Lucy Goldthorpe outside her shack in 1906:
"Even if you hadn't inherited a bit of restlessness and a pioneering spirit . . . it would have been difficult to ward off the excitement of the boom which, like the atmosphere, involved every conversation." Lucy Goldthorpe
Lucy Goldthorpe was a young schoolteacher in Iowa who was one of the thousands of single women who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which stated that single, divorced, or widowed women 21 or older could own a 160 acre plot of land in the Great Plains. It cost $10 to apply, and then the new landowners had to "prove up", which meant they had to live on their land for five years. After that it was theirs. This was one of the few ways a woman could acquire and own property at that time.
Lucy bought her parcel when she was 21, hired someone to build a shack for her there, and taught one final school year to save some money. By the time she got to her land it was 1906 and she was twenty-two. She spent the spring and summer insulating it with tar paper on the outside, and used paper, gunny sacks, and homemade wool rugs on the inside. Then the winter arrived, and the temperature frequently dropped to 40 below. She later told a reporter: “That winter of 1906-07 was the worst known up to that time in the Dakotas. Livestock froze and people died for want of medical care.” She would take vegetables to bed with her at night to keep them from freezing so she could "be sure of a non-frozen breakfast.”
Lucy made it through that first winter and the next four years: she "proved up" and the land was hers. During her second year there a man with the parcel next to hers, Matt Vandeberg, began courting her. They married in 1908 and joined their parcels and shacks together, and eventually had five children. She lived the rest of her life in North Dakota.
The chorus for "Open Prairie" came to me one day as I was aimlessly wandering on the piano and wouldn't leave my brain. So I went hunting for a prairie woman to write about. I found many, but honestly the life sounded so brutal and hard I couldn't bring myself to write about it. Not to mention much of this land had belonged originally to Native Americans. I figured that would be a slow song in a minor key, and I didn't have the stomach for it. I wanted to focus instead on the hope and determination so many prairie women settlers had. When I found the picture of Lucy outside her shack and read the quote from her that's at the top of this page I knew I'd found my woman: tough, smart, clear-eyed, and full of hope.
I dug a fair amount, but at the time there wasn't a lot more information about her than what I've written above. What I found was enough to write the song, but I still wanted more information. Lucy was interviewed enough for quotes from her to show up here and there on the internet, but that's all I could find.
In the summer of 2020 we finished mixing Open Prairie, and I googled Lucy once more. This time a link came up for a 1968 magazine called The West that was for sale on Ebay. It included an article called Petticoat Pioneer: it was Lucy's story about her move and first years in North Dakota, dictated to a writer when she was 84. Naturally I bought the magazine, and was happy to find that the article included pictures and lots more details from Lucy about the logistics of homesteading, how she made it through that first winter, and the people she met there. I felt like I was listening to one of my smart, down-to-earth girlfriends.
If you want to read Lucy's story you can download a pdf of the article below.
Here are a few other links with information about Lucy: