This new book by three scholars from Nebraska--Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History--is making quite a splash. Or, to get my metaphor acclimatized to the prairies, it breaks new ground.
As explained in my last essay, the authors--Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo--dispute everything I learned in college about homesteading. Marshalling new and better evidence, they argue that the Homestead Act was important to the formation of farms throughout the West; that most homesteaders were successful; and that the process operated with minimal fraud. Homesteading the Plains thus affirms the positive collective memory of homesteading shared by the descendants of homesteaders: it was hard, but it worked.
The senior author of this new book, Richard Edwards, incorporates a reference to an old friend of his family in Stanley, North Dakota--a successful homesteader in Montana before becoming a pillar of the community in Stanley.
Isabel Proctor was a schoolteacher in Minnesota, Edwards writes, when she got a letter from her brother in Montana. He wrote, “Come out and homestead. The government is giving land away.” It is notable that the United States government, unlike Canada, offered homesteads to single, or widowed, women. Ms. Proctor seized the opportunity.
Edwards is a little indefinite about details of this Montana homestead, and so I’m looking them up in the Bureau of Land Management Patent Index. There it is, in Stillwater County - S 26 T2N R22E. It appears Ms. Proctor took an 80 of one quarter and an 80 of an adjoining quarter to compose her quarter-section homestead. Patent issued 26 October 1915. Billings Land Office. Signed for President Wilson by his secretary, M. P. LeRoy.
Proctor made her living while proving up by teaching school, which entailed fifteen miles of travel by horse every school day. She shared a shack with a woman who took an adjoining claim. The shack was situated on the property line. I don’t think this was strictly legal, but sometimes the boys at the land office avoided asking nosy questions.
The story of Isabel Proctor seemed familiar. Then I realized Edwards had written more fully about her in his other book, Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Oil Boom, published in 2016. Isabel Proctor Flath is profiled in a chapter entitled, “Dauntless Optimism.”
It seems that after proving up, Ms. Proctor moved into Stanley to teach at the high school. Having played center on the basketball team at Iowa Normal, she coached the Stanley girls’ basketball team to two undefeated seasons and won a state championship.
In 1919 she married the dentist, Dr. G. O. Flath, and thereafter she settled into married life. Except that settling in was not Mrs. Flath’s style. She became the classic town mother, bolstering Stanley’s cultural and social life. She lived, Edwards says, “a life of self-sacrificing service to the people who lived around her.”
Here I am moved to offer a shout out to Janinne Paulson, a twenty-first century community builder in Stanley. Janinne, I read that Isabel Flath was the long-time choir director at First Presbyterian Church, which is now your Sybil Center, the community arts center of Stanley.
That feature of our Homestead Act authorizing land patents to women--What a great idea that was! Because it brought women like Isabel Proctor Flath to our prairies. ~Tom Isern