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Letters From The Dust Bowl
By Caroline Henderson, Alvin O. Turner
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The first part of Caroline Henderson's story is told through her correspondence and publications from 1908 to 1914. In those years she began homesteading, married Will Henderson, and gave birth to her daughter, Eleanor. Although she relished the challenges of pioneering and establishing a family on the Oklahoma plains, chronic cash shortages forced her to seek new income sources. In 1911, she began publishing small pieces in Practical Farmer, earning one to two dollars per submission. Her topics ranged from the Hendersons' experiments with broomcorn cultivation to her successes in turkey farming.
Most of Caroline's submissions to the Practical Farmer offer information of interest only to specialists in agricultural history; however, one article from her early efforts reveals more about her life on the plains. "What I Read Last Year," which was published in May 1912, is included herein because it reflects the qualitative concerns that guided her reading. The other article reproduced in this chapter, "Our Homestead," gives an account of her first five years on the homestead. The article was published by Ladies' World in February 1914 along with the letter Caroline had originally written to the editor of the magazine to ask for her advice about how to supplement her income (see Caroline's letter of July 16, 1913). The editor suggested that Caroline write about her experiences, which work was then published as "Our Homestead." This initial publication produced such a deluge of responses that her editor encouraged additional submissions, which led to four years of writing for that magazine.
The remainder of this chapter consists of letters to Caroline's lifelong friend, Rose Alden, and her mother, identified only as Mrs. Alden. Rose and Caroline both graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1901 to begin careers in teaching. Unlike Caroline, Alden found teaching a rewarding occupation. She was employed as an English teacher in New Jersey, Vermont, and Virginia public schools until her retirement in 1942; she died in 1961. Never married, Alden was active in numerous clubs as well as school-related activities. She wanted to write for publication but did not have any known success. Instead, she shared her efforts with a women's pen club. At least two of her submissions to the club were based on her contact with Caroline: The first of these was an interpretation of Caroline's first years on the homestead and the second was based on Alden's visit to the Henderson farm in 1940.
Though Alden was a less successful writer than Caroline, she did recognize the historical quality of the letters she received through the years from Oklahoma, retaining many, including those originally sent to her mother. She continued compiling letters from Caroline until about 1940, when she arranged for their donation to the Mount Holyoke College Archives. At first reluctant to make her correspondence available to the public, Caroline was persuaded to approve the donation when she visited with Victor Murdock, an editor for the Wichita Eagle, who convinced her that her letters would be valuable as a resource for social history. Her subsequent reading of Bernard Devoto's Year of Decision reinforced that conclusion.
Caroline's letters to the Aldens are the only personal letters from her first thirty years on the farm that are known to have survived, and most are included in this or subsequent chapters. Those that duplicate content found in Caroline's published writings have been omitted, and when Caroline wrote on the same topics to both Rose and Mrs. Alden, Rose's letter rather than her mother's was selected for inclusion herein.
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April 28, 1908
My Dear Little Rose:
Your letter reached me by round about ways and I felt truly grateful for your forbearance, for I remembered, though you did not mention it, that the letter of a year before had not yet been answered. It would take longer time than I have now at my command, and longer I presume than you could spend to listen if I were even to try to tell you of all that has filled my days since last I wrote to you. But I want your friendship still if I may have it, I will try to suggest a mere "table of contents," and let you fill in the rest.
First there was a winter of rather poor health when work was too much of an effort and too little joy, then new spirits and strength with the spring, then a diphtheria germ and its consequences which lasted for long. I was very, very sick. They gave the anti-toxin, repeatedly, five times altogether, and at last stayed the advance of the wretched disease. In a sense my recovery was rapid, but nervously I was all shaken to pieces. The delirium of the fever was too awful and it was months before I could do anything that required any concentration of mind. This is one reason for the long silence, because letter writing was of all things the most impossible. I would sit down and cry over a little note of appreciation for kindness received because I was so weak, and I couldn't write as I wanted and sometimes I would have to try two or three times on just a short letter. So after a little I gave it up until I should be better able for it.
A return to the old routine seemed intolerable. I hungered and thirsted for something away from it all and for the out-of-doors. So here I am, away out in that narrow strip of Oklahoma between Kansas and the Panhandle of Texas, "holding down" one of the prettiest claims in the Beaver County strip. I wish you could see this wide, free western country, with its great stretches of almost level prairie, covered with the thick, short buffalo grass, the marvelous glory of its sunrises and sunsets, the brilliancy of its star lit sky at night ... [and] much more has made the last six months a delight in spite of hardships and exposure that I could never advise anyone to encounter. There was a three-months' term of school in the school house across the way, a two months' siege of well-drilling and boarding the men, at least getting meals for them, and so the time has gone, busily and happily. And now this part of the story is almost finished, for, little Rose, out here in this wilderness has come to me the very greatest and sweetest and most hopeful happiness of all my life.
The seventh of May I am to be married to Mr. W.E. Henderson. We have not known each other long for he found me here, yet we do not doubt that our whole lives have been preparing us for a new life together. Someday we may go together to fulfill my part of the prophecy up on Mount Holyoke in 1901, for that located me on a western ranch. And Mr. Henderson had been planning to go to Texas or Old Mexico this spring and get cheap land for stock raising. But I could not leave my claim now without losing it, so we shall remain here for the present and wish to raise a crop this summer which is our reason for seeming to be in such immoderate haste.
You may wonder what sort of man you will meet when you come to visit your old friend some day on a western ranch. I know he will not seem the same to you as he does to me, but I think you will know that he is plain and simple and direct, that (unless he is teasing) his "yes" means yes and his "no" means no. I believe you will see too that he is clean and gentle as any woman, though he has a strong man's energy and resourcefulness. And you could not help but realize that he is an optimist of the sincerest sort, ready to do all his part to make things come right, with a faith above and beyond his own effort. I think sometimes it will worry me because he simply won't worry over anything, but that is a pretty good failing after all. Personally he is tall and brown for he has lived on these plains for years now. He was here long ago before there were any inhabitants but great herds of cattle and the antelopes and prairie dogs. He is rather homely, I think, to most people, but you will see the kindness in his gray blue eyes and won't mind, I am sure.
So busy I have been this spring, Rose, with my chickens, for I am getting a pretty good start now, with my big garden of an acre and a quarter, and with all these extra preparations for the seventh of May. I have wanted to write to you much sooner, but the day's work has hurried me on each day. And this day I am letting everything go that should be done and writing anyway. I have no machine so the very simple and not numerous preparations have been made by hand. They are helping me at home too, by getting some things ready. Susie will come out then, as it seemed impossible for me to leave here just now to go home as they wished, and Mother and Father will come later—perhaps in watermelon time....
Please remember me most kindly to your friends at home. And may life bring to them and to you all good and gracious gifts. I hope to see you some time. Till then even if sometimes life's burdens make me silent, won't you try to believe me, Ever loyally your friend,
* * *
Aug. 17, 1908
My dear Rose
I do thank you very truly for both your letters and the friendship they have meant to me. So often during these happy summer days, I have wished you might know how much I have appreciated your good wishes and the pretty gift—different altogether from anything I had—which so often reminds me of you and Susan.
You were quite right in suspecting that it has been a busy summer for me. In a short letter or even a long one I could scarcely suggest the variety of employments that have fallen to my lot. But Rose, dear little girl, I have been so happy. It has been such a revelation to me of what life may mean under the most absolutely common place conditions. For I realize that it is all commonplace enough when I imagine myself as a third party—but it hasn't seemed so. It is as new and full of blessing to me at least, as if all this had never happened before.
The day of the creation of our new world, May seventh, was one of the most perfect days I have ever seen. We had driven the thirty miles to Guymon on the preceding day going in a prairie schooner in real western style, not for the sake of the style, however, but as a protection against the wind which that day was very strong and cold. One of Mr. Henderson's five sisters (they have but one brother) had stayed to care for the chicks and look after things generally. At Guymon (our railroad town) we met my sister who had leave of absence from her office work just long enough to witness the ceremony and return by the first train. She brought the dress from home; they had made it themselves of some soft-thin white stuff, very simply but daintily with much fine hand work. I treasure it for all the loving thoughts that I know went into it.
After we had watched Susie's train out of sight, it remained for us to load our schooner and start for home. It was toward evening before we got away but I shall always be glad it was just as it was, for the memory of that perfect night of moon light and starlight when we seemed to have the world to ourselves is a treasure to carry with me through life, and I believe through all eternity.
Since then such busy days! Besides the house-keeping which seems like a new thing under these different conditions there have been for a regular thing the care of a half acre garden which I assumed for this summer, though Mr. Henderson helped whenever his regular farm work would permit and also the chickens—an unfailing source of interest, pleasure and work. We have as yet limited accommodations for chickens so are not going into the business yet on a large scale. But I have about a hundred young ones with several more "setters" yet to hatch so I hope for a fair start for another year.
