The Stump Farm: A Chronicle of Pioneering



[THE author of these valiant letters was once a young and ardent school-teacher in Illinois; but tuberculosis sent her to the highlands of the West, where, after five busy and health-giving years of tent life, she married a man much older than herself and, as a farmer’s wife on a stump farm, gallantly shouldered his burdens and her own. Followed years of hardship and intellectual dearth, until at last, one bitter winter, she ‘had the courage’ to write to the Chicago Tribune for something to read — ‘the books that nobody cared for any more.’ Her modest appeal brought her friends as well as books, and the letters which we print were written to those friends. That they were ever to be printed was farthest from her thought. — THE EDITORS]

June 21, 1919
We are friends now, so we won’t stand on ceremony. At last! At last! I am going to have friends who will be glad to see me when I go back to the world for a visit or to stay. Time will tell, but I presume that it will be when I am old and gray.
I can see one farmhouse from here, but it’s about a mile off and the inmates are impossible. The nearest ‘shack,’ about as big as a henhouse, on the east, is inhabited by a crippled grandmother and her son. I tramp through the woods to see her once in a while. She is very poor and ignorant, but I like her, and she treats me like an equal. On the west I am bounded by the woods, and also on the north. So there is n’t much to see, as we live in a depression, or small valley, on this shelf or bench. I can’t go anywhere very often, though I do get out for at least one picnic every summer, given by the Farmers’ Union. I belong to it, but I have to go alone, as Daddy is so old he does n’t like to go anywhere any more. So whenever I can, I take the boy and go. But it’s the winters that are trying. That is why I had to have something to read, or go crazy.
You don’t know how anxiously I look in the glass as the years go by, and wonder if I’ll ever get to look like the rest of the natives here. You have seen overworked farmers’ wives, with weather-wrung and sorrow-beaten faces, drooping mouths, and a sad look.
I want to go back, I don’t care where, and have friends once more. I must not look like that — No! No! I want to be elected president of a club, and go to socials, and I want to eat ice cream. I also would love to live for a few years in a college town. Would n’t that be grand? And then I’d teach kindergarten a few years, and join a card club. But the truth of the matter is that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life right here. But dreams don’t hurt — nor do air castles, and maybe they’ll come true.
For the third year we are having a drought. Each year has been a little dryer, until this summer, and I don’t believe we ’ll get any hay at all. Daddy and I thought we were getting along well until the dry years came. Then we sold the old cow and bought feed for the calves. Last summer they went, all but a few head, to buy feed for the team, and food for us, and we got into debt besides. I could n’t stand it. Daddy was nearly beside himself with worry, so I wrote to the Tribune for reading matter. All winter I have read aloud to Daddy and helped him to forget. We went through a siege of the flu also this winter, so our dear Daddy is practically an invalid. He may get stronger after a while. Ruth and I do the chores, which are not many. What we are going to live on this winter I don’t know. Something may turn up. We may get a rain before it is too late.
By religion I don’t know what I am. I never could decide. Daddy says I’m an atheist, but I hope not. Sometimes I doubt if there is a God. He seems so terribly cruel to his children. And what is he and where? My brother says I am an agnostic. They don’t believe anything, you know.

