SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER XV - CULTURE COMES TO THE GRASSLANDS
I have read in books that the people of the frontier kept moving ever westward to escape civilization. But if my experience counts for anything, such people were the exceptions. So eager were we to keep in touch with civilization that even when we could not afford a shotgun and ammunition to kill rabbits, we subscribed to newspapers and periodicals and bought books. I made it a rule, no matter now late at night it was or how tired I was, never to go to bed without reading a few minutes from the Bible and some other book.
We took a small library to Kansas with us and added to it as we could afford. Economic advantage, not desire to escape civilization, took us to the prairie. Every family that came to occupy a vacant homestead near us added to our happiness. We hungered for neighbors and association with them.
We formed a variety of organizations to bring people together. Christian's brother Henry opened a singing school, and the men also had debating societies. As soon as possible we formed a church. When we moved to Fairview, the nearest school, built of roughhewn native rock, was three and a half miles away.
The two missionaries gave us some excellent sermons, but the people wanted a church of their own with a regular pastor. As a first step they organized a community Sunday School which met at the Fairview schoolhouse. But when we tried to form a church, we found the people could not agree on the denomination. In our community Baptists and Methodists were most numerous, but they disagreed decidedly over the form of baptism.
Our brothers, Henry and Fred, were members of the Reformed Church. Mr. Joss had been brought up in the Reformed Church, and for that matter so had my husband and I, for the Reformed Church was the church of Switzerland. In Doniphan County I had been a Methodist, and in St. Joseph Christian and I had been Presbyterians. Having belonged to different churches and finding them all good, Christian and I had wide tolerance for all denominations; but many of the people of the community felt they must have their own denomination. It looked for a while as though we might be unable to organize any sort of church because of sectarianism. for our community was too poor to think of supporting two ministers and two churches at that time.
One day at the close of Sunday School, Andrew Carothers, who lived in the far eastern end of the township, arose from the desk at which he had been seated, to advocate a compromise.
"We cannot all have the denomination we would prefer," he said. "So let us decide on a second choice. I have in mind a denomination on which we can all agree. None of us are members of that church, but it is a very tolerant one. It allows each member to decide all doctrinal questions for himself. If we organize that denomination we can then elect to be baptized either by sprinkling or immersion. In that church we can all join and worship together, respecting each other's doctrinal views and adhering to our own. That church has no bishops, no presiding elders, no synods; it elects its own officers, chooses its own pastors and makes its own rules by vote of the congregation. The only connection each individual church has with other churches of the same denomination is through membership in a state or district association to which it can send its delegates."
"What church is this, Andy?" someone asked.
"It is Mr. Ayres church, Congregational," he answered.
Since Mr. Ayres had never preached about his denomination, few in the Fairview district knew of its democratic from of government and freedom of belief. As explained by Mr. Carothers it looked as though the Congregational church was created to fit our needs.
By vote of those present, it was decided to form a Congregational Church. We then elected Mr. Ayres pastor, notifying him, the next time he came our way, of the fact that we were Congregationalists; and he received us formally into membership. Christian was elected as the first treasurer. Mr. Carother, who had been a United Presbyterian, was one the two deacons.
We lacked an organ but we had healthy voices, and Christian's brother Henry, the community singing master, led us in singing. Striking the pitch with his tuning fork, and holding it to his ear for an instant, he led us in such hymns as "Hold the Fort," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," or "How Firm a Foundation." And how we did enjoy this music!
Several years later we built a church across the road from the schoolhouse. Christian was the contractor for the building, which he constructed without profit for himself. When the church was dedicated, at least a thousand persons were present. I believe every inhabitant of the township and many from a distance came. Wagon seats were brought to fill every aisle and corner; people sat on the edge of the platform; children were held in the arms of their parents; men sat on the windowsills or stood outside on the grass where they could not see the speakers but could hear the words. Although the dedication lasted all day, few people left before closing time. At noon we had a basket dinner on the church lawn, and, after dinner, completed the dedication. The building of that church, the first in that part of the county, was a milestone in the progress of Fairview.
I like to recall our meetings there and the friendships made. Besides being a house of worship, our church had socials and entertainments. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Children's Day were outstanding dates when the children sang and spoke their pieces. If we could avoid it, none of our family every missed attendance; if it rained we put up an umbrella; if it snowed we wrapped up in blankets and comforts; if it was so icy that the horses could not travel the three and a half miles, Christian and the older children walked. Part of our punctuality was from a sense of duty, but beyond that, we were happy in being there. We no more thought of missing church than of missing our meals.
