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Emma L Willey

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Prairie Rattlers, Long Johns and Chokecherry Wine: Memoirs From the Silent Prairie
by Emma L Willey   

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Books by Emma L Willey
· Inspirations and Reflections, 89 Years of Life and Love
· Beyond the Silent Pairie, A Love Story
                >> View all



Publisher:  PublishAmerica ISBN-10:  1413700535 Type: 


Copyright:  Sep 21 2003

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Barnes &
While Away Books
Emma's Memoirs, Crochet and Cooking

This is the Rubys instead of the Waltons, and Emma's little house on the prairie. The eleventh of twelve children, Emma was born in 1920 in the sod house her Papa built on a South Dakota homestead. She and her three sisters cuddled in one bed for warmth, milked cows, shucked corn, butchered beef, helped Mama cook for threshing crews, and hauled water to wash clothes. When the work was done, they had fun without store-bought toys or television. The family survived rattlesnakes, drought, the Depressions, blizzards, and illness -- except Rose, who died at seventeen. Return with Emma to the prairie, win in her hair as she galloped on her horse Randy, sunsets unblocked by buildings or freeways, line-ups for Saturday night baths, and life-shaping education in a one-room country school.

Excerpts from Chapter 7 "Long Johns and High Top Shoes"

In the winter, deep blankets of snow covered the prairie. Raging blizzard winds whipped and curled it into huge white drifts. That made every farm chore more difficult, but the ice and snow also brought happy times.

Fun in winter included sleigh riding, skating along the curves of the creek, and playing games such as Fox & Geese. After a fresh snowfall, we stomped out a big circle in the snow and made six paths across the circle to make it look like a huge pie. One person was chosen to be the Fox and the rest of us were Geese.The fox chased and caught us and put us into the fox's den in the middle of the pie. After he caught all the geese, he had the privilege of choosing a new fox.

"Put on your long-handled underwear this morning," said Mama at the first sign of cold weather. She made us put on long johns every fall and wear them until spring. We tucked the legs into our long black stockings, and then pulled on our high top shoes. A blouse or sweater and bib overalls completed our outfits. Mama also said, "Don't forget your mittens," as she helped us button our coats all the way up to our chins. We yanked our stocking caps down over our ears, and pulled on our overshoes. Mama tied a scarf around my face to cover my nose; all she could see was my eyes. When we ventured outdoors to play in the snow my brother Chris went to the cellar to get the sled we had gotten for Christmas. We took turns riding it down the hill west of the house. Richard brought a scoop shovel from the barn to ride down on.

Sometimes two or three of us piled on the sled and rode down the hill, often dumping one of us off. Pulling the sled back up the hill wasn't nearly as much fun as riding down, but we played in the snow until our coats were caked with it and our fingers and toes felt frozen. Then we scampered to the house to take off our wet clothes and hang them over the backs of chairs by the stove to dry. We huddled around the fire to warm our toes and fingers.

On days when the sun came out, we clamped our skates onto our shoes and followed the frozen creek around its curves until we came to a large open space where we had room to practice skating. After landing on our bottoms several times,we loved going back to the house to get warm. Also in winter, we made ice cream by filling a jar three-fourths full with a mixture of cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla, shaking it well and burying it in a snow bank. A couple hours later, we dug it out, passed it from one to another and dipped in our spoons in turn saying, "Mmmm."

During winter I felt safe and secure sitting by the heater watching a blizzard. The snow swirled past the windows, as Jack Frost etched them with beautiful snowflake designs. One morning I stood at the frost-covered window in the dining room. I blew on it enough to rub off a circle of frost so I could see outside. My eyes followed the new snow-covered path to the red barn, also covered with snow. It reminded me of a winter scene on a Christams card. The fresh blanket of snow lay untouched except for a few tracks our dog, Shep and the cats left there.

After a new snowfall, we had to shovel a new path to the outhouse. Many times I plodded to the backhouse in hip-deep snow or in a blizzard. I often had to sweep the snow off the seat before I could sit on it. Only a servere storm in the middle of the night or illness excused us from going to the outhouse. Then we were allowed to use the chamber pot in Mama's bedroom, and some brave soul would have to take it out to empty the next morning. We didn't mind using the little outhouse considering we didn't even know what a bathroom was. The crinkled-up pages from the mail-order catalogs worked well for toilet tissue. Most outhouses had two holes, but one of our neighbors had one with a third smaller hole cut into a shorter seat for a small child. I thought it a mark of affluence to have a three-holer. When I think of the backhouse on the farm, I want it to remain only a memory. 

Professional Reviews

Tough Life, Fun Times
From The News Review "Senior Times" of Roseburg, Oregon, October 2003 by Bill Duncan

"Her memoirs 'a labor of love.' Emma Willey's book is a tribute to the mettle of U.S.'s heartland pioneers.

If you think the title of Emma Willey's book, "Prairie Rattler, Long Johns and Chokecherry Wine," is long, you should have seen the title before her daughter, Marlene Johnson of Corvallis, edited out a few words. "I also had 'High Top Shoes,' in the original title," Emma said, but Marlene said it was "too long."

Emma said she wrote the book as a memoir for her two daughters, one son, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren because "at 83, I lived in a time under circumstances they couldn't imagine." She was the 11th of 12 children who grew up in a sod house on the South Dakota prairie on a homestead in Zeona, S.D.

She was born in 1920. "Zeona doesn't even exist anymore," she said. "Life was not easy, but I can truthfully say we had fun despite the deprevation." She recalls harsh winters in which she and her three sisters cuddled in one bed just to keep warm.

The book is not only her story, but the story of her family. "Writing my memoirs was a labor of love," she said. "When I started writing, I wanted my children to know what my life was like growing up. I wanted my grandchildren to understand how people lived and survived in the early 1900s." She is already writing a sequel and has encouraged Orman, her husband of 60 years, to begin his memoirs. "I think it is our obligation to tell future generations what made us strong enough in character to have survived droughts, blizzards, illnesses, wars and the Great Depression," she said. "This is our legacy."

Her recounting of those days is a startling revelation, but at the same time it is a tribute to the mettle of America's heartland pioneers. The book starts out with Emma's grandparents moving from Wisconsin to South Dakota to homestead. Her mother, Adele was married to her grandparent's son Ben Ruby. They had six children. Tragically, Ben was killed in a coal mine cave-in. His brother, Fred, married Adele and they had six more children, including Emma.

She describes her father as a stern disciplinarian "determined to teach us right from wrong. He never laid a hand on me, but tension filled the air when he came in from the barn, reminding us to quiet down and behave ourselves." She said he never showed outward affection for his children, "but he showed us he loved us by the way he provided for his large family."

Farm chores were numerous. Emma recounts in the book that she milked cows, shucked corn, butchered beef, helped her mother cook for the threshing crews and hauled water to wash clothes. She remembers she and her siblings did not have store-bought toys, but days were filled with time to play. "We used our imagination," she said. "I remember galloping on my horse, Randy, with the prairie wind in my hair. I remember gorgeous sunsets unblocked by buildings or freeways."

The subtitle of her book is "Memoirs from the Silent Prairie." She explains their homestead was miles from any other settlers and the silence was only broken by the mooing of the 100 head of cows her father had, or the howling of a coyote. "Today we live in such a noisy world, that you would have to experience that wonderful silence to really understand what I mean," she said.

She also remembers lining up to take Saturday night baths and picking chokecherries and buffalo berries. "We really didn't make wine out of the chokecherries, but we did make jelly and jam out of them and buffalo berries, and of course we canned all kinds of vegetables that we grew on the homestead," she said. "You had to can whatever you could to keep it for the winter months."

One of her favorite canned items was sun pickles. "Every year Mama filled half-gallon jars with cucumbers and vinegar and lined them up on the long bench on the south porch to let the sun help cure them," she said. "My mouth waters today just thinking about them."

