Not so long ago I stumbled on the little book by a man who lived in a place where people haven’t and likely shouldn’t even try to live. It’s a memoir. Don’t look for it in bookstores. You won’t find it. Homesteading in the South Dakota Badlands, 1912, "The Last Best West," a tiny little book of deeply lodged memories put to paper by a man named Ernest G. Boermann—it’s his story.
And his mother’s. Anne Rubin Boermann was a pioneer. Anne Rubin was, her son says, a "most extraordinary woman,” a description more understated than anything, living or dead, on the wide prairie she inhabited. Listen:
She did all the dishes and dishwashing, the cleaning, the laundry, and all that housewives do--all of this without any modern conveniences. The water for drinking, cooking, laundry, and bathing had to be carried into the house and all the waste carried out. Fuel for the cookstove and heating had to brought in and ashes carried out.
It’s not difficult to imagine Ann Rubin Boermann’s life in one of the abandoned houses--broken down, broken into—still left out here to fight ravaging seasons.
In addition to these chores, she always had a large garden and canned food for the rest of the year from it. She also took care of the chickens. She and the younger boys also milked the cows, separated the milk, and then she made cheeses. Many people bought her dairy products. Moreover, she helped with the butchering and made sausages.
And more. “I cannot remember ever having a pair of bought gloves or socks,” Ernest says. “My mother carded and spun wool and then knitted these items for the whole family.” Farm work too: “She often helped round off the stacks of grain. We put the bundles into stacks before threshing.”
For the record, Mr. Boermann, Ernest’s father, was 38 years old when he married this incredible woman. She was only 16—try to imagine that without wincing. Anne Rubin was a kid when he brought her out here to eastern South Dakota.
Through the years, the Boermanns had 10 children—well, she did. Ernest’s older brother was born in the granary because they were residing in a place where a house hadn't yet been built. His father was 62 years old when the last of Ernest’s siblings--twin girls! --were born. That was 1898.
Looking back on it, I can't believe how much she did every day of her life. And she was always healthy and cheerful. I can't remember her ever saying she had a headache or had to lie down and rest.
Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Her life, as her son describes it, feels Herculean, mythic, epic, but today almost lost and even criticized for the colonialist effects of her having lived on what once were Native lands.
At sixteen years old, Anne Rubin might well have been alone on the ground her husband worked, but hers wasn't the only difficult woman’s life on the prairie. There were hundreds, thousands. Her goal or mission, like every other prairie heroine, was simple: to build a home and, with others, a community, where, they believed, no one had before.
About that, they were wrong.
Their grand stories will always wear an asterisk, but their stories, like Ann Rubin Boermann’s, will be forever epic.
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