They Came to Stay

They Came to Stay

Audio by Kay Melia

The first wave of homesteaders began streaming into Sherman County in 1885 and 1886. They were drawn by the prospects of free land and the fertile soil of the prairies where they could build their homes. After finding a location, a trip to the government land office in Oberlin, KS was necessary to file a claim for the land according to the homestead law of 1852. Living on the land for five years and making improvements was a requirement before a homesteader could get complete ownership.  Homesteaders could also get another 160 acres by setting out and maintaining trees on at least 10 acres for 10 years. 

Since there were no trees in the area, pioneers built their houses from the only material available, sod. Often neighbors would help. The sod houses were warm in the winter and cool in the summer since the walls were 18 to 24 inches thick.  The dirt floors, after sweeping and scrubbing became so hard that they were almost as hard as concrete. Sod was also used for the roof top. Wood was used only where necessary during construction as there was a lack of lumber in the almost timber-less country. Wood had to be hauled from the railroad in Wallace some 30 miles over rough prairie roads. Some families lived in their covered wagons while their sod houses were being built, then used the wagon lumber to finish their homes. Fuel for the stoves was not a big problem since the prairies were littered with buffalo chips.

Water was the precious commodity until a well could be dug. Often families had to go several miles daily with barrels in the back of the wagon to get to the nearest source of water. The hand-dug well could be done by a man with a spade and bucket but it was a long, arduous, and often dangerous task.  The size of a hand-dug well varied from 4 to 8 feet square and the danger of cave-ins was always present. After a well was dug to a certain depth, it was no longer possible to pitch the dirt back up to the top. So a wooden bucket and pulley were devised so the dirt could be pulled to the top and emptied.

Gardens were an absolute necessity for food and many homesteaders started fruit orchards. To put in their crops, farmers used a walking plow and other kinds of primitive equipment drawn by horses, mules, or oxen.

Pioneer women worked side by side with their husbands, helping with most of the outside work.  Inside the house, cooking, cleaning, and raising the children kept women busy full time. The old adage men worked from sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done, held true for these pioneering women. Life on the prairies was physically hard but independent and rewarding.

Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be given to these first setters is that most people stayed through the hardships to create communities where churches, schools, and family values had high priorities.