December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
IT WAS LIKE THIS FOR OUR GREAT-GRANDMOTHERS
Occasionally the quiet testimony of another era forces us, in the old-fashioned phrase, to count our blessings. Benefits fought for and painfully won in an advancing society quickly become rights to be taken for granted—the right to receive aid from the government when we are unemployed or unemployable; the freedom of children from ceaseless labor in their growing years; the eight-hour workday and the minimum wage; the right to protection for farms, homes, and savings; the right to get financial and medical help in our old age. We accept these rights so naturally that they become assumptions, seldom examined until some witness from the past—even the quite recent past—jolts our consciousness.
The brief memoir by Emma Mitchell New printed below exerts such a jolt. Mrs. New was a pioneer who wrote an account of her life from 1877 to 191 7 on the Kansas prairie. She was not a writer, and her experience was probably not notably different from that of hundreds of other lonely, overworked pioneer women. She wrote about it because she was asked to do so by a contemporary suffragist, lawyer, and publisher, Lilla Day Monroe, who commissioned hundreds of Kansas women to record their experiences for a book she was planning to publish.
Mrs. Monroe died, however, before she could complete the work. The memoirs she had collected, 770 of them, were recently rediscovered by her great-grand-daughter, Joanna L. Stratton. Ms. Stratton, a Harvard University student, came across the material in the attic of her grandmother’s house in Topeka, Kansas- thousands of handwritten pages inscribed on notebook paper and stationery that had been stored unpublished in a file cabinet for fifty years.
Now, three generations later, Ms. Stratton plans to finish her great-grand-mother’s work. Her book, to be entitled Pioneer Women, will eventually be published by Simon and Schuster.
We landed in Russell [on the prairie of central Kansas] forepart of December, 1877, with our car-load of goods, consisting of a few household goods, team of horses, a few chickens, a wagon and plow, enough lumber to build a small house, and a fairly good supply of provisions. We boarded at a hotel for two weeks and by that time the house was finished enough that we could move in out on a claim two miles northwest of Russell. Many a homesick day I saw, many a tear was shed. I couldn’t bear to go to the window and look out. All I could see everywhere was prairie and not a house to be seen. We had been there about three months when my two little children, a boy and a girl, came rushing into the house so excited, for they saw a woman coming over the hill toward the house. It proved to be a neighbor that lived a mile and a half from us. The hill between us had obscured their little dugout. We felt so happy to know that we had a neighbor. I called on them one day, and they insisted on bringing me home with an ox team and buckboard.
Springtime came, my husband broke a piece of ground for a garden, took the sod off and built a fence around the garden, and then replowed the soil. I thought I was going to have a good garden, but the rain failed to come and we got nothing. In the meantime we were hunting water and hauling it in barrels. We dug a deep well and got nothing. Many a time I walked a quarter of a mile down into a deep draw with pails and carried water to wash with. Also used to walk to town and back, making four miles, to get a little sewing to do from the hotel girls I got acquainted with.
My husband broke prairie as fast as he could with the old team. One time he broke a fire guard around some grass that was quite tall and then set fire to it. The wind carried the sparks across the guards and set the prairie on fire. We worked hard to put it out to save our home and buildings, until we were completely exhausted. And many a time afterward I fought fires until I was all in, for we had so many in those days from the quarter [their claim].
Years came along one after the other and also droughts. Times looked perilous to us. We finally got a cow, which helped us to live. Then there came along the Indian scare. All the people around about flocked to town for safety except me. I was all alone with my two children and knew nothing of it, as my husband was a good many miles from home trying to earn a little something. He worked out many a day for fifty cents and was glad to get it. Grasshoppers were very plentiful in those days. At times, swarms of them would shade the sun.
Our house was very poor, so my husband in a few spare minutes would saw soft rocks into bricks and lay them between the studding to make it firm, as the Kansas wind rocked it so bad. I helped carry all the bricks. And when he was sawing I would take the team and go to the field and walk behind a drag all the time I could get from my house work. Finally a baby boy came to us and we toiled along for almost a year. We picked up and burned “cow chips” for fuel.
A neighbor ranchman decided to leave, so we went on his place, took care of the stock, and made better on shares. We were doing fairly well when in two years he came back and wanted his place again. So we moved back on the claim. We stayed there a while with no water and lived on corn meal for nearly a year. My husband got a chance to put papers on a discarded timber claim, so we went ahead again with hearts brave and true to make another home. Traded our first claim for a one-room house and sort of a summer kitchen. This we moved out to our claim. We had a fair-sized granary on our first claim. We moved it out and put them together, making quite a home for us. The granary was made into a living room and two bedrooms. This claim was down in a big draw and we put the buildings beside a small stream where there were nice springs of water. We toiled on, not losing heart, and soon got us some milk cows and started a dairy.
Hardships and trials came along in their turn. Got a young team to deliver our milk to town. A baby girl came to us, making the second that came to us in Kansas without doctor or nurses and practically no help except the two older children.
