Mailboxes and Old Barns: Lumber for a Wash House on a Treeless Prairie

wash house 8This MBOB begins with a daisy trail which will deliver you to the point of today’s essay a few paragraphs down the page.

Terry, Montana is 160 miles south of where our farm was.

The site where Terry is located was first called Joubert’s Landing, in recognition of the man who built a supply point along the Yellowstone River for freighters traveling from BismarckDakota Territory, to Miles CityMontana Territory. When the Northern Pacific Railway‘s transcontinental rail line arrived in 1881, the town was renamed for Alfred Howe Terry,[6] a General in the Union Army who commanded an 1876 expedition in connection with George Armstrong Custer’s campaign against Native Americans,[7]specifically in the west.,_Montana

wash house pine logs terryTerry had ground water (which we didn’t have) and some big trees near the Yellowstone river (which we didn’t have) that made some log houses possible. The planting of Terry’s first tree, however, was still documented for the history books.

The town was located just south of the Yellowstone River midway between the larger towns of Miles City and Glendive…Seen from a distance in 1893, it looked like a mirage on the dusty treeless plain. Sagebrush and cactus were its only vegetation. The first tree in Terry—a wild plum—would be planted later that year.

What was not apparent to the eye was the resource that gave Terry its life: its ample underground water supply. In an area where water was scarce and almost undrinkable (like 160 miles further north!) due to alkali salts, this was no small matter. (from Photographing Montana, Donna M. Lucey)

And consider these descriptions of developments further south in Hamilton County, Nebraska, where the commercial wagon trails were operating as early as 1847.

wash house 5A well-traveled freighting road was established between the Missouri River…along the south bank of the Platte River, to Fort Kearney…a heavy freighting business was done over this road from about 1852 to 1860. It was called the Ox-Bow Trail…The great freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell used this road in 1858 and 1859 for the transportation of thousands of wagon loads of freight to Utah. (The Way was Long, Denny Enderle & Diann Jensen, 1999)

They had commercial wagon activity in Nebraska but there weren’t many trees around there either—so when they didn’t have time or inclination to wait for lumber to arrive on the wagons, they built buildings out of straw bales.

Advantages of straw-bale construction over conventional building systems include the renewable nature of straw, cost, easy availability, naturally fire-retardant and high insulation value. Disadvantages include susceptibility to rot, difficulty of obtaining insurance coverage, and high space requirements for the straw itself. 

One-story building with flat roof, large steeple

<—- Pilgrim Holiness Church in Arthur, Nebraska

Straw-bale construction was greatly facilitated by the mechanical hay baler, which was invented in the 1850s and was widespread by the 1890s.  It proved particularly useful in theNebraska Sandhills. Pioneers seeking land under the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1904 Kinkaid Act found a dearth of trees over much of Nebraska. In many parts of the state, the soil was suitable for dugouts and sod houses. However, in the Sandhills, the soil generally made poor construction sod;  in the few places where suitable sod could be found, it was more valuable for agriculture than as a building material. 

The third documented use of hay bales in construction in Nebraska was a schoolhouse built in 1901 or 1902. Unfenced and unprotected by stucco or plaster, it was reported in 1902 as having been eaten by cows. To combat this, builders began plastering their bale structures; if cement or lime stucco was unavailable, locally obtained “gumbo mud” was employed.  Between 1896 and 1945, an estimated 70 straw-bale buildings, including houses, farm buildings, churches, schools, offices, and grocery stores had been built in the Sandhills. In 1999, 2173 surviving bale buildings were reported in Arthur and Logan Counties, including the 1928 Pilgrim Holiness Church in the village of Arthur, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places

These opening paragraphs are sort of a daisy trail to this MBOB because once I started thinking about the problem of getting decent lumber in the early 1900s, I wanted to understand whether the problem presented itself differently in other pioneer communities.

I thought it was worth talking about what was required of those who chose to fight their way into a future on the prairie—a prairie that didn’t offer materials for building buildings—a prairie that stretched from the Canadian latitudes to the Texas-Mexico border.

The prairie included parts of ColoradoKansasMontanaNebraskaNew MexicoNorth DakotaOklahomaSouth DakotaTexas, and Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of AlbertaManitoba and Saskatchewan. It was big. It was very big.

Considering the times, it was actually pretty upscale to build even the outbuildings out of—lumber!

wash house 3The wash house on our farm was one of our many outbuildings. It was well designed for a variety of purposes that morphed over the years, constructed with good quality milled lumber from far away which had arrived at the nearest rail head and was hauled to the farm in a horse drawn wagon.

