Rattlesnakes And Tumbleweed: A Memoir Of South Dakota


In late August Uncle Vernon came back and told us that he was holding service in his shack on Sunday and he expected some children would be coming. I was excited. The sun shone that day, and I got my tricornered hat with the flowers on the sides of it and the pink-ribbon bow in the back with streamers. I was happy to be dressed for Sunday school and to see children again. Grandmother was waiting for me outside, and when she saw me with my precious hat, she jerked it off my head and cried, “Vanity, vanity, vanity. All is vanity, vanity, vanity!” Then she went into the house, and I never saw the hat again until we left Dakota for Iowa. After Sunday school we five children went back to our house, and when I let one little girl play with my doll, she bumped it against the stove and shattered its head. We both cried. Now my little tin dishes were my only playthings.

Grandmother told me that my mamma had gone to heaven, and she was watching over me. I used to imagine that she was in one of those beautiful white clouds that seemed so close I could almost touch them. I talked to her and hoped she could hear me.

One day my grandparents and I went to the draw, some distance from the house, to clean out the well. Water was drawn with a bucket and rope. The well was five feet deep and covered with a platform. My grandparents dipped as much water as they could; then Grandmother had me stand on a hoe and lowered me into the well as I held on to the handle with one hand and dipped the bucket with the other. Then she pulled me up, and Grandpa emptied the bucket until I had scraped the well clean. When at last I was out of the well, I was wet, muddy, and miserable. I cried and said, “What if people should see me now?” Grandmother said, “Nonsense, there aren’t any people within miles of you. Quit thinking of yourself.”

Sometimes when Grandpa took a nap, Grandmother would take me over to Uncle Vernon’s shack, and I would pump the organ and sing as loud as I wanted to. I waltzed too—if I was sure Grandmother wasn’t around. She said, “Dancing is the work of the devil,” but I didn’t believe that, because Papa danced and I was sure he could do no wrong, even though she thought he was a sinner. Grandpa told me Papa and his relatives enjoyed different things and Grandmother was wrapped up in the Bible. Grandpa was more like Papa, and Grandmother was always trying to convert him.

I was in the shack with Wiggles one day, playing the organ, when Grandmother came in quite excited and took me back home. We watched Grandpa riding across the prairie toward a reddish glow and smoke. Grandmother said he was going to help put out the prairie fire. It burned a long time and destroyed one ranch, but the man who had caused the fire by emptying his pipe on the ground was safe and did not lose anything. The fire burned after dark and followed the draw but did not cross it to our side. The men and women used wet blankets and anything they could find to beat the flames, but the tumbleweeds carried the fire from one place to another, and water was scarce. It was finally put out by the backfires, though some things were sacrificed by setting them. It was a frightening experience, and Grandmother was worried that the wind might change and the garden and feed for the horses and sheep would be destroyed.


My grandparents were concerned with other things that were a threat to our safety, such as the terrible dust storms that sometimes lasted several days, and Grandmother hung wet sheets over doors and windows to help us breathe; and there were wind and electrical storms, blizzards, eagles, and wild animals. One evening a bunch of wild horses were racing toward the field of corn, and Grandpa turned them away by firing a gun into the air. He said they would have gone over the fence and ruined the crop.

Henry Martin was a German immigrant who filed a claim near that of my grandparents. He helped Uncle Leon herd the sheep and lived with him part of the year. He was a good-natured young man, of stocky build, round face, ruddy complexion, blue eyes, and light-colored hair. He spoke with an accent that he tried hard to overcome. Uncle Leon helped Henry with his studies.

After the vegetables were gathered and the crops harvested, they were taken to Uncle Leon’s ranch, and my grandparents and I spent the winter with him and Henry, as his place offered more protection from storms than the open prairie.

The ranch was enclosed by woods on the east and a u-shaped high ridge on the north, west, and south that ended in a hill sloping toward the north and east. The one big room, with one outside wall, a window, and outside door, was built in a natural cave in the hill. A big farm wagon was pushed against it and sealed. The opposite end of the wagon was filled with such things as tools, ropes, wire, tarpaulin, buckets, shovels, and guns. A trap door gave access to fuel and food stored under the wagon. The outside door faced the north and a long shed built along the ridge to protect the dogs, horses, and sheep from storms and wild animals. A wire was drawn from the enclosed wagon to the corral to guide a person caught in a blizzard.

Schools had not yet been established in that part of South Dakota, but Henry and I were fortunate to be with Uncle Leon, who had a teacher’s certificate, and he started teaching us soon after I arrived. It was fun to study with Henry.