Reason Not To Move To Montana #38: Cabin Fever and Prairie Madness

Cabin fever

Of the myriad reasons not to move to Montana, few are more compelling than this one: you might lose your mind from living here. 

In the 19th century, after the Homestead Act of 1862 offered 150 acres to anyone who would live on and improve the land, thousands of settlers moved onto plots of undeveloped land. These small spreads were far enough away from one another that neighbors rarely saw each other. Towns were often a day's ride or more away. And then there was the wind.

The New Home

Readers of Lonesome Dove might remember this macabre anecdote: 

"It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, "Can't stand listening to this wind no more."

While anecdotal evidence suggests that women were hit harder, it may be because while their husband might be able to take a trip to town once a week or so, she was often left at home to tend to the homestead. The lack of medical care, the distance to any help, and the looming threat of attack by disenfranchised Natives were particularly hard to bear if you never get to leave a very small sod house and its surrounding environs.  

Small homestead

Another memorable example is from These Happy Golden Years, the fourth of the Little House on the Prairie books, in which the then 15-year-old Laura Ingalls, is boarding with a Mr. and Mrs. Brewster. Mrs. Brewster, lacking the spunky optimism of Laura and her family, begins to unravel until, one night, Laura awakens to find the woman standing over her husband with a butcher knife. He manages to convince her that the pros of letting him live outweigh the cons, and she pads off to the kitchen to put the knife away.

Cabin fever was a no less serious malady than Prairie Madness and closely related. In either case, drifting snows could bury a small shack in snow for days, meaning that men, women, and maybe a few children and dogs, would be stuck in a room that could be as small as 10' x 12'. And while it wouldn't always end up ala Jack Torrance in The Shining, there were no less dramatic displays. Some took all of their clothes off and abandoned themselves in the wilderness. Some wandered off into the night. Still more took to drink, if it were available.


Here's the upshot: in the Montana winter of today, it's a whole lot better. We have the internet (for better or for worse), television, phones, and other forms of communication that ameliorate the madness. You can read a book. Heat up some cocoa. But sooner or later you're going to have to pull on some boots and trudge through four feet of snow, dig out your car or truck, and go somewhere. Luckily for you, you've got somewhere to go, even if it's just a grocery store. You should thank your lucky stars, because for the for the folks who suffered from the real-deal cabin fever and prairie madness, there was nowhere to go.  

So heed this warning: don't move to Montana. Maybe you won't get eaten by a bear, but you just might come down with a serious case of cabin fever.

Cabin fever

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