In Praise of Homesteaders, Prairies, and all things Midwestern

Today's entry of "The Writer's Almanac" included this bit of history trivia:

"It was on this day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. Settlers who paid a filing fee of 10 dollars and agreed to live on a piece of land for at least five consecutive years were given 160 acres for free. By 1900, homesteaders had filed 600,000 claims for 80 million acres. Willa Cather's parents set out to homestead in Nebraska, Laura Ingalls Wilder's parents in South Dakota, Lawrence Welk's family in North Dakota, and George Washington Carver in Kansas."

As a lover of history, a lover of America, and especially a lover of the Great Plains, I tip my metaphorical hat to the Cathers, the Ingallses, the Welks, the Carvers, and the other 600,000+ homesteaders.  My own grandfather, who I sadly never had the chance to meet, was one of those who rode a covered wagon west with his family, post-Homestead Act, to the young state of South Dakota.

It was an almost sacred quest for land.  Until the Homestead Act, land ownership the world over had pretty much only been for the wealthy and well-bred, or for those who were willing to fight tooth and nail for it.  And now: ten dollars for a square quarter-mile of rich soil?  A tenspot for the chance to start over, make something of yourself, do what your parents had only dreamt of doing in the Old Country?  Inconceivable.

Hollywood would have us believe it was just as much a quest for freedom, adventure, and that soul-longing to watch the sun set over unpeopled hills.  Maybe it was for some.  But I wonder if most homesteaders wouldn't have identified more with the fright Willa Cather felt upon reaching the untamed, eerily quiet prairie which was to be her home.  She wrote this about the wagon journey she made as a young girl from Virginia to Nebraska:

"As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything--it was a kind of erasure of personality.  I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron."

The land grew on her, though.  Later she wrote: "We come and go, but the land is always here.  And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while."  Cather loved and understood better than most this land and its people.  Her books O Pioneers! and My Antonia are poignant portraits of homesteading life on "the divide" of south-central Nebraska.  Another deeply moving book I came across along these lines is Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag.  Of course, there's also the timeless Little House on the Prairie series.  And right now I'm savoring each page of The Dry Divide by Ralph Moody, which takes place around Oberlin, Kansas a good deal after homesteading days, but tells the same story: working the land as a means of survival--and falling in love with it in the process.

If I had a dime for every complaint I've heard from easterners (or westerners too, for that matter) about the topography of the rural Midwest--well, I'd have just about enough to buy a ranch there myself.  "It's so flat...there's nothing to look at...I got bored out of my mind driving across Nebraska...when I finally saw the Rockies ahead I promised myself I would never make that drive down I-70 again..."

Mindless complaining--we Americans have become experts at this.  I think such remarks do a disservice to both the pioneers and homesteaders of yesterday, and the farmers and ranchers of today.  Remember, one Kansas farmer feeds 129 people plus you.  And though $50,000 combines have replaced teams of horses pulling headers and binders, the love for the land is still alive and well.  If that love is beyond your understanding, read Cather.  Or at the very least, shut up.  My goodness, it felt good to write that.

I'm no agriculture guru; I didn't even grow up on a farm, which is what everyone assumes when they hear my roots are in South Dakota/Minnesota/Kansas.  But I do know the reserved, stalwart people of the Great Plains have a special place in my heart.  I know America is the better for its vast middle-section and its people who stick out tornadoes and drought and the lure of an easier life in the city.  And I know that right now I would give anything to hear the music of wind in wheat and see 180 degrees of blue sky--the same sky that greeted the courageous homesteaders 150 years ago.