A graduate student doing research about the pioneers who settled North Dakota interviewed some nursing home residents in 1976. I got a tape of my grandmother’s interview back then and my cassette player promptly ate it. Technology returned her to me this week, in the form of a cd. I would have recognized her voice anywhere.
My great-grandfather Elias Numbers was just a bit too young to fight in the Civil War, like his older brother did. After he married and started a family, they moved from Kansas to Iowa in a covered wagon, then on to Illinois where he lost his wife and two of his daughters to Typhoid Fever. Then on to Missouri. Leafa hired out to work for other families and never finished school.
The interviewer asked if she knew how poor they were. She answered, “We knew work and hard times. He [her father] had nothing to give but he was good to us.”
Then at 17, she and her sister caught a ride in a wagon headed to North Dakota. They heard land was cheap and they could make their fortunes there. They both hired out to work on a cook cart. “I was always a big girl and I wore a long skirt so I could earn women’s wages.” That was $4 a day for the two of them and when she said big girl, her voice lifted. She was bragging.
She met a Canadian, Percy Blake. He was a farmer and a horseman and 18 years old. He had a Flying Dutchman Plow and a team of good horses. They married the next year, 1906.
Leafa and Percy moved a few times but finally settled on a farm and raised a big garden, chickens, pigs, cattle, and 5 kids. Percy contracted to build local roads, driving a 5-abreast team with a grating plow to earn extra money. “He was a hustler and I was a good manager. I delivered more colts and calves than any woman in North Dakota,” she said.
“The 30’s pert’near broke us.” A reminder; this was a few miles from Canada. The winters were brutal before the Great Depression knocked everyone down. She took pride, “But I always set a good table.” Farm talk for no one went hungry.
“We had good horses.” She said it a few times during the interview. It was what put them ahead. A couple of times a year, they sold a horse for $100. “That was a lot of money in those days,” she said. And Percy sold one horse for $3000. but before she could explain, the interviewer changed topics, leaving me wildly curious. Percy had a reputation as a horse trader, but who did he sell to for that much? What horse?
The interviewer asked if it was hard being a pioneer mother. “Well, there was a saying; North Dakota was hell on women and horses.” She had a self-deprecating laugh and as easy as common sense, she said, “It was a tough life if you was useless.” This might be my new mantra.
Percy had passed several years earlier and when the interviewer asked Leafa about re-marrying, “Oh, I should say not… My gosh, you get tired of waitin’ on men.”
“I’m satisfied.” She said that more than a few times during the interview, too. She was satisfied with her life, boasted that none of her family ever got in trouble with the law, and was proud that she and her husband had built something. She mastered the art of wanting what she had.
When Leafa called Percy a good hustler, I’m not sure of her meaning but my grandfather became a local horse-trading legend, wealthy by farm standards. He retired to smoke stinky cigars and shoot ducks out the window of his big black Cadillac. Satisfied.
I didn’t see my grandparents often but our family visited just before Grandpa Blake died. They were living in town then, in the nicest house I’d ever been in. Grandma kept store-bought canned apricot juice in the fridge and she poured some into a small painted glass for me. It was sweet and thick; I held it in my mouth so make it last longer.
Why does any of this matter?
Hearing Leafa’s voice, at this age, it’s easy to see how much alike we are. I’m grateful to live by and for good horses, too. It’s important to remember that most of us are just a step or two from being pioneers of this young country. Your family isn’t much different: We come from strong stock not afraid of hard work. It can seem like the best horse traditions are European; they have centuries more experience than us but we share a heritage the old world doesn’t. Don’t sell yourself short.
The last time I saw my grandmother was just after this interview. I was 22 and she was 89. I meant to flatter her by asking about the covered wagon trip from Missouri north. For a moment, she got distracted by a memory too juicy to share with the interviewer. She smiled like a girlfriend and her eyes lit up. She said the James boys used to drop by the boarding house where she worked to get dinner and flirt with the womenfolk in the kitchen. My head spun, that was the way our family referred to people; the Blake boys… the Johnson boys…
“Grandma, Frank and Jesse?” I asked, in the most incredulous voice ever.
“Yes, deary, but that’s a different story. Now, that wagon trip…”
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.