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Tagged with " Nebraska"

Who Are Your Family Role Models and Inspiration?

In recognition of International Women’s Day, I honor my grandmothers and my aunts who have inspired me  and served as significant role models.

Schoolhouse, Old West, Plains

 

Years ago, one of my favorite aunts came for a visit when I was in my mid-thirties experiencing a low point in my life. She gave a life-long gift by reminding me of the role models I had in the strong women in my family. It was from them, I could always find inspiration and direction.

Both of my grandmothers had been school teachers. My paternal grandmother, Ellen, also became a school superintendent. Ellen was a great cheerleader and encouraged me to succeed in school, get good grades and go to college. My maternal grandmother, Grace, was disappointed that she had to give up teaching school to become a farmer’s wife. But she continued to read the Atlantic Monthly and other books and periodicals. She wrote letters about what she read and shared her opinions about the news and politics in letters to her daughters.

My aunt pointed out that both Ellen and Grace had significant challenges in their lives: Grace, reluctantly left school teaching which she loved to manage her husband’s family farm which she resented. She worked hard to survive the depression and the dust bowl. Ellen was left a widow when her youngest of five children was a few months old.

Ellen Scott, grandmother,

Ellen Scott, my grandmother, a teacher, and a strong role model.

Ellen, in particular has been an inspiration to me. I am currently writing a fictionalized story of her life. As a widow without a means of support, Ellen applied for widows benefits. The Government Agent who came in April of 1912 to interview her in person, filed a sensitive descriptive report (which I recovered from the National Archives). She was living in a tent south of Thedford, Nebraska where she had filed a land claim. He reports that

“she hopes to establish a home for herself and children; but it looks like a most hazardous undertaking as she is practically an invalid because of rheumatism (sic), and her children are undersized puny looking little fellows, and they are more than a mile from the nearest water….In their present desolate surroundings their condition is pitiable in the extreme.”

This was the occasion when she learned that her husband had a former wife and family. The agent describes,

“until I informed her of the fact, claimant declares she had no knowledge of the existence of a former wife. Her grief and tears were convincing of the truth. She begged me not to tell anyone in her home neighborhood.”

This helps explain why no one in the family knew about a prior family. Ellen shared no information about him with her children. Despite her crippling rheumatoid arthritis, she pulled herself together; returned to teaching school; became a school superintendent; and raised her family. See my blog series, “A Journey to Fiction” on my genealogical journey to learn about my paternal grandparents.

Both Grace and Ellen were also models of strength, resilience and accomplishment for their daughters. All five of my aunts completed college educations at a time when the lack of financial resources and societies’ cultural norms were major deterrents. Yet, they were persistent and resourceful. They found work to pay their way. Between the first wave of feminism and the second, during my young adulthood, all these women had successful careers and raised a family. They worked hard and overcame many obstacles. To me they were pillars of strength and fortitude. They were role models of how to meet challenges and find a satisfying life.

These seven women have been my inspiration and my role models. I honor and pay tribute to them on International Women’s Day.

Who are the women role models in your family? How have they influenced and inspired you? Are there other strong women who have served as role models and inspired you?

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8 Feb
2016

True Life on the Prairie Was Living in a Hole in the Ground

My maternal great-grandparents homestead, Custer County, Nebraska in a photo taken by Samuel Butcher.

This is the third and final in a series about poverty and homesteading on the Midwestern prairie…background from my research for the novel I am writing inspired by the lives of my grandparents.

“They most likely lived in a dugout like everyone else who settled here. Most couldn’t afford to buy materials to build a house.”

A dugout! Really! I could imagine what a dugout was…a hole in the ground. This was totally new information.

I was visiting Tucumcari, New Mexico as part of my genealogy research to learn more about my grandfather who died there in 1911. He moved his pregnant wife and four boys from Oklahoma to Tucumcari in hopes of finding a better climate for his health. When I asked the Tucumcari Museum staff about finding where they had lived in the area, she not only told me they probably lived in a dugout, but that it would be hard to find since very few dugouts if any of them survived except in old photographs.

I knew about sod houses on the Midwestern prairie, especially Nebraska. Initially when covered wagons headed west, pioneers were not interested in the empty Nebraska prairie. They were more interested in the West. They just rolled across the flat plains of waving grass following the wagon tracks of others who had ventured out before them. Their canvas covered wagons carried all their precious household belongings, food and tools. Family members walked beside the wagons and they drove valuable livestock needed to help them survive when they arrived at their distant destinations.

In 1863 during the Civil War President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. It offered free land to those who could “prove up” their claims by living on the land for five years and building a dwelling.  Thousands of settlers, most of them poor returning veterans, immigrants and others without land of their own, loaded their possessions into a wagon and headed west. These settlers discovered that the empty land on the Great Plains was now available for settling but only spindly cotton woods or wild plum bushes grew there. There was not enough wood to build the familiar log cabin or other wooden shelters.

“Soddies”

The resourcefulness of the frontier settler is admirable. He, or occasionally she, could use a tool brought in the wagon, the iron plow, and the team of oxen or horses that had pulled the wagon. The plow could turn up strips of virgin prairie sod about six inches thick. The settler had almost perfect building blocks when these strips were cut into approximately two-foot sections. Walls were built to seven or eight feet high with holes left for windows and doors to be purchased in town or at a railroad siding. The roof might be made with a few poles from available trees such as cottonwoods and covered with a thick layer of grass and then two layers of sod blocks. Despite the layer of grass intended to keep out the dirt and moisture, many settlers were plagued with dirt, mud when it rained, and small rodents seeking shelter and food coming down through the roof. How unpleasant! Others who built their home solidly found their “soddie”, as they were called, could last a few years.

Both my maternal and paternal great grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska in the 1870’s and built sod houses that they lived in for several years. Sod houses were amazingly comfortable. The thick sod walls provided excellent insulation; they stayed warm and cozy in the freezing Nebraska blizzards and cool under the hot summer sun.

Nebraska Dugout

 

Dugouts

As I explored the information on the dugout, I learned it had some of the same insulation advantages since it was usually dug out of a hillside. However, it usually had no windows. It was just a hole in the ground and it was dark, cramped and difficult to keep clean. If the roof was made of sod, roaming livestock might fall through the roof. Imagine that surprise arriving for dinner! The floors in both the “soddie” and the dugout were often treated as the Native Americans might treat the floors in their tipis: sprinkled with water and swept daily until the surface was hard and smooth. Carpets or wooden planks might eventually be laid if the family could afford it. Walls might be coated with a plaster made from sand and limestone if available or covered with tacked up newspapers to keep the dirt from drifting into the house.

Russell Homestead

My paternal great -grandparents in front of their homestead, Thomas County, Nebraska.

In Nebraska, the rich soil produced bumper crops. Farmers were success after a few years. Within about ten years, many families eventually moved out of their soddies and into a real home. Both sets of my great grandparents did so. Real homes indicated the success and status of their owners, but they were much colder in the winter and unbearably hotter in the summer than the soddie or the dugout.

However, in New Mexico in 1910, when my grandparents arrived, much of the land for cattle ranching had been claimed either by Spain, Mexico, or the earlier U.S. homesteaders. Looking for a warmer climate and tantalized by the railroad flyers describing a farming paradise near Tucumcari, my grandparents arrived during a dry spell in an area with little access to water in normal times. Given their circumstances of poverty, a large family and my grandfather’s ill health, I think it was a good guess that they lived in a dugout. They probably had no other choice.

You may have seen or heard of rammed earth homes. These are among the many “sustainable” style homes that are growing in popularity in the United States and around the world. Consider them an upscale and sustainable version of the utilitarian prairie-style dugout.

Do you have ancestors who lived in “soddies” or dugouts? Do you know anything about their lives? I would love to hear your stories.

