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Naomi’s Pioneer Story

Women’s stories on the western frontier are scarce, which is why Naomi’s story needs to be told.  This story spans the Civil War, The Great Run in 1889  (when Oklahoma was opened to settlers), and continues to mid-20th century.  The story also touches on the history of American Indians being pushed into smaller territories, which was not right.  To put it in Naomi’s words, “Land hunger had made men mad!”  Naomi’s two teenage brothers tried to claim property in Oklahoma, but instead lost their claim to bullies and lived on Indian Territory.  Apparently,  the Indians were gracious to her brothers despite the circumstances.  When Naomi’s brothers left for Oklahoma, it created a significant hardship for her mother, leaving her to run a farm and raise three young children by herself.   Naomi describes how she improvised by making corn cob dolls, and the only time she stole an item — a picture card!   Reading this story will take you to  another time in our country.


Naomi’s Pioneer Story

Dear Children,

You have urged me many times to write my memoirs.  My life has been that of the usual life of the pioneers of Texas.  I came from pioneer stock which was always on the move to new frontiers.  My paternal and maternal ancestors were always pushing westward, always with the covered wagon, their bedding, the box of precious quilts and linens, their cooking vessels, the wife and children and the faithful dog which was never far away unless he was chasing a rabbit or some other small animal near the trail.  The iron teakettle hung from the rear axle of the wagon and the rifle and axe were always in easy reach. 

Life along the trail was exciting for the children for they were allowed to walk beside the slow moving wagon when weather permitted.  They were expected to always keep in sight of the wagon.  Even then there was plenty to entertain them.  Singing birds, darting lizards, ground squirrels, lazy buzzards sailing overhead, crows cawing, and snakes (as they slithered through the grass) provided endless entertainment.  

My paternal grandparents came from Scotland to America in an immigrant ship.  I know very little about their life, only that my grandfather was a Highlander, my grandmother a Lowlander.  They met on board ship and forgot that Lowlanders despised Highlanders, fell in love and were married when the boat landed in New York City.  Evidently they stayed there for years for there was a family when they went to Canada — always on the move westward.  After reaching the plains in Canada, they turned southward into the United States and finally ended up in Kansas where I think my father was born {in 1845}. 

My maternal grandparents, descendants of the Pennsylvania Dutch, also had itching feet, always moving westward, taking with them their ways and customs of thrift, frugality and religion.  They were typical short, plump, happy, good natured Dutch.  They finally landed in Missouri with a large family of thirteen children.  My mother, the eldest, Nancy, was born in Iowa.

Then came the long years of the Civil War and all the hardships which are a part of war.  Mother, only 14 {years old}, being the eldest of the children, had to be her mother’s mainstay while her father was away in the Union Army.  She did a lot of the work which ordinarily fell to the men in the household.  Schooling was almost out of the question — only two or three months a year.  Mother had a great amount of native ability but very little training, but from her we inherited her industry and native ability to make the best of a little and some of us a yearning for education. 

Well the war was over at last.  The men came home from the wars.  My father, who was in the Union Army just a very young man, returned and drifted over the border of Kansas into Missouri and taught school.  There he met and married my mother soon after.  They were able to acquire a comfortable home and three small children.  Life looked good to Mother who had decided “rolling stones gather no moss”, but Father’s feet began to itch.  They went to sleep talking Texas; awoke, the same, ate, the same.  Finally Mother gave in.  They sold the farm, left the root cellar full of dried fruit, vegetables in bins, barrels of apples, and shelves lined with huge cheeses, and a little grave at Mt. Moriah Church.  A part of Mother was always back in Missouri.  They started by train to Sherman which was the end of the road.  

The trip to Texas as far as Sherman was uneventful, but there trouble began.  They were headed toward Denton County.  The railroad was under construction both ways from Sherman toward Dallas, and Dallas north toward Sherman.  At Sherman they purchased a camping outfit and a wagon and team.  That they did not know was that one horse was balky.  Now a balky horse will pull when he gets ready and not before.  They loaded the wagon and started.  In the meantime the rainy season had begun.  There were no bridges and when a river had to be crossed it had to be forded.  They came to one which was rising, drove in, and that horse lay down in the harness, got tangled up and was drowning.  Finally, Father carried the children to the bank, deposited them, came back {and} helped Mother to the horse’s head where she helped the horse’s head out of the water while he undid the traces — it was perfectly willing to get up.  Now the queer part is that I do not remember how they said they managed the rest of the way.  I’m sure they did, for the next I remember Mother telling of their stay down at Shiloh, near where Corinth now is, camped and working on the railroad and how scared they were of tarantulas, snakes, spiders, centipedes, lizards and frogs.  Mother perspired while cooking Christmas dinner.  Spring flowers were all over the spots of prairie in that section.  She was used to snow and ice with a great log fire to sit by. 

