Tomorrow I will return to daily posts on writing in support of NaNoWriMo participants and other writers, but today I have something special to share, also related to writing and especially pertinent this year.
As I’ve written about here before, my great aunt Harriet (Hattie) Whitcher, a Great Plains homesteader and part Native woman on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, kept a daily diary for most of her adult life, from 1920 through much of 1957. One of her entries that I treasure most is from November 2, 1920. At the time, she and her husband, Will, lived about a mile outside Spencer, Nebraska:
1920 Nov. 1st Monday
It was windy and snowed all day but in eve stopped. Will could only do the chores but I cleaned part of basement and it was cold all day.
Nov. 2nd Tuesday
Was a bright day all day and snow melted a little. Will took me to Spencer as Mamma was sick and I staid until eve and he came for me. Will went to Brad’s for dinner as he & Mr. went hunting. I voted at Spencer Polls for the first time. [emphasis added]
Hattie often capitalized nouns that were important to her (e.g., “Spencer Polls”)—held over from a common practice of the 18th and 19th centuries. The 19th Amendment would have been ratified only 76 days earlier, on August 18, 1920, and knowing Hattie from reading her 37 years of diary entries, I am certain she would have looked forward with excitement to exercising her right for the first time at the age of 39,
This particular presidential election was between Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin Roosevelt. While Hattie does not mention whom she voted for in 1920, she would later become an ardent supporter of FDR, writing often of listening to his radio speeches and noting the anniversary of his death for years afterward.
I often think of how Hattie’s life would have been different had she lived in a different time or place. She was smart, sensitive, and keenly interested in politics both local and global. In later years, she complained in her diary that the women of the Legion Auxiliary of which she was a member spent more time “fussing over” children than dealing with business, and noted with impatience that the “men are right on to ropes of Legion stuff and continue to have their same officers” while the ladies often “just visited.” She often felt frustrated and outnumbered by the male voices around her, such as when, at a community meeting, “all the men were upset because I wanted a higher school at Hidden Timber [the local community], and I am in for making them prove their charges against the referendum, but I guess the day was spent in vain.”
Whenever I feel too tired or uninspired or simply lazy to write, I try to remember Hattie, who poured her experiences and heart and soul into 77 volumes as she chronicled the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, World War II, Korean War, and progress in transportation and everyday life that must have seemed, at times, magical.
When I was young, my mother and my grandmothers always kept a tin can or jar of cooking fat on or beside the oven. Every time they cooked meat, they strained the leftover fat into the jar, to be used again for another meal, often to make gravy for mashed potatoes.
The memory popped into my mind yesterday when transcribing my great aunt Hattie’s diary entry for September 14, 1945 (full diary entry at the end of the post).
[Will] went to Whiting Store last eve to get mail and Sadie gave him 1 doz. eggs because we gave lard in this scarcity of fats. ~ September 14, 1945
It turns out that my mother’s can beside the stove had a specific origin. Generations of women who lived through and grew up during World War II learned to save and re-use cooking fats from bacon and other meats because oil and butter were strictly rationed and in short supply. Households were also encouraged by the government to donate or sell their waste fats to their local butcher, to be used to make explosives for the war effort.
And this is why Hattie and Will sent their lard to the Whiting Store, and why they received one dozen eggs—and “Tomatoes (Fresh)”—in return. Read her full diary entry below.
Don’t forget to read all of the posts in the #30PostsHathSept Blogging Challenge!
The summer of 1936 was one of heat, drought, dust, and desperation. July of that year continues to be (for now) the warmest July on record for the United States. The 1936 heat wave merits its own Wikipedia entry and has the dubious distinction of being on many “worst heat waves of all time” lists. As many as 5000 people died. Crops failed. Livelihoods were ruined.
Statistics and lists tell one part of the story, but what was daily life really like when temperatures rose to triple digits before the age of air conditioning or widespread electricity?
We can glean some clues from letters and diaries of the time. Hattie Whitcher, a homesteader who lived with her husband, Will, near Hidden Timber, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, kept a daily diary for over 37 years, and this is how she tells the story of the summer of 1936.
The heat wave began in June. When Hattie writes on June 18th, “Bright, hot, dusty, South wind until towards eve clouds from the north but no rain…” she could have had no idea how often she would write similar words in the coming weeks.
June ended with a welcomed rain and hail storm, but relief didn’t last long.
Then, on July 5th, the temperature soared—to as high as 120° F in Gann Valley, South Dakota (currently the nation’s smallest county seat), tied with Usta’s 120° reading in 2006 for the highest recorded temperature ever in the state.
