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Life on the prairie

By Emma J. Horton / August 15, 1988

AS a small girl, I lived way out on the bleak snow-covered plains of Kansas. That was when the great corn and wheat belt was practically unknown, except as the wild and woolly west. As an inducement to farmers, the government gave the head of each family 160 acres of prairie land, called a homestead. If he lived on this land for five years and kept improving and cultivating it and had never offered it for sale, at the end of the five years he could get a deed from the government, and the farm became his own property.

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It took courage to withstand the hardships of the first five years: The later settlers never knew what the pioneers suffered. Indians roamed after the herds of wild buffalo and for many miles from their own camps. They came within eight miles of our home one time, carried away some of the settlers, and drove off all the horses and cattle. I was quite small then, but it left such an impression of fear on my mind that years after, when the Indians were moved onto reservations, I was still afraid of them.

When we first moved to the homestead, there were no windbreaks, and the blizzards swept unchecked across the wild Western plains. What we called stables were built against the hill, and covered with poles and straw - this was the only shelter we had in the winter for the horses and cows.

My brothers would go about the distance of one city block to feed the stock, and come back to the house with the tip of the nose and often the cheek frozen or frostbitten, as we called it; holding snow to the face would draw out the frost.

The virgin soil in that country was so fertile that the wild grass grew luxuriantly, and there was always the danger of prairie fires. I remember one time standing in the yard watching my father and the boys back fire against the oncoming blaze, which leaped many feet in the air and scudded before the gale like a sailboat in a tornado.

Bird nests were blown almost a mile away and set fire to whatever they landed on. That time we lost the stable and all the harnesses, while the men were fighting to keep the fire out of the field and away from the house.

We had many misfortunes. Crops were scorched by drought and hot winds; grasshoppers ate up everything in sight, and hailstorms destroyed everything above ground. Gradually, the tilled soil and growing things attracted moisture, droughts grew further apart, the cultivated fields stopped prairie fires, the grasshoppers hunted new pastures, and grains and vegetables grew prolifically in the rich alluvial soil.

All strangers traveling through the country were urged to stay overnight, especially during the winter weather. After they passed our place, it was miles to where they might find another farm, and no one could live through the night out in a blizzard.

We had all kinds of people stop overnight. We didn't know if they were really looking for homesteads or fleeing the law. Anyway, they needed help, so we asked no questions. Each house had a loft, which the boys used for a bedroom, and which was shared by the weary wayfarer also. A ladder against the wall served for steps.

One night a young man asked for lodging, and when it came time to retire, he said he walked in his sleep, so as not to be alarmed if we found him prowling around. My uncle, who was a strapping young fellow, was with us then; he said he used to drive mules, and was still a bit rough if wakened suddenly and would kick like blazes, so if the young man touched him he might get kicked out of the loft. That was one night the young man did not walk in his sleep.

We finally got a little frame schoolhouse about half a mile from our house. Church or any entertainment was always held at the schoolhouse. After church and Sunday School were over, everybody came to our house for dinner, and stayed until services at night. My father killed a hog every Saturday for Sunday dinner. Meals were served from the time we got home from the midday sermon till services at night.