Pioneer Life in Kansas, by Mary Barrett, 1912, Part 4

After a short time there were so many claims taken around Beloit that the homesteaders began to think they must make some provision for the education of their children, so the men in the various districts began to agitate the schoolhouse question. Before many years went by every few miles of the settlers’ territory boasted some kind of a schoolhouse; sometimes it was a dugout; sometimes sod or stone; rarely was it a frame building. In most cases a lot of the work was donated and at first the wages of the more or less (often less), competent school teacher would be paid by the patrons of the school.

As times were hard and money very scarce we could only have in those days, three or four months school in the year but somehow we managed to pick up some knowledge in books and oh, we learned so many things by experience!

They tell us that “experience” is the best of teachers but the homesteaders were glad indeed when, after a few years had rolled around, the one-room house that had given shelter so long to him and his had given way to a comfortable frame building with room enough to allow some degree of comfort. With the coming of better residences came better out-buildings, more and better farm machinery and consequently better crops and increased acreage.

The rude schools were replaced by neat frame buildings, undressed stone with clean walls, modern seats (pioneer seats were made mostly of slabs with legs stuck in holes bored in the four corners) and suitable school equipment.

Those early days were indeed hard days but they were not altogether void of pleasure. There were times when we gave ourselves over to having a “good time,” when, for a season at least, we forgot the difficulties of the strenuous life and really DID enjoy ourselves. One of these times was our Fourth of July celebration. In 1872, I think it was, we had grown so numerous that it was decided we ought to celebrate the Glorious Fourth and celebrate we did! Local talent furnished the music and everybody joined in the good times. Many of us had not bought a new dress or hat since leaving the East, but that kept none away. The girls, many of them, trimmed over old hats, did up nicely an old dress, and hied away early in order to get in a whole day’s fun! The styles of dress at that celebration were as varied as the wearers; the women and many of the girls wore sun bonnets and I saw an old fashioned “shaker” or two doing duty that day.

How our band did play! The instruments of music were a fife and drum! How proudly our flags waved! The large one was a homemade one that some of the women had made for the occasion and many smaller ones had been resurrected and procured in various ways. How proud we were of our procession and how patriotic we felt! Especially we children. We thought the popping of our firecrackers quite as important as had been the firing on Fort Sumter! And the fireworks! Never had we seen such a brilliant display, never did rockets go so high, nor appear so bright! It all seemed very grand then and I doubt if any who attended that celebration ever experienced the keen enjoyment again that the pioneer did on that long-to-be-remembered day!

 

 

Pioneer Life in Kansas, by Mary Barrett, 1912, Part 3

In the late fall of 1873, my father, my two brothers and some neighbors went about sixty miles west of where we lived, where buffalo were plenty and killed enough buffalo to make as much beef as could be hauled home in three wagons. I tell you, there was feasting when they got home! Many of us had not tasted meat for several months.

This meat was salted down in barrels and boxes, after the bone had been taken out, and the weather turning cold soon after, it was all frozen together in one solid mass. The cold spell continued till late in February and the only way we could get a buffalo roast or steak was to chop it out with an ax!

During the two grasshopper years many homesteaders became so utterly discouraged that they either sold out their right for almost nothing or abandoned their claim altogether and pulled out. Many, however, took advantage of the six months leave of absence and taking their families, would go far enough east to secure work and stay until the time was nearly up, then return and remain long enough to establish their residence, going off to work again. In this way a great many saved their land and tided over the hard times till enough land could be broken out and brought to a state of cultivation to enable them to remain permanently at home.

This state of affairs brought out a class other than the sturdy, burden-bearing pioneer, a class known as the claim jumpers. This class had come too late to secure the best claims, so they watched their chance and if an absent homesteader let the time pass when he should have been back on his land, one of these claim jumpers would be sure to take out contest papers and start a suit to gain the land. This contest business caused much trouble and there was even a murder or two as a result of it.

There were also some amusing incidents connected with claim jumping. At one time there lived near Beloit, a young man who had taken up a valuable claim on the Solomon River. After baching for a time, he concluded to go East and bring his sister out to keep house for him. Before he returned, a claim jumper had built a shack on a corner of the land and started a contest. When the young man and his sister arrived on the scene of action they were much perplexed to learn that their right to the land was being questioned. The homesteader went over to see the intruder, but he refused to leave and declared he would go on with the trial. As the young homesteader and nearly, if not quite, let his time run out, he was very much in fear of losing his valuable quarter section. The sister took a more cheerful view, however, and tried to comfort her brother by saying he would not lose his claim.

