Two Kohl Sisters


2. Down To Grass Roots

There is a lot of sound common sense in the saying about leaving the cage door open. As long as we knew we could be taken back to town we were content to stay for a day or two, and take a look at the country while we were there--by which we meant that we would gaze out over the empty spaces with a little more interest.

We strained our eyes for sight of moving objects, for signs of life. Once we saw a team and wagon moving toward the south. As suddenly as it had appeared it dropped out of sight into a ravine. A horseman crossing the plains faded into the horizon.

As our vision gradually adjusted itself to distance we saw other homestead abodes. The eye "picked up" these little shacks across the plains, one by one.

For years straggling settlers had moved on and off the prairie--and those who stayed barely made a mark on the engulfing spaces. The unyielding, harsh life had routed the majority of homesteaders--they had shut the door behind them and left the land to its own.

All over the plains empty shacks told the tale. They stood there with the grass grown up around them, the unwritten inscription: "This quarter-section has been taken." Dilapidated; the tiny window or two boarded up; boards cracked or fallen apart. They, too, had not been able to weather the hard forces of nature on the frontier. If the shack had gone down, or had been moved in the night by some more ambitious homesteader, there was always the pile of tin cans to mark the spot. They stayed and rusted.

And from the tin cans ye knew them. Bachelors' huts were always surrounded; where there was a woman to do the cooking there were fewer cans. But as a rule the shack dwellers lived out of tin cans like city apartment dwellers.

But for the most part the land was inhabited by coyotes and prairie dogs, with a few herds of range sheep and cattle. Few of the homesteaders were permanent. They stayed their eight months--if they could stick it out--and left at once. Their uneasy stay on the land was like the brief pause of migratory birds or the haphazard drifting of tumble weeds that go rolling across the plains before the wind, landing against a barbed-wire fence or any other object that blocked their way.

The empty shacks reminded one of the phantom towns which men had thrown up breathlessly and abandoned when the search for gold had proved illusory. Only permanency could dig the gold of fertility from the prairie, and thus far the people who had made a brief attempt to cope with it had been in too much of a hurry. Those abandoned quarter-sections had defeated the men who would have taken them.

The main movement over the plains was that of hauling water from the few wells in the country, or from one of two narrow creeks that twisted through the parched land and vanished into dry gulches. They were now as dry as a bone.

"I'd have a well," Huey Dunn said, "if I could stop hauling water long enough to dig one." That was the situation of most of the homesteaders.

Most of these migratory homesteaders wanted the land as an investment--to own it and sell it to some eastern farmer or to a rancher. Some, like Huey Dunn, came to make a permanent home and till the land. These few dirt farmers raised patches of corn, and while the farmers from Iowa and Illinois were scornful of the miniature stalks, the flavor of the sweet corn grown on the dry sod was unsurpassed. The few patches of potatoes were sweet and mealy. But the perfect sod crop was flax. Already the frontier was becoming known for its flax raising.

We saw no large range herds, though there were no herd laws to keep them off private property. One could drive straight as the crow flies from Pierre to Presho, forty or fifty miles, without stopping to open a gate. If one struck a fence around a quarter-section here or there he either got out and cut the wire in two, or drove around the corner of the fence, depending upon how he felt about fences being in the way.

No wonder sheep-herders went crazy, we thought, swallowed up by that sea of brown, dry grass, by the endless monotony of space.

I think what struck us most those first days was the realization that the era of pioneers had not ended with covered wagon days; that there were men and women, thousands of them, in our own times, living under pioneer conditions, fighting the same hardships, the same obstacles, the same primitive surroundings which had beset that earlier generation.

Toward evening, that first day, sitting on the little board platform in front of the door where there was a hint of shade and a suggestion of coolness in the air, we saw two animals approaching.

"I never saw dogs like that, did you?" I said to Ida Mary when they came a little closer.

She jumped up, crying "Wolves!" We had seen one on the road out from Pierre. We ran into the shack, nailed the door shut that night--no risking of trunks or boxes against it--crawled into bed and lay there for hours, afraid to speak out loud.

Huey Dunn came next day with the keg of water. "Wolves?" he said, as we told him of the experience. "They wouldn't hurt anyone, unless they were cornered--or hungry."

"But how," demanded Ida Mary, "were we to tell when they were hungry?"

Huey laughed at that. When the snow lay deep on the ground for a long time after a blizzard, and there was no way to get food, they sometimes attacked sheep or cattle, and they had been known to attack persons, but not often. They generally went in packs to do their foraging.

"Goin' back tomorrow?" Mr. Dunn ejaculated, as we interrupted his talk about the country to ask him to take us to Pierre. "Why, my wife planned on your comin' over to dinner tomorrow." But if we wanted to go the next day--sure, he could take us. Oh, he wouldn't charge us much. As he drove away he called back, "Don't get scared when you hear the coyotes. You'll get used to 'em if you stay."

And that night they howled. We were awakened by the eerie, hair-raising cry that traveled so far over the open prairie and seemed so near; a wild, desolate cry with an uncannily human quality. That mournful sound is as much a part of the prairie as is the wind which blows, unchecked, over the vast stretches, the dreary, inescapable voice of the plains. The first time we heard the coyotes there seemed to be a hundred of them, though there were probably half a dozen. All Huey Dunn's assurance that they were harmless and that it was a nightly occurrence failed to calm us.

When Huey got home his wife asked what he thought of their new neighbors.

"Right nice girls to talk to," Huey said, "but damn poor homesteaders. Beats the devil the kind of people that are taking up land. Can't develop a country with landowners like that. Those girls want to go home. Already. I said you wanted 'em to come over to dinner tomorrow noon. Maybe you can fix up something kinda special."

"I'll drop a few extra spuds into the pot and bake a pan of cornbread--they'll eat it," Mrs. Dunn predicted cheerfully. She was right.

Bringing us back to the claim the next afternoon Huey suddenly remembered that he had promised a neighbor to help string barb-wire the following day. But--sure--he could take us to town 'most any day after that.

The next day we began to discover the women who were living on homesteads and who, in their own way, played so vital a part in developing the West. One of our nearest neighbors--by straining our eyes we could see her little shack perched up against the horizon--put on her starched calico dress and gingham apron and came right over to call. The Widow Fergus, she said she was.

She sat down, laid her big straw hat on the floor beside her (no, just let it lie there--she always threw it off like that) and made herself comfortable. Her graying hair, parted in the middle and done up in a knot in the back, was freshly and sleekly combed. She was brown as a berry and just the type of hard-working woman to make a good homesteader, with calloused, capable, tireless hands. She was round, bustling and kind. The Widow Fergus had taken up a homestead with her young son.

She looked at the unopened baggage, the dirty shack. Now that was sensible, she said, to rest a few days--it was so nice and quiet out here. Homesick? My, no. There was no time to get homesick. Too much to do getting by on a homestead. Women like the Widow Fergus, we were to discover, had no time for self-pity or lamenting their rigorous, hard lives. They did not, indeed, think in terms of self-pity. And they managed, on the whole, to live rich, satisfying lives and at the same time to prepare the way for easier, pleasanter lives for the women who were to follow them.

When she left she said, "Now, come over, girls, and anything you want, let me know...."

A little later that same day we saw three riders galloping across the plains, headed straight for our shack. They stopped short, swung off their ponies, three girl homesteaders.

They rode astride, wore plain shirtwaists and divided skirts. Two of them wore cheap straw hats much like those worn by farmers in the fields everywhere. They swung from their saddles as easily as though they wore breeches and boots.

"How did you learn we were here?" I asked, curious to know how news could travel over these outlying spaces.

"Huey Dunn told it over at the road ranch while I was waiting there for the mail," the oldest of the girls explained, "so I just rode around and picked up the girls."

