Homestead Act, families were obliged to rely wholly on the earth itself
By Nancy Plain
University of Nebraska Press, $16.95, 113 pages,
Making the most of what you have is a broad platitude, but rarely allows fewer options than 19th century pioneer settlers faced on the Plains in Nebraska. Eager to take advantage of the 1856 Homestead Act, families were obliged to rely wholly on the earth itself. Solomon Butcher, a homesteader who couldn’t face farming, resolved to record the history of Collin County in images and immortalized a record of daily life and the sod houses his neighbors created.
Young readers will enjoy the photographs of children with numerous siblings depending on themselves for amusement, schooled briefly, and working the farms alongside parents. Butcher recognized what these pictures meant to the relatives still living in close knit surroundings.
Nancy Plain’s sympathetic portrait of the optimist whose fortunes ebbed more than they flowed is woven into an account of this unique period in American history. The book encompasses years when the weather challenged the hardiest, when the railroads changed the pattern of settlement, and later when politics took hold. I’d recommend taking a generous look at the photos first as the narrative is hard to interrupt.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster