Homesteaders: The final chapter


“On a day in high summer, with threshing machines moving through the wheat fields, Mike Wollaston and I found his grandfather’s tall, red-painted horse barn. It was still being used to stable horses.

“It had gone west – to a ranch 3 miles from the ‘Williston place.’ Its current owner was full of admiration for Ned’s craftsmanship: the old barn had stood up to whirlwinds and blizzards as no other building on his land had done.”

– Jonathan Raban

Bad Land – An American Romance

Part Four

In the days of the homesteading west, local architecture was an interesting part of the developing landscape.

Some of the photographs of tiny tarpaper shacks makes a person wonder how anyone survived so much as a week, let alone a year, putting down roots in hopes of claiming a farm.

Shocked. In the book Nothing To Do But Stay, Carrie Young, the daughter of homesteaders, tells this story:

“Where is the barn?” one young bride asked. There wasn’t money to build one.

“Where is the outhouse?” There’s not one of those yet, either.

Many young women had been convinced to take a train to their new place, and upon their arrival were shocked at the barren, open, howling plains.

After they’d been there awhile, there was nothing to do but stay, hence the name of her book, and the motto for one segment of Americans in the early 1900s.

Carrine Berg. Carrie Young’s mother, Carrine Berg, who had homesteaded on her own as a single woman, married another homesteader and together they raised six children.

Her energy level was beyond amazing: doing her share of the farming, including milking a herd of dairy cattle, collecting eggs, churning butter, scrubbing laundry the hard way, ironing, cooking three square meals a day, sewing for her entire family, seeing to their schooling, taking her turn at entertaining the preacher’s family and putting on a feast for the threshing crew when it was her turn.

It is interesting to note that when Carrine married Sever Berg, he had already built a sturdy, impressive cabin on his farm. She had made do with a tiny shack.

When they determined that her farm was richer and more fertile, the decision was made to move Sever’s cabin across the plains to Carrine’s farm.

According to Raban’s book, this must have been a fairly common occurrence.

He writes, “The local architecture was prone to go hiking when left unattended. Familiar landmarks vanished, then popped up again, a mile or two distant from their proper stations.

“It was a common sight to see a house or a barn moving slowly but distinctly along the skyline, making it appear, disquietingly, that the whole prairie was somehow skidding sideways in this radical reorganization of the landscape.”

Money, lumber. Money was tight and lumber was hard to come by in the old west.

Young tells the story of a young bride who had begged her husband to build her a quilting frame. He stalled her with many excuses.

After they had been married for a couple of years and she had “made do” in her quilting endeavors, he announced that he was going to build a barn.

He made the very long trip for lumber, delivering half of it at home and heading back out on another three-day journey to purchase the rest.

When he returned home, he found to his great chagrin that his wife had worked hard during his absence, using several pieces of barn lumber to fashion a quilting frame.

Whenever other women in the region borrowed that quilting frame over the years, the story of its origination was told and re-told.

It is a symbol of the determination of survival, as most beds in the homesteading west were covered with a half dozen quilts in order to survive the incredibly harsh winters.

Survival. And survive they did. The “stayers” were blessed with leftovers from those who left.

Houses grew in odd extensions, as houses abandoned were free for the taking, cobbled together to make room for growing families who managed to survive, for those who had determined there was nothing to do but stay.


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