SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER XIII - ON THE PRAIRIES AGAIN
We became pioneers once more in 1872, choosing a beautifully rolling prairie district in western Brown County, Kansas, known as Fairview, because of its commanding situation atop the divide which parts the waters flowing south into the Kansas River and those flowing north into Nebraska. Except for fringes of timber skirting the water courses, it was boundless grassland.
Christian knew the region well, having explored it in 1854. In fact it was but fifteen miles south of where he had previously taken a claim just across the territorial line in Nebraska. To add to Fairview's attractiveness, our friends Mr. and Mrs. Joss lived there. They had left Leavenworth in the closing year of the war to settle only two miles from the place where we were to build our new home.
Nearly all land in western Brown County had been pre-empted before the close of the Civil War, but before the time of our arrival many of the settlers, before proving up their titles, had sold their claims to land speculators; so that when we arrived the country was largely unbroken meadow in almost every direction as far as eye could see. Two Indian tribes, the united Sac and Fox and the Kickapoos, lived in Brown County, and they still hunted on the prairie. What a fright they once gave to Mrs. Joss!
One day when her husband was gone to Leavenworth with grist for the winter's flour, two Kickapoo hunters suddenly entered her house, without either knocking or saying a word, and seated themselves beside the kitchen stove. The terrified children ran to their mother and clung to her dress. Leavenworth was eighty miles away and Mr. Joss had expected to be gone the greater part of a week, and so Mrs. Joss was left to contrive her own defense. Acting as though she was accustomed to entertaining Indians, she reassured her children and then, mixing a pan of corn meal, she baked a huge corn bread and fried a side of fresh pork. When all was ready she served the Indians, who cleaned the platters until they shone. Then, surfeited from heavy eating, they drowsed beside the stove like cats for a half hour or more, until one of them, awakened by his own nodding, chanced to glance up and see a muzzle-loading rifle on wall brackets above his head. Grunting to his companion, the Indian took down the rifle, examined it, and discovered that it was loaded. Now, indeed, was Mrs. Joss frightened, for although the Kickapoos were theoretically friendly Indians, there were murderers among the friendly tribes, just as there are among civilized whites; yet she continued about her work quietly, as though accustomed to having Indians handle her husband's rifle. At last the Kickapoos stepped outside, pointed the muzzle into the air, and fired the piece. Then, laughing loudly at the noise of the report, they re-entered the house, hung the rifle on its brackets, and went their way.
With the killing of the elk and the deer by the settlers, the country became less and less attractive to the Indians, who accordingly remained more and more on their own reservations. Therefore, by the time we moved to the community, they had practically ceased their visits.
As I have related, my husband learned in Hiawatha of an opportunity to buy school land. A section of six hundred and forty acres of this land, offered by the state at eight dollars an acre, was situated in the Fairview neighborhood near the Joss farm. Christian communicated with his brothers, Fred and Henry, in Ohio, who came out to examine it.
"Let's buy it," Fred said. "We three brothers ought to live together."
And so it was arranged. Of the six hundred and forty acres in the section, Christian acquired the southwest one hundred and sixty-five acres, Henry and Fred dividing the remainder.
Henry, who had just married, took possession in 1871, Christian building the house. We moved to Fairview the following spring and lived in a part of Henry's house while Christian was building our home. As soon as our house was habitable, although it was not completed, we moved in, and Christian built Fred's house, after which Fred and his wife, Polly, came from Ohio to live in it. The houses were of sawed lumber.
In dividing our section of land, Christian allowed his brothers first choice. They chose the smoothest lying farms, leaving to Christian the quarter bisected by a small stream called Spring Creek. I am glad that we had the creek, for although it was waste land from a farming viewpoint, it paid big dividends as a playground for our children, of whom, including the one who died during the war, we had eleven, eight of them growing to maturity, six sons and two daughters.
In Spring Creek were fish. Muskrats played on its banks. In the twenty acres of timber lining the banks were squirrels, coons, possums, and skunks, besides birds that filled the air with song. In the thickets at the edge of the timber were quails, prairie chickens, rabbits, and an occasional coyote. In the autumn we had bushels and bushels of walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazel nuts. I can think of no better playground for children than timber with a creek and an occasional swimming hole such as we had on our farm.
During those early years when every pioneer hungered for fruit, our timber afforded fruit not only for ourselves but for our neighbors. At the end of the hungry winters, when pioneers' children's mouths watered at the mere mention of juicy fruit, we watched the shoots coming through the ground with more than the eye of mere Nature lovers. First were the swelling willow catkins, the wood violets, and the jack-in-the-pulpits, none of which we could eat, but of which the children gathered huge bouquets.
