Howard Ruede was twenty-two years old in March of 1877 when he rode on a freight wagon into Osborne City, a community in west-central Kansas. A young man of courage, common sense, and independence, Ruede was filled with the optimism and determination typical of the men and women who took up the challenge of homesteading on the prairie.
Brought together by economist John Ise and first published in 1937, Sod-House Days is a collection of the letters Ruede wrote to his family in Pennsylvania chronicling his first year in Kansas. In minute detail these letters show the hard, wearying work faced by homesteaders in the 1870s, their almost unbelievable poverty, the hardships of poor food, inadequate clothing, crowding, unsanitary conditions, the lack of decent drinking water, the bedbugs and fleas, flies and mosquitoes. We see Ruede struggling to stay out of debt, walking miles to pick up the mail or to visit a neighbor, working until his bare feet are rubbed raw by the wheat stubble of the fields, going without meat because he hasn't been able to kill a jackrabbit, cooking biscuits in a kettle over his sod fireplace. Taken together, his observations constitute a careful and graphic picture of the pioneer community in which he lived, one that joins recent studies such as Sandra Myres's Westering Women and the Frontier Experience in presenting an accurate, if brutal, picture of life on the western frontier.
In a perceptive new foreword, sociologist Scott G. McNall considers the context within which the story of Howard Ruede unfolded. He delineates the forces and factors that contributed to the rapid settlement of the Great Plains. He reads the dominant themes that run through Ruede's letters: an almost religious faith in progress and hard work, and a tremendous concern for the idea of community. He also addresses a central question: What made these people stay? McNall writes, "The value of these materials has been not at all reduced by the passage of time. . . . [This] is the story of an ordinary person with heroic dimensions. Reading these letters, we see what values people had which allowed them to try, and then try again, after they had seen their efforts destroyed by drought, grasshoppers, prairie fires, and other disasters. . . . It is a story of struggle with the environment, of creative adaption to circumstance, of people as active participants in creating the society around them."