Two Kohl Sisters


9. The Opening Of The Rosebud

The settling of those western lands was as elemental as the earth, and no phase of its settlement was as dramatic as the opening of the Rosebud. Homesteading was now the biggest movement in America. We were entering a great period of land development running its course between 1909 and our entrance into the World War in 1917. The people were land crazy. The western fever became an epidemic that spread like a prairie fire. Day by day we watched the vast, voluntary migration of a people.

Men with families to support, frail women with no one to help them, few of them with money enough to carry them through, took the chance, with the odds against them. I have seen men appear with their families, ten dollars in their pockets, or only five after the filing fee on the land was paid. I have seen them sleep on the prairie, get odd jobs here and there until they could throw up a shelter out of scrap lumber, and slowly get a foothold, often becoming substantial citizens of a community they helped to build.

Free land! Free land! It was like the tune piped by the Pied Piper. "This is the chance for the poor man," I wrote in The Wand. "When the supply of free land is exhausted the poor man cannot hope to own land.... If the moneyed powers get hold of this cheap land as an investment, they will force the price beyond the grasp of the masses.... The West is the reserve upon which the future growth and food supply of the nation must depend."

Ida Mary said that I was running to land as a Missourian did to mules, but The Wand was fast becoming identified with the land movement.

As the homesteaders flowed in a great sea out of the towns and cities into the West, one wondered at their courage. There was not the hope which inspires a gold rush, the possibility of a gold strike which may bring sudden wealth and ease. The road was long, the only likely signs of achievement an extra room on the shack, a few more acres of ground turned under. And--eventual security! That was it, security. A piece of ground that belonged to them, on which they could plant their feet, permanency.

In answer to that cry for land there came another proclamation from the President, Theodore Roosevelt. Another great tract of land, the great Rosebud Indian Reservation, with a million acres of homesteads, was to be thrown open. A lottery with 1500 square miles of territory as the sweepstakes and 100,000 people playing its wheel of fortune. Trying to describe its size and sweep and significance, I find myself, in the vernacular of the range, plumb flabbergasted.

Of course, there were some among the homesteaders on the Lower Brulé who found the grass greener on the Rosebud, and wanted to throw up their claims and move on to new ground; but the government informed them, somewhat grimly, that they could prove up where they were, or not at all. And I can understand their restlessness. To this day I never hear of some new frontier being developed without pricking up my ears and quivering like a circus horse when he hears a band play. There are some desert products that can't be rooted out--sagebrush and cactus and the hold of the open spaces.

The Rosebud Opening was one of the most famous lotteries of them all. The Rosebud reservation lay in Tripp County, across White River from the Brulé. Its conversion into homesteads meant an immediate income for the United States Treasury, but according to a recent law, all monies received from the sale of the lands were to be deposited to the credit of the Indians belonging to and having tribal rights on the reservation, the funds thus acquired to be used by Congress for the education, support and civilization of the Indians.

The name Rosebud was emblazoned across the nation, after the government proclamation, in the newspapers, in railroad pamphlets, on public buildings. As usual, the railroads played a major part in aiding prospective settlers to reach the registration points, a half-dozen little western villages.

The frontier town of Pierre had been unprepared for the avalanche of people who had descended upon it during the Lower Brulé opening. Service and equipment had been inadequate. In the great Bonesteel Opening a few years earlier, gambling and lawlessness had run riot. Therefore Superintendent Witten formulated and revised the drawing system, endeavoring to work out the most suitable plan for disposing of these tracts so that there might be no suggestion of unfairness.

Railroads traversing the West had already begun to extend their lines still farther into the little-populated section, starting new towns along their lines, running landseekers' excursions in an effort to show the people what this country had to offer them.

In preparation for the Rosebud Opening they prepared for the influx of people on a gigantic scale, made ready to take whole colonies from various sections of the East and Middle West to the reservation.

Among the registration points was the little town of Presho. A crude, unfinished little town, with a Wild West flavor about it, Presho couldn't help doing things in a spectacular fashion. Like most hurriedly built frontier towns, there was little symmetry to it--two irregular rows of small business places, most of them one-story structures, with other shops and offices set back on side streets. Its houses were set hit-and-miss, thickly dotting the prairie around its main street. Two years before, it had been merely an unsettled stretch of prairie.

