Monday, December 26, 2011

LIFE ON THE OKLAHOMA PRAIRIE

By Caroline Clemmons

My brother and I have been working on a family history book for our father's Johnson family. Although my brother and I are Texans, our father's and mother's family were Oklahoma pioneers. Daddy's family moved from Georgia to Texas and then to Oklahoma. Mom's family moved from Tennessee to Oklahoma. The following is part of an account by a member of our paternal step-grandmother's Garton line regarding their move from Hill County, Texas to Old Greer County (now Harmon County), Oklahoma in 1899. The entire account is too long to include here, but I hope you find this portion interesting. It's from an oral history recorded in 1978.

Dugout
"...We camped at Mr. Brim’s because he had water. There was an empty dugout nearby. We moved into it because it was so cold in the tent. We had a sheet-iron stove, but there wasn’t any wood. Willy had pneumonia. The gyp dust of the dugout turned out to be worse on him than the cold, and so we had to move back into the tent.

It didn’t take long for us to get initiated to the hazards of living on the prairie. Rain was our chief concern. Everyday we searched the skies for rain clouds. When we saw a rain cloud approaching, we always remembered what a settler’s wife had told Papa when we camped out on Turkey Creek. He had gone to try to buy food for the animals. He asked if it ever rained in Greer County. In a long drawn out tone she replied, "It don’t never rain in Greer County, but when it does, it don’t never stop."

Rolling sandstrom

About two or three weeks after we arrived in Martin, we experienced our first sandstorm. Murray and Papa were digging the dugout, and the rest of us were working around the tent. We had spread all the bedclothes outside on the grass so they could air the damp out. We saw the black cloud coming from the north. We thought it was a bad rain cloud. It hit with all the fury of a spring rainstorm, but it was only wind and dust. Mama struggled to get the bedclothes off the grass while we kids fought to keep the tent from falling. Even Willy, who still had pneumonia, was trying to help. But the tent collapsed in spite of all our efforts. After it was over, Papa and Murray came running to us. Papa said that he had never been so frightened—he had thought the world was coming to an end! Later we found our pillows a half-mile away hanging on a barbed wire fence.

After that experience, we watched the skies for rain, those ominous black clouds, and another cloud of a different color. This was a gray cloud that meant an approaching prairie fire. All of the settlers feared these fires. Everyone plowed his fields to make a fire guard; but if the wind was strong, nothing could stop the fires. We were never burned out, but we lived in fear that we might be.

Half-dugout House
Murray and Papa finally finished the new dugout. There we were—seven kids and Mama and Papa—and we didn’t own one dollar in cash. Mr. Brim helped Papa get groceries "on account" in Quanah. He had a fenced garden spot that he said we could use. Mr. Payne let us milk two of his cows.

Then we started breaking land with our horses and that old mule. We didn’t make any crop that first year, but we did get all of the land broken. The second year we planted maize and cotton. Papa would dig the holes and I would place the seeds in the holes. The maize was the old goose-necked variety that grew as high as a man’s head and then curved back toward the ground. We had to cut each head separately with a knife. It was difficult for us to reach. Our hands would get cut by the sharp blades of the leaves and, once in a while, by the knife.

We had to go to Quanah, Texas for everything. It had the closest railroad. Four or five families would sometimes get together and go over there because we had to ford the Red River. If the river was up, all of the horses would be hitched together in order to pull the wagons across one by one. We had to tie everything down in the wagons or we might see our supplies floating down the river. We would never know whether or not the river would be high. There might have been thunderstorms further west we knew nothing about.

It seemed like we were always in debt to that man at Quanah. I remember one of the first years when we made a good crop. Papa went to Quanah to pay off our bills. When he came home, he said, "Well, Susan, I didn’t tell you, but now I’ve paid it off I guess it can’t hurt to tell you. I mortgaged the mule last spring."

Mama was shocked. She fretted the remainder of the day. She said over and over, "Just think, if we hadn’t made this crop, we’d lost that mule, and then how would we have broken the land for next year’s crop?"

