Friday, November 27, 2009

Homestead Holiday Traditions German Style

Homestead National Monument remembers the holiday traditions of people who lived on the Great Plains during the homesteading period with decorated trees and tabletop displays featuring ornaments and hand-made crafts that reflect the spirit of hopefulness, forbearance, [and longing for home-holidays passed] which typified settlers of the West. According to Superintendent Mark Engler “The Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures brings to life the traditions of the homesteaders who came here to settle the United States.”
The Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures begins the month long celebration with Die Singenden Wanderer (Singing Wanderers), a men's choir which sings in both German and English. The songs are more often than not light hearted and lively, sharing the significance of time-honored German beliefs and customs. The choir takes pleasure in carrying this spirited singing to the community and other venues such as Homestead, including numerous performances at the German American Society in Omaha. “We were born in Germany and in the United States. Regardless of our birthplace, we are all proud to be Americans, while are still carrying on the customs and traditions of the German language and culture” stated Harold Chester, the choir’s Pressewarte (Press Agent).

“What better way to share culture than through song” asked Mark Engler? “Homestead Monument is very excited to host such a group especially in such a predominantly German settled area.” While listening to the German songs visitors can enjoy the decorations from many countries including Germany.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Homestead Reading: List Two

Homesteading is uniquely American and much has been written about it. It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin learning about the Homestead Act of 1862 which transformed the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world. The following three lists of 24 books might be a good place to start. It was compiled by Todd Arrington. He was the historian at Homestead National Monument from 1998 until 2008. The first two lists are non-fiction and the third is fiction.

List Two

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner

"Since its publication twenty-five years ago, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men has been recognized as a classic, an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the causes of the American Civil War. A key work in establishing political ideology as a major concern of modern American historians, it remains the only full-scale evaluation of the ideas of the early Republican party. Now with a new introduction, Eric Foner puts his argument into the context of contemporary scholarship, reassessing the concept of free labor in the light of the last twenty-five years of writing on such issues as work, gender, economic change, and political thought."

"A significant reevaluation of the causes of the Civil War, Foner's study looks beyond the North's opposition to slavery and its emphasis upon preserving the Union to determine the broader grounds of its willingness to undertake a war against the South in 1861. Its search is for those social concepts the North accepted as vital to its way of life, finding these concepts most clearly expressed in the ideology of the growing Republican party in the decade before the war's start. Through a careful analysis of the attitudes of leading factions in the party's formation (northern Whigs, former Democrats, and political abolitionists) Foner is able to show what each contributed to Republican ideology. He also shows how northern ideas of human rights--in particular a man's right to work where and how he wanted, and to accumulate property in his own name--and the goals of American society were implicit in that ideology. This was the ideology that permeated the North in the period directly before the Civil War, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, and led, almost immediately, to the Civil War itself. At the heart of the controversy over the extension of slavery, he argues, is the issue of whether the northern or southern form of society would take root in the West, whose development would determine determine the nation's destiny."  (Amazon product description) Published in 1995 by Oxford University Press

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction
By Nell Irvin Painter

"In 1879, fourteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of blacks fled the South. They were headed for the homesteading lands of Kansas, the ‘Garden Spot of the Earth’ and the ‘quintessential Free State, the land of John Brown’…Painter examines their exodus in fascinating detail. In the process, she offers a compelling portrait of the post-Reconstruction South and the desperate efforts by blacks and whites in that chaotic period to ‘solve the race problem’ once and for all." –Newsweek (from back cover)

“What makes this book so important, is…(that it) is the first full-length scholarly study of the migration and of the forces that produced it…Most previous students have focused on nationally recognized black leaders; (Painter) calls for attention to the black masses.”-David H. Donald, New York Times Review (from back cover) Published in 1992 by W.W. Norton & Co.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader
By Elinore Pruitt Stewart

"In 1909, Elinore Pruitt Stewart and her young daughter set out for a ranch in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, where an acre can be had for $1.25 and a bit of determination. Stewart’s letters create a colorful account of her new life on the prairie, the eccentric characters who inhabit it, and the community they build together."

"Complete with the original N.C. Wyeth illustrations, this charming chronicle fully reveals a woman whose willpower is outweighed only by the greatness of her heart. Letters of a Woman Homesteader is an unsurpassed classic of American frontier life."  (from back cover) Published in 1998 by Mariner Books

Old Jules
By Mari Sandoz

"First published in 1935, Old Jules is unquestionably Mari Sandoz’s masterpiece. This portrait of her pioneer father grew out of “the silent hours of listening behind the stove or the wood box, when it was assumed, of course, that I was asleep in bed. So it was that I heard the accounts of the hunts," Sandoz recalls. "Of the fights with the cattlemen and the sheepmen, of the tragic scarcity of women, when a man had to ‘marry anything that got off the train,’ of the droughts, the storms, the wind and isolation. But the most impressive stories were those told me by Old Jules himself."

