Valentine is on the northern edge of the "sea" of sand dunes known as Sand Hill Country. I’d heard about the Sand Hills and didn’t have high expectations, but they all but stole the show. The land is wide, open, and hilly, with far vistas, sparse human population, and clean air. Here I discovered the writings of Mari Sandoz, daughter of Old Jules, the first of many books she wrote about this area and people who lived here from the 1880s on. Reading Old Jules, purchased at Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, as we traveled through the Sand Hills was like touching history. Mari Sandoz recounts her family’s lives in authentic yet eloquent voice. Her straightforward manner is devoid of the romanticized, embellished writing style often used in those times.
The Nebraska Sand Hills area is huge! These grass-stabilized dunes cover 20,000 square miles, about 1/4 of the state of Nebraska--the size of the entire state of Connecticut. One hundred million years ago, this was a vast inland sea that dried up. Wind and erosion further shaped the land, leaving many shallow lakes, whose edges teem with wildlife, birds, and plant species. Besides lakes, the long Niobrara River runs through this area, emptying into the Missouri beyond the Sand Hills, on the plains of Northeast Nebraska. Deer, pronghorn, elk, coyote and badger roam the riverbanks, meadows, marshes and hills. Wildflowers bloom from early spring to late fall.
Indigenous peoples made good use of this region, hunting bison and other game and periodically burning the prairie to keep it open and revitalize the ecosystem. Fire helped the native grasses grow and killed trees and brush encroaching on the prairie. Initially, Anglo explorers erroneously thought the hills were barren, and called the area "The Great American Desert", continuing further westward in search of more fertile and farmable land. Soon, though, some stopped to settle, experiment with agriculture, orchards, and cattle grazing.
Out of the East came a lone man in an open wagon, driving hard. This man was Jules, recently arrived from Zurich, Switzerland. The year was 1884. He aimed to settle and farm on the free land available west and south of Valentine. Permanently crippled by a practical joke while digging his well, he thereafter walks with a limp, and his foot never completely heals. Hardship only intensifies his characteristics of determination, stubbornness, intelligence and toughness. Old Jules is bad-tempered, maddeningly insensitive, not particularly likeable, yet kind of grows on the reader all the same. He’s in the thick of the constant infighting and struggle for power between the farmers, sheepmen, and cattlemen. Yet that pales in comparison to the struggles to eke a livelihood out of the sandy soil and harsh climate. Too much rain, not enough, or at the wrong time, or worse, ferocious storms and hail that wipe out all the crops, kill the prized orchard. It’s only gradually, as the tale is told, that we realize the teller is little Marie, daughter of Jules and his fourth wife Mary. She’s destined to clash with Old Jules, as are her brothers. As she succeeds against great odds, becoming a teacher against Jules’ will, he only grudgingly and backhandedly acknowledges his admiration, if not acceptance.
Old Jules draws the reader back in time and immersion into Nebraska frontier life in all its harshness and raw struggle for survival. The families who settled here did so for as many different reasons as one can imagine, some escaping, some by pure chance, some with dreams. Many settlers ended up moving on, some going back from whence they came, and those of a particular mettle remained there on the Sand Hill prairie. A dwindling number of descendents remain on the chosen land of their ancestors.