Tuesday, August 22, 2006

LAND OF THE BURNT THIGH by Edith Eudora Kohl

Many thanks to Genevieve (Prairiebluestem.blogspot.com) for tipping me off about “Land of the Burnt Thigh” by Edith Eudora Kohl, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1986 after an original publication by Funk & Wagnalls in 1938. (ISBN 0-87351-199-9) I got my copy via the Internet for only a dollar and a half, plus postage, because it had underlining. Luckily I would have underlined the same things. This is one of the best homesteading books yet.

The reason Genevieve mentioned it is that the happenings took place about an hour’s drive south and west of Faulkton, South Dakota, where my grandparents homesteaded on adjoining land and started their family in the two-room tarpaper shack created by dragging their two claim shacks together. I grew up hearing stories like these. They were THERE.

This particular version is about two young sisters, not particularly robust, who got the notion of going out to the West and starting new lives. As is the pattern, it was much different and much harder than they ever expected. For one thing, the land had just been removed from Sioux lands but the Indians were still pretty much there. Not hostile, just there. For another, there were always either too many people or not enough people -- great surges and ebbings of population. And they really had not grasped what a claim shanty was like. To say it was minimal was to give it more credit than it deserved.

By happenstance, one sister became the local schoolteacher -- though it was necessary to hitch up a team and drag her shanty to the other side of her claim so she’d be able to walk over to the school house. The sister who is the author then fell into being a newspaper woman of sorts. A local publisher was necessary to monitor the claims for legal purposes and had to reliably print highly technical data. An alert man had established a string of news-posts, each with old faulty presses and determined women. Since the schoolhouse and newspaper were there, somehow a post office and store grew out of them. Pretty soon they had a town called “Ammons.” It’s not on the map now.

Eerily enough, in about 1910 Bob’s dad bought his house in Browning from a man named Ammons and the same trader originally built the warehouse which Bob tore down and rebuilt into the Museum of Montana Wildlife, now the Blackfeet Heritage Center. The “town” of Ammons eventually burned to the ground due to a stove fire, leaving the girls with only the rags on their backs. (The reason the Brule is called “the Land of the Burnt Thigh” is that some young Sioux men were caught in a prairie fire and escaped by wrapping themselves in their buffalo robes, except that their bare thighs were burned on the hot ground.)

The same dramatic events -- land rushes, blizzards, prairie fires -- as in all the other versions of homesteader stories are told new somehow this time. I think it is because Kohl adds a subtle political dimension that most other writers weren’t even aware of. What she saw was that this taking of land from the Indians and then populating it with desperate, determined, impoverished people, made a lot of merchants back east very rich indeed. Not to mention the railroads. The Roaring Twenties were the direct result of the exploitation of the prairies in the two previous decades. She doesn’t pound on this, but it is very clear. Of course, she is writing in the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl that resulted.

Beyond that, she tells of the prairie political heroes who rose to defend the little struggling people and their communities, and of how they all learned to cooperate in order to help each other, eventually leading to today’s farm co-ops. She recognizes that the small struggles of her rickety printing press (She got so mad at it one day that she pounded it into pieces and threw it out the door!), became a voice in the land strong enough to lead towards progress and hope. (She marched off to the owner of the news-post and demanded a new press!)

Kohl is just a darn good writer with an eye for the telling detail and a knack for describing character, whether it is in a horse or a person. Cowboys like Coyote Cal ride in and out of the lives of the homesteaders -- constantly grieving and angry about the closing of the open range and yet helpful to the very people who were doing it. Some of the older characters turn out to have more staying power and inner resources than the youngsters. And the youngsters are amazingly resilient and self-reliant specimens. The sisters become involved in the Indian lives and eventually had to deal with the shrewd and solemn leaders, whom they MUCH respected.

Both sisters get hooked on the prairies. I can relate. In spite of disasters and sieges of illness and near-starvation or maybe death by thirst or -- worst of all -- an invasion of little brown worms by the zillions who swarmed over them even in their sleep, in the end they don’t want to go back east. One marries and stays -- the other heads West.

Valier is three or four generations away from these pioneers. They haven’t forgotten. Many of their characteristics are very much the same. Sometimes that doesn’t work very well in modern times. Some of their children could sure use a little hardship. The local newspaper follows rather than leading. Some say that as many as half or two-thirds of the original homesteaders left, but these are the people who stayed.


Genevieve said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed the book, Mary. I thought you would, given your interest in western history and the proximity to your grandparent's homestead.

Looking back now, it is hard to imagine the hardships of the homesteaders, but it really was not that long ago. My own father was born in a sod house on land that his grandmother (a widow with eight children) homesteaded in Nebraska.

Beverly Seaton said...

Ah, the Internet. Saturday I bought a roughed-up copy of E.E. Kohl's book LAND OF THE BURNT THIGH. I thought I had heard of it but was not sure. Before reading it I found your post on the Internet giving me a nice introduction to the work, which is wonderful. I read it with a sense of nostalgia for what Kohl wanted to happen to the area, from a perspective which realizes that her dream has dried up and blown away in this era of factory farms and dwindling population in the nation's breadbasket. And it is not that long ago. My grandfather travelled the west looking for work in the early 1890s. Thanks for being there for Kohl--I appreciate the background.

Wendy said...

Aunt Edie, as we knew her, was my Grandmother's sister-in-law. Aunt Edie eventually settled in Denver where she wrote regularly for the Empire section of the Denver Post. She also wrote about the historic mansions of Denver. Our family has some of her unpublished manuscripts. She was indeed a character.

Anonymous said...

I loved this book. Have you given thought to having any of the unpublished manuscripts published? It would be fun to read more. What happened to her after she left South Dakota? A biography of her would be fascinating.

bex said...

I, too, LOVED Land of the Burnt Thigh. My gr grandfather and family settled in the area in which the book is set in 1873.- spent the first winter in a sod hut etc. etc. I would loved to have spoken to Edith. To ask specifically where she writes about.
Karen Wittmayer Beckers