In the creek bottoms, warm under spring sunshine, nettles and lambs-quarters shot forth their leaves to provide greens many weeks before spinach was ready for cutting in the garden. Mushrooms grew in the moist loam under the trees, and these added many a bit to our bill of fare. Our earliest wild fruit were the strawberries, which came not from the woods but from the adjacent prairie, ripening in May. The fruit was small, but in each little wild berry was concentrated the entire flavor of the big garden variety. Following the strawberries, the timber yielded, in succession, wild gooseberries, mulberries, blackberries, elderberries, chokecherries, plums, and in autumn, grapes and hackberries. The chokecherries were puckery and would not be given a second thought today; but when I stewed them into a sauce and flavored them with sugar, the children smacked their lips and asked for more. The grapes were small and tart and full of juice and unexcelled for jelly. Our best wild fruit was the plum. One summer the children and I gathered ten milkpailfuls; and besides having plums for dessert for a week, I put up seven gallons of plum butter for winter.
In our timber also grew wild hop vines, from which we gathered a supply of hops each year to dry and brew for yeast. Hops also were good for poultices in relieving earache and toothache.
In spite of our supplies of wild fruit, we never had enough of such food in pioneer days. One fall when I knew that the apple trees along One-Hundred-and-Two River east of St. Joseph were breaking with loads of fruit for which there was no market, it seemed that I could hardly go through another winter without apples. True, I had seven gallons of plum butter, and dozens of glasses of grape jelly, besides a row of cans of gooseberries and pickled watermelon rinds, but I wanted to hear my children smacking their lips over apples. My husband had no money, hardly anyone had money then, but I had three ten-pound jars of butter and fourteen seven-pound cheeses. Those Christian took to St. Joseph in a lumber wagon to trade for apples. He came back about a week later with the wagon bed loaded with apples, and in addition he had a sausage cutter, a kraut cutter, and a raincoat, all of which he had obtained for the butter and cheese.
Since our farm was to be a permanent home, Christian began, even while building the house, to set out a grove and orchard. Our house was built on a treeless prairie swell, where we could not only take advantage of the beautiful view which Fairview hilltops afforded, but could be up where the summer breezes blew. Not only that, but the hilltops were out of the zone of chills and fever, due to absence of mosquitos, although in that time we were not wise enough to connect ague with the mosquito. Christian laid out a square of about fifteen acres for the house lot. Here he marked off a front yard, garden, barnlot, and orchard. Around this he broke a strip of prairie and planted six rows of cottonwood switches. The cottonwood grows from cuttings, which merely need to be stuck endwise into the plowed sod where they will take root. Cottonwoods are rapid growers and in a few years they afforded a windbreak in winter and shade in the summer.
Around the house, stable, and feed lots, Christian set shade trees, such as maples, boxelders, elms, sycamores, catalpas, cedars, pines. He gathered many of these from the woods, sent for some to St. Joseph and Ohio, and, when he had money, bought nursery stock. From Ohio he obtained peach pits to plant in our orchards. Cuttings of grapes, blackberries, raspberries, currants, and Juneberries he brought from St. Joseph. Apples he bought from a St. Joseph nurseryman.
Christian had a passion for planting trees, but they did not thrive without care. Night after night during those first summers, after a day of following the plough, breaking the sod, or cultivating corn, Christian carried water to the trees which needed it most, sheltered their roots with mulch of dry grass, or wrapped the shoots in gunny sacks against the hot winds sure to blow the next day. During our thirty-five years at Fairview he was continually improving and enlarging our grove and orchard. Eventually he had forty varieties of shade trees and sixteen varieties of apples, not to mention other fruit.
Our neighbors did as we did, planting trees until in a few years groves and orchards crowned the hills in every direction.
It sounds simple now as I tell of how we brought the farm into production, but in reality it was accomplished by sweat and backache both in the field and in the house. As I have said, we moved into our house before it was finished, and after that Christian worked at house-building only on rainy days. When the weather was fine he had to go to the field. And so it was that the house was upset by carpenter work for many months. When Christian designed our house, he planned an adequate building; but lacking money for carrying out his plans immediately, he built only the ell of what eventually became the main house. The ell had one big room downstairs which served as kitchen, dining room, living room bath room, and on Mondays as laundry. Adjoining it was a small pantry and over these two rooms was an upstairs, all in one room, which I partitioned with curtains into tiny sleeping compartments. At first we ascended to the upstairs by a ladder. I could carry my babies up the ladder, but Christian had to carry them down. It was many months before there was enough rainy weather for Christian to complete the stairs.
Because of our labors of house-building that first summer, we were unable to make the food preparation for winter which became a regular thing in succeeding years. No wild fruit had been put up; we had no surplus live stock to kill for meat; and although we had an abundance of potatoes, turnips, and bread, it really was a hungry winter. In October I bought six hens which furnished us a few eggs.
I recall that the night before Thanksgiving we had no meat. I thought seriously of killing one of my hens but decided we needed the eggs more. The prairies were alive with wild game, especially quails, prairie chickens, and rabbits, but it was not until the following year that we could afford the luxury of a shotgun. It would have been a meatless Thanksgiving had it not been for Towse.
