Prairie Childhood, A Memoir By Anna M. Nickol – Chapter One

Editors note: We hope you enjoy this story by Anna M. Nickol (1909-2005) about her family’s homestead in Toole County, MT. E-City Beat will publish the story a chapter at a time as they become available from Anna’s nephew Greg Nickol as he transcribes from the original book publication.

Prairie Childhood, a Memoir by Anna M. Nickol

Chapter One

It was a long way from the naked earth of our November yard to the spring seat of a wagon fitted out with box and top box.  I was smaller than the average “long” two-year-old and still under the half-way mark between two and three.

I stood in the grainy, unwarmed dust and waited while my brother Lee and two sisters, all older than I, climbed up the brake shoes and into the wagon.

There were five grownups in the fourteen-by-twenty homestead shack, a few short steps from where the wagon and team waited: my parents, my mother’s younger brother and sister, and a tall neighbor who also been a neighbor of ours in Minnesota, a year and a half before.

I recognize this information as deduction and the aid granted me by the memories of other people.  My own memory embraces standing beside the wagon, waiting, while the already gentled team of cayuse dozed, the driving lines snug around the hub of a front wheel.

It was November 26, 1911.  Any memories of Minnesota that I might have had were already gone.  Within the next few years I was to hear my brother and sisters comparing notes on their memories of our former home: of the larger, rough boy who would take Lee riding in his toy wagon, only to turn a sharp corner unexpectedly and spill his screaming passenger in the road.  Or a teenage girl name Mat Hilda, who would rejoice my sisters with glimpses of her finery.  As to me, my Minnesota infancy was forever a sealed book.  In the years to come, my earliest memory was always of the November day I stood beside the wagon, waiting in fear from some event I couldn’t understand.

The tall neighbor came out of the house and spoke to me jovially.  He placed his brown hands lightly under my arms and swung me up, up into the spring seat.  I sat motionless, completely petrified by being up there so high, alone.

Why hadn’t he put me in the box in back, with my brother and sisters?  What if I should fall?

My young aunt came out of the house and, with some assistance from our neighbor, climbed up into the spring seat beside me.  Our neighbor swung himself up into the seat, and we rode away.  Where were we going?  Why weren’t our parents with us?

We didn’t go far.  I knew the place, even then, for it was a mere quarter of a mile away and in full sight of our home.  It was a much smaller homestead shack which belonged to the neighbor who took us there.  He helped us out of the wagon, our young aunt with us, and left immediately.

Later, I was to learn from my aunt that when he returned to our home, he mounted one horse, our uncle the other, and they rode in opposite directions, in search of a midwife whose services had been spoken for.  My uncle had been to her home and back, which probably explained why the team was hitched, while our elders conferred on the next move.  Both the young men were unmarried and possible embarrassed by their mission.  But they did their best, futilely.

For us, the adventure was interesting and pleasant, if a little too prolonged.  Our neighbor was a cheerful, wry young man.  His walls were prepared with picture postcards from girls, some of them celebrated, beauteous and bosomy blondes, and on these he had centered his target practice in his hours of boredom.  He would like on his bed with a .22 rifle and test his aim.  At times it was excellent.

This, among other observations I shall make of him and his shack, came later.  I do remember the picture postcards from that day and his sag-springed bed on which we were allowed to play as much as we liked.  This memory must have been fixed by the fact of our mother’s unwavering prohibition against romping on beds.  After all, she washed that bedding frequently, in water carried or hauled in a barrel on a stone boat from a reservoir a quarter of a mile distant, in roughly the opposite direction from our home.  Our neighbor carried his water supply a half mile but he was less fastidious.

His sanitary arrangement was unique.  It consisted of two walls, one to the north, the other to the west, out of respect for the prevailing winds and his nearest neighbors.  A log about six inches in diameter was spiked across the hypotenuse of the walls and at a convenient seating height.  One felt a greater security, at least, from the fact that there was no pit to fall in.  But being taken to it was a fearful adventure for a young child.

