- Historic Sites
A Dakota Boyhood
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
These gathering flocks with their chatter and dervishlike dances fascinated me, and I crawled up the ridge to watch whenever I heard them—usually it was during a bright sunrise, but it was more beautiful in a hazy morning mist. After an hour of play and feeding, the prairie chickens would begin to fly; at times a huge flock would rise, making a thunderous sound. They never flew far, but would scatter, land, and run.
The primitive character of the plains distressed my mother, and for the first months in our new ranch house she was intensely lonely. Grandfather was in charge of the ranch, and Father was so busy with railroad affairs that he was unable to see us more than twice a week. The powerful prairie winds whistling around the house corners and under the eaves added to her feeling of loneliness. More and more the wind on the gravel paths in front of the door annoyed her—it was so gusty and violent that it picked the pebbles from the path and blew them against the door unceasingly. Finally Grandfather stopped it by laying down some boards on the path to keep the pebbles in place. Nevertheless, in after years she remembered and spoke often of the gravel peppering the door of our prairie home.
When the spring came, plowing or “breaking” began, and the virgin sod was turned by die plowshare. The sod was so tough that from two to three yoke of oxen were used to pull the plow. The straining oxen, the strong men guiding the plow, the calls of the drivers, and the brilliant sunlight all made a picture of power which I remember vividly. The first breaking was done to build sod barns and to form a ring around the buildings as a prairie firebreak. Later, hay and straw were stacked inside the circle, but more important still, it made possible the cultivation and planting of the very necessary garden. The fertile undersoil, I heard men say, was four feet deep.
As the furrow was cut, it produced a constant cracking sound like a volley of pistol shots, caused by the breaking of incredibly tough roots, or spurs. Some of these spurs were three or four inches long and a half inch through the top, perfectly straight and tapering to a needle point; they were the color of ivory and nearly as hard. The spurs made a fascinating plaything for a small boy, even though they were dangerously sharp.
The new sod was solid and easily cut into two-foot lengths, the size used to build the sod buildings. The walls were constructed by laying two sods lengthwise and the next layer crosswise, so as to make a two-foot-thick bonded wall around the building. The walls were built to a height of about seven or eight feet. The windows were small and near the thatched roof.
As for me, my childhood was virtually without the company of other children and their usual playthings. I was not conscious, however, of missing anything, for I caught frogs and toads, and Grandfather aided my interest by adding several kinds of gophers, jack rabbits, and a badger. As I think of it now, these living playthings were much more fun than the usual inanimate toys, and certainly more of an education.
I soon discovered that toads liked attention, became quite tame, and enjoyed having their backs scratched; that jack rabbits fought one another, kicking and biting; and that the badger was vicious—he hated his corral and finally dug his way out, to everyone’s relief. But all of those pets paled in comparison to my greatest prize—a baby antelope.
Old Bob, our top cowboy, rode in one day tenderly holding the little creature in his arms. He was very tiny —I should say about twenty inches tall. His beautiful color was a pattern of tawny brown and creamy white, and his delicate body was exquisite. He seemed so lost and helpless that we all wanted to do something for him. Grandfather built him a movable cage, and after Mother showed me how to feed him out of a bottle he became quite content. Everyone loved the little fellow, and he was the pet of the ranch and the star of my small menagerie.
With the advance of summer my pet antelope grew from a baby into a good-sized boy, but he still followed me around and I had no idea that he might change.
Toward fall, when he was threequarters grown, a small herd of antelope came by. Before this he had paid no attention to their passing, but he was interested now when he saw these and left the yard like a shot in pursuit. He caught up and joined the herd, much to a small boy’s despair. They all disappeared in the distance and that was the last sight I had of my little pet “Lope.” Nevertheless, whenever I saw any antelope, I would go out and call “Lope, Lope,” but they all flew like the wind. If he was among them he had forgotten his name. Once in the winter when three or four of the little fellows came by close to the house, I thought I recognized him and ran out, but he showed no sign of knowing me. During my years on the prairie, I never saw a buck antelope brought in by a hunter without wondering, Could this be my little “Lope”? I am sure I could never have killed an antelope.