Hastings, Sarah Belle Easterby: Day County - 1883

Sarah Belle Easterby Hastings

by Elizabeth R. Scott - Granddaughter

"Pardon me, sir, could you tell me where I might find Lewis Hastings?"

The man who was lounging in front of the area where the train stopped looked up. He saw a strange young woman with a tiny baby in her arms. At the man’s look of surprised inquiry, Belle went on to say, "I am Mrs. Hastings, and I just arrived from Michigan. I thought my husband would meet me here in Andover."

"Hastings?" - the young man rose to his feet. "Don’t believer I’ve ever heard of him."

A moment of panic struck Belle. What could have happened to Lewis? It was true that she hadn’t heard from him for some weeks. But it took mail quite a while to travel from Lowell, Michigan to Andover, Dakota Territory, in 1883. Belle had planned this trip four months before, when her husband left for Dakota, of course. She hadn’t received many letters from him, but knew that his claim was about nine miles north of Andover, the new town which had sprung up on the recently built Milwaukee Railroad line in the eastern part of the Territory. Knowing that he had no horses or oxen and that Lewis was probably busy settling the new farm, Belle hadn’t expected her husband to walk to town many times with letters to mail.

Belle quickly made a decision. She looked up at the young townsman and asked, "Could you please help me find my husband? He’s settling a claim just north of here."

The man replied, "Well, I think I can borrow a team and take you out that way."

Thus Belle Hastings and her first son rode with Fred Pew in a northerly direction from Andover on August 12, 1883. As they lumbered slowly over the unbroken prairie, Belle absent-mindedly watched the undulation of the grass in the wind. Too tired to think of the future, she lazily reviewed the past events which had brought her to this unusual situation.

Sarah Belle Easterby was born February 9, 1859 near Lowell, Michigan, the third of twelve children. She spent her childhood on the family farm, which had a prosperous orchard on it. When Belle was thirteen years old, she went to her aunt Lizzie Graham’s place in Lowell in order to go to high school. She never did get more than a year of high school, but spent the rest of her adolescence working in the homes of various relatives near her parents’ farm. When she was 21, Lewis Hastings came to work on her father’s farm. Lewis was a local farm boy; his own home was nearby. They fell in love and were married October 22, 1882.

The following spring, when they decided to settle a claim in Dakota Territory, Belle’s father gave her $700, her share of "the inheritance". Since Lewis wanted to settle near Andover, it was necessary for him to hasten to that recently opened area in order to claim a good piece of land. He surely hated to leave his young wife the same month their baby was to be born. But Belle assured him that she could get along all right and would join him in Dakota when the baby was old enough to travel.

So here she was, with little Frank Lewis cradled in her arms, rolling over the countryside with a strange man. Occasionally a farm house—usually a sod shanty—broke the monotony of the landscape. Finally Mr. Pew broke his long silence and stated, "Seems as if we’ve driven about nine miles, ma’am. That’s about how far you said it was, didn’t you?"

Belle looked about her. Never ending grass. And something else. . . "Look, there’s a house over there!" Her excitement rose as they drove closer and closer to it. If it were only Lewis’—her—house! No, her heart sank, a strange woman stepped out the door.

"How do you do?" said the woman, "What can I do for you?"

Belle was so disappointed her voice shook a little as she repeated her query, "Do you know where Lewis Hastings lives?"

The farm woman saw how weary the young mother looked and hated to have to say, "I don’t know the name. But there’s a man proving a claim over that way about a mile."

Belle looked in the direction the older woman pointed. Sure enough, there was a shanty barely visible in the distance. Renewed hope gave her a new surge of strength. She said, "Oh please, Mr. Pew, let’s drive over there. Thank you, Mrs.- -’

"Dunton", the woman supplied.

Once again Belle’s excitement mounted. Yes, it was a sod shanty. Lewis had written that he had bought a deserted shanty from a near-by homestead and had moved it onto his claim. He had described cutting the firmly matted, turf blocks and covering the cabin with these natural bricks.

As they drove over the grassy fields toward the cabin they saw a man standing near it. Driving nearer, Belle recognized Lewis. What a relief! Oh, how happy she was! When they came within hearing distance Belle called, "Hello, Lewis!" Mr. Pew then said, "Well, I guess we won’t need to drive any farther."

