- 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
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.
We followed the old Santa Fe Trail from Ellinwood to Great Bend. On the way, my sister said, “This may be strange country to us, but this covered wagon is no stranger to the trail.” I said, “I’m glad you mentioned that, for I don’t know yet what all I have bought.” There were dirty blankets, cooking utensils, and a cot that we could see. The temptation was very strong to pull off the trail and explore, but as it was past noon, we decided to wait until night.
On the way a group of cowboys rode by and saluted us by raising their hats. I heard one of them say, “I’ll be roped and tied! I thought the coming of the railroad did away with that prairie schooner!”
When we reached Great Bend, it was past one o’clock, so we went directly to the hotel for lunch. While the girls were resting comfortably in the lobby, I went to hunt up the homestead office.
When I got there, I found that the man in charge was very friendly. He said, “My name is Thornton, ‘Thor’ to my friends.” I told him frankly my position and asked him for advice. While he confirmed what the other agent had said, he did it in a way that made you feel that he wanted to be helpful. He came out and looked at my team with an appraising eye and said, “Morgans, huh? That looks like a very good pair.”
“Now that you asked my advice, I can only tell you what I would do, and trust you will heed it. Go directly west on this trail until you reach an old stockade known as Duncan’s Ranch. Then head north to Pawnee Creek. There you will find some very fine land to homestead.
“If I had your team and wagon, I would spend some time gathering buffalo bones, for the market. They bring a good price [as fertilizer] at any railroad station. That would give you a chance to look over the land and pick your claim.”
I asked how I could pick and file a claim. He said, “You will find surveyor’s stakes with numbers on them. Copy these numbers and bring them to me. I will tell you what to do.”
When I got back to the hotel and told my wife of the interview, she suggested we rent a place in town until I had a chance to carry out his suggestions. When I asked the clerk if he knew of any house we could rent, he did not answer but went to the door and yelled, “Hi, Hank, do you want to rent your house?” There was an inflection in his voice that fell a little short of respect.
When Hank came into the room he was such a typical cowboy, in a business suit, that nothing he wore seemed to fit. When he saw our covered wagon, he said, “Another damn homesteader!” Then, seeing my sister Mary, he said, “Pardon, please. I will get my horse, so follow me.”
When he rode in sight I could not believe that this was the same man. His sombrero and riding grace lent alertness and charm to his face. As I backed my team from the hitching rail, he keenly observed every detail. Then he put his horse into a lazy lope and crossed the street ahead of us. It was done so effortlessly that one felt the horse and man were one. My sister said, “Look, there goes Pan.”
There were two trunks and three very heavy suitcases, plus my carpenter’s tool chest. Hank sat on his horse and watched as the girls tried to help with this back-aching work. Not once did he offer to help or even dismount. The glances the girls cast his way seemed to say, “If you are half a man, you will get off that horse and help,” which had no effect on Hank. When the unloading was done, he swung his horse into that effortless lope and was gone.
I drove to the back of the house, where I could give the contents of the wagon a thorough inspection, and got a great surprise. In a long chest attached to the wagon box I found nearly every kind of tool that a homesteader would need. I was so shocked I felt like an intruder. I had not bargained for these, and it was some time before I could feel they were really mine, but I had bought the outfit, so I was the winner.
There on the cot were the seller’s badly worn overalls, where he had thrown them when changing for his trip East. Hanging from the bows of the covered wagon were his cooking utensils, which we had seen before. Back of the wagon seat he had built a cupboard that held his groceries. At this point I called the girls, for I knew they would be interested. There they found, in addition to salt and pepper, remnants of coffee, lard, flour, and sugar, but no bread, so we came to the conclusion that his had been a sourdough existence and a lonely one. The fact that he was a bachelor was proven when we found a can of Durham tobacco and two discarded pipes among the groceries.
Once the girls got started on their exploration, no one could stop them until they had done a thorough job. In the pocket of his discarded overalls they found a crumpled letter from a mother to her son, full of pathos and solicitation that he return to civilization at Elmira, New York. That was our first information of who he was or his destination.
“The rule is, as long as a man stays mounted, he can carry his guns.”
Under the cot they found a pair of badly worn shoes and socks in need of mending, which seemed to touch a hidden chord in their feminine hearts. My sister asked, “Was he good looking and smart?” I said, “How would I know! He at least didn’t wear a beard and was not a cripple.”
The feeling that this was my lucky day, where everything I did turned my way, was still very strong. Beginning with the team I had bought, the best I had ever owned, and the chest of tools I had found, there was good ground for believing there was such a thing as luck.
That night, with the help of the food from the cupboard in the covered wagon, the girls got supper. I don’t recall what we had, but it tasted good, for we were nearly exhausted by the work and the excitement of the day.
The next morning I got up early to look after the horses. Hank came riding out of the stable as soon as he saw me.
He said, “Why don’t you get out of Kansas, and leave this range country to us!” I asked, “Who do you mean by us?” He said, “Listen, mister. I was born on a ranch, and I’m telling you in advance, the cards are stacked against you homesteaders. You haven’t got a Chinaman’s chance to win.”
When I asked why, he said, “Grasshoppers and drought are two reasons, but there are others.” When I asked what, he said, “A thousand head of cattle stampeding through your crops.” I said, “What about the law?” He said, “Law to stop a stampede? Our legislators aren’t that dumb. They know cattle can’t read. You clodhoppers from the East have a lot to learn about Kansas, and the West, and I for one don’t wish you luck.”
Then he surprised me by saying, “I noticed you unloaded a carpenter’s chest. If you are a carpenter, we need you here.”
That afternoon the girls and I walked the short distance to the river and picked out the location of our garden. We discovered that our neighbors on either side were using their back lots for picnic dinners, and there were benches and tables along the path to the river. So we decided to spend our Sundays there as long as we stayed in Great Bend.
