Historical Details

The Wyoming Pioneer Mother of 1890

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 08/17/1961

By Mae Urbanek

She was a wife, a mother, and a neighbor in all that those terms imply. She came not to be ministered unto, but to minister unto others. She suffered hardship and homesickness silently and with a smile, missing the neighbors and trees of the lands from which they she came.

Here were the endless, treeless prairies that she grew to love. When the hard work of the day was completed, and the children asleep, she would walk alone to a top of a neighboring knoll. She would watch the colors fade from the sky, as she looked into the distance for miles and miles. She would wish on the bright, evening star, feeling that God was very close to her in the vast stillness of her new homeland.

Where had she come from? Illinois? Virginia? Kansas? Tennessee? How had she come, following her land –hungry husband? By covered wagon, by stage, by immigrant car on the railroad? It mattered not. She was here, living perhaps in a log house, chinked with gumbo. The one room, usually 12 by 14 feet held the cook stove, table, chairs and beds. Clothing was in boxes under the beds. Cowchips and chopped wood were piled by the stove.

The washing machine, if she was lucky enough to have one, was a wooden tub with a plunger that stomped the clothes. The tub served second duty as the family bath kit. Water from a nearby creek or a hand-dug well with a bucket pump, was heated on the stove. Soap was home-made from lye and animal fat. Often clothes were taken to the creek and pounded on rocks. A barbed wire fence made a clothes line. Sadirons heated on the stove did the ironing. Trousers were pressed under the mattress, even if it was filled with corn husks. Yes, the pioneer mother always had running water- she ran after it.

The home was lighted by tallow candles or twisted rags burning in saucers of grease. The very fortunate had kerosene lamps that they filled and trimmed, and cleaned every morning. These cast a flickering glow while mother mended, father cleaned his gun, and the children played “hide the thimble”.

Coffee was 35 cents a pound. When the supply ran out, the pioneer mother could brown wheat and grind it in the coffee mill. This was “hard-time” coffee. Wheat was also cereal. Fruit was native dried plums, service berries, and currants. Money was hard to come by, but if there was a little extra, dried apples and prunes were a store-bought luxury. Father provided the meat, wild game, or cows long past their prime. Meat could be dried, soaked in salted brine or ‘dried down’ and covered with fat.

Clothing was made by hand, even stockings and mittens. Long nights did the knitting needles click. All hides were tanned. Hair was removed by lye. The skins were rubbed with brains and fat, softened with long scraping and beating. Then they could be made into shoes and jackets. The pioneer mother was very frugal. Nothing was wasted. Needs were very real. There were no government agencies to supply them.

No locks were on the doors. However meager were the supplies, visitors were always welcome and urged to stay. Should the family be away, anyone riding by was welcome to fix himself a meal, and use the shelter of the home. The only courtesy was to wash the dished and chop as much wood as used. Since coal sold for $12 a ton, a fortune at that time, twisted hay, Russian thistles stomped flat and folded over, as well as dried cow chips were used for fuel. In the winter the family slept with their clothing and jackets on, and took potatoes to bed so they wouldn’t freeze.

Doctors were 40 or 50 ‘horse’ miles away. Women helped each other during child birth. When the doctor came he had no modern life-saving drugs. He dispensed sulphur {sic}, molasses, carbolic acid, and good advice.

Horses were worth real money. They plowed the tough bull-sod, and cultivated the corn. They rounded up the cows, and ran down the wild game. Best of all they took the family on the long trip to town or to the neighborhood dance perhaps 30 miles away. They were part of the family.

The pioneer in her mother-hubbard dress with her hair tightly combed back from her face has passed into memory. She played a vital part in the settling of these western prairies. In those days there was no juvenile delinquency. The pioneer mother kept her children too busy working. She was determined to build a home in the new, free county that she loved.

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