With the first tang of spring in the
air we cleaned the shack, put up fresh curtains and
did a little baking. Then we grew reckless and
went into an orgy of extravagance we took
a bath in the washtub. Wash basins were more
commensurate with the water supply. Then we scrubbed
the floor with the bath water. In one way and
another, the settlers managed to develop a million
square miles of frontier dirt without a bathtub on
For the first time we stopped to take
stock, to look ahead. For months there had been
time and energy for nothing but getting through the
winter. We had been too busy to discuss any plans
beyond the proving up.
“What are we going to do after
we prove up?” I asked, and Ida Mary shook her
head. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
In some ways it was a relief to have
the end in sight. I hated the minute routine
of putting a paper together, with one letter of type
at a time. I hated the hard mechanical work.
Most of our neighbors were proving up, going back.
But we realized, with a little shock of surprise,
that we did not want to go back. Imperceptibly
we had come to identify ourselves with the West; we
were a part of its life, it was a part of us.
Its hardships were more than compensated for by its
unshackled freedom. To go back now would be to
make a painful readjustment to city life; it would
mean hunting jobs, being tied to the weariness of
office routine. The opportunities for a full and
active life were infinitely greater here on the prairie.
There was a pleasant glow of possession in knowing
that the land beneath our feet was ours.
For a little while we faced uncertainly
the problem that other homesteaders were facing that
of going back, of trying to fit ourselves in again
to city ways. But the eagerness to return to city
life had gone. Then, too, there was something
in the invigorating winter air and bright sunshine
which had given me new resistance. There had been
a continuous round of going down, and coming back
with a second wind; but I had gained a little each
time and was stronger now than before.
In the mid-afternoon, after our orgy
of spring house-cleaning, with everything fresh and
clean, Ida Mary said, “Someone is coming straight
across our land.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
We had learned to recognize every horse in that part
of the country a mile away. But this was not a
We rushed into the shack and made
a mad scramble through the trunk, but before we could
get dressed there came a knock at the door. “Will
you wait a moment, please?” I called. It
was the custom of the plains for a man to wait outside
while his hostess dressed or put her house in order,
there being no corner where he could stay during the
process. If the weather prohibited outdoor waiting,
he could retire to the hayshed.
A pleasant voice said, “I’ll
be glad to wait.” But as I whispered, “Throw
me those slippers,” and Ida Mary said sotto
voce, “What dress shall I wear?” we
heard a muffled chuckle through the thin walls.
When we threw open the door to a slightly
built man with brown hair and a polished air about
him, I knew it was the cartoonist from Milwaukee.
Only a city man and an artist could look like that.
“How do you do, Mr. Van Leshout.”
“How did you know?” he said, as he came
“So you were a Lucky Number,
after all,” seemed a more appropriate response
than telling him that it was spring and something had
been bound to happen, something like the arrival of
a cartoonist from Milwaukee.
“Are you going to be a settler?” Ida Mary
He laughed. Yes, he had taken
a homestead close to the Sioux settlement so that
he could paint some Indian pictures.
Odd how we kept forgetting the Indians,
but up to now we hadn’t even seen one, nor were
we likely to, we thought, barricaded as they were in
their own settlement. “But they are wonderful,”
he assured us enthusiastically; “magnificent
people to paint; old, seamed faces and some really
beautiful young ones. Character, too, and glamor!”
We invited him to tea, but he explained
that he must get back to his claim before dark.
It was already too late, Imbert told him; he would
have to wait for the moon to rise. Imbert had
dropped in, as he had a habit of doing, and seeing
him through the eyes of an easterner we realized what
fascination the lives of these plainsmen had for city
In honor of the occasion we got out
the china cups, a wanton luxury on the plains, and
tea and cake. As they rode off, Van Leshout called
to us: “Come over to the shack. I
built it myself. You’ll know it by the
crepe on the door.”
As the two men melted into the darkness
we closed the door reluctantly against the soft spring
air. Strange that we had found prairie life dull!