His refrigerator was a small wooden box nailed under the eaves at the northeast corner of his shack.  Morning and evening in summer were the only times the sun reached that far, and in those hours it wasn’t strong enough to warm the box.  His butter kept very well.

Another early memory is of being lifted by my six-year-old sister so I could see a fly-catcher’s white eggs, in a grass next in that box, another pleasant memory.

The day wore on and we wanted to go home.  Our aunt assured us we must wait until someone came for us.  So, wait we did, and I can’t recall the hour of our return.  When we did, everything was strange.  We were cautioned to be quiet so as not to awaken our new baby brother who looked small to us, though the grownups said he weighed twelve pounds.  Our mother was in bed, and a pleasant-faced neighbor who me we knew from earlier visits was bustling about.

My aunt told me later that our brother had been born some time before the midwife came, though after we were grown and we met the lady again, she assured us that she had delivered Fred.  But he was a sixth child and probably needed no help making his advent into this world, just tidying up after.  This could have been what she meant.

It was during one of these earliest years that our father pastured a gray stallion in the “forty” which remained as grass land, just west of the house.  Garden, well, and new reservoir (whose dam covered the test hole for a well on which the men were working when the ladies struck water) were a part of the forty but divided from the sod by a double strand, barbed wire fence.  In spring, water was backed by the dam into the pasture and animals kept there had access to it.  We were, of course, doubly cautioned to stay out of the pasture and away from that stallion.

One lovely late spring day, Sue and I discovered that the slope above the shallow end of the reservoir and just inside the pasture was carpeted with white daisies.  We stood outside the fence and wished.  By and by, we noticed that the stallion was almost as far away as forty acres would permit.  He was gracing quietly, close to the mail box, which was set on a post of the west fence.  He wasn’t even facing our way.

We ducked under the barbed wire and began picking daisies as fact as four small hands could grab and pull, when we heard thundering hooves and looked up to see the stallion hurrying to investigate something new.  Never did two little girls move faster.  Sue was older, so she reached the fence first.  I was so anxious to be back on the safe side of the fence that I straightened up too soon and tore a four-inch angle in the back of my dress.  And how was I explain that to my mother?

The Hoffmans* had a second stallion, red, named Casey.  He was pastured on the school section east of us, a pasture Mother had to cross when she went to visit Mrs. Hoffman.  That lady’s friendliness and kindness won my mother’s lasting loyalty.

We picked mushrooms for her when she came to see us and she taught mother how to recognize the edible ones and how to cook them.  She approved our new dam, in its second year, because it was quickly grassed over.  “It won’t wash out,” she predicted.  “It has good growth on it.”  She was right.  It’s still there.

After we at last had Pet, the buckskin mare, she became a handy cart horse.  One day I sat in the basket of the “road cart” while mother went to visit Mrs. Hoffman.  She stopped to open the wire gate and looked all around, anxiously, before driving the mare through.  She was talking more to herself than to me when she muttered something about hoping that Casey wouldn’t see us cross the pasture.  He didn’t.  But each time she crossed, she kept Pet going a smart pace so as to angle that section in as little time as anything less than a race horse could hope to do it.  Pet didn’t mind.  She never seemed aware of Casey’s existence.

Two and a half miles away, northeast, lived the “old time” family from whom our father had bought his horses.  He had an eye for horse flesh and skill for its shaping.  He bought a pair of matched grays, mare and gelding, whom he named Daisy and Dash.  The neighbor assured us that Dash already had a name.  He was Soogan.  Soogan he remained until his death many years later, though our mother considered it a barbarian appellation.  But a Soogan he might have become, if, at the time of the horse’s death, Dad had had the twenty dollars’ fee for having the hid made into a robe.  He didn’t, and the robe was forfeit.

The other team was mare and gelding, too, a beautiful nervous red mare and a sorrel gelding with a wide, white face and four white stockings.  They were Lucy and Bally.  Bally had been broken to ride in the spring of 1909, during roundup.  He was too young and was forever after sway-backed but he was endlessly good-natured, if lazy, and he was to be trusted with children a great many times in his long, long life.

