Tuesday, February 6, 2018


To encourage the settlement of western lands, President Lincoln in 1862, signed the Homestead Act. This law gave hard-working Americans 160 acres of land if they could live and work on it for five years. The following account is written by one of these homesteaders, in this case an exceptional one--a fifty year-old widow. 

In the one-eighth acre I planned to plant peas, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabagas, carrots--oh, just everything! Why not? I had most industriously worked the soil beside the porch of my Homestead where I would plant the morning-glory and scarlet bean, adding a few seeds of wild cucumber, a self-sowing annual that would take care of itself once well started. I pictured the vine-covered shelter I should have from the heat of the sun. Someone had told me that if I would succeed as a gardener I must keep my hoe bright. Bright it was! I worked till every muscle was sore and every joint creaked. I planted my seeds with sweat and tears and the occasional drops of blood. Then I invoked the kindness of God and waited.

Slowly there struggled into warped and stunted being, perhaps half a dozen onion spears, half as many lettuce plants, two or three radish tops which fleas promptly destroyed. By the porch one wild cucumber squeezed itself out of its hard soil and spent such vitality as remained to it in climbing some five feet up a string and then died. And that was all--no, not quite. Over the entire unplanted portion of the acre, following the lines of disk and drag, something green appeared, a lusty weed. When it was a few inches high I examined it and gasped. I was sure it was Russian thistle and there were millions of it. This was too much!

Well I knew what a pest the Russian thistle is for it has made as deadly a record for itself in the peaceful areas of agriculture. I had heard homesteaders “cuss out” men who had abandoned claims where ploughing had been done, for the thistle grew thickly on the unseeded land, came to full growth and was carried by the wind to multiply itself as far as the wind could carry it. I had a hatred all my own for the Russian thistle. I had ridden behind the half-broken bronchos of the plains when they stood straight up on their hind legs or danced a break-down when the big prickly spheres blew against them. I had watched them bound and roll before the wind on dreary days when the clouds hung low and they were the only moving thing on the landscape. I had seen fences flattened by their mass against which the wind flung its weight. I had crossed coulees filled with them. The only time a Russian thistle could make me smile was when my dog Lassie would catch the short root of one of the huge prickly spheres between her teeth and with head up, carry it as sail, the wind bearing them along to her huge glee.
And now, on this beloved land of mine, which I had dedicated to fruitfulness, here was the pest! Could I by any possibility hoe out the young plants before they matured? I estimated the work. Surely I could. “It’s dogged as does it!” I simply would not let them conquer me. So that very hour I set to work, bent on doing so much every day till the last nasty weed was laid low. Heroic task! And not profitable in dollars. And I needed dollars.

One morning, I was resting for a moment on my porch when a cowboy rode in and asked me for water to fill his water bag. I was so tired that I pointed out the barrel to him, begging him help himself and adding, “If you want fresh water, you can get it over there,” indicating my neighbor, Mr. Quinn's place.

“Like some fresh, yourself, wouldn’t you?” he asked genially and taking my two pails, walked away in the direction of Mr. Quinn's pump. He was a handsome, likable lad and as I watched him go I envied the good son he could be to a good mother. He came back with full pails and hunting up a cup, brought me the “fresh drink” I so seldom had and seated himself beside me on the porch, frankly curious to know how I was “a-makin’ it all sole alone.” As hungry for talk as I had been thirsty for water, I found myself telling him some of my troubles and among them this Russian thistle aggravation.

“Too bad!” he agreed sympathetically. “But shucks! ‘Tain’t noways your fault, lady! I wisht none of those who come out here to take up land never did nothin’ no worse to us than that!” I did not need that little “us” to tell me he was western born and bred. “D’y’know,” he went on, “I’m hatin’ like everythin’ to see the little ole plains all messed with fences, tame cows and these here ornery shacks. Reck’n it had to be, though! Spoiled the place for me all right, all right. I’ll be movin’ on one o’ these days. One more round-up and then me for open country! Say, let’s have a look at these here Rooshin’ weeds you been tellin’ me about.”

I escorted him to the scene of struggle, he pulled up a handful of the weeds and looked, then threw his head back in a hearty laugh and patted me on the shoulder. “Shucks, lady! You ain’t wise! Them thar ain’t Rooshin’ thistles--I kinda thought they weren’t--I’ve knew folks been fooled before. Them thar is nothin’ a-tall but a rotten alk’li weed. It don’t hurt none--ploughs out and dies.”

“Are you sure?”

“More’n sure--sartain!

Say, know what I’d do if I was you? I’d let this place go cheap to the first fellow wanted it and buy me a lot in town and build a little house on it and live comfortable. It don’t cost nothin’ hardly to buy a lot in town now. You can cook, can’t you? There ain’t much good cookin’ thar, I can tell you! Think about it! Well, I got to git along! Thanks for the water! So long!”

He rode easily away and I watched him disappear in the dust of the road--one of the last of the cowboys. Then I looked at the handful of weeds I still held. “Nothin’ a-tall but a rotten alk’li weed.” I felt let down. My big balloon of trouble and effort was a child balloon, and pricked at that! I thought of the check I could get for writing about this story and laughed. The Russian thistle had done me a good turn after all! I turned my back on the acre of barrenness and weeds and thought about the cowboy’s advice. Was it sound? Could I hold out? Ought I to?

She did stay...