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4 Jan
2016

Life Was Hard on the Frontier

A look at poverty in the late nineteenth century during “Poverty in America Month”

“Grandad’s milk cow was in an open-front shed built of driftwood gathered from the river.  Grandma realized the snow would swirl around it and cover it completely in a very short time.  To keep the cow from smothering in the snow, Grandma decided to go out to free her from her stall.  She tied a rope to the doorknob so that she would find her way back to the dugout.  She said later that she would not have made it back to dugout without the rope to guide her.  In the night a herd of horses belonging to a neighbor six miles away, ran right over the top of the dugout.  Grandma could just see those horses breaking through the roof and coming in on top of her family, but that didn’t happen.” (From “Tales of a Sod House Baby: Stories of the Kansas Frontier as told by my mother” by Helen McCauley Merkle.

wagon trainThis is a typical story of life on the frontier in the late nineteenth century.  After passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, people from all walks of life came in search of land on the frontier.  Most were poor…farmers from the East without land of their own, newly arrived immigrants, single women and former slaves.   The opportunity was enticing for many who were tempted by railroad flyers or the exaggerated claims of hucksters.

However, many families were unable to survive for five years to make their claim.  My grandmother was one of them, leaving New Mexico to return to her family home in Nebraska as a widow with five children.  But like many pioneers, she was determined and filed another homestead claim in an arid area of the Nebraska sand hills, a mile from the nearest water.

The physical conditions on the Great Plains were challenging. High winds, tornadoes, drought and plagues of insects also confronted the subsistence life of homesteaders.  Destroyed crops or livestock herds meant that farmers went into debt mortgaging their land to buy additional seed, supplies or replacement livestock.   Blizzards, like the one described in the story above, and bitter cold temperatures were common.

tornado

Family Story

A family story passed down to me describes a howling blizzard with white-out conditions.  My grandmother, crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, and her two youngest children, one of whom was my dad, were living miles from any neighbors.  Dried corn cobs used for fuel for the stove to warm their modest one-room house were gone.  The wind howled and showed no signs of letting up.  She could not, as an invalid, manage herself to go the barn for more corn cobs.  She refused to allow my father, still a young boy, to go out in the blinding white-out blizzard for fear that he would get lost and freeze to death.  So, they burned my grandmother’s books to keep warm.  It must have been a very painful sacrifice for her to make, since she was a school teacher who placed a high value on education.  She had collected her treasured books over a life-time.

Since I am writing a fictionalized story about my grandmother who struggled in poverty raising her five children, I have been curious to learn how poverty at the turn of the nineteenth century compares to poverty today.  In 1900, as reported by Digital History, the average family annual income in today’s dollars was $3000.  Half of all American children lived in poverty and about 60% of the population lived on farms or in rural areas.  Exact comparisons are hard to find but today more than half of our population lives in the suburbs; about 21% of US children live in poverty and the average household income is over $72,641.  Life was hard in 1900 where life expectancy of white Americans was 48 and African Americans was 33.  One in four children had a 50% chance of dying before the age of 5 and half of all young people lost a parent before they reached 21.

Today we hear from the media, politicians and pundits about “income inequality”.    In the San Francisco Bay Area the news, editorials and casual conversation focus on the housing crises and homelessness.  All these terms denote poverty, a condition that none of us like to talk about.  The Center for Law and Economic Justice reports record high numbers of people in the United States live in poverty today…approximately 46.5 million or one out of 7 of us.    The US Census Bureau reports that the poverty rates have remained about the same for the last four years.  Two out of three Americans will live in poverty for at least a year in their lives according to The Brookings Institute.

But numbers are cold, abstract and don’t carry much emotional meaning.  I am concerned that the poverty and homelessness today disproportionately impacts women and children, as it did my grandmother.   The majority of poor children have a single mom struggling to make ends meet with a low-paying job or the reviled welfare check. Those children need health care, nutrition, housing, education and more attention than that single mom may have time to give.

