November 17, 1923
BOY is better and sitting up in bed. Daddy’s cough is worse. I cleaned part of the henhouse yesterday. It is very dreadful, and the dust is annoying and makes me feel sick, but I’ll finish it to-day. It’s a big henhouse, 24 x 16, and has a loft where I keep my small late chicks that the hens are mean to.
December 21. — Boy is almost done whooping, and two more weeks will see him well. Daddy is better too. There are still six sacks of potatoes in the ground, and I have given them up. I dressed up in my best dress and wrapped up warm and sat down on the fence to-night for an hour in the moonlight, hoping that someone would go by that was going to the Xmas entertainment at the schoolhouse. The teacher was going to have a tree. I did n’t dare go alone, as I am afraid at night. Nobody came, so I went in, and Daddy sang some old Scotch folk songs, and Boy and I were happy again.
December 23. — It is snowing. So old Winter has come in earnest. I am going down on the prairie to-morrow to get the mail, and mail some letters. My calves are home and look nice. They have been on the range all this time, and just came home this week. I tried to sell four of them, and sent word to seven butcher shops, but they have quit buying of ranchers, and I will have to peddle to the camps that are logging in the mountains. Dressed veal is eight cents a pound, and I may get enough to pay the taxes. I have counted so much on them, and am so disappointed, as my taxes are a year and a half behind already. Eggs are thirty-five cents and my hens barely pay their feed bill. Boy is trimming a tree for me. He is busy cutting paper, and I have sent for a box of tiny candles that should be in the mail. I have a ball, a tin horn, and some peanuts for his stocking, so he’ll have lots of fun Xmas morning. Dear old Daddy is stargazing again. He watches the stars and wonders about them, why and wherefore they are.
December 26. — Seven yearlings, a few almost two years old, are missing. Where can they be? It has turned so cold, and it is snowing from the north. How I hate winter! I have just pulled in some fence rails into the kitchen, and when I get rested I’ll saw them up for wood. The wind is rising again, so it will be a penetrating cold to-night. I don’t keep a fire at night, as I can’t saw the wood fast enough, but we are very comfortable, even when it is twenty degrees below in the house and a drop of water freezes instantly.
January 7. — Daddy and I and Boy drove ten miles east into the heart of the ridge of mountains. We went up a gulch, but we were halfway up the side of the mountain on a trail cut by the Forest Reserve men. A blizzard came up behind us, so it got pretty fierce, but we had to go on. Daddy drove the old horse, and we sat on some boards nailed on the front bob of his old bobsled. You could n’t take a whole sled in there on the sharp turns on a trail cut barely wide enough to get through. We got word on Sunday that the yearlings were at a logging camp on the Reserve. One of the loggers came down and told us they had been there about two months. It was after dinner when we arrived in camp, but the cook fed us well, and stuffed our pockets with real dandy cookies as big as saucers when we left. The men had been good to the stock and had thrown out feed for them, so they looked good. For shelter they were allowed to sleep in the blacksmith shop, and the men all liked them, for it’s lonesome up there.
We started for home, and I drove, and Daddy and Boy walked behind the yearlings, who followed me. I had to go so slow and faced a blizzard all the way. The horses had to pick their own way, as I could n’t see. Boy thought his eyes were frozen, but it was only snow on his eyelashes. It was after dark when we got home. I can’t tell in words how glad I was to get home. I pulled off Boy’s and Daddy’s coats and got them into bed, and made a fire, and went to bed myself until it got warm. It’s the only thing to do when you are chilled through. Then I warmed up some soup and waked Daddy and we ate a hot dinner by the stove, using the sewing-machine drop leaf for our table. It was no use to try to thaw the kitchen out — it was too cold. When it storms I read aloud to Daddy, and the papers you sent last year I am reading over again, and find much in them worth reading over.
April 14, 1924
I am down on the prairie for two nights. I walk back Wednesday night. You see, the University Extension Department of Montana sent teachers into the country to teach various things, and I wanted so much to go, I’ve planned for weeks on how to manage so I could get away. Not so much to learn, although I’ll be glad to learn anything, as to meet the teachers and see and talk to a bunch of women once more, for it almost drives me wild to be alone, and it storms so much of the time we only see the sun a few times all winter.