Staying home on this sweltering day was not an option for the Whitchers. Hattie’s extended family was very large, even for the time period. She was the oldest of ten children, and her brother Jake would eventually have 18 children of his own. His oldest child, Lawrence, was to be married the next day north of Kyle, South Dakota, so Hattie and Will would spend July 5th traveling with Jake, his wife, Cora, and two of their youngest children—Raymond, age 3, and George, 13 months—to the wedding. (Read Lawrence’s obituary from the Rapid City Journal—scroll down to a little more than half way down the page).
Kyle, on the Pine Ridge Reservation and at the edge of the Badlands, is over 100 miles from Hidden Timber and eleven miles from the official North American continental pole of inaccessibility, or the most remote area geographically from any coastline. The group of travelers left after breakfast and most probably made the journey in the Whitchers’ Chevrolet Sedan, which they had bought used a couple of years earlier from a neighbor.
The car balked in the hot sun. They ran low on water. Will (as did so many others that summer) got sick from the heat. But upon their arrival at sundown, they were served cool spring water (“was wonderful”) and cold milk. They slept outside under some trees, and the “moon shone all night.” The transcript below is slightly abridged and paragraphs and minor changes added for ease of reading. Read the originals here and here.
1936 July 5th Sunday: Another bright, hot day, a few clouds west of Martin and a sprinkle of rain on us but otherwise was too hot to travel for our car balked on us at Vetal in Bennett Co. and nearly every time we stopped Jake and Will had to fuss with it and prime it. Will got a bottle that had acid in it and had some gas put in it and it burnt his shirt-sleeve and one glove. This happened at Vetal.
We had dinner at Martin, went to Brennan (Wounded Knee) Store, got water, stopped at observation tower wind-mill at Porcupine Buttes, got gas down the Creek, got water at a spring towards Rocky-Ford, stopped at Rocky Ford. Saw George and Florence Clifford also George Clifford of the Rocky Ford Store, [could not] fix car here, so went on to a store at White River Bridge, got a lunch there, went on through the Sandhills after leaving Charles Cliffords, where we got water to drink and put in the car.
The car balked on us after leaving Charles Cliffords and Will was sick from too much heat but he and Jake got the car up a sand-hill and Cora and I. Raymond and she carried George up the hill and we were short on water, but got to John Cliffords just at Sun-down, they ate outside and gave us some supper, they have a cool spring so the water was wonderful and they had cold milk for us to drink. Lawrence Whiting was there for he went from St. Francis with Bill Smith Friday p.m. to get ready to marry Martha Clifford, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Clifford, where we are.
The following photo from 1936 of a U.S. Resettlement Administration work camp in the Badlands gives an indication of the landscape not far from Kyle during the Depression years.
July 6th: The temperature is 110 and 114 and yesterday got to 116. Bright, hot a South wind blew the dust out off the White River Bed towards John Clifford’s, for there is no water in it up there.
Everybody slept out-side, for the beds were there and moon shone all night, it was hot until towards morning. Will and I slept on a cot north of the house near some trees and Jake & Cora and children slept in [a] bed near [the] house. Some slept in wagon and Hay-rack and another bed outside and George, Florence, Laverne, Collins and Tommy slept on the ground.
Most of the folks went to early Mass and we all went to 10 o’clock Mass for Lawrence & Martha [were] married then. A big dinner.
Hattie and Will left for their return journey at 4 p.m. on July 6th and arrived home at 11:30 p.m. that night.
An interesting side note is that on Sunday Hattie writes of seeing “a Balloon moving N.E. [of] Rosebud when we saw it and landed at Presho, Lyman Co., So. Dak.” This would have been the 24th annual national balloon race, originating in Denver. According to a newspaper account at the time the winning balloon, Goodyear X, landed “at Presho, S.D., approximately 385 miles from Denver. [The pilot] was the only one of the five balloonists who took-off here Friday night to find good fortune in variable winds which kept the others from drifting out of the state” (Lawrence Journal-World, July 6, 1936, “Trotter Is the Apparent Winner in Balloon Race”).
Still the Wind Blows
On July 31st, Will helped Hattie rinse the clothes and put them on the line “in all the wind and down they came when post broke so Will had to get more water to rinse them over and we got them dry.” Washing clothes before modern appliances was time-consuming under the best conditions—each washing required hauling in water then boiling it inside an often already overheated kitchen—but in the 1930s, the constant dust meant that clothes never stayed cleaned for long.
Hattie ushers in August with the words “Still the wind blows.”
The Dust Bowl had already stripped much of the Plains states bare. This historic photo taken in Dallas, South Dakota, is from May of 1936.
