Rachel Calof

“Each family was to keep its chickens under its bed and the ends and sides were closed off to form a cage.” – Rachel Calof
Rachel Calof, pioneer of the American West.

"Winter was very near now. Abraham had earned his seventy-five dollars. This was the money which hopefully would buy sufficient fuel and food to carry three families(nine people) through the winter. It looked like it might just be done. Prices were reasonable. Flour sold for ninety cents per one-hundred-pound sack. The roof on our shack was now built and on the basis of this security Abraham and I set our wedding date of November 8, 1894.

The law provided that a homestead claim could be filed as late as five years from the time a homesteader settled on the land, but I had only the six weeks before my marriage in which to file my claim. Married women whose husbands owned or were claiming land were denied homestead claim rights but single women had the same rights as men. Abraham's land would be in his name but mine would be in my maiden name.

My bridal gown, which I had made myself, was of yellow, blue, and white stripes. Abraham's suit hung so low in the back that it might have passed for what is today called "tails." Those in attendance were Abraham's family, his nieces, Doba and Sarah, and their husbands and their two children. Our wedding gifts were a red felt tablecloth with green flowers, two chickens, and from Charlie and Faga two short women's undershirts. A delayed gift of some little chicks was also promised for next spring by one of the nieces.

The wedding feast was cooking in the kitchen and as the day was coming to a close the wedding was close at hand. The Jewish man certified to perform the ceremony was a member of one of the Jewish families in North Dakota. My fiancée had to work for him for two days hauling hay in payment of his fee. All brides remember their wedding ceremony and mine was truly memorable. I was seated in a chair. Abraham was given a flour sack which he was instructed to place over my face. Well, at least one could cry in private under the cover.

Being effectively blinded, I was now led to the huppah (the wedding canopy) by Doba and her husband. The huppah was built of a shawl tied to four sticks. The music was provided by the singing of the women while the men beat time on tin pans.

Following the ceremony the table was set and we sat down to a truly magnificent banquet which consisted of beans, rice with raisins, chicken soup, and roast chicken. The flour sack had been replaced by a handkerchief bound over my eyes. I wanted to remove it to at least be present at my own marriage, but my mother-in-law was quick to forbid it. I did not want to create a scene at my own wedding and so I submitted to these primitive customs.

The festivities over, bride and groom started home, and in short order, even before my wedding day was over, I was cruelly thrust back into the reality of my life. I learned that the Calof men had decided prior to my marriage that Abe and I must share our home with others for the entire coming winter and therefore, Abe's father, mother, and brother Moses would double up with us for the coming months.

In an instant the happiness of my marriage turned to bitterness. The knowledge that I was to spend my honeymoon in a tiny space shared with three strangers was more that I could bear. I hoped that death would take me now, that I would not reach home alive. But my fervent wish was not granted, and it was life, not death, with which I had to cope.

At this time the in-laws had a flock of twelve chickens and Abe and I also had twelve. There was no outside coop for the poultry, but if there had been we would have lost the flock in short order because the temperature would soon be going to forty or more degrees below zero and the chickens would have frozen to death. We needed to keep them alive in hopes of having their eggs as well as their meat later on. Each family was to keep its chickens under its bed and the ends and sides were closed off to form a cage. Also there was a calf which had to accommodated inside."

Biographical Information

Rachel Calof was born in Russia in 1876. Rachel's mother died when she was quite young, and she and her siblings were mistreated by an uncaring housekeeper and stepmother. Then her own father deserted them. At 18 years old, and without a dowry, Rachel was sent to America as a mail-order-bride for a young man named Abraham Calof.

Rachel first landed in New York. From there, she and Abraham journeyed to join his family already living on homesteads in North Dakota. They arrived in Devil's Lake in 1894. Rachel's memoir highlights her growing regard for her husband and her own struggle in adapting to the difficult conditions in which found herself. The early years were especially difficult—no privacy, extreme financial hardship, minimum fuel and food to get through the harsh winters.

The Calofs went on to raise seven children and eventually were successful in their pioneering life. During the holidays the Calofs' home became the center for Jewish families from all over the state. Rachel Calof died in Seattle, Washington, circa 1954.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rachel Calof." (Viewed on February 28, 2024) <http://jwa.org/westernpioneers/calof-rachel>.