Two Kohl Sisters


6. 'Utopia'

With the first tang of spring in the air we cleaned the shack, put up fresh curtains and did a little baking. Then we grew reckless and went into an orgy of extravagance--we took a bath in the washtub. Wash basins were more commensurate with the water supply. Then we scrubbed the floor with the bath water. In one way and another, the settlers managed to develop a million square miles of frontier dirt without a bathtub on it.

For the first time we stopped to take stock, to look ahead. For months there had been time and energy for nothing but getting through the winter. We had been too busy to discuss any plans beyond the proving up.

"What are we going to do after we prove up?" I asked, and Ida Mary shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted.

In some ways it was a relief to have the end in sight. I hated the minute routine of putting a paper together, with one letter of type at a time. I hated the hard mechanical work. Most of our neighbors were proving up, going back. But we realized, with a little shock of surprise, that we did not want to go back. Imperceptibly we had come to identify ourselves with the West; we were a part of its life, it was a part of us. Its hardships were more than compensated for by its unshackled freedom. To go back now would be to make a painful readjustment to city life; it would mean hunting jobs, being tied to the weariness of office routine. The opportunities for a full and active life were infinitely greater here on the prairie. There was a pleasant glow of possession in knowing that the land beneath our feet was ours.

For a little while we faced uncertainly the problem that other homesteaders were facing--that of going back, of trying to fit ourselves in again to city ways. But the eagerness to return to city life had gone. Then, too, there was something in the invigorating winter air and bright sunshine which had given me new resistance. There had been a continuous round of going down, and coming back with a second wind; but I had gained a little each time and was stronger now than before.

In the mid-afternoon, after our orgy of spring house-cleaning, with everything fresh and clean, Ida Mary said, "Someone is coming--straight across our land."

"Who is it?" I asked. We had learned to recognize every horse in that part of the country a mile away. But this was not a plainsman.

We rushed into the shack and made a mad scramble through the trunk, but before we could get dressed there came a knock at the door. "Will you wait a moment, please?" I called. It was the custom of the plains for a man to wait outside while his hostess dressed or put her house in order, there being no corner where he could stay during the process. If the weather prohibited outdoor waiting, he could retire to the hayshed.

A pleasant voice said, "I'll be glad to wait." But as I whispered, "Throw me those slippers," and Ida Mary said sotto voce, "What dress shall I wear?" we heard a muffled chuckle through the thin walls.

When we threw open the door to a slightly built man with brown hair and a polished air about him, I knew it was the cartoonist from Milwaukee. Only a city man and an artist could look like that.

"How do you do, Mr. Van Leshout."

"How did you know?" he said, as he came in.

"So you were a Lucky Number, after all," seemed a more appropriate response than telling him that it was spring and something had been bound to happen, something like the arrival of a cartoonist from Milwaukee.

"Are you going to be a settler?" Ida Mary asked doubtfully.

He laughed. Yes, he had taken a homestead close to the Sioux settlement so that he could paint some Indian pictures.

Odd how we kept forgetting the Indians, but up to now we hadn't even seen one, nor were we likely to, we thought, barricaded as they were in their own settlement. "But they are wonderful," he assured us enthusiastically; "magnificent people to paint; old, seamed faces and some really beautiful young ones. Character, too, and glamor!"

We invited him to tea, but he explained that he must get back to his claim before dark. It was already too late, Imbert told him; he would have to wait for the moon to rise. Imbert had dropped in, as he had a habit of doing, and seeing him through the eyes of an easterner we realized what fascination the lives of these plainsmen had for city men.

In honor of the occasion we got out the china cups, a wanton luxury on the plains, and tea and cake. As they rode off, Van Leshout called to us: "Come over to the shack. I built it myself. You'll know it by the crepe on the door."

As the two men melted into the darkness we closed the door reluctantly against the soft spring air. Strange that we had found prairie life dull!

One morning soon after the unexpected appearance of the Milwaukee cartoonist I awoke to find the prairie in blossom. Only in the spring is there color over that great expanse; but for a few weeks the grass is green and the wild flowers bloom in delicate beauty--anemones, tiny white and yellow and pink blossoms wherever the eye rests. I galloped to the print shop with the wind blowing through my hair, rejoicing in the sudden beauty, and found myself too much in holiday mood to get to work.

Suddenly I looked up from the type case to find an arresting figure in the doorway, a middle-aged man with an air of power and authority about him.

"I'm waiting for the stage," he said. "May I come in?"

I offered him the only chair there was--an upturned nail keg--and he sat down.

"Where do you come from?" he asked abruptly.

"St. Louis," I said.

"But why come out here to run a newspaper?"

"I didn't. I came to homestead with my sister, but the job was here."

