Plains Folk

The Simple Life


Life was simple in those days, but now it’s so much more complex. How many times have you heard someone say something like that? It’s so easy to imagine a simple life for our ancestors, but the evidence says the opposite. Pioneers on the prairies, because of a high degree of self-sufficiency in such basics as housing and food, lived lives of considerable complexity, rich in knowledge and relationships.

A new little book published by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection of NDSU drives home the complexity of pioneer immigrant life. The book, entitled The Farm at Pony Gulch, is based on the recollections of Eddie Knalson and Bertha Baier Johnson and details the lives of the family of immigrants Michael and Anna Sophia Baier. The setting is the Missouri Coteau, near Harvey, where they homesteaded in 1897.

On the northern plains, there was nothing simple about the matter of shelter. The Baiers began by constructing a house of cut sod, using sods not only for the walls but also for the roof. The sod house clearly was a temporary expedient, because they laid up walls comprising a single course of long sods 12” wide, instead of the double course favored for more serious soddies. After that they built a house of batsa, which for some reason the Baiers called gastatza, a word I never heard before. Batsa were bricks homemade from clay, cow manure, and straw.

Only when you have taken apart a house made of earth and put it together again, as I have done with my students, do you realize the complexity of sourcing materials from the landscape, using them in ways that answer the requirements of family life while addressing the challenges of the environment, and finishing surfaces in a manner that transforms rude raw material into pleasing domestic space.

This earth-brick house of the Baiers’ benefited from the blacksmithing skills of the old man, who fashioned an iron stove inset that fit into a massive Russian-style stove spanning the entire interior wall of the house. The stove was ravenous for fuel—grass, manure, and lignite—but there was your answer to a North Dakota winter!

And speaking of manure—this byproduct of animal agriculture, known to the German-Russians as Mischt, was a pervasive factor in pioneer life. It was part of the walls, improving their structure and the insulation they provided; it was essential to interior plasters (for that pretty pink calcimine the German-Russians favored for interior walls was painted onto a plaster of, that’s right, cow manure); and manure was the preferred fuel for home heating. German-Russians let manure accumulate in the barns, where it was compacted by the hooves of the animals. Come spring, they carved it out as blocks of fuel they stacked to dry.

You have to stretch your thinking to understand the mindset of people to whom manure was a staple of life. When the old folks, on their way to church, passed a farmyard where the residents had lots of piles of mischt blocks set out to dry, Grandma would remark on how rich they were.

Every aspect of food production, too, required multiple operations and family cooperation. Grandma didn’t just raise a big garden, she did it with seeds selected, cleaned, exchanged with neighbors, and saved for next year’s use. The family didn’t just kill a bunch of hogs, they mastered the technologies of meat preservation, such that a smoked ham buried in grain in the fall, forgotten, and rediscovered the following summer was still usable.

The girls used the soft water drained from the roof into a cistern for shampooing their hair. The girls didn’t order their dresses from Monkey Wards, they studied the catalogs and copied them, with patterns they drew themselves. The boys used the stone boat to shuttle newborn lambs from the lambing ground to the barn. Grandma carded the wool she used to stuff her quilts.

Nothing in life was a simple. Everything required thought, cooperation, and interaction with animals and nature. Most of what we call progress since then is the simplification of how we address basic needs. There is comfort and convenience in this, but there is a type of impoverishment, also.

Which is why although I love to poke fun at my urban neighbors who feel so pleased with themselves for keeping a few chickens in their back yard, I understand, nevertheless, what they are doing. And I think they should have a look at The Farm at Pony Gulch in order to comprehend what it means to live this way, not just play at it.


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