1880s Homesteader's Diary
Homesteader of Keya Paha County, Nebraska
Great, Great Grandmother Anderson's Experience
I was fortunate to have acquired a typed diary from my great, great grandma, on my mother's side, of her experience in northern Nebraksa as a homesteader during the 1880s. For the value and edification it may contain to those who read this, I share portions of it here. In total, her diary covers a five year period from 1884 to 1889. I believe it provides an interesting insight into the difficulties involved in trying to make a living in the mid-west when much of the western portion of the country was still occupied by the Native Americans that were eventually displaced. (Once I locate a picture of Hettie, I'll add it in.)
A Homesteading Adventure in the Eighties (typed in 1930 from her diary penned on the homestead)
by Hettie Lee Anderson
I have long cherished the desire to record a chapter of our lives during the eighties, when we caught the western fever - or at least Newt did - and I was always willing to follow up whatever move he thought best to make; though I must confess it was with some misgiving I consented to start on what, at that distant day, seemed a long journey, as well as a most uncertain adventure. Not that moving was anything new to us. On the contrary, moving from one house, or locality to another was a very common, though undesireable, experience with us.
After our marriage in Carroll County Missouri in 1875, we were only settled in that locality until autumn of 1877, when we gathered our few most necessary belongings and in a covered wagon set out with our little son, Frank, to follow my parents to Roanoke Woodford County, Illinois where they had preceded us the year before. My father had left his tailor's bench in 1870 to try farming in Missouri, only to find he was never cut out to "till the soil". Thoroughly discouraged and weary of the farming experiment, he left Ma and the children on the little farm that had proved so disappointing, turning it over to Newt, my husband, to farm for another year.
My father returned for a spell to Illinois, where for many years, he had plied his trade of tailoring before he undertook the farming experiment. It was not long until Ma and the children followed him, and for the first time in my life I was separated from my family with my baby to care for and no mother to go to for advice and help. I soon became very homesick and made up our minds to leave old Carroll Co. where Newt was raised, and go to Illinois also. Thus, we started the moving habit which it seemed we had to persist in, whether we would or not, for so many years. At the time of the homestead adventure, we were living in the little town of Flannigan, Livingston Co. Illinois about forty miles from Roanoke where my folks were still living.
Newt had ample time to get a job in a town run by a very fine man, Billy Renn, as everyone called him. He was almost like a brother to Newt. He had taken a great interest in him and was teaching him so much about business and book keeping that he was able to look after everything at any time Mr. Renn was absent. This was a great opportunity for Newt who had never before had any business training. He would have been perfectly contented to keep on with Mr. Renn and would have been soon been given a yard in another place to manage himself, but for this excitement that sprung up in that part of the country over going to Nebraska to homestead government land, which, it seems, the railroads were mostly responsible for as they spared no pains sending out circulars containing glowing descriptions of the wonders of the west and the marvelous opportunities awaiting all who would seek their fortunes there where splendid farms were awaiting all who would just go and take them.
So, a party of reliable men, Newt among them, were chosen to make a trip to Nebraska and find a suitable place for a settlement of friends and neighbors. Their expenses were paid and it was understood they were trusted to make the right selection for the crowd. Newt's preference for land near the central part of the state where farming had proved to be a success was overruled by a Dr. Rosenburg who seemed to be the leader of the party, and induced them to go to the northern part of the state to Keya Paha County, quite near the Dakota line. This was beautiful country to look at, but the land being blanketed with snow, it was hard to tell much about its quality. It was undoubtedly a wild and bare location, but people were coming in rapidly and taking claims. So, it seemed the best they could do, as all agreed it was a promising place. Newt selected the land that looked to him like good farming land and filed on it at once. Then, to his dismay, he found the rest of the party had changed their minds, taking no land, nor did any of the people we had expected to have for neighbors follow us. Newt, however, was unwilling to leave his homestead right, and so planned to settle on our lonely claim with an expiration of five months allowed before having to move onto a homestead.
