SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER VII - FARMING ON THE PRAIRIE
I must now tell of Father's farm operations and of how he relieved himself before the term "farm relief" had been coined.
The summer before our arrival Mr. Gardner had broken out seven acres of prairie sod. That was too little for our need. As soon as Father had dug the well he hitched his oxen to the plow to break out more sod. Roots of prairie grass are tough and so intertwined as to form a mat. Instead of pulverizing like cultivated soil, the turned sod clings together in a long ribbon from one end of the furrow to the other. It requires a year for such sod to rot, and Father could not wait a year. So he had Adolph and Fred follow the plow to plant what is called "sod corn" by a method which was common enough in early Kansas, but which would be too laborious for farmers today, accustomed as they are to horse- or tractor-drawn drills. Using an ax, Adolph cut slits in the sod in rows three feet apart, and in hills three feet apart in the row. Fred trudged behind him, dropping three or four grains into each slit, and covering the grains by stepping on the hole.
Through the summer Father and the boys worked from dawn to dark, putting in crops, hoeing the corn, and finally gathering in the harvest. Near the house was a vegetable garden. Father planted and cared for the garden, but at times, for companionship, I helped him hoe, and in that way met my first rattlesnake. I was at work beside my father in the garden when a rattlesnake buzzed at me. Twice it rattled, but as I was unfamiliar with the sound I did not know what it was. Father, however, recognized the deadly rattle. Quickly he sprang to my side and killed a huge rattlesnake only the length of my hoe from me. It had fourteen rattles, indicating that it was fourteen years old. It was completely coiled and had its head reared to strike when Father hit it with his hoe. After that I heard the hiss and buzz of rattlesnakes several times, and I never failed to recognize them.
Our harvest that year was bountiful. We had great yields of potatoes and other vegetables, and the neighbors said that our sod corn broke the records. By the time the last bushel of corn was safely cribbed, the four months' school term began.
As the boys went off to school, Father shouldered his ax to work in the timber. As I have said, part of our farm was upland prairie and part was heavily timbered bottom land adjoining the river. Father decided to use part of the timber for building a more substantial house. He cut and trimmed evenly proportioned trees, sledded them on the snow by ox-team to the new home site, squared the logs with a broadax, mortised the ends to make them fit snugly at the corners, and then called the neighbors to a house raising.
Neighbors helped each other at tasks which were too heavy for one man alone. For such help no pay was expected. In fact, it would have been a social breach to offer pay. A house raising was a festive occasion. Mrs. Boston and several other women came to help with the cooking, for we served dinner to the men. In less than one day the neighbors had heaved the logs into place. Later Father weatherboarded the house on the outside, laid a floor of sawed lumber inside, shingled the roof with mill-sawed shingles, and plastered the inside walls. In mixing the mortar he bound the mixture with hair clipped from our cows.
The new house had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The thick logs in the walls kept out the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. Although it was a home-made building, it was more comfortable than many modern houses which cost a great deal of money and require a lifetime to pay for on the installment plan.
At that time we had never heard of "diversified farming," but we practiced it. In addition to field crops, live stock, butter, and eggs, we had two other sources of income. One was our timber, where father worked for several winters, cutting and ricking up cordwood to sell in summer to steamboat captains. He cut and sold from two hundred to three hundred dollars worth of wood each year, enough to pay for his claim.
Father found a second sideline, raising yoke oxen. It often happened that Missouri farmers brought calves to St. Joseph to sell as veal. Uncle Christian bought numbers of these calves, some to be killed for use at the boarding house; but the sturdiest calves, which gave promise of growing into strong oxen, he sold to Father, who pastured and fed them until they were old enough to break to the yoke.
St. Joseph, being the chief terminus of the California Trail, was a ready market for yoke oxen. In 1859 the gold strike in Colorado added to the demand for oxen. During the Pikes Peak gold rush Father sold to one man one yoke of extra good oxen for forty dollars and three other yokes for thirty dollars each. Those were top prices. The buyer came to our house late one afternoon. When he had concluded his purchase it was too late for him to return to St. Joseph, so he remained with us all night. Being a plainsman, long a stranger to settled life, he seemed to appreciate a night in our home. Especially did he enjoy the prayers and Bible reading after breakfast the next morning.
You will gather from what I have related that work and plenty of it was the lot of pioneer children. This does not mean that we had no recreation. I rode horseback, visited the Bostons, and picked wild flowers in the woods. The boys swam with Father in the Missouri River and trapped animals. Father taught the boys how to make and set horsehair slip-nooses, which were released by a trigger when the animal took the bait. The noose was at the end of a bent sapling, which would straighten up and jerk the victim in the air as the noose tightened on his neck. Father made simple box-traps, which looked so cozy on a frosty morning that the rabbits could not resist the temptation to hop in and be caught. Out of a board and a stick he constructed deadfalls which trapped mice, rats, and skunks, although when a skunk was snared the trap was useless for further service. Every boy enjoys trapping; at least my brothers did. Occasionally they encountered big game.
One morning after breakfast Adolph discovered a catamount in the barnyard, waiting for a favorable moment to pounce upon a suckling pig. At the same instant our dog, which we kept to protect our poultry from minks and skunks, caught the scent of the catamount and, charging to the attack, drove the cat to a tree. The sound of the dog's barking and Adolph's cries speedily brought the family to the spot. We had no gun, and so Father climbed the tree, stick in hand, to chase the animal down. At this the cat backed far out on a branch, spitting and snarling. He backed so far out that Father was able to dislodge him by shaking the limb. As the catamount fell to the ground, the dog sprang at its throat. But that was a game two could play as well as one; and when the dog closed in, each animal lunged for the other, the cat getting hold of the dog's upper jaw and the dog seizing the catamount's lower jaw. Each held on like a vise, their jaws locked together. I think the cat had a little the better of the contest, for it used its claws, tearing the dog frightfully. The dog, however, hung on, apparently determined to sever the cat's lower jaw. As soon as he could, Father came to the dog's assistance. He thrust a sharp stake into the catamount's mouth, forcing the jaws apart. The instant the dog's jaws were released, he, in spite of his severe lacerations, seized his enemy's throat and killed him. One of our neighbors, who arrived that morning on an errand, told us that wildcat was good eating. Father, expressing a contrary opinion, told the neighbor to help himself. He did so, selecting the two hams. As he rode away he smacked his lips and exulted, "Meat's meat."
For three years I lived on the Kansas claim, and then the course of my life was again changed. Father married again, being abetted in his marriage by Uncle Christian and Aunt Christine, who told him that I was growing up and would soon marry and leave him without a homemaker. When my stepmother came to take charge of the house, my uncle invited me to live with him in St. Joseph. He realized that a girl who had been the manager of a home for three years, might not yield readily to the rule of a stepmother, especially since my stepmother had three sons and two daughters of her own. Uncle's invitation, seconded by Aunt Christine, was so cordial that I accepted. Probably it was best all around that I did go to St. Joseph. There I had additional opportunity to complete my Americanization in a bustling city.