"Belle, I’m so glad you’re here," sighed Lewis. "I’ve been sick and I’m too weak to do anything. That is why I couldn’t mail any letters to you. I did not get your letters either."

For the next few minutes Belle was so busy murmuring soft words to Lewis and showing their son to him that she forgot her recent "chauffeur". Fred Pew finally coughed gently and announced that he was leaving. Belle thanked him profusely for his help, paid him, and then went to straightening out the cabin, ministering to Lewis, and cooking supper for them.

That is how Belle began her thirty-two year sojourn in what became the state of South Dakota six years later. Lewis got well quickly under the tender care of his wife. The remainder of Belle’s first summer there was spent in preparing the cabin and preserving food for the coming winter. Lewis stacked a huge pile of buffalo chips both in the cabin and outside the door for use as fuel in the stove. In spite of this, they ran low on fuel and had to stay in bed part of each day during the long winter in order to keep warm.

Pioneering taxed a person’s ingenuity. Lewis had made simple furniture for the sod shanty—bed, table, chair. Belle made Frank’s shoes out of scraps of cloth. They ground wheat in the coffee mill to make the flour to make the bread. The first safety pins, although used in the East since 1849, found their way into the Hastings’ home sometime after they settled in Dakota.

Since Andover had no stores at first, it was necessary for Lewis to walk fifteen miles southwest to Groton for groceries and supplies that first year. The next year he was fortunate enough to get some oxen so he could ride to Groton.

The summer after their establishment of a claim on 160 acres, Lewis journeyed back to Michigan to get some farm equipment. He was given many odds and ends by the relatives, and bought a plow, a cow, and some lumber for a house. He was away several weeks and Belle stayed alone on their claim during that time. She slept with some new neighbors, the Kiblers, who lived a quarter of a mile south of the Hastings place. It was necessary, however, for her to stay at her own sod shanty during the day—a regulation set up by the Homestead Act of 1862. She worked for a little while each day in the small garden, and after her few household chores were done she just sat and watched the lowering sun and moving shadows while Frank napped or played by the cabin door. There was not a single tree to break the monotony of the prairie. The days merged together and the only thing to look forward to was Lewis’ return so they could really start farming in earnest.

When Lewis returned with his several acquisitions they built a small house, and a shed for the cow. The neighbors—Kiblers, Broughs, Hustons, Henry, Duntons and Perrys—helped in this project just as they did in time of sickness the following year.

That was after the Hastings’ second son, Joseph Clare, was born (July 24, 1885). Lewis came down with pneumonia and once again Belle acted as nurse. This time her duties were more strenuous, however, for she had two babies to care for. As they possessed only one pair of sheets, and Lewis required a clean one every day, she removed them from the bed one at a time. She then washed the sheet on a scrub board in the hard water which came from the fourteen foot well Lewis had dug two years earlier. She dried each sheet in front of the stove and replaced it on the bed. In due time Lewis recovered from his illness and was able to get back to his chores.

He broke more and more ground every year and had success with his crops so that by 1887 he was able to afford to buy horses.

Belle and Lewis’ first daughter, Ruby Belle, was born November 7, 1887. A second daughter, Jessie Garnet, was born February 2, 1892, and the last son, DeForest Raymond, arrived April 6, 1897.

Shortly before 1888 a one room school house was built on the corner of the Hastings’ property, one half mile north of their farmhouse. All of the children learned their three r’s here. Ruby and Jessie also taught here for one year each. The school still stands, and on one of the desks you can find the carved-out name of the youngest Hastings child. The schoolroom is of the variety which has been glorified in recent-day movies. A well- used blackboard covers the front end of the room. There are rows of scarred double desks, smaller ones in front. There is an old-fashioned coal stove, with its coal supplied form a bin in the vestibule. Outside, there is a small playground, an outhouse and not a single tree. It is a picture of dilapidation today, but it started the Hastings children on their roads toward being farmer, contractor, teacher, homemaker and doctor, respectively.

Belle helped found the local Methodist Episcopal church (one half mile south of their home) in those early days. She was superintendent of the Sunday School, and wore the white ribbon of the WCTU for many years. Going to church and visiting her neighbors were the only social activities of this busy mother and farmer’s wife.