For extras there have been service as chief assistant at fencing a forty acre pasture, some carpentering and building, erecting and painting a windmill, and the thousand little things not big enough to remember but which all have to do with making a home on the prairie. We have also first and last had a good deal of company. Mr. Henderson's mother was here for nine days and one of his sisters for three weeks, so altogether it has been very much as you said—scarcely time enough to sleep.
On the whole so far as farming is concerned it has been a rather discouraging season. Not foreseeing what was to befall me I had rented the old ground for this year so we had to depend on sod crops. The rains were very late and the ground too dry for breaking until after the rain came June 6. So it made the planting extremely late and we have not had as much rain as we hoped for since. However there is time yet to make a feed crop if we have rains later on and it is a constant inspiration to be with one who really believes that even if we fail of any success whatever in that way still for some reason it is all right and we may nevertheless be unworried and content.
I wish you could see our beautiful little colt and our new tiny mule. I can not call him beautiful but he is as cunning and smart as a little mule can be. Last night I went away down in the pasture to make sure that the horses were alright. The baby mule has a real mule's curiosity and though he is very wild yet, I sat down on the grass to see what he would do, pretending not to notice him. He kept approaching in smaller and smaller circles till his nose touched my shoe. The slightest movement sent him flying to his mother—head and tail high in the air and the tips of his toes barely touching the ground. He and the colt have the grandest frolics. I never tire of watching them.
All our varied occupations give us little time for reading. I have feared sometimes that I might forget how in the deepest sense. We do try, however, to keep up with one or two magazines that they send us from home. Lately I have been picking up "Romala" in odd moments of time—too short for much of anything else, inspired to another rereading of it by a card from Helen Bowerman in Florence with a picture of one of the old public buildings—"Palazzo Vecchio"—frequently referred to in "Romala." How sorrowful such a story is but how true it may be! And nights we read the Bible—are going straight through. I never did it before. In Mr. Henderson's old days on the range that was often his only companion and he read it for interest and companionship as other people read story books—through and through—over and over. He has the same little Bible yet that went with him all those lonely days—a present—when he was a little boy from his old German grandfather....
I hope the summer has given you the change and rest that you need before entering upon another year of your unselfish work. Please tell me about it for it will now have for me even more of the interest of a work so different from my own. May it be a happy and satisfying year for you, a year of successful effort and realized desires. Do write again as of old and in spite of the long breaks in our correspondence, please believe me still, Heartily your friend.
* * *
August 17, 1909
I am reminded that vacation will soon be over and that if my letter is to reach you before your return to work it must be sent soon....
The thought of snow and cool spring rains and the sweet arbutus which came with your letter is refreshing now in these days of almost unendurable heat. And I must thank you for the hyacinths and their message. As I grow older I realize more and more the truth that "man cannot live by bread alone." And now when even the matter of bread seems a problem, I am thankful, indeed, that other things than material comfort do enter in to make life worth while after all.
If it were not for those "unseen verities" of which Dr. Young spoke to us in chapel one morning, such a summer as the present would have been almost too much to bear. We worked so hard, both of us, early and late, putting in the crop, gardening etc. and did it all so hopefully and so happily. And our hopes seemed to have been justified. Through June there was plenty of rain. Everything grew wonderfully. Corn, cane, broom corn, millet, maize, and kaffir corn, all promised an abundant return for our labor. One of our particular pleasures at that time was the Sunday morning walk through our fields, noticing the growth of each separate planting, our hearts full of thankfulness for the hope of it and for everything.
And now there is nothing left—except the invisible blessings I spoke of. During the latter part of June, and all of July and August so far, we have had no rain. The heat has been the most intense I ever experienced and has been accompanied day after day by "hot winds," scorching withering blasts which seem to come from a furnace seven times heated.
You cannot imagine in the midst of any desert a drier more desolate spot than those fields which promised us so generous a harvest. There is literally nothing—not enough on the whole farm to feed one of our pretty pigeons for the winter. The problem is really a serious one for we are far from wealthy and truly needed something of a crop. The other day we were wondering about books for the reading we had wanted to do together this winter. Mr. H. suggested going without supper Saturday and Sunday evenings. My thoughts returned at once to the hyacinths you sent, and I thought his suggestion excellent until I reflected that judging from the ordinary state of our appetites, the Sunday and Monday breakfast would probably leave a very small cash balance to be turned over to the book fund....
Excerpted from Letters From The Dust Bowl by Caroline Henderson, Alvin O. Turner. Copyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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