By Sue Carlbom

During one of our winter storms, as I enjoyed the drama of the snow swirling past my window and listening to the wind howl, I wondered how different it was for those brave homesteader women. They did not have the luxury of my instant heat and hot water on demand. It made me wonder: Who were the homesteaders? Where did they come from? Why did they come?

The boom of the homestead era in Montana ran from 1900- 1920. One of the reasons for the interest was the promise of free land from the Government. To get a homestead of 320 acres, one had to file for the land with a notary public and then prove it up. The term, “proving up” consisted of building a house (12 x 12 with one door and one window) and breaking up 40 acres. They had to have the land broken up by the second year and cropped the third. They didn’t have to dig a well but got their water wherever possible. This was usually from creeks, or in some cases a shallow well dug in the coulee.

Due to the railroad, lumber could be purchased at the small towns along the line. Most of the houses were made of wood covered with tar paper. Some of the settlers built sod houses or dug dugouts depending on their finances.

The homesteaders either brought their seed with them or got it from earlier homesteaders. Many of them did custom breaking for others. Using a “gang plow” which was a two- bottom plow pulled by eight horses they could work as much as eight acres a day. They used eight-foot double disc drills to plant the crops. This drill needed four head of horses to pull it.

The main crops were spring wheat, flax, and oats. The homesteaders would have to take their wheat to town to have it ground into flour. Of course, they had to pay a small fee for the grinding. The farm animals were usually just enough cows for the family’s milk and meat and horses to work the fields. Very few homesteaders were cattlemen because they couldn’t raise enough cows on 320 acres to make a living.

Schools were built in the country for homesteader kids who lived too far from town. These were financed by subscription. Each homesteader would donate money to buy supplies then all the men would chip in to provide the labor. The schools were used both for education and social get togethers. All the towns along the railroad had schools, and when they were first started, they included dorms for high school students.

During 1917-1921, the years of drought, many settlers were forced to leave the area. The ones who couldn’t afford to move managed to keep going by buying or renting land from
the settlers that were leaving. From a size of 320 acres, farms increased to an average size of 550 acres by 1925.

The kitchen was the center of life because that was where the heat was. Saturday night baths were taken in front of the kitchen stove. The washing of clothes took place in the middle of the kitchen floor. Ironing was also done in the kitchen near the stove to keep the flat irons hot.

Often, living such a Spartan life brings people closer together, especially when they are all in the same situation. They can laugh about the bad times. I am sure many of us
can fondly remember our toughest years as our best years; however, next time you get tired of all the craziness of life and find yourself longing for “the good ol’ days,” stop and think about what those days were really like.

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