“A realistic biography, a rare find. On putting down this book one feels that one has read the history of all pioneering.” – New York Times Book Review (from back cover)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
By Dee Brown

"First published in 1970, this extraordinary book changed the way Americans think about the original inhabitants of their country. Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navajos in 1860 and ending 30 years later with the massacre of Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, it tells how the American Indians lost their land and lives to a dynamically expanding white society. During these three decades, America's population doubled from 31 million to 62 million. Again and again, promises made to the Indians fell victim to the ruthlessness and greed of settlers pushing westward to make new lives. The Indians were herded off their ancestral lands into ever-shrinking reservations, and were starved and killed if they resisted. It is a truism that "history is written by the victors"; for the first time, this book described the opening of the West from the Indians' viewpoint. Accustomed to stereotypes of Indians as red savages, white Americans were shocked to read the reasoned eloquence of Indian leaders and learn of the bravery with which they and their peoples endured suffering. With meticulous research and in measured language overlaying brutal narrative, Dee Brown focused attention on a national disgrace. Still controversial but with many of its premises now accepted, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has sold 5 million copies around the world. Thirty years after it first broke onto the national conscience, it has lost none of its importance or emotional impact." (from review) Published in 2007 by Holt Paperbacks.

Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the American Frontier
By Elliott West

"Historians have paid little attention to the lives and contributions of children who took part in westward expansion. In this major study of American childhood, now available again in paperback, Elliott West explores how children helped shape--and in turn were shaped by--the frontier experience. Frontier children's first vivid perceptions of the new country, when deepened by their work, play, and exploration, forged a stronger bond with their surroundings than that of their elders. Through diaries, journals, letters, novels, and oral and written reminiscences, West has reconstructed the lives of the children who grew to become the first truly Western generation." (from the publisher) Published in 1989 by University of New Mexico Press.

Bad Land
By Jonathan Raban

"Jonathan Raban ambles and picks his way across the Montana prairie, called "The Great American Desert" until Congress offered 320-acre tracts of barren land to immigrants with stardust in their eyes. Raban's prose makes love to the waves of land, red dirt roads, and skeletons of homesteads that couldn't survive the Dirty Thirties. As poignant as any romance novel, there's heartbreak in the failed dreams of the homesteaders, a pang of destiny in the arbitrary way railroad towns were thrown into existence, and inspiration in the heroism of people who've fashioned lives for themselves by cobbling together homes from the ruined houses of those who couldn't make it. Through it all, Raban's voice examines and honors the vast open expanses of land and pays homage to the histories of families who eked out an existence." ( review) Published 1997 by Random House.

Rachel Calof’s Story
By Rachel Calof

"In 1894, the 18-year-old Calof, a Russian Jew, was shipped to the U.S. to marry an unknown man and stake a homesteading claim with him in North Dakota. She later set down her memories of that time in fluid prose that occasionally reveals a biting sense of humor. Although her circumstances were often pathetic, Calof never is. She writes matter-of-factly about her 12'x 14' dirt-floored shanty, her husband's unappealing family and their unsanitary living arrangements. Each winter, her husband Abe's parents and brother would join them in their home in order to save fuel-an arrangement revealed only on her wedding day. There are pleasurable moments here too, like an impromptu supper of wild garlic and mushrooms (Calof does a taste test to see whether they are poisonous-"It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it"). Childbearing is particularly difficult: Calof seems to be constantly pregnant, and her superstitious mother-in-law keeps her secluded after the birth of her first child until she begins to hallucinate about demons. An epilogue by Calof's son, Jacob, picks up the courageous author's story in St. Paul, Minn., in 1917, while an essay by J. Sanford Rikoon on the phenomenon of Jewish farm settlements provides fascinating background." (from Publishers Weekly) Published in 1995 by Indiana University Press.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Homestead Reading: List One

Homesteading is uniquely American and much has been written about it.  It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin learning about the Homestead Act of 1862 which transformed the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world.  The following three lists of 24 books might be a good place to start. It was compiled by Todd Arrington. He was the historian at Homestead National Monument from 1998 until 2008. The first two lists are non-fiction and the third is fiction.

The Sod House Frontier
By Everett Dick
“From first-hand sources-letters, diaries, old newspapers, reminiscences, old documents-the author has put together a complete account of how the prairie farms managed life: how the men farmed; how the heroic women cooked, kept house, did their washings, bore their babies and  brought up their children; how the houses were built; what the Indians did and were; how the winters were lived through.” (from back of book)
Published in 1989 by University of Nebraska Press.