I baked bread and cooked beans and put a pail of potatoes beside the stove real handy for Daddy to bake in the oven, and did all I could to make it easy for him, and took Boy with me so nothing should bother him.
To-night is Monday night, and while I’m a bit tired, having walked seven miles, still I’m so uplifted in spirit that I can’t go to bed and sleep. The teachers are wonderful, college girls, and have been out of college and at this work for about five years. They talked and demonstrated hats to-day, and we were all taught frame making. Eighteen women came. To-morrow we cover the hats, and Wednesday we trim. I have n’t bought a hat for years, and one of N.’s friends sent me a bunch of old, old hats that had lain for twenty years or more in her closets. ’Lids,’ the University women call them. I ripped the braid off, and have material. For trimming they will show us how to make flowers and rosettes of the material itself also. That wonderful cape — it’s an open sesame wherever I go. I wore it in M — and the clerk where I sold my eggs opened the door for me when I left. Such deference to a woman from the backwoods! The University ladies planned my hat to match it, and it’s going to be very pretty. The crown is brown horsehair braid, which is so sheer my hair shows through. The brim is tiny and faced with bright blue silk. It will have flowers of the silk. My eyes are blue and my hair is pale gold. They thought it a wonderful combination. Forgive me if I talk so much about myself; one does n’t enter paradise very often.
Up there in the woods where I live (I am on the prairie now) most of the women are very crude and coarse. Against Daddy’s wishes (he is an old darling, and thinks I ought to keep away from those women and just be on speaking terms with them) I and the school-teacher called a meeting at the schoolhouse a year ago to see what we could do to alleviate some of the worst cases of distress that came to my ears from time to time. About two dozen women came, and we organized a ‘Helping Hand.’ To get money we had a stunt night at the schoolhouse, and I made posters and put them up where the lumberjacks and miners could see them. The programme of stunts was most remarkable. It lasted for hours, and then we sold boxes of lunch and made coffee. We took in twenty-nine dollars. We bough I a spring and mattress for the dearest old grandma I’ve ever run across. She is over eighty and was in bed for fifteen weeks without being able to sit up, and lying on the dirtiest straw tick on boards. They met with me, and we dyed flour sacks and pieced two of the brightest comforts I’ve ever seen. We each pieced seven blocks at home, and used the flour sacks for in between and linings. Grandma was so pleased with them; she said they would pass the time away for her, they were so pretty. Maybe I’ve told you this before, and how when she was younger she helped over one hundred babies to come into the world before any doctor lived close enough to this district. She came to this country over the Oregon trail in an oxcart when she was seven. Her mother and father both died on the trail here. Many the hardships she passed through. I’m glad she has a decent spring and mattress under her to-night.
We next met at her shack and cleaned it. I can’t tell you all the things this little band of women have done. We are making a layette for a poor woman who has six half-starved young ones. She expects another one next week. Her children are all mentally deficient, but such people breed like rabbits, and babies are so helpless I can’t bear to see them abused.
I worry over my debts and twentyfive dollars I borrowed one spring for seed, and have n’t been able to pay back yet. I counted on selling my calves when they got big. But I was n’t able to find a purchaser. Times are so hard there is no sale for anything in this Western country. There is an embargo on cattle west of the Rockies and cattle don’t sell. I have n’t paid the taxes for two years now, and this year’s are due this fall again. I hope for better luck this summer. No, I cannot take a crippled old man, sick half the time, to California, or anywhere else. He has to stay here until he dies. He can’t live anywhere else. You know they get crotchety as they grow old.
Boy is a great help and comfort, so I shall tell you about Boy. He has always been a remarkable child, odd, yet fine and strong. Just as soon as he gets among other children you notice how different he is. He sings to himself, and two years ago a sister of Daddy was out for a visit and tried to listen to hear what he was singing about. But he was too bashful. I never paid any attention to it, but after she had gone I got a pencil and paper and wrote down his songs. I have n’t them here, so I’ll write more about them after I get home.
The verse in the Bible about ‘Knock and it shall be opened ’ seems to have a special message for me. For you see Boy and I are planning to go to college after Daddy is gone. I have always wanted to go, and that wanting is increasing every day. So some day a little old, old lady and a young lad will knock at some college door. Will they open for us? The message in the Bible says they will. It does n’t say we have to have money, but just knock.
