Book review: ‘Almost Pioneers,’ by Laura Gibson Smith
May 19, 2016
For many, the notion of homesteading in America comes from recollections of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's endearing "Little House" series, which recounts the experiences of Laura Ingalls as she and her family journeyed from Wisconsin to Kansas, Minnesota and, finally, to South Dakota. The decades of Wilder's childhood, the 1870-'80s, represents, for most, the heyday of the primary iconic symbols of hardy pioneers braving the rough lands of the Western Plains. It is perhaps because of this understanding of the pioneering ethos that author Laura Gibson Smith titled her 1930s memoir "Almost Pioneers."
In a recently released publication of her book, which includes researched and detailed footnotes by historian and editor John J. Fry, Smith's telling of her and her husband's adventures in frontier homesteading from 1913-17 reads easily and provides a fascinating insight into how the experience of homesteading had evolved since its earliest days, when settlers first headed west of the Mississippi.
Smith was quick to point out that the time they spent living on the prairie in rural Wyoming was nothing like the experiences of their predecessors — "We have never claimed to be pioneers, those gallant men and women who crossed the prairies in covered wagons when hostile Indians and other dangers were inherent in such an undertaking." Still, their decision to live for several years in a remote corner of the sparsely populated state of Wyoming proved them to be both plucky and naive about what the adventure would entail.
High school sweethearts from Ames, Iowa, Laura and Earle Smith were both teachers, each bringing to the union an obvious leaning toward a willingness to live an atypical lifestyle. They eloped on the spur of the moment and commenced a long and vibrant marriage that would span decades. They viewed their decision to homestead in Wyoming as a pragmatic one in their new life together, as landownership was viewed as the key to the American dream, and with their teacher salaries, they knew Iowa real estate was beyond their financial parameters.
Selecting their 160 acres fell to Earle Smith, and being unversed in land husbandry, he blundered through the selection process, picking a plot seemingly at random. Wyoming in 1913 was still relatively wild, and the nearby town of Diamond was small, with only a train depot, an overpriced general store and several homes. Earle Smith was surprised to see that it was common for settlers to begin their time on their claims living in little more than dugouts. Establishing a residence as quickly as possible helped settlers log their three years of living and working on a claim from the moment the papers were filed.
In spite of the rough-and-tumble conditions, and their own ignorance in the ways of ranching and prairie lifestyle, Earle and Laura Smith seem to have tackled the endeavor with a great deal of enthusiasm and positivity. Nonetheless, Laura, who arrived after her husband, was shocked by the desolation and the isolation, and she tried not to despair too much when a neighbor woman told her that Wyoming was a man's country. The lifestyle left women lonely and unsatisfied, with only daily, backbreaking chores to fill their time.
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Laura Smith's book is very no-nonsense, written several decades after the couple returned to the more cultured landscape of Iowa. She writes of the day-to-day trials and traumas of the experience without coating it in any lingering romanticism. Knowing that they would not make Wyoming their permanent home gives the book its sense of detachment, for it becomes clear that their hearts were always in Iowa, where they were raised.
Because of its unsentimental tone, "Almost Pioneers" is a fascinating glimpse into a world not really depicted in more idealized stories. It resonates because of its starkness and its vivid rendering of the daily hurdles taken by average people who moved across the nation, making this country the tapestry that it is today.
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