Friday, October 30, 2009

Alaska Homesteading in the 1950s

The following is the story and pictures of my husband's experience in homesteading land in Alaska.  We’ve really enjoyed going over old memories through this process. We hope that this will be of some interest to your readers and followers of the Homesteading stories.

Anne Paquette

I  served in the Army during the Korean War, discharged in April of 1955 and returned to my hometown of Concordia, Ks.  I worked as an electrician and carpenter for Hood Construction.   In the spring of 1958, my Uncle Jack LaBarge from Anchorage, Alaska returned to visit family and in the course of our conversations, he asked what I had planned for the future.  "I don't know yet", I replied.   He suggested that I go back to Alaska with him.  He offered me a job working with him cleaning soot out of oil burning furnaces and a place to stay at his house.  Together, he said we could homestead a 160 acre tract of land and once it was proven up on each of us would have 80 acres and divide the land down the center, sharing a small lake located in the center of the larger plot.  As a young fellow of 25 years and a future ahead of me, I thought the whole idea would be a great adventure, so I made the decision to head north!

Alaska homestead and cow moose in a November 1958.

 Once I got to Alaska, some of the excitement began to change as I realized the cost of living was almost three times higher in Anchorage as it was in Kansas.  A bowl of soup, at the time in Kansas would have cost me 40 cents, while in Anchorage I paid close to $1.40.

Alaska Homestead Far North Furnace Cleaners

 Another factor I hadn't considered was the difference in night and day.  The night time darkness was only about 4 hours long.  The sun would go below the horizon about 11:30 pm and come up again around 3:30 am.  Despite the short  nights, the Northern Lights were beautiful.

Fishing Katchemak Bay Saldovia, AK, August 1958 

 Once I was there, we selected our Homestead site on a map.  The site was located about 15 miles north of Palmer, Alaska: about 50 miles north of Anchorage according to my recollection.  (It's been 50 years).  We hired a Bush pilot to fly us out to the site and landed on the lake.  We stepped off the measurements and drove stakes into the ground as markers.  The stakes had our name, date and description of the land stamped in a piece of galvanized sheet metal.  The plane came back to get us about four or five hours later.   We each carried a 44 magnum side arm just in case a bear or cow moose decided to attack us.

 Our next task was to acquire or build a livable shack on the plot of land and to actually live in it for two our of the five years it would take to complete the homestead requirements.  We bought a shack at an auction and had it hauled out to the site.  However, the road was soft dirt and it started to rain and the truck sunk to it's axils in mud.  We slid the shack off the truck on planks and had to leave it by beside the road until the ground froze up later. That would put us several months behind.  Our dream was slowly turning into a nightmare.  Another requirement was to clear 5 to 10 acres of land by a caterpillar and have a crop sown and show a product of food from it.  This seemed impossible from where we stood that day - up to our knees in mud and thick tundra all around us.  I also found out later that the government retained all mineral rights, so any gold, oil, uranium, etc. that you found on your land would not belong to the landowner, but would be given back to the government.  There was a 5000 lb. copper "nugget" sitting on a corner in Anchorage about four feet in diameter.  It was so pure it was green from all the copper in it.

 My uncle was a super nice guy when he wasn't drinking, but he also lived a more dangerous and rugged life style from living in the untamed territory than I cared to.  With the homesteading looking bleaker and bleaker, and the differences I was experiencing in everyday life, I started to question my previous decisions.  None the less, I stayed for a while longer.

 We had planned our application of the homestead so as to get in before Alaska became as state, as that had been the talk for quite awhile.  I was glad I stayed for the celebration that followed the announcement.  It was a very happy time in Anchorage and all of Alaska.  Anchorage had a huge celebration and a bon fire near the middle of the city.  They burned 49 tons of wood.  Almost every tavern along 4th and 5th Avenue served free drinks.

 Despite the adventure, the beauty of the state and the opportunity of owning land, when I evaluated all the facts in front of me:  winter weather, life styles, economy, etc.  I decided that if I had enough money to do what it would take to prove up on this land, I could go back to Kansa and buy 50 acres with a house on it.  So, I relinquished my claim, bought a plane ticket and flew back to Tacoma, Washington and took the next bus back to Kansas where I did just that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Homestead one of 391 National Park Service Units

With the Ken Burns PBS documentary National Parks: America’s Best Idea currently highlighting America’s 58 National Parks maybe it is time to remember the National Park Service administers 391 Units in the National Park System

The National Park Service was created in 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act.  It was expended over the years [see timeline] to administer National Battlefields, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, and so much more. 

Often the terms “National Park Service” and “National Park System” are used interchangeably, but there is a difference.  The National Park Service is an agency in the Department of Interior that administers the National Park System.  But the National Park Service also administers wholly or partially the following:

·         National Register of Historic Places

·         National Historic Landmarks Program

·         National Natural Landmarks Program

·         Land and Water Conservation Grants Program

·         Historic American Building Survey

·         American Battlefield Protection Program

·         National Maritime Heritage Grants Program

·         Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program

·         Tribal Preservation Program Heritage Preservation Services

·         The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,

.          National Trails System

·         National Wild and Scenic Rivers System

·         U. S. National Heritage Areas

·         Historic Preservation Funding Programs.

Of course, of all the things the National Park Service administers the National Park System is the one most familiar to Americans.  The National Park System consists of many different areas with many different “designations,” but they are all “equal.”  The General Authorities Act passed in 1970 and the amendments made to it through the Redwoods Act of 1978 made equal all areas of the National Park System no matter the designation. This provides equal protection to all areas of the National Park System from impairment and/or derogation of their resources.  In other words tiny little U. S. Grant National Historic Site in suburban St. Louis receives a standard of protection equal to that which the Grand Canyon National Park receives. 

Each of the 391 Units in the National Park System has a specific name or designation.  The numerous designations within the National Park System sometimes confuse people. The designations are created in the Congressional legislation authorizing the sites. The 391 Units can be grouped into several primary designations. Many names are descriptive; lakeshores, seashores, battlefields, but others cannot be neatly categorized because of the diversity of resources within them.  Below is a partial list of designations:

·         National Park: These are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized.  Currently there are 58 National Parks.  One of the least known is Congaree National Park.

·         National Monument: The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorized the President to declare by public proclamation landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the government to be National Monuments.  However, Congress can also create a National Monument by passing a Congressional Act as it did in the case of Homestead National Monument of America.  There are 74 National Monuments in the National Park System.  There are 25 other National Monuments administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the U. S. Forest Service and therefore are not Units in the National Park System.

·         National Preserve: National Preserves are areas having characteristics associated with National Parks, but in which Congress has permitted continued public hunting, trapping, oil/gas exploration and extraction.  Currently there are 18 National Preserves and several are next door to National Parks like Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

·         National Historic Site: Usually, a National Historic Site contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject. Derived from the Historic Sites Act of 1935, a number of historic sites were established by secretaries of the Interior, but most have been authorized by acts of Congress as was Lincoln Home National Historic Site.  There are 77 National Historic Sites.

·         National Historical Park: This designation generally applies to historic parks that extend beyond single properties or buildings.  One good example would be LBJ National Historical Park where there are two distinct visitor areas separated by 14 miles.  There are 45 National Historical Parks.

·         National Memorial: A national memorial is commemorative of a historic person or episode; it need not occupy a site historically connected with its subject, but sometimes do as in the case of Flight 93 National Memorial.  There are 27 National Memorials in the National Park System.

·         National Battlefield: This general title includes National Battlefield [11], National Battlefield Park [3], National Battlefield Site [1], and National Military Park [9].  This does get confusing.  For example four separate Civil War Battlefield locations are Antietam National Battlefield, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.  There are 24 battlefields being preserved in the National Park System.

·         National Recreation Area: There are 18 NRAs in the National Park System and 13 are centered on large reservoirs and emphasize water-based recreation.  One example of these would be Amistad National Recreation Area. Five other NRAs are located near major population centers. These 5 urban parks combine scarce open spaces with the preservation of significant historic resources and important natural areas in locations that can provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people.  A prime example would be Gateway National Recreation Area.  There are numerous other National Recreation Areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U. S. Forest Service, or the Army Corps of Engineers and therefore are not Units in the National Park System.

·         National Seashore: Ten National Seashores have been established on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts; some are developed and some relatively primitive. Hunting is allowed at many of these sites.  There are 10 National Seashores including Gulf Islands National Seashore where some of the facilities are now just re-opening after the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

·         National Lakeshore: There are 4 National Lakeshores, all on the Great Lakes.  They closely parallel the seashores in character and use.  You must take a boat ride to enjoy the beauty of the cliffs at Picture Rocks National Lakeshore.

·         National Parkway: The title parkway refers to a roadway and the parkland paralleling the roadway. All were intended for scenic motoring along a protected corridor and often connect cultural sites.  At present, there are 4 national parkways in the National Park System including George Washington Memorial Parkway.

