Life On Prairie Farms - EV Smalley
The recurrent farm problems of the nineteenth century were usually described in political and economic terms, but there were also social difficulties imposed by the solitary nature of farm life. One attempt at a solution was the following proposal by journalist E. V. Smalley, who called for a complete reorganization of rural villages.
1. In no civilized country have the cultivators of the soil adapted their home life so badly to the conditions of
2. nature as have the people of our great Northwestern prairies. This is a strong statement, but I am led to the
3. conclusion by ten years of observation in our plains region.
4. The European farmer lives in a village, where considerable social enjoyment is possible. The women gossip
5. at the village well and visit frequently at one another's houses; the children find playmates close at hand;
6. there is a school and, if the village be not a very small one, a church. The post wagon, with its uniformed postilion
7. merrily blowing his horn, rattles through the street every day and makes an event that draws people to the doors
8. and windows. The old men gather of summer evenings to smoke their pipes and talk of the crops; the young men
9. pitch quoits and play ball on the village green. Now and then a detachment of soldiers from some garrison town
10. halts to rest. A peddler makes his rounds. A black-frocked priest tarries to join in the chat of the elder people and
11. to ask after the health of the children. In a word, something takes place to break the monotony of daily life. The
12. dwellings, if small and meagerly furnished, have thick walls of brick or stone that keep out the summer's heat
13. and the winter's chill.
14. Now contrast this life of the European peasant, to which there is a joyous side that lightens labor and privation,
15. with the life of a poor settler on a homestead claim in one of the Dakotas or Nebraska. Every homesteader must
16. live upon his claim for five years to perfect his title and get his patent; so that if there were not the universal
17. American custom of isolated farm life to stand in the way, no farm villages would be possible in the first
18. occupancy of a new region in the West without a change in our land laws. If the country were so thickly settled
19. that every quarter section of land (160 acres) had a family upon it, each family would be half a mile from any
20. neighbor, supposing the houses to stand in the center of the farms; and in any case the average distance between
21. them could not be less. But many settlers own 320 acres, and a few have a square mile of land, 640 acres.
22. Then there are school sections, belonging to the state, and not occupied at all; and everywhere you find vacant tracts
23. owned by Eastern speculators or by mortgage companies, to which former settlers have abandoned their claims,
24. going to newer regions and leaving their debts and their land behind. Thus the average space separating the
25. farmsteads is, in fact, always more than half a mile, and many settlers must go a mile or two to reach a neighbor's
26. house. This condition obtains not on the frontiers alone but in fairly well-peopled agricultural districts.
27. If there be any region in the world where the natural gregarious instinct of mankind should assert itself, that
28. region is our Northwestern prairies, where a short, hot summer is followed by a long, cold winter and where
29. there is little in the aspect of nature to furnish food for thought. On every hand the treeless plain stretches away
30. to the horizon line. In summer, it is checkered with grain fields or carpeted with grass and flowers, and it is
31. inspiring in its color and vastness; but one mile of it is almost exactly like another, save where some watercourse
32. nurtures a fringe of willows and cotton-woods. When the snow covers the ground, the prospect is bleak and
33. dispiriting. No brooks babble under icy armor. There is no bird life after the wild geese and ducks have passed on
34. their way south. The silence of death rests on the vast landscape, save when it is swept by cruel winds that
35. search out every chink and cranny of the buildings and drive through each unguarded aperture the dry, powdery
37. In such a region, you would expect the dwellings to be of substantial construction, but they are not. The new settler
38. is too poor to build of brick or stone. He hauls a few loads of lumber from the nearest railway station and puts
39. up a frail little house of two, three, or four rooms that looks as though the prairie winds would blow it away.
40. Were it not for the invention of tarred building paper, the flimsy walls would not keep out the wind and snow. With
41. this paper the walls are sheathed under the weatherboards. The barn is often a nondescript affair of sod walls
42. and straw roof. Lumber is much too dear to be used for dooryard fences, and there is no enclosure about the house.
43. A barbed-wire fence surrounds the barnyard. Rarely are there any trees, for, on the prairies, trees grow very
44. slowly and must be nursed with care to get a start. There is a saying that you must first get the Indian out of the
45. soil before a tree will grow at all; which means that some savage quality must be taken from the ground by
47. In this cramped abode, from the windows of which there is nothing more cheerful in sight than the distant houses
48. of other settlers, just as ugly and lonely, and stacks of straw and unthreshed grain, the farmer's family must live.
49. In the summer there is a school for the children, one, two, or three miles away; but in winter the distances across the
50. snow-covered plains are too great for them to travel in severe weather; the schoolhouse is closed, and there is
51. nothing for them to do but to house themselves and long for spring. Each family must live mainly to itself, and
52. life, shut up in the little wooden farmhouses, cannot well be very cheerful.
53. A drive to the nearest town is almost the only diversion. There the farmers and their wives gather in the stores and
54. manage to enjoy a little sociability. The big coal stove gives out a grateful warmth, and there is a pleasant odor
55. of dried codfish, groceries, and ready-made clothing. The women look at the display of thick cloths and garment
56. and wish the crop had been better so that they could buy some of the things of which they are badly in need. The
57. men smoke corncob pipes and talk politics. It is a cold drive home across the windswept prairies, but at least
58. they have had a glimpse of a little broader and more comfortable life than that of the isolated farm.
Smalley, E.V. "The Isolation of Life on Prairie Farms." The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 63-88. N.p.: Atlantic Monthly Company, 1903. 378-81. Print.
It can be reasonably inferred that "No brooks babble under icy armor" (line 33) is meant to