American Dreams at The Prairie Homestead
Roadside billboards for Wall Drug Store try for my attention, but they can’t compete with the disorderly parade of cotton candy clouds marching to and fro across the boundless blue sky. It was probably mornings like this one that allowed South Dakota prairie pioneers to envision bountiful harvests during the few short years when claim shacks – each on its 160-acre plat – dotted the sparse landscapes that surround the pinnacles and crevasses that create the park’s one-of-a-kind topography.
It may be hard for anyone standing in front of the rough planked entrance of the Prairie Homestead to believe, but this dirt-floored shanty dug into a hillside represented the “American dream” for thousands of families who were among the last white settlers to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862. At the beginning of the 20th century, these northern high plains – until recently the domain of the Sioux – were the nation’s newest “land of opportunity,” with railroad lines in place and towns already named – even if they existed only on paper.
The land was free to those who could improve it – and the glowing ads made it seem certain that anyone with a little gumption would find quick success farming the fertile Dakota prairie. To have land and a home of your own – 100 years later, the dream still resonates.
Yet, visitors to the Prairie Homestead are likely to come away not with a dream, but with a new understanding of the gritty reality that Ed and Alice Brown, along with their grown son, Charles, faced in the fall of 1909 when they pulled their covered wagon up to their newly claimed 160 acres.
Even on this beautiful June morning, this ground is certainly not the stuff of an Iowa or Illinois cornfield. It’s probably not even equal to the fields surrounding the eastern Nebraska town of Pierce, where the Browns came from.
The Brown family, along with close to a million more, spent the next few years fighting a mostly losing battle with the brutal elements that rule this rugged landscape. You might harvest a crop – if grasshoppers, hailstorms or drought didn’t destroy it first. Add on the blizzards, rattlesnakes, searing heat, merciless cold, ceaseless wind – by the end of 1916, only a handful of homesteaders remained. Area ranchers are often descendants of those who, through luck and perseverance, were able to slowly buy up the thousands of acres needed to maintain what, even today, is a precarious livelihood of raising cattle.
The Browns aren’t one of those big ranching families, though their original homestead stands as a monument to the area’s pioneer heritage. Ed died in 1920, and Alice and Charlie moved to California in the mid-30s. A neighbor, George Carr, rented the place until 1949; then it stood empty until the early 1960s.
With its sturdy roof and solid foundation, the Brown soddy was better built than most. And perhaps that is the most credible explanation as to why this particular homestead managed to remain serviceable for such a long period.
History lovers will marvel at these tiny unadorned rooms with their meager lineup of furniture and household goods. It’s a timely lesson on how little the common people who turned America into a “land of plenty” actually possessed. And one can draw a similar lesson from the thousands of families that walked away from their prairie dream home. In fact, the Homestead provides a good history lesson of how the American promise has waxed and waned throughout history.
It’s almost the Fourth of July, and carloads of vacationers are criss-crossing the state. The Homestead, with its antique farm equipment, a couple of mini-horses, a laid-back goat, an old Model T – along with rare white prairie dogs – is an easy, entertaining stop for kids needing to run off a little energy.
A few youngsters, playing “dress-up” in pioneer clothes visitors can borrow, are laughing and running in front of me. After a relaxed walk up to the house and around the grounds, I am a little starry-eyed with half-baked notions about the charms of the simple life.
The more profound take-away is a sharper appreciation of our nation’s ongoing story and a valuable insight into what has always – through good times and bad – been the foundation for the American dream: It’s not the land that matters the most. Whatever the hardships and whatever the successes or failures – it’s about the opportunity.