·         Other: There are other Units that have designations that have either “river,” “reserve,” or “trail” in their names like Niobrara National Scenic River, Pinelands National Reserve, and Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail.  But other units in the National Park System defy categorization.  A few examples would be: President’s Park, Rock Creek Park, Prince William Forest Park, and Catoctin Mountain Park.  There are 11 such parks in the National Park System, all located in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Homestead Myth: The Rain Follows the Plow

Suppose (an army of frontier farmers) 50 miles, in width, from Manitoba to Texas, could acting in concert, turn over the prairie sod, and after deep plowing and receiving the rain and moisture, present a new surface of green growing crops instead of dry, hard baked earth covered with sparse buffalo grass. No one can question or doubt the inevitable effect of this cooling condensing surface upon the moisture in the atmosphere as it moves over by the Western winds (sic). A reduction of temperature must at once occur, accompanied by the usual phenomena of showers. The chief agency in this transformation is agriculture. To be more concise. Rain follows the plow.
--Charles Dana Wilber, 1881, in

These four words the “rain follows the plow” were used to encourage people to move west and to dispel the rumor that the middle of America was not good for farming. In the early 1800s the area west of the 100th meridian was labeled “the Great American Desert” by Stephen H. Long, an explorer and map-maker.

Because of this desert label there was very sparse settlement in the area beyond the Mississippi River in the 1840s and the 1850s. There were isolated homesteads here and there, but not settlers in vast numbers until the late 1850s and the early years of the 1860s. After the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 people moving into the trans-Mississippi  West increased.  First by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands. As the population increased in the Great Plains people came to recognize that the old myth of the Great American Desert was no longer true.

And those eager to boost settlement and attract business and get railroad connections wanted the rest of the country to believe that the so-called Great American Desert was not a desert after all. And this belief was widely promoted in the 1870s as a justification for the settlement of the Great Plains.

In the 1880s some areas of Nebraska and Kansas were unusually rainy. As humans had recently pushed into the area, many human-centered theories sprung up about what could be causing the increased rainfall. Some people suggested that the “iron on the lines” or the “wires of the telegraph lines” were responsible. Others thought it “the disturbance of the atmospheric circulation through the concussions of locomotives and moving trains. Much more widespread was the idea, created by conservationists, that “forests produce rains.”

Samuel Aughey, a prominent Nebraska natural scientist, looked at the tree planting data and noted that the rains began before the trees. His conclusion was that it must be settlement. “There is, however, another cause most potently acting to produce all the changes in rainfall that the facts indicate have taken place. What then is that cause?’ Aughey wrote, “It is the great increase in the absorptive power of the soil, wrought by cultivation,  that has caused, and continues to cause an increasing rainfall in the State.”

But it was Charles Dana Wilber, an author, educator, geologist and entrepreneur, who said that he could prove scientifically that rainfall was bound to increase as the farming frontier moved westward. In his influential book, The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest, published in 1881, Wilbur wrote that the ages old symbol of the farmer, the plow was the instrument of cooperation between God, nature and man. He said, “In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasure of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling.” He concluded, “The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power of prayer of labor.”

During the 1870s and early 1880s unusually heavy rainfall made these claims sound plausible, and within ten years nearly 2 million people had sunk their roots into the prairie soil.

Climatologists now understand that increased vegetation and settlement can result in increased precipitation. The effect, however, is local in scope, with increased rainfall typically coming at the expense of rainfall in nearby areas. It cannot result in climatologically change for an entire region. They also understand that the Great Plains had had a wetter than usual few seasons as this theory and settlement were both taking place. When normal arid conditions returned, homesteaders were damaged.


Libecap, Gary D. "Rain Follows the Plow:" The Climate Information Problem and Homestead Failure in the Upper Great Plains, 1890-1925." (2000): 1. Web. 11 Sep 2009.

Letheby, Pete. "Water-a Historical perspective we should remember today." Grand Island Independent n. pag. Web. 11 Sep 2009.

Schultz, Stanley K. "Which Old West and Whose?." American History 102. 2004. Web.

Editor's note: article is from the HNM archives.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A New Mexico Homestead Story: Pie Town Woman

In 1940 about three hundred families lived in Pie Town. One of these families was selected by photographer Russell Lee to tell the story of homesteading in New Mexico during this time. Fifty years later photographer Joan Myers came across some of these images in a magazine article and wondered what happened to these twentieth century pioneers. Where are they today?

For several years it was just an unanswered question but then the author was given a letter written by one of the woman in the pictures. It said,

I am writing you because I too am a woman of New Mexico. In 1930-32 I spent each summer traveling with George Mickey, a Church of Christ minister who spent each summer holding meetings in different communities, at Pie Town, and community schoolhouses there in Catron County. His oldest daughter was my best friend. I don’t know anything about writing and can’t spell my own name but never the less I wrote in longhand about 46 pages of my life at Pie Town…

When Russell Lee came out to take his pictures, he was in my home many times. He loved to follow my daughter Josie around to make pictures of her doing what she normally did each day at play…

This letter was written by Doris Caudill. She is also pictured as a young woman looking proudly at her canning accomplishments. Myers set off to discover what had happened to her. Myers found her living in Cascade Locks, Oregon.

I told Russell about a square dance we were having at a neighbor’ house and invited he and Jean to go. He did and got a lot of fine pictures. One was McKee doing a jig. Another was the kids asleep on the bed. My Josie was the first one next to the camera. You can see her big feet better than her face…
Sorry to take up so much of your time but when I get started thinking of the Pie Town years I don’t want to stop talking. We were dirt poor but we didn’t know it. We were a happy and made our own fun.

The book is really two stories. One is of the photographs taken by Lee in 1940 and the other is the story of Doris and the impact this experience had on her. It is a great read for the history buff and for the person with an interest in photography.

One aspect of the book which impressed me was the way the author wrote about Doris’ experiences in Pie Town. It was based on what Doris remembered and I really wanted to believe her family had been successful. It seemed to match what the photographer had attempted to do when he took his pictures in 1940.

Before taking the pictures Lee first had to get the approval of his boss Roy Stryker, director of the historical section of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was created during the Great Depression to solve the problems of the poorest farmers, especially those who had lost their livelihood under New Deal programs. Lee’s message to Stryker said:

"Then we crossed the continental divide and on to Pie Town, which is a settlement of migrants from Texas and Oklahoma-dry land farmers raising Pinto beans and corn. Talked with the store owner there and I believe it should be one community we must cover. He called it the “last frontier” with people on farms ranging from 30 to 200 acres –some living in cabins with dirt floors-others better off, but all seemingly united in an effort to make their community really function.”

Once he had Stryker’s approval he took over 600 pictures including 100 of Doris, her husband, Faro, and their daughter, Josie. They show Doris planting her garden, canning vegetables, milking cows and going to the neighborhood gatherings. It is interesting to look at the pictures and then read Doris’ descriptions of events which happened sixty years ago.

The author also talks to Lee’s widow to offer some understanding of his intentions when taking the photographs. This works because his widow, Jean Lee, accompanied her husband when he took the pictures and was responsible for writing the captions for each picture.

In addition to Lee’s iconic photographs the book also includes Doris’ family snapshots, and photographs taken by Myers herself showing the visual residue of those bygone years.

Joan Myers does a masterful job of combining these photographs along with interviews with Doris Caudill Jackson and Jean Lee to offer a complete look at a homesteading experience in the twentieth century and how it is remembered in the twenty-first century.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Rag Rug History: Bold Spirit

Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt is two stories in one. The first deals with Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight children who attempts to walk from eastern Washington to New York City hoping to collect $10,000 from a mysterious sponsor. The other story involves how family stories are passed, or not passed, in Helga’s instance, to future generations.

The author recreates the walk across America mainly using newspaper articles about Helga and her daughter, Clara. Since they were not allowed to have more than $5 at any time they had to earn money along the route. This included taking odd jobs and also selling formal portraits of themselves in their bicycle skirts. The sponsoring party wanted the women to wear a type of bicycle skirt introduced at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. There had been resistance by American women to wearing the shorter skirts even though it was gaining acceptance in the fashion centers of Paris and New York.

Besides serving as a walking advertisement for fashion reform, the sponsors wanted this cross-continent achievement to prove the endurance of women. Many in society believed that women were physically delicate and needed to be protected. Helga and Clara proved that women were anything but physically delicate.

Helga is a woman pushing societal boundaries but also bound by societal conventions. This continuing struggle adds drama to an already interesting tale. Hunt does a good job of explaining the constraints faced by women in the 1890’s and the changes which were taking place in society. In the book we are introduced to three women, Mary Baird Bryan (wife of William Jennings Bryan), Jane Addams (founder of Hull House and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Helga, all born in 1860 but by the time they are 26 their lives are very different. It was an interesting look at the advantages and disadvantages of being born into “privilege” in Victorian society.

I have to agree with the author that Helga’s experience as an immigrant helped her travel the 2500 miles in unknown territory from Spokane to New York.  She came to America from Scandinavia as a child and first settled in Michigan and then homesteaded in Minnesota after becoming pregnant and marrying Ole Estby at 16.

For me the way the author found the details of the story was also intriguing. Since very little information was available from the family Hunt found most of her information about the journey from newspaper articles written when the two would visit a city. The author spent 17 years traveling throughout the United States and to Norway as she pieced together scraps of information about Helga, gradually weaving them into what she calls a “rag rug” history.  The author did a good job of filling in the blanks about this trip. I thought the book was solidly researched and the author admitted when there was information that could not be found.

Equally interesting is the end of the book which discusses why families choose to not pass information on to the next generation. In fact, Helga’s family destroys the diary, sketches and letters that Helga created on her trip shortly after she died in an attempt to hide what they considered shameful.

 She gives six reasons and explains each of them and uses Helga’s story as the example but does it in such a way that it makes you start thinking about your own family stories. And wondering what was not told about your ancestors.

Bold Spirit is a historical and psychological look at an almost forgotten walk across America. But thanks to Dr. Hunt Helga’s story is no longer something to hide but an adventure to celebrate and a reminder to us all to pass on our stories to the next generation.