Pioneer Woman’s Diary Recounts Life on Bonanza Farm

A first hand account of life on a bonanza farm, straight from a pioneer woman’s diary.

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Mary Dodge was raised by her great-uncle, John Dodge, who had a son named Daniel. Mary married John Woodward, moved to Wisconsin and raised five children. Meanwhile, Daniel Dodge, who lived in New York, invented a machine to manufacture horseshoe nails and became wealthy. He acquired stock in the Northern Pacific Railroad Co. and, upon its bankruptcy, exchanged the stock for about 1,500 acres of land in Cass County, Dakota Territory (near present day Fargo, on the eastern border of North Dakota), upon which he proposed to raise wheat.

In the fall of 1882, dissatisfied with the farm’s management, Daniel hired Mary Woodward’s middle son, Walter, then 30, to manage the farm. Mary, recently widowed, went to Dakota with Walter, taking along her 23-year-old daughter, Katie, and 18-year-old son, Fred. During the years 1884 to 1888, Mary Dodge Woodward kept an informative and charming diary of the happenings on the Dodge bonanza farm:

April 7, 1884: The whole caravan started out this morning at seven o’clock – out onto the good, rich land to seed. What a hubbub they made! The country looks godforsaken now. Everything is mud, and such mud, black and heavy and sticky, like glue! I pity the men trudging through it all day on foot. Nobody can imagine what Dakota mud is like until he gets into it and tries to lift his feet. It sticks to the (seeder) wheels until they are immense; yet the boys made 18 miles (per seeder) in it today.

April 11, 1885:  They planted 80 acres yesterday which was a big day’s work, as seeding is the hardest part of farming in Dakota. The men walk between 18 and 20 miles a day besides lifting sacks, filling seeders and managing horses; moreover it is frequently either muddy or dusty in the spring.

April 10, 1886: Seeding is in full swing, and the country begins to teem with activity. The boys have seeded 400 acres this week, walking 110 miles after their seeders, driving their teams. They are footsore and weary after their long tramp. The ground has never been so dry in seedtime since we have been here. In two former springs the men waded in mud and water with rubber boots on. Now dust fills their faces, and they work sometimes in a terrible gale of dirt.

April 24, 1887:  The boys are seeding in immense clouds of dust that nearly choke them, but still they keep on. They are black as Negroes when they come in with their eyes filled with Dakota soil.

May 7, 1888:  The country is alive with seeders, drags, horses and men. It is so late that everybody is rustling.