April 20. —Time passes so quickly when you have more than you can do. Since that dreadful day we went after the yearlings I’ve had to be legs for Daddy all I can. He froze one toe and the varicose veins broke soon after, and he has a dreadful leg.
I am going to write to the University and see if they won’t come and help the women up here in the hills. It would be such a treat for them.
December 20, 1924
We are right in the middle of a cold snap. I expect it to moderate in a week or so. We had an early winter this year. It was thirty degrees below zero two nights ago, and now it is twentyfive degrees below zero. It would n’t. have been so bad if the wind had n’t blown so hard. I never saw a stronger wind. It uprooted many trees. I could hear the crashing, and the snow, real fine, sifted into the house everywhere. If I spill a drop of water on the kitchen floor, it freezes instantly. The Woman’s Club I started up here had three days’ instruction from the University Extension. They enjoyed it so much. Now there won’t be any more until spring.
In spite of the drought, we got a big load of ripe wheat hay off of five acres. This has been the driest year we’ve had, but my little garden did well and I canned 125 quarts of green vegetables off it, besides the roots I grew for winter. Daddy put the hay in a shed, and then hitched up the old team and drove them round and round until it was threshed out. The horses were eating big mouthfuls of it, and I told Daddy he ought to tie up their noses. But he wouldn’t, for it says in the Bible, ‘Muzzle not the ox that treads out thy grain.’ This Bible verse taught him how to do it also, for he had never seen or heard of threshing grain before in that way. Then we raked off the straw, and on a windy day we cleaned out the chaff by pouring it from one pan to another. I grind it in an old coffee mill and cook bread out of the fine meal and gruel from the coarse. A scone baked in the iron spider, from sour milk and soda and this meal, is just fine. I bake one every day. The reason I use the spider is because it requires no greasing. But last month she began to stick and it was so provoking. Daddy joked about it and said the old frying pan got hungry. We were all hungry for fat, for the old cow dried up when the drought came. I get just a little bit of milk to cook with. Taxes had to be paid, so I helped Daddy butcher Blue Bell, a small cow, and then we drove to town and tried to sell her. The butchers all told us they were buying only of the packers, so we went home again. It was bitterly cold, the roads were bad, the horse slow, but I had two bricks (hot) at our feet and we got along fine. Now we are eating the cow and it is certainly grand to have both meat and fat to cook with again. Daddy feels so cheerful that he sings after meals. He can’t carry a tune, but it’s nice to hear him sing. So far he has been well.
We have a new mail route. It starts on the sixteenth of July this summer, and my Woman’s Club up here is what did it. I am so proud of my club and the way they work together. We have twenty-two members now and some are foreigners. A few objected to the foreigners, but I told them these women needed to be Americanized, and that settled it. One of them, an Austrian, is beginning to eat with a fork, and that shows intelligence and desire to be like others. So we get to know each other better, have a community spirit and grow more charitable toward each other.
I picked berries on the prairie, and apples in the fall. I broke a finger on my right hand and sprained the joint on it, too, by falling off a stepladder the first day I picked apples. I tied it up and went on working, because I had to. Winter coming on, there was no choice. It ached fierce and is tender yet and a little crooked, but I don’t think it will bother me when it gets strong again. It’s next to the little finger and I spare it all I can.
March 25, 1925
The magazines you sent me were very interesting, especially as I am working on somewhat the same line with the women up here in the mountains. They are settlers on the cut-over land, and homesteaders, and the land is sterile and frosty, but those that have men that are able to work get along fairly well, as there are logging and construction camps here and there and they can get work.
I started a club two years ago and have now twenty active members, and they are so active and full of life I find it hard to give them enough to do. I should like to join them up with some state organization of women’s clubs. They have hard lives, but have big families, and it’s an education to these women to get together every other week and discuss welfare work and do things together. Having nothing else, the club is absorbing to them, and the way they tackle the work and obstacles in the way is certainly inspiring. We have started a debating society at our schoolhouse, which meets every other week. Sometimes we have a spelling match for a change, and sometimes just sing while the teacher plays the organ. It is a sparsely settled community and we have small oneroom schoolhouses, so three school districts have to get together for any kind of entertainment. Our school is central, so we always meet there.
I have lived here now, on the prairie and up here, nineteen years altogether, and I am behind the times in many ways. It was so good of you to send me such nice things. You can never realize what they mean to me, for I stay home from the prairie club many times because I’m not presentable. If it’s a nice day, I’m going to a meeting there to-morrow afternoon and wear the new voile dress you sent. It fits as if you had fitted it on me.
I am forty-five next October and I weigh eighty-six pounds, but I am well. Restricted by nature and circumstances to a simple and wholesome diet, I can’t help but be well. Because I was so small, I resolved to raise a Better Baby, and my small son is as large now as any ten-year-old in this part of the country. I planned for a baby all my life, and I picked the best Daddy for him. My only regret is that he is so old now, but I am trying to take good care of him so Boy and I will have him with us many years yet. Daddy is a treasure. I don’t know what life would be without him. He calls us his two children, and he’s never cross, no matter how tired or ill. He was seventy-two last month and has a white beard like Burroughs.
I can’t raise many chickens because the coyotes are so bad. They seem to have increased at a most alarming rate lately. Next winter I’m going to have a line of traps for them. I shall work on the places to set them this summer. They are hard to trap, but I may be able to get enough skins to buy shoes and clothes for the boy. He is eight this spring and dreadfully hard on clothes.
It will soon be time to put in garden now. I plant about an acre altogether of garden stuff and potatoes. It’s all I can take care of myself, but Boy is getting big enough to help me now and I have rented an acre of irrigated land on the prairie—very rich land which I will put into mangels and beets for the cow. I get two thirds of the crop, but I have to weed and water it. I see I have to have something besides straw for the cow, in order to make milk. Sometimes Daddy is able to work, and sometimes not; so I have learned to go ahead, and if Daddy feels able to help I’m very thankful, but I never count on it. I think he feels better this spring than for several years, as he had a good winter; the way he puts it, ‘I wintered good.’ Mostly due, I believe, to the fact that he had greens of some kind at every meal.
The University Extension for the Rural Districts has been a great help to me the last two years. I have learned so much from them. The coming year they will teach us more about foods and their effects on the system. What I have already learned has been a benefit, but I am looking forward with much interest to the classes this summer.
March 25, 1925
You are certainly the best and dearest to write to me when I neglect you so. But my life is so full of work I can’t write, at least as often as I would like to, and I do love to get letters.
I was delighted to get a new friend and I clasped my hands with joy, and then Daddy said, ‘Go slow. If Mrs. T. and this club lady knew what sort of women you have taken up with, they’d have nothing more to do with you.’ So, now, Mother Superior, I come to confession and I need advice. On only one subject are Daddy and I out, and that’s my new club up here. You see it’s this way. At heart Daddy is an aristocrat. He’ll quote Bobby Burns about ‘ A man’s a man for a’ that and a’ that,’ but he does n’t practise what he preaches. He considers me so fragile, so nice, so dainty and everything, that I must n’t have anything to do with anybody who has the least blemish on her reputation.
So for twelve years I have minded him, and then I could n’t stand it any longer. I started this club. It has twenty active members and they are all living straight now. The club is keeping some of them straight, they are so anxious to belong. Here is what some of them are: (1) Mrs. C. has two children and almost kills herself once a year to avoid a baby. (2) Mrs. T. is not married, but says she is. We all know better. She lives with Mr. T. and has two children, and does what Mrs. C. does every year. She has wretched health like Mrs. C. (3) Mrs. S. left her husband one winter and lived with the hired man several months. Her husband told her to get a divorce, and she did, but married, not the hired man, but the Greek cook at a railroad construction camp east of us last fall. She is fifty and he is thirty, and it is a poor match. (4) Mary has an illegitimate child, eleven years old, but is a fine woman, and has a good husband now. (5) Mrs. N. is an Austrian and can’t speak good English yet, but she has three nice children and a good reputation. (6) Mrs. M. kept what we call ‘two husbands’ up here. It’s hard to make a living, she had many children, and an extra man to work was a great help. When I moved up here fourteen years ago there were seven women who lived with two husbands. Mrs. M. was put out of the Farmers’ Union because she kept two husbands, but she is living straight now. (7) Mrs. A. is a coarse type that you find in logging camps. She is used to fighting and hair pulling, but has become very sedate and peaceful now. (8) Mrs. W. has spent twenty years as cook in logging camps. The hard work has refined and aged her.
