Gafkjen heads west to pursue dreams


“In 1910, the homesteaders had arrived on the prairie, full of ideas about how to create an ideal rural society on the empty land. In 1995, sitting on the corral fence, with all the conceited wisdom of hindsight, one could see that most of their ideas had been preposterous.

“The European farm village – even the Ohio farm village – could never have been transplanted to the dry plains. It wasn’t long before the society built by the homesteaders came tumbling down about their ears and forced most of them into a farther western exile.”

– Jonathan Raban

Bad Land – An American Romance

Part Three

When Carrine Gafkjen went west in the spring of 1904, it was with saved dollars, a bushel basket filled with hand-stitched quilts and steely determination.

She boarded a train for northwestern North Dakota after having worked for 10 years as a housekeeper in Minneapolis, saving every dime, with an eye on homesteading a farm of her own. This woman’s amazing story is told by her daughter Carrie Young in the book titled, Nothing To Do But Stay.

Carrine put down stakes on 160 acres in North Dakota, had a tiny one-room shack built and lived there alone for the required six months. She lived on potatoes and salt, walking five miles once a week to Little Muddy Creek to wash her clothes, bringing water back from there for boiling on her potbellied stove.

She hired a man with a breaking plow to turn over the required number of acres so that when autumn came, she could “prove up” at the federal land office. She chose the option of paying $1.25 in cash per acre for her land.

The family still holds the piece of parchment which Carrine received one year later to prove the land was hers. It is signed in a small scrawl, “T. Roosevelt.”

By working away as a housekeeper for a wealthy family part of the year, crop sharing, and cooking for a huge threshing crew operating in the territory from her little shack, Carrine was able to buy another quarter section of land near her homestead.

By age 30, she was the owner of 320 acres of rich North Dakota farmland, free and clear. She met the man she was to marry when he was firing the steam engine on the threshing rig crew she was cooking for.

Sever Berg had homesteaded the hard way, living five years continuously on his patch of land, and hailed from Norway just as she had. They felt there were enough signs that they were “meant to be,” and so sold his homestead and built up their farm on Carrine’s higher, richer soil. They proved to be one of the successful homesteaders.

Many others felt that Teddy Roosevelt and his railroad cronies had sold them a bill of goods. Roosevelt admitted that he and others were worried that the eastern cities were becoming overpopulated, and a drive west was necessary.

Those who resented being duped were those who could barely harvest enough to feed their work horses.

“You have to wonder what the government was up to. The way they shipped people out here, to just about the poorest damned land in the whole United States,” a rancher named Dale Brown is quoted in Bad Land – An American Romance.

Many nearly starved to death as they waited out the first mighty tough years of homesteading in shacks that could barely withstand the incredible cold, the prairie coyotes and wild mustangs, the relentless summer sun.

Those who spent more money than they stood to make packed up their shame and headed further west, many never to be heard from by family again.

Next week: Consolidating survival shacks.


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.