Two Kohl Sisters


12. A New America

Ida Mary and I came through the winter stronger than we had ever been before, but we welcomed the spring with grateful hearts. Only poets can describe the electric, sweet quality of spring, but only the young, as we were young that year, receive the full impact of its beauty. The deep, cloudless blue of western skies, the vivid colors after the dead white of winter, were fresh revelations, as though we had never known them before.

One spring day I was making up the paper, while the Christophersons' little tow-headed boy watched me.

"Are you going to be a printer when you grow up, Heine?"

"Nope. I don't want no little types," he replied. "I like traction machines better--they go. My Pa's got one."

A tractor coming on the Strip! I ran to tell Ida Mary.

As it chugged and caterpillared from town through the Reservation, Chris Christopherson's tractor caused almost as much excitement as the first steamship up the Hudson. Men, women and children gathered about and stared wide-eyed at the new machine as its row of plows cut through the stubborn sod like a mighty conqueror. He was plowing a hundred acres.

A few cattlemen from the open country rode into the Strip to see it and bowed their heads to this evidence of the coming of agriculture.

Old Ivar Eagleheart, Two-Hawk, and others of the Indian braves looked on. This mystic power sealed their fate. It was in a last desperate attempt to save territory for his race that an old Indian chief had stood indomitable, contending with the White Fathers. "Wherever you find a Sioux grave, that land is ours!" In this plowing up of the Indians' hunting grounds no one thought of Sioux graves.

The McClure homesteaders had filed on their claims, proved up and gone, many of them, leaving empty shacks. Here on the Strip were increasing signs of permanency. Many Brulé settlers went back home and disposed of whatever property they had in order to make permanent improvements on their claims. Other machinery came. Within a radius of three miles of Ammons three tractors ran all day. All night one could see their bright headlights moving and hear their engines chug-chugging over the dark plain, turning under the bluebells and anemones as they went, and the tall grass where buffalo had ranged. Fragrant scent of wild flowers blended with the pungent odor of new-turned earth and floated across the plain. When those owning tractors got through breaking for themselves they turned over sod for other settlers.

In every direction on the Brulé and all over the plains which had been settled, teams went up and down, making a black and green checkerboard of the prairie.

Ida Mary and I had Chris break and sow sixty acres of our land to flax. It cost $300, and we again stretched our credit to the breaking point to borrow the money. Try out fifteen or twenty acres first? Not we! If we had a good crop it would pay for the land.

The winners in the Rosebud Drawing were swarming onto their claims, moving their families and immigrant goods in a continuous stream. Towns for many miles around were deluged with trade. It was estimated that the Rosebud alone would add 25,000 new people to the West, with the settlers' families, tradesmen and others whom the Rosebud development would bring. A few groups of settlers from Chicago and other cities came with a fanfare of adventure new to the homestead country. But many stolid, well-equipped farmers, too, went into Tripp County, in which the Rosebud lay.

I got a letter from the Chicago reporter saying: "I did not draw a Lucky Number, but I came in on the second series to take the place of those who dropped out. Am out on my land and feeling better. It was sporting of you to offer to find a claim for me. Things are moving fast on the Rosebud."

Word spread that homesteaders were flocking farther west in Dakota--to the Black Hills--and on to the vast Northwest. That inexorable tide was pressing on, taking up the land, transforming the prairie, forcing it to yield its harvest, shaping the country to its needs, creating a new empire.

We peopled and stocked the West by rail--and put vast millions in the hands of the railroads. Wagon caravans moved on from the railroad into the interior, many going as far as fifty, sixty, a hundred miles over a trailless desert. Homesteaders who had no money and nothing to haul, came through in dilapidated vehicles and lived in tents until they got jobs and earned money to buy lumber. A few came in automobiles. There were more cars seen in the moving caravans now.

It was not only settlers the railroads carried west now, it was tools and machinery and the vast quantities of goods needed for comfort and permanent occupation; and the increasing demand for these materials was giving extra work to factories and businesses in the East.

On the Brulé we watched the growth of other sections of the West. At home alone one evening, Ida Mary had carried her supper tray outdoors, and as she sat there a rider came over the plains; she could barely recognize him in the dusk.

"Lone Star!" she exclaimed as he stopped beside her.

