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Nellie Witt left Weatherford on her fourth birthday, May 4, 1892, in an ox-pulled wagon packed with her family and all their belongings. They were headed west from their home in North-Central Texas to the edge of the Llano Estacado to settle on a small farm. Nellie didn’t know it, but she was part of an historical movement, the conversion of large Texas ranches to smaller family farms.
In fact, her life (1888-1977) would span a time of significant change, progress and upheaval in the United States. But what makes her different from other farm women of the same era is that she recorded her life in a series of more than 900 newspaper columns titled “As a Farm Woman Thinks.”
The collected columns now appear in the book by the same name—As a Farm Woman Thinks: Life and Land on the Texas High Plains, 1890-1960—edited by Geoff Cunfer (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). Nellie’s record of daily life and her insightful commentary during more than two decades give us a detailed, rich experience of times gone by.
Nellie settled with her family in Emma (the once-thriving county seat) in Crosby County. At 18, she moved to a farm near the Cone community with her husband, Jeff Spikes, where they raised wheat, cotton and other crops for 43 years.
Nellie Witt Spikes wrote her first column in 1934, then began writing regularly in 1937, under the title “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” when she was 49. She wrote columns for more than 20 years, the last one appearing in 1960. The columns appeared mainly in four weekly newspapers: the Ralls Banner, the Lorenzo Tribune, the Floyd County Hesperian and the Crosbyton Review.
Her writing, often lyrical and even poetic, expresses her love for home, family, community and land from a woman’s perspective, so often overlooked in history. From September 1940: “Every fruit jar I can find is being filled with something to eat. The pantry shelves begin to take on rainbow colors. Orange of pumpkin, yellow of plums, green of beans and pickles, purple of grapes. Jellies make the pinks, the reds and purplish blues. Moving the garden from its place in the sun to a dark place in the cellar gives pleasure to many women. And in the winter to the whole family.”
She wrote about the many lessons learned on the farm, not the least of which is patience. From May 1941: “The farmer lives dangerously near to losing everything he has worked for most all of the time. Drought may cut the growing crop short, hail and wind ruin it in a few minutes, insects may blight, devour, rust and smut. But the farmer always has another year.”
Nellie chronicles her participation not only in the settling of the West, but also in the home front of three wars, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. From January 1942: “The other day when the Home Demonstration Club met, every member planned to do extra work on the farm as well as Red Cross sewing and knitting. The women in the towns around have the same determination, and as needles fly over the hanks of khaki yarn and make stitches where stitches were never made before, they will say, knit one, purl, knit two, Pearl Harbor.…”
She lived during a time of mind-boggling progress. In her columns, she shows the way her life changed over the years through mechanization of the farm, widespread irrigation, farm subsidies, and the advent of the car, paved roads, radio, running water, butane cooking and electricity. From July 1950: “In the days when a palmetto fan was the only air conditioner on the market, when you drove to a man’s house in the summer and the doors were shut or in the winter when no smoke was coming out the stovepipe, you knew at once there was no one at home. Not so these days. No smoke comes out in winter and the doors are shut so the air conditioner will cool the house [in summer].”
She also saw changes in the landscape and environment, from the natural beauty of the prairie she came to as a child to the farmed landscape of which she was so proud. Nellie goes into flights of flowery prose when she describes her home on the plains. From March 1939: “Spring is coming to the prairie country. Not with a breathtaking parade of beauty as she does in the timbered country, but shy as the antelope and the blue quail. She spreads a cover of pale green on the pasture and starts the wildflower; gives the haze on the canyon hills a deeper blue; entices the killdeer back to call ‘dee dee dee’; swells the buds of the cottonwood trees.…”
Her writing, often sentimental, moves into a wry humor when she talks of the scourge of West Texas, the dust storm. From April 1942: “‘Every day I see new evidence of spring in the air,’” the young lady trilled over the radio. A sandstorm was on. I looked outside. I, too, saw evidences of spring in the air. The tender willow leaves, whipped from the tree, bits of crushed pink silk of peach blossoms flying like wounded butterflies from the tree, tiny rosettes whirled from the spirea, sand-covered lilac leaves fluttered and sailed away. Yes, spring was in the air and moving swiftly past the house.”
Nellie Witt Spikes comes out of the past in her writing, offering an invitation to her reader to experience what she has, from profound historical events to everyday chores like fixing dinner.
This passage from July 1942 puts the reader at her elbow: “Well I must get dinner ready for the men in the field. Would you like to put on this bonnet and go with me? First we will get the chicken. Look how wary that young rooster is of crumbled bread and the wire hidden behind my back. Just a jiffy and he will be dressed and cooling. It will not take long to pick some string beans; better get a few cucumbers and onions, and three or four beets, we like them buttered. After the beans are strung and on cooking, we will go to the smokehouse for a hunk of bacon to boil with the beans. Next, to the potato patch, where some small potatoes can be gotten. They are pretty easy to scrape while the skin is so tender. You may beat this bowl of cream for butter; I will make a peach cobbler. Syrup sweetens peaches now as well as it did for our grandmothers. It is so nice to have milk and butter in the refrigerator instead of the well. Yes, we have walked a good piece, several blocks if we were in town. Meals are so scattered this time of the year, but how nice it is to pick your own.”
Shannon Oelrich, former food editor for Texas Co-op Power, is a freelance writer who lives in Pflugerville.