Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

My husband hated his work, and I hated mine. We wanted to get out of the shops, and I wanted a family. We liked the country life and decided to become farmers. We wanted to homestead. In the early 1900s the railroads wanted settlers in the West, for freight. For $32, you could go from Chicago to the coast. By 1909, it was all: “Go west, young man, go west.”

The Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota was thrown open for settlers. They took it away from the Indians. They had a lottery. My husband won a ticket, but he doesn’t want to be separated from his friend, Charlie. So they came back to Chicago. On the train they heard about oceans of land in Montana. Whoever comes gets the land. So they came to Scobey, Mont.

I remained in Chicago to augment our income. He built a 12-by-20 shack. I joined him in August 1910. I got off the train, and there was my brown-complected husband, sunburned, with overalls and a red kerchief, Nobody told me there was only nine inches of rainfall a year, and that the country was subject to prairie fires. (Laughs) In August there was no grass; it was just yellow. It was blazing hot. I thought: “My God, I’m in the Sahara Desert.”

The air was so clear. I thought I could reach up and take a star. It was beautiful. Everything was new. The neighbors were simply wonderful. The first morning a horseman stops near the door, Mr. Larson from three miles away. “Simon, I want you to come for threshing.” I said: “Can I come along?” He says: “Come, be our cook.” I could make gefilte fish, challa, but cooking for 25 Montana farmers … (Laughs)

He tells me the menu: potatoes and ham. I had never cooked it. I asked my husband: “Where are the potatoes?” He said: “You have to dig ’em up.” (Laughs) And bake biscuits, too. I had never baked biscuits. Mr. Larson said it was a wonderful meal.

Our salvation was the neighbors who lived two miles away. Pious Methodists. If not for them, I don’t think we could have survived. Mrs. Watts was my mother, my counselor, my everything. When my husband had accidents, they’d come help us. She knew folk medicine. At threshing time everybody helped.

Whenever the crop was in, my husband had to freight it 75 miles. He’d be gone about a week, and I’d remain alone. We were talking about going west, farther west. Why? I was hungry for people. I was hungry for the family. I wanted my daughter to go to school. By that time I had another child. The school was six miles away, and I was terrified that my daughters would grow up illiterate. How do you send a little girl in Montana winters to school so far away?

We came back to Chicago. For years we ran a summer resort in Michigan, where I was a square peg in a round hole.

I span almost a century. When I look back upon it, the worst thing was sanitation. Babies died the second year of their lives, usually from poisoned milk.

They called it summer complaint. There was smallpox, there was diphtheria, there was typhoid. These diseases have been wiped out. Although we eat poisoned food, we breathe bad air, we live longer than we did. Children don’t die as frequently.

Life at that time was hard, hard, hard. Now it’s much easier. When my mother found a washboard, she didn’t know what to do with it. Now I have a washing machine.

We are enjoying creature comforts. Don’t forget: I remember candlelight. When we first got gas, it was for special occasions. I lived from that to TV, to the man on the moon.

I have a childish theory about the life-lessness of the moon. Don’t laugh. I think there were people on the moon who became so sophisticated that they began to do what we’re doing. First, it was the gun. Then it was the bomb. Instead of killing piecemeal, it kills thousands. Hiroshima. Now they have the H-bomb, and they’re talking about a neutron bomb. I believe the people on the moon found the ultra-ultra weapon to destroy life, and it became a burnt-out planet. A childish thought, maybe, but if we keep going like this … I don’t worry about it. I won’t be here. (Laughs)

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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