A Note from Cottonwood Corners

In the old kerosene days, kerosene was comparatively safe except in the form of vapor mixed with air.  Thus, supplied with oxygen, the vapor became highly explosive.

During the early years of Dakota Territory and South Dakota, it was very common to leave a lighted kerosene lamp in the window all night to serve as a beacon for those traveling after sundown.  Unfortunately, after many hours of burning the lamp was especially liable to explode.  As the oil in the lamp got low, the bowl became filled with an explosive vapor.  If any of that vapor reached the flame, an explosion occurred and some early homesteaders were unable to escape from their home to safety.

It was the pioneer mother who filled the lamps, cleaned the burners, trimmed the wicks, and polished the chimneys.  This act was typical of her place in the home.  This was part of her tireless effort to keep the prairie home bright and cheerful.

In his History of Dakota Territory, George Kingsbury tells of the first time that Joseph Cheever first saw a kerosene lamp.  He came to Castlewood in 1884 and later became a prominent lawyer.  While a boy of ten in 1856, living in Walworth, Wisconsin, he took his shoes to the shoemaker to have them repaired.  It was late in the afternoon and Joseph watched as the cobbler lit the kerosene lamp on the table.  As the cobbler repaired the shoes, he said:  “I can work much better by the light of the lamp than by candles, but that it is very expensive, as the oil costs seventy-five cents a gallon.”

Seventy-five cents in 1845 would be worth $25.21 today!

In 1905, Doane Robinson, in A Brief History of South Dakota, wrote:  “One of the great inconveniences was the lack of any material to produce light inside the home in the evening.  Kerosene oil was not to be secured at any price, and the stock of tallow was very small.  Many families were compelled to sit for months through the long winter without a light of any kind in their home except for the glow of a hay fire.”

He went on to explain how families cooperated in order to endure the long months of winter:  “To save the limited supplies on hand and particularly to secure the advantage of warmth without consuming too much fuel, families would come together and several of them lived in the most comfortable home in the community.  Most of the folks were young, vigorous, and hopeful, and they made the best of the bad circumstances.  Every one exerted himself to be cheerful, and to keep those about him in a cheerful temper.  Many an old settler will today (1905) refer to the bad winter of 1880-81 as one of the most enjoyable he ever passed.  Dancing was a favorite pastime, and the number of persons who could be accommodated, for a dancing party, in a little homestead shack, is a matter of astonishment to those who enjoy that recreation in the spacious halls of today.”

During that winter Dakota had an actual snowfall, on the average, of more than twelve feet.  Much of that snow remained on the ground until late in April.  Then, under the influence of a warm south wind, was converted into water in a single day.  The prairie west of the Missouri was simply a great sea, while the streams and creeks were filled with roaring torrents.  Great damage was done to property west of the river.

Most of the children attending the Common School in 1900 had normal eyesight; however, they soon found themselves suffering from myoia (nearsightedness).  A 1904 report revealed:

  • A large percentage of the children in our schools at that time had defective eyesight.
  • The percentage increased as the children advanced from one school year to the next. There was a steadily increasing percentage of nearsightedness as the pupils advanced in age and school progress.  In the universities approximately sixty per cent of the students had myopic eyes.
  • The cause was traced in part to the schools.

At the time, myopia was very rarely present in young children.  It usually began to appear during the early period of school-life, from the seventh to the twelfth year of age.  This was while the tissues of the eye were tender and yielded to the strain of school work.

Because of the poor lighting, the students would either bend over their assignments so that their eyes were twelve inches or less from their work or they held the book close to their eyes.  Eye specialists and medical doctors all suggested that fifteen inches was the nearest that a child could approach his work without danger to the eyes.

Parents and teachers either failed to see that this suggestion was followed or it was ignored.  Whatever the reason, countless youth suffered for the rest of their life because of poor lighting in the home and schools before the REA came to the Rosebud.

In a 1964 bulletin published by the U. S. Department of Agriculture entitled “Safe Use and Storage of Gasoline and Kerosene on the Farm,” it was reported that about 95 percent of the farms in the United States were electrified.  Although, kerosene-burning lamps, lanterns, heaters, incubators, and brooders were still being widely used.

The September 30, 1921 issue of The Mellette County Pioneer (Wood, SD) had a story on page one which told of the town residents being without electric lights for two weeks.  The engine of the Wood Light and Power Co. had serious problems which required major repairs.  The editor of the paper reported:  “It is to be hoped that there will be no further trouble with the plant and that the service will be continuous and of the same high standard as in the past, for it certainly is inconvenient to dig up oil lamps and tallow candles when a fellow is accustomed to just pressing the button when he wants light.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 24, 2021