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“The Checkered Years”: A Diary by Mary Dodge Woodward

Historically, women in the West were portrayed in a stereotypical manner: they were either the unwilling followers of husbands who were seeking wealth and adventure, or the rebellious Annie Oakley types or brothel operators. The reality of women’s lives in the West is entirely different. Mary Dodge Woodward helped her son manage her cousin’s farm by maintaining the household. She cooked for up to 30 people during certain times of the year, as well as cleaning, sewing, and other household tasks. While many women on the plains were unwilling participants in their husbands’ searches for wealth, other women prospered in the West. Some, like Ellen Cooley, opened boarding houses for travelers and others threw decadent parties on the plains.

Mary Dodge Woodward kept a diary from 1884-1888 while she was living in the Dakota territory on a Bonanza farm. She discusses a variety of topics, from the ever-changing Dakota weather to education, crime, natural disasters, and alcohol use.

Here are various excerpts from her diary in chronological order by topic:

Drinking: The Early Days

Mary Dodge Woodward did not drink and therefore had a somewhat negative view of people who did. While she had a negative view she also felt sorry for people who lost their money drinking or died in a blizzard due to alcoholic excess. Over the years on the farm, she stuck to her convictions and was happy when, in 1887, Cass County supported prohibition.

1884- “I think nine-tenths of the people who have frozen to death in Dakota have been under the influence of intoxicating drink. A clear brain is needed to find refuge in this storm”.

1885-“The law requires an order to buy strychnine; yet whiskey kills ten-thousand where strychnine does one”.

1887-“If we kept a saloon it would be a town. That is the first thing in a new western town”.

1887-“The County of Cass has gone strong for prohibition. Now the saloons will go from Fargo to Moorhead, just across the Red River into Minnesota. I hope the country will soon pass a prohibition law which is the only way to reach one class of drunkards”.

Dakota Magic (or something like that)

There was not a day in her diary that Mary did not at least mention the weather. We all know how dynamic, and frequently crazy, the weather in North Dakota is and it greatly affects life today as well as early life in the territory.

1887-Mary and her family lived through the coldest temperature in recorded history as of 1937.

1888-“Dakota is different in many ways from the country down east. Nobody keeps track of his neighbors here. People come and go; families move in and out, and nobody asks whence they came nor whither they go”.

Early Farming

Mary did not do the hard labor expected of farm hands, like her sons and the many men they hired every season. While she was not directly involved with farm work, Mary knew a good deal about farming, raising animals, and the value of quality goods.

1884-“Dakota is a fine place for vegetables, especially peas. We have great quantities of them. The men are haying, all thirteen of them, and we send their dinners to the fields…Tonight I went out of doors and there, by the corner of the house, stood three tramps. They wanted to sleep in the barn, so Walter took them some blankets…The country is full of men tramping about and begging at farm houses where they stop to hire out”.

1884- The following is an excerpt from a prayer given during a church service, which shows how valuable wheat is to farmers in Dakota. “We know the value of wheat, O Lord, but we pray thee to tell us what we should receive when we deliver it”.

1885-“There is no better market for eggs in America. I think some enterprising people might get rich in this business. Now that wheat is so low, farmers should turn their attention to some other industry”.

1886-“It [mustard] is overrunning the country. The authorities are trying to compel the owners of the land to pull it under the law against noxious weeds. The people have been warned by officers of the law that, if allowed to remain, it would be pulled by the county and a tax put on the land to pay the expense. But we think it will be difficult for the county to enforce the law or collect the tax”.

1885-“Our little nigger cat has been having fits. This is the fifth one that has had them.” “Our cow, Daisy, gives a pailful of milk, and what do you think, we have cream in our coffee!”

1888-p. 243 “I think wheat will rise in price, for there is a shortage everywhere, so the papers say. We have hoped for that change for six years and now that we are about ready to leave, it has come”.

1888-“It’s [butter] thirty-five cents a pound in Fargo”.

Crime and Native Americans

Mary’s writing on crime seems to be merely reporting. She does not have much of an opinion on crime except the Louis Riel execution, which she believes will not end the Metis insurrection.

1884-“The Fargo Argus reports that an unknown man tried to assassinate Sitting Bull Wednesday evening in St. Paul as he left the Opera House. The motive is thought to be revenge and the would-be assassin is supposed to be a relative of one of the Custer Massacre victims. The frontiersmen are disgusted with the way the old Indian is being lionized. People say he would lead his braves on the warpath at the slightest provocation, scattering murder and rapine wherever he left”.

1885-“We have just heard that the man who was murdered in the car of wheat was a Norwegian from Tower City who had just sold his claim for $1,000. Part of the money was paid him in gold, which the murderer must have taken from his pockets”.

1885-“I supposed Louis Riel was hanged today in Canada; but I am afraid that will not end the insurrection”.

Passing Time

Without a television or a radio to pass time, life on the farm must have been pretty boring at times. Mary mentions in many entries about various books she and her children are reading at night after a hard day’s work. She also mentions in passing other ways the girls and boys on the farm pass time.

1884-“The girls are sewing, crocheting, ironing, and visiting, and so passing the time which is very pleasant to me. Evenings they make molasses candy and invite in the farm hands”.

Politics

Mary has a little more to say about politics in the country as well as Dakota, especially when the question of a liquor license was raised in Cass County. She also mentions the unkind remarks made by the candidates for Sheriff; just goes to show that not much has changed since 1886 in terms of politics and mudslinging.

1884-“Today is the great national election and what a lot of excitement will prevail over all the land! The boys have gone to Fargo where they will remain in the theatre to hear the election bulletins read”.

1885-“A book agent called with The Lives of Cleveland and Hendricks. We will wait until their term at Washington expires before we buy, as we might possibly be ashamed of them”.

1886-“There has been great excitement in Cass County over the election of a sheriff. Part of our men are for Benson and part, for Haggart. I shall be glad when the election is over for the papers teem with the meanness of each candidate. One would think they ought to be hanged instead of elected to a responsible office”.

1888-“Cleveland was nominated for president on the sixth, and Thurman for vice president on the seventh at the St. Louis convention. (I wrote the above in the dark. I am not sure but that it is an improvement)”.

1888-“Fred has gone to Mapleton to election. He wishes he were out of the territory so that he could vote for Cleveland. The liquor license question is the greatest subject of controversy here now”.

School Days

Remember when grandparents used to talk about walking to school when they were little? “I had to walk two miles to school in a blizzard, uphill both ways” is not very far from some of the truths that Mary talks about in her diary. In addition to tragedies and deaths during blizzards, Mary also talks about courageous acts to save children’s lives.

1884-“The school closed today and there will be no more until spring. Last winter the attendance was so small that it was thought advisable to have no winter school”.

1885-“Katie has twenty scholars in her school” (Woodward 1989, 66).

1887-“The farmers hereabouts have been quarreling over the location of the schoolhouse”.

1888-“Some of the school children stopped here today completely exhausted from the heat. They walk two miles”.

In sickness and in health

Mary’s discussion of sickness in the territory gives a good insight into what people used when they fell ill. She also mentions the lack of sickness in the area since doctors charge a lot of money to go into the country; it might not have been a lack of sickness so much as people refusing to call a doctor when they did get sick.

1884-“I was sick all day yesterday. Walter brought me Cherry Pectoral, Bushe’s German Liniment, two bottles of medicine from the doctor, peppermint brandy; besides oranges, candy, and gum”.

1885-“There are very few sick people in this country. We have not had to call a physician once since we came here which is fortunate as doctors charge a great deal to go into the country”.

Dumb Laws

Mary mentioned in one of her entries that she was fixing up a dress for Katie, which was prohibited in Oregon; maybe the dress caused pollution and landslides as well.

1885-“in Pendleton, Oregon, that type of costume is prohibited unless worn belted. Bills to that effect have been posted in the town, ladies who violate the ordinance being fined heavily. The alleged reason is that such garments ‘scare horses, cause accidents, and ruin business’”.

Natural Disaster

In addition to blizzards, Mary talked about other natural disasters, like fires and tornadoes in the area. She mentioned a number of people perishing in the winter due to the wind and in the summer due to tornadoes and wildfires. A good number of the people who died from the fire were farmers trying to put out the fire spreading on their fields or into their crop stores.

1885-Mary detailed the effects of a prairie fire around the farms in the area. Some of their wheat was burned but not as badly as on other farms.

1886-“A terrible cyclone in Minnesota which tore the villages of St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids all to pieces, killing about a hundred persons and injuring about two hundred more”.

1886-“The fire started from a spark from a train on the Northern Pacific. I supposed the railroad company will be responsible for the hay burned”.

Businesses

Mary did not mention many businesses in her diary over the years. This could have been due to the fact that in all of the years Mary lived about 8 miles from Fargo, she rarely went into the city.

1886-Mary wrote in her diary that her children went to see Oliver Dalrymple’s farm. She said he was the farm king of the region and his 28,000 acre farm “is the largest cultivated area under one control in the territory. His crop has been known to exceed 600,000 bushels; and as many as 195 reapers are used to wake the echoes there in harvest”.

1887-Mary mentioned one of the cooks they hired came to them from the “Gay Cook House” in Fargo. She also mentioned he is fat and lazy.

Solicitations

In addition to the excerpt in the politics section about the man selling a book about the lives of Cleveland and Hendricks, Mary wrote about other people coming by to sell goods or just looking for shelter and perhaps a job. The first extract also gives an insight into the relationships between Catholics and Protestants in the area.

Poetry

Throughout the years in her diary, Mary used poetry to convey emotions and supplement the stories she wrote.

1888-Poem by self, “Oh haste little birdie to some warmer clime, The wind whistles o’er the bleak wold, The stubble is brown and all seared with the rime, Fierce winter is coming, so cold!”

– Brenna Adams, Digital History, 2012

SCROLL_TEXT

For more information on Ellen Cooley see “The ‘Boom’ Through the Eyes of Cooley” posted by Murchison on this site.

For more information on Bonanza farms see “Bonanza Farming West of Fargo” posted by Jenna Clawson and “Mary Dodge Woodward” posted by Brenna Adams.

Bibliography

Dodge Woodward, Mary. The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-1888. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

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