Homestead Survivor

Early structures tell the story of the price paid for free land.

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A “prove-up shack” on the plains of southern Idaho where snow is not a problem or the structure would have had a peaked roof.

The purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862 was to make it possible for settlers with few resources but a strong work ethic to claim land in the West. Almost every adult today knows about the Homestead Act but most have no understanding of its basic components.

The law granted 160 acres of land to any citizen who was 21 years old or head of a household willing to settle on it and farm the land. A three-step procedure required homesteaders to file an application, improve the land and file for a patent (deed). The occupant had to reside on the land for five years and show evidence of having made improvements, and the process had to be complete within seven years.

Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270 million acres (420,000 square miles), much of it previously inhabited by Native American nations, to private ownership. A surprisingly high percentage (40 percent) of applicants completed the process and gained title to their homestead land.

The requirement that was the most difficult for applicants to fulfill was the five-year residency rule. A person couldn’t just make a claim on a piece of land. He or she (women were eligible) had to physically reside on the claim. Some type of house had to be built because a tent or something similar was not durable enough to withstand the kinds of weather those frontier locations experienced. Building materials were difficult to come by, both financially and logistically. Because of that, most early Great Plains houses were made of prairie sod. Even where wood was available, it certainly wasn’t easy to convert into cabins.

Homesteaders’ lives marked by constant hardships and challenges

From our vantage point in the 21st century, it almost looks like homesteaders were destined to live lives where they barely survived. After all, the isolated locations of most homesteads resulted in a bleak existence. Keep in mind, however, that the average person in that era experienced a tough life almost everywhere. The ability to own land meant a chance to thrive in the future when doing so in a family’s current situation was almost nil. The huge number of people who participated in the homestead movement reveals the dramatic lure of land ownership.

Even in areas with less-than-optimum climate for Western-style farming, it wasn’t long before most arable land was occupied by a family on every 160 acres. A house of some kind was constructed and the whole family worked from sunup to sundown trying to make a living. Unfortunately, in the horse-farming era, 160 acres was often more land than the average family could cultivate.

In other places, soil conditions were so unsuited to homesteaders’ cultivation practices and the weather so extreme that the land could not produce enough to live on. Slowly but surely, many of the small homestead farms failed. Some families returned to their former lives. Others found ways to “get bigger,” either developing expanded farming methods or adding additional acres by buying out those who’d had enough.

Most of the homesteads that survived long-term eventually added buildings to their location and the American farmyard was born. Currier and Ives paintings come to mind. Obviously barns and outbuildings were put up. What’s less well known is the fact that the original house built to meet the five-year residency rule was usually replaced as soon as possible with a more substantial home. The so-called “prove-up shacks” were so basic that when resources were available, the family needed not only more space, but more livable space.

Remote location provided one key advantage: wood

Complete books have focused on the sod house as a frontier dwelling. Conditions were primitive but proved to be livable. In this article, we will consider homestead houses built with more regular materials that this author has researched and, in some cases, has had experience with.

My wife’s and my great-grandparents were among the first settlers in our out-of-the-way part of Idaho. In any area, the most desirable locations were quickly taken. Those left, like our isolated high-altitude valley marked by dramatically deep snow and extremes of cold, had no settlers until about 1880. Since there is only a small amount of farmable land, few people chose to locate here. Word got out about the harsh conditions and short growing season. Even though it is a visually beautiful place, only the bravest homesteaders tried to make a go of it.

Because one of the area’s advantages is access to forests within a day’s ride from any place in the valley, every “prove-up shack” was constructed with wood. A sawmill was built and pine boards were soon available. Since the forests had never been logged, lumber was cut from fairly large trees. The standard board was 1 inch thick (accuracy wasn’t too good) and 12 inches wide.

Homesteaders’ “prove-up shacks” were primitive, drafty abodes

When a claim was made, immediate residency was essential. Green boards were taken straight from the mill to the homesite. A small dwelling could be put up fairly quickly. As soon as the shack was roofed and boxed-in, the temporary shelter was abandoned. Having a substantial roof over head was a major accomplishment.

Unseasoned lumber, though, created a problem for builders. As the boards dried, their dimensions decreased. The common joke was that a 1-inch-by-12-inch board would “shrink an inch a year for 10 years.” That was an exaggeration, but newcomers quickly learned that hastily thrown-up buildings were barely adequate.

If construction took place in the spring or early summer, cracks appeared between every board by late fall. The cracks continued to grow until the boards were completely dry. To keep the weather out in the winter, some kind of “chinking” was required, similar to that used in early log homes. The common “board and batten” walls that looked good early on ended up barely adequate.

When I was just a little kid, an old neighbor lady (I later learned she was born before 1900) told me a story about growing up on a local homestead. I didn’t understand much of it but remember her saying that, even though they built a better home on their farm a few years after moving there, during the winter she would wake in the morning with snow drifts on her bed because some of the cracks weren’t sealed.

The two items that were purchased as soon as finances improved were commercially made doors and windows. Formed of raw boards nailed together, the original door had leather hinges and a leather strap latch, and was impossible to seal. Fragile and hard to ship, window glass was difficult to come by.  A homestead house with one glass window was considered a pretty good abode.

If you ever run across a surviving homestead location, the chronology of residency can be determined visually. When you look at multiple buildings, you can recognize which were built early and which came later. Later structures were more elaborate, larger and provided better accommodations. It is a little bit like a history lesson.

Salvaging a relic of the past

In the late 1980s, I was told that buildings on an almost 100-year-old homestead, long home to two bachelor brothers, were going to be destroyed because a well-to-do great-grandson planned to build a fancy new house on the site. Local people were told that if there was anything of historical nature that they wanted to salvage, it had to be taken promptly. On a specified date, anything that remained would be burned. A couple of really old buildings at the site were sound and looked like they could be moved. That interested me, since I have several old vehicles I need to keep in garages. Maybe I could salvage one of the buildings and haul it 15 miles to my home. I decided to give it a try.

In a huge physical effort, my two teenage sons and I jacked up a 10-by-14-foot building and loaded it on a large trailer borrowed from the local road and bridge department. The trailer was hooked to our 1944 International Harvester military H-542-11 5-ton semi-tractor. It was possible to transport the building all the way home on isolated back roads with only occasional stops to raise power lines over the building’s peak.

While cleaning out the building before attempting to load it, it became apparent that it was last used as a woodshed. After we got it home and set down, a close examination revealed that it had been the homestead’s original “prove-up shack.” We discovered coat hooks, a shelf that served as a washstand (complete with a mirror for shaving) and anchors for two bedsteads. Gaps between the rough-hewn wall boards were stuffed full of scraps of burlap and worn denim. The only feature changed from the original design was the door. It was commercially produced but was obviously almost as old as the home, since it was coming apart at the seams.

Much thought went into trying to figure out how to save the historical element that the house represented. Finally we gave up, realizing that it was unrealistic that anyone would visit our place just because we had a relic of the homestead era. Eventually, as we’d originally planned, the old building was converted into a decent garage – but the interior was left unchanged. Whenever we go into the “Homestead House,” as we call it, we have a glimpse of what life was like for someone living there in the 1880s. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at

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