One would think they lived in the same city block, so nonchalant was she over the round-up, but "only eighteen miles," she explained easily.

Her name was Wilomene White, she told us, and she came from Chicago. She had been out here most of the time for almost two years--what with leaves of absence in the winter prolonging the term of residence. She was a short, plump woman whom we judged to be in her early thirties, and she had a sense of humor that was an invaluable asset in a country like that. She was an artist and head of her father's household. Her brother was a prominent surgeon in Chicago and for several years Wilomene, besides being active in club work, had been on the board of the Presbyterian Hospital there.

When her health failed from overwork and strenuous public activities, her brother ordered a complete change and plenty of pure fresh air. So with a little group of acquaintances she had come west and taken up a homestead. It was easy to understand that she had found a change--and fresh air. What surprised us was that she took such delight in the country and the pioneer life about her that she no longer wanted to return to her full life in Chicago.

The three girls stayed on and on, talking. Girl homesteaders had no reason for going home. Days and nights, days of the week and month were all the same to them. There were so few places to go, and the distance was so great that it was a custom to stay long enough to make a visit worth while. The moon would come up about ten that night--so nothing mattered. Afraid to ride home in the middle of the night? What was there to fear out here?

Ida Mary and I still hesitated about going far from the shack. The prairie about us was so unsettled, so lacking in trees that there were practically no landmarks for the unaccustomed eye to follow. We became confused as to direction and distance. "Three miles from the buffalo waller," our locator had said. "No trouble to locate your claim." But if we got far enough away from it we couldn't even find the buffalo waller.

Even against our will the bigness and the peace of the open spaces were bound to soak in. Despite the isolation, the hardships and the awful crudeness, we could not but respond to air that was like old wine--as sparkling in the early morning, as mellow in the soft nights. Never were moon and stars so gloriously bright. It was the thinness of the atmosphere that made them appear so near the earth, we were told.

While the middle of the day was often so hot we panted for breath, mornings and evenings were always gloriously cool and invigorating, and we slept. With the two comforters spread on the criss-cross rope bed, we fell asleep and woke ravenously hungry each morning.

That first letter home was a difficult task, and we found it safer to stick to facts--the trip had been pleasant, Ida Mary had filed on the claim. But to prepare for our arrival at home, we added, "There is nothing to worry about. If we think it is best, we will come home." This was eventually sent off after we had discussed what we had better tell our father, and crossed out the sentences that might worry him. "Don't waste so much paper," Ida Mary warned me. "It is thirty miles to another writing tablet."

We were eating supper one evening when four or five coyotes slipped up out of the draw and came close to the shack. Almost one in color with the yellow grass, they stood poised, alert, ready to run at the slightest sound. Graceful little animals, their pointed noses turned upward. A great deal like a collie dog. We did not make a move, but they seemed to sense life in the once deserted cabin, and like a phantom they faded into the night.

Huey Dunn was one of those homesteaders who believed the world (the frontier at least) was not made in a day. He was slow getting around to things. He never did get around to taking Ida Mary and me back to Pierre. And to our dismay a homesteader drove up one day with the big box of household goods we had shipped out. The stage express had brought it out from Pierre to McClure, and it had been hauled the rest of the way by the first homesteader coming our way. Altogether it cost twenty dollars to get that box, and there wasn't ten dollars' worth of stuff in it.

Ida Mary and I had collected the odds and ends it contained from second-hand stores in St. Louis, selecting every article after eager discussion of its future use, picturing its place in our western cabin. We hadn't known about the tar-paper shack then. Its arrival stressed our general disillusionment.

We had now seen the inside of a few shacks over the prairie. The attempts the women had made to convert them into homes were pitiful, although some of them had really accomplished wonders with practically nothing. It is pretty hard to crush the average woman's home-making instinct. The very grimness of the prairie increased their determination to raise a bulwark against it.

