Growing Vegetables Took Grit in the Old West

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The Ganson Farm in 1906 in Buffalo County, Nebraska.
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The John Gilliard family in their garden, 1889, in Custer County, Nebraska.
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A family stands in their garden in 1907 in Miller, Nebraska.

You and I both know that raising a vegetable garden isn’t a task for weaklings. There’s a considerable amount of labor involved in preparing the seedbed and bending, stooping and kneeling to plant the seeds and seedlings. More stoop labor required to check your plants for signs of disease and insect feeding, and to drag the hoses around. And that doesn’t count the work invested in digging beets and potatoes, picking beans and peas, and searching for the cucumbers that always hide under the vines, just out of reach.

But if you think gardening is tough today, imagine yourself back in the frontier West 150 years ago.

In the days before supermarkets and farmers’ markets, the only way to supply your family with fresh produce was to raise it yourself. If you were a settler moving west to claim a homestead, you likely brought along precious portions of vegetable seeds sewn into the hem of a dress or lining of a coat: turnips, corn, beans, squash, beet and carrot seed, perhaps tomato or melon seeds. Once you’d dug a well and built a home, the next step was to raise enough food to feed yourself and your family. That meant breaking the sod, planting your little hoard of seeds, and carrying water to them in a bucket.

If you were industrious — and lucky — your garden might furnish sufficient produce to supplement a frontier diet largely dependent on wild game and beef from a butchered cow or oxen. Maybe there were nearby patches of wild chokecherries, elderberries, currants, or wild grapes or plums that you could put up as preserves. If, on the other hand, luck was against you, hordes of locusts or grasshoppers might devour your garden, a sudden hail storm might flatten it, or a prairie fire might destroy everything in its path. Free-ranging cattle might even trample your garden.

That’s right, cattle. In the spring of 1886, before ranches were fenced, homesteaders along western Nebraska’s North Platte River Valley grew incensed at the damages caused to their crops and gardens by cattle belonging to the free-range cattle companies. Several of the settlers rounded up about 500 head of cattle belonging to the Bay State Cattle Co., and sent word to the ranch foreman that his herd would be held until damages of $1,500 were paid. The ranch foreman, in no mood to be dictated to by the angry nesters, quickly sent for two trusted men and ordered them to recover the cattle, at the point of a gun if necessary. While the settlers never did get paid for their ruined crops, Nebraska voters enacted a herd law the following year, making cattle owners responsible for damages to crops and gardens.

Those who didn’t have a garden often went months without vegetables. The diets of the soldiers assigned to frontier Army posts in the 1850s and 1860s consisted primarily of salt pork, bacon, flour, beans and coffee, occasionally supplemented by buffalo, deer, antelope or other game.

Because of the scarcity of vegetables, and a lack of vitamin C in their diet, it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to suffer from scurvy. In his book, The Indian War of 1864, Capt. Eugene Ware wrote that following an outbreak of scurvy at the Army post at Julesburg, Colorado Territory, the post physician sent the men out to gather a bushel of prickly pear “hands.” Writes Ware, “Dr. Wisely scraped off the bristles and prickles, cut them into pieces, and boiled them with sugar, thus creating a variety of applesauce, which was not altogether undesirable. Those men who were afflicted (with scurvy) were immediately cured, and the Doctor continued to use the remedy all of the winter.”

Some Army posts occasionally received tins of desiccated vegetables. Each tin contained flattened “cakes” of steamed, dried and pressed onions, cabbages, beets, turnips, carrots and peppers.

“They were intended to be put into the soups, and were largely used by us for that purpose,” Ware reported. “They were very nutritious, and it was convenient, when we went on scouts, for the boys to break off a piece and put it in a saddle pocket. The boys would nibble at it as they were riding along. It was a kind of leguminous bread, and they ate about as much of it dry as they did putting it into soups.”

A few Army forts tried to raise their own gardens, with varying degrees of success. According to military accounts, the post garden at Camp Douglas, near Salt Lake, produced 1,700 bushels of potatoes and 35 bushels of peas in the mid-1860s. At Fort Sumner, in New Mexico Territory, the staff and company gardens produced large crops of melons, squashes, pumpkins, beets, carrots and radishes. Unfortunately, an 1865 attempt to raise potatoes and other vegetables at Fort Rice, in Dakota Territory, ended when grasshoppers destroyed the crop.

Prickly pear applesauce? Try putting that on the dinner table next Thanksgiving.

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist who, so far, has never come down with scurvy.

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