This is November 1, 1978. I am sitting in the living room at the home of my brother, Virgil, attempting to record some of the events of my early childhood. My name is Mildred Hinshaw Jones. I was born in Crosby, North Dakota on September 17, 1908. I was the second daughter as well as the second child of five children born to Edward Newton Hinshaw and Lona Plunkett Hinshaw. Virgil, the only one who was born in Montana, has often urged me to write some of the stories I have told him. It occurs to me that my children and grandchildren might also be interested to know about life as we lived it and to compare it with later times. After all, this is part of their roots.
All of the things I tell here took place before I was ten years old. On my tenth birthday we left that part of the country and came to Illinois to live. This is told from the perspective of a young child and may not be completely accurate. In retrospect, as an adult, I realize that some of the events that impressed a small child may not have had the importance that I gave them. Iím telling them as I recall them and in some cases adding my adult interpretation of them.
At the turn of the century my mother, Lona Plunkett, went with her mother, Minnie Hering, and her stepfather, Renhart Hering, to North Dakota to claim homesteads. She proved up on 160 acres herself and Grandpa on a much larger one. Grandpa and Grandma also owned and operated a general store while Mamma ran a small restaurant. Later Papa also went to Crosby to follow his occupation as a barber. He came from Rankin, Illinois where he and Mamma had met in a rather unusual way. Mamma told me that she and others had been attracted to the barbershop where a group of men gathered and sang four-part harmony. Here she met the leader of some very early barbershop singing, a young barber named Ed Hinshaw. Apparently he arrived in Crosby while she was still spending time on her homestead where, as she said, she had no weapon for protection better than a lath. Papa gave her a small pearl-handle revolver which I remember very well.
In late November, 1904 when the young couple decided to marry they rode about fifty miles on a wagon load of wheat to Portal, on the Canadian border, and took a train to Minot. Winter comes early in the North and before they could get back to Crosby with a hired horse and buggy a blizzard arose. Anxious townspeople had organized a search party because of the blinding storm and their later arrival. Many tales were told to us kids about people being lost under such circumstances.
My parents lived in Crosby until after three children had been born. I followed my sister, Eva, by three years and our brother, Don, came along three years after that. One of my earliest memories concerns an incident that happened at the time Don was born. Of course, the birth took place at home in the larger of our two rooms. Naturally, I was jealous of my new brother and chose that time to be especially naughty. Mamma threatened to leave her bed where she was confined for the customary ten days to punish me. I remember squeezing between the end of our old pump organ and the wall and saying, "You canít get me here."
Most of my early memories revolve around life in and near Westby, Montana where we moved in the spring of 1913. We were among the earliest arrivals in that pioneer town and literally saw it rise from the prairie, at the same time preparing a tar-paper shack to live in nearly three miles west of town on our half-section homestead. The land office was the first establishment and it was a busy place with many immigrants from Scandinavian countries as well as hopeful Easterners filing claims to government lands. The lumberyard came next, followed by a general store and a post office. Papa opened a barbershop and divided his time between it and the homestead, leaving Mama with us three kids alone much of the time to satisfy the requirement of residence on the land needed to prove it up. While we were surrounded by prairie when we lived in Crosby, on the homestead we became a part of that treeless plain. The tallest thing growing there was the lowly wild rose bush.
Eva remained in Crosby with Grandma Hering to go to school, as there was none in Westby yet. Through barber customers Papa took a rough census of the children needing a school. Mamma corresponded with the county office in Plentywood. Thus it was through our parentsí efforts that a two-room school with well-qualified teachers was ready by the time I started in September 1914.
The folks built a three-room house in town in which we lived during the severe winter months. In the early fall and late spring we walked across the two and a half miles or so of prairie to school morning and evening. The only home we passed was the lonely shack of a widow, Mrs. Sullivan, who owned a talking dog - so she said. He could bark out, "You know" when she asked him if he wanted a bone. So she named her dog You Know.
Not far from Mrs. Sullivanís shack was what seemed to me to be huge black shiny rock. One side of it was rough enough to climb to the top. The other was sloping and smooth as glass. It was great fun to climb up one side and slide down the other.
Remote as we were geographically, and without newspapers, magazines, radio, telephone or any later modes of communication, still evidences of what was going on in Washington D.C or on Broadway touched our lives. When Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States a small humpback plush bear named Teddy became popular. Eva received one from Grandma Hering and still has it along with a picture taken of her holding it. Later she and I both had Alice blue dresses with sashes and ribbons - also gifts from Grandma. The name of the color was in honor of the Presidentís popular daughter, Alice, who later married Nicholas Longsworth, longtime speaker of the House of Representatives. She still lives in Washington D.C. where her home was recently pointed out to me. A group of entertainers on Broadway known as the Flora Dora Girls were popular and a beautiful doll was fashioned and named for them. Eva also got one of these from Grandma. It was a traumatic experience when I broke it while tossing it into one bed while I stood on the other bed nearby.
