Armchair Homesteading – Grace McCance Snyder

Grace McCance Snyder moved with her family to homestead in Nebraska in 1885, when she was three years old.  She lived there all her life, (except for four years in Oregon) and wrote her memoirs of life in the sandhills when she was 80, and lived another 20 years after that!

So many history books about women in the Westward Movement emphasize how lonely the women must have been, how much they must have longed for the more civilized East they had left.  That may have been true for Grace’s mother as she remembered her home in Missouri, but Grace herself loved life on the prairie.  But her memoirs are not sentimental or prettied up; she writes about hard work, injuries, and loss unflinchingly, but through it all runs the stream of independence and capability that prairie life nourished.

Her book No Time on My Hands is one of my favorites, and I read it every few years.   This is one of the passages that has stuck with me, her recollection of herself and her older sister given responsibility for tracking the turkeys:

And that spring the carefree days of hours-long play in the canyons ended for Florry and me [Grace was about 5 and Florry about 7].  Poppie said we were big enough now to help with the chores, and Mama said it was a good thing, for it was time to start looking for turkey nests and we could help with that.

For plain outright aggravation there are few jobs to match that of trailing turkey hens to their nests.  Guided by a stubborn wild instinct, the hens insisted on straying far from home to lay in hidden places, where snakes and skunks ate the eggs and coyotes snared the hens themselves off the nests when they started setting.  For their own protection, we had to find the nests as soon as possible, and then go every day to collect the eggs.  Mama had only eight or ten hens that spring, but later, when she kept twenty or thirty, finding so many nests turned out to be a tough job for Florry and me.

Wild turkeys.

Wild turkeys.

The hens would stroll the prairie for hours, acting as if they had nowhere to go and nothing to do.  Now and then they’d stick their silly heads up high, looking and listening, and if they suspected we were watching they’d go on strolling for hours longer.  Sometimes we sat watching a hen for a solid half day, and then somehow missed her when she slipped, like the shadow of a cloud, into some patch of brush or tall grass and disappeared.  Though we’d hunt and hunt all around the spot where we last saw her, the nest always turned out to be some other place, a long way off.  We’d settle down to watch for her to show up again, hoping we could find the nest somewhere nearby.  But we never seemed to be looking in the right place.  One minute the flat would be empty, the next the hen, her laying done, would be grazing in the middle of it, nowhere near shelter of any kind….

Mama went with us to each new nest we found, brushed away the grass and leaves the hen kicked over it as she left, and gathered the eggs.  She always left a chicken egg in their place because, if we left the nest empty, the hen would leave it and hide out another one….

As fast as the hens turned broody, Mama brought them in from the canyons and set them in kegs and barrels in the yard….Setting by setting, the turkeys’ eggs hatched and the hens and their broods traveled together, the proud old gobbler pacing ahead of them, his chest stuck out and his long beard swinging.

Turkey gobbler.

Turkey gobbler.

Ranging farther and farther as the days went by, they always came back to the barnyard at sundown, where the hens hovered their babies on the ground and the gobbler kept his night watch from the stable ridgepole above them.

from Chapter 3

One of those dates from history that is etched into my brain is 1874 – Glidden’s barbed wire.  (I see from Wikipedia there was an earlier patent, but Glidden’s is still considered the one that caught on.)  (“Caught on,” hee hee hee.)  So Grace’s family could have had barbed wire, but of course that wouldn’t be helpful with turkeys, and, living on the prairie, they had no source of wood for fence posts. Some of her other stories are about herding the cows and trying to keep them out of the corn field all day.  I just never thought about how hard it would be to raise animals with no fence!

When Grace was eighteen, she went to summer school and got a teaching certificate.  Then she took a job in a remote area of the state, where she would have only two students.  After traveling from sun-up to sundown in the mailman’s wagon, Grace is met by the woman of family that hired her, and driven eight more miles in the dark to the ranch house.  After showing Grace the kitchen and parlor/bedroom, the lady continues her house tour:

‘This will be your room,’ she told me, opening the door to a room furnished with two double beds, a dresser and a table. ‘We only have three rooms, so the boys have to sleep in here, too.  I hope you don’t mind.  You’ll have to hold school in here too.  It’s the only room where you can be by yourselves and have it quiet.’  She went out and shut the door.

I sat down on my bad and put my head in my hands.  The day had seemed a week long.

from Chapter 25

I cannot imagine that teaching life.  Being dependent on the family for meals, having to share a room with kids!  And then being snowed in with them all winter.  Grace said that the thing that saved her that winter was working on a quilt.

Throughout her busy life, Grace made many quilts.  Some of them, for family members, were “ordinary’ quilts, but others were intended for exhibition, and they are phenomenal.  The best-known one has 87,789 pieces!  The quilts were exhibited and published, and were well-known to women around the country in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  You can see them, and read more about her life here.