Dakota Datebook

Pioneer Wife, Part One

Monday, December 1, 2003

In 1907, The Dakota Farmer, a magazine for farm families, asked for letters explaining how women managed farm homes without hired girls. The first prize went to Helen Smith of Wimbledon, North Dakota, and was published in the magazine in December of that year. Today we begin a three-part series covering Helen Smith’s submission:

How to keep house without help, read a little, visit a little, and otherwise enjoy oneself! Well, that’s an old and tried problem to many of us homemakers in these times of scarce and incompetent help, and I’m going to tell you my way. But perhaps my way won’t count, as I can’t strictly say I do without help, but rather try to turn all that is available to account, and by so doing, manage to do without “hired help.”

In this way, we get along among ourselves, excepting for a short time before and after the arrival of a new babe, but I can manage my own little folks and get a lot of willing help from them, and they are always pleased with the idea that they are doing things the way mama likes to have them done.

To begin with, we live on a farm of about 500 acres and keep from 1 to 5 hired men. I also have 6 children under 10 years old. So you see, doing alone has a meaning in this house. Our work seems to divide itself into two areas, summer work and winter work. In summer, we begin the day at five o’clock and have breakfast at six. I don’t call the children down for the early breakfast with the men. Perhaps it is a bad habit. Only the other day I heard a mother brag that her children always went to bed early and were up for breakfast.

Well, so do mine go to bed early. Eight o’clock sees them all tucked in, but I have a feeling that the little bodies are still tired from a long day’s play at six o’clock in the morning, and it only makes them cross and irritable the whole day through to drag them out of bed before their nap is out, so when breakfast is over, I put away the remains of the meal, with the exception of a plate of bread and one of butter, a pitcher of milk and a dish of oatmeal for each little one; then I put up the children’s dinner for school, mix the bread, or work over the butter, or whatever other extra job there is to do, and by this time baby is generally heard from, and I commence to hear some disturbance upstairs.

Mary, my little girl, 10 years old, dresses the little folks upstairs, while I give baby his bath, warm his milk, and put him into his buggy, were he spends a good deal of his time.

Then comes a general scramble from above, and after an all-round wash, the little folks sit down to their oatmeal, bread, butter and milk. When breakfast is over, my two little boys, aged six and eight, run out and bring in a supply of wood and coal. My well pump is in the kitchen sink so we don’t have to carry water.

While this is being done, Mary combs her hair and puts on a clean apron; then I wash, brush, and tidy up the little boys, and off to school they all three go, leaving me at home with the three remaining little ones and my work. Next to do is to comb and make neat the last two little ones and send them out to play, with the caution that Ruth, aged five, is to mind Ray, aged three, and see that he doesn’t get hurt. Then to my work. I wash the dishes, put the meat over for dinner, sweep and tidy up the rooms downstairs, which takes till about 10 o’clock; then to the dinner.

Tune in tomorrow for the second installment of a day in the life of Helen Smith in 1907.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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