December 12, 1919
I imagine you are in a garden, and roses are in bloom, with calla lilies as tall as a man. That is California, I am told, even in winter. It is nice to dream about it, and forget for a while that the thermometer is thirty below, and it seems next to impossible to get my feet warm even when I put them on a piece of wood in an open oven.
I undress the children and then I dress them for the night. I have plenty of comforts, but still they’d be like ice in the morning if I did n’t dress them up warm. I put one of Daddy’s old patched shirts on the baby, then an old pink faded eider-down dressing sacque of mine, then a crib blanket over his shoulders for a shawl, and then he is wrapped up in an old wool shawl that belonged to his dead grandmother.
I expected cold weather, though not so early. The drops of water I spill on the floor freeze at once. Why, my milk freezes on the table with the hot stove going. But this bad cold spell will let up soon, I think. It seems unusually long, though.
The drought was broken after fourteen weeks, but it was so late that we did n’t even get a spear of hay, and had to buy straw. That is poor stuff to make milk on, and I am quite short, having butter to use only one day a week. And the horse is very poor indeed. My riding pony, who is used to good feed and is getting old, will hardly survive the winter, though Daddy is doing his best by giving her the chaff.
I never thought that I would go through the horrors of a drought, but this is the third year now. Last year I helped Daddy take the straw that had bleached for ten years on an old log henhouse, put there to keep it warm, and we fed it to the starving horses. 1 lay on my knees many times in the empty hay barn, after scraping the ground carefully for one more forkful of blackened old chaff to give the poor animals, and I prayed as I have never prayed before, as I looked up at the stars that shone through the roof where the shakes were gone. They looked down on me so cold and pitiless that at last I could n’t see them for tears and I went back to the house, washed my eyes, and tried to smile, for Daddy had the flu, and Ruth and Boy were just getting over it. Daddy would get up and try to work, and then get sick again. He’s only sixty-six, but already broken in health, and is n’t well yet. I have straw enough this winter, but it’s not paid for, and I don’t know how it will end.
Another drought and we leave in a wagon, if there are any horses to pull it. Very likely we’ll go on foot. Where to? Daddy says Alberta, Canada, to take up a homestead. I can just, see him, feeble and gray, with a frail wife and infant son and two orphans, starting life anew on the frontier.
Don’t worry about us this winter. I have beans and five sacks of potatoes, and lots of berries canned up. You see, when the cupboard was getting bare last summer, I slipped away and picked berries on an irrigated ranch, and took my pay in vegetables and berries. I’m not very big, and I have to jump around quite lively with my big family so sort of helpless on my hands. Sometimes I’m too tired to sleep.
Am I an atheist? Well, I don’t know. I believe I would be happier if I felt nothing, feared nothing, hoped nothing, and believed nothing. Life is breaking me on its wheel because I have wanted so much of life.

Spring, 1921
Thanks for the package. Daddy and I are enjoying the literature immensely. And the children will love the ‘pretties’ you picked up for them.
Since my last letter to you girls I have had my parents come to live with us. I went down on the prairie and borrowed a cow for her milk. She gives about six quarts a day, and that is luxury for us.

Potatoes are plentiful, and there is no sale for them. They sell for twentyfive cents a hundred pounds, and last year I had to pay ten dollars a hundred for them. If there is no change in conditions the farmers will be sold out, as nearly everybody is in debt up to their ears out here too. I’m in debt for seed and taxes for last year and there will be seed and taxes for this year added to that. Then if we don’t get a crop you can send for the undertaker.
But if Daddy can stay well and work, — he’s a dreadfully hard worker for his age, — and if we get hay, and if we get that pig fat enough to butcher, and if we have good luck with the cows so we get lots of milk, and if our vegetables grow, we’ll have enough to eat anyway next winter. Daddy wants to hew out some ties for the railroad and I wrote to three roads, but they all say they are not buying any, but maybe they will later on.
I have a lovely flower garden. There are three rose bushes, a peony (red), some jonquils, a bleeding heart, a pink tulip, some flags, London pride, a lemon lily, Shasta daisy, sweet Mary, sweet William, southernwood, pansies, a lilac, and a bush honeysuckle. Only the jonquils are in bloom yet. I take much comfort from my flowers. We have a square bed 20 x 20, and it’s only pretty until August 1. After that it is a brown, dusty, dry patch, but it always revives with new green every spring. I spend lots of time on it; odd moments when my soul is weary.
It has taken me years to collect these flowers, a root here and a slip here, and each has a story of its own. A robin is building a nest in a bush, a wren has rented a coffee can I nailed to the house. I made a hole in the cover. A pair of martins (bless their hearts) rented a flat I made of an old cigar box by putting a roof on it and nailing it to the house too.
So I have lots of bird neighbors. The bluebirds are occupying their old house on a post, and the swallows have already new babies in their clay houses under the eaves.

July, 1921
At last I have found time to write to you in answer to your many beautiful letters to me. I have read the three religious papers and was surprised to find them interesting and worth keeping, too, to read over again next winter when I’m snow-bound. Another little paper that comes regularly is the Cheerful Letter, and it’s fine. The Good Housekeeping Magazine came, and it was such a treat. I’ve read it even to the ads.
The nomad life you speak of in your letter would suit me, but with the bunch of invalids, or what you call semi-invalids, that I have to take care of it is impossible. My father (76) and mother (74) and Daddy (68) are too old to travel, and I dare not take the risk of moving anywhere just now. Father is partially paralyzed, but not in his legs, so he can walk yet, and Mother is too feeble to be up all day, so she lies down after each meal for a while. And Daddy is so tired he goes to sleep if he sits down anywhere, so you have a picture of my three old darlings, and can readily see that as long as I have a roof over their heads I have to stay there.
You think I still believe in God, but I don’t. Three winters ago I gave him up. It was on a cold winter night, and Daddy was in bed with pneumonia. This was in February. I left Ruth to watch him while I went out to feed the stock. I gave the horse some straw that I got on the floor of an old log henhouse. There was no hay, no straw, and the poor cows got nothing. I knelt on the dirt floor of the old barn. The roof was old and broken and the stars looked at me, bright and cold, and I prayed for help. I begged and prayed and cried until I was cold. There is no God. That was the beginning of the end. Twelve head of cattle died and the rest were all but dead when spring came.
The earth is beautiful and life could be so pleasant if it were not for the terrible struggle for existence.
Two weeks later. — I could almost believe in God. I wish you could have seen Daddy out in the rain doing up his chores this evening. With his white beard flying in the wind, and his old white dog, he reminded me of old Rip Van Winkle. Are we happy? Did you ever go through a drought on a farm? If you have, then you’ll appreciate rain. So we’re all happy, too happy. Yesterday we were blue and worried. Daddy looked so tired, and I knew he was worried, and he helped me to water some of the vegetables. I was so tired I could n’t sit up to write you even a line and I’m glad I did n’t, I was so blue. I set out four dozen cabbage plants a week ago, and carried each of them a pail of water. It was so dry and dusty, and the hens got in one day and ate up all but four of them. Well, I finished replacing them yesterday, some way, and carried water to them until I was too tired to talk.
Since the rain came there is sure to be a crop this year and I can’t tell you how good it seems. It is July now, and I have onions and lettuce on the table every day, and green peas will be on in a week. My garden is small, but ample for our needs when it grows.
And what do you do in California all summer long? Do you read and tatt and go to the movies? What a life! Or do you do things and keep moving? I can’t sit still. I love to work, but this God-forsaken country gets me discouraged.
Just now it is a little taste of heaven. I heard a lecture at our little schoolhouse last Sunday entitled, ‘Millions now living will never die.’ It said the Millennium would start in 1930. Have you heard about it?

December 27, 1922
I think of you often, and of your kindness to a little unknown mortal up here in the hills. The ‘thing’ that I feared has got me. I’m afraid. I wanted to keep up with the world outside, wanted still to have ambitions and dream of better things; but the never-ending struggle for existence and the lonesomeness are telling on me, and I feel so old, so drab, and so hopeless. I quit writing, and yours was the only Christmas card I have received. The girls, N. and her friends, must think I’m terrible and ungrateful, but I’m not ungrateful, just too tired of life and living to write.
Daddy is more and more feeble, so I have more to do than before; getting wood and water is hardest, and I must do the milking too very soon. I planted and raised a good garden, and potatoes too; dug them and put them in the cellar myself, about one hundred bushels; but they are not worth ten cents to sell, so I am feeding them to the cows and the hens. I sold all the old hens in June, and bought a good hand pump and pumped water on my garden from a spring, so this year I have the cellar full of vegetables, thank God. Daddy has been going to make a pump for years, but I saw plainly that I must take the helm and work.
Ruth, poor child, died in April, at the Home. Then, as if I did n’t have enough to bear, the father who deserted the two children about eight years ago appears, and takes the other one away, and disappears into the big wide world. So once more I am alone with Daddy and Boy.
Daddy talks every day of his birthplace in Canada. He wants to die on Canadian soil among the Indians. It does n’t matter to me where I go, or when I die, and I have told him I’ll go to the end of the world with him whenever he wants to pull out. I would do anything to make him happy, my sage and poet; and if a tepee will do it, he shall have it in the land of his birth. So some day you may get a letter from a village up North among the ‘Yellow Knives’ or some similar hair-raising name. Perhaps I’ll start a kindergarten for fat brown babies.
I took Boy and went to the Christmas tree at the little schoolhouse up here in the woods. Boy spoke ‘Little Jack Horner’ for them. The first thing he did was to bow till his head almost touched the floor and then throw back his head and laugh gleefully. Then his voice rang out loud with the four lines of the rhyme, and the lumberjacks nearly raised the roof with their noise. It was Boy’s first appearance, and he won all hearts, he was so dear.
I was snowed in for about seven weeks; it was only about five feet on the level, but it drifted terribly. A horse could n’t go through at all. Then two days before Xmas it changed suddenly from ten below zero to forty above, and started to rain, something very unusual, and it is still raining. I hope it continues, so the snow will sink down to something reasonable.
Daddy’s only sister came to see us this summer, a very prim old lady who is determined to have Boy. This is the second visit for this purpose since Boy came to us, and I can’t give him up. Boy is getting braver than he was, and in time his fear of the woods and the creatures that inhabit them will wear away, I think. I speak of the ‘good wolves’ and ‘good cougars’ and ‘pretty deer’ and weave his bedtime stories about how they feed their babies, and so forth. He did n’t seem a bit shocked when a man told us that a large cougar had crossed our place a week ago following a deer. A year ago it would have terrified him so he could n’t go to sleep.
December 28. — I just heard from a man who went by that a Rural Delivery is almost certain to go through the coming year. Won’t it be wonderful to see every day? And to run out to see if there is a letter in the box! When I was snowed in I did n’t see a soul except a neighbor woman in a small shack near by. I wallowed over there every week to see if she was all right, as she was alone with two babies under two. Her man is a lumberjack, and got stalled forty miles north. He just got back.