It surely seemed a serious undertaking for a man with no capital and with a young family on his hands, but his heart was set on a farm, and Mr. Renn, good friend that he was, never discouraged him in the least, but loaned him money to buy a team, a good cow and farming implements. Also, he let him take lumber for a small house. A rail car was chartered to carry all these things, as well as our household goods. When spring came in 1884, Newt started on the long trip. I waited until August to follow him. I went to Roanoke to stay with Ma for a while. We had the four little children at that time. Frank, the oldest was eight. He was such a bright little chap, all ready for any kind of adventure. Mabel, who was six, was a great pet for Grandma; such a helpful little youngster and a picture of health an vivacity with eyes and hair black as jet. Little four year old Myrtle was such a contrast, with blue eyes and blond hair. Then there was little golden haired Amy; the pretty baby who attracted everyone's attention. It would have been hard to find four brighter or more handsome or healthy children.
It doesn't seem so long ago that I told stories and showed pictures to that little group of children. It was a sad day for Grandma Will when we had to leave the house for the train that would carry us so far away. I remember how I slipped out of the house without telling her good-bye. That seemed more than I could stand - dear faithful mother who has always done so much for me. I forget now who accompanied us to the train and got tickets for us to Carrollton, Missouri. As we had expected to stop there for several weeks with Newt's people, they had never seen the four children, so this was a great opportunity to visit them.
The days sped by so quickly, and August arrived when we were to finish our trip to the western homestead which we were so anxious to see. Letters from Newt told us the little house was finished, all ready for us to occupy, and he was terribly lonesome and anxious to have his family with him once more. So, we bade good-bye to the dear ones in old Missouri and made ready to start on the long trip to northern Nebraska. The girls had prepared a basket of all manner of good things for us to enjoy on the way as we would be many hours on the train which had no convenience of a diner. With four little youngsters it would require a number of lunches in the course of a long day on the train.
I remember the lovely view as the train ran beside the Missouri River for a long distance. We passed by numberless beautiful water lilies, large spaces of river were covered with them. In the evening the train stopped at a town. It was Valley Junction, Missouri, where we had to leave the train and stay overnight. That was a formidable undertaking for me with four little children and with no idea where to go, but I started out feeling I would be taken care of and guided to the right place. I was grateful to find a place where we could get a room right near the depot. So, we got along nicely and in the morning had plenty of time to get dressed and ready to take the train again.
When I look back at that trip, about forty-six years ago, I was only a girl of twenty five with four babies to care for, Amy the youngest was just one year old that month, I realized I was indeed protected and guided to safety to my journey's end. One instance of this protection was when the train had stopped for a short time at noon beside an eating house in one of the towns we were passing through. I watched the people leaving the car for refreshments and felt I would make an effort to get something for the hungry children. I couldn't think of taking them with me, so, cautioning them to all sit quietly where I was leaving them, I went into the eating room and tried to get the attention of one of the busy waiters, thinking I might be able to get some sandwiches. But all was a bluster and hurry. I saw my chances to get any attention were very small indeed. Then suddently, Frank appeared on the scene calling to me to come back quickly, as some changes were being made in the train, and the car we were in was being left out. So, we just had time to gather up baggage and baby and move into a car that would continue its westward journey. But for Frank's ability to take in the situation quickly, and rush out to hunt me up, we might have been left behind.
After this episode we had no more adventures, but a long, pleasant ride on the Elkhorn road running across northern Nebraska. At last, late in the afternoon, we reached the little town of Basset, where Newt was waiting for us with his team and wagon. There was a happy and exciting reunion after the long separation. Amy had not forgotten her daddy, to his great joy. A one year old baby's recollection is not usually very long, but she went to him at once and seemed as glad to see him as were the older children.
Then began our trek across the wide prairie to the homestead fifteen miles away. Basset was our nearest railroad station. We started north and reached the little Niobrarie River about eight miles farther on. On the other side of the bridge was a tiny town called Carns that boasted a store and quite a good sized inn where travelers could stop for meals or room, or both. Here we stopped for the night. Newt was well acquainted with Mrs. Slack, the land lady and the old timer, Col. Tarbelll, who ran the store and lived in the inn.
In the morning we were eager to start out for the new home. The country all around as far as I could see looked very attractive to me. I had lived all my life on the broad level praries of Illinois and Missouri. While there were great stretches of prarie here, there was also much broken and hilly land along the two little rivers which branched from one larger one some distance to the east. The wide level table upon which our homestead was situated was in the fork of these two rivers; the Niobrarie and Keya Paha.
