SEVEN SISTERS HOMESTEADING IN SOUTH DAKOTA (1910-1918)
BY COLLEEN M. O'CONNOR
Historians dream of finding one individual who not only represents the sweep of the times in which he or she lived, but also remains undiscovered and interesting. To find seven sisters that fit this description is extraordinary.The seven Klein sisters of Waverly, South Dakota are such a find. The sisters were all homesteaders in the Dakotas; first on their father's claim, then on their husbands'. In between, four of them homesteaded, as single women from 1909 until 1918. They successfully "proved up" their claims and took title under President Woodrow Wilson.1These four each considered their time as homesteading single women to be the "best years of my life."2 They possessed the usual survival skills of frontier women and collected other interesting ones. Added together, they became trained seamstresses, teachers, wives, mothers, farmers, a basketball player and at least two were "crack shots" with a rifle.3 They sang, danced, picnicked, and went on a one month camping trip into the Black Hills before Mt. Rushmore existed.In a sense they represent the usual and the unusual. They and their female offspring track almost perfectly with the sweep of the history of women in the late 19th and 20th centuries. They came with the last crest of homesteaders before World War I and suffered the death of one sister in the influenza epidemic in 1918. Another lived until the age of 92. Just one of those sisters, Katharine ("Kate") Klein, herself a suffragette, produced seven daughters; all of whom became Registered Nurses. These women, who as youngsters, also worked on the family homestead in North Dakota, went on to become Professors of Nursing, teachers, and one earned a private pilot's license. The next generation of Kate's female offspring (her granddaughters) include the first woman elected Mayor of San Diego, a county commissioner, a Professor of History, wives, mothers, lawyers and owners of hotels. This is a brief look at seven sisters who homesteaded their entire lives; four of them as single women on their own land. Their uniqueness lies in the reasons they defied their parents, convention and the maleness of homesteading and actually beat the railroads to their destination. The "Klein girls," as they were called, homesteaded for the same reasons that men did; freedom, a chance at adventure and the right to choose their own mates (or not), even though they were considered past their marriageable prime."
More interesting still, they had fun. They danced until the sun came up, picnicked frequently, hunted for wild berries, branded cattle, shot their dinner, rode teams of horses through mud, snow, windstorms and hail, then took a month long camping trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota and "saw some country. And had a fine time.
Traditional popular history contains lots about frontier life in the American West and about the stereotypical women on the Plains; i.e., the long suffering wife and helpmate; an occasional Annie Oakley; and the saloon type made famous by the character "Kitty" on television's Gunsmoke series. Less has been written, even by contemporary historians, of those women whose reasons for going west were as complicated and simple as those of the men around them. Dr. Quinn. Medicine Woman and Crystal have tried to move television forward, but rarely has western woman's drive for freedom been portrayed as equal to that of men's. The Klein sisters are the exception. They wanted a hand in their own fate and took it. They loved being independent. Contrary to popular misconceptions, these single women "were free of widespread criticism by their contemporaries. Indeed, many women envied them.
Having worked as hard as the men on their family homestead in Waverly, South Dakota and having acquired additional skills required of all females at the turn of the century, the Klein sisters came to the "newest frontier" decidedly well equipped to survive the hardships of the Dakotas. They could farm, sew, thresh, and teach school. They each owned a rifle and they shot what they needed to eat; "rabbits, quail, prairie chickens, antelope.etc."
Adventure and dreams pulled the four single women west. What pushed them was age. Each was near or past their marriageable prime. Two of their three older sisters had already met and chosen their husbands, after acquiring additional skills. Three of them completed seamstress school in Minneapolis and returned to open their own shop in Watertown, South Dakota.
Their father, Peter Klein began looking to the sons of a neighbor's family as possible husbands for his four remaining unwed daughters. His daughters, however, wanted to choose their own mates and definitely wanted to try some adventure before marriage. The federal government provided the escape; opening up land in Faith, South Dakota for all comers 21 years of age or older. Homestead, that "strange malady, "v as it was called, gripped the imagination of lots of women, but not all were as courageous or fortunate as the Klein sisters in realizing an escape and a dream simultaneously.
The youngest sister, Lena recalled their first foray into independence, adventure and their connection to the final wave of homesteading in the Western Plains; "Having arrived in Lemmon in 1909, we were soon approached by a "locator" who, for a fee, would take us into whatever territory we desired and stake out the land." They staked out four 160-acre tracts, returned to eastern South Dakota to prepare to uproot and came back to "build our houses and establish residence."
"A neighbor broke the sod for us." No strangers of hard work, Lena Klein explains how "we took over with our team and wagon and built the four houses (approximately 10' by 12' on the inside) during the summer and fall of 1910. We made trips to Lemmon for the windows and lumber for doors, roofs and floors, although we didn't have floors the first year. We made braided rugs with corn husks and spread them on the hard earth. A layer of sod was piled on the board roofs for warmth in winter and coolness in summer."
The sister's four homesteading claims abutted one another's land, in a simple cross pattern. They built their shacks near the center of the four intersecting corners so that it was but a few steps from one sister's house to the other. They could share food, fire, company and also protect one another. They often stayed the nights together. "The little houses were all furnished about the same with a fold-away bed, a closet for clothes, wood stove, table and chairs, and orange crates for cupboards. We did our washing with tub and washboard - the tub also served as bathtub. Water was no problem-our wells were all at less than 15 feet.... Fuel was scarce. We often had to rely on 'buffalo chips.”Their claims were in "virgin prairie," open enough for cattle and horse rustling, with wild wolves, omnipresent rattlesnakes, one remaining "outlaw buffalo," and enough wild horses to keep dozens of homesteading single men employed to "break" them.13 The Klein sisters, Magdalena ("Lena"), Susanna ("Sue"), Victoria ("Tory") and Mary^^J never complained of hardships, partially because it was exhilarating to be free, white, eligible and away from home. And partially because they lived near a town capable of making lots of young people happy.As Tory's daughter, Margaret Rider remembers, "they really enjoyed their social life;
going into Faith on Friday evening for dinner and always a dance. Church on Sunday and home and back to school on Monday. They loved to dance."
Faith, South Dakota, had an opera house that featured drama, dance bands and "moving pictures with illustrated songs." The local paper screamed,"'MOVING PICTURE SHOW TONIGHT! 4,000 feet of drama-10 cents & 15 cents." It also boasted that the town had "4 general stores, 2 hardware firms, 2 drug stores, 3 banks, 2 newspapers, 3 saloons, 2 pool halls, hotel, lodging, 2 restaurants, 2 implement firms, feed and flour store, 4 livery barns with feed and drayage, 2 blacksmith and wagon shops, harness shop, shoe shop, 3 lumber yards, meat market, and half a dozen real estate men."15 All of it sprang up within months. The town had a cigar store and one of the first women ever to become a "bulk gas dealer" for the standard Oil Company. A barber shop. jail, pharmacist and several churches rounded out the environs. And just to prove this wasn't a backwards settlement, the local gazette even advertised that a "New Rambler for only $1,800.00 equipped with 36 inch wheels, 34 HP Engine [and] a top speed of 40 miles per hour," could be purchased in nearby Spook, South Dakota. This was a lot of horse power for those only accustomed to one. Even the millinery store was fashionable enough to suggest that customers "leave an order for a motor bonnet."
Faith was a boom town, with "ninety three immigrant cars" arriving on the Milwaukee tracks in just sixty days. The 4th of July, 1910 (the first homesteading year) drew a crowd of 2,000 people, with rodeo, wagon races and a baseball game. These homesteaders knew they were a part of history.17Not only was the town inventing and enjoying itself, so, too, were its new occupants. As one local poet penned; "Come as the land is open. Strike while the iron is hot. Grasp life's opportunity. And you'll have an easy lot."18Lots of those new occupants were women, married, single, divorced and widowed. And lots of them had fun. Everyday was an event.
Even the teachers in the one room school house had fun. As one woman remembered about her first year of teaching, "the railroad [was] coming into Faith. It truly seemed to walk in. The Mexicans would lead the procession laying ties, then another crew would lay the rails, a third group drove the spikes into place and the engine brought up the rear. I told the children it was an experience that none of us would ever have again...when the track had reached the spot nearest to the school, we all walked down to see it." Teaching school "wasn't hardship—it was fun."
Sue and Mary and Lena (all school teachers) thought so, too. Tory worked at the golden Hotel in Faith and "took care of the other three girls' livestock etc., while they taught during the week." Tory, too, enjoyed herself. "She did a lot of beautiful crocheting, tatting and knitting as she herded cattle.”
You can tell the measure a person puts on their own life by what they leave behind. Mary KIein's tin strongbox full of papers and photographs, contained a group shot of her high school basketball team (she still shot baskets with her niece's husband at age 70); two deeds to the homesteading property in Faith, South Dakota (her's and her sister, Tory's-signed by President Woodrow Wilson); dozens of old postcard shots of dancing, picnicking, branding and riding near the homestead; copies of her teacher's qualifying exams, some certification course work and copies of class announcements of her students' graduation. The largest collection of photographs and memorabilia, however, centered around the homesteading years 1910-1918. 5 These were photo postcards that one could buy for a penny apiece and mail or keep. Mary kept dozens of them. Photographs of the "Hard Times Dance," that happened in 1910: pictures of her sister, Tory, astride a horse, in full Victorian dress and hat, roping cattle for branding. Others show them with lots of other young men and women outdoors, berry hunting, sitting on fences, watching their cowboys, posing outside the school house with their students, and inside their wagon that took them camping in the Black Hills.2' Mary, the eldest of the homesteaders, was the leader of the exodus West. By all accounts, she was strong-willed, independent, fiercely loyal and dependable. "Mary was the sister they all turned to when there was any trouble or difficulty,'' her nieces recalled.”Mary helped everyone when she wasn't teaching—scarlet fever, new babies—even if she had to travel to Neb. "22 "Her mother never forgave her for taking the girls homesteading,." a her niece recalled. Tall, thin, bespectacled and seemingly free of fear, Mary pulled the others with her. She was also the eldest of the four, the last one to marry and the last one to die—at age 92.
She, like her older sister, Kate supported equal rights for women and sometimes insisted on them. The men "could work on the road for a day or two with their horses moving dirt and pay for their poll tax which was necessary to be able to vote. Mary went to the County Court house and insisted she could do the same. They finally let her do work at the Court house for 2 days to pay hers, whereas mom and the other two just paid their tax.
Mary was the best shot with a rifle (as well as acasketball), the most athletic horsewoman and the possibly the first one to fall in love. Her cowboy, lived on a nearby ranch, left Faith without a trace and never resumed contact. Mary remained steadfast in her attachment to him for almost two decades. When a friend found a man by the same name in a hospital in Oregon, Mary made the arduous trip west and stayed at his side until he died. She married a few years later to a half-sister's widower; at age 44.
Perhaps the happiest memories of Mary, Lena, Tory and Sue Klein came from their month long camping trip to the Black Hills in the fall of 1911. Sue kept a diary of the trip and recounts their difficulty in starting at all. Despite the clipped brevity of the entries, the wonder of discovery, so rare for single women in the lingering years of the Victorian era, comes through her pages. Sept. 6-7, 1911. Started from Mary's shack after dinner. .. Was going to start early in the morning. All got into the wagon. Tory rode FIaxie in front of the wagon to show us the way. Prince wouldn't start. Layed down. Unhitched and hitched to another wagon but Prince wouldn't go. So [a neighbor] got another horse broke it. Then after dinner we started. Got along fine, passed Lemmon Butte and Caton. Camped near Foxridge. It is raining. Are twelve miles from home. Sept 8. It has been foggy all morning. Are finally going to start at eleven o'clock. Drove past Fox Ridge store which was five miles out of our way. I rode Flaxy most of the afternoon, with long slumps and oh, How tired I was. Got to Opal about three o'clock. Stopped to camp at five. .. had a good supper. It is a very pleasant moon light night. We saw a negro getting posts at Opal. Sue recorded novelties in people and landscape as well as the beauty of something seen fresh nearly every day of the trip. Sept. 9.Broke camp at eight, left Horse Creek passed through Sulphur Creek which was the prettiest country we passed. Tall trees along both sides of the creek. Camped for dinner near Stoneview a small town. At two o'clock we passed through Fair Point. Saw a small coal mine. Rode in the wagon, rode Flaxy and walked for a change. We struck a gumbo country and had to camp, but with very little or no feed for the horses. Can see Bare Butte and the Black Hills. Had fair weather all day fine evening. Sept. 10. Sunday, broke camp at 7 o'clock and rode and drove all forenoon through a dry gumbo country no trees nor grass. Saw a sheep herder. Foggy all morning. Crossed Belle Fouche River. Walked over the bridge leading Flaxy. Saw many trees and a nice country. Came to Bare Butte valley. The finest country I have seen. We saw some swell houses and bee hives. Sure fine trees and level land. We are camped near Belle Butte to night on a fine camping spot. Very hot all afternoon. Wrote this when it was to dark to see the lines. The exhilaration and newness of discovery outweighed any fatigue the sisters may have felt. They kept searching, and seeing from "moonrise to sunrise." Sept. 11. Broke camp at 8 this morning, passed throu a fine country. Saw an antilope feeding in a lawn. Came to Fort Mean. From the fort to Sturgis is a very pretty road, tall trees on both sides of the road, fir trees grown on the hills in among the stones. This lane is Lovers Lane. Fine spring of water. We are camped in Sturgis this noon. After dinner we took in the town. At three we started for Deadwood drove through a gulch with pine trees and holders and hills as high as you could see on both sides of the road. Saw a saw mill. Camped at 5 o'clock, us kids thot it was to early for supper, so we walked upon a high hill and looked down upon a saw mill. After that we came back to camp, had supper in the dark. Saw the moon rise over the hills. Could hear the cow bell all evening. Very fine scenery.Nothing bored them. Even the machines of industry, like mills, electric cars, panningfor gold and compressors received notice. Sept. 12. Saw the sun rise in the hill this morning at 6 o'clock had breakfast. Saw some country on the way to Deadwood. Saw a little goat at a ranch. Got to one place in the road where they were blasting rock above us. We also saw a man pan gold. Got to Deadwood at ten looked around town. Houses built up along the hills. Some pretty places,but too hilly to be very nice, would make fine pictures. Had dinner in the Franklin Hotel. Are going to take the electric car out to Lead this after noon. Got to Lead went up into The Farmstake mine. Saw the air compressing machine, the hoists. And where they rushed the rock, where they washed the gold, and also saw where they weighed the balls of gold and quick silver which was in the mills. (The cars in the mines are run by compressed air, 900 Ib pressure.) After that we walked around town had some ice cream soda. At half past four we took the train back to Deadwood. Like Lead better than Deadwood it is a larger town and has nicer buildings. We are camped in the ball grounds about a half mile out of Lead. Sometimes they happened on a "boom town" recently gone bust; a possibility even for the new town of Faith. Sept 13. Left Deadwood this morning drove through Kirk, Anglewood, two small railroad towns past one place where a running spring was by the road with a tub to water the horses. We are camped near Dupont this noon. Saw one fellow clearing the stumps off his land. We drove through Nanette. It is a railroad station and most all the buildings are empty. All along through the hills the houses are most all empty. Rochford is quite a nice place. The Castle Creek runs through it. We saw some trout in the creek and picked choke cherries near this creek. Are camped near Castle Creek can hear the noise of the waters. And trains passing. The sisters did what all tourists do they shopped, went fishing and kept exploring at will. Sept. 14. Drove from Castle creek to Hill City, past Mystic, saw a few mills but were all closed, got to Hill city at five.... After supper we looked around town, went into all the stores. Like this town pretty well. Sept. 15. Still in town, went fishing this morning. We left Hill City after dinner drove to Custer, saw some pretty nice ranches (Got to Custer I pitched the tent first time.) Custer is a pretty place; houses all painted and look well kept. We saw a fire in the woods this afternoon. Passed a saw mill.They even went mountain climbing in full Victorian dress.Sept. 16 Left Custer about eleven and drove to Sylvan Lake, had dinner, after which we started to climb up to Harney Peak, it sure was a long hard climb it took us over two hours to walk it. They told us at Custer it was two mile climb but when we got up there it was four miles to the top. Saw the Harvey needles. Near the top of the Peak you have to climb a ladder to get up after that you get to a little lane where there is a little spring. And some tents are stationed. Or rather Lookout station. We took a good look at the country and registered than started our down climb, got down at 6 o'clock. Came down in an hourr & 1/2- And "Oh how tired I am." We are camped near Sylvan Lake to night, not much feed for the horses. Trees fascinated the women since there were so few in either Waverly or Faith.Sept. 17. Sunday. Left Sylvan Lake late this morning drove to Custer. Stopped near Custer for dinner then drove on towards Squaw Creek, drove through the tallest timber we saw. Camped late in evening in a park in the woods. Saw some acorns growing.In between adventures, the sisters called on friends in towns along the way, played horseshoes, sang, and had "a fine dinner and a very splendid evening."Sept. 20. Came to Buffalo Gap, had dinner, took in the fair. Saw some fine horses, cattle, vegetables, fruits, and fancy works. Took in the show in the evening which was fine. Watched the dancers for a while.They visited the Hot Springs, a sanitarium, and watched a burial.Sept. 21. Are at Buffalo Gap. Stayed at Buffalo Gap until after dinner, drove thro Hot Springs past Fall River falls which was very pretty. Camped east of Hot Springs. After supper we went up town. Saw the plunge house etc. This is a very nice place.Sept. 22. Broke camp and moved up to the west side of town. Sent through the Sanitarium & saw an old soldier get buried. After that we went through the Sisters Hospital, & old Soldiers home. We went to the Plunge in the evening and had a very fine time, a big time.Finally, they reached their original destination; the recently dedicated Wind Cave National Park in the Badlands of South Dakota. Sept. 23. From the Hot Springs we went through to Wind Cave, got here at 1 o'clock, just had time to get ready to go down. It took us about three hours to go thru the cave. Were 500 ft. below the elevel. Saw all kinds of water formations; elk head, Turtle, baby in a cradle, goats, dog, diamonds, frost as we went down the guide knocked on the stones and it played a tune. When we put out our candle we couldn't see a single thing. There are three routes one to the garden of Eden, to the Bad Lands and to the Fairground. We went to the fair grounds, pass through so many large chambers, all of which were named, as post office, Old maids chamber, brides room, teachers room, etc. Lodges have rooms. It was a three mile route. Sure see a whole lot worth seeing. Are camped near the cave to night.Their spirits seemed as expansive as the open spaces around them.Sept. 24. Sunday. Left Wind Cave, past a big apple orchid, got some apples and pares. The finest apples I ever saw. In the evening it started to rain so we pitched our tent when it stopped raining we moved camp about a mile and camped again.They started for home; now hitting weather as overcast as their mood. Oct. 1. Sunday at Rapid City rained all morning. Went to church. Oct. 2. Went to church, foggy all day.... Oct. 3. Left Rapid after dinner awful windy, blew our tent down. Oct. 4. On our way home at Elk Creek to day. Windy. The final entry;Oct. 7. Expect to get home to day. Got home at Seven P.M. Just a month from the day we started. Sure saw some country and had a fine time. End.2What ended the sisters' homesteading and the "happiest years" of their lives was the event that abruptly ended so much in the U.S.— World War I. The youngest sisters, Sue and Lena, proved up their claims to take title in their own names and married within a few years of going west. (All four women eventually chose their own husbands). By the middle of U.S. involvement in World War I, Sue had two children and was pregnant with her third. Complications arose when she developed appendicitis and was taken to the nearest hospital—some distance away. There she was exposed to unfamiliar germs brought back by the wounded war veterans recovering in that same hospital. Now commonly labeled the "influenza epidemic" that killed almost 20 million people, it was a scourge of unknown origins at the time. There was no cure.The contagious and deadly nature of the germ resulted in widespread panic, fear, and lack of enough nurses. Mary, the same sister that led the others homesteading and remained both single and single-minded, again defied conventional wisdom and her mother's wishes, to nurse her sister. When she convinced her eldest sister, Anne, to accompany her, Mrs. Klein reportedly rebuked Mary saying, "It was not enough that you took three of my daughters from my home, now you are taking a fourth.”Sue Klein died in the hospital in Aberdeen in 1918. Her coffin was not allowed in her family's farm house (as was custom) for fear of infecting her husband, children and parents. Instead it rested, open face, on the outside porch so the children might say their farewells. Even the homesteading sisters had difficulty in deciding whether to visit. Some came as far as the farm road; wagon, children and husbands in tow, only to turn back lest they endanger their own. Marie McAndrews said Margaret Klein Fox drove 12 miles in a buggy and turned back at night.
That same year, Tory married. She, like Sue and Lena celebrated the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony in St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Faith. A month before, Peter J. Klein, the girls' father, gave his permission in a handwritten letter reminiscent of much earlier, and much less independent times. "Watertown July 18th 1918. Mr. Joe HamiltonWe received your letter from the 10th all right and seen in it that you want to marry our daughter Victoria so we send you with this our Satisfaction and we wish you good luck with hir and we expect hir to make you a good wife, as also we expect you, to make a good Husband to hir.Best Regard, from Victoria's Father Peter J. Klein and Mother Margaret"3Victoria was thirty-three years old when her father gave his permission for her to marry.Anne, the eldest sisters was the only one never married. Kate met and married the son of the Shinnick family who lived on the farm next to the Kleins in Waverly, South Dakota. They later homesteaded in North Dakota. Margaret, "Maggie", who was part of the seamstress shop in Watertown hired out (as did all the sisters) for extra work to the Fox family near Watertown and married their son, Michael. They, too, homesteadedThe Kate Klein-John Shinnick farm in North Dakota and the Margaret Klein-Michael Fox farm in South Dakota are still in family hands. The four claims of the single women homesteaders; Mary, Sue, Lena and Tory, were eventually lost in the thirties for back taxes.