These outbuildings were built to last, and they did. This wash house was well-roofed and sat between the cave (underground vegetable storage—a root cellar with doorway of standard size and cement steps eight feet into the earth) and the outhouse. The wash house had two windows, a big wooden door with a huge hook that closed it tightly from the outside, a wooden floor, a well-shingled roof and exterior walls which were also covered with thick shingles, keeping the wood dry and saving the paint for more important buildings both little (outhouses) and big (barns and houses).

wash house1The original use of the wash house was, obviously, a place to wash clothes. Pre-electricity (1949 or so), the gas-engine washing machine was there. After electricity came in, the wash house became a place for storage, playing house and watching the dynamite thunderstorms, sitting in safety with the door open, enjoying the sound and the fury.

Playing house in the wash house was a perfect illustration of practicing being grownup, and might include staying there overnight, all of twenty feet from the back door of the house, especially if my cousin could come over and spend the night.

An old double bed was stored there so we would drag blankets and pillows out and create our temporary home. Once things were dark and quiet in the house (although Mom would always leave the light on at the back steps in case we changed our minds about our level of courage in the middle of the night and wanted the option of coming inside to go to my bedroom), we would scare ourselves in the silence as we listened for the sounds of things that were never out there. It was a fact, though, that badgers and coyotes were part of the night in our pastures. So once darkness descended, we didn’t go out of the wash house. For anything.

washing house 2Practicing being a grownup was pretty much what childhood was about. It would have been considered strange for childhood to be thought of as a destination, or even as a place to linger; but it was a perfectly respectable way station en route to actually being grown up, and most of our play reflected that.

Now because finished lumber was highly valued and difficult to obtain in the early years, it was also re-used. When some building had outlived its original purpose and either fell down or was taken down, the old square nails were pulled out and the lumber carefully stacked, anticipating the day when the farmer would go to the lumber pile to locate the perfect piece for some new project he was working on or some pig fence he was repairing.

wash hoouselkjBits of lumber were specifically not used for bonfires or weinie roasts, both of which we enjoyed whenever we had the chance. The wood for such entertainment came from dead branches that were broken off the standing trees in the coulees. It could be burned with a comfortable conscience since it hadn’t been laboriously obtained.

wash house987Neither the size or quality of those trees was suitable for log buildings or for milling, but the dead branches were perfect for roasting hot dogs (stuck on to the end of a skinny, sharp branch selected for the purpose) and marshmallows on a summer evening or winter afternoon.

#451665 Cover image

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33 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: Lumber for a Wash House on a Treeless Prairie

  1. Spar Harmon says:

    By way of contrast East Tennessee, where I grew up was a series of ridges running roughly from south west to north east and parallel. These were heavily wooded with second growth hardwoods, a veritable alphabet of species filled in with lots of scrub and shrub and bramble and briar patches, creeks, springs, small game, abundant bird species, snakes (constrictors), insects, and noseeums. Oh yes and snipes. I had night vision so I would even wander around at night. I mostly played alone but with a troop of fantasy companions and would create adventures heavily indebted to all the books I read…TV did not appear until after I was 10 and was heavily restricted.
    I wanted to grow up so I could go out and have adventures, so I practiced adventuring skills. Oh well, thanks for those part of your remarks. I think I’ll go to sleep dreaming some of my old favorites…G’nite.


    • Sharon says:

      In 1986, we drove from California to North Carolina to spend time with our son who was stationed at Camp Le Jejune, so we drove the length of Tennessee. Oh, my. I still remember the slightly over-awed, a bit intimidated feeling of driving the endless miles of freeway between the stands of trees on all sides, which went as far as the eye could see, confirmed in those infrequent moments when you could actually see more than a hundred yards because of all the trees in the way!

      That is a foreign environment for these eyes. Made me a little claustrophic if you want to know the truth. 😉


      • oriana88 says:

        I love it, Sharon: our feelings, re landsacpes, are mirror images! I’m used to trees. See how the prairie makes me feel–below: I like the “cozy” feeling of having lots of trees around. Flat land with few trees makes me feel very exposed and not comfortable at all!

        If we ever meet in person, we’ll have to find a neutral space–some trees, but not too many!!


    • Menagerie says:

      East Tennessee was my home until 2001. Now I live just across the state line. My grandparents livednon the plains. I never understood how you could live without the mountains, lakes, streams and trees as a child. As an adult I find the plains hauntingly beautiful. But I choose to live on the side of a steep wooded ridge in a cabin. I still love the beautiful hardwood forests we are blessed with.


  2. stella says:

    And this is one of the places where the lumber came from that ended up at your rail head:,1607,7-153-54463_18670_18793-53133–,00.html

    From a history of my great grand uncle, Nathan Hurd Jr:

    His father was a native of Vermont, and, in the year 1834, removed to Lapeer County. This was at that time a wilderness, inhabited only by wold (sic) beasts and Indians. The nearest commercial point at that time was Pontiac, a small village of two or three stores and a grist-mill, to which they made a weary pilgrimage at long intervals for their grists and scanty groceries.

    This wilderness was covered with old growth forest that was heavily lumbered to provide building materials on the prairie during the push West. It is now lovely farm country!


    • fatman650 says:

      I’m just curious because I grew up in Lapeer County – 2 miles south of Burnside – do you know what part of the county your great grand uncle grew up? And yes it is wonderful farm country. One thing I still love is to go back to Snover Mi for my family’s reunion the first Sunday of August and drive around Lapeer and Sanilac County and check out this years crops and purchase veggies at the side of the road farmers markets. The best sweet corn and Tomatoes are grown in that area and usually by August the corn is at least 8ft tall and also the best tasting beefsteak tomatoes that are bigger than softballs are grown in that area.


      • stella says:

        I sure do! I am very, very, familiar with Burnside – the old drive-in theatre, and the beautiful old Victorian house near the “blinking light” on Van Dyke!

        My great-grandfather (Nathan Sr) moved to Lapeer County in 1834 (I have copies of the land patents) from Vermont, but via Ontario. The date of the first patent is 8 Oct 1835, 40 acres, and the second, 80 acres, dated 3rd Aug, 1839.

        County: Lapeer

        Location Township: 8-N,
        Range: 10-E
        Section: 29

        The 1839 Land Office Records says, “East half of the south west quarter of section 29 in township eight north of range ten east in the district of lands subject to sale at Detroit, Michigan (80 acres)”.

        That is northeast of the city of Lapeer.

        My mother was born in Marlette in 1906. Her father was Nathan’s grandson. In her later years, she lived in the summer on property near the corner of Deckerville Rd and Germania Rd. Her mailing address was Snover, MI.

        Two years ago, we had our Ross reunion not far from Brown City (NE) at the Flynn Twp Hall on Shephard Rd.

        Small world!

        P.S.: My mother would tell you that the land is the best, because it is heavy with peat moss. She always hauled “muck” from the Cass River banks for her flower gardens.


      • stella says:

        ADD: Nathan Hurd’s (was his) land is south of Vernor Rd, east of Farnsworth Rd, west of Roods Lake Rd, north of Daley Rd. – about equidistant east to west, and farther north than south (about the same distance north as King Rd, which doesn’t go through, on the east.)


    • Sharon says:

      Thank you for that, Stella! I knew that lumber came from somewhere lovely….as I got older, I often “thought thoughts” about Wisconsin and Michigan. I knew there was real bounty there—in the soil, the agriculture and the forests. Never got to see it. But I knew it was there.


      • stella says:

        “Your” lumber could have come from Wisconsin or Minnesota or Michigan. They are all beautiful states that were covered by forest.

        My great-grandfather Ross came to Sanilac County, MI from Canada. His first 40 acres was “earned” by logging (clearing) another farmer’s 40 acres. Then he had to clear his own! That was in the 1870’s. I can’t imagine how he did that – he had all daughters at the time, and there was no power equipment. I think his brother must have helped.


        • Spar Harmon says:

          I have a bone-deep, muscle-aching knowledge of what it means to clear 40 acres of forest for farming…it makes me wonder if his ‘contract’ included pulling stumps. Ours did, so we doubled up by digging a wide trench around each tree, cutting roots, then pulling the trees down with my 3/4ton Ford, flathead, crash box truck in compound low with a load of rock in the back, and come-alongs attached to each pull cable. Some careful triangulation kept my truck from being hit by the tree. Anyway, I developed an abiding prejudice against cutting living trees then– It feels like murder. One of the things I have had to forgive myself for. At the time it was a financial windfall which financed my next year of university plus allowing me to shorten my long courtship and marry my sweetheart that November. We were both working our way through school but were urgently eager to marry…..


          • stella says:

            I imagine they had to pull stumps – can’t farm, otherwise. Must have used horses; no trucks in 1870. Anyway, the trees would be sold for lumber. Trees are a crop, and have been treated as so by farmers for centuries. Wood is renewable energy.


