Hard Work, Hard Times, Yet Happiness, on the Homestead
BY R.J. MILNE
After three days, my long trip finally ended. I stepped off at Poplar into a crowd of Indians, who had come to see the Great Northern go through. There was not another white person in sight. I was waiting quite some time at the station when a white man came from the hotel and asked me what I was doing there. I told him, “My uncle is coming to pick me up.” The man—who was the mayor of Poplar—said, “Wait at the hotel. Don’t hang around here with all these Indians.” I told him, “my orders are to wait at the station. “He said, “I’ll be back to get you if your uncle doesn’t come.”
Eventually, Uncle Jim and Aunty Pansy arrived. They traveled twenty-two miles over prairies with their team of geldings, Joker and Wood-row, pulling the old lumber wagon. They crossed the Missouri River by ferry, which cost one dollar for a round trip. Uncle Jim left his team at a livery stable for feed, water, and rest, before heading home.
Poplar had no paved roads. The town consisted of the Gateway Hotel (which cost one dollar a night), a few small grocery and hardware stores, two banks, a barber shop, a couple of pool rooms, two restaurants, and a two large stables full of hay. Poplar was known as an Indian village city, headquarters for the Indian Reservation were located there. There was also an Indian school and a doctor. Squaws in front of stores, making it hard for customers to get in and out. But for the most part, Indians lived out of town.
When we reached Uncle Jim’s two-room shack, it was late at night, so we went right to bed. Before daylight, coyotes started hollering and woke me up. In my excitement, I ran outside and hit the barbed wire fence that went around the house, which cut my arm, and left a scar to remind me of my first day in Montana.
Uncle Jim’s homestead consisted of three hundred and sixty acres, most of which was grazing land. He and nearly all the Milne homesteaders were settled south of the Missouri River between Poplar and Ritchey. The majority of the area was farmland, except for every other section, which was given to the railroad where they laid track, and every fifth section, which was school property. Uncle Jim acquired his homestead by building a house on the land and living there three years, cultivating the soil. Then he, along with three witnesses, went before the land commission, receiving a deed signed by the President of the United States. Property taxes were appraised at fifteen dollars per half-section. Many farmers didn’t have enough money, so the government let them work it out.
The government gave every Indian child that was born three hundred and twenty acres of land, even if fathered by a white man. Most of them wouldn’t develop their property, so the law was later changed to giving them money, instead. The administration also tried educating Indian children and made them live at the school. A few oldtimers didn’t like that: at night, they tied saddle horses outside, so that the young ones could leave. However, some Indians did become well educated.
Uncle Jim and Aunty Pansy were very poor, their earnings were around three hundred dollars a year. We had little to eat; neverthe-less, it was the first time in my life that I was happy. They treated me well. Uncle Jim tried raising wheat. He slaved hard all day, plowing, but the ground was very hard, dry, and didn’t yield much. When he stopped to rest, his horses laid down in the field, from lack of food; they were nothing but skin and bones. All homesteaders worked long hours, only to barely make a living. Water, food, and equipment were scarce out there. Water for drinking and cooking had to be hauled in barrels from three miles away, and put on the shady side of the house. When uncle Jim needed a new wagon and couldn’t afford one, he’d hitch a team to a flat board, nailed to sleigh-like runners. Away we’d go—with Uncle Jim always laughing, regardless of hard times.
I worked on Uncle Jim’s granary, hunted jackrabbits and prairie chickens in winter and summer for food, and sometimes to earn money. We dug our own coal from the badlands, and later I helped dig a well, so that we didn’t have to haul water. I attended Hillcrest School, four miles away: I didn’t have a horse, so I walked. In winter, I trudged through bitter cold and snow. The teacher lived in the little one-room schoolhouse, and earned about sixty-five dollars a month. The cabin wasn’t just a place for children to learn. It was also used for church, meeting places, weddings, and other activities. When dances were held, women brought sandwiches and cakes; men paid a dollar, and the party usually lasted until morning. During these events, the boys stuck together: you were considered a sissy if you hung out with girls.
For fun, we boys went swimming in Red Water—or Long Glass—Creek. Sometimes, we shared with range horses and cattle. We all wore the same kind of bathing suits—white skin. When using the back house that was supplied with a Sears Roebuck catalog, we came out with print or pictures—possibly of a wagon, manure spreader, or other—on our rears. Girls went swimming by themselves in their flour sack underwear. Most of us boys had one pair of jeans (sold for a dollar) and one shirt. In summer, we didn’t wear underclothes or shoes; there was always a scarcity of clothing. Baths were taken once a week, in a metal tub of cold water.
Before winter hit, all farmers went to town to stock up. Some bought as much as eight or ten one-hundred-pound sacks of flour. When our supplies ran out unexpectedly, Uncle Jim and I left early in the morning, before daylight, for town. No roads went as the crow flies. We walked most of the twenty-two miles behind the sled, so we wouldn’t freeze; and it seemed like it took forever to get there. In Poplar, we left Joker and Woodrow at a livery stable, and went for provisions. After loading up, Uncle Jim and I started our long trip home; it was early morning when we got back. I really slept well after all those hours in the freezing cold. When I was a little older and rode horseback to town in winter, I would stay overnight at the Gateway Hotel. What a luxury, from being out in the cold weather so long.
At the age of twelve, after I had spent two years with Uncle Jim and Aunty Pansy. I pulled up stakes.
From Orphan Boy by R.J. Milne.
Editor’s note: For more fascinating recollections as told by R.J. Milne, read the entire book—highly recommended.