Two Years In Kansas
To get started as a prairie homesteader in the 1870s you needed uncommon reserves of strength, sanity, courage, and luck. Trimm had the first three.
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
It was not an easy gift to receive, though, and many who tried to accept it came to see the Act as a stark proposition: “The government bets 160 acres against the filing fee that the settler can’t live on the land for five years without starving to death.” Nevertheless, tens of thousands took up the challenge. Among them was Warren P. Trimm, who in the 187Os moved his family to Kansas. All through the backbreaking business of trying to build a life on the empty prairie, he kept a diary; years later he sat down with his son, Lee—“the first white child to be born in Township 20S”—and together they composed a narrative of his adventures.
Warren Trimm’s testament was sent to us by his great-grandson, Steve Trimm of Rensselaer, New York.
My wife, Susie, and I decided to go to Kansas and take up a government claim. In April 1877 we left by train, accompanied by my twenty-two-year-old sister, Mary, and our three-year-old daughter and infant son, destination Ellinwood, Kansas.
When we reached Ellinwood on April 22, we found that our trunks and luggage had arrived two days ahead of us. We got rooms in the hotel, and after lunch the girls decided to look this strange frontier town over, while I hunted up the homestead office. When I asked the hotel clerk for directions, he said with a wave of his hand, “Right across the street. Are yuh buyin’ or homesteadin’?” I didn’t know what he meant, so made no reply.
I was owed free land and wasn’t about to buy from the railroads.
When I got to the office I learned that the government had granted to the railroads, as a subsidy, every alternate twenty-mile strip across the entire state of Kansas, extending ten miles on each side of their right-of-way, which they were selling to would-be homesteaders at one dollar to two dollars and fifty cents per acre, depending on its nearness to the tracks.
I told him I had come all the way from Pennsylvania to take up free land and didn’t intend buying it now that I was here. He said, “If that is your final decision, your best bet would be in the Pawnee Rock and Great Bend section, along the Arkansas River about fifteen to twenty miles west of here.” After a moment’s hesitation he said, “It’s only fair to warn you that the ten-mile limit prevails on both government and railroad land in that section, due to the fact that Dodge City has become the Cow Town of the state, from which thousands of Texas cattle are shipped daily, which makes the ten-mile limit a necessity.”
I don’t know just what I expected in the way of reception when I reached Kansas. Whatever it may have been, my interview with the homestead man was not it.
I asked him, “Who owns Kansas, the railroads or the government?” He smiled and said, “It’s about fifty-fifty. We want business, they want population, but there is such a close relation between the two that there should be no conflict of interest. It’s simply a question of homesteading or buying. If you insist on being a homesteader, I can only direct you where to go.”
Now that we had reached our destination, you can imagine my consternation when I was told to move on. I had neither horse nor wagon, nor any place to store the baggage that had accumulated at the depot, When I got back to the hotel that night, I told the girls the seriousness of our plight.
My wife was quick to sense my disappointment and said, “Stop worrying. Everything will turn out right. It takes courage to win a fight.” My sister chimed in with, “Don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself.” And she was right, as you will see.
The next morning I awoke with the feeling that the tide had turned, and I was again master of the situation. I said, “While you are getting the children ready for breakfast, I will run down to the depot and see what arrangement I can make for the baggage.”
When I got there, I found the station agent in a jolly mood. He said, “If you want a glimpse of the early West, look out in the yard.” There was a man with a covered wagon getting breakfast over buffalo chips that he had brought for the purpose. When I asked the agent who he was, he said, “Damned if I know. He came in last night and wants to sell his team and wagon and get the hell out of Kansas.”
When I saw they were a span of Morgans, I felt that this was my lucky day. After looking the horses over and finding no blemish, I began bargaining with him on the price. He wanted two hundred. I offered one hundred and fifty. When I saw he had a plow in the wagon, I included that in my offer. He refused, saying, “I can get fifteen dollars cash for it at any store in town.” I still held to my price, he still refused, until I showed him the money. Then he said, “If I ever get the dust of this desert off my hide, I’ll never be back.”
As soon as he made out the bill of sale and got his money, I drove the team to the platform, loaded my baggage, and left for the hotel. The girls had eaten their breakfast, and as soon as I got mine and paid the bill, we left for Great Bend.