We made pretty good crops when we first came to Martin. The land was fresh and would grow anything if we could just get enough rain. Our biggest problem was getting water. We had to haul it from Quanah or catch it in rain barrels. When it rained, we filled every available container with water.

The year after Papa mortgaged the mule, he traded it for the price of digging a well. The man had to dig 115 feet before he hit water. We had to draw all our water—even for the stock. Whose job do you think that was? Talk about "the good old days!" If I didn’t think Mama or Papa were watching, I would drive the cattle away—they would drink too much.

Our next biggest worry was the damage caused by the open range policy. Before the Herd Law was passed, the cattle would eat our maize crop and trample our cotton. There weren’t any trees around for fence posts. All the lumber had to be freighted in from Quanah. Besides that, barbed wire cost money, and we were always short of money.

Willy got a job in Texas. That $10 a month he made sure helped us. One of most vivid memories relating to that open range policy was the day two bulls got into a fight on the top of our flat topped dugout. We were afraid to go outside because they might attack us, and we were afraid to stay inside because it sounded as if any second they could come crashing through the roof. Finally, they gave up and went away.

I was just nine years old when we moved from Hill County, Texas. Oh, how homesick I would get for all those beautiful trees I used to climb (I was the tomboy of the family) and the creeks I used to wade in. I missed our big house too. Everything got so dirty in the dugout. My brother-in-law Ed, who had said this country wouldn’t sprout black-eyed peas, brought my sister Attie to see us. They decided to homestead north of us. We were all together then, and I knew there wasn’t much hope of going back.

All of us children had to work in the fields planting and harvesting. In the winter we went to school. I loved school and secretly dreamed of going back to Texas to high school. My aunt offered to take my older sister Lucinda and send her to high school so that she could become a teacher. When my sister refused, I asked Mama if I could take her place, but she shrugged it off by saying that I was too young and should stay at home..."

Readers, don't look for Martin on the Oklahoma map. When the railroad passed the town in favor of Hollis, Martin Township died. Even Hollis' population has dwindled now that the railroad no longer goes there. There's a nice Black-Eyed Pea Festival the third weekend in August. Most of my family members have moved away.

And if you are wondering why--if Willy couldn't breathe in the dugout--his father and older brother built another one, it's the gypsum. Gypsum deposits run through some areas of Old Greer County, now Harmon County. Since the gypsum-filled dugout was on Mr. Brim's land, one can only guess that the family built their dugout in red sandy loam instead of gypsum. Or, maybe the Brim's had used limestone/gypsum wash to paint the inside of the dugout. I have no idea, but know that I prefer a brick home with a nice firm (cleanable) floor. 

Yes, although I love writing and reading about the Old West, I'm very thankful I live in modern times! I wonder what the future will bring? What will families in 120 years think of our lives?

5 comments:

  1. Wow, what an amazing account! I too, love the old west, but am glad I live in the 21st century.

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  2. Carolyn,
    I'f I'd lived in the old west and had a choice, I would have stayed in a house in a city. I'm not much of a pioneer. Loved your account of the farmers. What a hard life they lived. I'd never heard of the gypsum in the soil there. Thanks so much for sharing this family history. :-)

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  3. Caroline..many towns in Oklahoma and Texas died because the railroad passed them by. As long as they had a post office, they had a town. But when the PO was pulled, the place became a "community." Such was the place where I was born--Salesville,in Palo Pinto County.
    Dugouts are just fascinating, but lord have mercy, I'm so glad I didn't have to live in one.
    My husband's step-greatgrandfather lived in a cave..not really a dugout, but a cave...near Granbury. He went off to find a job and left his wife with twin sons--last name of Stephen. One of the sons grew up and became wealthy, bought some nearby land, and began a town called Stephenville. True story!
    Thanks for this wonderful story!

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  4. What an interesting first-hand account. It made me grateful to live in modern times. It's so wonderful that you have this family history.

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  5. Caroline--I love the fact that you are such a terrific researcher and archivist. You always write such interesting posts that take me to different places and times in history that I love to learn about : )

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