Our lonely, isolated life on the claim was relieved by our lively imaginations and creative play. We played house in rings of stones we found on the prairie. We were sure these were left by Indians when they had their teepees there. An Indian grave marked by a heap of stones was atop a small hill near our place.
One game we never tired of playing was "Phlegm Gowns". To play this we would hack and spit and then describe in great extravagant detail the gown the spitting brought forth and which we were wearing. We vied with each other in telling of rich satins, velvets, ruffles, lace and jeweled accessories from head to toe. Our love for and perhaps longing for beautiful things and for companionship probably prompted our paper doll fun too. We cut out figures from the Sears Roebuck catalog and arranged them to represent whole families - uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and all. We went calling and entertained visitors; we played tragic events and had celebrations, keeping the identities of the families and their members in mind and in character. They were carefully put away in shoeboxes and stored under the bed. The bed was also used in our play. We were forced to sit on it while playing because the floor was too cold.
That same Sears catalog became the source of staple food for our family. From time to time Mamma would place an order and we would be thrilled to open the box when it came. It might contain such things as apple butter and preserves put up in earthen jars with their lids fastened on with a wire clamp over the top. I also remember crackers both graham and soda in wooden boxes which were later used for kindling. Fig Newtons were a special treat in the order. There were also dried apples, peaches, apricots, raisins, and prunes. These supplied a real need in a land where no fruits and few vegetables grew. I often think we must have suffered diet deficiencies not even realized. I remember one summer day when I roamed the prairie eating wild rose petals until my tongue turned black and I nearly scared Mamma to death. Perhaps needed vitamins and minerals were supplied in this way.
Mamma did a good job of making do with little; but it took a lot of hard work. She baked bread using an oven in the stovepipe. As I remember it, it was like a big bulge in the pipe containing a shelf and a door. It was about eye height for her and she had to have the fire good and hot to get enough heat going up the pipe. The kids gathered fuel from the prairie in the form of cow chips left by range cattle, which roamed the land shortly before we took it. Perhaps some of them dropped from buffalo!
A few errant cattle once trampled Mammaís precious vegetable garden. The short growing season limited the foods we could raise to lettuce, cabbage, and root crops. Now-a-days Iím told that hybrid varieties permit that area to grow many crops.
Other tragedies struck down Mammaís efforts to feed her family. We all cried when a weasel got into our chicken coop and sucked the blood from her Buff Orpington chickens, and when a cyclone destroyed the chicken house and chickens at another time. It must have been during the same storm that we huddled under the cellar steps. The shack rose several inches from the ground in the wind. Papa stood ready with a mattress to protect us from hail should the shack be blown away.
Water was another scarce item. Our shallow well yielded nothing but alkali water which was useless. Uncle Hank, Granma Heringís brother, hauled us a barrelful a week from his homestead several miles away. This had to do for drinking, bathing, washing, and cooking. We were glad to supplement it with snow water in winter or with rainwater which was seldom supplied. We also made use of the water from a beautiful little slough which retained snow water for a brief time in spring. Later the ditch along a railroad also held water a while in the spring and carrying it to the house was the job of all who could carry a bucket of any size.
It rains little on the prairie and this dry condition made prairie fires a constant threat in summer. Our shack, as well as those of other settlers, was banked by a wall of dirt as high as the windows and faced with stones. Also, we had several furrows plowed in a ring around the house for a firebreak. We were glad for our protection when a fire broke out south of us. Papa was home and we kids were left alone while he and Mamma along with others who saw the smoke went to fight it with gunny sacks and brooms used as beaters. They came back hours later blackened and exhausted.
There was little cause for fear from nature on the prairie. The coyotes kept a safe distance away from where we could hear their howling at night. It sounded like a group of children at play. What snakes there were were harmless garter snakes. The prairie dogs (we called them gophers) lived in colonies evidenced by piles of dirt at the mouths of their burrows. As we approached a sentinel would whistle a warning and all would disappear under ground. The lanky, long-eared jack rabbits loped off before we got near them. Really it was a beautiful expansive place with the almost constant wind waving the high grasses under the bluest sky in the world.