He sat silent, dejected, looking over the broad fields. He had brought the herd north to summer pasture.

"Did you escape the pesky homesteaders by going south?" she laughed.

"No," he said soberly. "They're all over. Not near as thick as they are here, but Colorado and New Mexico are getting all cluttered up. Old cattle trails broke--cain't drive a herd straight through no more--why--" he looked at her as though some great calamity had befallen, "I bet there's a million miles o' ba'b wire strung between here and Texas! Shore got the old Brulé tore up."

She laughed. "Better not let my sister hear you say that. Look at our crop coming up."

"I didn't think you'uns would stick it out this winter," he said.

"Most of the settlers stayed," she assured him.

"Looks like the end of the free range," he said. "Cattle business is going to be different from now on." He smiled wanly and asked for his mail, which consisted only of a pile of back-number copies of a newspaper. He took them and rode "off to the southeast," the vague description he had given us as to where he belonged.

But he had brought news. The stream of immigration was flowing in to the south and west of us, into country which was talked of as more arid and more barren than this tall grass country. The barb-wire told the story.

The United States had entered an era of western development when the homesteaders not only settled the land, but moved together, acted together, to subdue the land. It was an untried, hazardous venture on which they staked everything they had, but that is the way empires are built. And this vast frontier was conquered in the first two decades of the twentieth century; a victory whose significance has been almost totally ignored by historical studies of the country, which view the last frontier as having vanished a generation or more before.

Iron trails pushed through new regions; trails crossing the network of new civilization broadened into highways, and wagon tracks cut their way where no trails ever led before. New towns were being built. Industry and commerce were coming in on the tidal wave. A new America!

No cut-and-dried laws, no enforced projects or programs of a federal administration could possibly achieve the great solid expansion which this voluntary land movement by the masses brought about naturally.

It takes almost every commodity to develop a vast dominion that has lain empty since Genesis. It took steel for railroads, fences, and plowshares. It took lumber and labor--labor no end, in towns and out on the land. It took farm machinery, horses, harness, stoves, oil, food and clothing to build this new world.

I was delighted when one day there came a letter from Halbert Donovan, the New York broker. It contained great news for The Wand. And there was a little personal touch that was gratifying.

"We are beginning to feel the effect of a business expansion back here," he wrote, "which the western land development seems to be bringing about. If it continues, with all the public domain that is there, it is bound to create an enormous demand in industry and commerce. And I emphasize the statement I made to you that it is a gigantic project which a government alone could finance, and which requires the work of powerful industrial corporations.

"But, looking over that desolate prairie, one wonders how it can be done; or if it is just a splurge of proving up and deserting. However, it is surprising what these homesteaders are doing, and it is ironic that a little poetic dreamer should have foreseen the trend which things are taking. And I feel you deserve this acknowledgment. How in the name of God have you and your sister stuck it out?"

The reason that Halbert Donovan was interested in the progress of this area, I learned, was that his company had mining investments in the Black Hills and it was investigating a proposed railroad extension through the section.

The expansion which was beginning to be felt across the continent grew for five years or more up to the beginning of the World War, and then took another spurt after the war. It was not merely a boom, inflation to burst like a bubble. It grew only as more territory was settled and greater areas of land were put under cultivation.

"Do you know what we need out here most of all?" I said to Chris Christopherson one day, having in mind a settlers' bank.

"Yah, yah!" Chris broke in, his ruddy features beaming in anticipation. "A blacksmith shop! More as all else, we need that. Twenty-five miles we bane goin' to sharpen a plowshare or shod a horse yet."

Trade, business, industry? Yes, of course. But first the plow must pave the way. During those years money flowed from the farm lands rather than to them. The revenue from the homestead lands was bringing millions into the Treasury.

That spring the newspaper office became a clearing house for homestead lands. People wanting either to buy or sell relinquishments came there for information. All kinds of notices to be filed with the Department of the Interior were made out by the office, which began to keep legal forms in stock. Gradually I found myself becoming an interpreter of the Federal Land Laws and settlers came many miles for advice and information.

The laws governing homesteading were technical, with many provisions which gave rise to controversy. I discovered that many of the employees in the Department knew nothing of the project except the letter of the law. Through my work in handling proofs I was familiar with the technicalities. From actual experience I had learned the broader fundamental principles as they could be applied to general usage.

I became a sort of mediator between the homesteader and the United States Land Office. It was a unique job for a young woman and brought my work to the attention of officials in Washington and several Congressional public land committees. Slowly I was becoming identified with the land movement itself, and I had learned not to be overawed by the fact that some of the government's under-officials who came out to the Strip did not agree with my opinions. I had clashed already with several of them who had been sent out to check up on controversies in which the homesteaders' rights were disputed. They knew the technicalities better, perhaps, than I did; but in regard to conditions on the frontier they were rank amateurs and I knew it.

Land on the Brulé was held at a premium and landseekers were bidding high for relinquishments. So attractive were the offers that a few settlers who were hard pressed for money, sold their rights of title to the land, and passed it on to others who would re-homestead the claims. Several early proof-makers sold their deeded quarters, raw, unimproved, miles from a railroad, for $3000 to $3700 cash money.

Real estate dealers of Presho, Pierre, and other small towns looked to the Brulé as a plum, trying to list relinquishments there for their customers. But I got the bulk of the business! One of the handy men around the place sawed boards and made an extra table with rows of pigeonholes on it, and we installed this in the back end of the print shop for the heavy land-office business.

Most of our work on land affairs was done free in connection with the legal work of the newspaper. Then buyers or sellers of relinquishments began paying us a commission, and one day Ida Mary sold a claim for spot cash and got $200 for making the deal. Selling claims, she said, was as easy as selling shela (tobacco) to the Indians. The difficulty lay in finding claims for sale.

The $200 went to Sedgwick at the bank on an overdue note. He had moved into a bank building now, set on a solid foundation, instead of the rolling sheep wagon whose only operating expense was the pistols.

That entire section of the frontier was making ready for the incoming torrent of the Rosebud settlers to take possession of their claims. Droves of them landed at Presho early, reawakening the town and the plains with a new invasion. Thousands who had not won a claim followed in their wake, and everyone, when he had crossed the Missouri River, heard about the Brulé.

The government sent out notice for the appointment of a regular mail carrier for the Ammons post office. Dave Dykstra had resigned to farm his land, and Sam Frye, a young homesteader with a family, was appointed.

We began to need more printing equipment to carry on the increased newspaper business and to take care of the flood of proofs which would come in that summer; there was interest and a payment on the press coming due. So there was a day when Ida Mary said we were going to go under, unless we could do some high financing within thirty days.

"Oh, we'll get through somehow," I assured her. "It's like a poker game; you never know what kind of hand you will hold in the next deal." Planning ahead didn't help much, because something unexpected usually happened.

But no matter what hard luck a homesteader had or how much he had paid the government, unless he could meet the payments and all other requirements fully he lost the land and all he had put into it. We could not afford to lose our claim, so I concentrated on my Land Office business.

As usual, something happened. I was sitting in the private office of the United States Land Commissioner in Presho when a man walked into the front office and put a contest on a piece of land. I heard the numbers repeated through the thin partition and I knew exactly where the land lay; it was a quarter-section south of us on the reservation, which belonged to a young man who had to abandon it because he was ill and penniless. He had got a leave of absence which had run out, and he had no funds to carry on and prove up the claim. Yet he had put into the gamble several hundred dollars and spent almost a year's time on it. Now he was to lose it to the man who had contested it.

Nothing could be done to save the land for the man who had gone home; he had forfeited it. I started from my chair. The contest must be filed in Pierre. If I could get one in first, I could help out the man whose illness had deprived him of his land, and help out the ailing Ammons finances. But it would be a race!

Through the outer office I rushed while the land agent called after me, "Just a minute, Edith!"

"I'll be back," I told him breathlessly. "I'll be back. I just thought of something!"

I made the trip from Presho to Ammons in record time, raced into the post office and filled out a legal form with the numbers I had heard through the thin wall. But I needed someone not already holding a claim to sign it, and there wasn't a soul at the settlement who would do.

It was getting dark when Ida Mary finally announced jubilantly that someone was coming from the direction of the rangeland. It was Coyote Cal, thus called because "he ran from the gals like a skeered coyote."

Talking excitedly, I dragged him into the print shop to sign the paper. "I don't want any doggone homestead pushed off onto me," he protested.

I thrust the paper into his hands. "It won't obligate you in any way," I explained.

"All right," he agreed. He enjoyed playing jokes and this one amused him. "But you're sure I won't get no homestead?"

Coyote poised the pen stiffly in his hand. "Let's see," he murmured in embarrassment, "it's been so gosh-darn long since I signed my name--danged if I can recollect--" the pen stuck in his awkward fingers as he swung it about like a lariat.

Finally he wrote laboriously "Calvin Aloysius Bancroft."

With the signed paper in my hands I saddled Lakota and streaked off for the thirty-five-mile trip to Pierre.

Late that night a tired horse and its rider pulled up in front of a little hotel in Ft. Pierre. I routed a station agent out of bed and sent a telegram to the young man who had left his claim.

Next morning when the U. S. Land Office at Pierre opened its door the clerks found me backed up against it with a paper in my outstretched hand. Half an hour later, when the morning mail was opened at the Land Office, there was a contest in it filed at Presho. But I had slapped a contest on the same quarter-section first, a contest filed by one Calvin Aloysius Bancroft, a legal applicant for the claim.

In the mail I received a signed relinquishment for the land from the young man, withdrew the contest and sold the relinquishment, which is the filer's claim to the land, for $450. I had made enough on the deal to meet our own emergencies and had saved $200 for the young man who needed it badly.

And The Wand was still safe. All around us the land was being harnessed, a desert being conquered with plowshares as swords.

Scotty Phillips stopped in at the print shop on his way from Pierre, where he lived, to his ranch. "The stockmen have been asleep," he said. "They ridiculed the idea that the range could ever be farmed. And now they are homesteading, trying to get hold of land as fast as they can. I have Indian lands leased, so I am all right."

As a squaw man he naturally owned quite a bit of land, a piece for each child, and he had three children.

Panicky, some of the stockmen filed on land, but a homestead for them was just big enough for the ranch buildings and corrals; it still did not allow for the essential thing--large range for the cattle. They began to buy from homesteaders and lease lands around them. For years the livestockman of the West had been monarch of all he surveyed, and the end of his reign was in sight. Like all classes of people who have failed to keep step with the march of progress, he would have to follow the herd.

A strong spirit of cooperation and harmony had developed among the army of the Brulé. They worked together like clockwork. There was little grumbling or ill-will. Just how much The Wand had done in creating this invaluable asset to a new country I do not know, but it was a factor. We were a people dependent upon one another. Ours was a land without established social law or custom. It was impossible to regulate one's life or habits by any set rule; and there was no time or energy for idle gossip or criticism. Each one had all he could do to manage his own business.

I had been working at high pressure, and as summer came on again I went back to St. Louis for a few weeks of rest, back down the Mississippi on the Old Bald Eagle to find my father waiting at the dock. I had half expected to find the family awaiting roaring stories of the West; instead, they listened eagerly and asked apt questions about soil and costs and the future. Things weren't going well for them. Perhaps for my father and the two small boys the future would point west.

I was surprised to find the general interest that people in St. Louis were taking in the West and in homesteading. Its importance, something even of its significance, was coming to be realized. They asked serious questions and demanded more and more information about the land. Business men talked about new opportunities there. "Bring lots of new business, this land movement," I heard on many sides.

After those long months of struggle for the bare necessities, I was greatly struck by lavish spending. It seemed startling to one from pioneer country. Where did the money come from, I wondered, that city folk were spending like water? I had come to think of wealth as coming from the land; here people talked of capital, stocks and bonds; occasionally of trade expansion. Surely this western development, I protested, was responsible in part for trade expansion. Ida Mary had said I ran to land as a Missourian did to mules; for the first time I began to consider it as an economic issue.

I was restless during my stay in St. Louis; the city seemed to have changed--or perhaps I had changed--and I was glad to get back home. It was the first time I had called the West home.

Unbelievably unlike my first sight of the desolate region, I found it a thriving land of farms and plowed fields, of growing crops and bustling communities, whose growth had already begun to affect the East, bringing increased business and prosperity, whose rapid development and far-reaching influence people were only slowly beginning to comprehend.

All this had been achieved in less than two years, without federal aid, with little money, achieved by hard labor, cooperation, and unquenchable hope.