Up to now we had been uneasy guests in the shack, ready for flight whenever Huey Dunn got around to taking us back to Pierre. But trying to dig out a few things now and then from grips and trunks without unpacking from top to bottom is an unsatisfactory procedure. So we unpacked.

Then we had to find a place for our things and thought we might as well try to make the cabin more comfortable at the same time, even if we weren't staying. We looked about us. There wasn't much to work with. In the walls of our shack the boards ran up and down with a 2 × 4 scantling midway between floor and ceiling running all the way around the room. This piece of lumber served two purposes. It held the shack together and served as a catch-all for everything from toilet articles to hammer and nails. The room had been lined with patches of building paper, some red, some blue, and finished out with old newspapers.

The patchwork lining had become torn in long cracks where the boards of the shack were split, and through the holes the dry wind drove dust and sand. The shack would have to be relined, for there was not sufficient protection from the weather and we would freeze in the first cold spell.

This regulation shack lining was a great factor in the West's settlement. We should all have frozen to death without it. It came in rolls and was hauled out over the plains like ammunition to an army, and paper factories boomed. There were two kinds--red and blue--and the color indicated the grade. The red was a thinner, inferior quality and cost about three dollars a roll, while the heavy blue cost six. Blue paper on the walls was as much a sign of class on the frontier as blue blood in Boston. We lined our shack with red.

The floor was full of knotholes, and the boards had shrunk, leaving wide cracks between. The bachelor homesteader had left it black with grease. When Huey hauled us an extra keg of water we proceeded to take off at least a few layers.

We were filling the cracks with putty when a bachelor homesteader stopped by and watched the operation in disgust.

"Where you goin' to run your scrub-water," he wanted to know, "with the cracks and knotholes stopped up?"

In the twenty-dollar box was a 6 × 9-foot faded Brussels rug, with a couple of rolls of cheap wallpaper. From a homesteader who was proving up and leaving we bought an old wire cot. With cretonnes we made pillows, stuffed with prairie grass; hung bright curtains at the little windows, which opened by sliding back between strips of wood. In the big wooden box we had also packed a small, light willow rocker. In one corner we nailed up a few boards for a bookcase, painting it bright red. Little by little the old tar-paper shack took on a homelike air.

It is curious how much value a thing has if one has put some effort into it. We were still as disillusioned with the country as we had been the first day, we felt as out of place on a homestead as a coyote sauntering up Fifth Avenue, we felt the tar-paper shack to be the most unhomelike contraption we had ever seen; but from the moment we began to make improvements, transforming the shack, it took on an interest for us out of all proportion to the changes we were able to make. Slowly we were making friends, learning to find space restful and reassuring instead of intimidating, adapting our restless natures to a country that measured time in seasons; imperceptibly we were putting down our first roots into that stubborn soil.

At first we read and reread the letters from home, talking of it constantly and wistfully like exiles, drawn constantly toward the place we had left. Almost without our being aware of it we ceased to feel that we had left St. Louis. It was St. Louis which was receding from us, while we turned more and more toward the new country, identified ourselves with it.

Ida Mary and I woke up one day a few weeks after our arrival to find our grubstake almost gone. Back home we had figured that there were ample funds for filing fees, for transportation and food. Now we began to figure backwards, which we found was a poor way to figure. There was no money to take us back home. We had burned our bridges not only behind but in front of us.

It was the incidentals which had cut into our small reserve. The expense of my illness on the road had been heavy. The rest of the money seemed to have evaporated like water in dry air. Fixing up the shack had been an unexpected expense, and we had overlooked the cost of hauling altogether--in a country where everything had to be hauled. We had paid $25 for a stiff old Indian cayuse, the cheapest thing in horseflesh that we could find.

In order to be safe we had figured on standard prices for commodities, but we found that all of them were much higher out here. Coal, the only fuel obtainable, ran as high as $20 a ton, with the hauling and high freight. Merchants blamed the freight cost for the high price of everything from coal to a package of needles.

