Homestead Act: Who Were the Settlers?
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Pioneer Children:
Games, Toys, and Recreation

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"Welcome to Our Home"
Detail of “Welcome to Our Home” Custer County, Nebraska. 1888.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1125

Did children on the frontier ever have the opportunity to play? Older kids took up the pastimes of grownups early. Younger kids had their toys. Some were homemade.

Here are some of the popular games played by Nebraska homestead children:

Button Button
The children sit in a semi-circle with palms of hands together. “It” holds a button between the palms of his hands and goes from one player to another passing his hands between those of the seated players finally leaving the button is someone’s hands. He continues the play after leaving the button so that the others will not know who has it. Then he says, “Button, button who has the button?” All the children guess, not waiting for turns, and the one who guesses correctly has the fun of passing the button next.

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dog on cart
Detail of the Harvey M. Pickens family, Ortello Valley, Custer County, Nebraska, 1889.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1523

Fox and Geese
A large circle from 15 to 30 feet in diameter, usually made in the snow, is required for this game. Five paths or lines are made across the circle through the center. The circle can be made on a floor with chalk or on the bare ground with a stick. The "fox" stands in the middle of the circle and attempts to catch the geese when they venture away from an intersection. A "goose" may not turn back nor make an angle at the intersection. The "goose" who gets tagged becomes the "fox." A more complicated game is played with two circles, one within the other, in which the geese may turn at any intersection, and the geese are limited to one for each section of the circle.

Hunt the Thimble
One child sends all the others from the room, after which he places the thimble in an inconspicuous place in plain sight. He then calls the others into the room, and they begin to search for the thimble. As each one sees the thimble he says, "I spy" and sits down. If it is rather difficult to find, the one who hid it says "warm" when a searcher is near the thimble and "cold" when he goes away from it. After all have found it, the one who first saw it has the privilege of hiding it. Children especially enjoy this game when adults, working in the room where the thimble is hidden share their secret. The game may be varied by sending only one child or half the children from the room while the others hide the thimble. Then the group who hid the thimble sing some song and as a searcher gets nearer or further from the thimble, the music gets softer or louder. The game is also known as "Hide the Thimble," and "I Spy."

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for an extreme close-up.
The David Hilton family
Detail of the David Hilton family near Weissert, Custer County, Nebraska, 1887.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1523

In 2001, David Hilton’s great grandson Scott Kaelin wrote,

"Why did they have such an ornate musical instrument when they still lived in a primitive dirt house? You see, David was born in Manchester, England and was educated in music before coming to America at the age of 25. He was a musician and music was very important to him. ... The Hiltons had a quartet: Emma played the organ and sang soprano; Lydia sang alto; Leonard sang tenor; and George had a deep bass voice. They sang at church, for funerals and for many other community activities."

There were recreational activities for adults as well. Some settlers brought the family organ, piano, melodeon or other instruments to their new homes. With no radios, recordings — let alone TVs — entertainment was most often homemade, and the ability to make music meant that neighbors from all over the surrounding countryside would visit for songfests, dances or religious services.

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