Sunday Open Forum – Mailboxes and Old Barns
Written By Emma
In 1925, with his World War I Navy service behind him, my father was beginning to work his own land, thinking about rain and wheat, and wrote the following to my mother in a letter dated September 14, 1925:
….Our wheat averaged 12 bushels, so we really had a good crop and everything to be thankful for.
It’s too bad your people didn’t get a little more, because 5 bushels is just about enough for expenses.
We didn’t have enough rain for plowing yet. At present I am disking, doing some breaking, and other small jobs.
I have a little over 100 acres to plow this fall if it rains, otherwise I will be pretty busy in the spring.
May I have the pleasure of calling on you Sunday afternoon?
This is the reason I am writing so soon; to give you time to answer if you have other plans. Just be frank about everything.
My mother’s family had arrived on the prairie in 1910 from Racine, Wisconsin when she was 5. My father’s family arrived in 1907 from Hampton, Nebraska when he was 9. From the day they arrived, the center of their daily world was water~~for the simple reason that there was none. There were no streams or flowing water on top of the ground: the Missouri River was miles away and useless for irrigating. There was none underground that was accessible: in later years, the typical well was 400 feet deep or more and always undrinkable~~sometimes even for the cattle. And water from the sky? 14″ in the wettest year would only occasionally fall when needed for the small grain crops.
The obvious problem of too little rain on the unbroken sod prairie meant that the issuance of 160 acre homestead parcels being heavily promoted by the railroads faced some heavy going around 1900. By 1909, this was taken into account when Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act authorizing homesteaders to receive twice the land~~320 acres rather than 160. Surveying of the land had largely been completed by 1870 but even so, anyone with a lick of sense could be forgiven for not mistaking the eastern Montana or western North Dakota vistas for black Iowa farmland or even thick Nebraska prairie grass. No, the land agents needed a little extra something to get past sensible Scandinavian immigrants who might resist sinking their lives into dry and treeless prairie that stretched endlessly under the Big Sky, honestly described in “Home On The Range” as a place where “the skies are not cloudy all day.” Well, the sales and marketing tool that the railroads needed and used had been around since the 1860′s. The tool was a theory summarized as The Rain Follows The Plow. (Much later, this theory properly gained fame as one of the “top ten science mistakes” of the last 4000 years or so.)
Here’s how it ran: “The reason there is no rain is because there is no bare dirt. So, potential settler, don’t be discouraged! Don’t be disheartened! Come! Get your 160 acres homestead land now!” (Later it was determined by more rational folk that it would actually take about 2500 acres of this kind of land to live a decent farmer’s life, but never mind…) “So come! If you take your one-bottom plow and your horse or two and break up a few acres, and do that for several years, and if the grasshoppers, drought and storms don’t destroy it, you’ll harvest a fine crop! Then The Rain Will Follow The Plow! Here! We have brochures! Send them to your relatives in Denmark and Norway and Sweden! Tell them there are endless acres available for them!”
The Danish families who had ended up in Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska after Ellis Island in the 1890′s may have actually believed that the rain would follow the plow~~or maybe they had just run out of options. Whatever the case, between 1895 and 1910 they continued to get on the emigrant railroad cars for one more ride with their plows, their horses, their cow, their household furniture and their trunks to go to sod prairie country so big, they claimed, that when you stepped out of your house to go for a walk you were lost before you took the first step.
Two miles from my Dad’s father’s homestead, there is an artesian well in the front yard of the old one room school house that yields up the sweetest, clearest, coldest water this side of heaven and there is a hand pump fixed to the top of the well. It’s an artesian well in that the water “flows in” very freely, far below ground level. It is not an artesian well in that every drop of water that is going to be used is pumped out by hand.
My older brother whose teen years spanned the 1940′s remembered bringing water from that faithful well on a stoneboat pulled through the dirt by a team of horses. He described the water in eastern Montana as precious to begin with, and then “…the more it was handled the more valued it became. We first pumped the water out of the well, hauled it home and dumped it in a cistern, then pumped it back out and carried it into the kitchen for Mother, or in for bathing and washing, and then we carried what remained afterwards to the garden or to the pigs.”
After electricity and running water were available in the 1950′s, my memory of how precious the water was includes the anxious tightening of my stomach when town visitors, accustomed to municipal water systems, would use the bathroom and run the water way too long. Hearing the pressure pump in the basement kicking in again and again as it drew water in from the cisterns, I would feel the butterflies flying in formation~~wondering why on earth they didn’t have enough sense to use less water.
Dad had a 400 gallon tank that would be positioned in the back of the 1951 Ford grain truck. In our early teens, my brother and I frequently had the summertime task of getting water for the two cisterns~~one just outside the back door and the other 20 feet or so across the yard, that one with a heavy cover weighted down with big stones. That second one was big: about 12-15 feet deep and about 6 feet across. Absolutely terrifying to look down into the water of that one knowing that if I fell in, I would never be able to get out. So we make as many trips as it takes to fill the two cisterns.
The low prairie hills and fields stretch away in all directions from that abandoned school yard. With some sandwiches, an apple and a jar of koolaid, we settle into our task with sweet sights, sounds and smells all around: the buzz of bees in the wild honeysuckle along the old schoolhouse door, a butterfly or two, the song of meadowlarks, the nuisance of grasshoppers and the sweet clover blooming in the ditches that can be stripped off the stalk between our fingers with a zzziiiipppp! sound, and the steady….splash, splash, splash….with each push of the squeaky pump handle~~100 times for me; 150 for my brother: push, up and down, push, up and down…..until we had pumped 400 gallons for each trip. In between our turns, we sit in the shade on the running board of the truck eating our lunch or whistling through a blade of grass carefully lined up between our thumbs.