Story by Early Woman Resident of Hull Section
By Estelle C. Laughlin
From Interviews with Miss Ida McComsey
From Gering Courier
Forty-eight years ago, or to be exact, it was in 1888, that Al Smith, accompanied by his wife, who was my sister Mattie, followed that well known advice of Horace Greeley and came west. I left my home at Toulon, Stark county, Illinois, and joined them at Oshaloosa, Iowa, where they had all their household furnishings and farm equipment loaded on an emigrant train coming west on the Union Pacific to Kimball. We located at Mingo, which was in the vicinity now called Hull. Others who homesteaded there about the same time we did were Ammermans, Warners, Elem Rose and I. N. Rose, the father of Mrs. Elsie Cross, Card, Whipple, Theo Deutsch, Frank Beers and others, whom I do not recall at present.
My brother-in-law took a homestead and I took a pre-emption on 160 acres. At that time more settles were coming into this section than nearer to Gering as it was closer to the main line of the Union Pacific at Kimball. It was a number years later that the railroad was built into the Gering locality. The railroad received land grands from the government for building through this new country and they sold this land to prospective settlers which was another possible reason for more settlers in that part.
To explain about homesteading and the pre-emptions—to homestead a piece of land the settler had to live on it five years, cultivating part of it and making some improvements in a way of buildings before he cold receive patent to it from the government. The settler might be away from the land a part of the time in order to earn a living but if he were absent more that si months he ran the chance of losing his place. A pre-emption differed very little in conditions concerning cultivation and improvements, but one might live on the land six months and then pay the government $1.25 an acre for it. This gave the person the chance to later take a homestead if he desired. I lived five years in all on my piece of land, but spent part of this time working in job printing offices in Denver, returning to the homestead once each month to live up to the requirements of the government.
Some people took their land by planting “tree claims.” This meant they had to plant and cultivate trees on a piece of land. Because of lack of moisture not many of these trees lived. There are more of the “tree claims” in central and eastern Nebraska than here in western Nebraska although a few may be found in this locality as well.
My sister and I had always lived in town and she knew little of life on a farm and I knew even less. My brother-in-law secured work with the Two Bar ranch in order to have some money coming in. Some people at tat time who were homesteading near us traded wood from the hills for supplies and some picked bones off the prairie and hauled them to Kimball in exchange for groceries and other necessities, but most of the younger men worked for the ranch companies. It wasn’t possible at that time to make a living off the homesteads, although the ground was rich and with sufficient rain anything grew. My brother Tom plowed up some land on my father’s homestead the first spring after they came and planted it to brown beans which netted six bushels of beans when threshed out. To plant beans or sod corn, one person would but a hole in the newly turned sod with one whack of an ax and another following behind would drop the seeds in the hole and stomp it down with one heel.
My sister and I stayed on the land while my brother-in-law was gone, and made an effort to carry on. First of all dug-outs were built. The dug-out on my preemption was an excavation in a bank, and the front part was built of logs with a front porch which had a four-pane glass window. The roof was made of timbers from the hills and these were covered with smaller poles to act as rafters and then covered with brush and two layers of sod placed on the top. The dug-out leaked when the spring rains came, and there was no floor in it, but the ground soon became packed so hard that it could be swept as any ‘wood floor would be. The entire dugout was only about 10 x 13 as I recall.
One time in the spring when my brother-in-law was working with the Two Bar my sister and I decided we would do some plowing as it was getting late and we wanted to do something to make ourselves useful. We got out the team which consisted of a black horse and a white one which was almost totally blind. We hooked them up to a little grasshopper plow. My sister was to do the driving while I made the furrows. I knew how it should be done from watching others but bear down on the handles as I would, I could not seem to get the plowshare started in the prairie ground deep enough to turn a furrow. Each time the team would start after some slapping and coaxing, the plow would skid along the top of the ground. While making our best efforts we spied a horse backer coming in the distance and not wanting anyone to see our poor attempts, we hastily unhitched the team from the plow and hurried to the house with them. My brother-in-law was very particular about what little machinery he had and always kept it under cover. When the horse backer arrived, it proved to be he. He had observed the plow outside and thought that someone had borrowed it and left it out in the elements. He proceeded to tell what he thought of anyone who would be so careless of another’s property. Finally, we admitted to being the guilty parties and we all had a good laugh.
We liked this open western country so well that we wrote our parents urging them to bring the younger children and come out to this new country. My father, Charles McComsey, was a mason and plasterer. We believed he might do well with his trade in this new land. After some persuasion they sold out and about a year and a half after we took up our claims they came out and also took a homestead. My father obtained work at his trade in Cheyenne part of the time. They built a house of logs. Their house did not have a floor but they put straw on the ground and then stretched ingrain carpet over it, fastening it securely all around, and had a very pleasant home, living better than many other homesteaders at that time. Another neighbor at that time was Simon Ritchie. He had built a sod house. To Build a sod house was a real art and one well built stood for many, many years. In fact, I believe that house built nearly half a century ago is still standing. There is something that tugs at one’s heartstrings about a little old soddy standing neglected, with cattle perhaps rubbing against the sides until it topples over, or with high weeds growing about it in summer and drifts of snow covering it with a white mantle during winter. The following verses I feel have a meaning of any old settle who, perhaps, was housed in a soddy during the summer heat and winter blizzards.
