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Unit 6


Homesteading & Town Building


Lesson 2
Town Life and Hard Times



Homestead Act passes
First railroads reach Dakota
Gold rush begins
Great Dakota Boom begins
Railroad reaches Black Hills
Hard winter kills many cattle
South Dakota becomes a state
New land openings begin
Railroad bridges cross Missouri River
State issues first license plates
United States enters First World War
All American Indians become United States citizens

     In the beginning, most of the railroad towns looked pretty much alike. Streets ran east and west, north and south. The train depot perched at one end of Main Street. The railroad tracks often formed a "T" with Main Street. At the other end was nothing but open prairie. Buildings lined streets of bare earth or mud. Some had false fronts that made them look two stories high. Schoolhouses were often one of the most important buildings in town. They became centers of the community, a place where people got together for fun or public business.

Chamberlain News Office
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Newspapers were an important business on Main Street. Small towns had newspapers that were printed once a week. Larger towns had newspapers printed every day. The newspapers let everyone know who had claimed what land and where it was. Some were printed in different languages because immigrants could not speak English. They brought news from the outside world. They tried to bring more settlers to Dakota. They knew that the wealth of the town depended on the number of farms around it.

     Most families who came to Dakota farmed on their 160-acre claims. They had to build a house there to prove that they were living on the land. Some people bought lumber in town and put up claim shanties. These tiny houses were drafty and cold. The floors were dirt. Because wood was scarce, many homesteaders built sod houses. These soddies were made of blocks of prairie sod. Some were leaky and dangerous. The roofs could collapse under rain or heavy snow.

Claim Shanty
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

Sod House
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

Winter Count
Winter Count

     Snow was something Dakotans soon knew a lot about. The Hard Winter of 1880-1881 took many by surprise. Temperatures hovered below zero for weeks. Snow fell so deep that trains could not get through. For most families, that meant no food, fuel, or supplies. There was no kerosene for lamps to light long winter nights. "The dark came in, loud with the roar and the shrieking of the storm," wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter.  There was no flour for bread. There was no coal to heat the freezing air inside their houses. Families burned twisted sticks of hay instead. They ground wheat seed for flour. When the spring thaw finally came, the Missouri, Big Sioux, and James rivers flooded their banks. The Missouri River swept the whole town of Vermillion away. The flood broke up so many steamboats that steamboat travel on the Missouri River soon ended.

     Farming during the 1880s was also harder than it is today. Many new farms had been started on sod that had never been plowed. Breaking up sod took days of labor. A horse or mule to draw the plow helped, but many farmers used hand plows. Even so, wheat crops were good at first. Then prairie fires and drought hurt harvests; prices for corn and wheat crops fell. Some homesteaders packed up and moved back east. By 1890, the Great Dakota Boom was over.

Farm Graph


Wheat Graph

Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls

     Yet many Dakota towns grew and did well. Sioux Falls became a thriving center for business and industry. The local rock made good stone for buildings. It was called quartzite. Cutting, or quarrying, this rock added jobs to the Sioux Falls area. The rock itself added beauty to the towns all around. Up north, Aberdeen was the hub city for many railroads. Farms around the city did well. The railroads took the crops to eastern markets. They brought back food, lumber, tools, and supplies. Aberdeen businessmen began to resell these goods to other stores. They took them out to small towns in wagons. Aberdeen became an important wholesale center.

collapse (v.), to fall down suddenly

hovered (v.), lingered; hung about

hub (n.), a center

kerosene (n.), an oil used in lamps

sod (n.), a piece of ground covered with growing grass and its roots

thriving (adj.), successful