Life on the prairie

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.

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.

Young men going to see their girls borrowed the big farm wagon, and took all the little brothers and sisters along when they went for a ride.

We had no reaping machines then. The ripe grain was cut with what was called a cradle - an enormous curved blade with a handle. Other men, called binders, followed the cradlers, binding the loose grain into sheaves. The next group gathered the sheaves and set them in piles, called ``shocks.''

Later, the men took the big hay wagon and carried the shocks to one big stack. Soon after, the threshers came; the threshing machine was installed near the wheat stacks. About twelve horses were hitched to the turntable, the driver cracked a whip, the tumbling rod started to revolve, and the machinery was set in motion.

Someone had to pitch the sheaves off the stack to the feeder in front of the machine; it kept him hustling to keep the grain on the move - it went on through the thresher, the grain came out on one side where it had to be stacked up, and the straw went up the carrier, where two men had to keep it away from the machine and worked like beavers to keep from being covered up with the straw.

We had no ice and no refrigeration on the farm. Everyone had an outside cave or cellar. Since it was underground, it was quite cool, and that was where we kept our milk and butter in summer, and stored a few vegetables there for winter. Soon, we started having tornadoes that did so much damage we had to use our cellar for a storm cave.

After school was dismissed one evening, we had one of the worst storms that we ever had there. The clouds were so thick and black, and the wind so high, we all ran into the cave.

Suddenly, there was a strange quiet - we forgot the old adage, there is always a calm before a storm - we came out to see what was the matter. The clouds were thick black and dark green, and seemed to be rolling right toward the earth.

All at once the storm struck with such force we could not get back into the cave and were all trapped in the house. As many times as we were hustled out of bed at night and herded into the cave, the only real cyclone we were ever in, we did not get into that cave at all.

That time, our schoolhouse was smashed to splinters, our fields were as bare as a wardrobe in a nudist colony, and the pigs were blown almost a mile from home. A barrel we had on the west side of our house to catch rainwater was set down in someone else's yard, still full of water; it had been picked up and set down almost two miles away.

Years passed; the sod shanty on the claim disappeared; the straw-covered stables were replaced by huge, well-filled barns; the little frame schoolhouse gave way to modern structures; and the school system was among the finest on earth.

Many years after I had gone from the Sunflower State, I had occasion to pass through some of the Middle Western states. No more miles of wild prairie grass, no more flat, treeless plains.

It is the great corn and wheat belt of the world, where even Europe and the Far East come for bread. No more sod houses and grease lamps, but stately homes among groves of huge forest trees that help to break the force of the blizzards that used to rage unchecked across the trackless miles of snow.

Farms are wired for electricity, and all kind of electric gadgets are installed; radios and telephones keep the farms in touch with all parts of the world.

I passed through the very country once raided by the Pawnees, but instead of Indians and herds of wild buffalo, I saw the finest of farms well stocked with pedigreed horses and cattle, and everything had an atmosphere of prosperity and contentment.

Mrs. Horton, who was born in 1869, wrote letters describing her childhood to her daughter in London during World War II. This essay was excerpted from those letters, submitted by Patricia Pepper, the writer's granddaughter.

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