One morning soon after the unexpected appearance of the
Milwaukee cartoonist I awoke to find the prairie in blossom. Only in the
spring is there color over that great expanse; but for a few weeks the grass is
green and the wild flowers bloom in delicate beauty anémones,
tiny white and yellow and pink blossoms wherever the
eye rests. I galloped to the print shop with
the wind blowing through my hair, rejoicing in the
sudden beauty, and found myself too much in holiday
mood to get to work.
Suddenly I looked up from the type
case to find an arresting figure in the doorway, a
middle-aged man with an air of power and authority
“I’m waiting for the stage,” he
said. “May I come in?”
I offered him the only chair there
was an upturned nail keg and
he sat down.
“Where do you come from?” he asked abruptly.
“St. Louis,” I said.
“But why come out here to run a newspaper?”
“I didn’t. I came to homestead with
my sister, but the job was here.”
Because he was amused at the idea,
because the function of these frontier papers seemed
unimportant to him, I began to argue the point, and
finally, thoroughly aroused, described the possibilities
which grew in my own mind as I discussed them.
There was a tremendous job for the frontier newspaper
to do, I pointed out. Did he know the extent of
this great homestead movement and the future it promised?
True, the frontier papers were small in size, but
they could become a power in the development of this
“How?” he demanded.
I think I fully realized it for the
first time myself then. “As a medium of
cooperation,” I told him.
He got up and walked to the window,
hands in pockets, and looked out over the prairie.
Then he turned around. “But the development
of this country is a gigantic enterprise,” he
protested. “It would require the backing
of corporations and millions of dollars. In fact,
it’s too big for any organization but the government
to tackle. It’s no job for a woman.”
His eyes twinkled as he contrasted my diminutive size
with the great expanse of undeveloped plains.
“What could you do?”
“Of course it’s big,”
I admitted, “and the settlers do need lots of
money. But they need cooperation, too. Their
own strength, acting together, counts more than you
know. And a newspaper could be made a voice for
“Utopian,” he decided.
Bill appeared at the door to tell
him that “The stage has been a-waitin’
ten minutes, now.”
He handed me his card, shook hands
and rushed out. I looked at the card: “Halbert
Donovan and Company, Brokers, Investment Bankers, New
York City.” The fact that such men were
coming into the country, looking it over, presaged
development. Not only the eyes of the landseekers
but those of industry and finance were turning west.
I stared after the stagecoach until
it was swallowed up in distance. My own phrases
kept coming back to me. There was a job to be
done, a job for a frontier newspaper, and soon the
McClure Press would be a thing of the past as
soon as the homesteaders had made proof. Slowly
an idea was taking shape.
I slammed the print-shop door shut,
mounted Pinto and loped home. I turned the horse
loose to graze and walked into the shack. With
my back against the door in a defensive attitude I
said abruptly, “I’m going to start a newspaper
on the reservation.”
Ida Mary slowly put down the bread
knife. “But where are you going to get
the money?” she asked practically.
“I don’t know, yet.
I have to plan what to do first, don’t I, and
then look around for a way to do it.” That
was the formula followed day after day by the settlers.
“It’s too bad you didn’t
register for a claim in the Drawing,” she said
thoughtfully. “After all, there is no reason
why you shouldn’t have a claim too.”
“I could still get a homestead
on the Brule,” I declared, “and I can run
the newspaper on the homestead.”
The more we discussed the plan the
more Ida Mary liked the idea of moving to the Strip
where so many new people would be coming. We would
work together, we planned, and the influence of the
newspaper would radiate all over the reservation.
But, it occurred to us, coming abruptly down to earth,
with no roads or telephones or mail service, how were
the settlers to receive the radiation?
This was a stickler, but having gone
so far with our plans we were reluctant to abandon
them. Where there was a newspaper there should
be a post office. Then we would start a post
office! Through it the land notices would be
received and the newspaper mailed to the subscribers.
The settlers could get the paper and their mail at
the same place. We decided that Ida Mary would
run it. Somehow it did not occur to us that the
government has something to say about post offices
and who shall run them. Or that the government
might not want to put a post office on my homestead
just to be obliging.
