Life on the Homestead
• Hardship & MisfortuneThe homestead could be a tenuous place for couples and families. Homestead case files contain reports of wives "too sick" to live on the homestead; either an illness of the body or a veiled preference for a more urban lifestyle. Elsie Johnson remembered that "her mother cried a great deal, crying when they left St. Paul, crying when she cooked her first meal on a borrowed wood stove in a neighbor's cabin." (Dennis, 19) A few marriages did not withstand the experience, ending in divorce or abandonment. When faced with her husband's decision to abandon their claim for Canada, Mina Smith refused to leave and remained to raise her five children alone. Some found the isolation unbearable, the weather inhospitable, and the forests oppressive. In what may have been a common reaction to a rainy day in June, one Olympic Peninsula settler complained in his diary that he "Cut some more logs but could not work all day for it rained as usual. This tries a fellow's Christian Experience." Sickness or injury could prove disastrous. After an illness put his wife in the hospital, Edwin Blair took odd jobs in nearby towns to pay for the medical bills. His frequent absences from his homestead cost him his patent. Joseph Haumesser also lost his claim because he could not sufficiently prove he had established a permanent residence there. Haumesser's explanation of the circumstances that kept him from his land revealed the precarious nature of homesteading in the Olympics - a few tough breaks could make all the difference.
I cleared up a patch in the winter and planted a garden in the spring before I came out. I cannot remember the dates now but I put in a garden and after the 2nd or 3rd year oats or grass every year since 1891 and harvested these crops every year but one when I was sick in the hospital and had to go to work and earn money to pay bills for sickness when I came out of the hospital . . . This was my home but as I could not make a living there I had to go out and work for wages to get grub and tools and all my absences from the place were for this purpose.Other accidents cost homesteaders their lives. Without hospitals or medical expertise in close proximity, a minor cut or complication during childbirth might be lethal. One farmer died from an infection that developed after he cut his hand on a nail while working on his farm. Out in the West End a resident remembered a burial ground near Beaver called "the Tragedy Graveyard by the early settlers because none of the thirteen people buried there died of natural causes."
Natural disasters presented other dangers. While felling cedars and burning stumps and slash on his homestead one summer day in 1891, Jacob Irely suddenly faced a conflagration that burned for two weeks and spread to some 3000 acres. A much larger fire that swept through 238,000 acres in Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties in 1902 known as the Yacoult Burn killed 38 people. Olympic Peninsula homesteaders remembered well the night of the Great Blow Down of 1921, when hurricane-force winds brought down thousands of trees and several houses in the west end. After a flood destroyed Anton Kestner's first cabin, he moved to higher ground. Periodic drought, such as the one that lasted from April, 1934 to March, 1937, struck farms across the state.