The next day, at the crack of dawn, I was on my way to locate a claim and gather buffalo bones for the market. I followed the Santa Fe Trail to Duncan’s Ranch, then turned north as directed. Before I reached Pawnee Creek, I found so many bones I could have had a lot easily, but left them for my trip back to save hauling them both ways. When I forded the creek, I found the most beautiful prairie land I had yet seen, and the surveyor’s stakes were there as the agent had said. It was now about noon, so I ate my lunch and began loading bones for my trip home. They were so plentiful I could count at least a dozen buffalo skeletons from where I stood.
I had a full load before I was halfway home. When they were weighed they brought $7.00, more than twice the prevailing price for a man and team.
The following morning I was on my way early and decided to drive directly to the same location over the open prairie instead of taking the Duncan Ranch route, which would shorten the distance by ten miles or more and give me a chance to explore the territory I had found north of Pawnee Creek, where I had decided to pick a claim.
As I drove along the creek I found nothing more suitable than the place where I had forded the creek the day before, so I copied the numbers on the stakes before eating my lunch. It was not yet noon, so I spent an hour looking the land over before starting back. The wagon was empty, but the bones were so plentiful I could load any time I desired. I took it very leisurely, loading only those most handy, yet I had a full load by early afternoon, while yet ten miles from home. When they were weighed in they brought $8.60. And best of all, I had the surveyor’s numbers I could turn in to the homestead office.
The next morning I decided to plow my garden. When Hank saw me, he said “Getting ready to play in the dirt? I thought you had a better occupation as a carpenter.” I said, “It’s my sideline. Why the interest, Hank? Are you going to restrict the size of my garden? I only need an acre or two.” He said, “What in hell is an acre! We measure things in miles out here. Take all you want. It’s only wasteland to me.”
By six o’clock the garden was ready for planting our table vegetables. After supper the girls and I laid out the rows and began the planting. It was a pleasure, for it eased the tension to have things growing.
When I went to the homestead office the next morning, the agent said, “All these figures are in Range 23, north of Pawnee Creek and out of my jurisdiction. You will have to file these claims with Mr. Hunter at Hays City.” I asked how far it was to Hays City. He answered that by saying, “I see you have started a garden.” I said, “Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question about Hays City. My only interest is to file a claim.” Sensing my anxiety, he said, “I think I can save you the trip by wiring Hunter to reserve the claim for you.” I asked, “How long would it take? It’s already late to plant a crop.” He said, “If I appear to be delaying you, it’s for your good, so trust me and you will not be sorry. Mr. Hunter is as anxious as you and I to see that the homesteader gets a fair deal. Filing a claim is not what is important, but that you stay long enough to prove up on it and get your deed at the end of five years. It is only then that you become a taxpaying citizen of the state, which is our main object.
“It’s rumored that you are a carpenter. If I had your team and occupation, I would consider I was master of the situation and stay right here. Don’t worry about the claim. I give you my word that Mr. Hunter will reserve it for you. All you need to worry about is, Have you the stamina to become one of us? This is not a season’s game but for life, and we need you as much as you need us.”
This interview gave me a new perspective, and I knew he was right. After that we settled down to routine and order in our life.
Now that we had decided to wait and gamble with fate, I put my work on routine by taking Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for hauling bones and the alternate days for carpenter work. I was doing very well and making many friends, so I felt I had little to worry about. When we left for Kansas, we had told our friends to send all mail to Ellinwood. It was now the middle of May and we had received no mail, so we decided to drive to Ellinwood, pick up what was there, and leave a forwarding address. There I found mail from back in April. My sister confessed that when she and Susie were visiting the town that first day, she had gone back to the post office and told the clerk to hold all mail until he heard from us. Then she said, “I think he’s cute, don’t you? Besides, he told me he’s from Pennsylvania too.”
When I told him where to forward our mail, she said, “All but mine. I will call for that personally.” I said,“How can you? We are fifteen miles away.” My wife gave me a nudge with her elbow and said, “She likes that clerk and she will find a way. ”
When we went back to the main floor, I discovered a leak at one of the windows, so I got my tools and fixed it. I felt I owed that much for the offhand favors Hank had done us.
We found our garden had not suffered but seemed to have taken on new vigor as though it had been waiting all this time to quench its thirst.
I was anxious to show my wife the claim I had chosen. So the following Sunday she prepared a picnic lunch, and we drove to the location. When we reached the vicinity of the claim, I could see that my wife was very pleased. We found a shady spot under a cottonwood tree by the creek and ate our lunch. Then we left the children with my sister while we did a little exploring. When we got back, we found that she had put the children to sleep on a blanket and was almost asleep herself.
When I asked my sister if she would like to live here, she said, “The great open spaces are exclusively for men. A girl seeks civilization where her feminine graces get attention.” I asked my wife how she felt about it. She said, “Love thrives on isolation, so I have no hesitation in moving here.” I said, “You girls seem to have gone romantic. If this location is the inspiration, I am a lucky man.”
When we got ready to leave, we forded the creek and drove south to the Santa Fe Trail at Duncan’s Ranch. This was a large stockade built by the government to protect wagon trains from Indian attack back in 1849. It was built of logs set in the ground and was about twelve feet high, with no roof, and was large enough to hold twenty wagons or more with portholes breast high for small-arms fire. It fairly reeked with romance, and the girls found great delight in copying the hundreds of names they found inside, most of them cut in the logs with a knife.
One read, “Joe Weller, died of arrow wound 1852.” Others read, “Jean married Fred June 8, 1856 [no surname],” and “Baby born to Abe and Mary Wilson July 6, 1861.” There were also just names with no date, like Kit Carson, Jim Raider, Cody, Hickok, Fremont, and many, many others.
My work became so routine that it left little to record. In June my sister brought her boyfriend to meet us. We found him very likable, well educated, and a teacher who worked in the post office between times. When she saw how well we liked him, he became a frequent guest at our Sunday dinners by the river. On November 7, 1877, they were married. His name was Isaac Graf f Seltzer, and he was of old Pennsylvania Dutch stock that put stress on education and thrift without show. His motto was: Don’t guess but know.
When he told me there was a good opening in Ellinwood for me and the team, I did not question his judgment but got ready to leave Great Bend. First I had to see Hank and tell him we were leaving. I also felt I owed him something from the garden, but doubted that he would take it. So I put a twenty-dollar bill in an envelope marked, “Thanks for sending carpenter prospects to me.” He read it and said, “Don’t thank me, for you see you haven’t got a claim yet.” I said, “Thanks just the same, Hank. I already have my claim. You are so blinded by your conceit you are completely out of touch with reality. Better luck next time, Hank, but don’t try it on anyone from Pennsylvania.”
My next stop was at the homestead office, where I was assured that the claim I had chosen was reserved for me by Mr. Hunter and all I needed to do was go to Hays City and file it.
Then, after wishing me the best of luck, he handed me an open letter addressed to Mr. Hunter, which read, “I have known Mr. Trimm for nine months and can vouch for his integrity and ability. The rest I leave to you. Signed, Thomas Thornton, U.S. Homestead Office, Great Bend, Kansas.” At the bottom he had added the P.S., “Any favors shown this man, Bill, is a favor to your old friend Thor.”
I felt proud of this letter and vowed that I would be loyal to their trust.
There were other reasons I wanted to move to Ellinwood besides being near my sister. It had a doctor, where Great Bend had none. Winter was coming soon, and I had to have shelter for the horses and a steady job. But most of all, Mary had become so much a part of our home that we felt lost without her, and Susie wanted to be with her during the winter. So we drove to Ellinwood to inspect the job.
We found it better than we expected, thanks to my brother-in-law’s thoroughness. A man who did most of the freight hauling for the town needed an extra team to take care of his Friday and Monday rush over the Christmas season. When he saw my team, he made me this offer: he would stable the horses and furnish the hay and give me three dollars a day for the two days he needed them. I was to furnish the grain and care for the team. All the rest of the week I could use them as I pleased, and what I earned would be mine.
When I asked if he knew where I could find a house, he asked, “How many children?” Then he said, “If you are I. G. Seltzer’s brother-in-law, I have a place I can show you. It’s a sod house but comfortable.”
I paid him a month’s rent, and after telling my brother-in-law our decision and thanking him for his help, we left for Great Bend to get ready to move.
As we drove along the Santa Fe Trail, I said, “Do you know, I am disappointed that we have seen so little of the historical glamour of Kansas. It was only two years since Ouster and his men were massacred at Little Bighorn and the Indians forced to live on reservations, yet it is never mentioned in conversation. I haven’t seen even one man wearing a six-gun in a holster since I came to Kansas, so I feel cheated.” My wife said, “Forget it. We didn’t come here for adventure. You may not know it, but you’re badly in need of a haircut before we move to a new town.”
The next morning a neighbor whom we knew came over to say good-bye, and lent a hand in loading the harrow and plow. By noon we had bid farewell to a dozen or more who wished us well and expressed regrets that we were leaving.
When we got to Ellinwood, we found our quarters rather compact but not unpleasant. Freight hauling was heavy work, but I didn’t mind for it was only two days a week. My wife was very happy there, for she and my sister had much in common discussing their husbands and doing the shopping. The winter proved to be a mild one, with no snow until after Christmas.
On January 15, our sixth wedding anniversary, we drove to Great Bend to get information from Thornton about the best time to file our claim. He advised March 1 if the weather permitted.
When we reached Hays City on March 3, 1878, I went directly to the homestead office, where I met Mr. Hunter and gave him the letter that Mr. Thornton had given me. After reading it, he said, “Your claim is reserved for you. Come to the office early tomorrow and we will file it in your name.” Then he told me I could file on an extra 160 acres as a “Timber Culture Claim.” So on March 4 I filed for both as follows: Homestead, N. W. 4, Section 25, Township 20, Range 23 W. Timber Claim, S.W. 4, Township 20 S, Section 24.
This gave us 320 acres of virgin prairie soil that had never felt a plow. It would be hard to define what our feelings were, between elation and the realization of the tremendous task ahead.
Whatever it was, we were eager to get started.
I consulted with Mr. Hunter about what was most essential for a homesteader to take with him. He said, “Determination, imagination, and a willingness to forget civilization. A good gun and plenty of ammunition. But most of all, several rolls of tar paper.”
So far our claim was nothing but a mathematical equation that seemed to have no relation to the claim I had chosen. I said, “If this is my original claim, I can find it without a guide.” He said, “Go ahead if you are in a hurry, but the guide will be there to show you the lines and record your possession. You are our responsibility now, and we will do everything we can to help you.”
We were tired, but no day ended without family worship.
That night we stayed in Hays City and got an early start. We hadn’t gone far when we were overtaken by a man on horseback who said, “I am from the homestead office and am here to record your arrival and answer any questions you may have.”
About noon we came to a small stream, where I watered the horses and my wife got lunch over an open fire of buffalo chips. The man watched us closely, and when I said grace before eating, he removed his hat and held it in his hand. Then he said, “I admire a man who is loyal to his religion, whatever it may be. Personally, I am a Mormon.” Then, after congratulating my wife on her cooking, he remounted and led the way.
This territory was entirely new to us, an open, rolling prairie that seemed as endless as the sea. We had no idea of where we were until we forded a large stream, which he called Willow Creek. Then things seemed familiar to me, like the memory of a dream. I said to my wife, “I have a feeling I have been here.”
It wasn’t long before I sighted definite landmarks along Pawnee Creek. The guide drew alongside and said, “You people were a little seasick back there a ways. Don’t worry, that is a common reaction of Easterners on their first trip over these rolling plains. It will pass as soon as you begin to work.”
My wife asked about Indian raids. He said, “I don’t think you will be bothered. The bad ones have been put on reservations since the Custer massacre at Little Bighorn two and a half years ago, and the troops at Fort Larned do an excellent job patrolling this section.”