January 24, 1923
You surely have accomplished what I thought was impossible. I had given up hope of ever feeling real cheered up again. Life is so hard on a stump ranch when things go wrong. How lovely those violets must have been when they were picked! They still retain a little fragrance. They reminded me that summer would come again if I only have patience.
Boy goes out to play with his sled every day now. It is hard to keep a lively child in the house all day, but I have to when it’s from ten to twenty degrees below.
His aunt lives in New Haven, Connecticut, so it is quite a trip for her. I’ll never give the boy up as long as I can work for him. She oilers him a college education if I give him up. I tell him he must work his way through college, and perhaps, now that hope springs again in my heart, I may get to be a writer and help him.
I was not joking about going to the ends of the earth. That is, the civilized part of it. It’s a grim reality that is steadily coming closer.
You know that one’s childhood is a happy state of mind. Nothing you eat now tastes half as good as the same things in childhood, nor is anything half as nice as the place where you were born.
That’s how it is with Daddy. He is seventy, getting older every day and a little slower, and just a little dearer to me as he depends more on me. He got what you call second sight this year, and reads without glasses now. But he does n’t live here any more. His body is here, but his mind is in Canada, where he was born. Land in Quebec is sky-high, so we must go far to get a free homestead, you see. Maybe we’ll never get there. He has talked about it for the last four years. If we go it does n’t matter, for it can’t be harder than here.
I can’t teach school and take care of Daddy too. So I thought I would get some traps and try for some furs up there; live like an Indian; shoot and fish and trap. Boy will soon be quite a lad and able to help me. His education won’t be neglected, for one of my greatest pleasures is teaching him. I have a map of the world pinned up on the wall, and he is learning geography from it. I have Gray’s Anatomy, and he just loves it. That is his best picture book. At the table when I have cooked a hen he gravely tells Daddy to give him the femur or the radius and ulna. The old white dog is lazy and won’t play with him, but a stray pup about ten months old came Christmas week. Boy is sure Santa Claus sent him, and they have great romps together. I named the dog ‘Bonny Lad,’ but Boy shortened it to ‘Barney.’ So Barney is his name now. He is a beautiful black shepherd dog with a wonderfully kind disposition, and I had n’t the heart to turn him away after Boy welcomed him so joyfully.