Conquering the Great American Desert
By Everett Dick

"Professor Dick covers the century in which the Great Plains was transformed from an aboriginal society of nomadic Indians to a society of prosperous farms and cities." (from book foreword)
Published in 1975 by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Photographing the American Dream
By John Carter
"Dugouts and sod houses were the only shelter for homesteaders in the 1870s and '80s on railroad and government land grants of the Nebraska plains. Twenty years later, there were frame houses, farm machinery, even automobiles and an emerging Main Street here and there. S. D. Butcher, a self-confessed pioneer failure who, happily, was successful at photography, recorded it all. In this vibrant collection of Butcher pictures from the University of Nebraska files, we see, for the most part, family portraits with farm and ranch backgrounds, but there are also schoolchildren, skating parties, rodeos, pretty cowgirls, and pelts nailed to the barn door. Carter's text, and quotes from regional authors, retrace the story of heartland America. The high quality of the reproductions from antique glass negatives helps make this a superb portrait of a bygone time." (from a Publishers Weekly review)
Published in 1985 by University of Nebraska Press.

Photographing Montana
By Donna M. Lucey

"Photography Montana showcases more than 150 photographs of life in Montana from the 1890s through the 1920s. Evelyn Cameron’s work portrays vast landscapes, range horses, cattle round-ups, wheat harvests, community celebrations, and wildlife of the high plains. Her vivid images convey the lonely strength of sheepherders and homesteaders and track the growth of Terry, a small town on the Yellowstone River. Her family portraits are priceless glimpses into the past, capturing the endurance, pride and hope of those she photographed. It was the 1991 winner of The Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association Award for Best Nonfiction Book." (from back of book)
Published in 2000 by Mountain Press Publishing Company.

Homesteading: A Montana Family Album
By Percy Wollaston

"As a grown man Percy Wollaston almost never spoke of the homestead where he grew up-until, in 1972, nearing the age of seventy, he wrote this book about his childhood years. Lured by the government’s promise of land and the promotional literature of the railroads, six-year-old Percy Wollaston’s family left behind their home in North Dakota in 1909, heading West to “take up a claim.” They settled near Ismay, Montana, where they attempted to carve a successful homestead out of the harsh plains. In compelling, plainspoken language, Wollaston tells of his pioneer family’s everyday existence-constructing a sod house, digging a well, trapping and hunting, courtships and funerals, an influenza epidemic, and a superstitious Irish neighbor. He also recalls the events of the world beyond Ismay, from the sinking of the Titanic to Prohibition to World War I, as well as the first signs of the town’s demise during the Great Depression. …Homesteading is a rich and vivid look, seen through the eyes of a hopeful young boy, at the forces that shaped the destiny of a family, a town and the American West. " (from back of book)
Published in 1999 by Penguin.

Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota
By H. Elaine Lindgren

"Land is often known by the names of past owners. “Emma’s Land,” Gina’s quarter,” and “the Ingeborg Land” are reminders of the many women who homesteaded across North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Land in Her Own Name records these homesteaders’ experiences as revealed in interviews with surviving homesteaders and their families and friends, land records, letters and diaries. These women’s fascinating accounts tell of locating a claim, erecting shelter, and living on the prairie. Their ethnic backgrounds include Yankee, Scandinavian, German and German-Russian, as well as African-American, Jewish and Lebanese. Some were barely twenty-one, while others had reached their sixties. A few lived on their land for life and “never borrowed a cent against it”; others sold or rented the land to start a small business or to provide money for education." (from back of book)
Published in 1996 by  the University of Oklahoma Press

Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier, 1870 – 1930
By Barbara Handy-Marchello

"In Women of the Northern Plains, Barbara Handy-Marchello tells the stories of the unsung heroes of North Dakota's settlement era: the farm women. As the men struggled to raise and sell wheat, the women focused on barnyard labor--raising chickens and cows and selling eggs and butter--to feed and clothe their families and maintain their households through booms and busts. Handy-Marchello details the hopes and fears, the challenges and successes of these women--from the Great Dakota Boom of the 1870s and '80s to the impending depression and drought of the 1930s. Women of the frontier willingly faced drudgery and loneliness, cramped and unconventional living quarters, the threat of prairie fires and fierce blizzards, and the isolation of homesteads located miles from the nearest neighbor. Despite these daunting realities, Dakota farm women cultivated communities among their distant neighbors, shared food and shelter with travelers, developed varied income sources, and raised large families, always keeping in sight the ultimate goal: to provide the next generation with rich, workable land. Enlivened by interviews with pioneer families as well as diaries, memoirs, and other primary sources, Women of the Plains uncovers the significant and changing roles of Dakota farm women who were true partners to their husbands, their efforts marking the difference between success and failure for their families." ( Amazon product description)
Published in 2005 by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