“Dear little House of Sod standing in the sun
Your usefulness is almost done
And like all else that’s made of clay
You, too, must soon decay.
You are homely, you have no marble halls:
Yet a home was made within these earthly walls
The blessedness of Christ was there
And sacred memories linger everywhere
Beneath your roof so mean and low
We’ve watched the summers come and go
Little children have romped o’er your floor
Sang and danced through the open door
Out in the meadow, rabbits have played in the dew
And in an open window songs of birds have floated through
Once when the angel of death was almost here
We learned that the best of neighbors were near
Yes, Dear Sod House Standing in the sun
Your usefulness is almost done
But within your walls so earthly and bare
I found the peace and blessedness of care
And so like the poet of old I can say
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.
There was also a sod schoolhouse on the Frank Beers homestead where my brothers, John and Skip and sister, Bertha, attended school after the folks came out here. One of the schoolma’amns, a Miss Lizzie Wilson from Peru, Illinois, who taught there, later became Mrs. Frank Beers.
As I have said there was a real art to building a sod house. Perhaps it would be interesting to younger people to know how it was done. If the house was not built correctly, it soon became sort of a sway backed and leaned at an angle and crumbled down. To build the sod house, the men first plowed up some ground that was good, black soil with plenty of grass on it. The sod strips then were cut into lengths of about three feet and laid in the same manner as bricks for a brick wall.
The foundation for the house had to be level and the walls kept perfectly true, for if they were built otherwise, they would fall down when they settled. The four walls were carried up solid to the tops of the doors and window, then timbers were laid across where the doors and windows were to be located. The walls were built up about six inches higher than the house was to be, to allow for the settling. The windows and doors were then cut the proper size. The walls, about three feet in thickness, were continued up at the end to form the gables and a huge cedar ridge log, from 30 to 40 feet long and probably 18 inches to 2 feet through at the butt was placed on the gables.
The logs and other timber for the houses were hauled from the hills. From the ridge log or ridge pole, as it was usually called, to the sidewalls were laid smaller cedar poles to act as rafters and on these were placed brush. Then a layer of sod was fitted very closely over this brush covering, grass side down, then another layer of sod was placed the same way on top of the first, carefully overlapping the joints in the lower sod covering, then a load of clay was scattered over this to turn off the rain or melting snow. Sometimes the turf side of the sod was laid up and when grass season came the roof of a soddy was a beautiful roof garden with a covering of grass and weeds. I heard one beauty loving eastern woman who longed for a flower garden and having no luck with on the ground she dug little holes in the sod roof and transplanted her plants there. It was a lovely sight but when the rains came she found she had sacrificed comfort for beauty as every hole was a regular sieve for the rain to come through.
Those who could afford to buy tar paper to use on their roofs were not bothered with leaky houses and could listen to the patter of the rain in peace….however, most of the settlers kept a variety of buckets and containers handy to catch the drip when there was a rain. The god thick walls of the soddies made them warm in winter and cool in summer. They said that plants never froze in soddies during the winter. One fault they had was being a good place for mice and rats to hide and occasionally a snake, so continual war was waged on these pests. I killed may rattlesnakes in those days, although I doubt that I should have the courage to attempt it now. There was said to be a big den of rattlesnakes in that neighborhood and I have heard that many snakes are still killed there. I never heard of a death from rattlesnake bite, although there may have been some in those days. The walls inside the houses were plastered and wide sheeting was tacked overhead to form a ceiling which kept dust from falling down on those below. Newspapers were used for window blinds. The dee sills or lintels by the windows made an excellent place to keep plants and ere also used for cozy little tete-a-tetes by young people.
The rabbits were thick in this country ten and ate up everything w tried to raise in the garden the first spring. My sister and I decided to set a trap for them, killing two birds with one stone as it were, doing away with them as a pest and also providing our larder with fresh meat. We fixed up a box with a sort of lever on it and baited it with bacon rind. The bacon rind would disappear, and the box be tipped over and no rabbit. We could not fathom the mystery until we discovered our brother and Jim Smith, who later married another sister, were playing tricks on us. There were lots of range cattle running about then and they would get into our crops and make short work of them. My sister and I were afraid of these cattle as they had long horns and were ferocious looking creatures to us city bred girls. However they kept getting into our crops and one day I became thoroughly aroused and got on the old blind white horse and took a little revolver we had and went after them shooting the revolver off in the herd to drive them off our place. Needless to say they scattered, but it gave me cold chills later to think that I might have shot myself or the old horse as I knew so little about using firearms. While we were real tenderfeet at first, we soon learned how to do work to which we had never been accustomed, and that training has come in handy many times since. I became quite proficient with a hammer, a saw and a few nails and have many times turned my hand to a little job of carpentering that needed to be done.
