LIFE ON A WESTERN PRAIRIE CLAIM
The following was retyped from an article in the " Silent Worker" a journal for deaf people. It was written 100 years ago by Margaret Schetnan and describes the life of a homesteader on the prairie. She was the wife of Enoch Larsen Schetnan a Norwegian immigrant from Trondelag who was a newspaper editor in Dupree SD, influential in politics and an advocate for the deaf. He and his wife were both deaf.
Enoch was related to my sister-in-law.
The Silent Worker, Volume 26, No. 5.:
LIFE ON A WESTERN PRAIRIE CLAIM by Mrs. E. L. Schetnan
Dear SILENT WORKER: I presume some of my Eastern friends and schoolmates may be interested in hearing about life on a western prairie claim, and I have long intended writing a letter for publication that all might read; but more necessary duties always caused me to postpone it.
When I was a pupil at dear Mt. Airy my good teacher, the present editor of the Silent Worker, used to tell our class that when I would really get settled in my chosen vocation of teaching, I would give it up and get married, and, of course, my teacher was right, and here I am married.
I drew this claim at the opening of the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Indian lands to settlement, and have resided on it since filing. When we first came out the nearest railroad station was fifty miles away, and no one lived within nine miles of us. Range cattle by the thousands pastured on the land, and our callers were only cow-boys who would ride up to the door to ask for a cup of water. Wolves were seen by us almost every day.
The first winter was not a hard one, and we had no stock to look after that winter, so we did not suffer from the cold. We had our shack sodded up to the roof so it was quite comfortable, and we lived very pleasantly.
The land out here, known as the Fox Ridge Country, is very fertile, and like all other settlers, we expected to raise bumper crops. In the spring my husband bought four horses and the necessary farm machinery to do the farming himself; broke about twelve or fifteen acres and planted it to corn, flax, oats and barley, but we did not get any rain from the first of May until the last of June, so seed did not start to grow until then, and consequently did not mature for cutting before the early winter set in that year, so no one got any crops. However, we had corn on the ear, string beans, fine turnips and potatoes that year, - and it was more than our neighbors had.
The following year settlers came in large numbers , and every claim for miles around was taken up and a shack built upon it. But now out of seventeen claim shacks in sight from our place, only three are now occupied, and they are over a mile and a half away, so I feel more isolated this winter than I did the first winter when we had one neighbor, a quarter of a mile away, who dropped in to see us almost every day.
During the second summer prairie fires were of almost daily occurrence. Some blamed the cow-boys for them, and said that they wanted to burn the settlers out. Once it was only by very hard work plowing fire-breaks that my husband saved mine and my sister's claims from being burned over.
My sister bought a relinquishment adjoining my claim the year after we settled here, but did not reside upon it until a year after filing. She recently proved up and returned to Pennsylvania. (Typist's note - this sister was Winifred Sabra Reed Merriman - Mrs. John Merriman) The year 1911 was made memorable to me by a cyclone which destroyed a neighbor's house not a hundred rods from ours, and it took a whole lot of bravery out of me, too. Now when I see a storm coming I take our babies and "hike" down into a cave. But there have been no more cyclones passing close to us since then.
The following winter was a hard one. The mercury dropping as low as 40 below zero. But my husband rode nine miles to Dupree to work at printing two or three days every week through it all, the crop failures, owing to drought, having made it necessary for him to seek other means of support, and he has continued to work at it steady from one to four days a week, as needed, for the past three years.
The summer of 1912 was a good crop year, there being an abundance of rain; but owing to the fact that the sod was not yet broken more than four or five inches deep, the anticipated big crops were not realized, though most of the settlers made their expenses, and had their seed for the next year, and their faith in the country to produce big crops took a rise, so that large crops were planted this year. But alas! after the grain was in in May, there was no rain until August 6th, and hot southern winds prevailed for weeks burning up all the crops. Thus out of four years there was but one good crop year. This year has been the hardest for me in that we did not even get a bit of garden, only about eight bushels of potatoes. But I am not going to give up. Next year I will make my garden in the draws between the water-holes in a dry creek and, if necessary, water it from the well. We have a good well near the draw about twenty feet deep and eight feet of good soft water.
The long drought this year caused most of the settlers to give up and leave the country. If it were not for my husband's ability to work at a trade -- learned in a school for the deaf -- we would not be here now either. This goes to prove the value of trades taught in the schools for the deaf. My husband is also a college man, having attended St. Olof College of Northfield, Minn., and a graduate linotype operator from the Inland Printer's Technical School of Chicago. He is strongly in favor of linotype instruction in schools for the deaf.
This climate is very healthful and our children are as bright and sturdy as any children that could be found on the reservation, and do much to brighten claim life, and we are determined to stick to our home, realizing that it is those who stick that are best off in the end. The people who are staying are those with money to buy stock -- this being a fine country for cattle. The native grasses are very nutritious, and cattle raising is going to pay, for there is sure to be a shortage in beef cattle during the next few years. The opening of Indian lands to homesteaders has driven away the big cattle companies. The price on meat is sure to take a big jump. The shortage is not felt yet, but is bound to be felt during the next few years, so instead of trying to adapt the country to ourselves, or knocking because we lost some in crops that failed, we are trying to adapt ourselves to the country. We now have ten head of cattle with four cows milking, and sell cream to a cream station opened in Dupree last spring. Our cows have only the native grasses and hay for feed this year. My husband got two cuttings of hay on open land this year -- almost fifteen tons, so we have sufficient feed to pull us through the winter, even in a year of total crop failures. But this is a fine country for alfalfa, and generally so for corn. Hereafter we will plant corn and alfalfa, and hope in the near future to put in a silo, and raise cows, beef cattle and horses. After we get a sure start in alfalfa, we may add hogs to the list. It is said hogs are the enemies of rattle snakes, so we will need to have some to keep the rattlers away. A neighbor killed thirty-two this summer. I never let our little ones go out of the house to play in summer on account of them, thought I have never met but one live one myself.
This country having been proved out to be an agricultural country, a bill has been introduced into Congress to allow settlers three hundred and twenty acres for stock raising; and Senator Sterling of South Dakota has presented another bill that real homesteaders shall receive the land for what they have already paid, or not over $1.25 per acre, continuation proof, and if these bills pass they will be a boon to the settlers who come here to make homes and have stayed by the country amid discouragement and failure.
Now I have given you a glimpse of life on the prairie just as it is. The winters are neither so long or so hard as folks back east believe. Why, some folks were still cutting hay after Thanksgiving. We had our first snow-fall this year, Dec. 2nd, and it has just began to get cold. But we always have warm days again after a cold spell. The weather changes very quickly out here. And life is not strenuous for all the claim-holders. One class, whom we call the "suitcase," who come only to stay the necessary fourteen months to prove up a claim for investment, lead a life of social gayety and ease, attending dances, dinners, club-meetings, and riding horseback over the prairie and hunting, etc., and when the time expires they return whence they come from.