The combination of wind, drought, and lightning made fire a constant danger that summer. On August 10th, for example, when a dust storm caused Hattie to “get clothes in in a hurry,” two fires broke out, the second in a nearby pasture. “[T]he men went and about 75 other cars so after it burnt a half mile wide and 1 1/2 miles long they got it out but I [stayed] at home and worried.” Click on the image below to read the full entry.
Speeding to Idaho
The Whitchers were lucky. Their farm didn’t burn down. They were able to stay on their land through the 1930s. But not all of their neighbors could say the same. While John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath and the subsequent film starring Henry Fonda have informed generations about the rural westward migration from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, many people do not know that “drought refugees” also left the Dakotas in search of a new start. Hattie wrote of one neighboring family as “speeding on their way to Idaho.”
The following photo bears the caption, “Vernon Evans (with his family) of Lemmon, South Dakota, near Missoula, Montana on Highway 10. Leaving grasshopper-ridden and drought-stricken area for a new start in Oregon or Washington. Expects to arrive at Yakima in time for hop picking. Live in tent. Makes about two hundred miles a day in Model T Ford.”
In the end, what do we learn from diaries like Hattie’s? Of course, there are the almost unimaginable daily struggles of getting food on the table in heat and dust, keeping farm equipment running and livestock healthy, and staying one step ahead of illness and injury.
Just as important, though, we see the diligence and optimism required to hang on to a sense of normalcy in extraordinary circumstances. While Hattie is honest about the difficulties, at the same time she continually seeks out pockets of goodness and gratitude, whether an unexpected cool morning after a rainstorm or a glass of chilled milk at the end of a day-long desert trek or the pleasure of conversation with family and friends, something she always treasured. She never loses her sense of adventure.
On July 21st, Will turned 45. It was, of course, another hot day, “so dry,” and a regular work day for Will, who “finished the dishes” before they drove to a neighbor’s place to see about getting fireguards plowed, went to a nearby town to get the spark plugs in their car cleaned, stopped at the Rosebud Hospital only to find that the doctor was not there (Hattie was supposed to be checked in that day for a goiter operation), and attended a Council Meeting before coming home.
The next day, Hattie writes, “Yesterday was Will’s Birthday and I gave him some taps after he went to bed and he was too tired so only scolded me.”
Ten years older than her husband, Harriet celebrated her birthday three days later, on July 24th: “Another bright hot day, wind from S.W.” She worked at home doing the washing and getting the meals. She writes of Will’s putting up hay stacks, “2 big-stacks and 1 small one,” caring for the cattle, and taking a bull that had got out back to pasture. Some neighbors visited in the evening.
“This is my Birthday,” she concludes her entry, “and I felt pretty-good.”
Hattie’s diary entry from 80 years ago today speaks to the unpredictability and ferocity of the Dust Bowl, which many people don’t realize extended as far north as the Dakotas. An article in the next day’s Nebraska Beatrice Daily Sun stated that the storm left a coating of “dust an eighth of an inch deep in less than 10 minutes.”
Hattie’s diary from Thursday, July 5, 1934:
“Bright, cool early a.m. then very warm out of N.E., then S.E. breeze, the wind changed to S.W. in afternoon then N.W., clouded in North and South and rain there but only a very severe dust-storm down Antelope Valley. Will and I [were] in the dust-storm from Jim Mann’s to Pat Karnes’ Corner west of store and it was so dark we couldn’t see at times, finally car got so full [of] sand we [were] stalled and wind and dust quit so Ben Elliott family came along and they tied us on and we got started again, stopped at store for mail and Ralph Armbruster came home with us and took Elmer’s Car back to have it fixed. Elmer was riding out on stock and he laid on Ground and held his saddle horse during dust-storm. Maggie at home and she went to the basement during storm. No rain here…. Maggie did the work and canned the beef we got from Ed last eve and she cleaned the downstairs but it was all dust in late p.m. again.” [emphases added]
Watch Ken Burns discuss the making of his PBS documentary The Dust Bowl:
As the Fourth of July approaches, I thought you might enjoy a re-posting of a few excerpted July 4 entries from various years of my Great Aunt Hattie’s diaries. All of the entries below were written from her farm and ranch in Hidden Timber, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and here is a video version of Hattie’s experience of the Glorious Fourth of July, 1933:
Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher was a writer, although I’m not sure she thought of herself as one. Many of her entries are written in the kind of shorthand one uses when writing only for oneself, but she never failed to notice and record details that most people miss. One of the touching aspects of the following entries is that they show how the active and wide community that she loved in the first years of her marriage slowly changed as she and her husband, Will, aged (they did not raise any children of their own), so that, by the end of Hattie’s life, she often missed the companionship of traveling with neighbors to races and ball games, horse shows and picnics.
All of the photos below and in the video above are from the July 4th, 1933 celebration at O’Kreek, South Dakota, and were most probably taken by Maggie Gehlsen, who was a live-in helper to Hattie at the time.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Enjoy.
July 4, 1933: Barbecue, Program, Clowns, Music by Orchestra, Indian dances, ball game, O’Kreek vs. Wood and O’Kreek won, races, Kitten-ball, dance in evening with orchestra (The Four Aces or Bailey’s) and a wonderful crowd. I saw Mrs. Charles Sinclair (Edith Brownfield) and boys of Winner as they were at the Celebration with Carl Anderson’s. We ate only sandwiches from the stand and ice cream and pop in the evening.
July 4, 1939: Bright, hot, and south wind real strong, clouded in S.W. and a regular dust storm for awhile in afternoon. Le Moyne chored and went home horseback on Gold Dust, and came back at 3 p.m., and he said there was a real dust storm here, and Will and I went to Abbotts at 11 a.m. They got ready and filled our car with gas from their barrel, so we all went to White River, via O’Kreek and Mission, and was a real dust storm there, could scarcely see horse racing, calf roping, and no ball game until as we were leaving grounds, Murdo and Wood started to play.
We got home at 6:30 p.m. and all clouds were gone to the east, no rain here, but a beautiful evening. A large crowd of people at White River to a Free Celebration of the 4th of July.
July 4, 1934: This is the Glorious Fourth of July. North wind, dusty but bright until I p.m., was cloudy during Hidden Timber ball-game between part of Longview and Hidden Timber, rest substitutes, and a few sprinkles of rain then clear eve.
After morning work Elmer took Maggie to Armbusters, and she and Rita went in Carl Gehlsen’s Car to Sell’s, and Elmer, Carl, Mary and Josephine Armbuster went to Valentine Celebration. Harry and Louise and family came and the men made ice-cream. We ate dinner and went to Hidden Timber Celebration, back in evening and Ed, Rena and Yvonne were here butchering an E. R. A. calf gotten at Boarding School. Harry got a quarter, also we did, all went home.
July 4, 1942: I put things, quilts, pillows, a stool, some lunch and dishes and clothes in suitcase. Washed all dishes. We left for O’Kreek, got tire fixed that went flat on Will coming from Valentine, went to Gregory S.D., saw the Ft. Meade, S.D. Soldiers Parade, then left for White Horse Ranch, south and east of Naper, Nebraska, about 6 miles southwest of The Point between the rivers, but first we crossed Niobrara Bridge south of Naper.
Folks were eating lunches or had finished, we came in from the west side of the place, was a large pasture and white horses in it, and an arena built northeast of trees, and large trees around the buildings. After trained white horses, cow and bull and dog performed by 5 girls and 4 boys, ages about 9 to 17 years old. They had a rodeo, but we went to the ranch buildings, then to Point, Butte, Spencer, then our old home, 1 mile down railroad track from Spencer.
July 4, 1943: Sun shone bright and nice in general until evening, then there was a real rain at Mission and east to north of Antelope Creek, for we got stuck in Charles Merchen’s yard, and Bob had to pull us out with their tractor to the highway east 1/2 mile, and Wm Van Epps, Floyd and Margie and Dean Totten, Wm Abbott, Mrs. Cora Ann, Billie, Delores and Mrs. Anderson (Rika), Mrs. Abbott’s mother, were behind us. They went off the road towards the ditch, but got out.
We started to have trouble in mud north of Sazamas. A bunch of young men pushed us up the hill. I think it was Sazamas. Then at Carl Andersons, Van Epps, Totten and Abbott pushed, south of River. Need never bothered. We got home from Boarding School Show, Road to Morocco, starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. Was a good show all in all. [Film clip below from Road to Morocco]
July 4, 1950: Rained and rained this forenoon, and it kind of quit in p.m. Sun was shining brightly when I got up from a nap at 4 p.m. Will lay down also as he has heart pains, so we had to stay home this late p.m. in such a beautiful part of the day, and I had such a lonesome feeling, felt as if we were entirely out of the world.
July 4, 1954: Bright, hot day but cool in Valentine Park. Lunch all fixed and in the car. Got ready, went to Rosebud, no one at Ball Park, so went on to Rosebud and looked around some, on to Valentine to Park to eat dinner, was nice, water from spring so cool. To Rodeo. Had supper at park. Up town to wait for drive-in, first to Fish Hatchery. Never saw anyone we know.