I laid the blame for our predicament on Huey Dunn. But Ida Mary thought it went farther back than that. It was the fault of the government! Women should not be allowed to file on land.

Regardless of where the blame lay, we were now reduced to a state of self-preservation. Had not the majority of the settlers taken this gambling chance of pulling through somehow, the West would never have been settled.

It is curious how quickly one's animal instinct of survival comes to the fore in primitive lands. If we ran out of bacon we stirred flour into a little grease, added water and a few drops of condensed milk (if we had it) and turned out a filling dish of gravy. If we ran out of coal we pulled the dried prairie grass to burn in the little two-hole monkey stove, which we had bought with the cot. Laundry stoves, some called them.

To keep the water from becoming warm as dishwater we dug a hole in the ground to set the water can in. The earth became so cool at night that anything set down in a shallow hole on the shady side of the house kept cool all day.

We learned that it took twice as long to cook beans or other vegetables in that high altitude; that one must put more flour in the cake and not so much shortening or it would surely fall; that meat hung in the dry air would keep fresh indefinitely--but we had not tasted a bite of fresh meat since we came.

Our homestead not only had a cabin, but it boasted a small patch of sweet corn planted by the first filer on the land. It would make food for both man and beast--for the Ammons girls and the pinto.

It was a frontier saying that homesteading was a gamble: "Yeah, the United States Government is betting you 160 acres of land that you can't live on it eight months." Ida and I weren't betting; we were holding on, living down to the grass roots. The big problem was no longer how to get off the homestead, but how to keep soul and body together on it.

If one were in a country where he could live by foraging--"We can live on jack rabbits next winter," homesteaders would say. But Ida Mary and I would have to depend on someone to get them for us. We realized more every day how unequipped we were for plains life, lacking the sturdy health of most frontier women, both of us unusually small and slight. Back of Ida Mary's round youthful face and steady eyes, however, there were grit and stamina and cool-headed common sense. She would never stampede with the herd. And for all my fragility, I had the will to hang on.

Well, we would eat corncakes with bacon grease a while longer. (They were really good. I became an expert in making them.) And we still had some bacon left, and the corn; a little syrup in the pail would take the place of sugar. Uncle Sam hadn't won that bet yet, on the Ammons homestead, though most of the settlers thought he would.

Three or four miles from the claim was McClure, a ranch house combined with a general store and a post office. Walking there one day for groceries and our mail we passed a group of men lounging in front of the old log ranch house. "Now such as that won't ever be any good to the country," one of them said of us. "What the country needs is people with guts. There ought to be a law against women filing on government land...."

"And against all these city folks coming out here just to get a deed and then leaving the country," added another. "If they ain't going to improve the land they oughtn't to have it."

"Most of 'em take their trunks along when they go to town to prove up," put in the stage driver, "and that's the last you ever see of 'em. They've gone on the next train out."

Landgrabbers, the native westerners called the settlers, no good to the country. And there was a great deal of truth in it. We began to check up on the homesteaders of whom we knew. Probably two-thirds of them would go back home as soon as they proved up, leaving their shack at the mercy of the wind, and the prairie to wait as it had always waited for a conquering hand.

Huey Dunn and the Cooks and the Wickershams were dirt farmers, come to stay. Some of the homesteaders would come back in the summertime, putting out a little patch of garden and a few rows of corn each season. But for the most part there would be no record of these transient guests of the prairie but abandoned shacks. Those who took up claims only as an investment either sold the land for whatever price they could get for it or let it lie there to increase in value.

Some of the old-timers didn't object to this system. "When the land is all taken up, people will have to pay more for it," they explained. But on the whole they eyed with humorous intolerance the settlers who departed, leaving their claims as they had found them.

A great blessing of the plains was the absence of vermin. I do not remember having seen a rat or a weasel on the frontier at that time, and many of the natives had never seen a potato bug or chinch bug or cockroach.

