Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reflections Sitting Alone in the Root Cellar

For two years and two months home was a shack on the prairie, one small room, four permeable plank walls, living a simple life. Two growing seasons, two harvests, and two months. Meditation comes easy in the root cellar, your perch an empty wooden crate, upturned on the packed dirt floor. Meditation comes easy when you have no distractions, when the space around you is empty. When you realize the time for panic is past.

Come to Jesus time. You can wish all you want, but wishes never filled a root cellar. You can regret until the tears fall, but will your tears ease the hunger cramping your belly when the snow sifts through the cracks between the planks of your shack? An empty root cellar is nothing more than a hole in the ground.

The time for panic is past.

Facts are facts. You are meditating in your root cellar, a colorful October turning into a grey November, with only the tardy realization for company that you are not surrounded by a boastful surplus put by for winter. Your root cellar should be lined by glass jars filled to the brim with jewel-like red tomatoes and beets, green peas and beans, orange carrots, and the yellow nibs of corn reminding you of the glory of summertime corn on the cob. You should be stumbling over crates and baskets piled high with potatoes layered with the early issues of the Govert Advance that I wish I had available to read today.* Looking past the potatoes, your eyes should fall on the crates of turnips, and crates of the excess carrots and beets all layered with sand. And winter squash piled here and piled there, filling every last available space. Without this kind of preparation in the early decades of the twentieth century, winter in Govert, South Dakota, could be terrifying.

That the drifting snow and icy winds of Harding County will soon overtake you is a certainty. That you may suffer this freezing winter in hunger becomes increasingly apparent without the bounty of a well-stocked root cellar. Panic may have been useful two months ago, but now all that remains is to calculate what you are going to do next. Is wintering over in Govert even an option?

How did this happen anyway? What happened to make your situation so desperate? Were you one of those homesteaders whose enthusiasm was underscored by an unfortunate lack of knowledge about farming or livestock? So what was it? Not enough rain? Plant too early? Too late? Hail? Pests? Prairie fire? Didn't have the tools you needed? A bad plan? Brutal working conditions? When was it that you realized Govert, South Dakota, was not Waldon Pond?

Face facts. Come to Jesus. When do you give up the dream and face a different kind of reality?

How many homesteaders are lost in the fringes of history? How many once hopeful men and optimistic women abandoned their quarter section of prairie before shaking the hand of the census taker? How many never told their children of this amazing adventure upon which they once embarked?

Men and women sought out 160 acres of prairie for as many reasons as you can imagine, and they left for reasons, as many and as varied as you have yet to consider. Remembering those who were just passing through ... the homesteaders who relinquished their claims, the hired hands who stopped for a season or two, the families seeking a safe place to be between here and there ... remembering, not judging them ... is our responsibility as prairie historians. For a while they called Govert home.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

*Mr. Laflin's archive of the early issues of the Govert Advance were lost in a flue fire in his attic in the late 1920s. Later editions are available on microfilm at the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, South Dakota, and also at the public library in Belle Fourche. Fragile paper copies may be viewed at the School House Museum in Buffalo, South Dakota.


  1. Thanks, Dear, for a wonderful blog posting.

    Your entry this week gives us great insight into the realities and difficulties of life as a farmer on the prairie…an extremely hard, unpredictable, and uncertain life not appreciated soon enough by many of the people who tried homesteading there. Your essay this week is vivid, articulate, informative, and somewhat somber as you present the stark and bleak reality of a homesteader/farmer reflecting in his empty root cellar on the grim fact that he and his family have insufficient resources and are totally unprepared to face the harsh prairie winter approaching them. His efforts at farming have failed. He and his family face catastrophe. He has no idea what the future holds for them, except that in the short term it will be dire. “The time for panic is past”…it’s too late for that. The time for desperation has arrived. “[N]ow all that remains is to calculate what you are going to do next”…but what will that be?

    You have vividly portrayed the desperate situation the farmer is in and how it could have come about. Thanks again for continuing to educate us about homestead life on the prairie in the early 1900s. Each time you write, you give us informative and enjoyable lessons in the history of that time and place. Well done…as usual!

