Homesteading on the Great Plains

Part IV

For the most part women viewed life on the prairie as a pretty dismal existence. The term “washday blues” dates back to the frustrations women experienced in accomplishing everyday chores. Often there was a shortage of the homemade lye soap, which she used to scrub clothes in creek water. The diligent housewife knew the clothes were clean enough even though they appeared brown in color. She was lucky if she had a flat iron to press the clothes — mostly she relied on a wooden board or her hand to attempt to smooth out the wrinkles.

Finding dry prairie grass, cornstalks or corncobs to start fires was scarce, along with firewood, which was nearly nonexistent. The most common fuel was dry cow pies (or chips). Cooking with cow pies was a challenge because they burned so quickly. The Time-Life Books describe the process as follows: “Stoke the stove, get out the flour sack, stoke the stove, wash your hands, mix the biscuit dough, stoke the stove, wash your hands, cut out the biscuits with the top of the baking powder can, stoke the stove, wash your hands, put the pan of biscuits in the oven, keep on stoking the stove until the biscuits are done.” But after awhile — “…it is out of the bread, into the chips and back again — and not even a dust of the hands.”

Besides cooking, washing clothes and cleaning the house, the women were expected to help with the farming, especially the animal chores, carrying water, gathering fuel and growing a vegetable garden. She was also the person who attempted to keep the family healthy since doctors were few and far between. Women created all kinds of remedies from whatever they had on hand such as: “coal oil for dandruff, warm manure for snakebite, warm urine poured into the ear for earache, sassafras tea to cure spring fever, a roasted mouse (well done) ingested to cure measles, nine pellets from a shotgun shell swallowed for boils, buttercup tea for asthma, a bean thrown over the shoulder into a well for warts, and a potato carried in the pocket for rheumatism.

Then there were the catastrophes caused by nature — the drought, hailstorms blizzards, grasshoppers and prairie fires. In 1871 hail and fire completely wiped out the crops in southwestern Minnesota, only to be followed by a severe winter.

The grasshoppers descended like clouds on the prairie devouring everything green in their path. Sometimes their bodies would be layered 6 inches deep, the weight breaking limbs of trees. Once started, prairie fires would race across the treeless land carried by the everlasting wind again destroying crops and buildings alike.

The blizzard of 1873 filled the Atlantic Hotel in Marshall and the Kiel Hotel in Lynd with people waiting out the three-day storm. Many people were caught out on the prairie, and those who found shelter in deserted claim shanties or haystacks were the lucky ones. Trains on the Winona-St. Peter Railroad (which was built as far as the village of Marshall in 1872) had to dispense with service to this community because of a large drift that covered the tracks due to this storm. There were no snowplows, so service was not continued until mid-April when the snow melted.

Although nature continued to test the homesteaders’ endurance, they became better at coping, especially as they acquired machines that helped them tame the prairie. They held on as stubbornly as the matted sod beneath their feet. Not even the wild prairie winds could blow them away. The settlers were here to stay.

Sources: Lyon County, Minnesota 1884-1912), A.P. Rose; The Old West: The Pioneers, Huston Horn, Time-Life Books, 1974.