New Mexico Homestead: Seeing the Family Farm Through the Dust Bowl Days

A woman remembers the hardships of her childhood on a New Mexico homestead, and chronicles her family's journey to find land in the Ozarks

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When New Mexico opened for homesteading, my father rode his bicycle 400 miles from his father's homestead in Oklahoma to New Mexico. He filed his claim on 160 acres of government land near the little settlement of Roy, New Mexico.

When my father and mother were married in 1913, their pos¬sessions consisted of a snug one-room claim shack on that 160 acres and the bicycle with father's photography equipment strapped on the back.

Everything went well for my parents during those early years.

Their acreage doubled, the house grew to three large rooms with porches, a small photograph shop was opened in town and the farming equipment increased along with the horses and cattle. The children came along to help with the chores. I was the third child, and I can remember gathering eggs and helping to pull young tumbleweeds out of the garden.

Then came what my father called "the prosperous years." During that time my father's crops expanded until he was raising 100 acres of pinto beans and 100 acres of wheat each for several years.

It was like the Bible reference to seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought and famine. By 1928 the well-known "dust bowl days" had started. In New Mexico there were terrible sand-storms. During the early summer, my father was able to buy a wrecked Greyhound Bus. The motor was good, but the body was badly damaged. That bus became my father's obsession; he worked to make it into a comfortable motor home to take his family out of New Mexico to the "promised land," the Ozarks. Every spare minute of daylight was spent working on that bus. Every night was spent under the coal oil lamp, poring over United Farms and Strout's Catalog of Ozark farms. He marked all of the farms listed that he wanted to see. He told us that there were trees with cool shade in the Ozarks, brooks with cool running water and rivers that had nice big fish just waiting to be caught and eaten. There were wild berries to pick and rich ground to raise good gardens. Best of all there would be no blowing sand.

One memorable evening my father came home from town in a very happy mood. That night at the supper table he pulled out a crisp, new $100 bill. He passed it around the table and let each one of us feel and handle it; he told us that it was the down-payment on our farm in the Ozarks. I never thought to ask, but I think that was money saved back a small amount at a time over a long period, until that day when it reached the amount to take to the bank.

During the school term of 1928-29 the sandstorms were extremely bad. Several of our neighbors just gave up and moved out, going to California. Crops were poor that fall because of no rain, and we had to make good use of everything we had raised in the garden. Our pumpkins turned out to be our best crop, so Mama canned a lot of pumpkin butter and tomato preserves for winter sweetness for our bread. I can remember thinking I had a real good school lunch when I opened my half-gallon syrup bucket at noon and found two muffins, split and spread with pumpkin butter.

The most unforgettable part of that last school term was our walks home from school against that furiously blowing sand. Day after day, Bonnie and I would make that one and one-half mile fight against that vicious, cutting sand. At times there would seem to be a lull in its fierceness; at that time we would run as fast and as far as we could, knowing that after the lull it would come on more fierce than before. During the storm's fury, we would squat down in the road and wrap our dresses around our burning legs and hide our faces and arms against our knees, staying quietly in that position until another lull seemed to come. We would come home crying, with our arms and legs and faces as red as the worst sun-burn and just as painful. Mama would bring out a little bowl of fresh sweet cream and gently pat it all over our pain to soothe it. If it was baking day, we got half a buttered hot roll apiece, and if Papa was in the house he would remind us if we could only endure it until school was out, we would be leaving New Mexico forever.

Finally the last days of school came. Mama and Papa worked hard to have everything ready. What a wonderful, ingenious father we had! He thought of every detail to make that bus a complete summer home for our family. There was a bunk for every kid according to his size-and a storage compartment under the bunks for keeping each child's clothes, bedding and treasures. There was a full-size bed across the back, and just inside the door was the washstand, with frames built to hold the wash pan and the water bucket so they would not spill when traveling over the roughest roads. The outside had some handy features too. The cupboard was built outside, next to the door; shelves held the dishes, silverware and staples, with the pots and pans below. The door of the cupboard was hinged to the bottom of the box, with a secure latch at the top and a sturdy leg hinged to the center, so that when the cupboard was opened, the door became our table. A platform across the back of the bus held the "putt-putt" gasoline-engine washing machine with two black washtubs, a boiler, a big canning kettle and campfire equipment. A good length of clothes-line wire was coiled neatly along the back of bus, and there was even a neat doghouse built on the back of the fender for Snip and her puppies. We also had a tent for inclement weather. When we got home from the last day of school, everything was ready for us to leave the next morning.