Because he was amused at the idea, because the function of these frontier papers seemed unimportant to him, I began to argue the point, and finally, thoroughly aroused, described the possibilities which grew in my own mind as I discussed them. There was a tremendous job for the frontier newspaper to do, I pointed out. Did he know the extent of this great homestead movement and the future it promised? True, the frontier papers were small in size, but they could become a power in the development of this raw country.

"How?" he demanded.

I think I fully realized it for the first time myself then. "As a medium of cooperation," I told him.

He got up and walked to the window, hands in pockets, and looked out over the prairie. Then he turned around. "But the development of this country is a gigantic enterprise," he protested. "It would require the backing of corporations and millions of dollars. In fact, it's too big for any organization but the government to tackle. It's no job for a woman." His eyes twinkled as he contrasted my diminutive size with the great expanse of undeveloped plains. "What could you do?"

"Of course it's big," I admitted, "and the settlers do need lots of money. But they need cooperation, too. Their own strength, acting together, counts more than you know. And a newspaper could be made a voice for these people."

"Utopian," he decided.

Bill appeared at the door to tell him that "The stage has been a-waitin' ten minutes, now."

He handed me his card, shook hands and rushed out. I looked at the card: "Halbert Donovan and Company, Brokers, Investment Bankers, New York City." The fact that such men were coming into the country, looking it over, presaged development. Not only the eyes of the landseekers but those of industry and finance were turning west.

I stared after the stagecoach until it was swallowed up in distance. My own phrases kept coming back to me. There was a job to be done, a job for a frontier newspaper, and soon the McClure Press would be a thing of the past--as soon as the homesteaders had made proof. Slowly an idea was taking shape.

I slammed the print-shop door shut, mounted Pinto and loped home. I turned the horse loose to graze and walked into the shack. With my back against the door in a defensive attitude I said abruptly, "I'm going to start a newspaper on the reservation."

Ida Mary slowly put down the bread knife. "But where are you going to get the money?" she asked practically.

"I don't know, yet. I have to plan what to do first, don't I, and then look around for a way to do it." That was the formula followed day after day by the settlers.

"It's too bad you didn't register for a claim in the Drawing," she said thoughtfully. "After all, there is no reason why you shouldn't have a claim too."

"I could still get a homestead on the Brulé," I declared, "and I can run the newspaper on the homestead."

The more we discussed the plan the more Ida Mary liked the idea of moving to the Strip where so many new people would be coming. We would work together, we planned, and the influence of the newspaper would radiate all over the reservation. But, it occurred to us, coming abruptly down to earth, with no roads or telephones or mail service, how were the settlers to receive the radiation?

This was a stickler, but having gone so far with our plans we were reluctant to abandon them. Where there was a newspaper there should be a post office. Then we would start a post office! Through it the land notices would be received and the newspaper mailed to the subscribers. The settlers could get the paper and their mail at the same place. We decided that Ida Mary would run it. Somehow it did not occur to us that the government has something to say about post offices and who shall run them. Or that the government might not want to put a post office on my homestead just to be obliging.

But once a person has learned to master difficulties as they come up, he begins to feel he can handle anything; so Ida took her final proof receipt to a loan office in Presho.

"How much can I borrow on this?" she asked, handing it to the agent.

"Oh, about eight hundred dollars."

"That isn't enough. Most homesteaders are getting a thousand-dollar loan when they prove up."

"Yes, but your land's a mile long and only a quarter wide--"

Ida Mary was not easily bluffed. She reached for the receipt. "I'll try Sedgwick at the bank."

"We'll make it nine hundred," the agent said, "but not a cent more. I know that quarter section; it's pretty rough."

Homesteading was no longer a precarious venture. A homesteader could borrow $1000 on almost any quarter-section in the West--more on good land, well located. It was a criminal offense to sell or mortgage government land, but who could wait six months or a year for the government to issue a patent (deed) to the land? Many of the settlers must borrow money to make proof. So the homestead loan business became a sleight-of-hand performance.

The homesteader could not get this receipt of title until he paid the Land Office for the land, and he could not pay for the land until he had the receipt to turn over to the loan agent. So it was all done simultaneously--money, mortgages, final-proof receipts; like juggling half a dozen balls in the air at once. It was one of the most ingenious methods of finance in operation. Banks and loan companies went into operation to handle homestead loans, and eastern capital began flowing in for the purpose.

Being familiar with Land Office procedure from my work on the McClure Press, I knew that not every winner of a claim on the Lower Brulé reservation would come to prove it up. A few of them would relinquish their rights. The buying and selling of relinquishments, in fact, became a big business for the land agents. There was a mad rush for relinquishments on the Strip, where landseekers were paying as high as $1000 to $1200 for the right to file on a claim.

I wanted a relinquishment on the reservation, in the very center of it, and I found one for $400.

