We had a motley array of neighbors. On one side a German who could scarce speak English married to a Bohemian who could speak little English and no German; on another side a family of Swedes fresh from the old country; on an adjoining farm a Scotsman with a Missouri wife; nearby a family from Iowa; another family from Illinois; some old, some young; some illiterate, some well educated; yet all engaged in the same enterprise.
As more and more railroads expanded into the West, an intense competition began. Settlers were sought who would provide business for their freight trains, and buy the land the railroads had been given as government subsidies. "You can lay track to the garden of Eden," said the head of the Northern Pacific, "but what good is it if the only inhabitants are Adam and Eve."
Western states also contended with one another for new residents. Since 1862, the Homestead Act had promised 160 acres of public land to any person who filed a claim, paid a ten-dollar fee, and agreed to work the property for five years.
In the 1870's, Kansas grew by more than half a million people. Nebraska's population quadrupled. Two hundred Scottish families settled on the Kansas-Nebraska border. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society lured Jews from eastern Europe to Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, the Dakotas. German-Russian Mennonites; Swedish, Dutch, French, Bohemian, Irish, and Norwegian families were soon scattered across the plains.
the villages of Europe you might be only a few steps away from your neighbors,
certainly within hearing distance. You could hear the village's church
bells ringing on a Sunday morning. Suddenly, here they were isolated many
miles from neighbors and from villages with long periods of time between
any kind of interaction. They had "wind sickness," they called it, from
the constant blowing of the wind, they planted trees around their houses
not simply for the shade or for the beauty, but to protect them from the
immensity of the landscape."
They started towns like Lindsborg and Hoffnungsthal, New Alexanderwohl and Dannebrog -- some with the same street plans as their old villages in Europe. And they planted wheat they had brought along from as far away as Russia. It flourished as no other domestic crop ever had before on the semi-arid Plains, and would one day help make the United States the agricultural wonder of the world.
men had farmed in many cases most of their lives, but they had to struggle
against roots and rocks and all these things that made farming difficult.
They looked around them here, and there were thousands, tens of thousands,
hundreds of thousands of acres without a root or a rock. They could put
their plow in the ground and go miles and miles straight ahead without
worrying about a hill. This was grass ground, earth that had never been
turned in all of history except by maybe a buffalo's horn. They said the
first time a plow went through that ground, it sounded like the opening
of a giant zipper from the grass roots tearing as the plow went through
it. To them, this was a dream come true."
seldom stop to think how desperately lonely it was. One of the tales I
like the best was about a woman who lived out in West Texas. She seldom
saw anybody up in the Panhandle. A cowboy came through one time and brought
her a sack that had three chickens in it. And she could not bring herself
to kill those chickens. She said, "You will never know what good company
they were." There was some core of that woman that embraced this raw country.
But you see it was her lot, her husband goes off to round up the cattle,
whatever adventure that he might have been on, and it was her lot to keep
the homestead, to run the ranch, to care for his family. And so I think
of that woman often with those three chickens. And I bet they were good
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA