find them. Rattlesnakes were numerous; it was nothing to kill six or more a day. I walked barefooted because there was no money for shoes, and since I could not see the snakes in the tall grass I was often scared. It is surprising that none of us was ever bitten. Cactuses were plentiful, too, and they are hard on bare feet.

We milked 15 cows usually. We strained the milk into gallon crocks, let them stand for a day, and skimmed off the cream. The crocks had to be emptied and washed every day. We churned butter and sold it in town.

To go to Grant, we used to straight line across the prairie from our farm to the town. There were no roads, only cow trails. People traveled directly to their destination because there were no barriers to prevent their doing so.

Most of the land was free range and the cattle all ran together. In the fall everyone rounded up his cattle. Dad ran about 80 head of horses and several hundred head of cattle. There were big ranches to the west and south of us.

About the time of World War I, the ranchers and farmers began to buy big tractors and other machinery. They broke up the prairie and planted wheat. We had to sell our cattle and horses for what we could get for them for there no longer was open pasture. We, too, became wheat farmers. 

Mrs. Clifford Winterquist 
Grant, Nebraska

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.