Looking out onto South Dakota’s prairie often gives me pause and I think about the plainswomen who settled America’s prairieland over one hundred and forty years ago. How these women ever survived life without electricity, ready- made shelter, stores to buy food, running water, transportation and other comforts that we now think of as intrinsic to life, fills me with awe. Yet survive these women did, leaving the legacies of their lives to their daughters and granddaughters.
This month, as we celebrated Women’s History Month, I went back to the stories told by my grandmother, Lorine Yeager, and found communion with a woman of the prairie, my great- great-grandmother, Magdelina Pieth Denzer.
In 1888, Magdelina Pieth emigrated from Switzerland. She worked as a housemaid in Chicago, and in 1897 married Henry Denzer. They lived in Winona, Minnesota. In 1918, Henry talked Magdalena into moving west and homesteading in Montana. She left the comforts of her Minnesota home, including her apple and plum trees, berries and bees, to settle in Montana.
Lorine wrote of Magdelina in her autobiography:
This part of her life was rough, as the rusty water turned her beautiful linens red, the wind seemed to blow constantly making everything full of dust, and with no conveniences.
The dry, barren prairie was no match for her lovely yard and flowers in Minnesota. There was no “herd” law in Montana at the time so the neighbor’s cattle destroyed much of their crop and garden.
Magedelina’s story is like many other stories of women who settled the prairie. These women found ways to make good out of their new lives. Whatever creature comforts they lacked, they made up with a legacy of grit and love. From my grandmother’s writing on Magdelina:
Finally, [her husband] Henry built her a large, lovely home just north of Conrad, and there she raised her family. She did what she could to help the few neighbors she had, as she was always present when someone was ill or needed help. Medical help was far away so she delivered babies and helped in all kinds of sicknesses…Magdalena was a very quiet woman, which I felt was due to the loneliness she felt for her family in Switzerland…I helped her much with household tasks such as making butter, packing eggs, making soap and cleaning her beautiful black and chrome wood stove….To know Grandma Denzer was to love her. Grandma Denzer was a righteous person and was always a wonderful neighbor to everyone. She delivered many babies and always helped when there was anyone ill in the neighborhood.
In days gone by, and even today, South Dakota has been homeplace to the stories of many such great women. I think of Anna Pesa Vojta, great-great-grandmother of Prairie Berry Winery’s winemaker, Sandi Vojta. You can see her story sketched out on a timeline here: http://www.prairieberry.com/heritage/.
South Dakota is still home to such great women, Jenn Zeller, The South Dakota Cowgirl. Jenn’s photographs, on display at Prairie Berry starting March 29, will take you on a journey through life on a South Dakota ranch today, through her own eyes as rancher and photographer.
Jenn keeps a blog: http://thesouthdakotacowgirl.com/, and a recent post seemed destined to be part of a story that one hundred years from now, a member of Jenn’s kin will look back at, proud of the great woman she was and in awe of the strength, stamina and compassion with which she lives her life. Here’s an excerpt from her blog post, “A Skipped Confession”:
Still to do this week: fold and put away all the laundry, order more graduation announcements, take photos of some horses for sale, write a blog post, finish and order a marketing piece, put together a package for the Cheyenne River Youth Project, Bangs vaccinate heifers, make brownies and Green Chili Bacon Stuffed Croissants for our “dinner” party at the ranch tonight, I’d like to ride, workout, then maybe take a deep breath.
Please join us in a community celebration of The South Dakota Cowgirl’s exhibit with an opening reception this Friday, March 29, from 3 – 5 p.m. Take the opportunity to bring a young person with you. In sharing the stories of our lives, our neighbors, our families, and our country, we may find that true grit and a deep sense of compassion is not so hidden, and even lives on in ourselves today. The exhibit will be on display through April 26.