Postcards from the edge 

Philip J. Burgess threads together the tough, colorful lives of homesteading women

Missoula storyteller Philip J. Burgess spends his mornings at Bernice's Bakery and his afternoons writing poetry. He's a daydreamer; he doesn't do anything unless he has to, he says, eyes twinkling. Over the last decade, however, he's been driven by one particular project, a book he just recently self-published called Penny Post Cards and Prairie Flowers. The project, which tells the tales of two of his relatives through postcards, started in 1999 when his father was dying. Burgess trekked up to the property where he was raised, near Sidney, and helped divest the house of 150 years-worth of objects that were being stored there. "I had to take care of it," he says, "and so I did. When I did that, I found a number of things, some of it just garbage, but some of it interesting."

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The most fascinating finds were old albums full of penny postcards dating back to the early 1900s. They'd been collected by Burgess' great aunt Dikka Lee and grandmother Anna Lee who left their home in Minnesota to homestead in Montana. Burgess read through the correspondence. The postcards offer litanies of disaster: news of weather and crops, deaths and other misfortunes. "Florence Hunter is very sick," says one. "Two little boys fell into the lake..." Other postcards speak of music lessons and a circus coming to town. Always they seem lonely—hungry for more correspondence.

"I realized these are homesteading women writing to other homesteading women," says Burgess. "There was a tremendous intimacy there. They're so funny and heartbreaking because they're saying what's on their minds, almost like emails. I think postcards to them were kind of off-handed as opposed to letter writing, so it's relatively spontaneous."

Penny postcards started as a fad in Germany around 1905 and became a hobby among young people around the world. Companies hired artists to make colorful, detailed holiday greetings or pastoral scenes. Connoisseurs sent photographs to the card companies so that they could render family photos or landscapes into cards. The fad ended at the start of WWI, but even in that short time, people like Burgess' great aunt and grandmother had filled albums with them and, in preserving their own writings, captured a history of homesteading women of that time.

"These young women don't see themselves as disadvantaged or repressed or anything—they're going out to whip butt," says Burgess.

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These were women on a westward adventure, on the brink of women's suffrage, released from the economic and political repression of their parents old-country experiences. Women were going to college. Single women were considered "head of household" and therefore had access to land by law. "And so these different things are going on—railroads are everywhere," says Burgess. "They can go anywhere, so the sky, in a way, was the limit."

Burgess doesn't sugarcoat the experience, though. There are plenty of sad stories. "You can tell in reading the cards, the optimism that was there in the early part, was not so much toward the end," he says. "The last of those cards were written around 1915 and the bloom is off the rose. The story is not a story of happy endings. Both my grandmother and great aunt had hard lives. My grandmother was defeated by it. My great aunt thrived. She lived to be 94. She was a pistol. She said exactly what was on her mind, did not suffer fools for bloody seconds and that's what saved her."

He also found some secrets in the postcards. He discovered that his grandmother and grandfather had been married a few years earlier than what was recorded so that his grandmother could pass herself off as a single woman in order to procure homesteading land next to her husband, which they combined into one piece. Another finding: His aunt Dikka lived alone for six years and Burgess thinks he knows why. Though Dikka mostly corresponded with women in the postcards, there was one man whose fond writings hinted at a relationship. "The last card from him is written from the hospital in Williston, N.D.," he says. "He's facing a major operation...and that was the last card. So I extrapolated that that was why she was alone. It broke her heart."

Penny Post Cards and Prairie Flowers is published by Ednor Therriault (aka Missoula musician and writer Bob Wire), and Therriault designed it with colorful re-creations of the postcards peppered throughout Burgess' recollections and findings. It also excerpts heavily from a book called Courage Enough, a thick collection of homesteading stories that came out in 1976 for the bicentennial. Burgess, realizing his own project was about women's experiences during that time, repackaged some of that book's stories of women in order to pay tribute to the book, which is no longer on most people's radar.

Burgess admits that the decade-long process was a terrible job in many ways. Reading and re-reading postcards and deciphering handwriting for unsigned cards was a task, but well worth it. "It wasn't easy, but I learned a lot," he says. "These women came out here to be independent but the irony is they become more dependent on each other's words than they'd ever dreamed. They made a community and that's what resonates in the postcards."

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