Thursday, February 21, 2013

Memories of a Homesteader's Dugout

One underground room, a dirt floor and roof, and fleas

An Oklahoma dugout photographed c. 1909.
The family is probably sitting in the only available shade.
From a picture postcard series by J. V. Dedrick
James Barton came to Republic County, Kansas, in 1871, from Marshall County, Iowa, as a young child. His parents homesteaded near modern-day Cuba, Kansas. Looking back on the family's trip by covered wagon, Mr. Barton remembered that it "was a mighty long and hard walk from Iowa to Kansas for a seven year old, barefoot boy!"

The following paragraphs are excerpted from an account of homestead days that Mr. Barton wrote in 1936.

In the spring [of 1872] father built our dug-out. Now you young folks, who think your pretty homes are not comfortable enough, you should have seen our first Kansas home -- one underground room, dirt floor, dirt roof, and fleas and snakes for company. You never saw so many fleas-- we always blamed the buffalo and buffalo grass for these fleas, for all sod-house and dug-out families had them.

Our first crop was cut by father and a Mr. Zavodsky with a "cradle" scythe, -- a hard beginning for our parents, but how we children enjoyed the pretty country-- miles and miles of "Blue-Stem" in places three and four feet high, and just a lot of fun to play and hide in! There were no roads -- no towns -- no churches -- no schools -- no doctors -- and no railroads... When father went for provisions, it took him about a week to drive it with oxen, where you young folks now could motor it in an hour and a half...

While herding cattle we would see lots of buffalo heads and bones, undoubtedly left behind by Indians. Wild game was plentiful, including countless prairie chickens and quail everywhere. That first fall, we saw several deer and antelope grazing on our rye, but our nearest buffaloes were west of the Republican River. However, we often had buffalo steak brought back by other pioneer hunters. My father never owned a gun. I don't know what we would have done, had some of our Indian scares developed into reality.

Source: James Barton's pioneer memories of Republic County, Kansas.

My great-great-grandparents Ashbel and Martha Mapes were among the earliest settlers of Republic County, arriving in 1869, so this account is very interesting to me.

I have heard people say that in the Nebraska Sandhills, a quick "dugout" was sometimes made by simply laying a board roof across a wind-eroded "blowout" in a hill.

Here are three more photographs of dugouts from the Library of Congress. I think all of these are more elaborate in construction than most of the initial underground shelters that pioneer familes dug. If you have time, you might enjoy visiting the links in the picture captions -- they contain additional photos and more information.

This dugout in Humboldt, Nevada, appears to have a rock front.
Photographed by Larry Kingsbury, October 1994

A thatched dugout in Minnesota, about 1900-1910.
Photograph by the Detroit Publishing Company 
A homesteader's stone dugout in Campbell County, Wyoming.
Probably constructed between 1917 and 1936. "Unusually well crafted."
The associated data pages at this link are full of info about dugouts. 

Thursday Thirteen: 13 Interesting Links

A list of interesting websites, gleaned from my email

Sistene Chapel (screenshot from the Vatican website)
  1. Troglodyte village in Kandovan, Iran
  2. Long live the queen! Literally!
  3. World's longest car/owner relationship ... from new
  4. Sand Sculpture Art by Prince Edward Island, Canada
  5. Virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel
  6. Sculptures of Native American scenes, made out of paper
  7. Sand Sculptures, Prince Edward Island
  8. Radio Flyer Car
  9. Ingenious Do-It-Yourself Air Conditioners
  10. Do Tigers Like Catnip (video)
  11. Cat on Boat Plays with Dolphin (video)
  12. The Morgan Car Company
  13. Neave Interactive 

Read more Thursday Thirteens here. The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others’ comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted! Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Steamboat Landing at Memphis, TN

Memphis riverfront, then and now

The riverfront at Memphis, Tennessee
(from a 1911 geography textbook)

The riverfront at Memphis today

The riverfront at Memphis, TN today

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

A beautiful Appalachian highway remembered

On our way home from a visit to Washington D.C. in 2007, we spent an afternoon on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Blue Ridge Parkway starts at Afton, Virginia and ends in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, near Waynesville, North Carolina. We drove the northernmost 55 miles of the Parkway, from Afton to Buena Vista, in Virginia.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about someone asking me, "What's the most beautiful place you've ever seen?" The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the places I remembered when I thought about my answer to that question. The scenery is far more beautiful than my photos suggest. You really should look at some of the lovely photos of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Flikr.

We drove slowly and stopped many times to enjoy the spectacular views. It was early April, and the weather was chilly. Patches of snow lay here and there. The trees didn't have their leaves yet. It was very quiet up there, and we rarely saw another car. Sometimes we looked into the distance and saw the farms and highways and towns of the Shenandoah Valley far below us. They seemed very far away and unreal, as if we were catching a glimpse of the modern world from some point in the distant past.

We turned off the Blue Ridge Parkway when we reached the road to Buena Vista, I was surprised that the descent into the valley was so steep. Signs along the road advised truckers how far it was to the next runaway truck ramp. (If a truck's brakes fail while coming down the mountainside, the driver can plow it into a long bed of deep gravel to stop it.)

From there, this story continues downhill, so to speak. I had caught a bad cold in Washington D.C., and during our afternoon on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I had started running a fever. I was eager to pull in for the night, so we stopped at the first motel we saw in Buena Vista. It was the worst motel we've ever stayed in (in the U.S., anyway,) but I felt too sick to look any farther. The one redeeming feature of the place was the cheap price.

I asked for more pillows because the ones on the bed were so flat. The motel manager grudgingly produced one more pillow, and it was just as flat as the rest of them. The room was very chilly, and the heater didn't seem to work. The bathroom had no ventilating fan, so when we showered, clouds of steam filled the room and dampened our blankets.

During the night, I woke up and realized that I was even sicker. I could hardly breathe or swallow. I ached all over, and my chest hurt when I coughed. I remember thinking that I had to get out of that horrible room, before I died there.

I took this photo of the Blue Ridge as we left the motel early the next morning. I was still very sick. I know that when we came through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, we drove up to the overlook where I took a few pictures. For the rest of the trip home, I have neither memories nor photographs.

When we finally arrived home, I left the unpacking to Dennis and Isaac. I came into the house and fell in bed, and I slept for the next several days in a feverish stupor. After I finally recovered, I realized that someone should have taken me to the doctor!

I know that my little tale about the Blue Ridge Parkway ends strangely, but that's how it is sometimes with true stories.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A Citizen's Visit to the Smithsonian

Country folk in the nation's capital

Dennis and me. If this were a video, you'd see
us shivering and hear our teeth chattering!

I've been looking through some photos tonight of a trip we really enjoyed. In 2007, Dennis, Isaac, and I went to Washington D.C. during Isaac's Easter break from school. Via the internet, I found a reasonably-priced hotel located just a block from the Iwo Jima monument in Arlington National Cemetery and just across the river from many famous monuments and buildings.

The Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery

The Virginia Suites worked out great for us. Our studio apartment was spacious and clean. It had a small, completely furnished kitchen and dining area, so I brought a few easy-to-cook things with us, and we ate in the room at night.  We enjoyed the generous continental breakfast that was served downstairs each morning, and then we walked a few blocks to the subway and rode a short distance to the Mall area. We carried snacks to eat at lunchtime. ("Poor folks have poor ways," my mother-in-law often said, in praise of frugality.)

Early April gave us a little surprise. Snow fell during our first night in DC. The next morning, the grass and all the parked cars had a crusty, white coat.

And speaking of coats -- we wished we had brought heavier ones! The wind blew hard, and the temperatures were in the 40s most of the time we were there. We wore extra layers of clothing but we still shivered in the wind chill. The cherry trees were blooming, but the combination of the late freeze, the snow, and the gusty winds frazzled them a little. The tourists looked frazzled too, huddled inside their coats as the wind hurried them along. I'm sure we looked much the same.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Highway 2, Sandhill Scenic Byway

One answer to an impossible question

Someone asked me today, "What's the most beautiful place you've ever seen?" I had a hard time answering that question, because I've been very fortunate. I've seen many beautiful places, and it's impossible for me to rate them.

One of the places that came to mind was the National Scenic Byway section of  Highway 2 from Grand Island, Nebraska, to Alliance, Nebraska. Charles Kuralt, longtime news reporter and host of the CBS television program, "On the Road", listed Highway 2 among the top ten most beautiful highways in the United States. I love what Kuralt said about it (italics added by me!)

From the first time I ever drove along it, I’ve been in love with Highway 2. It’s not so much that there’s a special something to see along Nebraska’s Highway 2. There’s a special nothing to see. From Grand Island to Alliance, Highway 2 takes you through the Nebraska Sandhills, the largest area of sand dunes in the western hemisphere. Writers inevitably use a metaphor of the sea to describe the hundreds of thousands of acres of grass – and hundreds of thousands of acres of sky. Like the sea the emptiness of the Sandhills gives the travelers a strange sense of comfort, there’s a feeling that as long as these two things are in order, the earth and the sky, all the rest can be forgotten until tomorrow. Highway 2 is not just another highway that goes somewhere, Highway 2 is somewhere.
"The emptiness of the Sandhills...the earth and the sky"
Photo by leish76

Life has taken me many places since my childhood in the Sandhills. In 2000, I visited Nebraska for the first time in about 15 years. I brought my children with me, and during our adventure, we drove part of the Highway 2 Scenic Byway. That was the first of several summer trips I made to the Sandhills with them.

When I came back from that first trip, I wrote a long account of our odyssey. After re-reading it tonight, I realized that the Sandhills will always feel like home to me, and no place on earth is more beautiful to the soul than home.  Here's a quote from myself about my first sighting of the Sandhills on that trip:
What a thrill it was to see the Sandhills again after so many years. I lectured the kids on the details of the landscape -- windmills, sand-capped hills, blowouts, lowland meadows, cattle herds, soapweeds, cow trails, ranch signs! My young Kentuckians listened with some interest to my dissertation, and they were impressed by the striking sparsity of trees, the big blue sky, and the immense and endless hills.
I doubt if I'll get back to Nebraska again with both kids. They've grown up, and they have their own responsibilities that tie them down. But I'm glad that I had the opportunity to show them the beautiful Nebraska Sandhills.  I'm glad that we drove part of the Highway 2 Scenic Byway, and I hope I'll get a chance to travel that road again, one of these days.


Grass as far as the eye can see. The Sandhills prairie is
the largest area of natural grassland left in the United States.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.