21 - DAKOTA DAYS
Just before harvest time I went out to Dakota to see how things were with our renter. I found the condition of the whole country most encouraging. The season had been very warm, and well supplied with quite timely rain - making both good small grain and corn crops. Mr. Phaff, our renter, was a good farmer, having a good claim over two of his own, which he had made a good beginning to stock with a good breed cattle and sheep. We received about two hundred bushels of wheat, and over one hundred bushels of oats for our share, besides some corn - though he had not had very good success with that crop. He had never had experience in Illinois or Iowa in order to make him efficient in the production of that great staple crop of today.
I had broken a fire break around the claim the second season of our residence there, and it was plowed every year to keep it in proper shape for the purpose it was intended for. The prairie fires were very much dreaded by the settlers. Some had well protected their premises, while others were very negligent about this most important precaution. When a fire did come sweeping along before a gale there was little chance to prepare a fire guard in time to save ones premises. Many a time we watched at night the beauty of these vast prairie fires which were sweeping over the sea of rich grasses. As the fire swept through the creek valleys of the dry lake beds, which had now grown to grass and weeds, we could notice at once by the great clouds of smoke shooting up into the heaven, attended by our brighter illumination in the sky. At times we could see the great long line of fire, as it stretched like a line of battle, for miles over the hills and hollows and valleys. Of course we rushed to the scene of the fire, if it was not over four or five miles distance, to help fight it with wet socks, old blankets, and old coats. Many a time, took the coats right off of their backs to beat out the flames.
Our share of the grain was stored in the house. Only two loads of the wheat, and about a hundred bushels, I sold in Kimball and Woonsocket before going back to Warren. That load I sold in Kimball brought forty cents per bushel, and the other load, sold in Woonsocket, sold for about forty two and one half cents per bushel.
Besides the better price received there, I had the pleasure of attending a soldiers reunion. Each one expressed much pleasure in meeting each other and all. Away out on that lonesome prairie the ties of friendship seemed stronger than in the older, settled countries, where men met each other often. I returned to Warren feeling much encouraged and happy in the thought of having a piece of God's green earth.
Winter settled over the whole western country early in the year, 1887. Early as Thanksgiving day, the temperature had been down to thirty degrees below zero in Dakota, and in the first week of December there was a very heavy fall of snow. We were indeed fortunate in not being in Dakota during the long to be remembered winter on the western prairies.
On the eleventh day of January the terrible weather began. The wind blew a gale all day from the southeast while the temperature stayed down below twenty degrees below zero during the entire day. There was a deep loose snow on the prairie, and this was drifted as never had been seen by the settlers of that part of the country.
With the snow blowing, and the cold so intense - none, or very few, of the settlers attempted to take their stock out to water that day, but most of them did feed them. Many thought with a strong south wind blowing, the temperature would rise a good deal before the following morning, as was usually the case. Then they would get the stock out to water as early as possible. Many had to take the stock as far as two miles, and even further, to the creek or a well. Usually it was a pond of the creek in that part of the country.
While as they tell me, the next morning the temperature had risen to almost the thawing point. And everybody was happy over the great change in the weather. And many had their stock out on the road, to water, before eight o'clock in the morning. Others had not succeeded in getting their staples dug out of the snowdrifts. Many barns being completely drifted over with snow packed hard enough to support the heaviest horses and cattle without more than denting the surface, or crust, of the snow.
Suddenly there was an ominous roar. The sky was suddenly overcast - a wall of snow shut out the world as completely as though the darkest night had come so suddenly. A sixty mile gale, with the air so full of snow that man and beast gasp for breath, was raging in terrific fury. Everything was turned and driven before it - to the southeast. The air was so warm when the storm struck that the snow clung as though to strangle every living animal it fell upon. Men with beards found it almost impossible to keep from strangling, in the first few moments especially, after the storm struck them. At first it was thought it might be just a severe gust that would subside in a short time, but instead of that, the storm even increased in fury and coldness as the day advanced.
Men and beast groped their way in terror and suffering in an effort to reach some kind of shelter from the awful storm. There were very few fences in the whole country at that time, outside of the barnyards. Had there been, many lives might had been saved if the fence had connected with the barnyard. A road was of no service, even where it could be seen, the following of it would been just momentary. Darkness came upon the cruel scene with the storm just as furious and getting colder.