          • Spar Harmon says:

            By that next summer I had built my first harpsichord, for myself, but by summer had commissions to build three more from professors in the music dept… that got me through the next year.


            • stella says:

              I saw a harpsichord build out of Lego blocks on Facebook the other day. Didn’t have a very good sound, I must say. I’m impressed, Spar. My ex-husband was a luthier in the last years of his life. He was also an alcoholic, following the 12-step program. Bravo to both of you.


            • Spar Harmon says:

              So I never again had to murder trees. When I had my organic fruit and nut orchard place in the ’90s I sometimes would have to take down a dying tree, and was reminded of just how hard that work is. I sculpt and craft wood so I have a deep attachment to the life force of trees as expressed in grain flow, texture, smell, and a lingering aliveness.


              • Spar Harmon says:

                A luthier eh! I’ve done some of that too, but I have never been able to master a stringed instrument my self except the dulcimer and zither/autoharp; keyboards, flutes, and percussion for me ’cause I can play them. But really the joy is in making would sing, and every instrument-maker I know feels the same way. I bet your husband did too. A lift of the glass to him and bravo indeed to meet his maker without beer on his breath; I pray for that, too.


  3. I love the pictures you paint with the Old Barns and Mailboxes series, Sharon. As a child/adolescent, I was addicted to “Little House on the Prairie” and have always had a fascination with that period of our history – the “pioneer” days. I have always felt I was born into the wrong century – and still long to live in that simpler time.

    I watched a movie recently, based on true events, called “The Fields”. It was an independent movie and was shown at multiple festivals, nominated and won several awards. It is “touted” as a psychological thriller, but really, it’s more of a drama.

    It is set, to my surprise, in Pennsylvania – I got the impression, the entire time, it was somewhere in the Western plains. The entire story takes place in an old farmhouse with outbuildings surrounded by corn fields along with other crops. it is set in the early 1970’s. It is a fantastic movie and well worth the watch. It is a bit “creepy” at times, but nothing supernatural or horrific about it. Cloris Leachman stars as the boy’s grandmother on the farm and she is excellent in her role.


    • stella says:

      I grew up on the “Little House” books, and my daughter followed in my footsteps.

      I differ from you in that there are many things about those times that I hope never return. Disease, no electricity, or refrigeration, or indoor plumbing – you get the idea!

      The things we long for are the solid moral foundation of the family, faith in God, and a love of the land.

      Nevertheless, there was evil and sin in those days too.


      • You’re exactly right – those are the things I long for. Particularly the foundation of the family and, through that, a devotion and faith in God to provide. An appreciation of the small things – a bountiful harvest for instance. The lack of corruption and materialism. Those things. Not so much the disease and pestilence. My own grandmother died of pneumonia at age 29 – 1 year before penicillin. So sad – my mother was only 10. From everything I’ve ever heard about her, she was an angel on earth. I will meet her one day.


      • Sharon says:

        There certainly was evil and sin in those days, but it wasn’t considered normal.

        It was not boasted about and feted. Legislation was not passed to protect and promote it. It was shamed and exposed and eliminated wherever it was found. Those who planned evil and lived for it made a point of setting up business in the dark corners, at the edges of society.

        The things we long for are the solid moral foundation of the family, faith in God, and a love of the land.

        Exactly. I wouldn’t want to go back to those old wash boards (although they do work well). They hurt yer knuckles until you figure out how to use your fist without leading with your knuckles. I would never want to go back to those times (which were the bucket that held my life) but we desperately need the contents of that bucket.

        Today’s MBOB frames this point: those pioneeers did not cling to “doing things like they were done in the past”—they honored the past but saw it as the bucket in which the their blessing came. They pushed forward with everything they had, using new ideas, new techniques, new machinery, new whatever. They didn’t turn the past into some kind of sanctuary that was always safe and warm and fuzzy: they knew from first hand experience that their past also held death and mayhem and untold difficulty.

        I have never intended the MBOBs to define the past as an ideal, now lost, sanctuary. It is lost, but it was never a sanctuary of perfect safety—certainly not for those to lived it. We tend to long for the bucket, perhaps because we think that it was the bucket that defined the contents. It did not. The bucket’s contents were brought by the men and women who worked 24/7 to make and protect the bucket. The bucket brought the blessing: it didn’t guarantee it.

        Maybe the name of this series should be They Didn’t Think The Bucket Was Special. 😉

        There were abused children and alcoholics on the the prairie. Not in my safe little community, but I understood their presence later.