Finally  the railroad from Dallas to Sherman was completed.  Land was cheap east of where Denton is now and in Big Elm bottoms, so another move was made only this time to their own home on credit. 

They had paid $2.50 per acre for 160 acres {per} quarter section.  $400 was a frightening debt in those days.  Among my mother’s paper was a note $2.50 sometimes $5.00 credited.  There were five children by then and two more came along.  One of those two babies died after my birth, the other newborn died soon after the last move. 

The new home was a large log house in which they built and lived until the big house which was built, a large 18′ x 20′ story and a half high.  In those days, all southern homes were built with a kitchen fifteen or twenty feet from the big house.  We were learning to do things the southern way.  Before the Big House was finished I was born in the log house which had a mud and stick chimney.  The weather had been bad for days.  It had started to snow in the early morning, January 15, 1885, and had fallen all day and January 16 all day.  Of course that was the time for me to arrive so I didn’t wait for anyone’s convenience.  There were no nice white hospitals with doctors in caps and long white coats nor nurses in white uniforms.  The snow did not stop falling, nor did the wind cease to blow.  But did I care?  There was a dear woman who ushered me into the cold, white world, but that log and mud chimney chose that time to {fall} in and the wind blowing as it only can in Texas.  How they ever fixed it I’ll never know before someone including me froze to death.   That was where I received my nice long name from the dear lady who helped me into this world I have known so long. 

Troubles began to hover over us.   The money they had received from the Missouri sale was gone.  They never collected the notes still due them.  First the terrible toll the hard life was taking from Mother who had after all only a woman’s strength and my father seemed unable to cope with the situation.  Now after years of study, I can see his mental deterioration had set in, but in those days people knew so little about mental disorders.  I grew in spite of short rations and hardships, but as I look back I was shielded from as much as possible by my family because I was the last baby and I supposed they adored me.  I grew into a short, brown-eyed Dutch child, not a lanky Scot. 

I cannot remember much about my father.  I have a faint memory of waving from the front door as he went away one day and saying, “Bring peaches”.  He had long since stopped teaching.  That morning he went to help a neighbor stack his hay at which he was very good.  The heat overcame him and he had to stop work.  He left at evening to come home, but never returned home.  After searching the next day, the neighbors found him wandering in a large wooded area entirely lost to his surroundings.  He was sent to an institution but he never totally recovered.  A sickness of that type is reason for divorce.  So Mother was granted one.  The struggle for livelihood continued.  Even though the two boys were large enough to help, they were beginning to show evidence of the family disease of “itching” feet.  They could sometimes get to help the neighbors at work which boys their age could do or they could sell a wagon load of wood for $1.00, {which } bought a lot {in} those days:  40 lbs. bacon, 20 lbs. of coffee, which had to be roasted and ground.  My work was to watch the roasting, and my what a scolding If I let it scorch!  Then when coffee was needed, I sat on the floor with the coffee mill between my fat legs and ground it.  My next job was learning to set the table and I took a lot of pride in doing my task. 

Each of us children had tasks for which we were accountable.  The boys did the heavier work, plowing with a turning plow, georgia stock and double shovel.  They went to the Big Elm River bottom on the days which were too bad for field work and cut wood which we burned in the fireplace at which we warmed and cooked our food.  Then when cook stoves came in we burned short sticks to fit the stove.  My sister, larger than me, made beds, swept, helped milk, ironed and all the other jobs around the house.  Mother oversaw the farm, sewed and cooked.

Travel was very slow for those who {drove} oxen.  My first memories were both horses and oxen on our farm.  The oxen drew the plows and hauled the wood.  When we went to Denton or to the neighbors we drove the mares in style.  Most times their colts went along and never became lost from the mother mare.  The driver and mother sat in the wagon seat.  The rest sat on boards or on a quilt pallet behind.  That was the way we went to church which was once each month until the revival in the summer which was twice each day for 10 or 15 days.  We had a great time! 

There were two gala days — Christmas and Circus days.  We looked forward for those days from one year to the next.  We saved our nickels and not many (we had no pennies those days) starting the day after Christmas.  A lot could be bought for 50 cents — a new ribbon, a comb, a pair of hose, 2 new handkerchiefs, a box of powder chamois skin.  Now {when} chamois skin is mentioned, young people wonder what they were.  They were skins from small animals in Asia called powder rags which the young ladies used in applying face powder. 

The Great Run for Land 

The United States government had put various Indian tribes on reservation in Indian territory and was opening the strip known as Oklahoma for settlement in the last months of 1889.  The two big brothers, Emmett and Ed, outfitted their wagon, filled their grub box, tied their horses with saddles behind and started for the Run.  By stretching their ages they were allowed to make the Run.  Such a day and such a race!  Land hunger had made men mad!  The boys squatted on their claims but the oldest, Emmett, had to leave to register their filings and by morning two ruffians had moved stakes and driven Ed off the claim.  But they stayed on to grow up with the country in the Indian Territory.  Mother was along with us three younger children, 1 small ill boy and two girls, all that were left.  Not much help on a farm, so she married a younger man than she, which step she later regretted, but in those days women had no other ways open in which they might be able to maintain a home. 

Time flew by.  Life was a joy and a wonder.  I had to spend a lot of time playing alone, because my sister, Mable, was several years older than I and there was a gap between my redheaded brother and I.  He had boy friends of his own so I learned to amuse myself. 

I built many a lovely playhouse in the chimney corner which was a warm place in the morning and a cool one in the afternoon.  My chinaware was bits of broken dishes and pieces of glass, my rooms were divided by rows of small rocks.  My linens were squares torn from an old sheet beyond further use.  My floors were sanded and kept smooth with a weed broom.  My chairs were boards laid up on rocks and if I was careful I could sit on them without falling over.  And my children!  They were lovely!  Red corn cobs — white corn cobs with lovely dresses from my mother’s scrap bag.  They always sat up straight, kept their dresses clean and never talked back!  But — they never could learn to count nor sing. 

We had a German who ran the engine which pumped water for the trains who said he would give me 25 cents to learn to count to 20 in German.  That was the hardest quarter I ever earned before or since.  I finally mastered the task and I didn’t spend the 25 cents for a long time.  I would look at it and remember how long it took to earn it.  I think that experience taught me that it takes hard work to earn an honest penny and when it was earned it should not be spent foolishly. 

With all the rigors of frontier living it had its pleasures.  Finding a bird nest, watching the comings and goings of the parent birds, the hatching and flight of the young.  They never lost their enchantment for me. 

While the others were busy, I and our two dogs, a large bull and mastiff, roamed the fields and the slough.  We found many a rabbit and ground squirrel.  And snakes!  The bull always went before me wherever I went.  He had a peculiar bark which he reserved for snakes.  I always stopped until he killed it.  Sometimes his {head} was swollen for days from being bitten by a rattler or water moccasin.  We always fed him sweet milk. 

One day we all went berry hunting.  Of course the dogs were along.  We crossed the railroad and the mastiff followed by old Cuff stopped to watch us and I suppose the roar of the train was so loud he could not hear me screaming and calling.  The train knocked him way off the track and broke his back.  Mable, Ab and I tried our best to lift him up but it was no use.  I cried for hours and finally my brother Ed who was home from the Osage Nation went to see about him and reported that he was dead.  I never told anyone that I had seen Ed put the six shooter in his pocket.  I have always loved dogs and no one has had worse luck with their dogs than I.  I knew they were trying to help me from being so heart broken. 

We never went along into Big Elk, river bottom for there were panthers and bobcats in the big timber.  Their screams could be heard after night fall.  Once while Mother and we were along, she had sent cattle out of the timber.  The horse suddenly became frightened and refused to go.  He hit the horse with his quirt, he gave a great bound down the trail and a huge panther gave a scream and jumped toward the boy and horse but missed.  We never went to the woods alone after that and the boys went in pairs. 

I have told you how I learned to work and save.  I forgot to tell how I stole my first and only time.  In our home there were only necessities.  There was no money for a pretty book or a picture.  My step-father and mother had become acquainted with a professor and Mrs. Moore, a teacher at the old Normal College, which I later attended at Denton.  They would drive out in their buggy and eat dinner with us and spend the day.  I would sit and play in their buggy.  One day I saw under the seat on the floor a pretty card with birds and flowers in colors.  Oh, my how I wanted it!  I was too timid to ask but I just couldn’t let it get away!  So I took it and hid it in the corn crib.  Horrors!  What if they missed it!  But they didn’t. 

