RUPERT – Uncle Sam had land to give away, and people from all over the world descended on Minidoka County to take the government up on its offer.
Emigrants needed to file a claim, live on the property for three years and prove up the land. Many moved to Kimama and Minidoka City.
The book “Arid Acres,” first printed in 1968 and updated in 1980, tells the story of those immigrants who arrived around 1912. Written by a homesteader’s descendent Gerhard Riedesel, the book provides information and pictures of pioneers and chronicles their lives through 1932.
Riedesel tells of more than 300 homesteaders descending on the community where six foot high sagebrush greeted them. The emigrants drug rails back and forth across the hardy plant yanking it from the soil. Pioneers later used that same sagebrush as fuel to heat homes. Those homes were everything from shanties to three story houses.
“The Pankratz family of eight lived for several seasons in a single room,” Riedesel said.
Families routinely endured dust storms that brought with them flying ants. Families often reported being overrun by the bugs.
“They traveled through the air in huge swarms and would light on any high object. When the ants landed on a chimney, they would tumble down the inside and crawl down the stove pipe to the floor, bringing the soot and dust of the chimney with them. They seemed always to be fighting each other,” recorded a homesteader who added, “In mortal combat they formed balls of biting, clawing, little demons, struggling to their death. There was never any evidence of a victor – the floor would soon be covered with thousands of dead ants. The only way to get rid of those on the chimney would be to start a fire and drive them away. The broom and dust pan would gather up the ones on the floor. They did not concern themselves with other occupants of the building, and, to my knowledge, never bit people.”
With unpredictable weather and low crop yields, families turned to working on the railroad for extra income. Others relied on bootlegging that proved more profitable than did their crops.
“The law officers seemed to have more sympathy for the bootlegging farmers than they did for the ‘Volstead act’ (prohibition). There seem to be no records of the bootleggers being apprehended and punished. This writer discreetly refrains from mentioning the names of homesteaders who may have engaged in the business of making and selling liquors,” Riedesel wrote.
Yet, it wasn’t all work as pioneers kept themselves entertained thanks to a neighborhood orchestra and band. A literary society formed, and the Peter Klebe family shared their phonograph with his neighbors.
“It was one with a big tin horn. On special occasions, Mr. Klebe would bring his machine and records to the schoolhouse and put on a record program,” Riedesel said.
As required by law, schools sprung up throughout the community and were generally one-room facilities.
“The minimum qualification for teachers was a high school diploma and a six-week summer training in school law and course of study,” he wrote.
Ministers saw a need for a religious education and soon arrived in the community. The Trinity Lutheran, Congregational, Baptist, Mennonite, Seventh Day Adventist and German Reformed Churches arrived in the community. The last three churches shared a school building for their respective worship services.
Medical help came at a premium in the community, and there were no local doctors. One homesteader told of Ed Praegitzer knocking on neighbors’ doors looking for a physician for his mother.
“He had exhausted his horses going from home to home trying to get help. (He asked) could we take him to Rupert to summon Dr. Frazier? Our Ford was laid up with a flat tire, but we got it patched, and in a matter of hours, we knocked on Dr. Frazier’s door and got him started on his way to the suffering woman.”
By 1932, many of the homesteaders had been forced off their land after Mother Nature devastated crops with drought, frost and jack rabbit infestations. Plans to bring irrigation to the community evaporated after Congress failed to pursue the issue that resulted in the remaining pioneers leaving for greener pastures.
While homesteading proved a disaster for the Kimama-Minidoka City pioneers, much was learned and passed on to their children.
“This second edition of Arid Acres is respectfully dedicated to the memory of all those brave and hardy pioneer homesteaders who responded to the opportunity of making a home and a career in a new and hostile country,” Riedesel wrote.
The book may be seen at the Minidoka County Museum adjacent to the fair grounds.