Archive for October, 2013

BLUSTERY, DEATH-DEALING BLIZZARDS

October 25, 2013

The word blizzard strikes terror in the hearts of current plains residents in the same manner it caused concern for homesteaders one hundred years ago. On more than one occasion this writer has experienced a beautiful day with temperatures in the high sixty degrees turn into a freezing snowstorm with thirty-degree highs and winds over forty-miles-per-hour in a matter of hours, sometimes it feels like minutes.

Horizontal blowing snow can decrease visibility to feet and sometimes inches making traveling by car impossible and walking from the house to the barn a death-dealing challenge. Homesteaders were known to stretch a rope from the house to the barn door. The rancher or farmer could inch his way along the rope to reach his destination, Unprotected animals were frequently caught in blizzard conditions and when unable to move suffocated.

Blizzard snow blew into any available crack in the siding of the barn or the homesteader’s house. Many residents discovered, a bit too late, that the previously assumed snug cabin really contained as many cracks and holes as a sieve. This dictated some speedy home repairs if the homesteader didn’t want to freeze.

One tragic local Colorado story tells of a one-room schoolteacher who after spending an evening with a student’s family insisted that she must return to the school to stoke the fire. The family implored her to wait, but she would not be deterred. The school, she maintained was only about a mile south of the student’s home, a distance she could easily cover in less than thirty minutes. When the students arrived at school the next day the teacher was not there. A search party was formed and following bits of clothing hooked on the barbed-wire fence, the teacher’s frozen body was found approximately five miles east of the school. A true testament to the danger of a blizzard.

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BOREDOM?? I THINK NOT!

October 18, 2013

 

Once the homesteader had a nice warm cabin he could just sit back and enjoy the winter, right? Not really. Preparing the cabin for winter and stocking up with winter fuel were only the beginning of winter survival. In much the same way that modern man tends to think that the farmer just throws some seeds on the ground and then sits back until the crop is ready to harvest; sealing the cabin was just the beginning of winter work. Let’s take a look at a typical winter day.

If the night was particularly cold, the homesteader might have been up several times in the night to stoke (add more wood to) the fire. The first task when rising was to add small kindling to the fire and get it burning again. This required trudging to the woodpile for an armload of wood in most cases.

While the fire grew to the point of starting coffee and later breakfast, the homesteader would brave the cold and snow to feed and water the animals. This is his livelihood and couldn’t be treated in a nonchalant manner.

If the homesteader was fortunate to have a wife breakfast might be waiting on the table when he returned from feeding. If he was “batchin” the process of cooking breakfast would begin when he returned to the shack. Breakfast consisted of eggs (if he had chickens), bacon or sausage(if he raised pigs or was able to trade with a neighbor for pork), thick slices of homemade bread toasted on a wire rack set directly on the cookstove, and oatmeal, when it was available. This may sound like a huge breakfast but remember that working outside in subzero temperature sucks energy and calories from your body.

After breakfast and the dishes were cleaned either by sand or in hot soapy water, the homesteader checked the stock in earnest. Counting horses or cows to make sure all were there. Inspecting each animal for signs of sickness or injury. If it was time for calving or foals, animals would be checked to determine if they were close to their time. Depending on the number of animals this process could take one to two hours. Then back to the shack for lunch preparations, grabbing an armload of wood along the way.

That’s it until noon, but the rest of the day is similar.

 

 

SNUG, WARM CABINS

October 11, 2013

We’ve discussed the building of homestead shacks and lack of cookstove fuel previously in this blog, so I’ll quickly revisit the problems facing early homesteaders here and then get on with challenges facing pioneers with the onset of autumn and winter. Soddies had an advantage over wood construction, as a bit of rain would encourage the sod to turn to mud and fill in gaps between the sod bricks. Wood cabins had to be chinked, usually with local clay between the logs. Chinking was an endless task, as the clay would dry and frequently fall out. Lack of chinking in the summer could add a pleasant air conditioning in summer, but in winter it resulted in a snowdrift on your bed.

A snug, warm cabin resulted in happy residents, which meant the job of chinking was a necessary autumn job. Someone needs to get busy with a log cabin I visited recently as you could see blue sky between the logs.

In the cabins built by my ancestors, using flat slabs had an advantage. The slabs could be placed closer together than possible with a round log. If a crack developed between the slabs a smaller board could be nailed to solve the problem or in some cases a worn pair of overalls stuffed into the crack solved the problem. However, the round logs add a bit of insulation from the cold that isn’t true of flat slabs of wood.

As stated before wood and later coal were necessary to keep the cookstove burning during the cold nights of fall and winter. A cookstove became the most important piece of furniture in the homesteader’s cabin. Providing heat and warm food were integral to a hom