I would go to the crib and look at that card and each time it became less beautiful and every time I went I expected the Bad Man to come around the corner of the barn.  I thought they would never come back, but they did and I struck out for the barn to get that picture and I put it back the first chance.  I’ve never since wanted anything which did not belong to me.  I was only starved for the beautiful.  But art and literature were only for the educated and I was only six.  I never told that experience — only to God until I had little children of my own. 

Denton County was still a “cow country” and still had open range.  We had a good sized herd, and a few we milked, but as I now look back, one good Jersey {cow} today would give as much as 5 those days.  Mother and the boys were trying to raise a crop and the corn and cotton land was fenced.  our herd came up at night to their calves and were penned, but range cattle from the prairies as far as thirty miles away would roam the country side.  Often Mother would take a boy behind her on a horse at night and ride the fence to see if they had torn it down and were in the corn.  Many a night I would hear an old bull roaring and cower beneath the covers frightened to death.  To keep me from crying, Mable would say, “If you cry the Old Surly will get you.”  Now I had no idea what a “surley” was but I knew he must be big as a barn from the noise he made.  Everything was alright when Mother returned. 

The schools had very short terms.  Usually about 3 months, December, January, and February.  Then the boys and quite often the girls must help clean up the land for the new crop.  A lot was crowded into those few months and how happy I was when I became eight years old, and I could start to school.  The two and one half miles to and from Cooper Creek was no walk at all for at the end of it were all those boys and girls,m the McGuffey’s Reader, the Swinton Word book, the crayon and blackboard, and the long log on which we sat to eat our lunch.  The evening passed quickly.  Then the long walk home but at the end was a roaring fir in the fireplace, a good supper and a wonderful bed waiting for me.  My last words to my mother were, “Call me when you get up so I can get ready for school.”  The days went by — “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic”, taught to the tune of a hickory stick! 

Life moved on.  When I was nine my mother and stepfather decided to move to Denton so I was placed in the Denton school.  There was only one three-story building which housed all the scholastics.  I saw little difference except we had a longer term and a better building which was no comparison with present day housing.  The instruction was about the same.  School work was still absorbingly interesting to me.  I always made good grades in the grades and high school and how happy I was! 

When the College of Industrial Arts was located in Denton, Mother sold our little home to the State for College location and we went back to the farm.  I did some review work at Cooper Creek expecting to take the State Examination for a teacher’s certificate, but your father, Warren, persuaded me that as he had taught and saved all his money and he had made a good crop that we could be married.  We were married in July of 1903.  Warren’s family, which was a large one, gave me a kindly welcome into the noisy good-natured clan.  A lot of them have gone on now, but those who are left love me and I love them like I loved my own brothers and sister. 

Back to the Wedding — Our friends unknown to us had decorated the church beautifully, and your father and I not expecting it, were so dumbfounded I thought we would never get up the long aisle to the altar.  After the wedding we began housekeeping out {near} Sanger Highway.  We had a nice little four-room house but we only used three rooms.  We did not have a lot of furniture but did not waste any time fretting.  We went to work.  He had a team and wagon and buggy.  I had a cow and calf and some hens.  Pretty soon, we had Louise and Mable, then Robert three years later.  The children grew, had the usual childhood diseases and grew as children do.  We always took them to church and Sunday School.  The first Sunday after a new baby was born we took it to the altar for consecration.  Today all my children have families and each is an active member of the church-stewards-Sunday School teachers, etc. 

I had wanted to tell you earlier about how I became a Methodist.  One day soon after we had moved to Denton, Mother sent me uptown on an errand and I met a tall dark man in a long coat (all preachers wore long coats then) who stopped me.  He spoke kindly and asked if I went to Sunday School (Rev. R.L. Galls).  I answered, “No, sir.”  “Well”, he replied, “next Sunday at 9:30 you go right around the corner to the little brown church and I’ll meet you there.”  I went and he was the Pastor who met me.  I was so happy that I have been going ever since.  One time there was a special children’s service during a revival conducted by Rev. H.C. Morrison and Mrs. Morrison.  I was 10+.  I felt I was plenty old enough to give my heart to Jesus so I went up, knelt at the altar and there in my childish way gave Him my heart and life.  Mother thought I was too young so they took me in on 6 months probation and at 11, after memorizing my catechisms, first and twenty-third psalm, beatitudes, apostles creed, ten commandments and the Lord’s prayer, etc., I was taken into the church — 60 years ago.  I’ve loved every minute of it. 