Many aching hearts beat in those humble habitations on the awful lonely prairie that night as loved ones failed to return. But a little kerosene lamp was placed beside the window, on the hope that it might shed a ray of light, to guide one who might be struggling to get somewhere out of that awful night. The snow as drifting through little holes that were invisible to the eye, to pile up in real drifts across the floor of the dreary little home. Most of the settlers were using hay and straw for fuel. So one member of the family was kept busy as fireman.
The storm was over by daylight the following morning. At sunrise the temperature was at thirty six below zero. The scene of that vast stretch of snow covered prairie was indescribably beautiful. The bright sunshine upon the hard frozen snow made it glitter and dazzle so that one could hardly look steadily upon it. There was an awful quietness over all. Barns were drifted in so that the lowing of the cattle, or the naying of the horse, and the crowing of the rooster, could not be heard but at a very little distance from their confinement. And those poor cattle and horses, which had gone out for the water the other morning, were now lying buried - and fifty people lost their lives in Dakota that day, and many were badly frozen.
The saddest case in our neighborhood was that of the stage driver, from Kimball to Gann Valley. He had a lady, a school teacher, with him as a passenger. His heroism in trying to save the life of that girl, in that awful storm, will never be forgotten by those who were there. They managed to keep moving, all day and all night. But both were so badly frozen that she died later, and he lost both feet.
One young man, I believe his name was Arthur Maxwell, by chance wandered into a straw stack, where he stayed all night, his feet were quite badly frozen. Another of our neighbors was caught in the storm while taking his stock to water, a mile distance. His beard caught the snow so that he was very nearly suffocated. His hired boy, who was then about fourteen years of age, saved his life through his heroic efforts, he said. They finally stumbled into a barnyard, near which they were going to water the stock. It luckily happened that it was east, and so were able to keep the direction better by having the storm nearly at their back. When the storm first struck it was very nearly from the west. They were both very nearly exhausted when they reached the place of safety. If I remember correctly - all the stock they took out that morning perished, and they lay buried in the snow in that vicinity, for many of the animals bodies were never seen until after the snow was all melted, late in the spring.
Charles Marvin was the settler's name, and his boys name, John Anderson. Mr. Marvin and his wife were living in Arkansas on a fruit farm the last we heard of them. John Anderson is now a resident of this city and is a man of forty years of age. He was one of the bravest boys who ever lived on the Dakota prairies.
Hundreds of others had very narrow escapes of being lost in that terrible storm in just going from the house to the stable, and many were lost and perished in doing that. There were some whose bodies were found within a few feet of the house, or the barn, or other buildings. It was a day never to be forgotten by those who were old enough to be impressed by the awfulness of it on the bleak prairies of Dakota.
The same day a very severe blizzard struck Warren at about four o'clock in the afternoon, one of the very worst winter storms ever witnessed in the country by the oldest white settler. All that were received from Dakota, that is Kimball, was in telegraphic communication for the newspapers. For three weeks there wasn't one train entered Kimball. Many times the snow drifts were nearly all cut through when they were filled again by the blowing snow. Those who had relatives and friends there were in the most anxious suspense during those long weeks.
The winter remained cold with the ground covered deeply with snow until late in March, but even that terrible blizzard followed by the long cold winter did not deter us in going back to Buffalo County as soon as the winter was over, which was about the first of April. And this time we were going to stay for all time, as far as we could see then. We found the whole country thoroughly soaked by the excessively heavy snows when melted. The creeks had been flooded and were almost impassable. Carcasses of horses and cattle were still laying where they had perished in the blizzard. But even at that time there were many of them still lying covered in the deep drifts on the hillsides, and in the ravines, where many of the animals stopped in an exhausted condition to be soon overcome by the furious elements.
We found mute evidence of the force of the storm when we went down into our cellar and beheld it nearly full of snow which was packed the hardest that we had ever seen drifted. It had been blown in through a hole made by a skunk we thought. It was incredible that such an amount of snow could ever be blown through such a small opening, and at the slant it entered the cellar. That snow was not all melted and disappeared until in June. There were many snowdrifts on the north sides of the hills which were not melted away until the corn planting time - the middle of May.