A low cushion variety of cactus grew here and there. I picked out an especially nice one and called it mine. When Aunt Eve, who was Grandpa Plunkettís sister, came to visit Grandma Hering in Crosby, they also came out to our place. Mamma wanted to send something back to Indiana with her so I gave her my cactus - reluctantly.
Someone gave me a little yellow puppy soon after we moved to the homestead. I coined the name Limatola for her but the rest of the family didnít think that a proper one so she was renamed Goldie. She grew to be a huge, gentle St. Bernard who needed far more food than we could supply and who was a prolific female. She delighted in playing in the snow with me. She would take the sled rope in her mouth and running backward, would haul me all around in the trackless snow. One day I came home to find that Goldie had been "lost on the prairie" as the folks explained rather lamely. I never really believed it.
The prairie showed its unpleasant and dangerous face during the winter. Sudden, blinding, and prolonged blizzards with plunging temperatures forced us to leave the country and go to our little house in Westby. Virgil recalls, through Papaís brother Charlie, a story of how Papa, alone in the shack one winter night, sawed a pole or a beam into slices to burn in the stove. The exercise as well as the heat kept him from freezing to death.
The summer of 1915 had been a puzzling one and a hard one for all of us. Mamma had not been well and stayed in bed much of the time. On December 5 when we got home from school we were met at the door and told that we had a new baby brother. We named him Elmer Virgil. He was a small baby, only weighing four and a half pounds, and not very strong, but he grew rapidly and I remember caring for him during the next summer.
From this point on my memories seem to be of many illnesses. Papa had to leave the family and go by train to Kenmare, North Dakota for gallbladder surgery. It was a sad tearful time. Right after he left I went to the organ and played "I Must Tell Jesus" with one finger by ear. Later that winter I was sent over to Mrs. Kingís house next door upon returning home from school, because Virgil, who was sick with pneumonia, was in crisis and near death. He passed the crisis and the doctor gave credit for his recovery to excellent nursing care. Of course, there were no antibiotics or hospitals then. Papa had not worked for a long time due to his and the babyís illnesses. Food was scanty, the winter long and dark. The family gathering around the organ and singing while Mamma played or our listening to Papa play such lively tunes as "Arkansas Traveler" or "Pop Goes the Weasel" on his fiddle or our listening to Mamma read aloud to us were our only diversions.
Spring came suddenly with Chinook winds honeycombing the banks of crusted snow. Impatient pasque flowers (we called them crocuses) poked their fuzzy leaves through the last traces of snow and were followed by equally downy lavender blossoms with sunny centers. Long summer days found us back on the homestead. The Soo railroad was moving westward across our claim between the shack and the forty acres that had been cleared of rocks, ploughed, and planted to flax. We gained financially that summer from the payment for the right-of-way and the next from damages paid to us because of locomotive sparks setting fire to the ripening flax. That was probably the most income ever derived from the homestead.
The railroad proved to be a link with the outside world for us kids. When we heard a train coming we would race down near the tracks and wave to the crew and passengers as it hurried past. A few times pieces of fruit were tossed to us.
Speaking of flax, I remember it as one of the most beautiful sights Iíve ever seen when in bloom. The blue blossoms turn their faces straight up to the sun and the whole field resembles a simmering blue lake as the prairie winds sweep over them.
When I was a child the Fourth of July was celebrated properly. There would be a speech from a bunting-draped platform, picnics, races, and then fireworks at home with Papa lighting the fuses and enjoying them most of all. Also there would be some big community spectacular. The one I remember best must have been in 1916 or 1917. World War I was in progress and airplanes were just coming into use. None of us had ever seen one. A barnstorming pilot had been engaged to make a flight in his biplane. The biggest crowd I had seen gathered in a field east of town. A helper spun the propeller while the pilot sat in the cockpit. The motor started, the plane moved forward, lifted from the ground, reached a height of thirty feet or so, flew about hundred feet, lost altitude and dropped to the ground. Luckily the pilot was unhurt and we were all thrilled to death.
Celebrations were a weekly affair for the crew who built the railroad. Their camp was about a mile west of the shack on the homestead. The stillness of the early Saturday evening was broken by the good-natured laughter of Irishmen and the spring wagon they rode past our place on their way to a blind pig two or three miles south east of us. Late at night Mamma, who was alone with us children, was relieved when they had gone by with drunken hilarity on their was back to camp. One Saturday evening started out as usual but, to our surprise, we heard the sound of the wagon and saw it returning through the northern summer late evening twilight. No hilarity was in the voices we heard - only an ominous low mumble. To our horror, the wagon turned off the road and made its way toward the shack. We could see then that one man sat with anotherís head on his lap. The head of the latter was bleeding profusely. The man who was apparently the boss approached Mamma and asked her to dress the wounded oneís head. Too frightened to do otherwise, she prepared a Lysol solution, bathed, and bound up his head. We all stood around silently watching and Mamma broke into tears of relief as they drove on west with the head of the injured one cradled in the lap of the man we believed to be responsible for the injury. Through the years we recalled the incident and always felt that Mamma had escaped a potentially dangerous situation.
