About this time 131 years ago, young Eugene Hallock Pile, age 23, son of Benjamin Pile, left his home and family in Missouri to venture into the unknown. He and his buddy, Thornley Wells, packed up a few belongings and supplies, loaded a horse and a wagon and themselves onto the Great Northern Railroad, and headed north. They had heard about opportunities for homesteaders to grab a piece of land and make their fortunes growing grain to feed the hungry populations on the East Coast, and were ready to jump in and try their own hands.
The two young adventurers switched to the Manitoba line (later to become the NP) at Fargo, which was at that time a nest of snakes. Prostitutes, gamblers, tracklayers, outlaws, and speculators ran the town…well, perhaps not all that different from today. They rode a branch to the end of the line at Devil’s Lake, then took their wagon another 30 miles north on up to a spot that must have looked good to them. They were farm boys, so they were focused on the soil—there wasn’t much else to look at. Eugene and Thornley helped each other to set up on adjacent claims, where they erected sod houses and started the immense and daunting project of clearing and preparing the land for crops.
Up in those parts, if you didn’t bring it with you, you had to go a long way to get stuff like wood, flour, salt, seed, and everything else. As one can imagine, life must have been pretty sparse those first couple of years. The winters were not any warmer in 1883 than they are now, and they had to travel a lot further than the distance from the door of the store to the door of a car in those chilly days. I don’t imagine their wagon had much of a heater, either.
They survived. In a couple of years, Eugene was ready to stake another claim, returning to Missouri to marry Ida Dell Walker of Iowa City and bring her back on up to the homestead. “Come with me, darling, to a place where it’s freezing and hard and lonely. It’ll be an adventure!” Right. Ida must have been made of some pretty tough stuff, too. Eugene and his wife did at least have some family near Devils Lake where they could stay while they built a decent house. That house became the Prairie Home Farm, named by Ida, that we all know and cherish in our memories.
They lived. They worked the land. They prospered. They started a family. Ernest Walker Pile was born in 1894, and Ruth Ellen Pile was born a couple of years later in 1896. Prairie Home Farm would become the home base of the Pile clan for a century.
That spirit of adventure, that willingness to leave the safety of home, to roll the dice and take a chance seems to have been passed on through Eugene’s genes. Quite a few of his descendants seem to have the bug for uprooting themselves and heading off into the unknown, including Robert Eugene Pile, Eugene’s grandson and my father, who is 92 years old this very day. Dad’s path took him into World War II and the South Pacific. I’m still in awe of his willingness to risk the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and supremely grateful that he didn’t buy the farm on that journey, because, of course, I wouldn’t be here. He is my idol, and my model for what a good and rich life can be. I can only hope to stand in his footsteps.
We all go where life’s opportunities or our own particular fates lead us, and that’s both good and bad. Dispersal, separation, and disconnection are often the results of following a dream, but the family bond is deeper. We all are connected to the Prairie Home.