One incident that will forever remain in my memory is of a blizzard that came up without warning and caught my brother, Skip, my sister “Perm” and I at my dugout. The day had been fair with only a little snow, but suddenly it grew dark and the wind came up with terrible force and blew the snow and howled about my little dugout with such intensity that we dard not attempt to make the distance of two miles east to my father’s place. There was always grave danger during a blizzard of being lost. We had no provisions on hand as I had been staying with my folks. There were some beans and fuel enough to keep us fairly comfortable. For three days we subsisted on the beans, unsalted. Many of the Tw Bar company’s cattle drifted down and among were many little calves, as it was a late storm. One little calf became stuck in a drift not a great distance from our door and my brother went out and brought him in. As soon as the calf became warm, he became frolicsome and ran about the room. My sister Perm and I were a bit afraid of him, so we climber up and roosted on the table to keep out of his way.
There were many hardships and privations in those early days but we were all poor together and no one minded. We had lots of fun and food times going on neighborhood visits and to dances. When folks went to visit in those days, they didn’t make a fashionable call, they spent the day or several days taking the whole family in lumber wagons. In summer they put chairs in the wagon and sat on those and in winter they put straw in the bottom of the wagon and covered up with warm, pieced wool comfortable. One joke that was told of a pioneer housewife who had company and wished to cover her embarrassment as she was short of silver, she called to a daughter, “Laws, Mirandy, where’s all our knives?” Mirandy failing to catch the significance of her mother’s question replied “ Why, Ma, they’re all here…Big Butch, Little Butch, Case and Stub.”
Although I never danced, I usually went to enjoy the fun. We would go to different homes where they had board floors to dance on. There were several who played fo the dances. Those I remember especially were Harve Beebe, Ed Stemler and a fellow by the name of Link Sego. I well remember one long ride to a dance when my escort took me in a lumber wagon, which had only a plank for a seat.
We received our mail at Kimball. Whoever went to town from the neighborhood every tow ro three weeks, would bring the bail for the other families and the day he returned with the mails was a big event for all of us.
The drouth years were the worst ones. Feed for the stock was shipped from the east to Kimball where people had to go to get it. We never received any help ourselves, but many less fortunate ones were greatly benefitted by the feed for the stock and clothing that was sent out in what ws called “aid barrels” from eastern states. Much of the clothing was more suited to fashionable afternoon teas than ti was for life in this rigorous country, but it was a great help anyway and those handy at sewing made it over.
Our mother was a very capable woman and did not let anything go to waste. She had brought a great many glass jars out from Illinois with her and in these we canned vegetables and fruits. There was a plentiful supply of wild fruit such as chokecherries, plums, ground cherries and wild currants. The younger ones in the family were kept busy gathering the fruit while we older ones “put it up.” We preserved plums by cooking them down with sugar and put them in stone jars. Another way of preparing the plums which were quite large ones, was to scald them and then weigh them down in big stone jars. When these plums were used, all that was necessary to do was to re-heat them and sweeten them which made them taste very much like fresh plums. Jams and jellies were made of the chokecherries and currants and much of the fruit was canned to be used as “sauce.” There was also wild game to be had when we first came out, prairie chickens, quail, and we often saw antelope. The antelope could be coaxed close by putting up a stick with a red rag on it. As the country became more thickly populated many prairie chickens, quail and other wild fowl were ruthlessly slaughtered until finally laws were made to protect them. There were also an abundance of coyotes and their yipping in the distance would often rend the night’s silence. We waged war on these animals too. And another curse then were the fleas and bedbugs. It was a constant fight, but we never regretted coming to the west.
As for my own personal history, after I had proven up on my preemption, I worked as a printer at various places, that being the trade I had learned in the east. Harrisburg which was called Centropolis at the time, was a bustling place in those days and I worked there for Charles
Randall and also Mr. Graves, who was Mrs. Ed Pattison’s father. The paper published there at that time was called the Centropolis World. I went to Denver and worked in printing offices there, belonging at that time to the printers’ union. One paper upon which I worked was the Globe owned by a Rev. Needham. When I returned to Gering, I worked in Enderly’s and boarded at Mrs. Enderly’s. he store was located about where Pray’s blacksmith shop now is. For many years I worked in the post office and the Courier office which were in the same building. This building was a log building facing on Euclid avenue which ran east and west and was Gering’s main street. The old log building was between Crumrine’s building and the frame building formerly used by the Steele grocery. We had to go to work early then….about 5 a. m. in order to get the mail off on the stages to Kimball and Alliance. The vehicles used for these stages were long spring wagons with three seats for passengers and a long space at the beck for mail and packages. There was a canopy or top over these. They usually returned around 6:30 or 7 p. m., but in bad weather we often had to wait until 9 or 10 o’clock at night before they arrived with the mail.
During the time I was working at the post office and Courier office, I met Dr. Georgia A. Fix who was a pioneer woman doctor here. She was an interesting woman and a true friend. Later I lived with her and could tell many stories of her long drives into the country in winter’s
worst weather or through the summer heat to care for the sick. After her health failed, she lived with me in my own home and I cared for her, later going to California with her where she spent her last days.
I have spent a number of years in California off and on and enjoy it there, but in looking back over the many years spent in the west, those years on the homestead near Hull are among the very best years of life.