        Part of my reason for the MBOBs is to make us really lonesome for the contents, so that we fight for the contents that still remain anywhere around us. So that we repair our present buckets…so they can better hold the blessings that are still available.

        You can have the best milk cows in the county, but if your buckets have holes in them, you’ll never get the milk to the breakfast table.


        • Very lovely analogy and spot on. No, don’t change the thread name! I know you were kidding. I look very forward to the posts each Sunday morning. It always starts the day with a smile, a trip through the memories of youth and a yearning to create an aspect of that life for my children. Thank you for that.


        • stella says:

          Sharon, I keep an old family-owned washboard on the wall in my laundry room – to remember, and “just in case”!

          I hope to always have buckets in good repair, to hold all of the good things that our hearts and spirits long for.


        • oriana88 says:

          Your first three paraagraphs here really struck me. Right on, Sharon!


  4. c0astalkitty says:

    Sharon, thank you! What a lovely way to start my day. My adopted father’s family was from Tennessee, near Loudon Dam. I can still see the beautiful hills with rows and rows of tobacco, the drive up to the white home with the wrap around porch, the tin roof and huge pecan trees. My heart would race just to see my great uncle, his wife and sister, the smell of the wood stove in the kitchen to keep the house warm. I’ve never slept so well in my life than to sleep in a feather bed with the sound of rain hitting a tin roof. I’ve always been a cat lover, but the farm cats were so different than my little cats at home. They were a little wild, ate table scraps and whatever they could find. Sometimes we could catch the kittens, and got rewarded with scratches – but it was fun to just pet them. And the washhouse – yes memories indeed. My GA also kept her seeds for her garden in the washroom, and all her jars for canning – old blue jars with lead lids. And her butter churn sat on the enclosed porch along with the well. To have a well indoors – well that was the bomb for my GA. But when I think of good times, homemade fudge, fun and love with the family – that’s the place I go to in my memories. Thanks again for making me smile!


  5. oriana88 says:

    Sharon, beautiful, as usual: I learn so much about the past, places and practices quite strange to me (I’m a city girl, but did live in Saskatchewan for a year), and a lot about life. Thank you!

    Your wonderful reminiscences also make me think of my own childhood: although we lived on a city street lined with mature, tall trees, in a brick house, always with electricity and other mod. cons., in the summer, we went to a cottage a few hours north of the city. My uncle’s family owned huge tracts of forest—they were in the lumber business—and, at the end of a small, clear-water lake, on a piece of the Canadian Shield, with miles and miles of forest around it, only accessible by boat, was one of the lumbermen’s rustic, log cabins. It was perfect for three young moms—my mom and her twin sisters, 13 months younger (my poor grandmother!)—and their seven (later, there were four more) young children.

    The bare-bones cabin had a large, screened-in porch: the kids spent a lot of time there on rainy days, noses often pressed against the windows that looked into the large living room with a big, stone fireplace. There was a large kitchen—propane stove—to the left of the living room and, to the right, a small corridor to the three bedrooms: the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. There were propane lamps and an outhouse, up a little hill at the back. We did go out at night—very quickly!—but always with a buddy and a flashlight, relieved once we were back inside the cottage. (We never saw one, but there were bears!)

    Through the woods, near the shore, was another, much newer, lumber building. (My uncle’s now 87: I’ll email him to find out the purpose of that building!) It was completely empty. We once saw a mouse scurrying along one of the rafters, so we called this space Fort-a-Mouse. Just to be on our own, we older cousins (8-10) would go there to practise plays—paper doll and live—or just to read or have a picnic on a blanket on the floor. We roasted marshmallows in the fireplace or, when the dads arrived for the weekend, in a fire on the rocks, using, like you, Sharon, dead wood from the surrounding trees. Happy memories!

    Growing up with so many BIG trees around—as I grow older, I LOVE trees more and more—I found the lack of trees in Saskatchewan quite distressing. I nearly married a prairie fellow and am glad I didn’t: I’m not sure I could live comfortably in such a flat, nearly treeless space. Really.


  6. justfactsplz says:

    I sat here and had a visual tour in my mind of some of the states you guys have written about. I think each state has it’s own beauty in it’s own way. By the time I was ten years old I had been in 48 states. Then they added the last two states which I have never been able to see. I have been in several foreign coutries also. I love the mountains especially. I too remember out buildings. We had a building on our farm that held corn cobs. When it was empty it became my playhouse.


  7. Cyrano says:

    Thanks for getting us going, Sharon, I love these Sunday mornings, taking a trip into our past, beholding the “Bucket” for a few wonderful minutes.


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