Then I made a deal with a printing equipment firm for a small plant--a new one! And, although there were only a dozen settlers or so on the land, I pledged 400 proof notices as collateral.

These proofs at $5 apiece were as sure as government bonds; that is, if the settlers on the Brulé stayed long enough to prove up, if the newspaper lived, and if no one else started a paper in competition. But on that score the printers' supply company was satisfied. Its officers thought there was no danger of anyone else trailing an outfit into that region.

We arranged for straight credit on lumber for a print shop, there being nothing left to mortgage. From now on we were dealing in futures. In just two short weeks I had become a reckless plunger, aided and abetted by Ida Mary. The whole West was gambling on the homesteaders' making good.

Long we hesitated over the letter home, telling of our new plans. Under the new laws, one must stay on a claim fourteen months, instead of the eight months required when Ida Mary had filed. At last we wrote to explain that we were not coming home this spring. We were going on to a new frontier.

Earnestly as we believed in the plans we had made, it was hard to make that letter carry our convictions, difficult to explain the logic of our moving to an Indian reservation so that Ida Mary could run a non-existent post office in order to mail copies of a non-existent newspaper to non-existent settlers. Looking at it like that, we were acting in blind faith.

And one day a funny little caravan made its way across the prairie, breaking a new trail as it went. A shack with a team hitched to it, a wagon loaded with immigrant goods; and a printing press; ahead, leading the way, a girl on horseback.

Again it was Huey Dunn who jacked up our old shack that morning when the term of school was over and put it on wheels for the trip to the reservation--twelve miles around by McClure, a few miles closer by a short-cut across the plains. Huey decided on the latter way, and I rode on ahead to see that the load of printing equipment should be put on the right quarter-section, while Ida Mary came in the shack. She sat in the rocking chair, gazing placidly out of the window as it made its way slowly across the plains.

We had hired two homesteaders to haul out lumber and put up a small building for the newspaper and post office, although we had not yet got the necessary petition signed for a post office. We could not do that before the settlers arrived. A small shed room was built a few feet from the business structure as a lean-to for our migratory shack.

When I arrived at the claim the men who had hauled out the load of equipment were gone. Suddenly there came on one of those torrential downpours that often deluge the dry plains in spring. It was pitch black as night came on, and no sight of Huey and Ida Mary. The rain stopped at length. Throwing on a sweater, I paced back and forth through the dripping grass listening for the sound of the horses. At last I went back and crouched over the fire in the little lean-to, waiting. There was nothing else I could do.

At midnight Huey arrived with the shack. He and Ida Mary were cold and wet and hungry. They had not had a bite to eat since early morning. Just as they had reached Cedar Creek, usually a little dry furrow in the earth, a flood of water came rushing in a torrent, making a mad, swollen stream that spread rapidly, and they were caught in it. When they got in the middle of the stream the shack began to fill with water. Huey grabbed Ida Mary and got her on one horse while he mounted the other, and the horses swam to land.

The next morning the sun came out, flooding the new-washed plains. It was a different world from the harsh, drab prairie to which we had come eight months ago. Here the earth was a soft green carpet, heavily sprinkled with spring flowers, white and lavender hyacinths, bluebells, blossoms flaming red, yellow and blue, and snow-white, waxen flowers that wither at the touch and yet bloom on the hard desert.

Huey Dunn squared the migratory shack and rolled the wheels from under. And there in the Land of the Burnt Thigh, the Indians' name for the Brulé, I filed my claim and started a newspaper. The only woman, so it was recorded, ever to establish a newspaper on an Indian reservation. And if one were to pick up the first issues of that newspaper he would see under the publisher's name, "Published on Section 31, Township 108 North, Range 77W, of the 5th Principal Meridian," the only way of describing its location.

Ida's claim had seemed to us at first sight to be in the midst of nowhere. Compared to this, it had been in a flourishing neighborhood. For here there was nothing but the land--waiting. No sign of habitation, no living thing--yes, an antelope standing rigid against the horizon. For a terrified moment it seemed that there could be no future here--only time. And Ida Mary and I shrank from two very confident young women to two very young and frightened girls.

But there was work to be done. Our tar-covered cabin sat parallel to and perhaps ten feet from the drop-siding print shop--a crude store building 12 × 24 feet, which we called the Brulé business block. We had a side door put on near the back end of each building so that we could slip easily from house to shop. We did a little remodeling of our old shack. Befitting our new position as business leaders, we built a 6 × 8 shed-roof kitchen onto the back of the shack and a clothes closet in one end of it; we even bought a little cookstove with an oven in it.

One morning we saw a team and wagon angling across the Strip toward our place. Upon the top of the wagon there perched a high rectangular object, a funny-looking thing, bobbing up and down as the wagon jolted over the rough ground. It was Harvey with the outhouse. There was nothing left now on Ida Mary's claim but the mortgage.