With the purchase of horses for farm work, our father received as a bonus an old white horse named Frank.  He had been a children’s horse and was imperturbable.  In the summer of 1912, my older brother, my sisters, and I hauled water from the reservoir a quarter of a mile away.  I have no recollection of doing any of the work and suspect that my oldest sister did most of it.  But the rest of us went along and probably lent her moral support.

One day Leed said, “Bet you don’t dare run under Frank’s belly.”

“Betcha I do!” I crowed, and did it before Clare** could offer objection.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have, anyway.  She, also, was all but imperturbable.

As the patient, steady old horse leaned into the chest strap and tightened up the tugs. Lee challenged again:  “Betcha don’t dare go under him while he’s walking!”

“Betcha I do!” I responded smartly, and as Frank plodded up the hill, I dashed through between his weary feet.  I scarcely had to duck my head.  Frank probably stepped a little more carefully, for he never touched me; and though my timid heart beat faster, I had triumphed over a dare.

It was Frank’s last summer.  As he tottered into a pathetic decline, becoming feeble and hopelessly lousy, our father led him “over the hill” so we wouldn’t have to witness the deed, and put a merciful bullet through his brain.  I heard the shot.  For years thereafter, we had no riding horse.

The need for a household horse (since one of the work horses had been broken to the saddle before he’d ever been hitched to a plow), had lessened, since at no time, until they were successful, did my parents stop testing for a well.  There was a test hole at the north extremity of our “house lot,” an acre casually enclosed by a barbed wire fence.  If kids strayed within that boundary, they were in no danger of being run over by the work horses, in the daily tripos from water to the barn.  Theoretically, kids stayed within those limits, at least during certain hours of the day.  Of course, they were forbidden to lift the rock which closed the test hole.

Our memory of rules was faulty.  We pushed or lifted, according to our strength, individually or collectively, this keystone of a familiar and beloved danger, as often as we could be reasonably sure we weren’t being observed, and gazed down into those fearsome depths….or at least we did until removal of the rock revealed only a bowl-shaped depression.  Winter caused the slender shaft to cave in and close forever the mysterious depths.

One day, when all alone, I lifted the rock and found a scorpion under it.  I didn’t know what it was but among all the things one finds under rocks, I liked it least.  So I never looked under that particular stone again.

So much for the test hole.  Another I remember was across the coulee to the west and almost to the top of the hill.  Soon after, the coulee was dammed and the reservoir still exists though it is often dry in the latter parts of the intervening summers.  The west end of the dam closed and forever covered that test hole, which was the work of our father, Mother’s brother, and the neighbor in whose house we waited for Fred’s birth.  Before the men had quite given up on their disappointing drill work, Mother and her sister sang out: “Water!” and men and children came running to see.

The well*** still exists and supplies a household.  It was too far from the original house to be convenient, though it certainly was preferable to the reservoir some three times the distance, down the coulee.  After the well was put into service, everybody carried water.  Neighbors who lived at a distance of a mile or more carried their drinking water from that well.  In time, we had another horse and another stone boat, and again, kids hauled water up the hill.

*The Hoffmans ranched at the mouth of a large coulee, north of the Nickol homestead, on the Marias River.  Known since as “The Hoffman Coulee,” it was home to a horse ranch that raised mounts for the U.S. Cavalry, through World War I.  Until the construction of Tiber Dam in the mid nineteen-fifties, and the home’s final destruction, there existed what seemed in those days, a huge mansion whose parlor supported a decrepit Steinway square grand piano, one of its legs broken, probably by a cow.

**Clare was the second oldest Nickol child.  The oldest, Anna Kunegunda (this name the 6,000,947th most popular name in the world), died at birth and his buried in the Spring Hill Catholic Cemetery, Spring Hill, Minnesota.

***Although the well, the only one for many miles thereabouts, may again be “wet,” it went dry several years ago and was replaced by the Tiber Rural Water System.

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Greg Nickol
Greg Nickol is Great Falls businessman, entrepreneur and concerned citizen.

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