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Rattlesnakes And Tumbleweed: A Memoir Of South Dakota

May 2024
16min read

A few years ago, when she was about seventy, Mildred Renaud took a creative-writing class in the adult-education program at the high school in Briarcliff Manor, New York, where she now lives. For class assignments she started writing an account of her childhood in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas at the beginning of this century. Her teacher, impressed with the vividness of her memory and the charm and authenticity of her presentation, suggested that she submit these memoirs to AMERICAN HERITAGE. We were moved by this uncomplaining, even cheerful, account of an austere childhood lived in a harsh land, and we are pleased to publish a portion of her manuscript—the first writing she has ever done.

When Mildred was three years old, her mother died, and after being shuttled around among various relatives she finally went to live with her maternal grandparents in ityoj. She had just had her sixth birthday when we take up her story—a story that reminds us how short American history really is.

--The Editors

After school closed in May, 1907, Uncle Vernon, a circuit-rider preacher, came to take me to live with my grandparents, who were homesteading in South Dakota.

Grandpa Pike was a veteran of the war with Mexico and of the Union army and the Marines during the Civil War. While marching over frozen ground in Missouri, carrying his knapsack and that of a wounded fourteenyear-old soldier, Grandpa stepped in a hole and was injured so badly he was given an honorable discharge. He joined the Marines as soon as he was able and served the remainder of the war on a gunboat on the Mississippi River.

For these services the government gave him a section of land in South Dakota. Grandmother, wishing to take advantage of the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1863, at age fifty-five filed a claim of three hundred and twenty acres adjoining Grandpa’s six hundred and forty acres. In the spring of 1905 she and Grandpa, who was then seventy-seven, closed their comfortable little home in Kirkville, Iowa, and moved to South Dakota with their bachelor sons, Vernon and Leon, who also filed claims. Uncle Vernon’s land adjoined my grandparents’ claim, but Uncle Leon settled on a wooded section nearer the Black Hills.

They took only the most necessary things for survival on the prairie, and for three years of loneliness, and built a shack with a lean-to covered with sod from the ground to the roof for protection from fire, wind, heat, and cold. Uncle Vernon’s shack was only one room, built the same way. The claims were several miles from Capa Station and other settlers, without roads and only the open prairie and Indian and buffalo trails to follow.

When the time came for me to join my grandparents in South Dakota, Aunt Eva packed my precious doll and the little tin dishes with my clothes in the valise and fastened the straps. I had to leave a turtle I had gotten for my birthday with one of my cousins.

When Uncle Vernon and I left Kirkville Station, the rivers were in flood stage, and many times the train inched its way along the track. It was night when we reached Pierre, South Dakota, and the end of the line. We registered at a hotel, and some kind woman took care of me.

The first railroad bridge was being built across the Missouri River between Pierre and Fort Pierre. We missed the ferry and had to cross the river in a launch boat with other passengers. It got stuck on a sandbar, and everyone rushed to the other side of the boat and told me to stay seated. The muddy water was almost to the edge of the boat, and I was afraid.

People gathered on the shore at Fort Pierre and sent a boat to rescue us. The train waited for us, and we were soon on our way to Capa. Oh, what a disappointment when we arrived there! No one to meet us! Capa was only a railroad stop with one building serving as depot, post office, and home for the Stationmaster. His only companion was a dog. We went inside and found the letter to my grandparents, telling of our coming, still in the box.

The postmaster gave us some food and water, and we started walking to the nearest ranch, eight miles away. Uncle Vernon carried the valises, and I carried the food and water. We stopped often, but briefly, to rest. As we walked along I wondered if we would ever find the ranch. All I saw was the endless prairie, beautiful blue sky, and far away some buttes rising straight up from the land. Prairie dogs were popping up out of their holes, barking sharply, then darting down again. Uncle Vernon told me to keep away from the cactus and the prairie-dog holes, where the rattlesnakes lived.

Tired and hungry, glad to find a warm welcome, we reached the ranch as the sun was setting. While Mrs. Weeks fixed our supper the children, Sanford and Marie, brought basins of water, and we got cool and clean. After supper the children showed us many things they had found on the prairie. Sanford had killed a hundred and twelve rattlesnakes with a bullwhip; the government paid a bounty for every rattle. We spent the night there, and the next morning Mr. Weeks took us in his wagon to my grandparents’ shack.

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.

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.

One morning a Mr. Smiggles and his daughter arrived in a wagon. He left Rosie to play with me; then he and Uncle Leon set off in their wagons for Capa to get supplies for the winter that had been ordered from catalogues. Rosie was a chubby, blue-eyed child with thick, light-colored hair that fell in curls around her shoulders and little ringlets about her face. Rosie was about twice my age, but we had so much to say to each other the time just flew, and it was lunch time before we knew it. After we had eaten, we talked until Grandmother told Rosie to go home. She asked if I could go a pieceways home with her, and Grandmother said that I could walk to the edge of the woods. Before we realized it, we were in the clearing a long way from the edge of the woods and Grandmother. I had to walk back alone, and I was stricken with fear of the unknown dangers of the woods and what Grandmother would do to me for disobeying her. At last I heard the sound of the bleating sheep and the dogs barking as they were returning to the corral. I knew I was near home, and I started running; but when I saw Grandmother standing in the door, I knew I was in trouble. She scolded me until Henry and Grandpa came in, and I hoped that was the end of my punishment, but she told Henry to go to the woods and to bring back the longest switch he could find, and she would teach me a lesson I would not forget. I think my worst punishment was her telling Uncle Leon how bad I had been. He just looked at me! But he let me carry some of the supplies in, and I watched Grandmother open some of them. When I saw a darkgreen bottle with a clear glass stopper, I thought it was perfume, and I begged her to let me smell it. Her answer was “ NO !” I asked again, and she told me to take a good deep breath. I learned there is quite a difference between perfume and smelling salts. That should have taught me not to ask for things more than once, but one day I saw her with a bottle filled with sugarcoated pills that looked like candy, and I wanted to taste one. She said “All right” but that I had to chew it. I bit hard and tried to spit it out, but she wouldn’t let me. I went outside and lost most of it. Quinine is bitter, and I learned another valuable lesson.

