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The following is from Hiram. M. Drache’s excellent book, “The Challenge of the Prairie: Life and Times of Red River Pioneers”...

Washing clothes was (a) woman’s chore. Cisterns were built to store a supply of soft water for washing clothes and for bathing. Often the early cisterns consisted of merely a barrel or two set at each corner of the house or nearby buildings to collect the water as it ran down from the shingled roof. In the winter time snow was melted in large tubs to provide the soft water for laundry work.

When the second generation of houses were built they were larger and they had cisterns in the basement which could hold enough water to last for several months. If the family was not too large this water supply possibly lasted for the year, if not, the laundry water had to come out of the regular well or from melted snow. It was not until the 1890s that storage tanks were placed in attics to provide homes with “pressure” water systems. The W. J. Peets of Wolverton had running water in 1903, Henry Schroeder in 1905, and the Stafnes in l908.

Those lucky homesteaders who were located near a river, such as the Probstfields, could haul their water and thus refill their cisterns. On January 4, 1885, the temperature was forty degrees below zero, but on the next day it was twenty degrees above zero, so Mrs. Woodward and Katie melted snow and washed. They had ten sheets, “innumerable other things” and twenty-two towels. The clothes were dried around “the kitchen fire – everybody knows what a delightful job that is,” (she wrote).

Later she noted that “everybody in Dakota should have a covered place in which to hang clothes in winter. It would pay a man as well as anything he could build. It would save the wear and tear on clothes, besides the health of the ones who hang them out.” Many women froze fingers hanging clothes out on the line and taking in overalls, dresses, and union suits that were frozen stiff as a board.

Hard water, homemade lye soap, and the scrub board made washing clothes a hard and unpleasant chore. Not all pioneers wanted to spend forty cents for a scrub board so they rubbed the clothes on stones placed in a barrel of water. Is it any wonder there was a bit of tattle-tale gray?

Mrs. Henry Woell remembered what a joyous day it was in 1895 in the Langer household when her father brought home a hand-powered washing machine. “Mother was so thrilled not to have to use the scrub board.” The children took turns providing the power, leaving their mother free to do other jobs. It takes only a little imagination to realize that the hand-powered machine was a great labor saver in contrast to the scrub board.

The next advancement in washing in the Langer family came “about World War I when they got a gas-powered washer...it was another great blessing” for no one was required to stand at the machine. Mrs. Woell added that in her lifetime she had seen the change from scrub board to automatic washer and she ended with the query, “What will be next?” (paper clothes?) The United States Department of Agriculture study of 1920 noted that sixty percent of farms had automobiles, but motor-driven washing machines, vacuum cleaners, gas or electric irons were still almost non-existent on these same farms.

Again, that was from Hiram Drache’s book, “The Challenge of the Prairie,” published in 1970.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm