Friday, January 29, 2010

Homestead Choice: Take a Chance and Leave Your Family. Could You Do it?

Leaving their families knowing they might not see them again is what many homesteaders chose to do. Can you imagine what they were feeling as they left? Was it excitement about the new opportunity and challenge or was it terror at what they would face? Was it loneliness or did the thrill of a new adventure overshadow that?

by Park Ranger Susan Cook

Many homesteaders came from Europe. At that time in Europe, the top 1% of the population owned land. Those land barons usually had 60-80 acres and had sharecroppers. Imagine how these new homesteaders felt with 160 acres of land of their own? Also at that time in many European countries, younger sons did not have very many opportunities. The eldest son inherited everything. The second son entered the military. The third son became a pastor or priest. Any other sons either worked for their eldest brother or entered the military. It was many of those sons that took the chance to come to America to get their “free land.”

Can you image what they were feeling when they left knowing they would probably not see their family members again? Who would take care of their parents and grandparents? They would certainly have the mail service, but that took much time. I would think that the chance to own 160 acres must have been enough to entice them and then the thrill of conquering the land made it worthwhile. Knowing that they would be able to provide a better life for their children and grandchildren also had to keep them going. Many times, the homesteaders would come together to provide the sense of family and support. Why do you think there are so many ethnic regions?

Homesteaders also came from the east coast. You might think they would have a better chance of staying connected to those family members since it’s just across the land but in the 1800s and early 1900s, it still was very difficult to travel and many of them didn’t have funds to return. One thing that did make it easier was the arrival of winter barrels.

What is a winter barrel, you ask?

It was a barrel packed with items that were hard to find in the new territories. Packing material was actually material to sew with so it served multiple purposes. Recipients would find fresh fruit, nuts, sugar and flour. What a pleasure it was to have sugar that didn’t have to be made. It would make foods taste as they did at home. Settlers would also find small toys for the children, but the most cherished item in the barrel was letters from home. Although the items in the barrel were simple, they provided the comforts of home that were hard to come by in the new territories.

Think about yourself now. Do you think you had the courage to leave everything and start over?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dust to Eat: Homesteaders Pioneer No-Till

As we move from the reds, oranges, and yellows of fall to the glittering fairy dust of blowing snow across winter fields, it’s important to look back at how far agriculture has come. As with most things, Mother Nature did not want to cooperate with the farmers this year and the harvest was later than years past. But thanks to ‘no-till’ which is supposed to be economically sound, agronomically superior, and environmentally safer, farmers will pass this test of Mother Nature smoothly because they don’t need to get back into the fields to plow everything under before spring.

But why is no-till such an issue today? What happened to America that the farmers have gone to no-till? What was it like for the hard working men and women who did not use no-till? The answers to those questions lies in exploring William Vaughn Moody’s figure of speech, “Dust to Eat,” coined during the Dust Bowl from 1933-1939.

Caroline Henderson described the Dust Bowl in the book Letter from the Dust Bowl (p. 140-141) as: There were days when for hours at a time we cannot see the windmill fifty feet from the kitchen door. There are days when for briefer periods one cannot distinguish the windows from the solid wall because of the solid blackness of the raging storm. Only in some Inferno-like dream could anyone visualize the terrifying lurid red light overspreading the sky when portions of Texas are “on the air.” This wind-driven dust, fine as the finest flour, penetrates wherever air can go. . . “Dust to eat,” and dust to breathe and dust to drink. Dust in the beds and in the flour bin, on dishes and walls and windows, in hair and eyes and ears and teeth and throats, to say nothing of the heaped up accumulation on floors and window sills after one of the bad days.

Caroline’s description of what it was like during the dust bowl echoes Moody’s expression “Dust to Eat” as this was the reality of daily life. Daily life became even more bitter with each passing day and trying to describe it to those who did not experience it was a futile exercise, because who can really fathom ‘“Dust to eat,” and dust to breathe and dust to drink’ (Henderson, p. 141)?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered programs in his New Deal that would address the problems of the Great Depression and help farmers such as Caroline Henderson. The Soil Conservation Service created Soil Conservation Districts and encouraged new farming methods to conserve the land and reduce the impact of practices that had contributed to the dust bowl. Caroline Henderson describes those practices:

The almost unbroken buffalo grass sod has given way to cultivated fields. . . In one limited respect we realize that some farmers have themselves contributed to this reaping whirlwind. Under the stimulus of war time prices and the humanizing of agriculture through the use of tractors and improved machinery, large areas of buffalo grass and blue-stem pasture lands were broken out for wheat raising. The reduction in the proportionate area of permanent grazing grounds has helped intensify the serious effect of the long drought and violent winds. (p. 141)

So the breaking of the land by homesteaders proved to be too much for the soil. In addition, many homesteads were abandoned for various reasons, one of which was the lack of moisture. Although the Soil Conservation Service tried to reduce the impacts of the practices leading to the dust bowl, there was no one to implement these practices on the abandoned homesteads, further adding to the problem.

