For most of us, history is made up of Big Events: life-changing inventions, wars that alter the course of nations, famous men making momentous decisions. But history is also what happens to the rest of us. That's what makes As a Farm Woman Thinks such an extraordinarily valuable book. It is history as ordinary rural Americans lived it, documented by an ordinary West Texas woman who recorded the ordinary events of her daily life and the lives of farmers, ranchers, and friends on the Llano Estacado: the Staked Plains.
For three decades (1930-1960) Nellie Witt Spikes wrote columns for four local and regional newspapers under the title "As a Farm Woman Thinks" (perhaps borrowed from Laura Ingalls Wilder's columns of the same name, written for The Missouri Ruralist, 1910-1924). Spikes' newspaper pieces, compiled from the archives of Texas Tech University and selected and edited by Geoff Cunfer, are organized topically into eight chapters. The chapters are arranged in a rough chronological order, as are the items within the chapters, so that the book gives us a sense of time passing, from the pioneer adventure of "Settling the Llano Estacado" in the 1890s to the "Drought and Dust Storms" of the Dirty Thirties and "The Modernization of Farm Life." This latter section begins with the 1937 consideration of whether to lease crop fields for oil drilling and ends with the installation of an air conditioner in 1950, documenting a remarkable change in life style for these rural residents. Each chapter is thoughtfully introduced by the editor and illustrated with photographs of people and places from the period. The introductions and the photographs help to situate Spikes' writing within its larger geographical, historical, and social context, and a list of further readings provides a broader scholarly frame.
But it is the individual pieces themselves—jewels of closely observed life—that are the real treasures in this wonderful collection of treasures. Nellie Spikes is a woman who care about the people she knows, is intrigued by who they are and what they do, and records their doings—and her own—in astonishing detail. And because she is a woman, she focuses most often on small things, domestic things that get lost in the grand sweep of history as the historians tell it. She is that rare diarist who understands the value of the mundane and the ordinary, and she gives us a glimpse into life as it was actually lived in her place and time.
Often, she writes about her childhood in the 1890s, buttressing her vivid memories of her father's general store with the actual records of purchases. Mrs. Mertie Ishamel bought a dress pattern, she tells us—"not a paper pattern but ten yards of material." Bob Smith bought a handkerchief for 85 cents ("must have been a silk one," she remarks), and George Mayes purchased a bottle of "hair vigor" for a dollar. There are also remembrances from the school where she taught, where Christmas was celebrated with a community tree and a party, the fiddlers playing breakdowns and waltzes, schottisches and polkas, accompanied by the "long wail of a lobo and the staccato barking of coyotes" that came into the room when the window was opened for air.
Spikes loved community doings and recorded as many as she could, from the gatherings in the pioneer settlement to later visits to the big city of Lubbock. Some of these are remarkably (and often unconsciously) poignant, like the 1941 dairy show at Plainview, where she "patted the little Jersey calf but had a better time watching a cow get a bath and being groomed for the judging ring," while in the nearby park, 800 young Army recruits were preparing to be shipped out to war. Or the 1952 shopping trip to Ralls, where she thought back to a time two decades before, when people from the country came to town to shop but "never bought electric light bulbs, for we never had any electricity."
But Spikes' true heart was in her home, her garden, and the fields surrounding the little house that "looked like a piece of yellow cheese" on the December day in 1906 when she and her new husband crossed the prairie in a wagon pulled by four mules and settled in for a long life on the land. In some of her columns, she celebrates family holidays, in others the beauty of the Texas landscape and the abundant food it produced: black canyon grapes, purple mulberries, quail and prairie hens and antelope, dried beans and peas and pumpkin, strings of dried red chiles and green dried okra. But the prairie could also bring disaster: floods and snowstorms and drought and clouds of fine sand that blackened the sky and blew into the house, so that Nellie and her children left footprints when they walked across the floor.
What Spikes' newspaper columns reveal, above all, is the indomitable spirit of the people who lived through those times. Looking at a cactus blooming on a stone wall, Nellie marvels that it can grow without water or soil, and then realizes that it has stored up enough nutrients to weather the bad times. She wonders, then, if she has stored up "enough faith and hope and love to meet life" when things get bad—and decides that she has. "And my courage returned," she says simply.
And so will yours, as you read Nellie Spike's remarkable record of the way she, her family, and friends met the daily challenges of life in a challenging place. Highly recommended for women's studies and local history collections.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Nellie Witt Spikes (1888-1977) wrote for the Ralls Banner, the Lorenzo Tribune, the Floyd County Hesperian, and the Crosbyton Review.
Geoff Cunfer is the author of On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment, winner of the Social Science History Association's 2003 President's Book Award and the Agricultural History Society's 2006 Theodore Saloutos Book Award.
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