Local Illinois History

“A Prairie Winter: By an Illinois Girl” (1903)

Reviewed by Jeanne Meeks

DSCF0828What was farm life like in rural Illinois in 1892? A young woman’s letters sent to a friend in a nearby town give us a clue. I did a bit of research into the book and it’s author.

Belle Frances Owen was 26 years when she wrote her descriptive letters. She was born in Frankfort Township, Illinois in 1866 to William Owen and Celestia Antoinette Cleveland Owen. The family farm straddled the road we now call Route 30 between the Rock Island Railroad and Hickory Creek to the north and the EJ&E Railroad to the south. Until recently Owen Road intersected with Rt. 30 at about 116th Avenue. Owen Pond is still there behind the trees on the south side of Rt. 30, though it is now surrounded by a subdivision.

A plat map from 1893 showed that William B. Owen, Belle’s father, owned about 200 acres in sections 18, 19, and 30. A 1903 map shows that William B. Owen either inherited or bought another nearly 350 from James L. Owen. In addition, Belle’s grandparents, the Clevelands owned an adjacent 107 acres. Their’s was a large, cooperative farming operation.

Belle’s letters were published under the title A Prairie Winter, by “an Illinois Girl.” Outlook Publishing Company, New York was in business from 1870 – 1935 and was one of four popular weekly publications at the time. Theodore Roosevelt was listed as an associate editor and published his first article in March, 1909.

A Prairie Winter has little plot, but describes beautifully the natural world Belle lived in, the changing seasons, and clues to the young woman’s daily life. Belle had a positive, almost Pollyanna-type attitude. She told of her spring planting chores this way – “I have begun to live out of doors with the spade and rake and hoe for company. The sun is delightfully warm and a haze hangs over the woods.”

Later she says, “I stand up to straighten the kink in my back and survey my work with pride . . .” She speaks of her daily household chores in glowing terms as well. “This is zero weather, and a mark or two below. I must bring in the clothes from the line before night sets in. How stiff and brittle they are, and how they glitter from the frost in them!”

Belle never once complains about the hardships of a winter on the prairie nor wishes for anything more than she has. Once, however, she mentions the world outside the rural countryside. “Off to the northeast a fitful glow relieves the heaviness of the night . . . It is the beacon of civilization. That way lies Chicago!”

Later, Belle lived for a while in California with her mother and brother, but moved back to Will County at some point. There is no indication she ever married. She wrote a column called “It Happened Here” for the Daily Herald of Arlington, IL between 1937 and 1950. She won a state poetry prize in 1938 and published a book of fifty-two poems in 1943. Belle died in 1950 in Chicago at the age of 84.

In 1988 Belle Owen’s poetic words in A Prairie Winter caught the eye of Eric Gardner of Illinois Wesleyan University, who wrote an Undergraduate Review entitled Believing in the Robin’s First Call: Belle Owen and A Prairie Winter. He refers to a 1985 essay on Illinois literature, pre-1915, by Robert Bray entitled, A Readers Guide to Illinois Literature. Belle Owen’s work is described by Bray as “adding poignancy to the quiet lyricism and domestic sentimentality . . .”

Bray explained the popularity of Belle’s prose in 1903 as due to Americans wanting “the semblance of realism so long as that realism conveyed an essentially romantic picture of an earlier, purer life when men and women lived closer to nature and still saw ways to find success in homely achievements.”

A Prairie Winter is a simple little book which lovers of history will enjoy, because it’s poetic descriptions allow us to envision rural life as it was 110 years ago.

Also reviewed on https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/6780778-jeanne”

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