We got along very well when a terrible storm and cloudburst came upon us and we lost almost everything, except the cows and an old team in the pasture. It came on the twenty-third of July. We had a nice cow barn put up and that day they put up a stack of millet the whole length of the barn. It commenced to rain in the afternoon, but in due time we started the children to town with the milk. It was a general downpour and the creeks were commencing to rise. So my husband started out to meet the children and get them home in safety. My husband said to the children, “We will be good to the ponies tonight and put them in the cow barn and give them some nice millet.” They hadn’t been in the house very long before we discovered our cellar was full of water from the outside door, and the well curb and toilet were gone.
The creek was up to the house and still pouring down. My husband investigated and found that the underpinning of the house was going and that we had to get out. We took a lantern and matches and some blankets, and started for the side hills. When we opened the door to get out, the water came up to our necks. We had a struggle to get out and I can’t tell to this day how we ever made it, but the Lord must have been with us. My husband carried the baby girl in his arms as high as his head. We soon got out of the deepest water, as there was a turn in the creek. We went by way of the horse stable and found we would be safe in it. Still the water was up and it was pitch dark. The matches were wet, so we couldn’t light the lantern.
We stayed there until the storm abated and the water went down. Then we started out to see if we had a home left and to our delight, even in such a mess, we found it still standing. It was still dark and we couldn’t see what havoc the storm had made for us. We found some dry matches and lit the lamp. Such a deplorable sight words can’t express. We couldn’t shut the door when we left the house, so the kitchen was full of rubbish and everything had been swimming in the high water. Many things were upside down. The water didn’t get into the other rooms so badly, but when the water went down there was an inch of mud all over the carpets and floors.
When daylight came it was a sad sight to behold. Our cow barn and ponies were swept away, also our stack of millet. Practically everything we had was gone or ruined: machinery, wagons, and nice garden. Back of the house was a nice patch of potatoes, but it washed them out clean and the soil as far as was ever plowed. Our ponies washed down stream about sixteen miles to the Saline River before lodging. When they were found, they were still tied to the same ridge pole. We did not have much to eat for breakfast, as all our food and groceries were in a cupboard in the kitchen and everything was ruined in the cellar. Even the water was not fit to drink. One of our good neighbors rallied to our relief and by night had us another team of ponies and harness ready to deliver milk when we could get things together again. Two years afterward some of our harnesses were found in the bottom of the creek. This is only a partial list of the flood disasters.
We finally got started again in the dairy business and got more cows. My husband thought if we could get nearer the town with our daily work it would be easier for us. So we rented a pasture close by town and built us a house in the suburbs with the assistance of the Building and Loan Association. We still held our timber claim and raised feed for the dairy.
Thus, we got along very well until our milk business wasn’t so profitable, as the price of cows went down and so many bought cows, some only paying fifteen dollars for one. I worked so hard to get along. I did my share of the milking, took in washing, and did everything I could to earn a cent. Hard work brought us a seven-months baby boy, who lived only fourteen days. Still we toiled on. I worked from five in the morning until ten at night without ceasing,
After two years another baby boy came to us. About this time my husband got a chance to go out on a big ranch as foreman, so we decided to rent our house and sell part of the cows. We got along very well and after eighteen months another baby boy came to us. I nearly lost my life then but the Good Father spared me to do farther work in the new country and arise by my children. Toiled on for some time and then my husband got a bigger raise in his salary from another ranchman still farther away, so we decided to move again. He was to take charge the first of April, so he engaged teams to move all at once.
The day came to move and a big snow storm was raging, so only one team came. We loaded our stove and just enough things to carry us over the night, intending to move the rest the next day. It cleared off in the night and the teams came, but there was nothing to move, as the house was burned down and, as one would suppose, everything in it. It was a great loss to us, for we had got a fairly good start again. We lost everything in the cellar, meat, lard, potatoes, fruit, and all of our milk fixtures, as we still had cows. Most of our clothing and all of our best things went. We never understood how the fire started but it wasn’t any carelessness of ours.
It seemed luck was against us but we had faith and pushed ahead. My husband and oldest son and daughter worked at everything they could find to do, dug deep wells, etc., I as usual doing my part with a big family to earn a few cents. Two years more and another baby boy came to us, making six boys and two girls. We worked on for another year and then decided to move back to the old timber claim, which we still held. We had a few cows yet to start with and how happy I was to get back there once again, resolving I would never move again unless retiring.
It would be almost impossible to tell you of the hardships we went through with a big family. My oldest girl got married soon after moving. Farming had commenced to get better, as the country was more improved. Got into stock and more cows, made lots of butter, getting fifteen cents a pound. We still burnt cow chips to help along. As the children grew older I went out nursing, getting one dollar a day and doing the housework besides.
Our two oldest boys got married, leaving us with the three younger. We bought some more land and kept on so doing until we owned nearly a section. When our baby boy was within a few days of eighteen he was taken from us. Heartbroken, we kept on. In two years our other daughter was married, leaving us with two boys. The following year one of the boys decided to get married, so we let him have the ranch to work and we retired, moving back to town in our little house. The one boy left made his home with us. My aged mother came to live with us. In three years my husband was stricken with heart trouble and died instantly in December. The following month Mother passed away, and in March the last son got married and I was left all alone.
These sad events covered forty years of pioneer life. As I am writing this, ten years later, I am within a few days of seventy-seven years, a very feeble old woman, yet thankful for all the blessings I have had.