Women Folks

Today I went back into history.  I visited a log cabin, now empty and abandoned, but the stillness echoes the past. I tried to visualize where was the cupboard, the table, the bed.  Maybe they hung a utensil, or a calendar or an important paper on the nail, maybe they made a line for clothes on these nails.  Not very large, one window, one door, a dirt floor, but it was home and it was hand hewn.

Today I walked in the Opheim Cemetery.  I walked where Opheims had trod 102 years before me, and I could see and feel the beauty of the land.  In 1879 they were the first and they picked this spot over all others.

The housewives of the prairie were busy, caring for children, washing, baking, cleaning, sewing, doing outside chores and even working in the fields.  Frontier people did not indulge in self-pity.  They only complained if the hard work failed to produce a decent living.

The homes built at first were a sod house, log house or shanty.  The sod houses were usually one room with only one opening for a door, and no floor.  The roofs were usually not so tight and after a heavy rain, bedding and clothing had to be hung out to dry.  The walls of the interior of the sod homes were brightened by using a lime or white clay mixture, or if that was not available, the walls were papered with copies of magazines.  Each spring they could be repapered.  A sod house could be built without mortar, square, plumb or greenbacks.

Log cabins could be built at a cost of 25 to 100 dollars, and usually consisted of one large room with sleeping space in the loft.  These were substantially better than the sod huts and so people lived in them for a longer period of time.  Then the wood frame homes were built.

As an example, the Fuglestads lived in three types of homes; sod, log and frame.  Their semi-sod house was built tighter than most so only once in the eight years they lived in it did the roof leak and that was during a cloudburst. The walls were 8 to 12 inches thick, and with this double thick wall the home was quite comfortable.  Even when the fire went out at night during the winter, the water in the pall never froze.  The Fuglestads lived in the sod house from 1883 to 1891 when they built a log house.  That was their home until 1905 when they built a modern wood frame house.  They added on to their log house three times in that time.

The homes were not only small and inexpensive according to today's homes but they were meagerly furnished.  The furniture was usually hand made, or wooden boxes were used.  The mattresses were usually straw ticks.  The ticks were filled with new straw each threshing season.

The homes were not warm.  The same stove was used for heating and cooking.  Fuel was anything available; wood, cow chips, twisted straw.

The cooking utensils in the average home were a cast iron kettle, cast iron skillet, tea kettle, coffee pot and a large iron soap kettle, plus the tin dishes used for eating.

Post offices were established at homes in the area.  The mail was important to the settlers.  It was their touch with the outside world.  One paper that was in all the Norwegian homes was the Decorah Posten, which had the adventures of Ola and Per printed in a comic strip.  Rural free delivery was established in 1893 and the catalogs of Sears and Wards brought the stores to the women.

The women raised the gardens to supply foodstuffs for the coming winter.  Food was preserved by canning and packing vegetables in sand and dirt.  Butchering was usually done after the cold weather came as the lack of refrigeration or any cooking system caused a constant struggle to keep meats.  Meat was preserved in two-quart jars, salted down in crock jars, or packed away in grain in granaries.  The grain acted as an insulator and meat could be frozen until May.  Meat was also cured and smoked.  The housewives would work many weeks taking care of the meat after butchering.  Lard was also rendered.  This was used to make soap and candles.

Women had to churn the butter for the family.  If any surplus was made they could sell it.

The chores that went with raising chickens were done by the housewives or the children.  Eggs had to be picked daily.  Before the days of chicken coops the hens would lay their eggs anywhere around the farm.  Chickens were also used for meat, and eggs were also used plentifully.  The chicken also was used as a barter.  The housewife could trade chickens for magazine subscriptions.  Agents for farm magazines drove Model T's with chicken crates tied behind.

Washing clothes was probably one of the worst chores for the women.  Water would have to be saved in barrels, or brought from the river or in the winter, melt snow.  Summer would not be so bad to dry clothes but in the winter, many women froze their fingers hanging clothes out, and then bringing the frozen clothes back into the house to dry.  Clothes were washed on the scrub board, a backbreaking job.  When the hand-powered washing machine was invented, it no doubt helped the housewife.  Children or whoever was available had to provide the power.

Even though a woman helped in the fields she was still expected to do the work in the home besides.

The workday of the woman began at 5 and her day usually was 13 hours long.  She had to haul the water, haul the wood, milk the cows and feed the chickens.  She seldom saw any money from the sale of wheat and livestock and the money from her butter, eggs and cream usually went to help pay the mortgage.

Women's work was so hard because of the limited number of manufactured products available or that she could afford to buy, no laborsaving appliances, the large families, and hired help she always had to cook for.

The prairie was hard on the women and it took its toll. 

Lorna Auren

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial Page 133

News & Events