Other than the Union-Pacific and the Omaha Exposition Exhibits at the Durham Museum, there was a pioneer exhibit, also...a conestoga wagon, a pioneer homestead...and an accompanying exhibit of the Native Americans living in the area when the settlers arrived.


My first impression of a conestoga wagon was:  How could anyone have survived in something like this during the winter?  In a place where it could get down to -50 with the windchill? Or the summer?  No heat, no place for a stove or fire, no ventilation, except when the sides were rolled up and that only let in burning air.  The entire thing, while it might have been called the "Sailing Ship of the Prairie", wasn't much larger than a camper trailer and about six feet wide.  Imagine trying to decide which items from your former home were the most-needed to put in it, as well as leaving room for yourself, your husband, and however many children you had to sleep inside at night. 

The side of the conestoga were about five feet high, with rounded iron staves reaching up and over from one side to the other and covered by canvas which has a drawstring in each end to pull it shut.  The photo of the interior was taken using only the light in the exhibit so you can get the feeling how close, cramped, and claustrophobic the inside is.  Along the outer sides, barrels containing flour, sugar, salt, and other staples were attached by iron rungs.  Sometimes, fragile items such as dishes or other glass, or some precious object that just couldn't be left behind, were stored inside the flour, etc., to protect them from the jolts and jounces they would experience as the wagon rolled along, striking potholes, hillocks of prairie grass, and other obstacles in its path.  The tailgate could be lowered to load and unload items and to serve as a table.

On the Oregon Trail in its path through Nebraska's sandhills, there a place called "Windlass Hill" where the wagons were actually pulled up the incline by a windlass, which was a cylinder with a crank and handle.  Chains were attached to the wagon and the crank was turned, pulling the wagon up the hill.  This was done by hand.

The Oregon Trail tracks are still visible, but erosion is slowly erasing them and eventually, they'll be gone.  It gives one an eerie feeling to see those ruts in the earth and know that the wagon wheels of people who braved a new and hostile land, lived and died there, made them and some day even that monument won't exist.

The wagons were generally pulled by teams of four oxen, though it also took just as many horses to move one of the heavy vehicles.  The wagon seat was unpadded and made of wood.

(An aside,  a good many of the men who later drove the mule-team conestogas carrying supplies, etc., smoked cigars, and that's where the slang term for a cigar, a "stogie", originated.) 

The home shown in the exhibit is a log house, instead of a sod home, which many utilized when settling on the Great Plains.  Those were constructed of rectangles of sod mortared together, and often had prairie grasses and flowers growing out of the walls and roof.  Since the houses sometimes didn't have windows, they were dark, close places. 

The home in the exhibit appears to be a fairly luxurious one.  It's one room, of course, with a stone fireplace, around which two rocking chairs are set.  The bed has ropes strung across the frame to hold the feather mattress.  A chest holding blankets is at the end of the bed and pegs on the walls hold clothes.  (A chamber pot sits just beside it so there's no traipsing to the outhouse in the middle of a winter night. ) To the right is the bed, across from that in the near corner is the eating table, with a cabinet and hutch holding dishes and cookware.  Some homes had a smaller floorplan, with an open upper loft where the inhabitants slept, accessible by a ladder.  This one is about 20x18.  In the opposite corner from the table is the kitchen, in this instance, a cast-iron stove and a woodbox for the kindling.  This is a definite sign that the owner was a little more prosperous than both, since the lady of the house didn't have to cook meals in the fireplace but had a real stove to use.

I enjoyed this exhibit but for the wrong reasons, I imagine.  Thinking of the lack of facilities and utilities, I was very glad to return to my apartment with its electricity, air conditioning and heating, electric stove, and refrigerator.  Think of living without all that.  People did it, and have for a very long time, since these are such modern inventions, but it was never brought home so frankly as in this exhibit. 

When someone says pioneers are hardy stock, it's the truth.


  1. Alison E. Bruce // July 9, 2012 at 11:08 AM  

    I always thought I'd hate to travel by wagon since I get motion sick in well-suspended motor vehicles. Then I found out the the pioneers mostly walked.

    Yup. They were a hardy bunch.

  2. Scarlet Pumpernickel // July 9, 2012 at 5:24 PM  

    Thanks for sharing the pictures and slice of history.

  3. Mary Marvella // July 9, 2012 at 7:43 PM  

    I am thankful for the hardy folks who used those wagons for travel accommodations. I grew up with no AC and outhouses at grandma's house. I would NOT want to live the way of the settlers.

    Thanks for the reminder to be grateful for what I have.

  4. Barbara Monajem // July 10, 2012 at 10:09 AM  

    I am thankful for those hardy folks, too, and very glad I live in the age of cars, trains, planes...

  5. Mary Ricksen // July 10, 2012 at 6:06 PM  

    Great post Toni, love the cabin!
    Ah, my kinda place...The trip I could do without!

  6. Mary Ricksen // July 10, 2012 at 6:06 PM  

    Great post Toni, love the cabin!
    Ah, my kinda place...The trip I could do without!

  7. Toni V.S. // July 11, 2012 at 12:47 PM  

    Thanks for the comments, ladies. Yes, we've got it easy and mostly don't realize it.

  8. Mona Risk // July 12, 2012 at 7:13 PM  

    Very interesting post, Toni. As usual I'm late, but this time I have an excuse and the children to take care of.

  9. Josie // July 13, 2012 at 11:36 AM  

    You post such interesting blogs, and this is no exception. Thanks for sharing. I always learn something new.