This dog Towse had belonged to a family traveling in a covered wagon that camped late in October for a night beside our creek. Towse was so sore of foot hat he could no longer follow the covered wagon and the next morning remained in camp. Christian found him and carried him to the house, where we washed his feet and fed him. He was just a mongrel dog with shaggy, reddish-brown hair; but as soon as his feet healed, he proved of value in keeping the coyotes from eating our hens; and with an abundance of game all about, he provided his own meat by running down rabbits. On Thanksgiving morning he caught a fat rabbit and was about to devour it, when Christian took it from him, patted him on the head, and told him to catch another for himself. Towse acquiesced in the arrangement. He raced across the prairie, and in ten minutes had a second rabbit for his own. Christian dressed the first rabbit and surprised me by bringing it to the house. It was just what I needed to make the first Fairview Thanksgiving a success.
By spring the hens began to lay well, and we also bought cows. From the beginning I took care of the milk and eggs, and the income from these two sources was the main reliance for household expenses. Starting with two cows, we built up the herd to as many as ten, although the usual herd was six or eight cows. There was, of course, no market for milk, but there was a market for cheese, because few farmers knew how to make it. Also there was a market in the village of Sabetha for butter for shipment to the eastern cities. I received from five to eight cents a pound for butter, and one winter I sold one hundred and five dollars worth. This I bartered at the general store for dry goods and such staples as sugar and coffee. The merchant barreled the butter, the good with the poor, for shipment to eastern cities.
My butter was of extra quality, being firm and always sweet. The merchant, however, paid me only what any other butter brought. But as Sabetha and Hiawatha grew into good-sized towns, and the village of Fairview was organized, there grew up a local demand for butter, and my product sold at a premium. I molded butter into pound rolls, being careful to give full measure or a little more than full measure. I finished the roll by imprinting on the top and sides a scroll of oak leaves.
The mold with which I did this had been sent to me be relatives from Switzerland. This was my trademark, for nobody else had a print exactly like mine. People came to recognize that the Swiss figure signified Mrs. Isely's butter; and since my butter was always good measure and firm and sweet, merchants bid for it and paid a cent or two above the prevailing market. In later years I received ten cents when others were only paid eight or nine cents. My cheese also brought ten cents a pound.
Our nearness to the timber proved a menace to poultry growing. Occasionally, coyotes carried off chickens. Towse, who had protected our flock the first winter, followed a covered wagon off the following spring and never returned. During the brooding season, chicken hawks and even crows stole the chicks for food for their fledglings; skunks and minks, too, were always preying on our flock. The second autumn a single mink entered our chicken house at night and killed all my pullets, thirty-one of them. He pulled them off their roosts by the necks, cut their jugular veins, and sucked their blood. When I entered the coop the next morning, there they lay dead with wounds in their necks but otherwise untouched. The following night the mink attacked an old hen. Being roused by the hen's squawks, we ran out and chased the mink away. Again and again he returned, occasionally killing a hen and frightening the remainder of the flock until they would no longer roost in the coop.
Christian spent hours with a newly purchased muzzle-loading shotgun, lying in wait for that mink. One evening while he was watching he saw something move at the edge of a pile of rocks which had been brought to the house to wall our well. It was the mink. Evidently, it had been using the rock pile for a hiding place. Stealthily it crept out, its eyes agleam in anticipation of chicken blood. I guess that mink died happy, for Christian shot his head off so quickly that he had no time to know that chickens were no longer on his menu. We had only a half dozen old hens left after that, but the next spring I hatched a new flock. By constant vigilance we protected them from beasts and birds of prey, and I often grew as many as three hundred chickens in a year. Eggs in those days brought five or six cents a dozen, yet that small amount helped to pay the house bills.
While I struggled with the housework, Christian labored with the field crops, wheat, corn, and oats. We used horses for field work, oxen having disappeared as yoke animals after the Civil War. The first farm task, of course, was breaking the prairie sod. This really was dangerous because of rattlesnakes. Every acre held two of three nests of them and it angered them to be disturbed in the home which they and their kind had occupied since the Ice Age. The bite of the rattlesnake is deadly poison if uncared for. Animals fled at the sound of its sibilant rattle. If a man was bitten, the only sure remedy was to suck out the poison from the wound. Fortunately, the rattlers usually sounded their rattles before striking. When so warned, Christian struck them with his whip and killed them. There very combativeness undid them; for every time a pioneer plowed up a rattlesnake, he killed it, until today hardly a rattlesnake remains.
I even killed a snake myself. Although I feared them, I feared more to permit their escape. One day my seven-year-old Henry came running from an errand to say that a snake was in the path disputing the way. I returned with him to see, and sure enough a large snake lay coiled in the middle of the path. As I approached, it reared its head and darted out its forked tongue. I was all atremble with dread, but rather than let the snake escape, I struck it with a hoe. My first blow was poorly aimed and served only to enrage the reptile, which struck back, but I finally gave it a mortal wound and cut its head off.
Henry grew up to kill a great many snakes. He became so expert that he would seize ordinary snakes, such as bullsnakes, blacksnakes or blue racers by their tails and strike their heads on the plow beam or break their necks by flicking them as a cowboy cracks a whiplash. But he never did that with a rattlesnake. A rattler is too quick. The only safe way to kill a rattler is to club it.
Fortunately, none of my family was ever bitten by a rattlesnake, although they did have many narrow escapes.