We have no consensus today on a safety net or a government effort to offer opportunities to those women and children.  Our current trend is to leave such support to a patch work of non-profit and under-funded government agencies.  Most of us ignore the homeless, have no contact with the low-income single mom and carry negative images of those who depend on “the government dole”.  Are we willing to acknowledge the poverty in our midst during this month of Poverty in America?  These children are our future.  Will we provide them the support they need to grow up to contribute to that future?

Next time we will look at the history of opportunity for the poor in this country with a focus on the Homestead Act of 1862.

Did your ancestors live on the mid-western prairie?  Were they farmers?  Did they homestead?

What do you think about our current attitude toward poverty in America?

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14 Aug
2015

Journey to Fiction – Part 7

This is the seventh and last in a serial documentation of the journey I have traveled from reading yellowed documents in the National Archives to launching a historical fiction novel based on the lives of my grandparents.
Please see the earlier blogs describing the journey to this point at bevscott.com/blog/.

New Mexico, Dugouts and the Decision to write a novel.

Dugout 2My grandfather, H.D. Scott died in Hanley, New Mexico January 27, 1911 at the age of 70 leaving my thirty-nine year old grandmother a widow with five children. Although I know that she eventually returned to Nebraska where her parents and several siblings lived, I am curious about her life in New Mexico especially since she was severely crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. I would like to find where my grandparents lived and my grandfather’s grave. I planned a trip to New Mexico.

First stop is the Tucumcari Historical Museum. I learned almost immediately that my grandparents probably lived in a dugout given the time they arrived, 1910.  As my research continued I learned that settlers at that time frequently arrived on the railroad with boxcars divided into one area for livestock and another for farm equipment and household belongings.  Some also had a raised platform on one end for the family to eat and sleep during their journey.  The Homestead Act had opened land to settlers for free as long as they lived on their land.  The initial dwellings were frequently dugouts because they were cheap to build and didn’t require lumber and other building materials.  Settlers were lured by the railroad who advertised the “choice farming” and clean air.  But nothing was said about the low rainfall and the difficulty of finding water.  Guessing that H. D. was attracted by the promises of a climate good for asthma and tuberculosis, I looked for land records of a homestead claim with no results.  Because H.D. died a little over a year after they arrived and Ellen left for Nebraska they did not fulfill the requirement to live on the land for five years.  I was out of luck in finding where they lived.

Grave marker

However, the museum staff helped me locate my grandfather’s grave which is now on private property.  It is a white marker provided by the Veterans Administration with his birth name of John Howard Scott.  Thirty years ago two of H.D.’s sons, my uncles, visiting his grave site discovered that the grave marker was broken and falling apart.  Their request for a new grave marker from the Veterans Administration began the family search to learn more about H.D.’s life which I later took over and have chronicled in this blog series.

Although I could not find much information about where H.D. and Ellen lived, I was still intrigued by how Ellen, severely crippled, managed to get her five children back to Nebraska.  Reviewing the National Archives documents, I found correspondence between the Pension Bureau and my grandmother.  She submitted an application for widow’s benefits almost immediately after H.D. died.  Then in the summer of 1911 she wrote that she would be going back to Nebraska and would send them her new address by September. One Government Agent’s report tells that they “drove all the way from New Mexico, where the soldier died, to her old home in Nebraska.”  From our perspective today, it sounds like they “drove” a car.  But I am sure they could not afford to have a car at that time so I assume they drove a horse and wagon which matches the family story that her older sons drove the wagon and she laid in the back as they made their way back to Nebraska.

I also learned from the Archives documents that the Government Agent who came in April of 1912 to interview my grandmother in person, filed a sensitive descriptive report of that meeting.  She was living in a tent south of Thedford, Nebraska where she had filed a land claim.  He reports that

“she hopes to establish a home for herself and children; but it looks like a most hazardous undertaking as she is practically an invalid because of rheumatism (sic), and her children are undersized puny looking little fellows, and they are more than a mile from the nearest water….In their present desolate surroundings their condition is pitiable in the extreme.”