There were no Indians around the Hastings’ part of Dakota by the time they settled there, but battling nature was a fiercer struggle in many ways: it continued without ceasing all the time they lived on the farm. Fire was a terrible thing on the prairie. Jessie remembers that when she was a little girl a fire started on some land adjacent to a piece of eighty acres which Lewis bought and worked a few miles south of his original claim. He and another man grabbed sacks and frantically beat the fire out. Had the fire gotten out of control it might have wiped out the houses and crops of many pioneers.

The famous blizzard of January 12, struck the Hastings farm. Lewis told of his trying to walk from the house to the barn. The buildings were only a short distance apart but were kept absolutely invisible to each other by the driven snow. He tied the end of a ball of twine to the house, and after one futile attempt, finally managed to crawl and stagger to the barn. After attending to the needs of the stock, he followed the twine back to the house through the furious wind and snow.

Less spectacular but equally as disastrous were the calamities which could befall the crops. Something different happened every few years—hailstones, grasshoppers, drought, rust disease—but Belle and Lewis had a great store of faith and kept right on planting their wheat, corn and oats.

There were enough good years to make their prosperity increase. By 1903 the Hastings were able to build a fine big frame house. It had two porches, over which Belle trained vines to grow. All the rooms were large: there were living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom downstairs, as well as three bedrooms upstairs and an unfinished attic above that. The house was complete with a dirt cellar, entered from the kitchen, where food was stored. Eventually they installed a pump in the kitchen which fed from a cistern. Belle was so happy over these "modern" conveniences!

The living room was furnished with a couple of rockers, a center table with fancy lamp, and a hard coal heater with isinglass window. There was a reed organ on which Frank and Ruby later took lessons. The floor was covered from wall to wall with a rag carpet. Belle pieced hundreds of rags together and took them to a woman who wove them into strips. Belle then sewed the strips together. Everyone helped lay the carpet over straw and tack it down. The straw was changed once a year. After a few years the Hastings were able to get a fine carpet which covered the middle of the floor. Also in the living room there was a bookcase which Lewis had made for the old house. He fixed glass doors on it and even carved vines and berries on the case.

The Hastings had an elaborate housewarming on January 19, 1904. They hired a French chef from Pierpont who made oyster stew and other delicacies for the occasion. The neighbors for miles around attended the party.

Belle and Lewis planted as many trees as they could. There were ash trees around the well; cottonwood tree and lilac bush in the dooryard and trees north of the house. A grove of trees flourished south of the house until a drought killed them.

The Hastings built a good barn a year or so after the house was completed. They kept cows, horses, pigs and chickens. They sold cream and eggs. The farm had increased in size to 320 acres by this time.

Ruby and Jessie had to go away to high school in Webster, thirty miles distant. By the time Deforest was ready for high school there was one in Andover for him to attend.

Belle and Lewis were happily married for sixty-one years but they had one major disagreement. In the fall of 1915 Lewis decided to leave the farm and rent it to their son, Frank. Belle was brokenhearted over it for several years. It was especially hard the day of the auction when stock, machinery and some of the household furniture were sold. Belle was essentially a "homebody" and wanted to stay in her creation (such it was for this pioneer woman).

However Lewis’s urge to travel won out and they, along with Jessie, took a long trip. It was almost a grand tour of the West. They first went to Lewis’ brother’s place in Idaho for a month then to California for two months. They visited relatives and rented an apartment in Los Angeles for a while there. Then they spent two months in Houston, Texas with Belle’s sister, Agnes. From there they went to Michigan to see the old homestead—Belle’s first visit in many years. (She had visited there when DeForest was four years old, and again a few years later when her father died.)

By this time it was 1916 and DeForest was ready for college. He had decided he wanted to be a doctor. Therefore Lewis and Belle moved to Minneapolis where their son could attend the University of Minnesota. They rented a home near the university while he was in school. After his graduation they bought a bungalow in south Minneapolis—3015-44th Avenue South—where they lived the remainder of their lives.

Lewis found time hanging heavily on his hands so he worked for the Raleigh Company until he was seventy. Belle, as usual, adjusted herself to new conditions.

She made new friends and was active in the Methodist Church. She enjoyed her children and grandchildren, some of whom lived in Minneapolis. She was eighty-three when she passed away on January 28, 1943. Lewis joined her the following July 13th.

Here ends the saga of this pioneer woman. Her tale is not different from her neighbors. They each had their own hardships and joys, but from each person a full measure of love, patience, faith and endurance was taken. Each woman was a single, important building-stone in forming the present structure of South Dakota.