The children started to school at Cooper Creek where we had moved at the end of our first year of marriage.  There you children joined the church and grew up for a few years.  

Teaching Urge Returns

After you had all entered school and hard times were tightening up I began to think of teaching again.  In the meantime I had had a long siege of pneumonia and had spent a while in the West.  Not being able to do a great deal of work I did a lot of review work and in the Spring took an examination before the County Board.  I made the required average and received a four year county certificate.  I taught at Cooper Creek three years and we sold our little home which we had bought and moved to Stony.  I had obtained a first grade high school certificate and I continued teaching.  It was well that I did, for your father became ill.  We expected his trouble to respond to treatment but after spending all the money we had and could get hold of, the specialist told us it was useless, to take him home and keep him as comfortable as possible. 

That was not all.  Robert began to limp during the days and cried with his leg at night.  He had to have medical attention and did not respond.  I took him to Dallas to a Dr. Milliken who was recommended by our family Doctor Hooper.  We were so happy, even though he was on crutches and in a cast from his waist down, that he finally could sleep like a baby. 

“Those were the days that tried men’s souls” and women’s.  Mother, who had been mother and father, had died and I felt that the bottom had fallen out.  Then my brother died 7 months later.  We had put all the money we had and what the stock brought, when we moved to Stony.  The crop in the river bottom was ruined by overflow after overflow.  Louise was not happy in school and we had transferred to North Texas Demonstration School which was costing more.  She was doing GPPD work which was gratifying.  In 1921 she graduated and entered college to finish another year which had been included in high school.  The other two, Mable and Robert, continued at Stony.  Robert drove a burro to a jump cart back and forth to school. 

The task and the expense of getting Robert back and forth to Dallas for treatment seemed impossible sometime, but the family planned and schemed how we could meet it and we always did.  Once though I nearly did not.  I had one lone nickel when I reached home.  He had to have fresh steak, liver, milk, eggs, etc.  We had milk and eggs, but when we sold our big cans of milk we paid the feed bill and bought a few groceries.  The girls would be standing by watching me count the remainder and would question:  “Well, did we make it?”  I could always answer:  “We did, by the grace of God” and He never failed us.  Sometimes we could only buy a pound of steak but Robert ate the meat and the rest of {us} ate gravy.  He kept improving while his father became worse.  But we had some lovely times even though others perhaps though it mockery but our family dies hard. 

Robert always had a gang following, some larger than he and they would carry him pack-saddle or piggy back when they went to the creek for a possum or pecans.  On the playground he had a place on the ball team.  One boy held his crutch for him to bat, while another stood ready to run for him.  We never allowed him to feel that he was any worse off than others. 

Always as long as your father was able, he was ready to go with you to church.  He gathered you around, read from God’s Word and offered a prayer for all of us.  I feel that those prayers still follow.  Had it not been that he and I when we went first into our little home knelt and asked Him always to be an honored guest in it, we might not have felt the joy that we had when were told we had nice good children.  Even yet, people, especially elderly ones, will tell me how pleased they were for you to be nice to them.  I am trying to tell you that the Christian religion pays off — not in dollars and cents, but in joy and contentment. 

Well, life never stood still.  Your father’s progressive illness continued.  Mable had to drop out of school to care for him.  Louise was teaching on a special permit.  Robert lost a year out of school.  I had to make a living.  During the winter I taught and took Extension Courses from N. Texas State College.  In the spring we farmed, made garden, milked cows, plowed, hoed and went to church on Sunday.  Robert was off the crutches and could ride a plow.  He and I did the plowing, the girls hoed and we hired some hoeing and the picking done.  Then in the summer we went to North Texas State College. 

The years went by.  The last two years of your father’s life he was helpless, even in the most intimate ways he had to be waited on.  In December of 1926, after years of suspense, he died without warning.  I stood on the porch many times afraid of what I should find if I opened the door.  He went away in a blinding snow storm that raged for two days.  When I returned from the days teaching, Mabel reported that she could not get him to eat and I was trying to give him eggnog. 

The Christmas tree lay on the front porch ready to be put up.  The only time that we’ve ever missed having one since we had married 23 years before.  We’ve never missed one since.  I tried to put a Christmas wreath on his grave every year but cannot any more since I feel the years creeping up.