I could go on like this all night. These women have many children, swarms of them in some homes. Daddy claims they are not in my class, that he who touches pitch will be defiled. Then something heart-rending will happen and he’ll say, ‘You’ll see the nice women on the prairie won’t speak to you when they know who you consort with.’ And I tell him it isn’t so. The women on the prairie are too busy painting their complexions to worry about me, and the University Extension ladies just love me and tell me how much I’m helping them.
Maybe Daddy is right. I’ll confess this much, I don’t feel the aversion I used to to a fallen woman. This aversion was the result of my mother’s extremely Puritan ideals. One day a girl of sixteen came to a school entertainment in our schoolhouse here and she had in her arms a six-weeks-old illegitimate child by a married man. She was there on a seat all alone, and I just picked myself up and went and sat down beside her and held the baby for her. I would have done anything to bring her to lead a good life, but she went to the dogs just the same, and is so miserable now. If I’d had my club this would n’t have happened. But it was years ago. Now in the city you’d cut dead these women with a past. I know it. A nice woman on the prairie had made a misstep in her youth. She came West to start a new life. An old neighbor saw her and told about her. Nobody goes near her now. That’s what Daddy goes by. I used to feel that I must read, study, to go back into the world some day and be broadminded and take my place and associate with cultured people once more. You said my last letter was cheerful, and I’m glad. It’s because I’ve found my life work. This section has a bad name, and it’s because it’s poor and hidden in the timber and mountains. I shall change the bad name to a good name if I live long enough. It’s uphill work.
Well, I tell Daddy I’m in now, with both feet, and as long as I’m true to myself it does n’t matter what other people think about me. As far as I can see, it does n’t make any difference. The prairie club insist that I must belong to their club down there, and I try to get down there once in a while. There are fourteen members — it’s limited to this number. They dance and play cards and meet twice a month. They are very exclusive, up to date, and I have n’t the clothes to attend in, so I have n’t gone much of late years. Every summer when my garden is ready, so I have peas and lettuce and new potatoes, I stuff a couple of hens, and have the club all up for dinner. Then the vines and bushes cover up the tumbledown looks of the place.
Every summer Boy and I make bird houses. They are rough and crude, but the birds don’t care, and so every year we add new folks to our bird village, for that is what the garden looks like. Last year two pairs of wrens moved in, and we already had a martin, several bluebirds, and three wren couples, besides the birds that build their own nests. I have learned to make the holes small in the bird houses, for sometimes I’ve had trouble with the pine squirrels who go in and cat the eggs.
One day about four years ago I went down on the prairie after my mail. We did n’t have a R. route up here then, you know. There were several mail boxes down there, and a large dumpy woman was getting her mail too, and I saw that she had been crying. I knew who she was, but had never met her; but I started in to talk to her, and as everybody tells me their troubles it was n’t long before she told me. They were dreadfully poor, trying to pay for a place, and she was going to have a baby. She had three nice boys, and she wanted a girl, and the tears ran again, she felt so bad. You see, Mr. C. did n’t want the expense of getting a doctor or even a woman. He said he had always tended to stock and never needed to call a doctor and he guessed he could tend a woman all right. Well, I happened to run into a woman down there who used to be a trained nurse, but is married and has a family. I told her about Mrs. C., and she said she’d look after her for me. She did. She told me about it one day. A few days before Mrs. C. would be confined she walked in with her suitcase and said she’d come to stay awhile. And she sent for good old Dr. H. and he had to take the baby; but it’s a lovely little girl, and the mother just adores it. So now you have one of my baby stories.
It takes money to run the club up here, there are so many in trouble, so we pieced a quilt and raffled it off at the schoolhouse last week, and took in twenty dollars. We found an old woman living in a shack with her son, and she was nearly ninety. We sent her a potted plant, and she cried, and said she thought nobody knew about her and everyone had forgotten her. The old woman who came out in an oxcart over the Oregon trail when she was seven died last summer. Well, we made her last days comfortable, anyway. I met a rough lumberjack one day, and he says to me, ‘I didn’t think much of your club when you started it, but my hat goes off when I meet any of youse now.’
