In the summer of 2009, I packed my worn-out suitcase with my western plaid shirts, jean shorts, cowboy boots, and my rodeo cowboy hat. Coming from a southern California girl, this is not your average type of luggage. My friends packed their glamorous suitcases with their fedoras, swimsuits, flip-flops and even the latest Teen Vogue, and ventured off to places like the Bahamas and Hawaii. Meanwhile, I jumped on a plane to my great-great grandparents’ homestead in central South Dakota.
While arriving to the one hundred year old family homestead, I was welcomed by my great aunt Phyllis and her parade of cats. Taking a glance around the enormous property I saw the original barn, built in 1909, still standing with the ranch’s unique brand proudly displayed above the over-size doors. The brand symbol differentiated our homestead from others, so there was no mistake about who owned that property, even though the closest neighbor was several miles away. Inside this barn lives around ten horses that still graze in the land my great-great grandfather had claimed over one hundred years ago. All of the twenty outdoor cats crawled around the field hunting for mice in every direction that they sought. Looking off to a distance we saw the beautiful Missouri River, streaming through the valleys and crevices of South Dakota, adding a gorgeous finish to the land. All of this sublime land surrounded the main house, where some of my ancestors were born and raised. The walls of the four bedrooms and two small bathrooms of this quaint, single level home were decorated with family pictures, and bibles were found in almost every area of the house. I personally felt like I had traveled back in time and was warped into the early 1900s.
In 1909, my great- great grandma Martha migrated from Sweden to the United States in order to provide herself and her family a new and better life. Lucky for her, the Homestead Act of 1862 was enacted and granted her up to 160 acres of undeveloped agricultural land. Having free land sounds like an unbelievable deal; until you read and understand the fine print. For my ancestors, they had to deal with the vastness of the prairie; the hostility of the weather; separation of neighbors, schools and grocery stores; loneliness; and challenges of migrating to America in hopes of a better life. Speaking only Swedish, Grandma Martha had many difficulties communicating with others and finding exactly what she needed in terms of cattle, food, and other items. Through obtaining all this information from Aunt Phyllis, I had a better insight of what kind of troubles and hardships that immigrants have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
I traveled to the homestead in order to see family and to re-live childhood memories I had on that same homestead ten years before. My intentions were to help around the house, play with the horses, and beat my aunt in cards, but I never expected to gain all of this respect and gratitude I had for my family. My ancestors had sacrificed their lives to better their children and the lives of future descendants through their own travels to America. I took away from this trip more than I would ever expected. Sure, my friends might have been sipping virgin Mai Tai’s in Hawaii, but sitting on the old crooked swing out on the porch, drinking Aunt Phyllis’s freshly squeezed lemonade, while a warm prairie wind tousled my hair, was one of the most meaningful and memorable drinks I will ever relish.
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