Written by Christopher W. Czajka
"The only entertainment in those days were dances, basket socials, and the
occasional Christmas party. Each was an event, and all were enthusiastically
attended by everyone, young and old, within reasonable distance."
-- Anna Fowler Nelson, whose family settled in Montana in 1883
ne of the least discussed elements of frontier life is the enormous psychological toll it took on some homesteaders. What would now be referred to as a form of clinical depression was not an uncommon phenomenon on the plains and prairies. Weeks -- and months -- of total isolation, incredible loneliness, backbreaking work, physical discomfort, and struggling "to keep body and soul together" wore down many a homesteader, and drove some, quite literally, to the brink of insanity.
|The last rehearsal of the Easter program. Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota. Courtesy of the National Archive.
Overcoming loneliness and boredom were particular challenges for women on the frontier; their role as "angels of the home" kept them confined to their cabins and sod houses and limited the narrow social interaction often afforded to their male counterparts. It is no wonder, then, that when settlers got an opportunity to relax, socialize, and entertain, they did so with much enthusiasm and great gusto.
For many individuals and families on the frontier, reading was a great escape from their workaday lives. Almost everyone who had the ability read whatever they could get their hands on, from the Bible to classic works of literature to months-old newspapers and magazines. Mrs. Ed Adams, an early Montana settler, reported, "As soon as the children could understand stories, an hour was spent in the long winter evenings, just before bed time, when [we] read aloud all the good stories to be had at that time from ST. NICHOLAS, YOUTH'S COMPANION, and other magazines."
Newspaper and magazine subscriptions were wildly popular on the frontier, making an exciting event out of what was often a half-day trip on horseback to get the mail. Simultaneously, "continued stories," or serials, were a staple of nineteenth-century fiction. Read aloud to eager families, serials filled the void later occupied by radio and television soap operas. Settlers anxiously awaited "the next thrilling installment" of their favorite serials, which often continued for many months.
||Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde were among the authors who, when touring America, were outraged to discover unauthorized versions of their work in the hands of western settlers.
However, reading serials was not without its difficulties. One settler recalled:
"The weekly mail was always an uncertainty. We were never sure that we would be able to understand the next chapters in serial stories, which were our delight. I remember being very engrossed in one of Charles Reade's novels, the heroine of which was cast on a desert island ... the story was published in [a magazine called] EVERY SATURDAY, and at first it came weekly, but after we had become most deeply interested, five weeks passed during which not a single number was received, and we were left to imagine the sequel."
Whether it was a long-awaited magazine serial, Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES, or the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, reading provided settlers with a surefire strategy for combating the long and lonely evenings that they frequently spent alone.
The major impediment to recreation and leisure time on the frontier was, of course, the amount of work that had to be done to sustain day-to-day existence. Settlers developed a unique tradition to combine their most grueling tasks with pleasure: the bee. While most people are today are probably familiar with the cozy image of the quilting bee, in which pioneer women gathered to stitch the top, bottom, and stuffing of their heavy winter quilts together, bees were held in conjunction with a variety of cumbersome tasks, including corn husking, harvesting, barn-raising, and cabin-building. While the work was "divided and conquered," neighbors chatted, children played games, and everyone prepared for the big meal which usually came at the end of the day.
But since this was the "wild" West, even the most benign bees had the potential for exploding into rowdy merrymaking. Susanna Moodie, a settler born in Great Britain, noted, "People on the frontier have a craze for giving and going to bees, and run to them with as much eagerness as a peasant runs to a race-course or a fair É plenty of strong drink and excitement are the chief attractions of the bee É they are often noisy, riotous, drunken meetings, often terminating in violent quarrels, and even in bloodshed."