Farm and ranch women: The early years
The term “working outside the home” has the connotation of a job in town. However, for many farm and ranch wives it is a literal statement because their lives are intertwined with working the land.
Virginia Thompson was one of a very few women in the 1930s who didn’t change her name when she married. It is not that she was bullheaded, but she was born a Thompson and she married Bert Thompson. Raised on a ranch homestead just a mile down a section line from where Bert grew up east of Oral, S.D., they had been acquainted for years. Virginia’s dad passed away when she was 7, leaving her mother, Virginia and her brother Gail to fend for themselves. It was a hardscrabble life but they persevered.
Bert’s mother was an invalid and he remained on the ranch to help her after his brothers and sisters left to find work. She passed away in 1934. Virginia boarded 15 miles away from home in Buffalo Gap and graduated from high school there in 1935. In 1936, her mother died. Shortly thereafter Virginia and Bert were married. As Virginia put it, “We were out working on the ranch, went to town and got married, came home and went back to work. No party, no celebration. There was work to do.”
Just as their parents had done, they had milk cows, sold cream and fed excess milk to their hogs for more income. Virginia tells it like this, “We bred our cows up ourselves. We bought registered Hereford bulls and put them with the milk cows. After a while, we had a nice herd of beef cattle.”
Even though she was a tiny gal, Virginia mowed and raked hay with horses. She was a rarity in the neighborhood. Even after their daughter Kay was born, Virginia had a good neighbor, Minnie Graves, who frequently cared for Kay. She said, “I preferred to be out with the horses and cattle than being in the house.”
Virginia and Bert worked side by side and rarely had outside help with their work. They branded by themselves, at first roping and dragging, then they acquired a branding table which made it easier and more efficient for the two of them. On the rare occasion they helped neighbors with their brandings, Virginia was out working alongside the men.
She was one of the stars of the Oral community plays where her sense of humor was on full display. She had a sweet, funny disposition which worked perfectly in her roles. They played too; Virginia and Bert were square dancers of the first order, playing as hard as they worked.
In her later years, she missed riding a horse. When I took her to visit Helen Sides at her ranch east of Smithwick, the two horsewomen got to comparing horses they had known and loved. When one would mention a horse by name, the other would recall something about the horse — size, markings, disposition — and the other would weigh in. They not only knew each other’s children, they knew the other’s horses, by name. They were really ranch women. ❖
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