One of the delightful parts of her book is Chapter 11 called "In the Kitchen With Mama," in which she prints all the home recipes including those chokecherry recipes, along with a dandelion salad and green tomato pie. Of course castor oil was the cure-all for illness and Emma includes her mother's recipe for Castor Oil Coffee. "This was supposed to cure anything according to Mama. Complain about something and Mama served up Castor Oil Coffee."

Emma writes that her domineering father decided she was to be a teacher and sent her off to teacher's college. "I didn't want to be a teacher," she said. "I was good at math and I wanted to be a bookkeeper." She taught for two years, but in 1942 when World War II started, she joined the Women's Army Corps. She wanted to do secretarial work, but the Army assigned her to be a mess cook. She was discharged in 1945 as a Staff Sergeant, but while she was on furlough in 1943, married Orman Willey, also a soldier home on leave. They were married before each had to return to duty.

The two of them lived in several states before they moved to Winston in 1990. They lived in Winston for ten years before moving to Roseburg. They have three children, Marlene of Corvallis, Valerie, and a son, Ray. She said her two daughters helped her edit the book and "my son, Ray, encouraged me after reading the first draft."

Emma Willey has a confession to make at the end of her book: "A long time ago, a lifetime ago, I left the prairie, but the prairie never left me."

Book Review
From the Dakota Herald, Lemmon, South Dakota

The Ruby family was formed in a sod house upon South Dakota’s prairie land, where life wasn’t always easy, but it forever left its mark in the heart of its children. Of this prairie brood, Emma was the eleventh of twelve in her family.

Now, at age 83, Emma L. Willey has long left the prairie to live in Oregon, but as Emma stated, “The prairie has never left me.” Recently, Emma has chronicled her younger years within the pages of Prairie Rattlers, Long Johns and Chokecherry Wine, Memoirs from the silent Prairie. In Emma’s book one can travel back in time experiencing her personal history, which is just a small part of the cultural history of a nation, showing how life in an earlier time shaped a generation.

Twelve entertaining chapters take you from the homestead soddy that Emma was born in. Listen to Emma recall memories of wild onions, rattlesnakes, picnics, bedbugs, threshing bees, sun pickles, new-fangled contraptions and being in the kitchen with Mama. Emma’s new book is now on sale at The Dakota Herald for $16.95, or may be purchased online at It will also be available at the Lemmon public library.

Readers have commented, “Both young and old need to hear this story,” and “Poignant story with vivid details of yesteryear.” Emma’s book is sure to delight readers of all ages.

Emma is the sister of local resident, May Hathaway of Lemmon. These two sisters are the only two yet living from the Ruby siblings.

From the South Dakota Magazine, Yankton, South Dakota:
What will Emma Corrine Stubbe think when she reads this, the opening sentence of Pariaire Rattlers: "I was the eleventh of Mama's twelve children, born in a sod house on a South Dakota prairie."

Emma Corrine won't grow up with eleven siblings, or know any family with even half that many children. She'll live in a house with wooden walls and indoor plumbing.And South Dakota will, in all likelihood, be a place she learns about in geography calss and promptly forgets.

But someday, when she's old enough to read, Emma Corrine Stubbe will know all about life on the South Dakota prairie, thanks to the efforts of her great-grandmother, Emma L. Willey. Besides the sod house, there's milking cows, shocking corn, butchering beef, hauling water to wash clothes and lining up for a Saturday night bath. What will she think of that?

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Reader Reviews for "Prairie Rattlers, Long Johns and Chokecherry Wine: Memoirs From the Silent Prairie"

Reviewed by Oshinn Cerra 8/6/2007
Thank you for writing this! We need more of this type of thing published... I am SO interested in recent history and there are very few people for me to talk to about it. My grandmother is a lovely storyteller but her mind is going; keep writing!
Reviewed by Jill Carpenter 11/10/2005
Emma, you are a delight, and your writing is an inspiration. I have very much enjoyed reading your poems and stories. Looking forward to more of them.
Best wishes, JCC
Reviewed by Mr. Ed 10/19/2003
This sounds like a delightful nostalgic memoir of days long gone. Can't wait to read it!

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