July 3, 1925
My club up here had one meeting in our little acre cemetery, and we fixed up things real nice. Some raked and burned up the accumulation of years, while others lettered names and dates on white-painted headboards for the baby graves. We put up eighteen of them in the afternoon. It was a busy day, but everybody seemed happy. The happiness that comes from doing.
July 19. — The garden is burned up by the sun, and not a drop of rain for weeks. The peas dried while in bloom, except the early ones, from which we had a few messes. The potatoes held out the longest and have tiny potatoes like small nuts, but real good, and I’m using them as long as they last. Such a nice garden as it was in the spring, and to look at it now! While pulling up the dried pea vines for the cow, I thought hard. If you think hard enough and long enough on anything, it will finally come to you. Down on those irrigated tracts there was garden truck nice and green, and I had no money. Rut I made a proposition that had ‘come’ to me and the result is I get canning to do on shares. I have finished the peas and have seventy quarts for my share and am working on string beans this week. I pick them before it’s hot and get up at four o’clock to do so. Shelling so many peas was trying, the days are so hot, but it’s over with and I feel good when I look at my jars of peas. Boy goes with me and we walk, but it’s nice and cool and we never start for home until after seven. After the beans, there will be squash and corn to can. It has made me very happy. In a dry year, I must have more provisions, as I must reckon on enough to last nine months at least. I divide up my supplies into nine parts and as I come to each month’s allowance I divide it into so much for each week. Early settlers in New England used to do that and Daddy chants a line (when things don’t hold out and he has to go short in the spring) that says, ‘Only five grains of corn, mother, only five grains of corn.’ He varies the number of grains each time; sometimes it’s six grains, and sometimes seven. But I’ll get through to grass nicely this year, for I’ll have milk. Other years the cows dried up on the poor feed, but this year they are going to have beets, a pailful each twice a day. That’s why I work so hard on my acre of beets. Last year we did not have a drop of milk until spring, and determination to have milk another winter helps me to weed and water the beets on the prairie. Daddy and Boy help to water them and they are looking fine.
‘Be a living question mark,’my old professor in physics used to say, ‘and you’ll never grow old.’ I believe I live up to it, for I question the why of everything and get no answer. There are so many things that would make this life happier, why must I go without? These are questions I ask of life and get no answer. If it were n’t for ‘make-believe’ I’d give up and become an old woman, tired and discouraged. But Boy has named me Jenny Wren, and who ever saw a mother wren tired? She’s busy, busy, busy all day long hunting grub for her nestlings, and so am I. But I take time to swing in Boy’s little rope swing under the old apple tree and we have a teetertotter in the barnyard and we do have fun. When I play, I’m Jenny, but at night I am just ‘Mother.’ If you ask Boy what his mother is, he’ll tell you: ‘ She’s just a little girl.’ The other day he was out in the barnyard with Daddy and he saw me in the garden. He turned to Daddy and said with a grin, ‘I wonder what that little rascal is up to now.’ It amuses Daddy. But I have always loved children and one must have love and infinite patience with small children. Which reminds me that I was reprimanded once by the principal because my kiddies made so much noise at times that the room above was disturbed. We were just having fun and playing games and I toned them down, but that principal did get a good jolt a bit later. There were twelve rooms in the building and I had the primary with sixty babies in it. A much-traveled woman, who was a member of the school board, went around visiting the schools and dropped into my room one day. I did n’t know her, but my children treated her fine. She liked us so well she stayed all afternoon and became one of the family. Later she addressed a principals’ meeting (nineteen big schools in our city) and this is what she said, I was told: ‘I have journeyed in many lands and have visited schools in this country and in Europe, but I have at last found the perfect school right here in my home town, in Room 1, at the Jackson School.’
You see, the old superintendent and I were chums and he gave me nearly everything I asked for. When I wanted a kindergarten table and chairs, he hunted them up in the garret of an old church (the Sunday school had discarded them) and he let me teach in my own way, which was original to say the least. I was the mother and they were my children. They answered the door and seated visitors and talked to them. We did the regular kindergarten work and first primary combined, but that did n’t take us long and we had games and stories the rest of the time and visitors nearly every day. I had no rule except to be kind and not too noisy. They were free to walk and talk to each other, and everyone was so busy and happy the time just flew and soon the gong rang to go home.
(To be continued)
- The first installment of these authentic letters appeared in February. — THE EDITORS↩