But one day after a short, pelting rain, I came home and opened the door and looked at the moving, crawling walls, and could not believe my eyes. Worms--small, brown, slick worms--an inch to an inch and a half long.

The walls, the door, the ground were alive with them. They were crawling through the cracks into the shack, wriggling along the floor and walls with their tiny, hair-like legs. They infested the plains for miles around. At night one could feel them crawling over the bed.

The neighbors got together to find means of exterminating these obnoxious vermin. We burned sulfur inside and used torches of twisted prairie hay on the outside of the house, just near enough to the walls to scorch the creepers. But as one regiment burned up another came.

One day Ida Mary and I, in doing a little research work of our own--we had no biologists to consult on plagues, and no exterminators--lifted up a wide board platform in front of our shack, and ran screaming. The pests were nested thick and began to scatter rapidly in every direction, a fermenting mass.

They were not dangerous, they injured neither men nor crops, but they were harder to endure than a major disaster. One was aware of them everywhere, on the chair one sat in, on the food one ate, on one's body. They were a crawling, maddening nightmare.

A number of homesteaders were preparing to leave the country--driven out by an army of insects--when, as suddenly as they came, the worms disappeared. Where they came from, where they went, no one knew. I mention this episode as one without precedent or repetition in the history of the frontier, so far as I know.

A number of theories were advanced regarding this worm plague. Some said they had rained down in cell or germ form; others, that they had developed with the sudden moisture from some peculiar embryo in the dry soil. Finding from my own further observation that they were segregated in the damper sections where the soil had not yet dried out after the rain, I concluded they had been bred in the ground.

Our need for money had become acute, but before we were quite desperate a ray of hope appeared. There were quite a few children scattered over the neighborhood, and the homesteaders decided that there must be a school in the center of the district.

The directors found that Ida Mary had taught school a term or two back east, and teachers were scarce as hens' teeth out there, so she got the school at $25 a month. The little schoolhouse was built close to the far end of our claim, which was a mile long instead of half a mile square as it should have been.

We had just finished breakfast one morning when Huey Dunn and another homesteader drove up to the door with their teams, dragging some heavy timbers along.

Huey stood in the door, his old straw hat in hand, with that placid expression on his smooth features. A man of medium height, shoulders slightly rounded; rather gaunt in the middle where the suspenders hitched onto the overalls.

"Came to move your shack," he said in an offhand tone.

"Move it?" we demanded. "Where?"

"To the other end of the claim, over by the schoolhouse. And that's as far as I'm goin' to move you until you prove up," he added. He hadn't moved us off the land when we wanted to go. He would move us up to the line now, but not an inch over it until we had our patent.

The men stuck the timbers under the shack, hitched the horses to it, and Ida Mary and I did the housework en route. Suddenly she laughed: "If we had been trying to get Huey Dunn to move this shack he wouldn't have got to it all winter."

When they set us down on the proper location they tied the shack down by driving stakes two or three feet into the ground, then running wire cords, like clothesline, from the roof of the shack down to the stakes.

"Just luck there hasn't been much wind or this drygoods box would have been turned end over end," Huey said. "Wasn't staked at all."

It was autumn and the air was cold early in the mornings and sweet with the smell of new-mown hay. We hired a homesteader who had a mower to put up hay for us and had a frame made of poles for a small barn and stacked the hay on top around it, against the winter. Most of the settlers first covered this frame with woven wire to keep the stock from eating into the hay. We left ours open between the poles as a self-feeder through which Pinto could eat hay without any work or responsibility on our part.

Then one day Ida Mary went swinging down the trail to her school, a small, sun-bonneted child at each side. The schoolhouse was much like any country school--but smaller and more cheaply built. It had long wooden benches and a rusty stove and in fine weather a dozen or more pupils, who ranged in age from very young children to great farm boys, who towered over Ida Mary, but whom, somehow, she learned to manage effortlessly in that serene fashion of hers. In bad weather, when it was difficult to travel across the prairie, her class dwindled until, at times, she had no pupils at all.