No Time on My Hands
By Grace Snyder

"When Grace Snyder, the matriarch of a pioneer Nebraska family, wrote these reminiscences in her eightieth year, she felt she had been blessed "by having no time on my hands." The story of her busy life begins on the high plains of Nebraska, where her parents homesteaded in 1885. She recalls her childhood in a sod house on a frontier that required everyone to pull together in the face of hostile weather, serious illness, and economic depression but that also held its full share of good times. "As a child of seven and up," writes Grace Snyder, ". . . I wished that I might grow up to make the most beautiful quilts in the world, to marry a cowboy, and to look down on the top of a cloud. At the time I dreamed those dreams and wished those wishes, it seemed impossible that any of them could every come true." But she saw all of them realized. No Time on My Hands is a remarkable chronicle of the sod house era and of Grace Snyder’s married life on a ranch in Nebraska’s sand hills. From there she finally flies above the clouds to exhibits where her quilts contribute to a worldwide revival of quilt making. Mrs. Snyder lived twenty years after the publication of these memoirs in 1963, to the age of one hundred. Her daughter, Nellie Snyder Yost, who helped to write No Time on My Hands, has added an epilogue to this Bison edition." (Amazon product description)
Published in 1986 by Bison Books.

Nothing to Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother
By Carrie Young

"Carrine Berg came to America from Norway at the age of three, grew up in Minnesota where she went into domestic service at the age of fifteen, and saved enough money by the time she was twenty-five to board a train to North Dakota to claim a homestead for herself. A decade later she had, by her own ingenuity, doubled her landholdings and become a secure woman of property. Then, at an age when most other women would have been declared spinsters, she married Sever Berg and had six children. In this charming book, her daughter Carrie Young tells the story of growing up under the care of this remarkable woman." (from back of book)
Published in 2000 by the University of Iowa Press

Friday, November 6, 2009

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence Reminisces

My thanks to Denise for graciously giving me space to speak to all of you. I thought I’d give you a little insight into how I got to be Homestead’s first Artist-in-Residence this fall, and how I came up with the program I presented while I was there.

by Penny Musco

My family and I have vacationed at national park sites for years. In January, while visiting Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks in Florida, I was inspired to start a blog about our national parks and what I learn from them.

In the course of writing and research my posts, I happened across the National Park Service page on the Artist-in-Residence program. Hmmm… wouldn’t that be interesting, I thought. Next thing I knew, I got a call from Homestead saying my application had been accepted!

But what to do for my program? The germ of an idea came when I applied for the residency. As I searched the park’s website for information so I could write a coherent proposal, I found this article on the nineteenth-century exodus of freed slaves, who became known as Exodusters. An estimated 20,000-40,000 of them poured out of the South, most in 1879 and 1880. Kansas, with its abolitionist history, was the prime destination of these African-Americans.

This was one of the greatest migrations in American history, yet I had never heard of it. I asked many people, black and white, if they were familiar with this movement, and found only one person who was.

So naturally, I knew this HAD to be my subject!

How to present this information became my next focus. After some back and forth with the Homestead rangers, I settled on writing and performing a monologue about a white woman from New Jersey (me) telling the story of her move to Kansas with her family to become homesteaders, and how she befriends an Exoduster.        

Then I tackled the research. I must have read all or parts of around twenty books (some of them children’s books, which provide information simply and concisely), about the Homestead Act, blacks in the West, women in the West, and the Plains states in general. I took voracious notes, picking up little bits and pieces to use to give authenticity and flavor to the plot slowly evolving in my head (the tale of the 1874 grasshopper invasion I owe solely to Laura Ingalls Wilder!). The three books I relied on most were Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction by Nell Irvin Painter; In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 by Quintard Taylor; and especially In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80 by Robert G. Athearn.

Finally, I began to write. I wrote so much than I ended up with 42 pages! If I’d kept it at that length, I’d have talked for two hours! I reminded myself that first and foremost I was telling a story, and even though the historical facts were important, the characters were what would make the narrative come alive. A few days of editing and revising yielded a much tighter, more manageable manuscript.

After that, it was just practice, practice, practice!

If I was blessed enough to have you in the audience when I performed Steal Away, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You calmed my biggest fear—that I would be boring—by giving me your full attention as I wove a nearly-forgotten piece of history through the fictional tale of an unlikely friendship. And when one of you said to me, “I’ll never look at a sunflower the same way again,” I uttered to myself the phrase every artist longs to be able to say: They got it!

Next year you will have a different Artist-in-Residence. Who knows if it will be a sculptor, painter, photographer or even another writer? My hope is that he or she will be as enriched as I am for having been at Homestead.