Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 1981, pp. 105-131.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In the early pages of his important novel of western life, Zury, The Meanest Man in Spring County, Joseph Kirkland brought the Prouder family to the blazed tree that marked the location of the Illinois land that was to be their new home, the "woods behind" and the "prairie before" them. Herbert Quick halted yOl1ng Jacobus Vandemark on the bluffs above Dubuque, where the first great rolling sweep of the prairie grassland lay spread before him, and reported that a great surge of emotion coursed through the boy. John Ise pictured the covered wagon of his parents, Rosie and Henry Ise, on the afternoon when the stocky veteran of the Civil War and his bride reached the plains country homestead that he had been developing in Osborne County, Kansas. Such rendezvous of man, woman, and grassland, fanciful or real, were duplicated in actuality thousands of times during the settlement of the great western interior of the country. Of the three, the later experiences of the Ise family most closely follow the scenario of western settlement that the mass media have implanted in the minds of most Americans.1

Henry Ise acquired his first land by homesteading. He and his family endured drought, grasshoppers, and the departure of relatives and neighbors. Henry and Rosie were threatened by debt and by prairie fire, blizzard, and dust storms. They feared the depredations of lawbreakers, suffered the inevitable farm accidents, lost a child to death, and watched in helpless sympathy as another suffered crippling paralysis. Yet, amid the hardships, they broke land, built fences, acquired title, and got still more land. A stone addition was joined to the original log cabin and then, after a good year, they built a two-story house. The stock of farm machinery increased, a windmill appeared at the farmstead, and ultimately, a handsome barn was built. When the mortgage was paid off after years of worry, the family held a celebration; Henry and one of his daughters went to the World's Fair in Chicago in '93. And during these family trials and triumphs, the community settled up around the Ises, the railroad came, elevators rose beside it, and the days of pioneering faded into memory.

The story of the settling-in process is only part of the history of the grassland since EuroAmericans began to develop an intensive agriculture there. Pioneer farmers confronted the eastern fringes of the grassland in the early nineteenth century. The initial confrontation was still under way on its western rim during the second and third decades of the twentieth century. By that time generations of farmers farther east who had never broken an acre of virgin prairie or plains country had contributed their life histories to the collective record of the grassland. The unique environment of the grassland, coupled with the excesses of the economic system, periodically forced farmers and policy makers to reassess the potential of portions of this great region. So traumatic indeed were the "dirty thirties" that the reevaluation threatened to become a regional postmortem.

Actually, grassland farmers were involved in a number of processes that changed through time and space in various respects and at varying rates: (1) Farmers passed through a life course typical of farm experience, and the amount of family labor available and their plans for the next generation influenced their decision making. (2) Whether immigrant or of families long established in America, frontier farmers were culture bearers, carrying values and unique knowledge that might help or hinder them in adjusting to the demands of a strange environment and a changing industry. (3) Pioneer farmers were engaged in creating new farms from virgin land with all that this involved in the way of land cleanng, sod breaking, fencing, and the erection of farm buildings. (4) Frontier farmers also adjusted to the natural environment as they assessed the degree to which the cropping patterns and management practices with which they were familiar were also effective in their new homes. (5) In general, American farmers became increasingly involved in an exchange economy in which they emphasized the farm enterprise, or combinations of enterprises, that gave them the greatest comparative advantage (or perhaps least disadvantage), and they bought an increasing variety of foods, clothing, and production goods. (6) Since transportation facilities and marketing opportunities and prices changed through time, the farmer's optimal combination of enterprises might also change periodically. (7) Farm technology also changed after 1820 as agricultural inventors sought to adapt the innovations of an industrial age to the service of the farmer-first primarily in the form of horse-powered machinery, and after 1900, utilizing the power of the steam and internal combustion engines and electricity. (8) Finally, farmers were members of neighborhoods, communities, and a larger society that supplied them with economic goods, services, and markets, helped to shape their goals, and provided social contacts, services, and sanctions as well. Agricultural historians, whatever their geographical focus, have displayed more interest in some of these processes than others, but it is important to remember that the complete regional history will deal adequately with them all.