Then the Milwaukee railroad platted the town, bringing out carloads of people to the auction. Two men, named Dirks and Sedgwick, paid $500 for the first lot, on which to start a bank. That was $480 more than the list price.

They had a little building like a sheep wagon, or a cook shack, on wheels, which they rolled onto the lot. Within eight minutes the bank was open for business. The first deposit, in fact, was made while the sheep-wagon bank rolled along. Two barrels and a plank served as a counter.

The two founders had the necessary $5000 capital, and when the cashier went to dinner he took all the money with him, with two six-shooters for protection. He was never robbed. For two years, during the land boom, the bank had not closed, day or night.

Locators coming in, in the middle of the night, from their long trips over the territory, would knock on the door in the back end of the bank. The banker would open the door a crack, stick his gun out and demand, "Who's there?"

"It's Kimball. Got a bunch of seekers here. They have to catch the train east."

The locator or other person wanting to transact business after the banker had gone to bed had to identify himself before the door was opened. When the homestead movement of that region was at its height, thousands of dollars passed over the board-and-barrel counter in the bank's night-time business.

"The Rosebud has been throwed open!" went the cry. The entire western country made ready for the invasion of the landseekers. The government red tape for the lottery, with its various registration points, would require a small army to handle. It was one of the most gigantic governmental programs ever known. Notaries had to be appointed to take care of the affidavits, land locators selected to show the seekers the land, accommodations provided for the 115,000 who registered in that Drawing.

Even the Brulé was crowded with people ready to play their luck in the land lottery. Every available corner was utilized for sleeping space, and the store at Ammons did a record business that would help pay the wholesale bills at Martin's store. Ida Mary was busy taking care of postal duties, handling increased mail, government notices, etc.

During the summer our financial condition had gone from bad to worse.

"Do you know those Ammons girls?" one native westerner asked another. "Came out from St. Louis, about as big as my Annie (Annie was about twelve); head wranglers out on the Lower Brulé, newspaper, trading post, whole works."

"Well, they'll last till their money is gone."

And it was about gone! "What are we going to do to meet these payments, Edith?" Ida Mary asked one day in a breathing spell. There wasn't enough money to pay for groceries, printing equipment, interest, etc.

If we could only hold on, the proof notices would bring in $2000 or more, which was big money out there. But the proof season was almost a year ahead, and the money had already been pledged.

Profit and loss! My head ached. I felt as though I had been hit on the head by 200 square miles of Brulé sod. Ma Wagor offered us a way out of one of our difficulties. She'd always wanted a store. She liked the "confusement." So we turned the store over to the Wagors', lock, stock and barrel--prunes and molasses, barrels of coal-oil and vinegar, padlocks on the doors. They had no money, but Ma wanted it as much as we wanted to be rid of it, so it was a satisfactory deal. They were to pay us on a percentage basis. We still had a claim, a post office and a newspaper to manage, and the Indian trade to handle.

"It looks as though the Ammons venture is going under," people were beginning to say. I went to Presho and the small towns near by, and, somewhat to my own surprise, succeeded in getting more advertising for The Wand. But it wasn't enough.

One night I came home, determined that something must be done. The whole arrangement seemed to me unfair to Ida Mary. "Sister," I said, "I'm going to give up the claim."

She quietly put down her book, open so as not to lose the page, and waited for me to go on.

"I told Mr. West today that we would sell. I am going to pay off the mortgage on your homestead, clean up the other debts, and--"

"And then what?"

"I don't know."

"Don't give up your land, Edith. Something will happen. Something always happens." She went back to her book.

Something did happen. The Rosebud Opening. I was to cover it for a western newspaper syndicate, and this time I had the inside track. Being familiar with the field and with the government lottery operations, I would be able to get my stories out while other reporters were finding out what it was all about.

Remembering the money I had made with the little verses printed on a postcard at the Brulé Opening, I prepared another on the Rosebud, with the cartoonist from Milwaukee helping me by making drawings to illustrate it. Then, armed with the postcards, I set off for Presho--and the Rosebud.

On a Sunday night in early October, 1908, I stood on a corner of the dark main street of Presho waiting for the Rosebud to open. I had appointed agents to handle my postcards and I was free to cover the story. Special trains loaded with landseekers were coming. The confusion of last-minute preparations to receive them was at its height.

I found Presho as mad as a hornet. The Milwaukee railroad had taken the turntable out, and special trains coming in from Chicago and other points east must thus go on to the next town to turn around. This was bound to cut into Presho's share of the crowds. As long as the town had been the turning point of the road, it was one of the greatest trade centers in that part of the West.

The lottery was to start Monday, which meant the stroke of midnight. The little town was ready, its dark streets lighted here and there by flaring arc lights. Up and down Main Street, and out over the fields, tents had been erected to take care of the crowd.

And the trains were coming in, unloading their human cargo. Others poured in by every conceivable means of transportation, invading the little frontier town, the only spot of civilization in the vast, bare stretch of plains. Presho woke to find a great drove of tenderfeet stampeding down its little Main Street. They thundered down the board sidewalk and milled in the middle of the road, kicking up dust like a herd of range cattle as they went.

Aside from the great tents put up by some of the towns for lodging and eating quarters, small tents dotted the outskirts. People were bringing their own camping equipment, and I might add that only those who had such foresight, slept during those turbulent days.

The daily train was an event in these frontier towns, its coming watched by most of the inhabitants. Now five and six a day roared in, spilled 500 to 800 passengers into the packed streets, and roared away again. As the heavily loaded trains met or passed each other along the route the excited crowds called jovially to one another, "Suckers! Suckers!" With but 4000 claims, the chance to win was slim.

On the station platform, in the thick of the crowds, were the Indians. After all, it appeared, they were learning from the white man. This time they had come in an enlightened and wholly commercial spirit. Brave in paint and feathers and beads, they strolled about, posing for the landseekers--for 50 cents a picture.

A maze of last-minute activity was under way before the stroke of midnight. Telephone companies installed additional equipment and service. Telegraph wires were being strung up. Expert men were being rushed out from Kansas City and Omaha to take care of the flood of words that would soon go pouring out to the nation--telling the story of the gamble for land.

A magazine editor, notebook in hand, moved from one group of seekers to another, asking: "Do you think Taft will be elected?" He didn't seem to be getting far. On the eve of a presidential election a people was turning to the soil for security. "Do you think Taft will be elected?" the editor repeated patiently. "Who gives a damn?" shouted a steel worker from Philadelphia.

A train lumbered in heavily from Chicago, fourteen coaches, crowded to standing room only, men and women herded and tagged like sheep. They stumbled out onto the dark platform, jostled among the mob already assembled, exhausted, dirty, half-asleep, yet shaking with excitement. That high-pitched excitement, of course, was partly due to strain and suspense, partly to the gambling spirit in which the lottery was carried out. But for the most part the crowd generated its own excitement through its great numbers and consequent rivalry, as it entered the dark streets with their glaring lights, the mad confusion of shouting and band playing.

They came from Chicago and jerkwater towns in Nebraska, from farms and steel mills, from the stage and the pulpit. School teachers and farm boys, clerks and stenographers, bookkeepers and mechanics, business men and lawyers. Perhaps the most significant thing was the presence of those business men, often coming in whole groups to study the country and its possibilities, to be on hand when the town sites were opened, to be the first to start businesses on the Rosebud.

On the Brulé there had been nothing but the land. Here the plows, the farm implements, salesmen of every conceivable commodity needed by settlers, were on hand. These people were to start with supplies in sight, with business organizing in advance to handle their problems, with capital waiting for their needs.

And they came by the thousands. From Chicago alone there came one group of 3000 seekers. "Move on," came the endless chant. "Move on!" It didn't matter where, so long as they kept moving, making way for new mobs of restless people. "Move on!"

Wires were clicking with news from the other registration points. Presho, to its fury, couldn't compare with some of the other towns. The little town of Dallas had gone stark mad. Thirty-four carloads of seekers were due in these villages between midnight and morning. They were coming from every direction, bringing, along with the individual seekers, whole groups of New England farmers, Iowa business men, an organization of clerks from Cleveland, and from everywhere the ruddy-faced farmers.

Over the uproar of the crowd could be heard the sharp staccato click of the telegraph wires. Special trains were coming from Omaha, came the news. The police force had tried to keep the crowds from smothering each other, but they had torn down the gate of the station and rushed through, afraid to be left behind.

Runners came overland across the empty Rosebud to carry the news from the little towns, riding hell-for-leather, their horses foaming although the night was cold. "You ought to see Dallas, folks! People lighting like grasshoppers.... You ought to see Gregory!" The rivalry was bitter among the towns, each trying to corner as much of the crowd as possible.

Presho was sending out word vehemently denying the reports that an epidemic of black smallpox had broken out there.

Men representing everything from flop tents to locating agents boarded trains en route, trying to persuade the seekers to register at their respective towns. And all of them were bitter against the railroads, which were furnishing return accommodations every few hours, giving the tradesmen little chance to make their fortunes, as many of them had confidently expected to do.

Automobiles, many bought for the occasion, lined the streets of these border towns, ready to take the seekers over the land--if they stayed long enough. It surprised the easterners, this evidence of modernity in a pioneer world. And here and there a new automobile parked beside a prairie schooner.

Curiously enough, the price of the land distributed by the Openings was higher than that of vast tracts of untouched land in the West which was also available to the public, and yet attention was concentrated solely on the Rosebud; the desire for land there was at fever heat, while other land was regarded with apathy. Whether this was due to the fact that the other land was little known, or to the madness that attends any gambling operation and the intensive advertising which had called attention to the Rosebud, I do not know.

But this land was not free. For these Indian lands the government charged from $2.00 to $6.00 an acre, according to classification. Thus 160 acres of first-class land would cost the homesteader around a thousand dollars--one-fifth down, the rest in annual payments under the five-year proof plan. If he made commutation proof in fourteen months, the minimum residence required, he must then make payment in full.

The hours wore on toward midnight and the crowd grew denser. "Move on," droned the chant. "Move on!" The editor had turned the page of his notebook and spoke to one of the women landseekers. "Are you a suffragette?" he asked politely. Pushing back an elbow that had grazed her cheek, pulling her hat firmly over her head, clutching her handbag firmly, she looked at him, wonderingly. "Are you--" he began again, but someone shouted "Move on," and the woman disappeared in the throng.

At the stroke of midnight a cry went up from the registrars. At 12:01 under the dim flicker of coal-oil lanterns and torches hung on posts or set on barrels and boxes, that most famous of lotteries began.

The uproar and confusion of the hours before midnight were like a desert calm compared with the clamor which broke out. Registrars lined both sides of the street. "Right this way, folks! Here you are, here you are! Register right here!" And there, on rough tables, on dry-goods boxes, anything upon which a piece of paper could be filled out and a notary seal stamped thereon, the crowd put in their applications as entries in the gamble, raised their right hands and swore: "I do solemnly swear that I honestly desire to enter public lands for my own personal use as a home and for settlement and cultivation, and not for speculation or in the interest of some other person...."

In the excitement and chill of the October night, fingers shook so that they could scarcely hold a pen. Commissioned notaries were getting 25 cents a head from the applicants. Real estate offices were jammed.

In between the registration stands were the hot-dog and coffee booths with the tenders yelling, while thick black coffee flowed into tin cups by the barrel, and sandwiches were handed out by the tubful. Popcorn and peanut venders pushed through the crowd crying their wares. And among the voices were those of the agents who were selling my postcards, selling them like liniment in a patent-medicine show.

Spielers shouted the virtues of the food or drink or tent or land locator they were advertising. Even the notaries got megaphones to announce their services--until government authorities stepped in and threatened to close them all up.

