Written by Christopher W. Czajka
Oh, you who lounge on your divans and sofas, and sleep on your fine luxurious beds know nothing of the life of a settler! Here we are sitting on a pine block, a log, or a bunk, sleeping in beds with either a quilt or a blanket as a substitute for sheets.
I can tell you it is very aristocratic to have a bed at all.
--Mrs. John Berry, settler,
in a letter to a friend "back east"
eaky roofs. Crumbling dirt walls. Paper-thin walls. Boggy earthen floors. Stifling heat and freezing cold. Little or no privacy. Infestation by rattlesnakes and mice. After completing the enormous task of raising four walls and a roof, homesteaders faced the equally enormous task of making their hastily-built homes livable. Faced with extremely limited resources, vital needs, and a hostile environment, settlers faced the process of "homemaking" with grim determination, ingenuity, and adaptability.
|Interior of an old-time ranch, Powder River. Montana Historical Society, Helena.
Obtaining water was, of course, a primary need for both sustaining homestead crops and the lives of the homesteaders themselves. The fastest-moving settlers staked their claims near rivers, streams, or springs, but these desirable "waterfront" homesteads quickly became unavailable. Most families had to dig wells.
Well water was usually drinkable ... initially. For the purposes of practicality, the well was usually located in close proximity to the homesteader's house. The homesteader's house was also often located in close proximity to the barn, the chicken coop, the outhouse, and the manure pile. Human and animal waste seeped into the earth, contaminating the well and making a "good cold dipperful of well water" less than appealing. Many families had to boil their well water to kill off contaminants.
When well-digging failed to reach water, families were forced to collect rainwater in barrels, cisterns, and pans. While this water was not exposed to the same contaminants as the well, it was soon infested with flies and mosquitoes, and covered with a fine layer of wind-blown dust that had to be skimmed from its surface before drinking.
Because of the scarcity of water, homesteaders conserved it (and recycled it) in ways that would be unthinkable to most 21st-century Americans. It was not uncommon for an entire family to take turns and bathe in a single tub of water. Bathing itself was usually limited to once a week, and following the family baths, the filthy bathwater was then used for light cleaning or heavy
laundry. To conserve even more water, many families did not wash or rinse their dishes ... so when a pioneer mother commanded her children to "clean their plates," she really meant business. In winter, melted snow supplemented the water supply.
||Moons were carved into the doors of women's outhouses, and stars were carved into the doors of men's outhouses. Men's outhouses were often dirty and poorly maintained. Over time, men began using the women's outhouse, and the star on the door was abandoned.
If wells, rain, and snow did not yield an adequate amount of water, homesteaders were forced to seek out the nearest water supply and haul back barrels of water in their ox or horse drawn wagons, adding one more task to the grinding day-to-day ordeal of homestead life. One frustrated homesteader, who gave up his claim before "proving up" time came, left the following bit of doggerel posted on the door of his abandoned shanty:
"One hundred miles to water
Twenty miles to wood
Six inches to hell
God bless our home
Gone to live with the wife's folks."