The Stump Farm. Iii: A Chronicle of Pioneering

July 6, 1925
THE weeds in the acre on the prairie took me longer than I expected. I’m not used to that kind of work; it takes a Jap to do it, but I experimented, first one way and then another. First I straddled the row on my knees, one knee on each side of the row and with a hand weeder in one hand, hacking at the weeds, and the other hand pulling out plants where they were too thick. I got along pretty good, doing a row in about two hours. But then burning pain came on ray knees and I found them red and swollen and some big blisters. That would never do, so I walked to the nearest house and borrowed two gunny sacks and some sack twine. No one lives on the acre I have rented. I rolled a sack around each knee and tied it, and started the second row. I finished the day that way, but it worried me to find that I had slowed down instead of speeding up. As the sun rose higher and became hotter, it was all I could do to keep up my morale and stick her out. I tried all kinds of ways to amuse my mind. I pictured you and the girls drinking iced lemonade on the deck of a beautiful ship, and J. fox-trotting with a handsome lieutenant, going out to the islands. My water jug did n’t taste half so lukey after that. The rows were so long they looked like railroad tracks coming together at the far end. It brought a long-forgotten picture to my mind. Many years ago I saw Mansfield. I don’t remember whom he played with, but I think it was Julia Marlowe. There was some misunderstanding and the heroine went back to her humble life in the country. The hero hunted her up and found her in the ‘lettuce fields of France.’ Those long rows of lettuce looked just like the long rows of beets. So after that it was n’t in the beet fields I was weeding, it was in the ‘lettuce fields of France.’
I stood it three days on my knees and then they were so bad I sat down and moved along like a frog in little jumps. In two days I did n’t have any seat in my overalls and nothing to patch them with. ‘There’s always something to take the joy out of life,’ as Daddy says. Then I took the hoe and walked stooped, and hoed and pulled, and next day I could hardly get out of bed. My back seemed to have gone back on me. I made breakfast and washed the dishes three times a day for my board, and I planned to write letters nights, but was too tired. I talked to myself all day long; it helped me to forget the blazing sun overhead and the dust and the long, long rows. The utter hopelessness in Daddy’s old eyes drives me on. I have thought how nice it would be if we had old-age pensions. Nothing to dread any more. No hunger, no cold. It would be heaven here on earth.
Boy and I have been reading Alice in Wonderland. He wants my little ‘22’ so he can ‘get’ that March hare who was so mean to Alice. That March hare lives in the woods just east, of us — he’s seen him lots of times, he says. But out in the beet field the song the Mock Turtle sang rang in my head day after day, but the words were a little different. I tried to get rid of the jingle, but it persisted:

‘Will you work a little faster? ' said old Summer to the snail.
‘For Old Winter’s just behind me, and he’s treading on my tail.’

It hustled me up all right. I had another acre of vegetables and beets at home and I could n’t be at it all summer. Well, I finished it in seven days and came home to find my garden choked with weeds and drying up badly. Have been at it ever since. Except for two days when I loused chickens on a hen ranch down on the prairie. Gee, it was hot in that henhouse. I shed everything but my overalls, and I got thirty-five cents an hour, and we, another woman and I, did a hen and a half a minute. That’s ninety hens an hour, but experienced workers do a hundred an hour. My job was to catch the hen with a miniature shepherd’s crook that caught the leg, put a ring on the right leg, and pass her to the other woman, who put on lice poison and threw her into the hen yard.

The Spokane paper said the heat broke all records, going to 102 in the shade. There was no time for dreaming, or even thinking. I was glad I was little and thin, and my little crook was flying every minute faster and faster. Poor frightened hens! But I was happy, for I was earning a pair of new shoes for Daddy and a sack of flour. Daddy’s wheat is all gone and we have been without bread some time. It’s been hardest on the boy, but we’ll have plenty from now on if I can pick up a day’s work now and then. The future looks much brighter.

If I were to put down on paper one half of the struggle, one half of the hardships, or picture one winter, day by day, you could hardly believe it to be true, and yet my life is not half so hard as many here, up in these hills. I can plan ahead fairly well; I know food chemistry and what is needed to keep healthy. When winter comes, I’ll have about the same amount of wheat for Daddy to thrash out with the old team, enough potatoes and vegetables and sugar beets to make molasses, which will give us all the sweets we need. Fruit is scarce, but I will have crab apples and rhubarb to can, and that will furnish the acids. A cow to make soups for Daddy and Boy. As Daddy says, ’We have taken our noble President’s advice and are trying to raise everything we need on the farm.’ If everyone would try this, it would be better for them. Every month some family is pulling out because they can’t make it. M.’s have gone to live in a logging camp where he can work. S. went back to Oklahoma last week. B.’s lost their place because they could n’t pay the interest on the mortgage. L. pulled out with his wife and four lovely children. I asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘God knows.’ They lived closest to us, and how little we know even our nearest neighbors. When they left, Mrs. L. and the children walked on ahead and stopped to say good-bye to me. It was exactly twelve o’clock and I had a kettle of soup waiting for Daddy, as he had n’t come in yet. The soup was made from field peas and a piece of pork and it was ' licking good,’ as Boy says. ‘You’re starting early,’ says I to Mrs. L. ‘Have you already had your lunch, or are you going to picnic along the road?’ She startled me by saying quietly: ‘We have n’t had anything to eat to-day and there’s not much show of our getting anything very soon.’ I said, ‘Come right in. There’s soup and bread and butter and rhubarb sauce, lots of it. I’ll tell Mr. L. to tie his team and come in too.’ I never saw youngsters so hungry in all my life. The little four-year-old girl stood up in her chair and screamed with joy at the sight of the food I put on her plate.

I watched them until they were out of sight over the hill and it was with a feeling of insecurity that I came back into the house. Perhaps it will be me next. There are empty farmhouses all over the West, and each one has its story.

Daddy says every day that he’s going to pull out and go to British Columbia. ‘Why,’ he says, ‘it’s better than a stump ranch; there’ll be grass for the cows and the boy will have a better chance.’ I don’t want to go. It’s so beautiful here. I love it, and I dread the unknown. What could I do there with a feeble old man and a young child?

July 26. — I’m worried to-night, not so much for myself as for my neighbors north a couple of miles. The smoke is rolling up fast, big billows of it in the sky, and one by one the settlers have gone by and none have come back, which means there is a big fire and help needed. I hear S. has been appointed fire warden for this district, and a better man could n’t be found, even if he is a bootlegger. A big, clean, helpful man, he was quite downhearted when he got arrested and sentenced to six months in jail. ‘I ought n’t to have done it,’ he told me, ‘ but times are so hard.’ ‘Cheer up,’ I said, ‘no use to worry about it now, but do keep out of the real penitentiary — it’s so disgraceful to your family!’ Daddy and I don’t believe in bootlegging nor lawbreaking, but you can’t do anything in a community if you antagonize people. I would n’t sleep nights if I had helped to put anyone in jail. I love freedom so much myself.

July 30. — Mrs. F.’s house is gone. She lost everything, which was n’t much, but all she had. More work for our Club. All the men except Daddy are gone there. He can’t go any more. A strong wind is blowing the flames north, but if it changes, it will be so thick with smoke one can hardly breathe. We are not in any danger, as there is a road between us, and that’s a fine firebreak.

There’s about a hundred settlers fighting it, and the logging company just sent down as many more to help. Mrs. L. got out in lime. These fires roll awfully fast when it’s dry, and there’s plenty of slashings to feed it along. I see the smoke clouds rolling faster and faster. And what do you think started it? An orphaned boy that’s been working around for his board set fire to a yellow jacket’s (yellow hornet’s) nest in the woods. Those yellow jackets are pesky, but that orphan had better vanish from this neck of the woods or he might get strung up. We consider anyone that starts a fire as worse than any other criminal. It’s looking bad. I go out to look at it every few minutes. It looks awfully close. There are several families that will have to get out before very long. It seems to be only a city block away, but that’s on account of the hills and the dense smoke. I can tell when the fire strikes into green timber and when it’s in slashings. The smoke is so different. It’s interesting to watch it, but I feel bad over the homes that are going. Nothing much in the way of buildings —just shacks mostly—but they sheltered from the storms and each was a home.