Into the slits in the huge cans which held the applications dropped a surprising number of items. People became confused and used it as a mail box, dropping in souvenir cards. One applicant even dropped in his return fare. And some, shaking uncontrollably with excitement, were barely able to drop their applications in at all.

And somewhere, off in the dark spaces beyond the flickering lights, lay the million acres of land for which the horde was clamoring, its quiet sleep unbroken.

There was a sharp tug at my arm, and I turned to see the reporter from Chicago who had filed on the Brulé Opening.

"I'm trying my luck again," he said.

So he had not won in the Brulé lottery. Somehow I was glad to know that was the reason for his not being on a claim there.

Sensing this, he said grimly: "So you thought I was a quitter."

As we clung to each other to keep from being separated in the hysterical mob, I heard his hollow cough.

"Are you ill?" I asked.

"It's this crowd and the dust--my lungs--got to come west--"

I grabbed him by the coat sleeve, trying to make my voice carry above the ballyhoo. "If you do not win here, come and see me. I can get you a claim." The swaying throng separated us.

I rushed to the telegraph office and sent off my story. As I started back I stopped to look upon the little town which had been started at the end of the iron trail, revealed in the light of torches against a black sky, and at the faces, white and drawn and tense.

Move on! Move on! At 4 o'clock that Monday morning, four hours after arrival, the landseekers who had registered were on the road back to Chicago and all points east, many of them carrying in one hand a chunk of sod and in the other a tuft of grass--tangible evidence that they had been on the land. And other trains were rushing out, carrying more people. I boarded a returning special which was packed like a freight train full of range cattle, men and women travel-stained, tired and hollow-eyed, but geared up by hope.

I got off at Chamberlain. The rumors had been correct. That seething mob at Presho was only the spray cast by the tidal wave. At Chamberlain long, heavily loaded trains pulled in and out. People walked ten and twelve abreast through the streets. Some 30,000 strangers besieged that frontier town. A mob of 10,000 tried to fill out application blanks, tried to get something to eat and drink, some place to sleep. While the saloons were overrun, there was little drunkenness. No man could stand at the bar long enough to get drunk. If he managed to get one drink, or two at most, he was pushed aside before he could get another--to make room for someone else. Move on! Move on!

The stockmen were shocked. They had not dreamed of anything like this invasion. Their range was going and they owned none, or little, of the land. The old Indians looked on, silent and morose.

Hotels, locating agents, all the First Chance and Last Chance saloons became voluntary distributors of my postcards. It looked as though I too were going to reap a harvest from the Rosebud Opening.

And they continued to come! Within four days 60,000 people had made entry, and the trains continued to pull in and out, loaded to the doors. Unlike the Lower Brulé Opening, there was no dreary standing in line for hours, even days, at a time. The seekers passed down the line like rapidly inspected herds.

And among them, inevitably, came the parasites who live on crowds--gamblers, crooks, sharks, pickpockets, and the notorious women who followed border boom towns. The pioneer towns were outraged, and every citizen automatically became a peace officer, shipping the crooks out as fast as they were discovered. They wouldn't, they declared virtuously, tolerate anything but "honest" gambling. And their own gambling rooms continued to run twenty-four hours a day.

In spite of precautions, not a few of the trusting folk from farms and small towns to whom this event was a carnival affair found themselves shorn like sheep at shearing time before they knew what was happening. One farm boy lost not only all his money but his fine team and wagon as well. A carnival it was, of course, in some respects. Amusement stands, in tents or shacks, lined the streets and never closed. Warnings came by letter to Superintendent Witten, describing crooks who were on their way to the Rosebud.

Motion pictures ran day and night, their ballyhoo added to the outcries of the other barkers. And the registration never stopped. Clerks and others employed as assistants by the government were hired in four-hour shifts. Post offices stayed open all night.

The government's headquarters were at Dallas, with a retinue of officials in charge. Thus the little town at the end of the North Western Railroad was the Mecca of that lottery. There the hysterical mob spirit appeared. And one day in the midst of the Opening, a prairie fire broke out, sweeping at forty miles an hour over the land the people had come to claim, sweeping straight toward Dallas. The whole town turned out to fight it--it had to. The Indians pitched in to help. And the tenderfeet, including reporters and photographers from the big city newspapers, turned fire fighters, fighting to save the town.

In spite of their efforts the fire reached the very borders of the town, destroying a few buildings. And at the sight of the flames the government employees caught up the great cans which contained the seekers' applications for the land and rushed them out of town toward safety. That day the cans contained 80,000 applications.

That great, black, charred area extending for miles over the prairie put a damper on the spirits of the locating agents. But these people had come for land, and they were not to be daunted. All over the great reservation groups could be seen investigating the soil, digging under the fire-swept surface, driving on into the regions of tall grass and scattered fields bordering the Rosebud. They were hoping to win a piece of that good earth.

As the close of the registration drew near, the excitement was intensified. Letters to Superintendent Witten poured in, asking him to hold back claims for people who were unable to register. The registration closed on October 17, 1908. No registrations would be accepted after a certain hour. Captain Yates, assistant superintendent of the Opening, started from O'Neill, Nebraska, bearing the applications from that registration point. So that there would be no danger of his not reaching the town of Dallas with the applications before the deadline, a special train was waiting for him. In his excitement Captain Yates rushed past the men waiting for him, crossed the track where his special was getting up steam, and took a train going the wrong way! Telegrams, another special train, cleared tracks--and he was finally able to rush in with his applications at the last moment.

Others were not so fortunate. Tired horses, a missed train connection, some unforeseen delay, and they arrived an hour, half an hour, perhaps only a few minutes after the registration had closed. Too late!

Oddly enough, one of the last to register was the foreman of the U Cross Ranch, who came galloping across the prairie at the last moment to make his application for a homestead. And when a ranchman turned to homesteading, that was news!

On October 19 the Drawing began. The government saw that every precaution must be taken to make sure of fair play; any suspicion of illegality might cause an uprising of the mob of a hundred thousand excited, disappointed people.

The great cans were pried open, and the applications put onto large platforms, where they were shuffled and mixed--symbolically enough with rakes and hoes--for it was quarter-sections of land they were handling.

From out the crowd applicants were invited onto the platform, and if one succeeded in selecting his own name he would be entitled to the first choice of land and location. Business firms, townsite companies were making open offers of $10,000 for Claim No. 1. Then two little girls, blindfolded, drew the sealed envelopes from the deep pile. Superintendent Witten opened them and announced the names to the crowd filling the huge tent where the Drawing was held.

The hushed suspense of that Drawing was like that of a regiment waiting to go over the top. The noisy excitement of registration was over. The people waited, tense and breathless, for the numbers to be called. Ironically enough, a great number of the winners had gone home. They would be notified by mail, of course. It was largely the losers who had waited.

The first winner to be present as his number was called was greeted with generous applause and cheers and demands for a speech. He was a farmer from Oklahoma, and instead of speaking, he felt in his pockets and held up, with a rather sheepish smile, a rabbit's foot which he had brought with him. Press agents stood by, waiting for the outcome. Daily newspapers printed the official list of the winners as the numbers came out, and all over the United States people waited for the announcement of the Rosebud's Lucky Numbers. The Rosebud had been opened up and swallowed by the advancing wave of people westward. But there was more land!

Fred Farraday drove me home from Presho, weary to the bone, and content to ride without speaking, listening to the steady clop-clop of the horses over that quiet road on which we did not meet a human being. And in my pocketbook $400, the proceeds from the sale of the postcards. Something, as Ida Mary had predicted, had happened.

Ma Wagor came in from the store. "Land sakes," she exclaimed, "you musta been through some confusement! You look like a ghost."

It didn't matter. "I have four hundred dollars. There will be another hundred or so when the agents finish checking up on the card sales, and I'll get a check from the News Service. It will pay the bills, and some left over to help us through the winter. We've saved the claim."

After a pause I added, "The Lower Brulé seems pretty small after the Rosebud. I'd like to go over there to start a newspaper."

"No," said Ida Mary. "You can't do that. Your claim and your newspaper and your job are here. After all, anyone can file on a claim. It's the people who stay who build the country."