A real prairie homestead

Incredibly tough, now lost to the ages  
Like many farms and ranches on the prairie, our place is a collection of homesteads scattered across, around and through the rolling hills of this harsh landscape.  But unlike other areas, the homesteads here have a way of reminding you of their presence; a rock carving here, a stone wall there, or the remains of an old foundation.

Of course there are also remains of more historic homesteads here too, tepee rings of stones hauled, placed and discarded perhaps 200 years ago.  While the laws of physics, and gravity dictate that all stones roll downhill, there are unwritten prairie rules at work too simultaneously, among them that rocks do not get moved without a good reason for same.  Secondly, beyond construction use, rocks are generally hauled up hill, or if possible rolled into a nearby slough.  But without purpose, rocks are destined to dig in and avoid the effects of gravity, most of which have done so successfully for thousands of years.

Those carrying out these tasks are not nomads, bison hunters, or even cattlemen; they are farmers.  We have over 30 rock piles on Prairie Smoke Ranch.  None of these rocks piled themselves up on our hilltops, they were carried by hand, stone sled and horse or tractor bucket. Why the hills? The best soil lies below, washed down bit by bit with each passing rain storm or burst of wind.  And so the rocks go up.

The easier route may be to roll the buggers in to the sloughs, but then you will pay for this in years like this year, when the small slough bottoms are dry and could be hayed, or even cropped. The hills are best. 

Hills are not best for homesteads however.  Our old homestead in the south pasture stares squarely into the teeth of the northwest wind, on a hill no less.  That early homesteaders were tough is beyond debate.  Prairie smart is another story.   Best to move down over a hill into some shelter.

They hauled up rock for foundations and even poured concrete over some to support a wall.  I spose any wood is long gone but there are traces of wire and tin to be found if you search for them.  And while this particular homestead is three miles from any existing road, there are ancient car parts mixed in with the old implement tin and screws and bolts.  Was this from an old Model T?  Or a '52 Buick
 
There were two waves of homesteading in North Dakota: the 1880s and the early 1900s, until about 1915. I recall seeing in our stack of abstracts that President Theodore Roosevelt signed off on parts of our ranch holdings.

Homesteaders generally had to live on and improve the land for a five year period and then they took title. While some families put down permanent roots, others just proved up their claim, sold out and moved back east, or west to sunnier and more temporate climes. 

It's not the cold, it's the wind.  Thirty or 40 below zero is dangerous but bearable.  Coupled with a 30 or 40 mph wind it is simply deadly, and unbearable. But that's what successful homesteaders did, they beared the winters, and survived, in makeshift stone, plank and sod shacks on the tops of hilltops, in the teeth of the winter wind. Or they didn't. And they died.

Our little duck hunting paradise is scattered with small cemeteries, often located down obscure section lines, featuring just a handful of graves, stones braced with metal strapping to keep them from toppling in the wind. Mothers, children, young men and old. The prairie claimed them all.  

Medical help was miles and hours away, if available at all. Childbirth was a gamble, flu epidemics erased entire generations in 1918. Accidents often meant death.  These were tough, tough people.

We stood on the homestead hill this morning, knowing that the hills rolling before us were the same hills gazed upon by those plucky homesteaders who carved a home atop this hill.  We know we are not tough, like they were. Physically or psychologically.  Tough as nails, now lost to the ages. 





 
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