Latest reports from the fire: A man just came by and says the Forest Reserve has sent help and that the L. home is n’t burned yet, and it may be saved; but they are all out, in case the wind comes up.

August 2. —The fire is still bad and cars are running back and forth all night with men. The wind has changed and it’s racing up into the mountains on the reserve. It gives the settlers a chance to back-fire before the wind changes again.

You have reason to be proud of your children. When I see fine children, I know they have pure-bred parents, speaking in stock terms. Many times have I wondered why I married an old man, but I’d do it over again to get my boy. Daddy’s ancestors are the finest in Scotland and England. I believe in blood and good breeding and I love Daddy for the beauty of his mind, which is the result of generations. What I mean is this: Leisure is needed to cultivate the mind in music, literature, and so forth. Therefore my boy is more receptive and by instinct chooses the better things because I chose for him a father of that type. There are members of the family still living in the ancestral castle in Scotland. His grandfather was a captain in the British navy and we have his old telescope and several other old keepsakes.

I told Daddy to-day that I was ready to pull out any time he was. If he thought it best to go. I was willing to follow him and work for him. If things get much harder than they are, we can’t even exist here and we must go like the others, but never to a city. I’d take up a homestead in British Columbia before I’d live in a city. The country has got into my very bones. I love it — the trees and birds and growing things. And city, what would that give me? A little comfort and starve my soul. Better to die fasting with a flower in my hand.

July 14, 1926
It did take grit to go to a strange land and my courage almost failed me many times, for I did n’t know a soul here or anyone who had ever been here. There were only the government statistics to go by. But when you’re down and out there’s not much to lose, so I staked my all to get here and I’m not sorry yet. The captain of the steamer was surprised when I told him to land us at a certain point and he told us there was only one white settler there. But he said it did n’t matter to him, and he dumped my belongings off on a mud bank where there was no sign of human habitation. I felt like Robinson Crusoe as I stood on the shore of this mighty river and looked at the swamp that edged it, so dense and luxuriant that I had never seen anything like it. The mosquitoes soon put an end to dreaming and we all got busy gathering sticks for a nice smoky fire. The potatoes and bacon cooked over it tasted good in spite of the cinders that got into the pan. We rolled the boy up in a blanket so even his nose could n’t be found by the singing chorus. It looked like rain, so we covered our boxes with the tent and spent the night by the fire. Daddy fell asleep and I covered him up from the mosquitoes with a piece of old canvas. A hard bed for old bones, but the best I could do for that night. I sat there alone, thinking of all that lay ahead to do. No home, no shelter, and a long winter ahead. Two o’clock the heavy dew quieted the mosquitoes and I turned the three old horses loose to feed in the swamp. Following them, I was soon lost in the heavy undergrowth, higher than my head, and I called and called, getting more frightened every moment, and at last I heard Daddy’s halloo and he came to meet me through the brush. I was trembling all over when he found me and put his arms around me and held me close. To get lost is a fearful thing here. The captain, the purser, and the cook all warned me to be careful. Then we sat and watched the sun turn the twilight night into day.
The white settler lives a mile inland on a slight rise of the land, as this river sometimes overflows and covers the river flats, but only for short periods and very seldom. This bottom land is very level and from one half to two miles wide only. The soil is very heavy, black, and rich. Above this the land is higher, not so rich, and lighter.