Though the settlers had had an awful experience through the winter, they were living in high hopes of what the season might do for us by the extraordinary amount of moisture in the soil. We all considered that almost insured a good crop of wheat and plenty of grass. We met with an exceedingly sore disappointment in finding nearly all of our wheat and oats had been taken from where it was stored in the house. In later developments we were convinced that the theft had been committed by one of the two who had gone out with us to the country in the first place. He proved himself to be an unscrupulous rascal. But Gann and myself rather stood our losses than have him prosecuted. He was a comrade of the war and it was a good thing for him that we had sentimental reasons for not exposing him. Gann engaged him to break twenty five acres for him and sent him the money to pay for the work. The work was never done and Gann never got his money back. That unscrupulous fellow is down in Missouri, engaged in farming. He must have done differently down there else he wouldn't have lived long there.
We found other trouble on hand, the courthouse had been moved to Buffalo Center, as the new town was named by lawless parties who did the illegal moving. There was never a vote taken on the proposition - the parties to the conspiracy just took the county's documents and placed them in the claim shanty, appointing the County officials. Two of the officials who did all of the clerical work were the ringleaders of the rascally business. They had claims there upon which they were going to build a town to surround the county capital. Well it wasn't long until that was knocked into a cocked hat, the two guilty officials made there disappearance in a hurry when they saw there was going to be trouble on hand for them. The publisher of the Sentinel was a drunken fellow who soon lost the respect of the community.
Our new county officials were able and popular men. The Register of Deeds and the Clerk of Court was a college man from Ohio. He was a very handsome young fellow of about twenty five years of age. The Treasurer was a settler of extraordinary energy and good business ability. Our Register of Deeds was a single fellow, and besides having a good education, he was quite talented in music. He was a good basso and also played the violin very smoothly, quite unlike the general country fiddler. So the social life of the community was enlivened by the newcomer.
After the failure of the Editor of the Sentinel to make good, owing to his drunken habits, we were without a newspaper until early of the following winter, or late in the fall. I advertised in a Chamberlain newspaper for one to start another paper in our village. And a young man in Hartford Indiana answered my advertisement by letter. It was a splendid letter, one that convinced me that he was possessed of sufficient ability to conduct the paper. But further correspondence followed and all of which strengthened our belief that he was the quite competent to publish such a paper as we desired to have. He told us frankly, that he was entirely without means and suggested that if we could manage to get some subscribers, who would pay for two or three years in advance in order to have some cash to start payment upon the necessary machinery. If this could be done he assured us that all would be all right. So I hustled around the county to get subscribers for the new paper, which was to be Republican in politics of course, else I should not have had anything to do with it.
He notified us of when we could expect him in Kimball. I went after him and brought him to our home. The fall weather was getting very chilly and he was poorly prepared for such weather, so I loaned him my overcoat, the extra one we happened to have, and he wore it all that winter.
Our new Editor was a bit possessing fellow in appearance for such a work, especially. He was keen and intelligent looking and active in his manner. He was what many of the ladies would consider quite handsome, being tall of dark complexion and slim - but too slim to be strong. He impressed me as being of a consumptive tendency. His conversation indicated him to be a man of definite ideas and he had a good command of the English language. Our first work was to get a place for him to do his work, and this we found in a claim shanty which we procured several miles distant. He helped me to move it to the village. Some of the settlers thought he was too dude-ish in his manner, but they hadn't been accustomed to having town bred fellows about them.
The first edition of the Dakota Chief was delivered to the post office in time for Saturday's distribution, and the village presented a livelier scene than in many weeks. Every subscriber was anxious to see the news, and nearly everyone was pleased with the first efforts of the young Editor. The arrival of his wife, of course, was the cause of a great deal of interest among the villagers and those living nearby. She was very young and quite comely - rather tall, and quite vivacious in manner.
She came to our home as had her husband. They lived with us for perhaps a month or so. The genial and lively disposition of the wife soon won our affections. She had been a tailoress before her marriage, and of course was very handy in dressmaking, which was an accomplishment much to be appreciated there, where dressmakers were as scarce as hen's teeth at that time. Mrs. Alexander and mother's esteem was mutual when the time came for them to take up their abode in the village.
Their first place of residence was in rooms above the grocery store. Later a two room structure was added to the printing shop, and into this they moved, where it remained their home as long as they stayed in Gann Valley. About a month after their residence in the village, Mr. Alexander - Morton was his name, went to town with me to Kimball while his wife stayed at our home until his return. Well, while we were gone, mother saw that their family circle was likely to be increased before our return the next day. So she sent Adolph Kimber, a young bachelor friend who had a claim about two and a half miles to the southwest of us, but who was quite frequently at our home, to go for a midwife who lived several miles distant. Before she arrived, Flossy] was making things quite lively for the two women. Mother often laughed over that experience since. The following evening, when we arrived home, they certainly had a most complete surprise for us - Morton hardly new what to do, or to say.