City people surfeited with close daily contact with others, and distracted by golf and parties can hardly understand the hunger for church that pioneer families had. Our Fairview church not only ministered to our spiritual needs, but it also fed our social hunger. Out of our desire for company as well as out of our need for spiritual development, we dressed our children in their best clothing, and journeyed to Fairview in a farm wagon. We had no carriages, even spring wagons were unknown at first, but we traveled in lumber wagons in summer and in sleds in winter. My husband made our sled, facing the runners with strips of split-hickory saplings. He set a wagonbox on the runners, threw a forkful of clean straw to made a bed over its floor, on which I spread blankets and comforts. Then the children and I sat in the box wrapped in blankets and quilts, and rode in warmth, singing and telling stories in which Christian, sitting on the seat and guiding his team over the snow, would often join heartily. Those sled rides were so enjoyable that when there came dry winters with little snow, the children felt cheated, for it was so much more fun riding in a sled than in a wagon.
Next after the church, the school was the social center of the community. During our first winter in Brown County, our two oldest children walked the three and a half miles to Fairview with their Uncle Henry, the teacher; seven miles a day they walked, to and fro, sometimes wading through deep drifts, and sometimes along muddy roads, but they enjoyed it and learned readily.
The next summer, however, we organized the Spring Grove school district, creating it out of the western half of the Fairview district. The southwest corner of our farm being near the center of the new district, Christian and I donated an acre at that corner for the building site. We measured off a lot, ten by sixteen rods, and fenced it off from the farm. This put the schoolhouse within less that a half mile of our home, and it was surely convenient for the children. The school site was a hill as bare of trees as our own home site; but Shadrach Hatfield, the first settler of the district, insisted that the school should be named Spring Grove.
"It is less than half a mile from Spring Creek," he argued, "and we will plant a grove there. In a few years the trees will grow up, and no one will think it odd that the place is named Spring Grove."
He had his way, and it turned out as he said. In a few years we had a fine grove on the ground, most of the trees being planted by my husband.
Christian was awarded the building contract for the new schoolhouse. He worked early and late at the building, hiring a hand to do the farm work. His extra carpenter boarded at our house, as did the plasterer, when his turn came to work. This made extra work for me, feeding the hands and caring for my family besides. I never could have done it all had not our children been helpful. Fortunately, in pioneer days, even the smallest children worked, taking care of the littler ones, running errands, helping with such farm work as they could. Had not the children helped, we would have perished in attempting to rear such large families as we had in those early days.
Toward the end of August or first of September, when the schoolhouse was pretty well up, there came a sudden prairie fire out of the northwest, bearing right down toward Spring Grove. Unfortunately, nobody had made it his business to plow a fire guard around the school lot, although the rich bluestem grass stood waist high or higher. To the northwest the expanse of prairie was unbroken as far as the eye could reach; and when we rode out that way to the top of the divide beyond the springs at the head of Spring Creek, we could see the prairie extending on and on.
One of the first things a farmer did in building a home on the prairie was to plow a fire guard around it. This had been neglected at the school lot, at first, because the grass was green and would not burn; but in August, as the grass ripened, the officers of the district continued to overlook the need of it. So here we were, caught with our brand-new schoolhouse almost finished, and a prairie fire coming to burn it.
We were threshing the day the fire came, and for that reason Christian was at home instead of at the school, for he needed every hand he could get to man the stacks and take care of the grain. This was before the days of steam or gasoline power tractors. Instead, eight horses, hitched in spans to sweeps, went round and round, treadmill-wise, generating the power as they circled around. As they kept their pace, the threshing machine emitted a constant din, which we could hear as we worked in the kitchen preparing supper for the men.
Polly, Fred's wife, had come over to help me, it being the custom of the women to help each other when we had extra crews of men to cook for. It was late afternoon when we heard someone call out a loud "Whoa," which instantly brought the teams to a stop and ended the clatter and drone of the machine; but we kept right on with our work, thinking that possibly the cylinder of the thresher was clogged or some other accident had happened which did not concern us. Then one of my girls ran in, her eyes wide with the news that the men had jumped off the stacks and unhitched the horses, and that her father had hitched a team to a plow, and with another man was running toward the schoolhouse. Polly and I stepped to the door and it was as we had been told, but worse. Far up in the northwest, beyond the divide, we could see clouds of smoke rolling up against the sky. It was a prairie fire, no doubt of it. And the wind was in the northwest, blowing the fire our way. Men were seizing sacks and saddle blankets which they wet at the horse trough; and then all hurried as fast as they could run toward the schoolhouse.
But fast as they ran, the fire came faster. Even before Christian arrived at the school, the flame appeared at the top of the divide; and through the masses of smoke I could catch glimpses of the lurid flames spouting out. Frantically, Christian began plowing a fire guard. Back and forth he ran,holding the plow handles, while a neighbor drove the horses at a trot, lashing them with the ends of the lines. Back and forth they ran on the north side of the schoolhouse lot, and all the time that fire seemed to leap over itself; fifty and a hundred feet it leaped. Down the slope it raged to the creek where it crackled through the slough grass in the bottom land not more than a half mile away.
Then the frightful fear gripped me that if the men should fail to put out the fire that they not only would fail to save the school but would lose their lives in the effort, for they were standing in the tall prairie grass with the flames galloping upon them, leaping and rolling at them, faster than horses. As the fire neared, the smoke became so dense around the men that only at times could I make out what was happening and much of the time I could see nobody at all, only I could hear them shouting to each other. After plowing two or three furrows of fire guard, Christian saw that the flames were so near that he had to quit plowing to save himself and his team. The fence around the lot, being newly built with stout wires, locked the horses out of the meager protection they had helped to create. To save them Christian threw himself against a post with all his strength and heaved it out of the ground. If anyone thinks that was a light feat, try it some time. Try it when it has to be done immediately, and when failure means the burning of your horses. The exertion was so great that Christian hurt himself internally, so seriously that he suffered for years; but he got the post out and the horses ran to safety.
In the meantime, our thresher help had arrived with sacks, and others were coming on horseback from the farms all around, unsaddling their horses in short order that they might use their saddle blankets to fight fire. A backfire had been built just north of the plowed strip. A dozen hands broke off branches of bluestem, doubling the bunches into torches with which they spread the backfire along the north side of the half dozen furrows. The backfire slowly burned toward the north to meet the other fire which was leaping onward like a fury. The wind blew sparks from the backfire across the narrow fire guard, and these sparks caught the prairie grass inside the school lot. But in anticipation of just that thing, the men had provided sacks and blankets. Fires spurted up here and there, but always a man was at hand to beat them out with his wet sack. How they sweated and worked and fought!
And how slowly that backfire progressed! It was agonizing to see the big blaze jumping before the wind, springing over itself just as though it had a mind and knew it must get to the backfire before it had burned an effectual guard. All of this, of course, happened in flashes of time. It takes much longer to tell it than it took to happen. The prairie fire not only had the wind back of it, but its very heat generated wind to drive it on, while the little backfire had to back up against that extra wind. When the two fires met, the big fire was so great that it threw itself across the puny backfire, completely wiping it out! It cleared the narrow fire guard the backfire had burned, sprang over the insignificant strip of plowed ground, leaped until its farthest flung wreaths of flame caught in the prairie grass in the school lot.
Yet the little backfire, which reached only to the knees of the big fire, was big enough to bring the enemy down. As leaping sparks lit the grass in the school yard, twenty men stood there to beat out the blazes as fast as they began.
Then came a new threat. At various places along the prairie line the fire had leaped the fire guards plowed about various farms. Swept by the strong wind, sparks had been carried into our fields in a score of places. The men scattered out, some to ride home to fight the fire at their own farms and others to help us.
It was night before the last ember was quenched. Polly and I made sandwiches and a boiler of coffee, which the children carried to the fire fighters, who finally came home to supper. They were blackened and burned, and for weeks they went around without eyebrows or eyelashes, but they counted it an honor, like a soldier with a scar. As a result of their work, the schoolhouse, fully completed and painted white, opened its door to children that fall.
Jennie Stevens, the teacher we employed the first year, requested that I board her; but due to the smallness of our house, I declined. She came back, however, after visiting nearly every house in the district, to report that other people refused to board her for the reason I gave, lack of room.
I acceded to her request, moving the provisions from the pantry to a corner of the kitchen. The pantry was a tiny room, large enough for a lounge, table, chair and her trunk. As a member of our household she was a success. She was no trouble at all, and after the first few days I was delighted to have her. I charged her one dollar and a half a week for her board and room.
We used the schoolhouse seven days in the week. On Friday and Saturday nights there were ciphering matches, spelling matches, literary and debating societies, and singing schools. Sometimes a traveling entertainer gave a magic lantern show, or a lecturer came to speak on questions of importance. Later on a Reformed Church was organized at Spring Grove. This became a strong church. We, however, remained with the Fairview Congregationalists.
Nowadays they tell us that the one-room country school is out of date and that it must give way to rural graded schools. Perhaps that is true. Spring Grove had no modern heating plant, no gymnasium, no up-to-date psychological teaching methods. One teacher taught all the pupils from chart to fifth reader. Yet out of Spring Grove's pioneer graduating class two of eight to receive diplomas on that occasion became sufficiently eminent to have a paragraph each in Who's Who.