December 5, 2019 — In 1881, a 21-year-old bachelor named Irving Gardner headed to Hope, North Dakota, to homestead. As he later wrote, he was unprepared for what lay ahead of him.

“...The train was a freight train with a few passenger cars and a caboose in the rear. After traveling about half the distance toward Hope, the passenger cars ran off the rails and bumped along on the ties. We were going pretty slowly, and no one seemed much alarmed at first, but some of the men got up on the cars and tried to attract the attention of the engineer by yelling and waving coats. They had no success, and things began to look more startling. More cars were off the rails and the cars began to zigzag. The call was to jump off and others did so. I stood on the platform with another, an Irishman from Philadelphia. We both hesitated...

“I made the plunge into a snow bank and went in up to my waist without hurting myself at all. No sooner had I jumped than over went the cars on their sides...

“The poor Irishman failed to jump and was on the platform when the car turned over. He was crushed by the rail into the snow bank, with but a small part of his body in sight when I got up to him. The snow was spattered with blood, and I feared he had been killed, but by pawing the snow away I found that his bruises were all on his feet...

“Everybody stood around looking at him with apparently no thought to give him aid... Upon my direction we... carried him across the track to a small house whose occupants spoke little, if any, English... I removed his boots and stockings and got the woman of the house to bathe his feet in warm water. Whether or not that was proper treatment, I didn’t know, but it seemed right, and the woman seemed to think so and helped willingly... When I started to go to the train, he begged heart-breakingly for me to stay with him. I had to go, as the train was soon to pull out, and so I bade the unfortunate homesick fellow good-bye, never to see him again.”

“... Home life on my quarter section was at first very discouraging and provoking, for I had no sooner moved in when burglars did the same. They were considerate in a way, as they didn’t take everything at one time. First they took my blankets, then dishes, tools, then the clock. Each time I would try to strengthen my fortress, but the burglars would use a little more force and ingenuity and get inside. I finally got the doors and windows barred up so that they couldn’t get in without smashing in, and they apparently stopped just before doing that.

“But there was still one more way to extract my wealth. They climbed to the roof and pulled up the stovepipe which was connected with my stove. One night I was wet and tired and got home only to find my stove several feet short of pipe to go through the roof. But a young adventurer like me could not let that bother him. I had to do something, for it wouldn’t do to let the smoke pour out into the room. So I pulled off a couple of boards from a partition and ran them from my bed to a table, lifted the stove to this higher level, shoved the pipe through the roof again with a piece of wire run through it and under the roof boards for further protection, started my fire and in no time was all heated up ready for business as usual.”

Like many others, Irving Gardner found the life of a homesteader wasn’t what he expected. After proving up, he rented out his land and moved back to the East Coast where he went into the insurance business.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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