Northern Nebraska rises to a great elevation as it nears the Dakota line. As one leaves the Niobrarie going north there are several distinct elevations or tables as they were called there. Our place was on the last and highest; it was surley high and dry, as we later discovered to our sorrow. But, it all looked very beautiful to me as we neared the tiny frame house so lately built, and with no other adobe near. The August weather was perfect. While the sun shone warm and bright, the air was cool and bracing. The little pine covered hills and canyons along the broken part of the country were so different from anything I had seen before that I was delighted with the change of scenery and was prepared to be perfectly happy with it all.
The one room house was something of a problem to afford space for even the little furniture we had brought with us. It was almost like a playhouse, but I was prepared to make the best of any difficulty and to be happy and contented with every thing. We had brought but one bedstead, so beds had to be made on the floor for the children.
Our house was new clean pine, guiltless of paint, but was not hard to keep clean, as there was no sticky mud which I'd been used to in Illinois. The ground was sandy, covered with the short curling Buffalo grass upon which cattle thrive even if they have no other feed. Our homestead was perfectly level; not a break or stick or stump anywhere. Just the kind of land that would be prized in the fertile, well watered lands we had always known. In choosing this high and dry location, Newt had not taken into account the difficulty he might have in getting fuel and timbers he would have to use for many things. Nor did he know how much trouble he might have in finding water, the one great necessity. There was not even a stone to be found on all this great level stretch of land. Some of the wiser settlers - those who knew more about the conditions to contend with in this western country - settled in the broken, woody part of the country, where springs were found without any laborious digging for water and where stock would find shelter without the hard labor of building sod stables. This was something Newt had to do before the wintry blasts swept across these northern lands. Other more prudent settlers chose the hay flats that spread over many miles of lower land. These flats held more moisture, and were thickly covered with tall wild hay of good quality. The settlers on the higher lands were obliged to go to these hay flats and put up hay to feed any stock they might be fortunate enough to have as there would be times when the buffalo grass would be deep under snow. Without a supply of hay, they would be without food; at least until crops could be raised. We were quite fortunate to have a depression on one corner of our claim which provided a shallow well of water. This answered, for a time, our needs though it was a long walk from the house, yet it was much better than no well. Newt made a little sled large enough to hold a barrel, so he brought water one barrel at a time for our use. The team and cow he would lead to this area for watering, but the well did not hold out very long; then he had to go a mile or two for water.
Before our first year on the homestead had slipped away, we were gladdened by the arrival of Horace and Emma. They disposed of the place in Kansas, and came to try out a homestead for themselves. In my diary, after a long silence from June to the following September, I find the following entry:
September 21, 1884
Oh, what a busy summer this has been! I haven't mentioned that Horace and Emma have moved up here from Kansas. Horace came up first in the spring and bought Albert White's right to a claim about like ours. There is just one claim between us; Mr. Smith's. Horace's claim is just a mile north of us. We are unfortunately, on the south line of our's. If we had built on the northern line we would only be a half mile away from them.
Emma and I do not get to see each other as often as we would like because it is too far to walk. I had Emma come over and stay with me last week while Horace and Newt and several other men worked together making hay down on the flat. The men camped out down there while storing the hay needed during winter.
It surely was wonderful to have some of my folks near me once more. Though it seemed a pretty big undertaking for them, as they were so young and inexperienced and Emma had never lived on a farm. But they seemed anxious to have a try along with us at making a home in the wilderness. We enjoyed visiting each other's homes, and it was a great treat to the children to have aunt Emma near by.
November 13, 1884
We had a frightful prairie fire Saturday night. I was somewhat frightened before Newt got home that evening. He had been to Long Pine again. (he had the job of carrying the mail from Carns to Long Pine about ten or fifteen miles further west.) It was a long time after dark that he got home and the fire was sweeping in a long blazing line all along on the west and north not more than a mile away from us. I was afraid it might jump the fire guards and get on our land, but it did not. Mrs. Babbet came over about dark with all four of her children to tell me to send Newt over as soon as he came home. All her men folk had gone to the hay flat to fight the fire and she was such a coward. She gets so scared at storms or any thing of the kind. A number of men, with Newt among them, were out nearly all night fighting the fire.