But once a person has learned to master
difficulties as they come up, he begins to feel he
can handle anything; so Ida took her final proof receipt
to a loan office in Presho.
“How much can I borrow on this?”
she asked, handing it to the agent.
“Oh, about eight hundred dollars.”
“That isn’t enough.
Most homesteaders are getting a thousand-dollar loan
when they prove up.”
“Yes, but your land’s
a mile long and only a quarter wide
Ida Mary was not easily bluffed.
She reached for the receipt. “I’ll
try Sedgwick at the bank.”
“We’ll make it nine hundred,”
the agent said, “but not a cent more. I
know that quarter section; it’s pretty rough.”
Homesteading was no longer a precarious
venture. A homesteader could borrow $1000 on
almost any quarter-section in the West more
on good land, well located. It was a criminal
offense to sell or mortgage government land, but who
could wait six months or a year for the government
to issue a patent (deed) to the land? Many of
the settlers must borrow money to make proof.
So the homestead loan business became a sleight-of-hand
The homesteader could not get this
receipt of title until he paid the Land Office for
the land, and he could not pay for the land until he
had the receipt to turn over to the loan agent.
So it was all done simultaneously money,
mortgages, final-proof receipts; like juggling half
a dozen balls in the air at once. It was one of
the most ingenious methods of finance in operation.
Banks and loan companies went into operation to handle
homestead loans, and eastern capital began flowing
in for the purpose.
Being familiar with Land Office procedure
from my work on the McClure Press, I knew that
not every winner of a claim on the Lower Brule reservation
would come to prove it up. A few of them would
relinquish their rights. The buying and selling
of relinquishments, in fact, became a big business
for the land agents. There was a mad rush for
relinquishments on the Strip, where landseekers were
paying as high as $1000 to $1200 for the right to
file on a claim.
I wanted a relinquishment on the reservation,
in the very center of it, and I found one for $400.
Then I made a deal with a printing
equipment firm for a small plant a new
one! And, although there were only a dozen settlers
or so on the land, I pledged 400 proof notices as
These proofs at $5 apiece were as
sure as government bonds; that is, if the settlers
on the Brule stayed long enough to prove up, if the
newspaper lived, and if no one else started a paper
in competition. But on that score the printers’
supply company was satisfied. Its officers thought
there was no danger of anyone else trailing an outfit
into that region.
We arranged for straight credit on
lumber for a print shop, there being nothing left
to mortgage. From now on we were dealing in futures.
In just two short weeks I had become a reckless plunger,
aided and abetted by Ida Mary. The whole West
was gambling on the homesteaders’ making good.
Long we hesitated over the letter
home, telling of our new plans. Under the new
laws, one must stay on a claim fourteen months, instead
of the eight months required when Ida Mary had filed.
At last we wrote to explain that we were not coming
home this spring. We were going on to a new frontier.
Earnestly as we believed in the plans
we had made, it was hard to make that letter carry
our convictions, difficult to explain the logic of
our moving to an Indian reservation so that Ida Mary
could run a non-existent post office in order to mail
copies of a non-existent newspaper to non-existent
settlers. Looking at it like that, we were acting
in blind faith.
And one day a funny little caravan
made its way across the prairie, breaking a new trail
as it went. A shack with a team hitched to it,
a wagon loaded with immigrant goods; and a printing
press; ahead, leading the way, a girl on horseback.
Again it was Huey Dunn who jacked
up our old shack that morning when the term of school
was over and put it on wheels for the trip to the
reservation twelve miles around by McClure,
a few miles closer by a short-cut across the plains.
Huey decided on the latter way, and I rode on ahead
to see that the load of printing equipment should be
put on the right quarter-section, while Ida Mary came
in the shack. She sat in the rocking chair, gazing
placidly out of the window as it made its way slowly
across the plains.
