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Homestead History
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K.N. Syverud log house built in 1886 near Osnabrock, North Dakota. Denver Public Library.
omesteaders found themselves converting belongings that did complete the journey into their household furnishings. Upended trunks served as wardrobes and dressers, packing boxes stuffed with pillows became trundle beds, and empty barrels were fashioned into rocking chairs. The wagon itself was often dismantled and used as either a part of the house or as furniture. Bertha Anderson, an early homesteader in Glendive, Montana, commented that the seating in her home was all "the ends of trees that had been sawed off straight." Another settler reported that the contents of his cabin were comprised of "a small table about three feet square, a wooden bench to sit on, a wooden bunk in one corner for a bed, a water bucket, two tin dishes, and a fry pan."

Bedding on the frontier was, predictably, less than luxurious. While some families hauled featherbeds and pillows to their new homes, many people had to create their beds on the frontier. The simplest beds were rough bunks, consisting of wooden planks supported by boards or pegs. These "sleeping shelves," which merely kept the sleeper off the floor, were simply covered over with blankets and quilts. Other homesteaders stuffed their own mattresses, utilizing materials that were readily available on the frontier, such as prairie grass or buffalo hair. However, one newspaper warned that "A bed of 'prairie feathers' [cut grass] is not very comfortable at any time, and warmth is not one of its inherent qualities." Regardless of what material they were stuffed with, homemade mattresses were placed on wooden frames, with "bedsprings" comprised of tightly stretched rope.

Toilet paper was an unheard-of luxury on the frontier. Most settlers used dry leaves or pages torn from catalogs and newspapers. "Modern" soft toilet paper was not introduced until 1907.
Despite the dire conditions of life in frontier houses, homesteaders often went out of their way to make their homes as appealing and comfortable as possible. In lieu of wallpaper, many settlers pasted layers of newspaper to the walls of their homes. This not only kept out drafts and insulated the house, but it enabled homesteaders to entertain themselves by literally "reading the walls." Homesteading women also took great pains to create curtains for the few windows that they had. Bertha Anderson gathered bits of cloth to weave into a rug for her home, and was ecstatic when the project was finally completed. Anderson later recorded that,

"The joy ... only lasted a week. And after it had rained a whole day, it began to leak through the roof. The girls woke me up by coming from their room as wet as drowned rats. Their nighties were clinging to them, and they cried to get into our bed, but that was not any better. The ceiling hung like a sack of mud. The poor carpet, which was supposed to be striped, had now faded, and the colors were gone, so it was a dirty mess. I even forget if we went to our beds again ... for sometimes it is a blessing to forget."

Even with a roof over their heads, homesteaders' lives never ceased to be a daily battle with weather and wilderness. Once their homes were built and furnished, they faced yet another struggle: sustaining their lives on a day to day basis, and putting food onto their rough-hewn tables.

If you would like to learn more about domestic life on the frontier, consider reading PIONEER WOMEN by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.)


Works Consulted:

Bettmann, Otto. THE GOOD OLD DAYS-THEY WERE TERRIBLE! New York: Random House, 1974.

Brown, Dee. THE GENTLE TAMERS. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

---. WONDROUS TIMES ON THE FRONTIER. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Dary, David. SEEKING PLEASURE IN THE OLD WEST. New York: Knopf, 1995.

MONTANA IN OUR OWN WORDS. Compiled by the Western Heritage Center and Anneke-Jan Boden. Western Heritage Center, Billings, Montana.

Peavy, Linda, and Smith, Ursula. THE GOLD RUSH WIDOWS OF LITTLE FALLS. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 1990.

---. PIONEER WOMEN. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

PIONEER MEMORIES. By the Pioneer Society of Sweet Grass County, Montana, 1960. From the collection of the Montana Historical Society.

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