Saturday, July 14, 2012

Great-Grandpa on the Great Plains

This is a continuation of my Great-Grandfather's recollections of his early years out west.  

Mother, my sister Alta, four years old, and I started. Uncle Whitney borrowed a team and democrat wagon and drove us to Waterloo where we took the train. It was freezing day in the latter part of November 1881. We left Auntie Whitney crying and wringing her hands, saying we that we'd freeze to death, be murdered by the Indians, and a lot more that the noise of the wagon drowned out.

The road had become very muddy and froze. The deep ruts threw the wagon around till we were seasick. It was so rough that a heavy trunk was thrown repeatedly up on the edge of the eight inch wagon box.

I can remember the train as if it was only yesterday. The cars had no vestibules, brakes were all twisted by hand. A cast-iron railroad stove burning soft coal stood in each end of the cars. A can of water fastened up neat by and a tin cup dangled from a chain. As germs had not been invented, no trouble came from it. Sickness was an act of providence, not an affair of test tubes, microbes or germs.

Seats in the passenger cars were shiny oilcloth with a high bulge and so hard that an adult scarcely dented them. Cast-iron arms were at each end and the backs struck a grown person under the shoulder blades.

Windows were a single thickness of glass and every one of them stuck and rattled at the same time. Oil lamps swung and swayed from the ceiling, flared and smoked until by midnight the chimneys were so smudgy one could not see the length of the car.

We started in the dark one night and as it was a passenger train it roared along at twenty miles an hour. We dozed and nodded on those terrible seats all night long. And all night long the brakemen ran back and forth through the aisles, bawling the names of the stations and twisting on the handbrakes on the platforms outside the cars. Every time they passed a stove they yanked the door open and prodded the smoky mess with a long iron. The smoke would billow out into the car from the stove and every time the outside door opened the smoke from the engine entered in a choking cloud.

By morning, when we wolfed cold lunch from a basket, our hands and faces were dark brown. We kids made endless trips for water and washed a circle around our mouths till we looked like end-men in a minstrel show. My mother says the only way she could keep me in the car was to take off my shoes.

The conductors were changed every hundred miles and each time mother made me crouch down and be as small as possible while she told the conductor I was only five years old. I was big for my age and they always looked at me with a vast suspicion but gave in and let me travel free. The job of proving dirty work at the crossroads was more than they wanted to tackle. If a mother didn't know how old her child was, who did? They had to admit there was something to it.

We traveled two mortal nights and day going a distance modern trains make in less than half the time. The day we were on the road we were trundling across Minnesota, one little jerk-water town after another, like a string of ten cent beads, all just alike. The stations were all alike too. And the crowd of loafers who always congregated to see the train come in were all the same clear across the state. There was always a bus from the hotel, little steps at the back end to climb in by, huge gilt letters on the side proclaiming the Parker House - The Imperial Hotel - as loud and blatant a title as the hotel keeper could conjure up. The bus was usually drawn by a sleepy team of gray horses that never batted an eyelash when the engine came screaming and hissing into the station.

Drummers traveled by train, well dressed important looking men smoking cigars and calling the bus drivers by their first names. There was also a dray with a high seat in front almost over the horses. These were to haul trunks. The station agents all appeared to be thin nervous men with walrus mustaches, always in a hurry.

The country between towns was flat and lifeless at that time of year. Little patches of snow, little shack houses with stove pipes belching soft coal smoke, sod barns, straw piles, occasional roads with frozen ruts. Once in a while a chilly looking Norwegian driving a pair of horses or mules was seen. All very monotonous and western.

The second night we slept some because we couldn't help it. The road being rough, the little cars pitched like a ship at sea. We kids tried to sleep on the slippery oil cloth seats but were flung to the floor so often that mother tied us to the arms and piled luggage in front of us on the floor.

Early in the morning we snorted to a stop at Redfield, then the end of the steel on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad. A strange bearded man stood on the platform wearing a buffalo coat because he could not afford anything better. Twenty years later he sold it for a hundred dollars.

Yes, you have guessed right, it was dad. he had driven twenty eight miles since eleven o'clock the night before and stood there waiting at six thirty in the morning. We had a nice ride that lasted till early afternoon, and stopped at several houses to warm up. One was a dugout on the bank of the Jim River. All there was in sight as we drove up was a mound of sod with a stove pipe sticking out. The door was over the bank down near the water with a window on each side. Tom Farmer and his wife burned willow brush and were enjoying life.

The roof was willow poles with brush thrown on them and sod laid on the brush. The sods were rounded up quite high in the center and Tom hoped they would shed the spring rains but he didn't seem to worry much about it. The floor was hard packed dirt, the furniture of cunningly woven willow and packing boxes. It was nice and warm in there and we hated to leave it and face the cold north0west wind again. The wind always blows from the north-west there in the winter and from the south-west in the summer.

In early afternoon we arrived at the Wallace Akers place. It took two waters and three or four soaps to wash us. At that there were circles of soot around our eyes where we puckered shut to keep out the soap. The Akers lived a mile west of our claim and we stayed there all night. Later in the day several others stopped and inquired about chances to stay over night. The reply was always hearty: sure they could stay, lots of room. There were so many at supper that some of the men took a lantern and stayed out in the sod barn while the women did the dishes. There simply was not enough room to do up the work if they stayed in the house.

Seventeen people slept there that night. The house was twelve by sixteen feet. The roof came down to within a foot of the floor upstairs, which was reached by a ladder in the corner. The men folk slept on the floor up there and we kids and the women bunked anywhere we could downstairs.

I went to sleep lulled by the wind tearing at the eaves and singing on the wires that held the stove pipe erect where it stuck through the roof. The coyotes howled and yapped outside and a chorus of snores sounded from upstairs. Outside, the last frontier was spread as flat as a board for hundreds of miles, lashed by the wind, harried by snow squalls, a savage wilderness. But we were not afraid. We did not know as much as we did later.

 - From an unpublished manuscript by Charles Hoyt

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