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Plains Folk

A Cloud in the West

 

“As Henry stepped out of the door, he noticed a peculiar cloud in the west, too light in color to be rain, or even dust. He called Rosie to the door to look.” Henry and Rosie Ise, homesteaders in northern Kansas, faced a grave challenge coming from the land itself: “Grasshoppers--millions, billions of them--soon covered the ground in a seething, fluttering mass, their jaws constantly at work.”

 

I’m quoting from the classic memoir of homesteading on the Great Plains: Sod and Stubble, by John Ise. No other state or province of the plains has such a compelling narrative of the settlement experience as this one from Kansas. But the text is like Cather, or Rolvaag--it transcends state lines, speaks to the regional experience of the prairies.

 

We love to tell the stories of grasshopper clouds and deadly blizzards and prairie fires and steam engine explosions, and Sod and Stubble gives full voice to distress. It even touches on tragedies seldom told--such as how a community came together to end the suffering of a person in the torturous and dangerous stages of hydrophobia--a disturbing chapter.

 

It is possible that the author, John Ise--little Joe in his own narrative--had a bitter view of events on the farm in Osborne County on account of his own suffering, as a polio victim. On the other hand, because he was disabled, he stayed around the house, and thus gives us an illuminating portrait of a resilient woman, his mother, Rosie.

 

We grieve for Rosie at close of the book, when Henry has died. None of the children are prepared to carry on with the farm, and the widow sits bereft as her possessions are auctioned off. Let me ease your mind about that. In the first place, the children were off leading successful lives--that’s the reason for the title, Sod and Stubble. The crop, the children, has been taken off successfully.

 

Further: many years ago, in a bar in Houston, I got to talking with a broken-down old guy, and somehow this book came up in conversation. He told me a fascinating story. It turns out that on leaving the farm, Rosie went off to Lawrence to see John through college. There she opened a rooming and boarding house for college boys.  This guy roomed with Rosie when he went to college. Rosie Ise absolutely loved her life in Lawrence, after leaving the farm.

 

It’s a point of some pride for me that one of my old students, Von Rothenberger, an Osborne County boy himself, discovered the lost manuscript of the 1936 book, Sod and Stubble. He then published with a scholarly press a new edition of the work, including some lost chapters.

 

When I was going to college the scholars told us that homesteading was pretty much a failure and a fraud--a bad idea in the first place. Plains folk, nevertheless, continued to take pride in the settlement experience and exhibit their homestead certificates if they had them. Now it seems the scholars are coming around. A team headed by Richard Edwards at the University of Nebraska has launched a massive historical investigation of homesteading, its first fruit being the book, Homesteading the Plains. The work is a deep dive into patent files and local histories that produces a generally favorable assessment of homesteading as an enterprise.

 

Two states have stunted historical literature as to homesteading. The first is Texas, because that state kept its lands on annexation into the federal union. The other is North Dakota, because bonanza farming, the antithesis of homesteading, sucks the oxygen out of the history of the Dakota Boom.

 

Exhibit A: Hiram Drache’s fine book, The Day of the Bonanza. We should remember that Drache wrote a companion work about pioneering family farmers, The Challenge of the Prairie. Old Hi did not romanticize the experience, but he knew a thing or two about homesteading.

-Tom Isern

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