December 31, 1884
Wednesday - The last day of the year and my, what weather! Yesterday we had a regular northern blizzard. The wind shrieked and howled at a fearful rate. Snow came down from above and blew up from beneath until the air was filled with snow as fine as flour. All one could see on looking out was one white glare, above, below and all around was a smoky whiteness. We could make out the outline of the stable most of the time, but I was almost afraid for Newt to try to attend to the stock. He has been hauling a barrel of water every day for that purpose, but yesterday it was impossible. So, we melted snow for the three horses and the cow and calf, and Newt brought them to the door to drink. Our big fine calf, nearly a year old which we prized so highly, has disappeared during the night. Since Newt has been keeping Mr. Vessey's horses, there has been very little room in the stable for the calf, but he has always squeezed it in during the storms until last night. It was so wild and scared, he could do nothing with it, so he had to leave it outside. We could scarcely sleep last night for thinking of the poor thing standing by the solitary haystack through the long wild night with the pitiless storm shrieking around it. We expected we would, very likely, find it frozen this morning, but cannot find it anywhere though Newt has shoveled in all the big drifts. We think it must have wandered off to the canyons a quarter of a mile or more away for protection. It may be it will turn up alive yet, though I hardly expect it. We have heard of five or six persons being frozen to death since this fearful weather set in three weeks ago. Here they have been telling us the winters up here were mild. I had no idea after out late and lovely fall we should have such a winter. We wouldn't mind the cold, but the terrible wind; nothing could live exposed to those fearful blasts. We have wood enough to last for some time, but if the weather keeps up like this, I don't know what we will do when the supply is gone. I have no fears but some way will be provided, and as long as we have such good health, we can get along, I know.
One morning in early January after continued cold and stormy weather the wind had gone down and the cold had abated until is was quite pleasant outside. It was such a welcome change after the long spell of cold and wind that people felt like getting outside for a change. Horace being short of hay, set out for a trip to the hay flat to bring home some much needed feed for his stock. Mollie had been visiting in Springview and had prolonged her stay as the roads were pretty well snowed up. There was not much traveling for the time being, but Ma was anxious to have her come home, so Newt had gone after her the day before with a sled which he thought would be better to get over the bad roads than anything else. He had stayed overnight and we were expecting them home that morning; thinking what a fine day they would have to come home. Three oldest children begged to get out of the house and run across the field to grandma's, as they had been cooped up about as long as they could stand it.
About eight or nine o'clock in the morning I was out in the yard enjoying the mildness fo the air and wondering why everything looked so gray and colorless. The ground, of course, was white with snow, but the sun was invisible and the sky was so gray and unatural looking. A breathless silence brooded over everything. As I stood there I saw the youngsters come flying home, running at race I guess. They were all breathless and happy for the needed exercise. All at once we saw coming from the northwest something that looked like a solid white wall bearing down on us. It seemed to be coming at a pretty good rate of speed, so I told the children we had better run in the house. We had no sooner done so, than the white wall was upon us accompanied by a loud and wailing sound I had never heard before. The snow was as fine as flour and was whipped and churned by a terrific gale that was causing the strange wailing noise. I had heard of blizzards and had thought we had seen the worst, but never anything to compare with this fiendish onslaught. My first thought was of gratitude to God that the children got back from their little run just in the nick of time. It they had tarried a few minutes longer at Grandmas and had been caught in that storm even a short distance from the house, there would have been no chance for them to survive. It would have been impossible for them to have found their way and equally impossible for me, or anyone else, to have gone to their rescuse.
My next thought was of Horace, Newt and Mollie. Might they have been caught in this frightful storm? There was no way of finding out what had become of them until the storm should spend its fury. All I could do was to trust them all to the care of a loving Providence, remembering the many times we had been protected in times of danger or trouble. Later, I was overjoyed to learn that Horace had returned from the hay flat just in time, as the children had from Grandma's. I was most thankful to not be alone at this time and felt well rewarded for taking Sage to board, as he was able to get in the necessary fuel, so we could survive the storm, which, if I remember right, lasted at least thirty six hours before its fury abated. I'm pretty sure Sage managed to get to the stable too, so the stock did not have to go without feed as they would most surely would had I been alone. It was really a serious matter for a strong man to try to leave the house without a fence, or something, to hold onto so he wouldn't lose his way. We heard of many casulaties resulting from people being caught in this storm. So, Sage took a couple of lengths of rope out with him, tied one end to the house so he could always find it, and went out in the direction he figured the stable was. After about ten minutes or so, he finally found the stable and tied the other end of the rope to it; making a "life-line" from the house to the stable and back.