Over forty years later when the road in front our house in Pekin, Illinois was being widened a construction foreman sat in the shade of our ash tree to eat his lunch. I chanced to be outside and we struck up a conversation in which I mentioned where we had lived in Montana. I was surprised to learn that he knew the area well and had done roadwork there. I related the story of the railroad crew and expressed our certainty that Mamma had had a narrow escape. He told me that, on the contrary, if one man had made a move toward molesting Mamma the others would have laid him low. He said that, rough as they were, there was a code among them that protects virtuous women and children.
The harsh climate of the area in the northeast corner of Montana (actually Westby is on the North Dakota line and seven miles from the Canadian border) affected our lives greatly. Our shelter was unsuitable in every way. We lived in a half tent while our shack was being completed. That unlined and un-insulated shack which was heated with a small stove in which we burned cow chips and lignite coal, was never comfortably warm and neither was the house in town. The coal was mined at Coalridge some miles south of us and was a source of wonder to us. It was a soft brownish coal in state of development between peat and hard black coal. That it had been logs in ages past was evidenced by the wood grain and an occasional leaf imprint. We were intrigued by the leaves, never having seen any tree leaves. Papa gave us a science lesson on fossil fuels while Iím sure he enjoyed the nostalgia of the sight of tree leaves while living in that barren land.
One day I arrived home from school which was only a short distance away for lunch. Papa had not gone to work that day and needed some tacks for a fix-up job at home. I was sent to the store, some distance away, to buy them. The dry cold is deceptive or Iím sure I wouldnít have been sent. At any rate, while returning I got so cold I could hardly stumble along. The tears froze in my eyelashes and I barley made it home. When I got there the folks quickly removed my shoes and stockings to discover that my toes, heels, and the outside of my feet were white indicating that they were frozen. They were rubbed with snow, the theory then being that they should be thawed slowly. I was given hot water with milk and sugar in it to drink. Every year until I was grown and lived in a centrally heated house with warm floors I suffered with chilblains to remind me of that experience.
In the summer of 1918 with the barber business ruined due to most of the young customers being off to war, another wheat crop failure because of drought, and Papaís poor health our family made plans to go back to Illinois to Grandma Hinshawís near Danvers. Grandpa had died the year before. We were a little late getting started and Mamma, Don, Virgil, and I took the train to a place near Fargo, North Dakota where Papaís oldest sister, Emma, lived. Eva was living with Grandma and Grandpa Hering in Joplin, Missouri and Papa stayed to settle up unfinished business. He intended to follow shortly, and then we would travel the rest of the way together.
A threshing crew was harvesting wheat at Aunt Emmaís. The crew that traveled from farm to farm was complete with a cook car. Good old Aunt Emma, thoí, made dozens and dozens of molasses cookies for the crew and us. We were in the Red River Valley and potato harvest was underway. There were mechanical diggers but the spuds had to be picked up by hand. The job paid five cents per bushel and I earned my first money -- $1.60!
We had a letter from Papa saying that Spanish Influenza (flu) had broken out in Westby and that he wouldnít leave there until he was safely over it. We were about fourteen miles from town so unless someone brought us the bug we felt relatively safe. We were living in a houseful including Aunt Emma and Uncle Harry Harmon, their older daughter, Nellie, and her husband, Frank Lemons, and their little boy as well as my cousin Esther who was my age. More letters brought bad news about townspeople in Westby being ill or dying with the flu and the schoolhouse being used for a hospital. Still Papa stayed well. Time went on and Don and I went to country school with Esther for three weeks. Finally Papa decided that he was going to be one of the lucky ones who escaped the disease and came to us. And when he arrived he had it! He recovered and all the rest of us except Uncle Harry came down with it. Frank had a light case but Nellie took pneumonia and nearly died. At one time there were nine of us sick and two men to take care of us and we were many miles from an already over-worked doctor. By that time many people in that area had the flu.
During this time the Armistice bringing World War I to a close was signed but we heard no bells.
Finally on December 17, three months after we left Westby, we arrived in Illinois. It was a mild winter and we thought we were in paradise!
Courtesy of David W. Jones
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