Tuesday, November 14, 2006


My paternal grandfather, Samuel S. Strachan, and my paternal grandmother, Beulah Swan Finney, separately proved up homesteads near Faulkton, South Dakota. Their families already lived nearby. When they married in 1901, they dragged their two tar-paper shacks together, ran another strip of tar-paper around the middle, and began their own family. The first baby, Samuel Archibald was born prematurely on 23 July, 1902, and died on 30 July, 1902. Beulah blamed herself because she had been so lonely for company that she’d accepted a jolting ride into town -- which she thought brought the baby -- but that might not have been the cause at all. (She may have had the baby alone while Sam raced for the doctor or maybe Sam made the delivery, then went for the doctor.) The little mite was kept alive those few days in a shoebox lined with cotton on the open door of the oven to her woodstove. For the rest of her life Beulah noted his birthday in her journal but never talked about the tragedy.

My father, Bruce, and the next child, Glenn, were born here, or it may be that they simply were brought to this home as infants. It seems likely that Beulah took the precaution of going to town well in advance of the births and stayed with family to wait.

Both of the couple were teachers. Sam was the County Superintendent of Education. In the Scots style, they valued education and culture above almost everything else. In old age they could reel off poetry by the hour. Their idea of a fine gift was a book, a fountain pen, or new eyeglasses. Beulah did have some nice things, notably bone china kept in a china cabinet. Once there was an unexpected earthquake that pitched the china cabinet over onto its face. Beulah went to the front doorstep, sat on the threshold (it must have been summer), put her apron over her head and wept for an hour. Then she never said another word about it.

In addition to putting their houses together, the couple now had two teams of horses. One day Sam decided to use Beulah’s team, but he considered them lazy and spoiled, so he touched them up up with the buggy whip. Beulah happened to glance out the window just in time to see him do that. Storming out, she snatched the whip out of his hand, exclaiming, “You’ll not whip MY horses, Sam Strachan!”

Homesteading in this time and place is vividly described in “Land of the Burnt Thigh,” which is about two resourceful sisters, unsuited to the task except for their exceptional will-power.

Rather than feeling this childhood home was embarrassing or difficult, my father loved it as most of us love the place where we first come to consciousness and was overjoyed to visit it in the early Fifties with his own three children, though it was in miserable shape. (I’m the oldest, the girl in the photo.) It had been a cowshed for a long time, but there were still shreds of the original tarpaper and he was able to find the place on one of the outbuildings where he’d shot at what he thought was an interloper in the middle of the night. It wasn’t, but he was pleased to think that he could rise decisively to the challenge even though he was a kid.


Genevieve said...

Your grandparents look like strong young people, and I'm sure they needed all the strength they could muster there on the Dakota prairie.

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Genevieve! And thanks for putting me onto the book, "Land of the Burnt Thigh." Sam and Beulah were lucky in finally having four healthy children who worked hard -- one of the keys to success in those days. The whole family stood or fell together.

Prairie Mary