But it is through these lessons, learned the hard way by homesteaders such as Caroline Henderson that agriculture has advanced to our current economically sound, agronomically superior, and environmentally safer way of growing crops by using the no-till system.

So enjoy the fairy dusting of snow over no-till fields and thank the homesteaders who pioneered our current ways of agriculture.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New Year's Resolution Homestead Style

A New Life
by Tina Miller

Well, 2010 is finally here. Did you make a New Year’s Resolution? Perhaps you’d like to lose a couple pounds or eat a little better, but whatever it is you resolve to do it will no doubt improve your life in some way. How did Homesteaders improve their lives? It was a lot of hard work to live on the prairie. Nothing came easy. A person had to wear many hats, farmer, carpenter, mechanic, baker, seamstress and more.

But they improved their lives by coming west and homesteading and trying to make a better life for themselves. This wasn’t always easy. Bess Streeter Aldrich described the journey to Nebraska of her famed character Abbie Deal with her husband Will in A Lantern in Her Hand in this way:

"Abbie’s heart was in her throat. Oh, stop the wind rushing by. Stop Time for a few minutes, until she could think whether this move was the thing to do. Life was not right. It was not meant that you should leave your own this way. It was not meant that weeks and weeks of travel should separate you from your folks" (Aldrich, p. 65).

So why did Abbie go? Was the promise of a new life so strong? Perhaps for some, but in Abbie’s case it was:

"Only one thing gave her strength for the parting. Only one thing gave her courage to make the long journey to the raw new state. Her love for Will. Abbie’s love for her husband had retained its sweetness and its ardor. And in her heart she knew that as much as she cared for her people, as dear as were her mother and sisters and the old settlement to her, - they did not outweigh her love for him. If being with Will meant making a new home in a far, unsettled country, why, then she chose to journey bravely to the far unsettled country" (Aldrich, p. 65).

And what did her husband Will think about their moving west?

"Will was boyishly gay. For the first time he felt free from the “the folks”- his own master. “Well, here we go.” He cracked the long black snaky looking whip. “We’ll come back rich.” He laughed in excitement.
The wagon lurched, - steadied, - moved on. “Good-by ... good-by ... good-by ..." (Aldrich, p. 66).

So although moving west was not easy for many reasons, thousands made the journey and made a new life for themselves. Have you ever considered that for a New Year’s resolution?

Friday, January 8, 2010

All Aboard! Homestead Trains Ho!

Railroads and the pioneer experience will be the focus of several events at Homestead National Monument of America during 2010. On three Sunday afternoons during January and February the “All Aboard” the Train Film Festival will be held at the Education Center. “Westward Moving Train” is the theme for Homestead Days on June 18 through 20. During this year I will look at various aspects of the railroads and their connections to homesteading.

by Doris Martin

1862 saw the United States Congress pass two pieces of legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act and the Homestead Act, which dramatically opened up the west. These bills helped turn the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world and gave 1.6 million families land of their own. The round trip that took Lewis and Clark two and a half years in 1803 was a nine day journey by 1881.

The Homestead Act was signed into law on May 20, 1862, and allowed citizens to claim 160 acres of surveyed but unclaimed public land and receive title to it after making improvements and residing there for five years. Less than two months later on July 1, 1962 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Companies to build a transcontinental rail line along the 42 parallel and provided public lands and subsidies for every mile of track laid.

While Homesteading got off to a quick start with 418 filing claims on the first day the completion of the transcontinental railroad took more time. “The promoters of the Union Pacific soon found that enthusiasm was not the only factor necessary for constructing a railroad. Both capital and labor were scarce during the period of the (Civil) war, and in consequence progress was very slow. Only forty miles were built during 1864 and 1865,” according to Robert Riegel in his book, The Story of the Western Railroads.

Railroad work did not stop entirely during the Civil War, and immediately thereafter was resumed with vigor. The Union Pacific was completed in 1869, while other lines began jutting out into the territory and railroads were beginning to be built entirely in advance of settlement, according to Riegel.

