Poetry Is Everywhere: Homesteading in Dakota

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read it and record it.

Homesteading in Dakota log cabin

Homesteading in Dakota

A few years ago, I received an email from a lecturer in the Humanities in Arizona who was teaching an American West literature and film class. The first poem of mine she encountered was “Homesteading in Dakota,” which her class was reading among other authors detailing women’s experiences in the West. She had read that my poetry in Dakota Bones was inspired by local history, and wanted to know if the story in the poem was true.

Here’s part of my response:

Homesteading in Dakota stories told by John Hasselstrom 1968“That’s one of many stories inspired by local history, with the names changed to protect the — guilty. And yes, “Homesteading in Dakota” is taken straight from one of the stories my father told me, with tight lips and in terse sentences, once when we were moving cattle near where the homestead stood. I believe he immediately regretted telling me, but once a writer has a story in her head, it may lodge and grow there. 

I even used some of his phrases in the poem, though they’re not in quotes: “walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet,” “the kids grew up wild as coyotes,” and “not his fault the dark spoiled his aim the first time.”
 
I was perhaps thirteen years old when I heard the story, and thus learned a lesson about the concept of justice in our community, and also something about how women were regarded. And, because I’d visited a homestead site very near where this story happened, and lived only about three miles away, I could even picture how the woman would have worked to grow a garden, how isolated she must have felt.

Homesteading in Dakota view from old home site

And those little hand-dug wells are everywhere around here: we have to watch carefully and fill them when we find them. We filled one last fall in my parents’ ranch yard, and there’s another slowly caving not a mile away: rock walls built by hand probably a hundred years ago.

The professor responded, “I so enjoy the details you shared, and can certainly see how your poetry truly brings these people, events and experiences to life.  My students discussed your work today, and loved the finality of the moment when you write

He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

First there were quizzical looks, and then the reality was clear, and poignant.”

Homesteading in Dakota three Wind anthologies for contemporary stories

I also noted that the professor might find more experiences from contemporary Western women in the three anthologies I helped Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier edit: Leaning into the Wind, Woven on the Wind, and Crazy Women Creek.

The West has always been a place of rough, sometimes harsh, justice, and I didn’t want the students to think those judgments were all in the past.


 
Homesteading in Dakota

It was a typical prairie homestead:
a hundred sixty dusty acres
with not one tree.
Mr. Fisher put up a soddy for his wife, five kids,
and dug a well by hand the first month.
The kids and the woman worked the winch
after the well got below ten feet.
                                                                He cut logs
in the hills ten miles away for a solid barn,
log-roofed. Once they were settled he went
to the mines in Deadwood, seventy miles away,
for winter cash.
                                She stayed in the soddy,
milked the cow, dug out a little garden,
struggling with the sod laced together by buffalo grass
roots. Now and then she’d stop for breath, shade
her eyes, look at the horizon line
drawn smooth against the sun.

Mr. Fisher—she called him that—
came home when he could,
once or twice a month all summer. Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.
                                                                Once
he got a late start, rode in at midnight.
Fumbling at the low door, he heard struggle inside.
The kids were all awake, pale blank faces
hanging in the dark.
                                                When he pushed aside
the curtain to the double bunk
he saw the window open,
a white-legged form running in the moonlight,
his wife’s screaming face.
He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

The neighbors said Black Douglas, on the next claim,
walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet.
The kids grew up wild as coyotes.
                                                            He never went to trial.
He’d done the best he could;
not his fault the dark
spoiled his aim the first time.

Linda M. Hasselstrom © 2017

 

Many early homesteaders did as this man did: established their first home in a sod house on the prairie east of the Black Hills. When they had the time, the equipment and the energy, they would go to the nearest spot in the hills where they could cut logs, and haul them home for sturdy farm buildings. Sometimes they built the house first, but often the soddy was considered good enough for the family until the farm or ranch buildings were complete, because the welfare of the stock was paramount.

And a great many of the homesteaders in our neighborhood also went to Deadwood to mine gold for a cash income. My uncle often spoke of his own father’s mining days, and particularly of the horse he rode, and how quickly the horse could make the seventy-mile trip. “That was a horse!” he’d say.

Naturally, anyone in the neighborhood soon visited any new home to get acquainted, and in most cases, those who had been there first were generous and helpful with newcomers.

So it is logical that:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.

I could never have verified the next part of the story, of course, but it, too, has a certain sad logic. And in the code of the west, the neighbors might talk about a man who walked as if his feet were sore, but since none of them had seen the incident, they could hardly be expected to testify. And legal authority was either nonexistent or distant. I can almost see the gossips shaking their heads over the rough justice.

 

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Homesteading in Dakota poetry books

“Homesteading in Dakota” publishing history:

A Journal of Contemporary Literature, Vol. 5 #1; 1964.

Black Hills Monthly, Nov. 1981.

Caught By One Wing, published by Julie D. Holcomb, San Francisco, CA; 1984.

Caught by One Wing, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1990.

Dakota Bones: Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.

The Western Women’s Reader, ed. Lillian Schlissel & Catherine Lavender (NY: HarperCollins, 2000; HarperPerennial edition), p. 173-4.

Literature of the American West, Ed. Greg Lyons. Longman, 2003; pp. 348-9.

Reflections of the West: Cowboy Painters and Poets, Published by CJ Hadley, 2015.

Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Poetry Is Everywhere: Homesteading in Dakota

  1. wyoazgal

    Linda, it’s way overdue, that I write to say “Thank You” for not only inspiring me some 12+ years ago to research and then begin my own first attempt at writing , but for continued inspiration and joy reading your blog.

    I’ve moved to Custer to help in my attempt to write about my fraternal grandmother and other women like her who came west to Dakota and Wyoming Territories to make a life.
    I’m hoping you might be hosting a workshop or library group in Hermosa or nearby that I could participate, please.

    Thank You
    Peg

    1. Peg, your comment is one of those that I hope for as I think back over all the people with whom I’ve worked. How did they do? Did they succeed? Are they still working? Unfortunately, during these perilous times, I’m not hosting in-person workshops of any kind, but I’m still working with people online. And, for example, I can email some of my dozens of handouts on particular topics. Let me know who you are and when you came, and I’ll probably even have a record of your stay. Tell me what kind of help you have in mind, and I’ll work out an estimate of costs. Look at http://www.windbreakhouse.com under ONLINE WRITING and you’ll see how these work. Hope to hear from you. I’d love to know how your project is going.

  2. Mary Jo Doig

    Linda, Warmest Congratulations for the wise people of the South Dakota State Poetry Society who selected you to be South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit! So well deserved! How perfect that you are still living and can walk in those unique shoes. I am thrilled for you!

  3. The photo (above) of the rock foundation and view towards the Black Hills was used to illustrate how remote homesteads were, and how difficult it would be to grow a garden. This very photogenic homestead was owned by a bachelor and is not the location of my father’s story or my poem. The remains of the old rock and timber cabin are on private land, with access strictly forbidden by the landowner.

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