So this was the day we had waited for so long! We were migrants, venturing on to an unknown road. We left that morning our parents, six children, a mother dog and her three puppies-on the day after school was out in 1929. We left one brother buried in New Mexico. This was a cherished, memorable summer, the high¬light of my entire life. I would be 11 on my birthday in June.

We arrived in Missouri just two days later. Our timing was right, for the strawberry picking season was just starting. We were paid 2 cents a quart, and we picked berries for several growers as long as the season lasted. All of us children were good workers, as we had been taught to work and enjoyed working, but it soon became apparent that our brother John was an excellent strawberry picker. He could keep up with the other Missouri boys who had been picking for several years.

Mama liked to pick strawberries. She would generally pick one carrierful to start the morning, then she would take her place in the packing shed, where she could keep Baby Martha, who was less than 1 year old, with her. She would bring the culled berries home with her and make strawberry jam at night.

Every Friday evening we looked for a clear running brook where we could camp for the weekend. Saturday was washing day for our family. After breakfast Saturday morning we all carried water-heated over the campfire-to the black tub. The putt-putt washer was set down off the platform, and the rinse tub sat on the platform under the wringer. The clothesline was stretched to a tree and we were in business. Sometimes a pot of beans cooked on the campfire beside the boiler. If possible, Papa and John would try to find a fishing hole within walking distance so we might have a mess of fish for supper. We would all have a bath before we went to bed, either in the creek or the rinse tub. We knew what clean clothes we would put on in the morning, because every Sunday morning we would go to the nearest little country church for worship. It really didn't matter too much what denomination it was.

One day we stopped at a gas station. We children ran out back of the station-where the toilets were located in those days-then back to the bus, ready to go again. We had gone about 10 miles when we came to an intersection. My father, unsure of which road to take, pulled over to look at his map. While we were stopped an old pickup pulled alongside and asked, "Are you all a missin' a little bit of a tiny girl and a little yaller shepherd dog? Well, she's back at that fillin' station." We looked around and sure enough, our 4-and-a-half-year-old, Dollie, was missing. Of course we turned right around and quickly headed back to the station. I was the one who was admonished. Papa said, "Since you are the oldest girl, you should check that everyone gets back on the bus when we stop like that." When we got back to the station, there was Dollie, sitting on the corner of the gas pump with her arm around the dog. She was not crying. When she saw us she stood up and smiled sweetly and said, "I told Snippy not to worry, 'cause you would come back and get us." The man at the station then told Papa that a neighbor there was wanting to hire someone to paint his barn. He gave directions and we drove to the place, where we set up camp in their backyard. We were there about a week, for it was a big barn for Papa and John to paint. The whole family was busy that week-there were several summer apple trees, with the ground under them literally covered with fallen apples. The lady of the house told Mama we could have as many as we wanted; she had been working on them but there were more than they could possibly use. Mama made the best applesauce out of them. We girls picked up apples by the bucket¬fuls, and Mama canned 24 quarts of applesauce.

We found and visited all of the farms that my father had marked in his Ozark Farm Catalogs, but most of them had draw-backs. They were either too far away from a town with a good high school, or the road leading to them was so bad we would be isolated in winter weather. We finally found our "perfect Ozark farm" on a hill, just one and a half miles from Neosho. We had close neighbors, and we all spent many happy days working and playing together on that wonderful farm. We were right in the heart of berry country, where we enjoyed a simple but pleasurable country life. We children graduated from Neosho High School, married Camp Crowder soldiers, and scattered after World War II, but we have always considered Neosho our home. Our parents and baby brother are buried there, as is one fun-loving sister who we can never forget.

No matter how old we get or how far we roam, nothing can erase the memory of that glorious summer of 1929 when our family went searching for another permanent farm home.

Mellie Coones
Warsaw, Missouri

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.