The young woman was a good shot and often went hunting along the banks of the Solomon. One day while the claim jumper was cutting cord wood, a bullet went zip! close by his head. He looked up to see through the bushes some distance away a woman with a gun. She did not seem, though, to be looking in his direction! Soon another bullet whizzed by and struck in the snow close beside the wood chopper. By this time the chopper, feeling it would be a little more healthy somewhere else, concluded to quit for the time. So sure was the claim jumper that the young woman was shooting at HIM that he had her arrested. When the young woman came to trial she came in bright and smiling and not a bit daunted. When asked if she shot at the wood chopper she declared she did not, but was shooting at a rabbit! So persistently did she stick to this statement that she was released. “I was not shooting at HIM,” she declared, pointing at the plaintiff. “I am a good enough shot to hit him, if I take a notion!” The claim jumper seemed to think the young woman MIGHT take a notion to shoot at HIM, so packed his grip and left for “parts unknown!”

Pioneer Life in Kansas, by Mary Barrett, 1912, Part 2

In 1873, we had what the old-timers call a “grasshopper” year. One day there came in sight, away to the southwest, a queer greyish-looking cloud. As it came nearer and got between us and the sun, it looked more curious still, and my mother made the remark to a neighbor who happened to be at our house, that this was the queerest looking rain-cloud she had ever seen. The neighbor looked up and exclaimed: “Why, that isn’t a rain cloud, that’s grasshoppers!” And

grasshoppers they were, as we found out to our sorrow, for what little vegetation and crops were left after the excessive dry weather were completely “gobbled up” in the day and night our winged visitors remained with us! As far as I know there was not an ear of corn raised in all that section of the country that year. I know WE never had even a mess of roasting ears!

This made life very hard for the homesteader, as many of them were obliged to leave their families and go farther east to secure work in order that “the woman and the babies” might have something to live on while holding down the claim. There were many things besides scanty fare to dishearten the wives and daughters of the pioneer. As late as 1870, straggling bands of Indians would steal away from the reservations and pass through this section of the country, committing depredations and sometimes taking a captive.

Every boy old enough to handle a gun learned to shoot, and many of the girls did too. While the boys often slept soundly and dreamed of scalping Indians, the mothers, after hearing of some raid, would lie awake all night long, trembling at every sound, thinking it might be Indians coming to scalp them! After a few weeks of this anxiety, when no harm came, their fear would gradually subside, and they would rest in comparative peace, until another report came, when the dreadful hours would all be lived over again!

It was many years before some of the homesteader’s wives who had been raised in the East could get over the harrowing fear of the Indians. The year 1874 was another grasshopper year, also a “dry” year, and had it not been for the good people of the East sending us “aid” not nearly so many could have “stayed by their claim.”

There was not nearly enough “aid” sent in to go around, although what was sent relieved much suffering, and would have relieved much more had it at all times been rightly administered. Many men and boys, during these strenuous times, went away to work.

But even in those early days there were “grafters” and there were persons, who, after being put in places of trust failed to properly distribute the things sent in by the good people of the east.

Notwithstanding the fact that much of the supplies sent in by the good people never fulfilled the mission its donor intended the mission its donor intended, much good was done, much hunger appeased, and many bodies kept clothed and warmed by their donations. There were many good, honest and loyal distributors who served all alike and did their very best to give satisfaction.

I Glory in My Job!; part 3; 1932

There’s a heap of preparation and excitement when the bees are robbed. Daddy dons his bee bonnet and gloves, and the babies are carefully corralled on the porch until it is over. How good the honey tastes when it is fresh–that means hot biscuits for breakfast. It is strained and put away in stone crocks, along with gallons of molasses, freshly-boiled from the ribbon cane that grows on our own brown acres. And part of my duty seems to me to be crisp molasses cookies and taffy.

 

There are strutting turkeys and garrulous White Leghorns in the barnyard, for a farm wife must often play poulterer, too. That means fresh eggs in abundance, and the tender flesh of cock and hen, but at times it means nursing senseless baby chicks through their period of babyhood, and they can be annoying though interesting. A small turkey is the most brainless thing that ever had the gift of life, but when it has attained twenty-seven pounds and a parsley trimming, it becomes worth while.

I do not milk, but I could in a pinch, and often do in the summer evenings so that we may all join in the evening swim. I do, however, attend to the milk, wash and scald all the utensils, make the butter and cheese, and put away the heavy golden cream that will add so much to tomorrow’s plain pudding.

Twice a week I bake in my temperamental wood range. How a stove as pesky as that one can turn out such crispy, crusty loaves, I don’t know, but it usually does. Often on baking day there are cinnamon rolls or coffee cake, which are really just bread dough all dressed up. Why I even make my own yeast cakes! Common everyday things like cornmeal and buttermilk are converted into that mysterious something that makes the bread rise.