July 16.—The white settler has given us a bedroom where we sleep — but we eat at our little camp by the river. The river is wonderful, over a mile wide and flows north. The banks are very low the farther north it flows. The Indians are extremely dark, unkempt, and shiftless. They live entirely by trapping and fishing. There are swarms of ‘ breeds,’ some of them quite good-looking and once in a while one that could easily pass for white. They furnish the only labor element here and few of them are worth their salt.

July 17. — We have picked out our homestead and will move on to it as soon as possible. It will be tough until we get a cabin and get through the first winter, but if we survive that we’ll be old settlers. The more I see of this country, the better I like it. Coming from a dry country with a blazing sky all summer, it is pleasant to see the fleecy clouds go scudding by, and there’s seldom a day that we don’t get at least one shower. The rain is n’t even cold and I go out in it just to get my bobbed head wet as when I was a child back in Illinois. The gardens just love to grow here. Mrs. L. is using green beans, peas, new potatoes, beets, carrots, and lettuce on her table and has radishes coming on new and crisp all summer long. Ever since Daddy begged to die in Canada, the country of his birth, I have studied it, and chose this spot as the best and most available in my meagre circumstances. Daddy will die happy and contented; we’ll have a home without being afraid of being forced to go into some city to die in the slums, and Boy will grow up like Lincoln, in the wilderness.
The ‘fur’ is pretty well trapped out here along the river. But there will always be some. Dogs are used here all winter and our big black-and-white shepherd dog is very much admired by the Indians and breeds. He is better than their dogs and is worth $75. Now I’ll have him to worry about for fear they steal him. That would break our hearts. We smell like Indians now from sitting in the smoke so much. It’s the only comfort one gets during the day, while at night forgetfulness comes when you crawl under a cheesecloth canopy. Well, I have found the place where hay and potatoes never fail, thank God. Once more I can say the Twenty-third Psalm when I wake in the morning as I always used to do.
Sunday afternoon. — Mrs. L. gathered her children around the old organ for a few hymns. Each one of us chose a hymn, even the three-year-old baby boy. The young married daughter, home with her wee babe, chose a song about love from the songs of matrimony in the English Prayer and Hymn Book. Her father said, ‘A good hymn.’ We sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ ‘Rescue the Perishing,’and many others. It gave me hope and strength to carry on when I looked at this wonderful family singing so earnestly alone here in this vastness. I don’t know yet just how I ’ll get a home built. If winter comes too fast for me, I’ll have to dig out a room in a small hill on one side of the homestead and put a log front on it. If I have time, we’ll build a room entirely of logs. We have an old mower with us, but no rake, so we’ll have to rake what hay we cut by hand.

There are hardships that nobody reckons,
There are valleys unpeopled and still.

But nothing matters, so we get some kind of a shelter before winter comes. The lowest has been 78 degrees below, but it generally stays at 40 degrees below, which is n’t so bad. But the winters are very long.

How beautiful it is and how happy we will be in our little home! I found an old hymn in the Prayer Book that appealed to me and expresses what I can’t say myself.

Some humble door among Thy many mansions,
Some sheltering shade where sin and striving cease,
And flows forever through heaven’s green expansions
The river of Thy peace.

There is n’t time to write to Mrs. W. and you will pass this letter on, for I am working very hard and one letter must do for all. Love to you all and write once in a while. The mail this winter comes up by dog sleds when no other way can be used. So we are n’t entirely isolated from the Outside.