    1. Every wife should be as lucky to have a husband who is her best fan. Thank you, Russ.

  2. Kate,
    Your latest post reminded me of my grandparents’ root cellar on their ranch. I clearly recall dreading having to go down into the dark dank root cellar. It was next to the house covered by a huge barn red wooden plank door. I can still see and hear the creaking of the cellar door as my grandfather slowly hoisted it up so my grandmother and I could descend into the cavern on the earthen steps to retrieve glass jars filled with canned fruit and vegetables.

    As I was reading your post I once again smelled the damp musty air that would fill my nostrils as soon as I started to descend into the poorly lit cellar. There was only one bare light bulb hanging from the roof of the cellar that was turned on by pulling the string hanging from the light.

    When I was young I did not realize the importance of the cellar nor of the wooden shelves stacked full of "glass jars filled to the brim with jewel-like red tomatoes and beets, green peas and beans, orange carrots, and the yellow nibs.” I also didn’t understand how much work it was for my grandmother and the girls, who were still living at home, to grow and then so carefully preserve this food for the winter.

    The only shower on the ranch was also in that root cellar. My dad put it in after marrying my mother, so her family could finally take a shower. Before they had this shower my grandmother would have to have the bathtub rolled into the kitchen so that she could fill it with water that had to be heated on the coal stove.

    Needless to say I also dreaded taking showers in the root cellar when I spent my summer and Christmas vacations on the ranch. Luckily, when my “vacations” were over I could go home back to the city. Back to a house with a telephone, television, a bathroom equipped with a sink, toilet, shower and bathtub. Back to a house heated by forced air that also had a hot water heater so hot water came out of the faucet.

    It is difficult for me to imagine even now how tough it was for homesteaders like my grandparents and their children in the early 1900’s. My mother often told me about how they had to stuff pages from the Sears & Roebuck catalog into the spaces between the wooden logs of their home to keep snow from blowing into their house the first year they moved to Colorado.

    My grandmother had 10 children, 9 of whom survived. I recall her telling me how, after falling down while trying to pull out sagebrush when she was pregnant with one of my uncles, she went into labor. There was no doctor or midwife to deliver the baby. It was up to my grandfather. My grandmother went into the house had the baby and was back in the field pulling sagebrush the next day. If only I were that tough.

    Thanks for writing this excellent glimpse into the past.

    1. What lovely memories, Sharon! Certainly a daunting experience for a young girl, but maybe that is what makes the memories so vivid today. Thinking about the amount of work required to live the life our grandparents lived often leaves me without words; your grandparents and my grandparents just did what needed to be done. Thank you for sharing your own reflections in a root cellar and for recording your memories for your children and (future ...) grandchildren to find.

  3. Yes for sure they had to be tough as nails. I seldom think about those who were not, as my ancestors and my mother and father certainly were survivors, but there must have been those who could not muster the tremendous effort needed. I did not like the root cellar either, but I should have given thanks that it was never empty.
    I often think to myself, while I am doing the canning and preserving that I do for the pleasure of eating my own food, what if I had to do this for our very survival? I think of my mother in the middle of a prairie summer canning beans and peas over a wood stove, how unbearably hot it would have been, not only for the day but for the ensuing night as well. It gives me a very small glimpse into life as it must have been then, as you, Kate, and your contributors, do so aptly.

    1. Thank you, Cousin, for weighing in from the Canadian prairie. You have inherited rich insight and share from your own prairie experience, as well. The labor in which our ancestors willing engaged is surprising to our expectations today ... but another surprise ... how light the load might seem, when shared. Sometime I'll write about my grandmother and her sister canning chicken in Govert, South Dakota ... and you know the necessary steps before ever getting near the canning jars!

  4. Oh boy do I ever - had to take part even though I hated it. But today I still love canned chicken!
    I'm going to add that to my own memoirs.......wonder why I didn't think of it sooner??

    1. Looking forward to reading your memoirs of life on the Canadian prairie!



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