Firsthand Account of Resilient Wife on Western South Dakota Homestead

Wife of homesteader recalls her experience making do on a western South Dakota homestead.

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As a bride in June, 1910, I joined my husband who had already spent six months on a homestead in western South Dakota, about 20 miles from Fort Pierre on the Missouri River. Home was a one-room shack, covered with blue building paper inside and black tarpaper outside. All was held in place by nails with shiny, one-inch heads.

We were within sight of one other shack, but there were no homes in the five-mile stretch to the railway station from which we hauled water in two cream cans behind the single seat of our open buggy.

My husband worked at that time in the railway mail service, a job which kept him from home two nights in succession. We would drive together to the depot; he would board the mail car and I, with my full water cans, would drive home alone.

The trail led thru prairie dog town, an area much burrowed by the little animals and much populated by rattlers. Except in cold weather, we never passed thru it without seeing from one to four snakes. Indeed, this was rattlesnake country. During that summer, three were killed on our immediate grounds. Whenever I entered our cave, I was aware of the possibility of meeting one. I never swung my feet out of bed without first peering under it for snakes.

One dampish morning, I found numerous inch-long, brown-shelled worms on the floor. I could make no impression on them except by cracking their crusts with a hammer. More were falling on the linoleum. I looked up to see hundreds clinging to the ceiling and walls. I covered the water pail and my hair, and spent the forenoon sweeping them from the walls and out the open doorway. I never knew what they were or where they came from.

One night I was roused from sleep by a peculiar noise and a trembling house. I realized that I probably had forgotten to close the barbed-wire gate, and that our half-acre enclosure had been invaded by range cattle. One of them, having a good shoulder-rub on a corner of the house, was shivering the shack's framework. I couldn't have them horning holes thru our paper walls or breaking the cave's roof; I had to get up and get them out! Moving seven or eight perverse critters thru an obscure opening in a fence was a most frustrating chore. The task took a long time, and our buggy whip was given a good workout.

Despite critters, crawlers, creeps, and sub-zero cold in a paper house, we completed the required 14 months of living on the place. With the payment of 50 cents an acre, my husband "proved up" on his claim. It was a rough quarter section fit only for grazing. Even so, the profits from the property helped him to a start in the newspaper field. And the whole experience was one we should not want to have missed.

Grace C. Robinson
Pasadena, California

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.