Dismal River

Not only were Ellen’s circumstances dire and “pitiable in the extreme,” but they were a mile from the nearest water from a river aptly named, the Dismal River.  It also appears that this was the occasion when she learned about H.D.’s first wife.  The agent describes that

“until I informed her of the fact, claimant declares she had no knowledge of the existence of a former wife.  Her grief and tears where convincing of the truth.  She begged me not to tell anyone in her home neighborhood.”

The report, that she begs the Government Agent not to tell anyone, helps explain why no one in the family knew about H.D.’s first family, why my grandmother shared no information about him with her children and why she avoided answering any questions about him.  I had exhausted my sources about H.D. and Ellen Scott.

This journey of the genealogical research uncovered a fascinating story that deserved to be told.  But, there were several missing pieces.  Although I had much to learn about writing fiction, historical fiction, I decided to write this story using what I had learned as the foundation for the story and creatively filling in the missing pieces.

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2 Oct
2014

Journey to Fiction – Part 4

This is the fourth in a serial documentation of the journey I have traveled from reading yellowed documents in the National Archives to launching a historical fiction novel based on the lives of my grandparents.

John Howard becomes Harvey D.

Globe Hotel

John Howard Scott disappeared from his home in Weatherford in 1879; and I could not find him in the 1880 US Census. Ten years later I found Harvey D. Scott living in Wyoming in 1890. The US Census records were destroyed by fire in 1890 but the National Archives had homestead records for Harvey D. Scott living in Glendo, Wyoming. In addition the 1890 Veterans Census showed a Harvey D. Scott in Laramie County, Wyoming. He had changed his name.

I theorized in my last “Journey to Fiction” post that he had joined a cattle drive headed to Dodge City. Some of the cattle drives continued north to Wyoming so perhaps he stayed with the drive as a cook and left the crew in Wyoming. I wanted to know more about his stay in Wyoming. I wanted to see where he homesteaded. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Wheatland, the county seat of Platte Wyoming, I discovered Glendo and the surrounding land is now under water from the Glendo Reservoir.

Map of WyomingNot to be deterred, I went to the Platte County courthouse to look for land records. There I discovered that Harvey D. Scott paid the required filing fee of $18.00 and received 160 acres under the Homestead Act in approximately 1886. Now I knew that he had not only changed his name but he also identified himself as an unmarried man within seven years after he abandoned his wife Harriet and their children in Weatherford, TX.

He “proved up” on this land, meeting the government requirements of living on the land, building a home and farming the land for five years. He received the land deed in 1892 and sold 40 of the 160 acres in 1893 for $450. From my earlier visit to Thedford, Nebraska, I knew that he had married my grandmother, Ellen in Thedford in 1892. Since she taught school in Wyoming, they must have met there. From my earlier explorations in Thedford, I had also learned Ellen and Harvey bought land from her brother and her father in 1892 and 1893 so perhaps the sale of Harvey’s land in Wyoming helped to pay for the Nebraska farm land. Ellen sold the remaining 120 acres in Wyoming after Harvey’s death for only $40. Perhaps it was so much less because there was less demand for land due to livestock losses in recent severe winters or the ending of the open cattle range in Wyoming. It is easy to imagine that my grandmother needed money in 1913 and sold it at a loss in desperation.

Mining Deed

I continued to be amazed by what I found in the court house records. In 1890, Harvey D. Scott purchased a mining claim of 1500 feet in length and 300 feet in width for $100. He sold it less than a year later in 1891 for $5000! That is a successful investment. Perhaps he was getting ready to propose to my grandmother.

I had found my grandfather with a new name as an unmarried man homesteading in Wyoming seven years after he abandoned his family. I knew Harvey and Ellen were married in Thedford, Nebraska in 1892 and purchased land from her family. Their three oldest children were born there. Now I wanted to know why and when they moved to Oklahoma where my father was born in 1907.

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