But overnight, anticipated prosperity turned to destitution when grasshoppers invaded the region and destroyed nearly all vegetation. Mrs. Huckfeldt worked frantically to cover her garden with straw, to keep it out of sight of the hoppers. But the insects burrowed under the straw, eating plant and root and leaving only holes in the ground.
The Huckfeldts faced a new winter with no income, yet they dared not leave if they wanted to have clear title to their land. The Homestead Act stipulated that not only must a family build a structure on the plot, but also they must live on it for five years.
So Joseph rode the train to Omaha and acquired a job as a carpenter to earn cash for spring seed. Mrs. Huckfeldt stayed at the soddy but found a waitress job in town. It was the extra money she earned that added a new cow to the barn that year.
The soddy homemaker learned that the occasional grasshopper plague were steady residents of the prairie. She put up with flies and insects and found that the mice migrated to the warmth of a soddy with the first frost of fall. Mice were followed by their natural enemy, the bull snake. Pauline hated the sight of them, but neighbors advised that a bull snake on the place could help control the mouse population. So Pauline allowed one to stay on, in the sod barn.
Rattlesnakes frightened Gertrude Young on her Dakota soddy. A rattler loves the sun as much as does young child and Gertrude kept a watchful eye when she walked the prairie. She kept her baby in a wash boiler one summer when she followed her husband as he worked on a railroad gang. Its high metal sides kept him safe from rattlesnakes inside the family tent.
A soddy homemaker's remedy for snakebite or any accident or illness was often the only treatment a family member received. A doctor, usually some miles away, at best had only simple powders and procedures to prescribe. The timeworn practice of sucking the venom from a rattlesnake bite saved many a victim. And it was often the homesteading woman who performed the operation.
Gertrude depended on a family remedy for colds and sore throats. She concocted onion syrup by slicing onions into a jar and pouring sugar over them. Well-shaken and set upside down on a saucer, the mixture produced a syrup that she spoon fed to her ailing children.
The mere thought of swallowing onion syrup may have had much to do with the fact that her children had few colds.
A mother did her best to nurse her family through the epidemics of measles, small pox, whopping cough, and diphtheria. Sometimes she successfully nursed a child back to health, sometimes she did not. Pauline saw her 10-year-old daughter recover from diphtheria, but watched her 14-year-old son die of the disease. She felt comfort of caring neighbors as they assisted with the burial and consoled the grieving family.
Companionship with other women was a scarce commodity to wives living on isolated prairie homesteads. Differences in background, even of language, were easily overlooked in the need for fellowship. Gertrude learned to welcome the sight of the Sioux Indians who erected their tepee in the shadow of her soddy.
Companionship between homesteading families helped each other build the schools and churches that provided more than teaching and preaching. The little buildings became community centers of literary meetings, singing schools, box socials, dances and spelling bees.
'As children we were often bundled up and taken to school in the back of the wagon for some kind of bee,' remembers Lewis Young, son of Gertrude and Lewis Sr. 'We came home, at what seemed like very late a night. We kept warm under a blanket in the wagon box with a hot rock for a heater.'
Work was a welcomed and planned excuse for getting together with other women. They attended quilting bees, pillow-making bees, and carpet-rag sewing bees. A carpet-rag bee produced yards of inch-wide strips of cloth salvaged from cast-off clothing. Sewed together and rolled into balls the strips provided material for crocheted or woven rug.
A determined woman could produce a wall-to-wall rag run in a few weeks' time. With padding of straw or corn shucks, such a rug added respectability to the dirt house, and cushioned the rockers of a cherry or walnut chair.
(Continued next week)