We got seed grain, boys!
Conversations with Morey Skaret
This is the third in a series of articles on West Seattle legend Morey Skaret, who was born on his parents’ homestead in Canada in 1913. At 96, he still has keen memories of his boyhood adventures on the prairie, and lives by many of the lessons he learned there.
When Morey Skaret turned eight, the age at which a lad made the leap from haphazard chores to full-time farmhand, his father made him the hog boss. Morey took his new position seriously, executing his duties with the same care, precision and panache that would one day make him a leader of men, and propel him to the top of many professions.
Not only did life on the prairie make men out of boys before their time; it meted out many other tough lessons as well. “My mother had six children, all told,” Morey says, combing through an old photo album. His older brother, Johannes, died in 1909.
“He was just a child,” Morey recalls. “They buried him behind the house. All the homesteaders had private plots. They didn’t have a cemetery. There was just a house here; then two miles, another house. And they just buried their dead at the home place.
“And this little guy, my brother, Johannes, he’s buried behind the house. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Verna, who lived two miles away, they came over and said a few prayers, and Dad got a fieldstone. Fieldstones are flat, almost like a walkway. So they make a perfect headstone.
Morey looks away to the Northwest, his eyes catching the fading light from days gone by. “And Dad chiseled a cross in that stone,” he recalls. Years later: “I told my brother Albert, who’s my youngest brother—and who kinda goes along with what I say, because I’m eight years older than he is—I said, ‘You know, brother Al, it bothers me that we’ve got a brother, Johannes, buried up there.’
“Our folks went broke. The land is vacant. And cattle are running all over it now; the rancher got the land. And the house is being torn down. Little by little the cattle rub, rub, rub against the building. You gotta fence your yard in or they’ll rub the siding off.”
So Morey and his brother Al returned to the family farm to move their brother’s tiny, well preserved coffin to a nearby country cemetery, where they met a woman named Jeanne James. “She was my schoolteacher,” Morey says. “She wrote this book, This Was Endiang.” Endiang means “Our Home” in Cherokee.
Morey reads a passage aloud, his strong voice briefly faltering midway through:
“‘At last, in 1921, the present site was obtained. Here on this windswept hill sleep the babies who never grew up; the children who succumbed to accident and disease; the young people who never realized their dreams. And here, too, are the pioneers, resting at last from their labors in this harsh and beautiful land they helped to build.’”
—Jeanne James, This was Endiang
Ms. James “was quite impressed that I had put my brother in the cemetery,” Morey says. “I made the framework down here. And I had the gravestone made down here. So I took it in the back of my car, and I had it there.” And they laid their brother to his final rest.
Another of the prairie’s more sobering lessons was on the danger of shortcuts. Literally.
“A kid came from Crow Hill School,” Morey recalls, “and his last name was Zeemer. We followed the fence when the snow was blowing hard, almost a blizzard. But we followed that fence. And then the snow got higher and higher. Pretty soon you can’t see the fence ahead of ya. You gotta feel for it.
“And this one fellow, Zeemer—I forget his name—he said he’s gonna short-cut. He said, ‘I don’t wanna follow this fence line all the way along here to your house, and then follow your fence line down to my house,’ which was another two miles.
“So he says, ‘I’m gonna short-cut from here, right across the prairie, and catch this fence over here. And then I can catch the other fence that goes to our farm, over here.’
“Well, the sad part of it was: he started to short-cut. But boy, in a blizzard, you don’t have any sense of direction, and that prairie’s flat. There’s no trees or anything. And what you usually do is you walk in a circle, when you get to the point where you can’t see any marks to go by.
“And you walk to the left if you’re right-footed. Your right foot is stronger, and it’ll gain maybe half a foot on every step you take; you just go in a circle.” When the snow melted, Morey’s brother Art and a few neighbors gathered at their house, “to go and look for Zeemer’s body. Because when he had cut across to try to find his fence, he walked in a circle.
“I guess they went in a line,” Morey says, referring to the searchers. “They knew how to search for a body. I don’t know who learned it; probably my dad. The horses walk two rods, three rods apart. And they walk along the fence, where Herman Zeemer started to short-cut.
“They found him. He had a stocking cap pulled down over his head. And he curled up for warmth and just died. So he was frozen stiff when we found him. Then my dad went out with our lumber wagon and the hay in the back and we put the body in there. And took it back. Took it back. . . .
“See, we had to wait till the thaw came before we could find the body. And we had to get the body before the coyotes did; that was the battle cry.” But the Zeemers did get their fallen brother, and buried him behind the house, like the Skarets had buried theirs. . . .
Prairie life was unrelenting. “We went broke when the grasshoppers got the best of us,” Morey remembers. “Dad had two crop failures already, and here the damn grasshoppers came. They took about a quarter of our wheat crop, left it just stubble. My dad was out in the fields working with his animals, and Mother saw that cloud.
“You could see forever on the prairie; you could see the curvature of the earth. My mother saw that dark cloud coming, and she knew it was grasshoppers. She said, ‘Oh, Dad’s out in the field. I’m worried.’
“As they got closer, we were hoping they would go over to the Hudson Bay property. Nobody liked them, they owned so much land. So Mother had us get down on our knees and pray that the grasshoppers wouldn’t hit our crop. Mother was quite religious; so was my dad. Well, everybody was in those days. There were very few guys that weren’t religious. And some were more religious than others.
“So we prayed—Mother led the prayer—that the grasshoppers wouldn’t touch our crop. But they hit a corner of it. And when they left, it was stubble. But we had something left of the crop. ‘Seed grain,’ Momma would say, ‘Well, we got enough left for seed grain.’ Not to make money on; just enough to seed the next year. Those poor pioneers: ‘We got seed grain, boys.’
But “seed grain” wasn’t enough to sustain the Skarets’ dream of a thriving family farm. Like many others, they were forced to borrow money, using their farm as collateral. When they couldn’t repay the loan, they had no choice but to sell nearly everything they had, pull up stakes and head for greener pastures.
Next week: Why Momma cried