I still remember the awfulness of that two days and a night of howling, screaming blizzard. It was not a pleasant experience to awake in the night and hear that terrifying sound and wondering who might be out in it. But for my trust in God's protection, I would have been beside myself with fear on account of Newt and Mollie. More wonderful still was what I later learned about Newt and Mollie's experience that morning. He had been so pleased in the change in the weather and told Mollie to get ready as quickly as possible so they could get an early start and head back home. They were soon ready to leave Springview with Mollie all tucked into the sled as they couldn't be sure of good weather all the way back home. Newt was impatient to start out, but before they could get outside the town, some acquaintance stopped him and had him come into his office to talk about some matter of importance. Newt kept trying to get away, but in spite of all his efforts to break away from this talkative person, he was held there almost forcibly it seemed, until the blizzard broke suddenly upon them.
March 30, 1885
Mr. Renn wrote us about the weather in Illinois; it seems the weather has been as bad, or worse there. He sent us ten dollars in his last letter; "ten dollars worth of sympathy for the loss of our mule," he said. I see I have come near leaving March out of my diary, but will try to write a few lines while the potatoes and pork are boiling for dinner. We killed our pig yesterday, as we were about out of lard and the cow can't furnish enough butter for all purposes. We have had no meat all winter, but are probably no worse on that account.
This month has been our most changeable month - as March usually is. It started in warm and bright and we expected a very early spring after our hard winter, but after two weeks fo weather almost like May, it suddenly turned cold again and that put a stop to the plowing and wheat sowing. It is trying to rain a little today, which seems funny out here. This is the sunniest country I have ever been in. It is by far the greater part of the time the sky is perfectly clear and cloudless. We live at an elevation of two thousand or more feet. I like our country still as much as ever, and if we can only succeed in raising a crop this summer, we will be in pretty good shape. I can hardly wait to get at garden making. The soil our here is so light and mellow, it must be lovely to work in; so different from the stiff heavy soil of Illinois. It seems so strange to see winter break up with no mud. The roads are always in fine shape here.
Newt has, so far, put in ten acres of wheat, five of oats and planted about two and a half bushels of potatoes. He has been plowing this week for Mr. Vessey, as he agreed to do for the use of his team. He has so much work on his hands. If only our mule had lived, what a lot he could have done on his own place. I began making garden last Saturday and made a lot more yesterday.
May 5, 1885
Spring set in in all its beauty, and as the memory of the blizzards faded, enthusiasm reigned once more. I was so interested in planting a lovely garden; even some flowers in the soft warm earth. I had never lived anywhere without some flower beds. It was lovely to watch the long strips of sod turning away from the forrows made by the plow and how the children loved to follow in the smooth paths made through the sod. The meadow larks also followed the path for worms and made the prairies ring with their sweet songs.
The cow and our pet yearling fared well on the tender buffalo grass. Such milk as our jersey poured down and after standing a while, great layers of rich yellow cream could be lifted from the pans in big rolls, stirred a short time with a spoon, it was converted into lovely butter. The yearling was so gentle the children could play with her as the would a pet dog. No matter how far she was from the house, if I had a pan of peelings, or some other treat, stepping outside the house I would call and she would lift here head and at sight of me would come racing to the house. Frank and Mabel learned to ride the horses and thought it great fun. Sometimes they were allowed to go to Stephenson on horseback a little post office perhaps a mile away. Frank took long rambles to the canyons; finding lovely wild floweres and berries. What he especially delighted in was the lovely stones of many kinds. He had many lovely agates which might have been of some value could they have been polished. These were happy days for the youngsters. They were too young to have any thought of anxiety and knew nothing of hardships; everything was pure fun for them.
The greatest hardships fell upon Newt. He not only had hard and heavy work to do breaking the sod, hauling water a long distance for every purpose, but one of the hardest tasks was the building of a huge sod stable. For this, he not only had to lift the heavy sod pieces in place, but had to go down in the canyons and cut and drag out the timbers for the frame work. I think he employed some help for this stupendous job, but even then it was very hard work. He was so careful of is stock; they were cared for next to his family. Then, in addition to all of the hard work on his own place, he was compelled to work for others much of the time in order to earn something for us to live on. Often going away six or seven miles to do a day's work, and after getting home in the evening, having to haul water and do all his chores; even chopping and carrying in wood. Of course, the children could do little things, but he was so careful to look after our welfare and see that everything was done for the comfort of his family. Surely he was a faithful and loyal husband and father.
