Homestead Act: The Challenges of Living on the Plains
14 of 29

What’s for Lunch?

"Another Long Hot Day"
Detail of “Another Long Hot Day”, Northeast Custer County, Nebraska, 1887.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1265

What were meal times like on the frontier?

The light meal homesteaders’ children carried to school was called “lunch.” They ate lots of sandwiches, but what kind of sandwiches? From reminiscences we know they might be cornbread and syrup. Bread and lard, maybe with a little sugar. Or, bread and bacon. It was a special treat to have a sandwich with meat in it. There were no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — peanut butter wasn’t made in the 1890s.

Water was the usual drink with lunch. Schools had no refrigerators, so there was no cold milk. Students drank from a dipper out of a bucket of water. The bucket had to be carried from the closest well. If the school had a pump outside, children took turns pumping water.

There were no plastic lunch boxes or thermoses on the homestead. This girl is carrying her lunch in a tin container called a lunch pail. Some families could afford to buy lunch pails for their children. Others saved empty lard or syrup buckets for use as lunch pails.

Corn Girl
Corn Girl, circa 1907.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-2934

For the adults at home, the noontime meal was often the biggest of the day and was called "dinner," not lunch. One thing you could count on was that no matter what the meal, corn in some form was usually on the homesteader’s table. Like now, corn was a large part of Nebraska’s agricultural economy, and there was at least one “Corn Girl” crowned in Kearney around 1907. Much of the food was home grown. Vegetables were grown in gardens and stored in root cellars. Fruits were dried. Cows would provide milk, cream and home churned butter. "Staples" like flour and cornmeal were bought or ground at a local gristmill.

Meat was a special treat. There was no refrigeration and meat had to be smoked, salted, or dried to keep it from spoiling. Pork was the preferred meat up until the early 1890s, as it could be smoked, salted and dried easily. Drying was also the most common method of preserving food grown in the garden.

Hoffaker family
Hoffaker family, east Custer County, Nebraska, 1888.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1745

In this photograph, the Hoffaker family, in east Custer County, appears to have brought the frame for a rope bed outside and set it up to dry food.

William McDonald was born in 1861 near North Platte, Nebraska, and he remembered "jerked" meat — meat that had been either smoked or dried.

"We used to have jerked buffalo, dried meat that a man put in his pocket and could chew on all afternoon. It was good and it was strengthening. A piece of meat 3/4 inch wide and 4 or 5 inches wide would be put out for drying. It dried as hard as sole leather and dark colored. If it was an old bull buffalo it made some real chewing. It was tough."

Later in his life, McDonald knew Buffalo Bill Cody of the Wild West Show fame.

"One time Cody had a dinner out at the ranch over by the river for a few of us, Father (Chas. McDonald) Luke Haley, myself (Will McDonald) and another one or two in 1893. I had heard we were to have buffalo meat and I was anxious to taste it again. We were served fine steaks but I kept wondering when the buffalo meat was coming in. When it was served I said ‘Ah, this tastes better than it did when I was a boy,’ and it was delicious, tender and fat. The saying used to be ‘We were going out to get a buffalo lump,’ that was the best part of the meat."
William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody
is in the Nebraska Hall of Fame
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Agricultural products were symbols of the bounty of the land for many of the settlers. Recipes from a Sod House Kitchen
Check out common recipes
from this era

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