Imagine yourself in a small, remote homestead in 1906. What crops do you grow? Do you raise animals? Where will you get your water? How do you build your house?
These details may not scream “epic drama,” but in the shoes of a young couple just starting out in the semi-arid plains near Philip, South Dakota they led to a choice between success or failure.
In the early 1900’s part of the Sioux Indian Reservation land in South Central South Dakota was opened up to settlers. They were called “homesteaders” and “pioneers” and the soil they were given access to was virgin, never before cultivated for crops. It was, at the time, a great opportunity for young people. Based on the requirements of the Homestead Act of 1862, a person could take up a land-grant of 160 acres for the price of fees and a trip to the registrar, live on it for 8 months or five years while farming the land and adding buildings, and the land became their own, free and clear.
The difficulties of this homesteading lifestyle are outlined in the book, Letters From Tully, which tells the story of Estella Bowen Culp and her husband, Orley. They were green, not knowing much about farmsteading and they wanted to make their homestead succeed in growing grain crops. Their ignorance was one significant challenge to their success.
Know the territory
South Dakota has a variety of terrain, from the Black Hills in the Southwest (home of Mount Rushmore), to the cornfield flats of the Eastern half of the state. In between is a hilly, diverse geography, fertile in some parts, arid mesas in others. The weather is iffy, and without irrigation it is nearly impossible to consistently grow summer crops to maturity.
Estella and Orley chose to grow grain crops to prove-up their land and make it profitable. They believed, as many did before them that the rains would come in the course of the summer and water their crops sufficiently for a steady harvest. It’s a nice theory, but the climate doesn’t oblige.
When they first arrived, they were counseled by other, more experienced homesteaders to invest in cattle. Develop a herd, which would provide meat and could also be sold at market. The land in South Dakota is good herd land. Plentiful, nutrient-rich native grasses, gullies and windward hills animals can shelter in, and enough water from wells to water a herd, not a crop.
Despite the best of advice, the young couple chose to continue in their pursuit of grain crops. They failed to make a profit. Without a financial surplus they couldn’t invest in the land and build on the initial land claim.
Listen to wise counsel and “count the cost”
The counsel the Culps received was good, but they chose not to act on it. A certain degree of flexibility would have given them a better chance at success. In the course of time they both had to leave the claim and take jobs in the nearby town to make ends meet.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise,” (Proverbs 12:15 Proverbs 12:15The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that listens to counsel is wise.
American King James Version×). Though they weren’t fools in the sense of rejecting God, this young couple acted foolishly by not taking wise advice. Probably a predicament everyone has faced at some point in life.
They also failed to build up a knowledge base about their surroundings, part of a process called “counting the cost,” a principle from the Book of Luke (Luke 14:26-33 Luke 14:26-33 26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
27 And whoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sits not down first, and counts the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?
29 Lest haply, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,
30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.
31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sits not down first, and consults whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that comes against him with twenty thousand?
32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an ambassador, and desires conditions of peace.
33 So likewise, whoever he be of you that forsakes not all that he has, he cannot be my disciple.
American King James Version×). Though the Biblical principle primarily applies to the commitment of baptism and obedience to God’s way of life, it also has an application in all our everyday decisions.
Gather wise counsel (from God above all) and make the effort to count the cost in time, commitment, resources and finances of any important life-impacting decision like college, work or relationships. This small investment of time has the potential for great returns in the form of a happier, more stable future.