At about 4:00 P.M. he halted us and said, “You are on your own land, how do you like it? This is the homestead. ” Then he took some surveyor’s stakes from his saddlebags and, after studying a map, said, “This is the southwest corner of your timber claim. You are lucky, for they parallel each other, which gives you 320 acres, one half section, which means your farm will be a half-mile square.” He took time to mark the corners. Then after wishing us the best of luck, he left. As he disappeared over the first elevation, we felt little elation.
My wife said, “Let’s get to work.”
We had no home but the covered wagon. Our first and foremost obligation was to choose the location for our house. So I started at the stake that marked the western boundary of our homestead and drove east along the creek to the eastern border, searching every nook for a suitable location. Before I had finished I was appalled at the vastness of our possession and the work that lay ahead to make it a home.
I ran the furrow straight north into the open prairie.
We chose a spot about a hundred feet back from the creek. That night, after I had picketed out the horses and we had eaten our supper cooked over an open fire, we began our discussion of how large the sod house should be, the decision being mostly left up to me as I had the work to do. We settled on a house twenty by twenty-four feet.
It was now evening. The children were in bed and we were very tired, but to us no day was finished without family worship. Our Bible was packed in our trunk, so we recited the Twenty-third Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd.… He leadeth me beside the still waters…”
The next morning I was up at dawn and unloaded my plow and harrow and had my horses harnessed by the time my wife had breakfast ready. I started plowing at the creek and ran the furrow straight north into the open prairie for a distance of one hundred and fifty rods, then turned east for a distance of a hundred feet, then back to the creek, leaving an island of buffalo grass one hundred feet wide and one-third of a mile long.
When I completed the trip, I saw that the horses were very tired. Then I realized that the garden I had plowed at Great Bend had been plowed before and that the virgin buffalo grass was a much tougher job.
As we were eating our dinner, my wife said, “I like this idea of an island. It’s romantic and so appropriate in this sea of grass. This will be our love domain and we will defend it against any intrusion by nature or man.”
During the afternoon I plowed two more rounds, and as the horses showed the strain, I turned them loose.
Then we marked the location of our house and staked it out.
The next morning at the break of day I was awakened by the smell of coffee cooking and found that Susie had breakfast ready. Then I got the horses harnessed before we ate.
I said hurry and get the children ready, it’s a long trip. She said, “No, I’m staying here.” I said, “You can’t stay here alone.” She said, “Why not? I will have your guns, so don’t worry. There will be no one to molest me, but if there were I can shoot as straight as you.” I knew then that if we failed, it would not be her fault.
I had an early enough start so that I could gather a load of bone on the way, which I did, and when I reached Ellinwood at about one o’clock they brought eight dollars, which helped a lot on the expenses.
I went first to my sister’s house. It was a surprise, but she got me a hearty lunch. Then I drove to the lumberyard for my load. It didn’t take long, as I had a list of everything I needed.
Then I drove to Seltzer’s, where they loaded me down with books and magazines, which we sorely needed. It was now four o’clock, and they insisted that I stay all night and get an early start next morning.
I had brought toys and candy for the children, which kept them happy while we browsed through the magazines and read the letters I had brought from the post office at Ellinwood. The rest of the day was spent in planning the house I was to build.
It was decided that I would put up the frame, and after the roof and sides were covered with tar paper, we would move in and leave the sodding for later.
The measurements for the framing had been true, and the work went fast. By the first of April we moved in.
I discovered that when the sod was removed, you could shovel this loamy soil as easily as though it was sand. So we decided to excavate to a depth of eighteen inches to give us more headroom.
I used for a foundation two 2- by 6-inch pine planks spiked together and laid flat. That left a two-inch projection beyond the two- by four-inch studding, which after excavation would be a shelf to nail to, eighteen inches above the dirt floor, and would be the basis for built-in benches or a table. We had little furniture except what I could build from any scrap of lumber. The cot and cupboard that came with the wagon helped.
Then we had an unexpected visit from the homestead agent, who congratulated us on the progress we were making. After offering some timely suggestions, he surprised us by saying, “I’ve brought you some neighbors. It’s the Ditton family that has taken a claim five miles up the creek. They’re from Ohio, and I’m sure you’ll like them. They have three sons and a daughter.”
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.
About noon the next day, the agent from Hays City drove in with a load of hay and two bags of seed corn with a tag on them which said, “Compliments from Mr. Hunter.” I asked how extensive the damage had been, and he said it was a strip about fifteen miles wide and seventy long. It’s early in the season and Mr. Hunter hopes you’ll replant. I told him about the Dittons, and he said he was on his way there with the rest of the load. “You people are our charges and we don’t forget.”
The next day I ran the harrow over the cornfield and began replanting it.
Our greatest worry now was drought. There had been but one rain storm since we came, and that was rather light compared with the one in Great Bend. We needed it so badly to start the grass growing that it almost became a prayer. Like most worries, this one proved groundless. In a couple of days we awoke to find a heavy bank of clouds in the West, and there was a stillness in the air as though all nature held its breath. Then came the deluge as though all the reservoirs of the heavens were turned loose. But the most frightening of all was the wall of water and debris that filled the creek. We marveled at its volume and force.
A large tree with all its branches was floating crazily near our shore, so I got a rope, took off my clothes, and swam in to anchor it. After I had it safely snubbed to a big cottonwood on the shore, I called to my wife to bring me my ax and some picket rope. As soon as the tree was stable enough to stand on, I began cutting off the limbs while she stood on the shore and floated them in. We discovered that the tree was about two feet thick at the butt and would give us wood for the winter, which we needed.
The rain had washed the grass clean of the grasshopper odor and given it new life.
The rain had also given us new confidence, with the fear of drought driven from our minds. Most of the plowing was done. All it needed for replanting was sowing and harrowing, which to a farmer is a minor task. So great was our enthusiasm after the rain that I decided to plow the strip between the long furrows, uniting the two, which would give me several additional acres under cultivation.
If luck is merely wise decision, as I believe, then I was both wise and lucky in that decision, for while plowing I struck the only stone I had found on my claim. I was so curious that I got my spade and dug it out. It was about four inches thick and two feet in length, dull yellow in color. I discovered one could cut it with a knife, as there was no sand or grit in it. I was no mineralogist, so I called it soapstone. What intrigued me was the possibility I could see for sculpture, and the things I could whittle out to amuse the children. After I got it to the house I started looking along the creek to see if I could find others like it, which I did. But exposure to sun and air had hardened and colored them until they looked like ordinary stone. Seeing this, I got old bags and sod and covered the piece I had found until the time I could use it, which would be in my leisure after work. But like any dreamer, I often found that my mind was toying with the possibilities under that little mound.
The first thing I whittled out was a prairie dog for the girl. And crude as it was, she recognized it instantly, and called it her doggie-town doll. Which encouraged me to do more.
By six o’clock the excavation was done.
It was about June 1 when the agent from the homestead office called and said, “You will have new neighbors soon. A man by the name of Cornell has filed on a claim about seven miles up the creek. They have two children, a boy, seven, and a girl, three. I hope you like them.” Then he touched his lip and smiled, which I took to mean that Cornell was a boaster.
About a week later Cornell rode up and introduced himself by saying, “I’m your new neighbor, and I’m here to stay.” Then he took a new Winchester rifle from his saddle holster and said, “No damn Indian or rancher can drive me out.” Then he handed me the gun and watched to see my reaction. I said, “It’s a beautiful gun all right, but it’s the man behind the gun that’s important.”
The next time I saw Ditton, I asked if he had seen the new neighbor. He said, “Yes! His name is Winchester, isn’t it?” From that day on, Cornell was “Winchester” to us. We found he was a good neighbor as long as one stimulated his ego, otherwise he was sullen.
About July 1 we noticed a strange glow in the sky to the northwest. It seemed many miles away, so we saw no cause to worry. When morning came there was a haze where the glow had been. There seemed no hazard, so we gave it little attention. At noon it looked more threatening, and we watched it closely. By 3:00 P.M. we could see it clearly, a prairie fire coming our way. I had a twenty-furrow barrier between the prairie and our island, so our interest was more curiosity than fear. As a precaution I brought the horses in and tied them to the wagon. Then we watched as the fire crept slowly toward us. Suddenly the wind changed and seemed to be blowing toward the fire, and the horses became very restless, so I took them to the middle of the creek and tied them to the big log. When I got back I realized that the change in the wind was an updraft from the heat, and the only thing to do was backfire. I got a twelve-foot two-by-four, tied burlap bags on it, and poured kerosene on, and with this torch started the backfire.
The heat and smoke were stifling. Then Susie called and said the roof of our house was on fire. I looked at it and saw it was just the dry grass from the sod we had put on it and was soon gone with no damage done. But to make sure I threw water on it in case there was a spark burning in the roots.
When the fire reached Pawnee Creek and my backfire, it died. That evening we watched as it headed for Willow Creek and its demise. The next morning we drove to the Dittons to see how they fared. When we found them safe, we decided to drive to Ellinwood and spend the Fourth of July with the Seltzers.
They were half expecting us, they said, and showed us a wonderful time. The Fourth was a holiday, and after watching the Civil War veterans parade, we settled down to a visit, which was refreshing to us after the weeks of isolation.
The next day we left early for our trip home. When we got there we found four antelope feeding on the grass in our island, which had not been burned over by the prairie fire. When they saw us they ran. My wife said, “Help yourselves. It was yours before you ever saw a man.”
The next morning I got up early to see if they had done any damage to the crops. An antelope sprang to its feet and started to run. I killed it with a single shot. When I threw it across my shoulders to bring it to the house, two little fawns rose from the grass and followed. They were so wobbly on their feet I had to slow my pace. Then I knew I had killed their mother.
When I got home I hung her up, but the fawns would not leave. They walked in circles beneath her as though pleading for attention. When my wife saw them, she said, “The poor little things are hungry.” Then I saw she was crying.
When we tried to go near them they would shy away and return to the mother. Our little girl came out and walked over and began petting the mother, while the fawns crowded around her unafraid, as though seeking a friend. Susie said, “I have an idea.” Then she brought a dish of milk and gave it to our daughter with instructions to put her hand in the dish and then let them suck her fingers. Soon they were drinking from it, but no one else could feed them. Before the day was over, all the little girl had to do was sit near the mother, rattle the dish, and they would come.
That night we let them sleep in the house, at the foot of the girl’s trundle bed. Twice my wife filled the dish and by morning it was empty. The big question was what they would do when we let them out. My wife said, “I was right once. We’ll try it again.” She got the girl to sit near the mother with a pan of milk before we opened the door to let them out, and as before it worked.
They grew rapidly but never lost interest in their adopted family. Every night they slept at the foot of our daughter’s bed and would accept no other place. They were early risers and would go to the door and stamp their feet for their daily pan of milk and to be let out. They were so mischievous they had to be watched constantly or they would drive you crazy. One of their favorite tricks was to grab hold of a sheet from our daughter’s bed and run for the door. If they didn’t get tangled in it, we were seldom quick enough to catch them. They seemed to think that anything belonging to her was as much theirs as hers, particularly her slippers and dolls.
They soon learned that the rattle of a dish meant food and became so clever at it that they hunted for dishes to rattle, even knocking them off the table. For exercise they took long runs on the prairie. Whenever we missed them, all we had to do was drum on a pan and they would return, to get the tidbits they enjoyed.
As soon as they lost interest in where the mother was hanging, I dressed her out, but none of us felt we could eat the meat, so I gave it to the Dittons. After I tanned the hide I made moccasins for the children from it as keepsakes, but chiefly, I think, because they needed them.
As soon as the young antelope started eating grass as their main diet, they developed rapidly, and their hoofs became so sharp it was not safe to leave them alone with the children. After a month or so they preferred to sleep outside, and you would find them near the horses as though seeking companionship. They were not timid with women at any time, but they developed an aversion to men.
Early in July the weather became unbearably hot. Even the wind that blew continuously was like a breath from a furnace and gave no relief as in the East. It was one hundred degrees in the shade, if you could find it. But Kansas being minus shade, it became torture. Work, no matter how urgent, was impossible. Then we learned what was meant by “stifling” heat. Our only diversion was in watching the heat fairies dancing over the open plain, a sight we had never seen before. In our misery we prayed that it was a sign of rain.
The season had advanced to where I would need to sow my buckwheat if I was to have a crop. I could do it in a couple of days if the weather would cool. But most of all we needed rain.
Shortly after the middle of July we got another rain. It was not a torrent like the other had been, but it did wonders for the crops. Best of all, it gave us confidence and hope in the future and courage to carry on.
The two playful antelope were such a diversion, too, that they helped us forget our isolation. The two Dillon children, ages seven and thirteen, rode over nearly every day to play with them. Evenings and Sundays their parents came.
As the news spread, strangers whom we had never seen came to verify the reports that we had tamed antelope as pets.
One day while I was plowing I saw a man on horseback approaching. When he got near the house he dismounted, and as he did he fell. When he got back on his feet he held on to the saddle while he took the bridle from his horse and began beating the ground. I thought I knew what had happened, so I left my plowing and hurried to the house. When I got there, he was sitting on the dirt floor, squeezing the blood from a knife wound in the calf of his leg. Susie said, “Go get Mrs. Ditton. This man has been bitten by a rattlesnake.” He gave her a smile, and said, “Never mind, I’m all right.” Then my wife told me what he had done. When he saw he was bitten, he had taken his knife and cut the wound in two directions and asked her to get water and clean cloth for a bandage. Then he asked if we had any whiskey. When he found we had none, he said, “Iodine will do.”
After the wound was cleaned and bandaged, he told me why he fell. The snake’s fangs had hit a nerve. But they had missed a blood vessel, so he would be all right. Then he inquired about the antelope. We brought them in, and after looking at them he said, “It’s really true.” Then he asked me to get his horse and bring it to the door. When I asked if he needed help he said, “No, thank you,” and left. I could see he was no stranger to Kansas or its environs.
My crops were doing well, and I was waiting for September to sow my winter wheat. The weather was still hot, so I took to gathering bones at a more leisurely pace, driving out one day for a load and taking them to town the next morning. That gave me nights at home—and Susie a chance to go with me if she wished.
One evening I uncovered the stone I had found, and sawed off a chunk, eight by ten inches, from which I carved a book. When it was finished, it was very realistic. When my wife saw it, she said, “Give it to me.” She took shoe polish and covered the front and back, which left the leaves yellow. To make it more convincing, I took a darning needle and scraped a crevice large enough to hold a bookmark. It looked so real that anyone could be fooled. But it didn’t have a title, so I took my knife and scraped off the polish for the letters Holy Bible . I admit it was neither original nor inspired, but I was rather proud of the workmanlike quality. From then on I discovered the artistic possibility of the stone and had a lot of fun.
I was anxious to start building my barn, so I decided that it would save time to dig into the bank twenty feet and use the poles I had bought as rafters for the roof, then covering them with tar paper and sod. Seltzer had said he would come and help any time I was ready, so the last time I was in Great Bend with a load of bones, I sent him a card saying I would be ready August 12.
That night, as my wife and I lay awake and listened to the coyote howl and discussed the things we would tell them when they came, she cuddled close and said, “There’s something you don’t know. I’m going to have another baby.” It was such a surprise I don’t know to this day whether my reaction was of fear or joy.
The antelope slept at the foot of our daughter’s bed.
Then she said, “I wonder when it will be Mary’s turn. She’s such a wholesome, jolly girl, she won’t be afraid, and I’m sure she’s anxious for it to happen.”
When they arrived early Friday morning after driving most of the night, we sensed that they had something they wanted to tell us. After breakfast, I.G. (as we always called him) and I got busy with our work. After about an hour I said, “Go ahead and tell the great secret back of that grin.” He said, “All right, I will. Mary is going to have a baby. But don’t tell her I told you. She reserved that right for herself.” When I laughed, he said, “What’s funny!” I said, “Just this, I.G. For once I can match you. Susie is going to have a baby too. He said, “When did you find out?” I told him, “Last night.” He said, “What a coincidence. Mary told me on our way out.”
Now that we had this off our chests, the work seemed to go much faster, and by noon we had made big inroads in the excavation. When the girls called us for dinner, we were ready for a rest. I think both of us felt a little guilty at having revealed their secrets. Mary’s greeting was, “I.G., you’ve told him.” He said, “What makes you think that?” She said, “By the smug expression on both your faces!”
Everything went well. There was little snow, and we found the sod house very warm and comfortable. The wood I had cut from the log that had floated in was more than sufficient to keep us warm. My crops were better than I expected, so we had plenty of potatoes, cornmeal, and buckwheat for pancakes, but the wheat was a disappointment due to the continuation of the drought.
I.G. told me that a man had come to the store late in November and said, “I understand the man who has the two pet antelope is a relative of yours. If so, tell him he can get a good price for them at the zoo.” I said, “Tell him I have nothing to sell. They are pets because they know they are free. I would not betray their trust or sell their freedom for any price.” Whether or not he was the man who had been bitten by the snake, we never knew. The one thing we were sure of was that the antelope gave us diversion when it was most needed, and we felt deeply in their debt.
I will never forget a day in September when a change of wind brought the tumbleweed. The horses were so scared I had to tie them in the unfinished barn. But the antelope fairly danced with joy as though someone had handed them a new toy. They ran races with the windblown weed, and when they won they danced ecstatically as though waiting for applause.
We slept under the wagon; I can’t recall being uncomfortable.
As we watched them, we laughed so hard that all our worries were forgotten. From that day on we lost our fear of isolation, for being close to nature was an awakening to the fact that civilization is a violation of every law of creation.
From then on through the winter my wife was very cheerful, and we were truly happy. The wind still blew, and the coyotes howled, but we were used to it and didn’t mind.
Our first snow came early in January. The wind had changed to the northwest, and it became very cold. The sky was overcast, but the first we saw of the snow was a white mass creeping along over the prairie very much like fog over a lake. I put the horses in the barn and went to the house, where Susie and I could watch. When it reached us, it seemed to be coming from the ground. There were no individual flakes, just a swirling white mass pushed along by a wind so fast it had no time or place to land.
I said, “Well, that will end the drought at least.” When it was over, in about an hour, we were surprised to see how little there was on the ground. My wife said, “If that’s a Kansas snowstorm, you can excuse me!”
We had two other little flurries between then and spring, but there seemed to be little moisture in them.
There was one thing that worried me. If I was to stay long enough to prove up on my claim, I had to have a heavier team to do the plowing. Our situation became our main topic of discussion, and we decided to stay.
The man that I had bought the barn poles from, on Willow Creek, and his son had each taken a homestead and a timber claim, and were doing extensive farming with oxen. I had my pick from three yokes, all very heavy and well trained.
They fell in love with my team and were anxious to make a trade. When I saw that the horses would be well treated, I decided to let them go. They offered to give me $100 and the oxen for my team. When I hesitated, they raised it to $125. We closed at $140 cash, plus my harnesses, for their oxen and yoke.
I was anxious to get to work plowing with my new team, and when I did, I found them very efficient. They could work all day without resting, and I had great dreams of what I could do with them.
By the first of April I had run the harrow over the ground I had cultivated the year before, and everything was moving along fine. Susie, though heavy with child, was cheerful and suffered no pain.
I knew that without horses, gathering bones was impossible, and was almost glad, for now I could concentrate on farming. I planned to cultivate at least sixty acres in addition to the twenty that I had plowed the year before. If the season was favorable I would be far ahead financially. So I worked with almost feverish haste. My only worry was lack of rain. There hadn’t been any all spring except a short sleet storm in March.
One evening I came in for supper and found Susie crying. I said, “What’s the matter, dear, are you in pain?” She said, “No, it’s nothing worth mentioning. If I could only see a hill or a tree or if that wind would stop blowing, I would be all right.” The next morning she said with a smile, “I was just lonely, I guess.”
I knew she was worried about her condition, but she never mentioned it again until the fourteenth of April.
There was a heavy bank of clouds gathering in the west and the sky was overcast. It looked as though we would get the first substantial rain of the season, which we had prayed for so fervently.
When I came in for supper, she had it ready, and was happy with the prospect of rain. About an hour after supper she said, “I don’t feel too well.” I asked if I should get Mrs. Ditton. She said, “It will pass. It’s not labor pains, just a false alarm, so let it go until morning.” At eight o’clock it was getting quite dark, and by nine o’clock she said, “Go get Mrs. Ditton. I’m going to need her.”
So I started. I could save time by going over the open prairie rather than following the creek. I was in a desperate hurry, so I took the chance. The night was so dark you couldn’t see a thing, not a star or a tree to guide you. After an hour I realized that I was totally lost. Then I tried to find my way back, but by this time I was so bewildered that I lost all sense of direction. Then I tried to circle, which only added to my confusion, mixed with a terrible feeling of guilt that somehow I had neglected the one person who loved and trusted me and that she might be dying because of it. I had stood at her side at every birth and knew how desperately she was suffering.
At about five o’clock I saw a light and headed for it. It was the Ditton place. When they heard my story they saddled a horse and Mrs. Ditton and I rode double, back to my place. We had no idea what we would find, but we feared the worst.
Mrs. Ditton went into action immediately. She examined the umbilical cord and found it successfully tied. Then came her examination of Susie, and the bed, which was not badly soiled. Then she said to Susie, “Don’t try to tell us now what happened, we can wait. The main thing is to get some rest.” Then she put her hand on Susie’s head and said, “You did a wonderful job. Now it’s my turn, so go to sleep and leave the rest to me.”
Late that afternoon Susie told us her story. “After you left, I got everything ready for the birth, which I knew was imminent, and I knew you’d be back soon with Mrs. Ditton. As the pains grew more frequent, I put a light in the window as a guide to hasten your coming.
“When an hour had passed and you had not come, I built a fire in the stove and put the kettle on, and still you didn’t come. I called the little girl to me and said, ‘I may get very sick before Daddy comes, but don’t be scared, for he is bringing Mrs. Ditton and everything will be all right.’
“When another hour passed and you still had not come, I realized that something must have happened, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be. As my pains increased, so did my worry about you. Then came the horrible realization that I had to face this thing alone. First I got scissors and thread and placed them in easy reach. By that time I could not stifle my moans, so I told the little girl to get on her cot and cover her head, and if I called to pretend not to hear, for I would be in bed. Then I got two picket ropes and tied them to the post at the foot of the bed. By this time I could stand no longer.
“What happened from then on is rather vague. Except once, when I was pulling on the ropes in my greatest pain, I thought I saw you standing by the bed holding my hands as you always had before. This image stayed with me until after the head was born. With the easing of the pain I may have dropped to sleep, but if I did the cry of the baby brought me wide awake, and I instinctively knew what I had to do, and God gave me the strength to do it. The next thing that I remember was when you and Mrs. Ditton came into the room, and how glad I was to see you.
“I don’t know if I nursed the baby or not, all I knew was that the nurse was here and I could sleep.”
After listening to Susie’s story, Mrs. Ditton gave her a bath, and asked me to ride over on her horse and have her family come and see the baby. “Tell them I will have supper ready when they come.”
That night as we sat talking, our little girl said, “Do you know, Daddy, Mama got awful sick last night and told me to get on the cot and cover up my head, and when I woke up a good fairy had brought us a cute little baby.” Mrs. Ditton picked her up and gave her a hug and said, “You were right about the fairy, and her name is ‘predestination.’”
After we all had seen the baby, we wondered if it might be the first white child to be born in Township 20S. As my possession covered one-fourth of it, there is no doubt about being first.
My wife’s greatest worry seemed to be for Mary and the lack of news concerning her. Then on the eighteenth we got a surprise visit from I.G., who said Mary had had a baby girl on the twelfth, and they had named her Minerva. When he saw our boy, he said, “Twin cousins! What a coincidence! But I beat you by three days.” When he saw how well Susie looked, he said, “I see you had good care too.” Susie said, “Yes, there’s no better nurse than Mrs. Ditton.” I took the hint and didn’t tell him of our experience.
I asked him to tell me the latest prediction on the drought. He said, “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t sound good. They are asking the farmers to make potatoes their main money crop, as they stand the best chance to survive the drought.” I had put myself in a spot where a good crop was my only salvation. That night I wrote Mr. Hunter a letter to confirm the rumor, which I.G. took to mail.
April went by without rain, and I was getting desperate, when the agent from the homestead office brought the reply to my letter. It read: “Dear Mr. Trimm: I am sending this letter by messenger who can explain the contents. The reports on the drought are not as favorable as we could wish, but we are keeping in touch with the government and they promise a solution if the drought is not broken soon.”
When I asked the agent if he had any idea what the solution would be, he said, “I assume it will be a leave from the claim to recuperate your losses without penalty.”
When I got in touch with the Dittons and told them what the agent had told me, he said, “To hell with it. I will go back to Ohio if it comes to that. But in the meantime I will have all the fun I can, and let the farming go.”
On June 1 we got the final decision of the government on relief for the homesteader. They would grant a year’s absence from the claim providing one returned for a day during that time and filed a report of it in the homestead office. We could go back to Great Bend, return East, or do anything we chose for a year.
Deep in my heart I know our Kansas venture was no failure.
Again I called on Ditton for his decision, and when I found he had not decided, I made him a proposition. If he would furnish a team, and use my wagon, we would go fifty-fifty on hauling bones. It was a partnership we both enjoyed, and when he put his boys to work with his other team and wagon, he insisted on the partnership. The boys were satisfied, as it gave them extra money and a lot of fun. He and I both agreed that it was the most enjoyable and profitable experience we had had in Kansas.
Ditton and I continued hauling bones through July and August, except the days when the weather became too hot for man or beast. Early in September we decided to go to Hays City and have a talk with Mr. Hunter about the drought, and if there was no relief in sight we would put in our request for a year’s release, beginning November 1.
When I asked him about the timber claim, he said, “In this you are lucky. The government has suspended all planting of trees until after the drought, so you will get credit as though they were planted.” We both considered this very fair and vowed we would be back alter a year and give it another try.
Now that we had the government leave, it was a question of what to do with it. My wife and I talked it over, pro and con, and decided we could go back to Pennsylvania for at least a visit, and if things became more favorable we could return. The more we thought about it, the greater our desire grew to see our friends in the East. The question was what to take and what to leave. With Ditton and Cornell going, as I was sure they would, that left no one within twelve miles to guard what we left. So we decided to take as much as we could to Ellinwood and sell or store it.
We put the cover back on the wagon, then loaded the trunks that held our personal belongings plus my carpenter’s tool chest, but left the stools and table I had made. On November 5, after saying farewell to the Dittons, who had come to see us off, I hitched my oxen to the wagon and started our long journey East.
We figured it would take three days to reach Ellinwood. We cooked our meals in the open over buffalo chips and slept wherever we preferred, in or out of the wagon. My wife and I preferred blankets on the ground under the wagon, with pillows for the nursing baby. I can’t recall that we were uncomfortable. The things that worried us most were uncertainty of the future and what to do when we got to Seltzer’s.
I.G. and Mary were surprised when we told them that we were going back East for a visit. Then they filled us in on the news we had missed. One item was that my three sisters had clubbed together and bought back the farm I had sold. So we had a place waiting for us where we would be very welcome.
When I told Seltzer I had decided to sell my oxen, he said, “Go over to the homestead office. I think he will buy your oxen.” At first the thought was repulsive, for I hadn’t forgotten our first meeting. I found him very cordial, and he promised to look them over. When he saw them he was greatly pleased and asked if he could also buy the wagon.
Then he told me that most of the people who buy railroad land come by train and have no team. He asked my price. I said, “Make me an offer.” He said, “$150.” Then I showed him the lucky plow and the took He raised his price $25, and we closed the deal at $175. Then he said, “That wagon is a godsend, as most of the people I sell to have no shelter until they build.”
That afternoon I drove to the depot, bought our tickets, and unloaded the baggage. Being in the money, I bought Pullman accommodations so Susie and the children could be comfortable on the long trip East.
The rest of the afternoon I spent delivering the oxen and wagon to the homestead office, then came back for a pleasant evening with the Seltzers. Our train was to leave at 6:30 the following morning, so they all came to the depot to see us off.
I got a good job, and time went by so rapidly that I could hardly believe it was time to report back on my claim. When I talked it over with my wife, she said, “Do whatever you think is right. I am perfectly contented here.”
When I got ready to go, I bought a ticket directly to Hays City, where I reported to Mr. Hunter. There I found that the Dittons and Cornell had left their claims, and the drought had not abated. He suggested that the agent and I ride out to the homestead, stay all night, and report back, and he would decide what there was to do.
You can’t imagine how desolate the place looked with all the neighbors gone.
When we got back to the homestead office and reported, Mr. Hunter said, “I will extend your leave for another year. Keep me posted on your address, and I will keep you posted on the drought and hope to see you back at that time.”
That night I caught a train for my Pennsylvania home. When the next year was up, I was so involved that I never did return.
Some may say our Kansas venture was a failure, but deep in my heart I know it was not. It taught us that contentment and peace of mind are man’s greatest achievement, and that adventure is but a fleeting pleasure without value or compensation, except in the recesses of memory, to be recalled when one reviews his life and is looking for the exciting moments. In that sense our experience was a great success.