Confronted suddenly by so many problems of getting started, I stood "just plumb flabbergasted," as Coyote Cal, a cowpuncher, always remarked when unexpectedly confronted by a group of women.

And yet I knew what I wanted to do. I had known since the day I heard myself telling the New York broker. An obscure little newspaper in a desolate homestead country: but, given courage enough, that little printing outfit would be a tool, a voice for the people's needs. It was a gigantic task, this taming of the frontier.

And meantime, getting down to reality, I had a newspaper without a country, without a living thing but prairie dogs and rattlesnakes to read it. And around us a hundred thousand acres on which no furrow had ever been turned.

We did not know where to begin. There wasn't a piece of kindling wood on the whole reservation. We had brought what food and water we could with us. Food, fuel, water. Those were basic problems that had to be met.

And then, within a week, almost imperceptibly, a change began to come over the reservation. The Lucky Numbers were coming onto the land. On the claim to the west a house went up and wagons of immigrant goods were unloaded. Ida Mary rode over one evening and found that our new neighbor was a farmer, Christopher Christopherson, from Minnesota. He had brought plows and work horses and was ready to break sod, another example of the farmers who were leaving the settled states for cheap land farther west.

Mrs. Christopherson was a thrifty Swedish farm woman who would manage well. There was a big family of children, and each child old enough to work was given work to do.

Around us new settlers were arriving daily and we felt that the time had come to start out among them with our post-office petition. With Pinto as our only means of transportation it proved to be a slow job.

One day, dropping suddenly down off the tableland into a draw, I came squarely upon a shack. I rode up, and an old white-whiskered man invited me in. His wife, a gray-haired, sharp-featured woman, appeared to me much younger than he. I explained my errand.

"For mercy sake," the woman said, "here you are starting a post office and I thought you was one of them high-falutin' city homesteaders a rec-connoiterin' around. Listen to that, Pa, a post office in four miles of us."

The woman put out a clean cup and plate. "Set up," she said. "We ain't signing any petition till you've had your dinner. There's plenty of biscuit. I stirred up an extry cup of flour and I said to Pa, 'They'll be et!'"

I ate salt pork, biscuit and sorghum while she talked.

"So you're going to handle newspapers too. Oh, print one!" She sighed. "Seems to me that would be a pestiferous job. We're going to have a newspaper out here, Pa, did you ever--?" Pa never did.

Where had I seen these two old people before, and heard this woman talk?

"Where you from?" she asked, but before I could answer, she went on, "We're from Blue Springs."

Pa wrote "David H. Wagor" on the petition.

One morning Imbert Miller came with his team and buggy to take us out into a more remote district to get signers. We found two or three farmers, a couple of business men with their families, and several young bachelors, each building the regular rough-lumber shack. They were surprised and elated over the prospect of a post office.

After wandering over a long vacant stretch, Imbert began to look for a place where he could feed the horses and get us some food. At last we saw bright new lumber glistening in the sun. As we drove up to the crudely built cabin we saw an emblem painted on the front--a big black circle with the letter V in it, and underneath, the word "Rancho." Standing before the open doorway was an easel with a half-finished Indian head on it.

"Van Leshout's!" Ida Mary exclaimed.

He came out, unshaven, and sweeping an old paint-daubed hat from his head with a low bow. "It's been years since I saw a human being," he exclaimed. "You'll want grub."

Building a cabin, learning to prepare his own meals, getting accustomed to solitude were new experiences for the cartoonist from Milwaukee.

"Not many courses," he said, as he dragged the spuds out from under the bunk; "just two--b'iled potatoes, first course; flapjacks and 'lasses, second course; and coffee."

"You've discovered the Indians," we said, pointing to the canvas.

The Indians, yes, but they hadn't been much of a cure for loneliness. What were we doing on the reservation?

We brought out the post-office petition and told him about the newspaper. I explained that I had filed on a claim on the reservation.

"I looked for the crepe on the door as we drove up," I told him.

"You have a claim on the reservation? To hell with the crepe!" he said in high spirits.

On the road home, seeing Imbert's elation, it occurred to me that I had never taken into consideration the fact that Imbert Miller lived near the borders of the reservation and that the "fence" would not separate him from Ida Mary now. How deeply she had weighed the question I did not know.

We sent in the post-office petition and the federal authorities promptly established a post office for the Lower Brulé on my homestead and appointed Ida Mary postmistress. She was the only woman ever to run a post office on an Indian reservation, the data gatherers said. The government named it Ammons.

So we had a postmistress and a post office, with its tiers of empty, homemade pigeonholes ready to receive the mail.

And we discovered there was no way to get any mail in or out!