Climate and Environment
Military posts on the Great Plains were often set in bleak and unattractive locations and subject to all kinds of weather. Terrible cold and heat, constant wind, devastating floods, extended drought, and dust storms are common to the Plains. Officers' wives learned to respect the weather, but found that they and their children had the capacity to withstand weather extremes that they had not encountered before coming to the Plains. Caroline Winne rode from Sidney Barracks to Fort McPherson in an Army ambulance with a two month old baby wrapped in fur against the zero degree cold. She "did not suffer at all" she wrote, and "Baby slept all the way." (November 30, 1877, Buecker, p. 38)
Frances Roe was caught in a dust storm while riding with two officers near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. The storm was frightening and without the help of the experienced officers she might have perished in the suffocating dust. She wrote to her family Well, that cloud increased in size with a rapidity you could never imagine, and soon the sun was obscured as by an eclipse. It became darker and darker, and by the time we got opposite the post trader's there could be heard a loud, continuous roar, resembling that of a heavy waterfall. Each officer took one side of Mrs. Roe's horse's bridle and together they managed to keep the horses calm until they were on the parade ground in the middle of the post. Then the dust storm struck with its full fury. . . . as we reached the officer's line the storm struck us, and with such force that I was almost swept from my saddle. The wind was terrific and going at hurricane speed, and the air so thick with sand and dirt we could not see the ears of our own horses. (Roe, pp. 30–31) Of course, the aftermath of the storm for housewives and servants meant hours of cleaning every item in the house of the dust that seeped in through crevices and around windows.
Officers' wives, especially the daughters of genteel middle-class families, had been accustomed to lovely homes that displayed their social and economic status, as well as their aesthetic taste. Flower gardens and shade trees not only demonstrated status, but provided beauty and comfort for the home. Cold winters and hot, dry summers limited their ability to grow flowers and vegetables which many of the women craved. Flowers, needing constant attention in the uncertain environment of the Great Plains, were especially difficult to manage. At Sidney Barracks, and other Great Plains posts, cucumber vines grew up along the front porches of officers' quarters to provide shade and a cool place to sit and visit. Caroline Winne, writing to her family, noted that 1875 was an unusually wet summer at Sidney Barracks so the "porches are all shaded with the wild cucumber vine." Gardens, she thought, could be established at Sidney Barracks "if anyone understood the business, but no one here at the post does, and the citizens [of nearby Sidney] think only of raising cattle and selling whiskey. . . ." (August 15, 1875, Buecker, p. 16)
Figure 7. Kate Chaffee Hamilton and her husband lived in these quarters at Fort Robinson. The porch is shaded with wild cucumber vines. Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collection RG4488PH.01
Fanny Dunbar Corbusier planted a garden at Camp Sheridan in northwestern Nebraska in 1878. She raised "geraniums, nasturtiums, and other flowers, and although there were no indications that vegetables had ever been raised, we planted a garden down near the creek. When we were about to reap the fruits of our labor, a cloudburst washed everything away." (Corbusier, p. 81)
On the Great Plains between 1865 and 1880, military housing rarely offered mature trees for shade or a windbreak. Trees had to be planted and cared for, and precious water had to be brought to them. Linda Slaughter described Fort Rice in her fictional account of military life as having, "glaring white walls, unrelieved by trees or verdure of any kind [which] were exceedingly trying to the eyes." (Slaughter, "Amazonian Corps" 6 January 1875. See also Fort Rice, Figure 1)
But when grown, trees made the posts far more comfortable and appealing to women. Trees were planted at Sidney Barracks in the early 1870s. Caroline Winne wrote home that rains had greened the prairie grasses and the newly planted trees had "grown wonderfully" with the rain. (August 15, 1875, Buecker, p. 16)
Figure 8. Newly planted trees line the parade ground at Fort Niobrara. Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collection. RG2311.PH.0.23.
Figure 9. Trees on the officers' row at Fort Sidney (formerly Sidney Barracks) in 1885 about ten years after Caroline Winne noted the growth of trees in a wet summer. Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collection RG2548.PH.0.26.