The influence of the railroads in encouraging settlement in the new West can hardly be overestimated, according to Riegel. For example, before the Union Pacific reached Wyoming in 1867 there were almost no settlements, but within a year the region was considered well enough populated to permit it to be made a territory on July 25, 1868.

Historian Everett Dick in Conquering the Great American Desert explained the settlement of the west. “As settlement moved west, most settlers made short moves rather than long jumps. More people moved from Iowa into Nebraska than from other states further east, and there was a tendency for western Nebraska to be settled by large number of Nebraskans moving from the eastern part of the state to points farther west. Thus we can visualize the frontier as a slowly rolling line rather than one made by long leapfrogging. In harmony with that concept, we find that most of the railroad grant lands of the Burlington, from 1873 to 1876 for example, were sold to Nebraskans rather than to those who made jumps from eastern states.”

Dick goes on to explain the role the railroads played in westward expansion. “Immigrants went west by various modes of travel. In the earlier period, settlers migrated by covered wagon, but as the railroad built west and offered inviting rates, longer distance travelers came by train. Overseas immigrants were offered special immigrant cars for the long ride from the coast to Nebraska. Equipped for sleeping and cooking en route, the car had a kitchen with stove and utensils in each end and seats arranged in such a way that the passengers could make down beds at night. While they were not palatial, immigrant cars did enable the old countryman to eat in a thrifty fashion and sleep with a degree of comfort. Stops at division points along the line allowed time for the often strangely dressed people to go to an available market and buy provisions for their meals en route.”

Not everyone moving west was able to have such accommodations. Those moving from a few hundred miles to the east often came in a boxcar along with their belongings. Dick explains: “Farming equipment and household goods were stored in one end of the car, and the other was left open to accommodate the livestock, particularly favorite draft animals and perhaps a cherished milk cow. Hay and grain were stored near the stock, and a small space in the middle of the car was left for the family’s living quarters during the several days en route. In this cramped space, makeshift sleeping quarters and cooking accommodations were set up. In mild weather a door would be pushed ajar to provide light, and the near proximity of the animals guaranteed good care for them. The wagon, which had been dismantled and packed as close to the door as possible, was taken out first and set up where it could be loaded with the farming and household goods.”

Together these two pieces of legislation resulted in 400 million acres of land being distributed to those willing to move west and start a new life.

Friday, January 1, 2010

One Room Education

“It’s cold outside,” Lois Smith complains to her mother as she gets ready for school, but her mother pays her little attention. So Lois takes her brother’s hand and heads out the door. They are on their way to St. Paul parochial school located on the east side of York county right here in Nebraska. They trudge through over a mile of fresh snow that, in places, is as high as the fence posts that criss-cross each section of land. Finally, they arrive just in time to here the schoolmaster ring the hand bell. This story comes straight from my Grandmother who actually experienced one room school education in the 1930’s.

A one room school house that the author's grandfather attended.
His grandmother said that she recalled the school name as Zion Lutheran.

by Trent Gloystein, Southeast Community College

This scene, set in rural Nebraska, is probably much like something one of your own relatives has experienced. The information on one room schools I am about to share with you has come from interviews with people who have studied in one room schools, historians, and from further research on the topic My purpose is to inform you about the era of one room schools. While discussing one room school houses we will look at their history, the general setup, and the curriculum.

One room schools were common place in America through the 19th and half of the 20th century. In the Land Ordinance of 1785, Congress stated that each township in the western territories would set aside a section of land of a public school (Pioneer Village, 2009). According to Evelyn Toynton’s (1995) book Growing up in America, 1830-1860, “The first free schools were established in Philadelphia in 1787.” Small one roomed schools were ideal for the widespread American population. During my interview with the curator of the Hastings museum, Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson (2009) stated that most Americans in the west had agricultural based livelihoods and small rural schools close to home were ideal.

We should realize that the history of schooling has shaped education of today as both churches and government recognized the need for education. Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be” (Pioneer Village, 2009). My grandmother told me that schools were either public schools or parochial, ran by a Christian based organization (L. Smith, 2009). Now that we have covered where the one room school house came from, let’s look at the typical set up of a one room school.

Most one room schools were setup primarily the same, with economical accommodations that reflected the state of the surrounding economy, yet retain some of the same things we would find in a classroom today. The basic facilities were pretty much the same for most schools.

