Book Remarks: Wilderness Fever

Wilderness Fever: A Family’s Adventures Homesteading in Early Jackson Hole, 1914-1924.
Linda Preston McKinstry with Harold Cole McKinstry
Foreword by Sherry L. Smith, Ph.D.
(Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2016)

WildernessFeverMcKinstryMost Americans think of homesteading as having occurred in the 1800s. We can all picture the wholesome farm families sitting on the seats of wagons pulled by oxen, the billowing white canvas covering all their possessions. Possibly a milk cow is tied to the back of the load beside a crate full of chickens. On the horizon— is that cowboys, or possibly Indians?

Some parts of the West, especially including western Wyoming, stayed wild longer than, for example, the Dakotas. And for Linda Preston McKinstry and her husband Harold Cole McKinstry, homesteading began in 1915 when they left bureaucratic jobs in Washington, D.C. and took advantage of the government’s offer of “free” land.

McKinstry, called “Mac” of course, grew up in North Dakota and had studied agriculture and Linda was a home economics teacher when they settled in Jackson Hole. In several ways, they were not typical homesteaders. For one thing, they were thirty years late for the peak of homesteading. Both were well-educated, and most importantly, they had money. If homesteading hadn’t worked out, they could have gone elsewhere and done something else. Having a ready supply of cash also allowed them to have luxuries such as Valentine’s Day cards and gifts for each other on special occasions.

Still, their lives were hard and demanding. This book is composed of letters they wrote to Linda’s mother, which retain the freshness of experiences just lived, and from memoirs they wrote years later. Besides the dangers of their chosen lifestyle, with no doctor, no telephone, and only rare mail service, they had to become adept at planning ahead. Once winter dumped several feet of snow on their remote home, they knew they wouldn’t be able to leave for months. They ordered groceries to be shipped to the nearest settlement, Victor, Idaho.

Think about this list: 500 pounds of white flour, 100 pounds of cornmeal, and 75 pounds of whole wheat flour. There’s your bread and pancakes for the season. Several hundred pounds of potatoes. 25 pounds of navy beans, 10 pounds of macaroni, and 25 pounds each of prunes, dried pears, figs, and dried apples. One 24-can case of tomatoes. 12 cans each of corn, string beans and salmon. 10 pounds each of lima, red kidney and chili beans. 14 pounds of noodles. Add in 50 pounds of brown sugar, 300 pounds of white sugar, 10 pounds of coffee and a little tea, and you’ve got your menu for the winter.

On this diet, the McKinstrys cut ice, skied and snowshoed, and drove starving horses through drifts twice as high as the horses. In November one year, they ordered 500 pounds of potatoes. Two ranchers drove to Victor to collect a supply of potatoes for themselves and neighbors. Because of the extreme cold, the potatoes had to be unloaded and kept close to a fire each night to keep them from freezing.

They supplemented their diet with elk shot near their home. In order to eat meat in the summer, Susan had to can it, which required packing it into quart jars that had to be kept covered with boiling water on the wood-fueled stove for several hours.

Because few fences existed in the country where they lived, Mac was constantly searching for their strayed horses and cattle, sometimes in extremely cold weather conditions. Travel required hardships and risks most of us can’t even imagine today. This meant that when anyone was traveling through the neighborhood, they’d stop for a visit— and every visitor had to be fed, and sometimes bedded down in the tiny, poorly-insulated log cabins that served as their homes. Linda writes often of expecting only Mac for lunch only to have as many as 10 people show up expecting to be fed.

Yet their youngest daughter reported that the couple loved the lifestyle, and only left it when they had three children who needed schooling. In addition, they believed it was likely that Yellowstone National Park would absorb their ranch, making it impractical to continue improving it.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the comparison and contrast between Linda’s and Mac’s accounts of the same events, allowing us to see how the life affected both of them. The book designer helped the readability immensely by reserving the outer third of each page for the notes that might have been turned into annoying footnotes, providing additional information on the text, as well as information describing the photographs in the book.

For me, the hardest part of the reading was that the authors wrote often in passive voice— but that was the style of the times, and probably also because they were writing about their past, looking back at their adventures. “Thanksgiving Day was spent at the ranch,” they write, rather than “We spent Thanksgiving Day at the ranch.” But these are small matters.

Read this book for a clearer understanding of homesteading, and to enjoy the astonishing steadfastness and adaptability of these two heroic explorers. Their adventure was reality for most of our pioneering western ancestors.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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4 thoughts on “Book Remarks: Wilderness Fever

  1. What fun to imagine a homesteading life canning, preserving & storing food for a year when I run to the local HyVee food store several times a day as I think what I might fix for supper. When that becomes too onerous, I might run to the local Papa Murphy’s made-to-bake pizza to make me feel virtuous baking it in my own oven!

  2. I was hoping that others would respond this way, Jeanne Jones Manzer! My drives to the supermarket can’t be made spontaneously, since the nearest one is 20 miles away, but I was still reflecting on how easy it is for me compared to these folks.

  3. Wonderful overview, Linda. The book seems a welcome and curious twist on the typical immigrants who came from Europe and Russia to avoid starvation or tyrannical regimes. But the thought of reading deep into those hardships (and joys) chills me to the bone–even on a day expected to be in the upper 80’s here in North Dakota. My homesteading ancestors are turning in their graves at my reluctance but now that the 4th of July is here, winter isn’t that far away.

    • I’d say that realizing “winter isn’t that far away” on July 2 indicates some strong homesteading genes, Bonnie Larson Staiger! I thought of that on the solstice but these 90-degree days had kind of dimmed my recollection. Anyway, I think you’d like the book, because this couple did so steadfastly remember to be joyful in spite of difficulty. Happy reading, whatever you choose!

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