We had hired two homesteaders to haul
out lumber and put up a small building for the newspaper
and post office, although we had not yet got the necessary
petition signed for a post office. We could not
do that before the settlers arrived. A small
shed room was built a few feet from the business structure
as a lean-to for our migratory shack.
When I arrived at the claim the men
who had hauled out the load of equipment were gone.
Suddenly there came on one of those torrential downpours
that often deluge the dry plains in spring. It
was pitch black as night came on, and no sight of
Huey and Ida Mary. The rain stopped at length.
Throwing on a sweater, I paced back and forth through
the dripping grass listening for the sound of the
horses. At last I went back and crouched over
the fire in the little lean-to, waiting. There
was nothing else I could do.
At midnight Huey arrived with the
shack. He and Ida Mary were cold and wet and
hungry. They had not had a bite to eat since early
morning. Just as they had reached Cedar Creek,
usually a little dry furrow in the earth, a flood
of water came rushing in a torrent, making a mad, swollen
stream that spread rapidly, and they were caught in
it. When they got in the middle of the stream
the shack began to fill with water. Huey grabbed
Ida Mary and got her on one horse while he mounted
the other, and the horses swam to land.
The next morning the sun came out,
flooding the new-washed plains. It was a different
world from the harsh, drab prairie to which we had
come eight months ago. Here the earth was a soft
green carpet, heavily sprinkled with spring flowers,
white and lavender hyacinths, bluebells, blossoms
flaming red, yellow and blue, and snow-white, waxen
flowers that wither at the touch and yet bloom on
the hard desert.
Huey Dunn squared the migratory shack
and rolled the wheels from under. And there in
the Land of the Burnt Thigh, the Indians’ name
for the Brule, I filed my claim and started a newspaper.
The only woman, so it was recorded, ever to establish
a newspaper on an Indian reservation. And if
one were to pick up the first issues of that newspaper
he would see under the publisher’s name, “Published
on Section 31, Township 108 North, Range 77W, of the
5th Principal Meridian,” the only way of describing
Ida’s claim had seemed to us
at first sight to be in the midst of nowhere.
Compared to this, it had been in a flourishing neighborhood.
For here there was nothing but the land waiting.
No sign of habitation, no living thing yes,
an antelope standing rigid against the horizon.
For a terrified moment it seemed that there could be
no future here only time. And Ida
Mary and I shrank from two very confident young women
to two very young and frightened girls.
But there was work to be done.
Our tar-covered cabin sat parallel to and perhaps
ten feet from the drop-siding print shop a
crude store building 12 x 24 feet, which we called
the Brule business block. We had a side door
put on near the back end of each building so that we
could slip easily from house to shop. We did
a little remodeling of our old shack. Befitting
our new position as business leaders, we built a 6
x 8 shed-roof kitchen onto the back of the shack and
a clothes closet in one end of it; we even bought
a little cookstove with an oven in it.
One morning we saw a team and wagon
angling across the Strip toward our place. Upon
the top of the wagon there perched a high rectangular
object, a funny-looking thing, bobbing up and down
as the wagon jolted over the rough ground. It
was Harvey with the outhouse. There was nothing
left now on Ida Mary’s claim but the mortgage.
Confronted suddenly by so many problems
of getting started, I stood “just plumb flabbergasted,”
as Coyote Cal, a cowpuncher, always remarked when
unexpectedly confronted by a group of women.
And yet I knew what I wanted to do.
I had known since the day I heard myself telling the
New York broker. An obscure little newspaper in
a desolate homestead country: but, given courage
enough, that little printing outfit would be a tool,
a voice for the people’s needs. It was
a gigantic task, this taming of the frontier.
And meantime, getting down to reality,
I had a newspaper without a country, without a living
thing but prairie dogs and rattlesnakes to read it.
And around us a hundred thousand acres on which no
furrow had ever been turned.
We did not know where to begin.
There wasn’t a piece of kindling wood on the
whole reservation. We had brought what food and
water we could with us. Food, fuel, water.
Those were basic problems that had to be met.
And then, within a week, almost imperceptibly,
a change began to come over the reservation.
The Lucky Numbers were coming onto the land. On
the claim to the west a house went up and wagons of
immigrant goods were unloaded. Ida Mary rode
over one evening and found that our new neighbor was
a farmer, Christopher Christopherson, from Minnesota.
He had brought plows and work horses and was ready
to break sod, another example of the farmers who were
leaving the settled states for cheap land farther
Mrs. Christopherson was a thrifty
Swedish farm woman who would manage well. There
was a big family of children, and each child old enough
to work was given work to do.
Around us new settlers were arriving
daily and we felt that the time had come to start
out among them with our post-office petition.
With Pinto as our only means of transportation it
proved to be a slow job.
One day, dropping suddenly down off
the tableland into a draw, I came squarely upon a
shack. I rode up, and an old white-whiskered man
invited me in. His wife, a gray-haired, sharp-featured
woman, appeared to me much younger than he. I
explained my errand.
“For mercy sake,” the
woman said, “here you are starting a post office
and I thought you was one of them high-falutin’
city homesteaders a rec-connoiterin’ around.
Listen to that, Pa, a post office in four miles of
The woman put out a clean cup and
plate. “Set up,” she said. “We
ain’t signing any petition till you’ve
had your dinner. There’s plenty of biscuit.
I stirred up an extry cup of flour and I said to Pa,
’They’ll be et!’”
I ate salt pork, biscuit and sorghum while she talked.
“So you’re going to handle
newspapers too. Oh, print one!” She sighed.
“Seems to me that would be a pestiferous job.
We’re going to have a newspaper out here, Pa,
did you ever ?” Pa never did.
Where had I seen these two old people
before, and heard this woman talk?
“Where you from?” she
asked, but before I could answer, she went on, “We’re
from Blue Springs.”
Pa wrote “David H. Wagor” on the petition.
One morning Imbert Miller came with
his team and buggy to take us out into a more remote
district to get signers. We found two or three
farmers, a couple of business men with their families,
and several young bachelors, each building the regular
rough-lumber shack. They were surprised and elated
over the prospect of a post office.
After wandering over a long vacant
stretch, Imbert began to look for a place where he
could feed the horses and get us some food. At
last we saw bright new lumber glistening in the sun.
As we drove up to the crudely built cabin we saw an
emblem painted on the front a big black
circle with the letter V in it, and underneath, the
word “Rancho.” Standing before the
open doorway was an easel with a half-finished Indian
head on it.
“Van Leshout’s!” Ida Mary exclaimed.
He came out, unshaven, and sweeping
an old paint-daubed hat from his head with a low bow.
“It’s been years since I saw a human being,”
he exclaimed. “You’ll want grub.”
Building a cabin, learning to prepare
his own meals, getting accustomed to solitude were
new experiences for the cartoonist from Milwaukee.
“Not many courses,” he
said, as he dragged the spuds out from under the bunk;
“just two b’iled potatoes, first
course; flapjacks and ’lasses, second course;
“You’ve discovered the
Indians,” we said, pointing to the canvas.
The Indians, yes, but they hadn’t
been much of a cure for loneliness. What were
we doing on the reservation?
We brought out the post-office petition
and told him about the newspaper. I explained
that I had filed on a claim on the reservation.
“I looked for the crepe on the
door as we drove up,” I told him.
“You have a claim on the reservation?
To hell with the crepe!” he said in high spirits.
On the road home, seeing Imbert’s
elation, it occurred to me that I had never taken
into consideration the fact that Imbert Miller lived
near the borders of the reservation and that the “fence”
would not separate him from Ida Mary now. How
deeply she had weighed the question I did not know.
We sent in the post-office petition
and the federal authorities promptly established a
post office for the Lower Brule on my homestead and
appointed Ida Mary postmistress. She was the only
woman ever to run a post office on an Indian reservation,
the data gatherers said. The government named
So we had a postmistress and a post
office, with its tiers of empty, homemade pigeonholes
ready to receive the mail.
And we discovered there was no way
to get any mail in or out!