In John Martin Campbell’s (1996) book, The Prairie School House, (p. 14) he noted professional carpenters were rarely used. Most schools were made from whatever material the townspeople had readily available. According to my grandmother, Lois Smith, who attended a one room school, most schools had desks or benches for kids to do their work in.

One room schools did not typically have running water. They used outside privies, outhouses, and had a water basin to wash their hands and drink from (T. Kreutzer-Hodson, 2009). Each school had a blackboard at the front of the class that sat behind the teacher in the back of the school house (Stuhr Museum, 2009). Wood or oil burning stoves were the only source of heat for the schools (Stuhr Museum, 2009).

The teacher’s position also worked differently than today. Most schoolmasters would board in student’s homes (Pioneer Village, 2009). My grandmother vividly recalls having the teacher stay with her family. She also stated that it was looked at as a privilege.

Schoolmasters were paid either through taxes or by the church, if it was a parochial school. Teachers were usually unmarried males or females usually not much older than the students (T. Kreutzer-Hodson, 2009). Most teachers would stay a year or two at the most (Stuhr Museum, 2009). Next, we will look at what was taught in a one room school and how it was taught.

One room schools had a basic curriculum. Although they had different ways of teaching, the information taught was not completely unlike the basic curriculum of schools today. The teachers of the one room schools taught the subjects that were most important at the time. They taught basic skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic (math), geography, and history (Pioneer Village, 2009). My grandmother added that on special occasions they would get to learn bits of knitting and other things that may be useful in a home setting.

One room schools had different ways of studying information than schools of today. One room schools made use of memorization and flash cards (Lois Smith, 2009). According to (2009) Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson, Curator of Hastings Museum in Nebraska, because the classes ranged from grades k-8, all in the same room, the teacher handed out books called hornbooks and taught a grade its lesson separately while the others worked on their assignments. After the older grades had completed their work they would help the younger classes with their studies. Now that we have seen how school was taught and what the children studied, let's look at how the school year was set up.

The school year was set up drastically different from schools of today. School was not always the family’s first priority. Many children, especially males, took time off school for the harvesting and planting of the family’s crops. This means that many school children only went to school for a few months out of the year (T. Kreutz-Hodson, 2009).

The school system observed holidays just like the schools of today. Most schools celebrated Christian holiday such as Christmas and Easter (Stuhr Museum, 2009). My grandmother recalled that the only non-Christian holiday her school in rural Nebraska observed was Thanksgiving. But school children were rarely allowed to miss school due to weather.

Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson (2009) recalls a story she heard about a snow storm during the one room school era. The children had gone to school one day and during school hours the weather had taken a bad turn. Snow fell across the acres of harvested fields and covered the ground with a thick blanket of fresh snow. The snow was getting to deep to walk in and in those days a parent would show up to collect all the kids and drive them home, a very seldom occasion. On this particular day the parent didn’t have enough room for all the children to fit inside. They couldn’t leave the other students behind so, naturally, the older kids piled on the running boards. Amidst the slipping and sliding, one girl fell off. Like kids do, she overreacted and everyone was convinced she had broken her neck. There was too much snow for the county doctor to see her that day so they took her home and laid her in bed. Days later, the doctor came and she was fine.

In conclusion, we have seen the history of one room schools and how our fore fathers knew the importance of education in America, the similarities and differences between the setup of present day schools and one room schools, and the parallels and differences in the curriculum and how it was taught. Though the concept of a one room schoolhouse seems outdated, they were the norm throughout most of America’s brief history. Some estimate that there are still close to 400 one room schools still left in the U.S. today (Stuhr Museum, 2009).

Next time you wake up to a snowy morning, walk out to your car, start the engine, and turn on the heat before school, remember our ancestors and what they would have had to endure on a day like that just to get to school. It is imperative that we remember our ancestors and their one room schools have shaped the educational system as we know it, honor them accordingly, and be thankful for what we have. I’m sure that someday when we have grandchildren they will be amazed at what school was like for our generation.


Campbell, J. (1996). The prairie schoolhouse. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Public Relations.

L. Smith (personal communication, October 23, 2009)

Pioneer Village. (2009). Schools of the pioneer era [Brochure]. Minden, NE: Author.

Stuhr Museum. (2009). And cattle ate the school. [Brochure]. Grand Island, NE: Author.

Toynton, E.(1995). Growing up in America, 1830-1860. Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press.

T. Kreutzer-Hodson (personal communication, October 26, 2009)