Although Grandmother was stern, she truly believed it was her Christian duty to rule with a rod. She earned my respect for the many things she did so well. She stoically accepted what life offered, and I doubt whether she found much happiness except in her hope of a better hereafter.

Not long after Uncle Leon brought the supplies home, the first snow fell, and we had bitter cold, sleet, and snow upon snow. Without a sled, I climbed the hill and rolled down until Grandmother gave me a big tin dishpan with handles to use for a sled. It was hard to guide, but the hill was icy, and it was easy to reach the bottom.

As the Christmas season approached there was talk among the men about Santa Claus. Henry wondered if Santa would be able to find us, since we were snowbound. I was quite worried by their talk, but Grandmother said it was a lot of nonsense and to put such silly notions out of my head. “There is no such thing as Santa!” I went into the bedroom crying and thought about it. I tried not to believe her, but it was hard to doubt her word when she seemed so sure of everything.

Yet if Grandpa, Uncle Leon, and Henry thought there was a Santa Claus, I decided they must be right.

On Christmas Eve, Henry and I were excused from classes until after New Year’s. Uncle Leon told us to write notes to Santa and tell him if we had been good or bad. He thought that I could say I had tried to be good, even though I had disobeyed when I walked through the woods with Rosie. We hung our stockings under the window. Since my stocking was so small, Uncle Leon gave me a paper bag to set on the floor under it.

Grandmother read the story about Christ’s birth, and I went to bed. As I lay there thinking about Christmas I heard sleigh bells, and I slipped out of bed and peeked into the kitchen. Uncle Leon was standing at the kitchen cabinet pouring something that rattled. Grandpa and Grandmother were reading, and then Henry came in from outside carrying the tarpaulin. I saw him unfold it and arrange it in the shape of a round pack. When he finished what he was doing, Henry said, “Everything is ready,” and he went outside. I heard the sleigh bells again as Uncle Leon started toward the bedroom door. I ran back to bed. Uncle Leon wanted to know if I was asleep. He said that he heard Santa and if I was awake, he would pass on. By this time I was convinced that Grandmother was right and I was fooled. I covered my head and cried myself to sleep.

I was awake early Christmas morning, but I had no desire to get up. Uncle Leon called to me to come see what Santa had left, but I wouldn’t move, so he carried me to the kitchen; and when I saw onions and potatoes in my sack, I ran back to bed. Henry and Uncle Leon urged me to just go back and see if there was anything else. Surely Santa wouldn’t just leave things for a good breakfast. Henry led me back, and Uncle Leon began taking the things out of the sack; underneath the layer of onions and potatoes was a Baldwin’s First Grade Reader . There were other packages too. I found material for two dresses. One was dark-blue calico with white polka dots, and the other was light blue with tiny, pinpoint white butterflies all over it. Next came some hard candy and a stick of white paraffin gum with a ring on it. The last package was wrapped in white tissue paper tied with two red ribbons for my hair. When I opened it, there was a beautiful black shoe with a red cloth top and black buttons and a shoe hook—but only one shoe. Again I burst into tears. Uncle Leon said he was sure Santa must have dropped the mate somewhere in his haste to get to other places, so we searched everywhere, and I found it under the washing machine. Uncle Leon, Grandpa, and Henry were right—there was a Santa! Uncle Leon said, “Now Mildred, you must learn not to be discouraged so easily.”

One night the wind roared and shook the farm wagon, and a blizzard struck. When the storm ended, the windows were covered with snow; and when the door was opened, there was a wall of snow. The men began shovelling it near the top of the door, and Grandmother melted it as fast as she could. She filled the washing machine and everything that would hold water. The machine was made of wood staves bound with two metal bands. The inside of the lid looked like a milking stool. The gears on top of the lid were turned by a big wheel on the side of the machine operated by hand. Snow covered the entire wagon, and the men tunnelled through drifts to reach the corral. Wild animals were raiding cattle and sheep ranches. As soon as it was safe for the men to travel, some ranchers gathered at Uncle Leon’s place, and they rode off on horseback to track down the marauding animals. They returned with a gray timber wolf that they had lassoed. Uncle Leon was on the lead horse; one man was on each side of the snarling beast, with a man in the rear keeping the ropes taut.

In the spring some professional cutters arrived to shear the sheep. Pens and runways were set up and a high platform built to hold the men who filled the long gunny sacks with wool and sewed them and put them in the shed. As the wool fell a man pitched it up to the men on the platform.

After the sheep were sheared, they passed through a trough filled with an antiseptic dip. Grandpa fired one of the men for being too careless and cutting the sheep. I didn’t like to hear the sheep bleating, but I loved to watch them going up the hill to the grazing land and coming home in the evening, a white mass, packed tightly together, moving in waves as they raced to the corral.

My grandparents and I stayed with Uncle Leon until he needed the farm wagon to take the sheep to the summer grazing range. We had to get ready to close the shack and move back to Kirkville, Iowa. I had to leave Wiggles, my dog, to help guard the sheep, since he was quite valuable. He was a puppy, white as snow, when he was given to me; and when we parted, he was beginning to be spotted.

We left Capa in June, 1908, and this time we crossed the Missouri River on the new railroad bridge at Pierre, where Grandmother proved up on her claim. Then we were on our way to Iowa.



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