Sandhills and rivers |

Sandhills and rivers

The Nebraska Sandhills are vast (stretching across 265 miles, they consist of 19,330 square miles), utilized at its highest and best use (95% of the land is pasture rangeland), and most of all, they are a beauty to appreciate.

Lyn Messersmith has written a fascinating, first-hand account of growing up in the Sandhills. “The River I Stepped in Yesterday: A Sandhills Legacy” is newly published. A master storyteller, Messersmith paints word pictures that appear in your mind’s eye. As she wrote of ranch hands, “Not all of the fellows who resided in our bunkhouse fell into the drifter category … A few of the unwashed souls probably should have been run through the dipping vat with the cattle.” (A dipping vat was used to rid animals of insects and creepy-crawlers that might be infesting a critter.)

For those of us who live in South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska there is so much to which we can relate. Washing clothes the “old fashioned way” went back a bit further than my time, but I remember that we washed the whites, then the lighter clothing and heavier soiled clothes last. The water was not always changed between loads. At least we had an electric ringer washer, which was a step above the process Messersmith describes.

Readers who lived for some years of their lives without electricity will find much that will bring back the memories (and probably relief). Youngsters who read it will learn about collecting empty pop bottles to return to a store and earning enough money for some candy or a special item, if saved over time. There were no allowances for country kids and they didn’t need much to make them happy. Before they were old enough to work all day, after their daily chores were done most of them spent the rest of the day exploring or playing.


In an interesting writing technique usually used in fiction is foreshadowing where at the end of each chapter Messersmith gives just enough of a teaser to propel readers onto the next chapter, without giving anything away. River metaphors meander throughout the pages which adds depth to the writing.

An only child, Messersmith sometimes boarded with others during the school year. Each home and every family, including her grandma, had their quirks. When she describes the houses in which she lived, the stories of the cold ones make you shiver, even on a hot day. It was hardest to leave the ranch when school started and she knew she wouldn’t be able to go home again for months. Suddenly a country kid was cooped up in a city house which proved to be challenging for all.

In ending her last chapter, she wrote, “With us, ranching isn’t so much a birthright as a birthmark. Dad must have known it wouldn’t wash off.” I can’t think of a more concise definition of being a rancher or a farmer.

The book is available from Plains Trading Company Booksellers, Valentine, Neb., ❖

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Peggy Sanders

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