It was about this time, during our second summer on the claim, that I began writing items for the Keya Paha Press. I had noticed a little poem in the Youth's Companion, written by someone in praise of the east; longing to return to it. So, I composed one of my own about our lovely west and sent the item to the Press. The editor always seemed pleased to receive any contributions I might send and always published them, as country papers are inclined to do whether those contributions submitted had any literary value or not. This contribution I entitled, "My Home".
I have found a home in the beautiful west,
The home of my choice that I love the best,
And breathe not a sigh for the eastern star,
Nor the scenses of old removed so far.
Ah no, on the prairie broad and free,
I have found a home good enough for me,
Where the sons of toil find ample room,
To the crowded east still they're saying, come!
See the dewy hills, and the canyons deep,
Where the bounding deer from the hunter leap,
Hear the rush and roar of the Niobrara,
As it onward sweeps through the broad prairie.
Behold the west a sunset grand,
Like a picture rare from a master's hand,
Where else on earth could such tints combine,
To thrill the soul with joy sublime.
On the banks of the noisy Keya Paha,
Where the indian lodged with his dusky squaw,
Now the lowing herds of the white man roam,
And his children play in their western home.
Here in this land of the brave and free,
There is room my friend for you and me.
Here labor grim finds rich reward,
And wealth concealed 'neath the unturned sward.
I wrote numerous poems (if they be called such) for the Press during the several years that followed, and the editor often pre-faced them with some complimentary remark, such as the following: "The Press has from time to time in the last few months published several productions from the pen of Mrs. H.L. Anderson of Stephenson. She has truly proved herself a poetess of no mean merit. Her lines read well, are ably expressed, and contain many fine truths. We tip our hat to our poetess."
September 3, 1888
Every body seems very busy these days. The threshers have visited this neighborhood and gone again. H.R. Bell begins his school in Springview today. W.N. Anderson (Newt) has enough hay made and hauled to his place to last all winter. So, let the blizzards rage!
Only recently, two of the children, thirsting for adventure, started on a hunting expedition afoot and alone. They expected to be gone two days and one night and were urged to take provisions along, but their visions of deer, buffalo, antelope and other small game waiting to be shot, prevented them from encumbering themselves with any unnecessary luggage. But alas, for the frailty of human calculations and inexperience, footsore and weary, they traveled many miles of the hay flat, and even ventured over onto the reservation, but most of the game succeeded in eluding their vigilant search. The boys, after shivering all night in a shock of hay, secured a few chickens and were glad to dine upon them, though served extremely rare (meat burned black on the outside and raw within) is not very tempting to some palates, but no doubt has a romantic flavor to young hunters and especially when some distance from home with no other provisions handy.
During the year of 1889, I find but one entry in my diary and not even the date of the month. I will copy it, though it is rather gloomy.
Yes, here we are on this broad rolling prairie; four of the five years we have to stay to prove up on this claim have slipped by and we would rejoice if we were through with the five and be free to to where we pleased.
Homesteading is anything but what we had pictured. Though we had expected privations and hardships, we were not prepared for the trying experiences of these years of unrequieted toil too great. Not one year have we succeeded in making a living off our place, though we have worked early and late and done without everything we could. We have gone deeper in debt every year, until now, only the good Lord knows whether we will get out or not.
That entry was as far as I got, I may have been interrupted at that point.
It must have been about this time that Horace left his claim and moved to Springview; about fifteen miles north of our homestead. He found employment there, I believe it was teaching for a while. Anyway, there was something coming in to supply the most urgent needs.
Pa (Newt) began to get restless and talk about moving to Springview also, so it began to look like we would be left alone once more. Newt's health was about broken down as a result of the strenuous work and even worse on him was the terrible worry; as he was of a pessimistic dispositon any way and with such alarming conditions confronting him, he would get nearly desperate. I always tried to look on the bright side and keep him cheered up as much as possible, but it was a seemingly hopeless situation confronting us. I realized that nothing apart from the interposition of the divine Providence I always depended upon could extricate us from such a situation.
Things had come to such a pass that there was no more chance to get a job to earn a little money to buy groceries with. Always before, Newt was able to get work of some kind, but this was no longer to be had as no one seemed able to hire anyone. We were not in a condition to get up and move away as we had no means to enable us to do so, or to get the needed clothing to live anywhere but in the wilderness. So, all we could do was to wait on God to open some way for us. This I never doubted would be done in due time, but to human sense there was nothing in sight that could free us from our desperate situation. But "man's extremity" often proves "God's opportunity" as we were to find out later on.