March 22, 1923
I have been ill, and it is hard for me to write, but I must thank you for the reading matter which you so kindly sent. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated it. First I had flu and then quinsy. I am writing this down on the prairie. At home I could n’t write. I had no peace. Daddy is poorly, and I’d drag out and milk and feed up, and I’d get so tired I was all in. I ’ve run away to-day and left it. The cow won’t be milked or fed, poor thing, till tomorrow. The roads are so bad I can’t get back the same day. It is six weeks since I have had any mail, six long weeks, and we had the worst blizzard in forty years in this six weeks. For three weeks we could n’t get to the barn. It drifted as high as the second story of the house. The north and south roads are muddy and heaving; the east and west roads I could hardly get through, as the drifts are piled up so sidling. I slid and tumbled once in a while, but managed to arrive at last.
March 23. — After a good sleep I feel more like tackling the road back than yesterday. Last Saturday we—that is, a dozen women who live in the woods around me and on the slopes of the mountains — gathered at the schoolhouse. I wrote the posters and sent them out to be tacked on trees on trails that I thought would catch some eyes. For the first time we have a teacher with a vision. Why could n’t we have had one before? She is forty-five, I guess, and born in Ireland, which accounts for it. She called on me and we warmed up to each other and she said, ‘Let’s start something.’ ‘Call a meeting of the mothers and I’ll come and talk to them,’ I said. She did, and we organized a club, and they made me the Queen Bee, as none of the others had ever belonged to a club. We decided on a box social to raise some money. In a poverty-stricken community a few dollars can do much when there are births and deaths or forest fires wipe out a homestead. So Saturday we had our box social. We each brought a box with food in it. We made coffee. I brought cream, as my cow is fresh, and the teacher brought coffee. One woman brought bread, another meat, and so forth. The lumberjacks poured in till the little room was crowded (even the standing room) and you could n’t get in. The programme was just stunts. The teacher played the organ, and anybody in the audience who could sing a solo came up and did his best. Some of the men had good, though untrained voices. Everybody brought a lantern, so we had plenty of light.
The teacher sang ‘The Wearing of the Green ’till our heartswere breaking, and the men stamped and whistled till she had to do it all over again. One fellow did handsprings and one played an accordion with his back to the audience, he was so nervous, but he played ‘Marching through Georgia’ real well. It was not a critical audience.
The programme lasted three hours and then the boxes were auctioned off. The auctioneer would hold up a box trimmed up with a bit of colored paper. I cut clover leaves and pasted them all over mine. And he’d say, ‘Only a dollar for this box! Why, just see the purdies on it!’ And somebody would offer a little more and get it. Those that did n’t get boxes could buy a plate with a sandwich, a piece of cake, and coffee for twenty-five cents. We took in $28.75 and I thought that was pretty good. You ’ll wonder why I did it. Just one instance. In a shack a few years ago a dainty, well-educated woman gave birth to twins. They had had bad luck, there was no doctor, there were three other little ones, and the neighbor woman who stepped in had to wrap the babies in a dish towel. One died. I’m sick of seeing it and doing nothing. These I. W. W.’s who work in the camps are hungry for a good time and won’t miss a dollar or two. We are going to repeat it later in the spring maybe.
I must close now, and walk back again. Daddy and I enjoyed the magazines, all of them, but the Atlantic the most.

October 11, 1923
I am sorry to have delayed so long answering and thanking you for the good reading you sent, but I have to work all the time. It’s work, work, Until I feel as if I had only a body and the soul is gone. Then night is the happiest, when I can lose consciousness for a short time. To-day I cut cornstalks for fodder. They are very short, but there is an acre of them, and I’m glad I had them to cut. Winter is almost upon us. I am worried about the prunes. They are so nice this year, and a black freeze is liable to come any time. Shall or shall I not get them picked in time? I picked one pailful to-day, but will devote every spare minute to them from now on. We have never seen a year like this since we came here. It has rained and rained. I have never seen such prunes before and I’m almost sick with fear I won’t get them in on time. Winter will be here any day, and I still have some carrots and potatoes out.
October 28. — Since writing the above I have dried ten bushels of pears, slicing them by hand and drying them around the stove. I did a bushel a day. Then I picked ten bushels of prunes. They are safe now, and now my work begins on them. This is the third time in twelve years I have had prunes ripen. Usually they freeze.

November 10. — The prunes are well under way. Two more weeks will finish them, Boy and Daddy are both sick with the whooping cough. The ground is frozen a little, not deep yet. I keep digging away at the potatoes, and get a sack most every day. I have fifteen sacks in the cellar now, and I went over to T.’s and picked apples and have ten sacks in the cellar. Culls, but good eating.
One night I worked four hours on Daddy, putting compresses on his chest until he could breathe properly. Twice I have smoked both my invalids so they could get a little rest.
Monday. — Boy is still in bed. He has bronchial pneumonia now, and Daddy is worse. I am more afraid for Daddy than for Boy. I was up nearly all night, but got a little rest in the morning. It would be a comfort to have a doctor, but that is impossible with six months of winter ahead. Queer that doctors are prohibited to the poor. Out here the women get their babies without them, just their husbands doing for them. I have several sad stories laid away in my brain about them, and now I am in the same class. I must struggle on. I have no woman to talk to, so I will write to ease my brain.
Conditions are very hard. The struggle for bare existence is awful, but one gets used to it. Every penny should be used for at least a dozen such urgent needs that I have carried a dollar with me for days, laid it in front of me when I ate, debating what it should go for. Time passes, we live on, and get through somehow. If I accept money it burns me, it seems to lower me somehow. I will never accept any of it any more, for now I see I can never pay any back. This is my diary. It is true, and not written for money. The brain forgets, so I will write down each day.

(To be continued)