They succeeded well with the paper which put new life into the community. Morton applied himself faithfully to the editorial work, especially while he was naturally a politician, so consequently he infused more life into the paper than had he been disinterested at all.
Our county officials were all Republicans so we were happy as far as the official life of the community was concerned. The season had been quite a bountiful one, the best since 1883. There was a good crop of wheat especially, and prices were better than they had been. Everyone was feeling much encouraged. There had been more rain and almost entire absence of the hot winds. This fall the social life of the country had improved wonderfully. That it had been great enlivened. One of the first social affairs was that of the birthday party. This occasion took place early in autumn and was attended by the eldest of the young people of the neighborhood, embracing a territory of about four square miles. The prominent guests at this function were the County Register Of Deeds and the schoolmarm from Crow Creek, who had been a town girl immediately before assuming her duties in Miss Smith's school. The hostess was accomplished in music as was also our college educated County Clerk. The musical part of the entertainment was the theme of the conversation by those who were fortunate in being honored guests - for many days after the happy event.
This event was followed later by another birthday party at the home of the most prominent farmer in the Creek Valley, which was attended by almost the same young people who were favored before, besides a few others of the neighborhood. But one, the schoolmarm's sweetheart, came over twenty miles to be present. Harvest was not yet over, but he cared not for that.
After this occasion, surprise parties, necktie sociables, singing schools and dances were weekly events, and often more frequently. These social functions were attended by those from as far as ten miles distant. The enjoyment of these social occasions was perhaps never excelled anywhere, nor at any time. Refreshments were not served at these parties, they were great generous suppers. There was always someone who could play the fiddle and always someone who played cinch or whist. The card playing was not altogether confined to the old people, for some of them danced with as much delight as did the boys and girls of twenty. I know I never enjoyed myself better in my life at dancing - I was then sixty nine.
I never have been in a community where the source of enjoyment was as whole hearted as it was in the early days Buffalo County Settlement. The wholesome enjoyment was not marred by any feeling of jealousy or envy, or any indecent act. There was not a saloon in the county. There was one occasionally who did get some liquor from town, but he knew better than to indulge intemperately in it, and behaved at the gatherings of the young people per social enjoyment. Children of eight years, to gray haired people of seventy, mingled in the happiest way one could wish to see.
The winter was very mild most of the time, entirely unlike the preceding one of terrible severity. Even after plowing in wheat had commenced, the young men walked through the fields, more asleep that awake, dreaming of the happiness that was there the night before in the merry dance with their sweethearts. The meadowlarks sang with the same old time joyfulness, the prairie chickens boomed and cackled, and the bittern pumped beside the creek, the kildeer screamed and the ducks and the geese swarmed over us in their long journey; only to stop and rest and feed before resuming their flights to the lakes of Canada, hundreds of miles northward. All this was taking place just as it did when we came to this new land, five years before.
While the good crops of the previous season had greatly encouraged the settlers, we all found it absolutely necessary to economize in every way possible. The one thing we were able to save in expense, more than anything else, was fuel. Anthracite coal cost about ten or eleven dollars per ton, and soft coal - seven. This price was about four dollars higher than in Illinois. The Indian Reservation was about five miles distant, where the timber commenced, and the Indians traded or sold their woods to the settlers in the vicinity of six or seven miles of their lands. This wood consisted of oak, ash, box, elder, and elm. They asked about two dollars per load which equaled about four dollars per cord. They sold considerable to the merchants in Gann Valley, taking most of it out in trade - groceries mostly. They sold the wood to the settlers, but most of it was rather hard to split on account of its dwarfed growth.
There was a great many who could not afford to pay anything for fuel, they simply had no money to buy it with. There was a product of the dry prairie where there were cattle ranged, known as "buffalo chips" that was extensively used as a substitute for coal and wood. This was usually gathered and put in piles by the women and children. Then it was hauled to the house in wagon-box-full. These "buffalo chips" were nothing more or less than cow manure dried hard and stiff as it was dropped upon the grass. A month of usual summer weather was sufficient to fit it for fuel, though four or five months made it better for that purpose. Many strangers were puzzled a good deal to know what in the world those piles gathered on the prairie were. It was one of the amusing incidents of our life in that early day. Also a sore trial to the housewives, especially when the weather was damp, as it seriously affected the fuel problem.
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