August, 1926
I have just received your letter and the boat is n’t back yet and I ’m writing in a hurry to thank you for your letter and the things in it. Next two weeks I will write you and Mrs. W. another letter of the events that come and my impressions of this place. I don’t know the date; time means nothing here. I am glad Mrs. W. liked the two adventurers she met in the railway depot for forty minutes. I was very tired, worried, and depressed, so I did n’t look my best, but I surely felt good when she actually kissed me and Boy good-bye. She did like me a little, and me a perfect stranger too. The white settler’s wife is a college woman and she teaches the children and conducts a real school in a log cabin. Two daughters are home from college and one will teach this year and give the mother a little rest. I’ll tell you more about them later, as they are indeed a very interesting family. And these woods and wilderness have human souls buried, I am finding out. That’s my specialty, digging up the half dead and helping them to find themselves again. Queer, is n’t it? They tell me their troubles and I lay them on you. I am still happy. How wonderful it seems to know I will never starve any more. To always have potatoes and hay for the cow. No ‘straw horses’ any more. Never to hear Daddy say, like Little Claus, ‘Get up, all my straw horses,’ and then see the poor ribby creatures try to pull a plough. I have four wool blankets, all heavy, besides quilts. The winter is long and cold and I am trying to prepare for it. I have fifty-six traps and a good location to trap muskrats and also fox. I ’ll just make it, I figure, and by next fall have a good vegetable garden and what grain I need for bread. I have a grubstake for the winter and spring of beans, dry peas, rice, flour, and vegetables already cached away. The only thing I’m worrying about is a place to live in and I have a month to do it in. No need to worry. Hay for the winter, plenty of milk, fish in the river, and wild game and deer to shoot for meat. I ’ll make it. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

September 5, 1926
The silence almost gets me and I have to say to myself that the same sun shines on you. You see the same stars and moon and it’s the same old earth, only I am farther north. It helps some as I stand on this bend of the river and gaze in awe on the northern lights as they play and shake their shimmering curtains. The breeds are afraid of them and have a tradition that they sometimes carry people away. The past two weeks I have seen only two breeds, one Indian, and one white trapper. As winter comes on I don’t expect to see even that many in a month. The boy is changing even in the short time we have been here. He is more like a man and takes his responsibilities very seriously. He is allowed two shells each day for the ‘22’ and is supposed to bring in one prairie chicken or rabbit each day. It usually only takes one shell. How proud he is when he comes in! I hear him whistling long before I see him and one day I heard him say to Daddy, ’I guess I can keep the pot boiling for Mother.’ He gets lonesome, too, and I have to play with him. There is n’t a breed or Indian around here but what he knows their names and all about them. They have named him ‘Jabbering Colt’ and he thinks that’s a fine name. These silent folk find a little white boy quite amusing. Boy has another friend in the Mounted Police who is nicknamed Baldy. He has had many adventures and Boy is a devoted admirer and listener. To live up here far from the madding crowd, automobiles, and movies gives us a saner view of what life is and time to reflect. There is time to look at the stars and wonder at their stillness. I have been reading bedtime stories to Boy and we enjoy them very much. And in the night I sit up sometimes and listen to some of the ‘little people’ that hunt for crumbs in the dark. Last night one that we call Mrs. Deer Mouse fell into the water pail. I heard her swimming frantically and butting her head against its side. Poor little thing! I rushed up and emptied the pail outside on the grass and went back to sleep.
The white settler’s daughter M. is much on my mind. She is a very sweet and refined girt of twenty-two years and has fallen in love with a breed. Unhappy child, her parents have told her they will treat her as if she were dead if she marries him. She broke down and cried one day when we were alone, and it was so pitiful that I had to comfort her and assure her that it would all come out right in the end and N. was certainly a line fellow. Well, he is an exception, being good-looking, well educated, and almost white. Yet I feel like a Pharisee, for if she were my girl I’d never allow it. Not for her sake, but I should hate to have breed grandchildren. Some would be quite dark and they are n’t regarded as well as whites out in the world. Just prejudice, in a way, but it’s there. What do you think about it?
This is but a short letter, but the winter will soon be here and I ’m far from ready for it. I had intended to get us each a warm wool sweater, but decided to get two old ewes and a spinning wheel instead. I have Grandma Rose’s old cards to comb the wool with and next year we’Il have good warm sweaters that I shall knit as soon as I have the wool. Besides, I’ll have the lambs. We can get along with what we have this winter. I have to look ahead to the many winters that are coming. There is plenty of hay and I’m going to utilize it. The tent is already cold at night, so I can’t sit up any longer, as my feet get so cold. My tallow candle is getting low, and so good night.