Kit Morgan here and today I want to talk about farm life in the Dakota territory. (Okay, and a little about modern-day Oregon.)
In the early 1870s the soil in the Dakota territory was wonderfully fertile. Wheat was the main crop on most Northern Plains farms and the early settlers totally expected said wheat to not only sustain their family but bring them wealth — so long as they worked hard and managed their farms well, that is. When wheat crops failed to meet that promise, women stepped into the areas of poultry and butter production to sustain the family and maintain their hold on the farm. Between the decreasing fertility of the land, wild weather patterns and unstable prices, wheat farming soon became an unreliable source of income. This made women’s productive activities on a farm central to their family’s survival and success.
Most women raised poultry and milked cows to provide food for the family and as surplus for sale or trade. Their work might have yielded only a small portion of the income derived from their farm, but it was steady and substantial enough to meet the basic needs of their family no matter the conditions of the crops or the state of nearby agricultural markets. We had it going on back then and knew how to bring home the bacon! Or in this case the chickens and the milk. Productive American farm women enjoyed the respect of their families and communities even though they didn’t gain additional political or economic rights as a result of their work.
Historians have studied Pioneer farm families and discovered that as families settled, they moved through similar stages. Sort of like your first house, and then you get a bigger one later or add on when you have a child or two. Well, for pioneer families, their first house was usually a crude shelter they built to live in while breaking grass bound sod and expanding crop acreage. After that, they usually acquired some draft stock, milk cows and poultry. They found markets for their crops next and relied on a combination of grain sales and the trade of surplus eggs, butter and garden produce to generate enough income to maintain the family and improve the farm.
If they managed to remain on their farm through the first few years they might even build a barn! Maybe they’d add onto their house, acquire more land or better equipment. But none of this did you much good if you were too far away from markets and trade centers. This was a problem for the earliest settlers. Later settlers didn’t have it so bad as by then towns had cropped up. Later still there were grain elevators and railroads. Whew! What a life they had!
In my latest book, Claire, (Widows of Wildcat Ridge book 12) my heroine takes in sewing and laundry to get by. Life was hard even with the support of a family in those days. A woman alone had a much harder time of it. We’ve all heard stories from our parents, grandparents or great grandparents of tough times back in the day. For a free copy of Claire (which will release on March 1) do you recall a story that a loved one has shared with you about the things women did to make ends meet and keep their family fed? I’ll pick a random winner from the comments.
My cousins are wheat farmers, and I remember going to their ranch in eastern Oregon in the summer during the wheat harvest. Labor was never a problem for my aunt and uncle as they had 12 children. As they got older, they could work the harvest. Good times, I remember, but lots of work. Myself, I worked at making mud-pies with my cousins still too young to help. But I do remember how tired everyone looked when they got back to the ranch house. And yes, the pictures are from their ranch!