Dark Days - 1889
This year dawned in gloom upon the discouraged homesteaders, many of whom were making desperate efforst to get out of the country which was not an easy thing to do for the impoverished settlers. Many were so deeply in debt and unable to sell their homesteads even after they had obtained full title to the land. I find a gloomy entry in the old diary which follows.
March 16, 1889
I have been intending for a long time to finish the few remaining pages of this book, but am sorry to wind up this chronicle of so many years of my life without a cheerful gleam at last. But as the years slip by, it seems they bring us nothing any more but poverty and care.
It surely seems to all human appearances as though we did a blind and foolish thing in leaving the comfort and plenty in our Flanagan home to come way out here to this desolate country to carve out our own home in the wilderness. Yet, we surely trusted God to direct us for the best, and in spite of all our woes, I have always thought it certainly must have been for the best. But, oh, how hard it is to see how good can come out of all this problem. Here we are at the expiration of our five years we so hopefully entered upon, almost destitute. We have no clothes fit to be seen in away from this place, and our provisions are now limited to shorts, cornmeal, beans and a very little meat. We have not had but one sack of flour since last September and only one hog to kill last fall. Our wild fruit was a complete failure last year and as has been the case almost every year, my garden succumbed to the heat and dry weather. Although we raised four or five hundred bushels of corn last year (our first year we raised anything to sell) now for the first spring we've been out her over five years, it is worth comparatively nothing; only twenty cents per bushel, when before it was fifty! We have sold all our cows, but one and she isn't giving much milk now. I can not make near enough butter to do us, but fortunately we have a couple dozen hens and the eggs are a great help. Oh, this bitter struggle with poverty! Every year the struggle to keep fed and clothed seems harder. Besides, we have never been able to pay even any interest on what we owe since we came out here. Our indebtedness has become appalling by this time. We have even had to ask Mr. Renn for assistance several times, instead of paying something on what we owe him.
We have not made a living on this place a single year, though Newt has nearly killed himself working it. We have had to sell one thing after another to keep from actual starvation. Last spring one of my beloved cows had to go to buy provisions. The year before, our good wagon was sold for the same purpose - and so it goes. We have sat down to more meals than one, of simple coarse shortbread and molasses. We have been for weeks and weeks without one cent of money and unable to get credit for a dollar's worth at the store. If only the good Lord will help us out of this, we will surely try and never get into another such scrape.
March 4, 1889
Today, Grover Cleveland left the White House, to return (in all probability) no more.
April 20, 1889
After a rather long delay I write a few more items. Mr. Will has sold his work cattle to Mr. Brockman, who owns an extensive ranch on the Keya Paha. March and April seem to have become mixed up this year; the wind has almost out done itself these past few days. We would love to write for the Press, if we had anything cheerful or enlivening to write about, but it is disheartening to chronicle the departure of one neighbor after another and to have no new arrivals to mention. Our editor is right when he says, "There is no use trying to disguise the fact that our country is rapidly depopulating; it is a sad, but indisputeable fact. Within a radius of five or six miles, we can number fifty or more vacated claims with no newcomers to take the place of the absent ones. There is no doubt but our settlers have cause for discouragement, yet we know people are like sheep in their tendency to follow a leader. Of late everyone seems crazed to get away, and everyone that leaves is the means of inducing other to do likewise.
Five years ago, the white covered wagons were pouring in and claims were taken so fast that it seemed none wouldl be left. But now, the prairie schooners are bearing away the precious freight they brought and the little deserted houses and heavy mortgages are all that is left to "hold down the claims". But such is life in the far west.
A Way Out!
As it is said, "The darkest hour is just before the dawn." so too, it proved to be in our case. As I had so often declared during the trying years we had passed through, God had not forgotten us, even though we had been so sorely tried and to all appearances we were stranded on the lonely desolate prairie of the far west (Nebraska!); reduced to what seemed almost the last extremity of direst want and worse even than the destitution was Newt's broken health. He was not able to work at any price and was utterly discouraged; with no idea which way to turn for any measure of relief.
At this time of greatest need, we learned that speculators from the east had recently appeared and were loaning money on homesteads that had been proved up; takin mortgages on them. Many had been able to raise a few hundred dollars on their claims, so they were able to get out of the country, leaving the homesteads to the money lenders. These men were doing business in a town of the county to the south and word of these transactions only reached Pa and Newt when these speculators were about ready to cease these offers.
So, they lost no time visiting them and were able to make a deal with them at the last opportunity they would have had. They were each able to borrow some six hundred dollars on their homesteads, if I remember right. What a time of rejoicing that was! What a God-send it proved to be to us all! How well I remember Newt's arrival home after the transaction, bringing with him a plentiful supply of things we had lacked for so long. Of course, the amount of money secured was altoether insufficient to repay Mr. Renn any part of the sum we owed him, but it was the best we could do, and really what seemed a life-saver to us after the destitution we had endured for so long.
Newt immediately wrote Mr. Renn what he had done and soon received a reply from that good and generous friend expressing his pleasure that Newt had been able to get even what had on the place. He not only did that, but he also offered to take over the claim himself, with its obligation as payment in full for all he had advanced Newt. This was more than we had dared to hope and the offer was most gratefully accepted. We never did learn whether Mr. Renn ever realized anything from this transaction or not. At any rate, it was a most generous thing for him to do for us and release Newt from his great worry of a debt from which he could see no way out.
After all the toil and sacrifices of these five years and disappointed hopes of having a farm, we were at least free of debt and in possession of a good team and wagon, with enough money to fit ourselves out with needed things and to take us to some favorable location. Pa was to make a change of residence with the money loaned him. We were all glad to leave the homesteads to the ones who held the mortgages; thankful for the means to get away from them as soon as possible. Pa and family moved to Long Pine - a rail road town some forty miles west. He bought a little home there and started in at his old trade of tailoring, which, it seemed, he was never able to rid himself of. Then, as his comfortable little house was so convenient to live in, they had us move into it until we were in shape to move entirely away. So, our last summer in Keya Paha was passed in comparative comfort and plenty. Of course, it was lonely with the folks all gone, but the satisfaction of relief from our most pressing need and anxieties meant a great deal to us. We felt our worst trials were past, but we had no premonition of the final and greatest grief that was still to come before our final farewell to our western home.
This last summer on the claim was slipping quickly by. I had not had a chance to see much of Emma (Hettie's sister) after their move to Springview, but after coming home from Lone Pine, got over to spend a day with her. Horace was teaching in Springview. This small place was the county seat of Keya Paha county, and here was where the Keya Paha Press was published. It was fifteen miles distant from our place and when one was driving a team of poky oxen, as many in that part of the country did, it took quite a while to get there.
Along in the fall, Emma gave birth to another girl. That made three little ones for her in less than five years since her marriage. It seemed almost more than she was able to stand, as she never seemed as able to cope with hardships as I had been. She was timid and nervous and had never been used to much household care and work. Ma came out from Lone Pine to stay with Emma until she should be strong enough to take up her duties again. But after the birth of the baby she didn't recover as expected, and at last developed a fever from which it seemed she could not rally. This western town had little to offer in the way of medical skill, and we all felt she had little help in that line. I think the town afforded only one doctor and he seemed utterly incapable of doing anything for poor Emma's relief. She was delirious and unable to sleep night after night, so finally this doctor told her she would have to sleep at any cost, and proceeded to giving her something which he said would induce sleep. Finally, after repeated doses, she sank into a state of unconsciousness from which she never awakened.
I was aroused at midnight by a messenger who had been sent for me to come. That was indeed the crowning loss and most terrible bereavement of all I had ever known in a life of hardship and trials. It didn't seem it could be true that my own dear sister had been taken away; and then to see those little motherless children - the youngest only three weeks old. It took all my Christian faith and fortitude to bear up under thes sorrow. Our dear faithful mother took the little ones home with her and she and Mollie care for them until some three years later Mollie married Horace and took the place of the mother who was gone to the best of her ability.
After this sad event I was anxious to leave the claim forever behind. A little later in the autumn, we moved to Atkinson, a fair sized and thriving town in the county just south of Keya Paha, where we were able to move into a very nice and comfortable house. The children found fine schools to attend there. The five years on the homestead were ended. It had its joys, as well as its sorrows and many lessons were learned.
I will now close this chapter of my life. I have written much and hope these experiences may prove interesting and helpful to some who may come after me. I know I would prize such an account of my mother's life if she could have left only a record of her almost seventy five years. I have the happiness of the realization that I have loved my neighbor as myself and have striven to obey the Golden Rule, to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Hettie Lee Anderson
Fillmore, California. This narrative finished, May 6, 1933
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