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Homestead History
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uring the warm summer months picnics, or "basket socials," were extremely popular. Since the culture of bees often dictated that the host (whose work was being done) supply refreshments, picnics were an economical alternative. Picnics were especially popular on Independence Day, when homesteaders gathered together to celebrate living in a country where their "Uncle Sam" was rich enough to give them "free" land. Ida Newman, a Montana homesteader, remembered: "On our first Fourth of July in 1879, we had new potatoes and peas. All the bachelors came to the picnic, including Curly Rogers, Bill Brockway, Henry Colwell, and Joe Cockrane. The Declaration of Independence was read, and then everybody played ball."

frontier fact
Homesteaders often had to improvise their Christmas trees, using sagebrush, tumbleweeds, or willow bows in lieu of the traditional pine tree.
In addition to the food and drink, frontier picnics also featured races, speakers, games, and a variety of other amusements for young and old alike.

Many picnics culminated in dances, which drew settlers from near and far. Jennie C. Forsythe, who settled in Montana in the 1880s, commented that "The entire neighborhood would turn out for a dance at our house, and go as far as Hunter's Hot Springs or Melvin on horseback if one was being hosted there."

Advertisement for Stomach Bitters. Livingston Courier, 1880.
Lacking records, tapes, CDs, and stereo systems, settlers often had no choice but to create their own music. Even in the smallest and most isolated settlements, someone could usually be found to play the fiddle, harmonica, guitar, banjo, or makeshift instruments such as a washboard or spoons. In more populated areas, settlers could count on "a grand little orchestra" at community dances. Many of the songs enjoyed by settlers on the frontier -- such as "Skip to My Lou," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Buffalo Girls," and "Home on the Range" -- are still well-known today. Best of all, dances could be held at any time of year: settlers pushed their furniture to the walls and warmed themselves on cold winter nights by packing neighbors into "cabin dances." Mrs. Ed Adams, a Montana frontierswoman, recalled traveling to one of these exciting events:

"Hay, blankets, and buffalo robes, with hot rocks scattered throughout, were put in the bed of the big bob sled, with four horses attached to it. Usually, two men sat on the driver's seat, while the women and children were warm and comfy among the robes. There was little or no visible road through the snow, so some of the young men went on horseback as riders and guides. Those young men loomed as gallant as Sir Lancelot, as daring as Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, to the women in the sleds."

Like bees and picnics, dances sometimes attracted "the worst characters in the neighborhood." One historian has noted that many a frontier dance "came to an abrupt end with a drunken brawl."

There were many communities on the frontier where such careless imbibing and scandalous behavior were simply not tolerated. God-fearing homesteaders were firmly convinced that by encouraging physical contact between members of the opposite sex at dances, young people were destined for all sorts of lewd and licentious behavior. Joseph C. Woolley, a young pioneer, was not alone in his experience when he recorded in his trail diary, "Mother believes that the fiddle is an invention of the Devil to lure people to Hell."

In lieu of the immoral dances, settlers in more conservative communities held "play-parties," or, as they were sometimes jokingly referred to, "Presbyterian dances." Play parties featured all the elements of dances, except for the music. Participants played games which today might be found on elementary school playgrounds, such as Ring- Around-the-Rosy, Blind Man's Bluff, Drop the Handkerchief, and Cat Wants a Corner. Additionally, play-party goers sometimes maneuvered themselves through elaborate movement forms -- similar to square dancing -- while chanting verses, poems, and song lyrics. Apparently, as long as music was removed from the equation, the Devil was kept at bay. Page 2

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