- Historic Sites
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
After he was gone, we could hardly wait to make their acquaintance. A few days later a boy about seventeen years old rode up and said, “I’m Robert Ditton. We’ve taken a claim near here, and my folks sent me to tell you they would like to meet you. Everything’s so strange. The homestead man said if there was anything we didn’t understand to see you.” I said, “Tell your father we’re strangers to this section too, but we’ll be over soon, maybe we can help each other.”
That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. We found that their background was similar to ours. They had sold their farm in the East to finance the trip West. In many ways we complemented each other. I was a carpenter, he was not, so our help to each other was vital and timely.
Mrs. Ditton had been a nurse and was the mother of four fine children, so the relationship between her and my wife was like mother and daughter. They had several horses, and Mrs. Ditton loved to ride them, so she visited each week, which broke the monotony for the children and Susie. My wife said, “With her so close I’ve lost all fear of the West.” I felt the same way; it gave me new strength for the work ahead.
Now that I had a wheelbarrow, my wife and I spent most of the time when the team was resting in laying sod. I cut and wheeled them and showed her how they should be laid. She became so efficient at it that I could hardly keep up with her. The sod was four inches thick and eight inches wide, cut in one-foot lengths, and laid without mortar, snug against the tar paper, giving insulation eight inches thick. The work went faster than we expected, as the walls were only five feet high. I spent my evening fitting window and door casings, so if the Seltzers came we could be ready to start the excavation.
My greatest concern was my team. It was evident they had neither the weight nor strength to cope with plowing this tough prairie sod. I knew how to pity them, for we were all working to the limit of our strength.
The corn I had planted was looking fine, and the potato patch was getting green when on the tenth of May at about 11:30 A.M. we saw a cloud coming across the plain very low, and which sounded like wind. I put the horses under the wagon cover where we kept our grain, and we all rushed for the house. As the cloud approached, the noise increased until we could not hear each other speak, and the light from the sun faded as though night was coming. It was the most awesome and terrifying thing we had ever seen. Then it fell, and for a while we were in almost total darkness. As the light gradually came back, and with it the realization that we were safe in the house, we felt thankful, until we looked outside. There we saw a writhing black blanket that seemed to be crawling toward us from every direction. We each grabbed a child and held it to protect it. Soon the sun came out, but the blanket kept rolling, and the stench was so appalling it left us trembling.
I have no idea how long it lasted, but it seemed eternal. Then as we came to our senses and could think more clearly, we wondered about the Dittons. Thinking of them seemed to bring us to reality, and we could watch what was going on around us. Gradually the blanket lifted, and we could see the damage. Not a stalk of corn was left, nor a blade of grass; even the leaves on the trees were gone.
When I went to look after the horses, I found them in a panic. As soon as I got them outside, they wanted to run, so I tied them to the wagon and returned to the house. The horses were so agitated that I decided to take them with me. Once inside the house they quieted down, but it made us so crowded we could hardly move. When I tried to lead them out, they refused to go. Then I knew it was our protection they wanted, so I put the little girl on one of their backs and I got on the other. After a couple of hours, and with a lot of petting and coaxing, I got them outside. Then I harnessed them and hitched them to the wagon and we went over to the Dittons.
By 3:00 we could see it clearly: a prairie fire coming our way.
They had been living in two large tents, as they had no cover for their wagon. When the grasshoppers came, they put the horses in one and they lived in the other.
After we surveyed the damage, we all decided to drive to Great Bend and consult with Mr. Thornton.
It was late when we got there, so I drove to Thorn ton’s house. When he saw us he said, “You don’t have to tell me what happened. I’ve already wired Hunter at Hays City, and he assured me you would be taken care of. What you need most right now is hay for the horses to tide over until the grass grows.”
We stayed at the hotel that night and the next day loaded our wagon with hay and grain and returned.
When we got back to our claim, we unloaded part of the hay and grain, and the Dittons got in their wagon for their trip home. After they were gone, I surveyed the damage we had sustained. The corn was ruined, and our garden a total loss. The potatoes looked as though they had been hit by a heavy frost, but there was life enough in them, I thought, so they would survive. They did and yielded a fair crop.