Rattlesnakes And Tumbleweed: A Memoir Of South Dakota


They were surprised and glad to see us. Mr. Weeks left right after lunch. Then Grandpa went out and cut a piece of red picket fence a little longer than I was tall. He sawed off the pointed ends and brought it in the house and fastened it to the wall under the window of the big room so that it could be held flat against the wall in the daytime and lowered with ropes at night. Grandmother made a tick with some sacks and filled it with straw and cornhusks. This was my bed and quite comfortable at first. The big room served as bedroom and living room. Three walls were lined with shelves, and part of one wall was curtained off for hanging clothes and privacy. A built-in ladder gave access to the attic. A rag carpet and braided rugs covered the floor. Furniture was limited to a double bed, a dresser, two rockers, a sewing machine, a stove, and a footstool. There were two windows. The lean-to had one window and the outside door. Furnishings in the lean-to included a walnut safe, or cupboard, with perforated tin doors, a kitchen stove, two straight chairs, a washing machine, a kitchen cabinet, and a table that stood above the door to the cellar, where food and barrels of water were stored. A big chest held fuel (buffalo chips and sheep droppings) and served as a seat. Pegs and hooks held a variety of things. Outside the shack near the garden was a big black iron kettle that Grandmother used to melt tallow for making candles and lye soap and for boiling clothes.

South Dakota was unlike any place I had lived. The soil was gumbo (a sandy clay-and-silt mixture) that was very sticky when wet and caused much work for ranchers at lambing time when the lambs’ feet would be bound together by the sticky soil. The land was covered with prairie grass, tumbleweed, and cactus except where cultivated.

Although my new home was in the wide-open spaces, I lost my freedom to run and play outside the shack unless Wiggles, my dog, was with me; I could not leave the swept area in front of the house unless one of my grandparents was with me; and I was not allowed in the garden because of the danger of rattlesnakes.

Every morning Grandmother had me stand in the open door and breathe deeply thirty times to make me healthy. She lost no time teaching me to be helpful. She said “Idleness is sinful.” The only time she was idle was when she was sleeping. My first task was drying dishes, then waiting on her and learning to dress and undress her feet. She had a stiff hip due to an injury suffered during the Civil War while cradling wheat as a child in Ohio, so it was difficult for her to bend down. My next duty was peeling potatoes. She trained me to peel so thin that she could see the blade of the knife through the skin of the potato.

One day Grandpa showed me how to peel her corns and calluses; then he gave me the little knife, and I did the other foot. With Grandpa’s encouragement I ‘managed to do this task without ever drawing blood.

She taught me the arts of homemaking, and I was fascinated watching her sew and knit. I begged her to give me a needle, but she told me a needle was a precious thing, and she couldn’t afford to lose one. She would give me a needle when I could prove to her that it would always be put back in the pincushion, where it belonged, and when I could take as fine a stitch as she did.

She tied a colored thread to a pin and gave me a piece of coarse cloth and had me practice picking up stitches, in and out, day after day. As I made progress she gave me finer material to work on, and always when I was finished, the pin was put in the pincushion. One day the pretend sewing ended, and she gave me the needle. No child was ever more pleased with a toy than I was to get that needle. I learned to make braided rugs, quilts, and comforters.

Grandpa kept busy too, taking care of the corn and alfalfa crops and tanning sheep hides. I outgrew my shoes, and Grandpa made moccasins for me from the sheepskins; Grandmother made a cover for my bed.

She knitted mittens and stockings for the family. She raised hops on tall poles and made a big batch of yeast that she cut into little squares for Grandpa and me to carry to the attic and spread out to dry. Every day I would go up and turn each piece until it was ready to store. She gave some of it to other homesteaders.

One day a rancher came and took Grandmother to deliver his wife’s baby. She was away several days, and Grandpa and I got along fine. He made candy, and I liked his cooking too. He read a lot out loud and told stories about things he had seen, the wars he was in, and about his family. I hoped Grandmother would stay away a long time so Grandpa could read aloud some more. She didn’t care for nonreligious reading, and I didn’t understand a lot of the Bible stories that she read every night, although I liked the one about Joseph and his coat of many colors.