Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Cow chips and drought — enjoying ‘good old days’ in Nebraska


I recently ran onto a short article my great-grandmother wrote in response to a call for stories of life in Custer County Nebraska by the pioneers who lived it. I just ran onto it recently, but the article itself appeared in a collection of accounts of early life in the Nebraska Sand Hills region which was published in 1936. I was fortunate enough to find a copy through an inter-library loan system. While I had the book, I scanned a copy of the article by my great-grandmother: “Early Experiences Leave a Thrill,” by Mrs. Wilber Speer.

For the record, “Mrs. Wilber Speer” was a feisty, tiny woman named Caroline “Katie” (Owens) Speer. The “Mr. Speer” she was wed to was Wilber Speer, one of the pioneers who homesteaded land in Custer County back in the late 1880s. I remember as a very small child seeing Great-Grandma Speer. I must have been less than 5 or 6 years old; she appeared to my eyes to be about 1,000 years old. I haven’t found a genealogy for her or any record of when she died, so I can’t even guess how old she was. I do know she was born in 1867, so she was probably somewhere around 85-90 when I remember her. I recall only that she was tiny even to me, and that she seemed happy and laughed a lot.

In reading her account of pioneer homesteading on the Plains, I marvel again at how life amounted to finding shelter, growing and foraging for good food, trying hard to raise a few animals (the cows were good for food AND fuel; hence the title about cow chips), and putting up first a dugout home then a sod house. At one point, Katie says she was so happy to have boards for flooring in their sod house — until it rained and the sod roof leaked: ” … when I wished the boards were on the roof.”

Despite her accounts of battling a flea infestation, spending countless hours alone miles away from any other living person while she raised her family (ultimately 6 kids) with her husband working as a teamster, and despite the time they had a drought (1894) that forced them to turn their stock out on the prairie to find whatever food and water they could, despite all that, Katie ends her 1936 account with this statement:

“After all, it is a thrill to think of the good, old, happy days in Custer county.”

Sort of makes you feel silly, doesn’t it, when life’s problems get us down, to think about what the real pioneers went through with hardly a blink, and came out the other side looking back at “the good, old, happy days”?

Join me in saluting the pioneers of the “Old West” who left this wonderful country for us to appreciate and be thankful for!