times gone by

A California Adventure

We were young. We had worked for a year. It was time for a vacation and we had planned it for months. We were going west to sightsee and scuba dive in the Pacific Ocean. My brother-in-law Russell Spoor had introduced me to diving with the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus the previous fall. We had weekend dived in the clear waters of the southern Missouri lakes Bull Shoals and Table Rock many times and felt we were ready for bigger things.
Tablerock

Me (on the left) and Russell after a scuba dive in Table Rock Lake. Table Rock Dam is in the background.

 

It was 1962, and for several years the popular underwater diving adventure television program, Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges, had captivated viewers. For you youngsters, he is the father of movie stars Jeff and Beau Bridges.

Russ had taken a scuba training class in Kansas City. He had shown me the basics and I had researched all the current publications I could find and bought some gear. We had talked about diving in the ocean and perhaps exploring the American River in California.  The discovery of a gold nugget in the American River started the gold rush of 1849.  That fact was not lost on us.

Rattlesnake_Bar_1910

Closeup of map from American River & Natomas Water & Mining Company – 1910.
http://insuremekevin.com/1910-map-of-water-canals-in-sacramento-and-placer-counties/#hEc0ESMgwgdloJKw.99
Full map of area here: 1910 American River Canal Map

 

 

We scheduled our vacations to start in mid-July. Joined by our wives, we loaded scuba gear and luggage in Russ’s convertible and headed west. The first stop was Pikes Peak. That red Chevy took us all the way to the top. Royal Gorge, the Painted Desert, and the Grand Canyon were next. We visited Boulder Dam and took time for a swim in Lake Mead. We zoomed right on through Las Vegas. After a drive through the desert we stopped to stay overnight in a quaint little town named Yermo, California. I don’t remember many of the places we stayed at. My wife remembers staying in Yermo because the older lady that checked us in gave us some cookies, but told us we could not eat them in the motel rooms.

The next day we went through Los Angeles and on to Fillmore, California. There, we were guests of our aunt and uncle who lived on the Spalding Ranch. The ranch was a part of the historical Rancho Sespe. The aunt was my mother’s twin sister (see The Battle of Beecher’s Island). Her husband managed the citrus packing plant on the ranch just west of Fillmore.

We had a busy agenda visiting Hollywood, Pacific Ocean Park, Knotts Berry Farm, and of course we spent some time on the beach. We spent a long day at Disney Land.

Finally the time came to go fishing and scuba diving in the ocean. Our uncle and his brother took us out in their boat. Russ owned two wet suits that we had used winter diving in fresh water. We knew because of the extra buoyancy of the wet suits in saltwater we needed weighted belts. We bought weight belts and special abalone prying tools. With my uncle and his brother, we started for the ocean before daylight, stopping for a big breakfast at a truck stop restaurant.

We put the boat in at a boat lift on a pier at Redondo Beach. Then we started for an area where we could dive for abalone. Along the way, we fished for bonito fish.

Left to right, me and Uncle Louie Yett in the driveway of the Spalding house showing some bonito fish caught in the ocean near Redondo Beach, California.

Left to right, me and Uncle Louie Yett in the driveway of the Spalding house showing some bonito fish caught in the ocean near Redondo Beach, California.

 

Pretty soon the sea swells began to work on us landlubbers. Russ and I were sharing a deep sea rod. I sat down waiting my turn. I was munching on soda crackers, having read that was a help in combating seasickness. Russ was making fun of me saying, “Look, look, Walt is getting seasick.” I knew Russ well enough to know that he was striving to cover his own nausea. The boat was riding the swells up and down, up and down. Suddenly, Russ threw the rod at me, rushed to the transom, and started upchucking that truck stop breakfast. Luckily, he had already caught a number of good sized bonito.

Eventually, we arrived at the intended diving area. Russ was still mighty green and wisely decided not to go down. I had my sea legs and was in good shape. I came to dive in the ocean and I intended to do it. I put my gear on and went down alone. Not knowing how much weight was needed, I found I was having trouble descending. Rather than go back for additional belt weights, I followed the anchor line down and carried the boat anchor around. I was at a depth of 75 feet according to my wrist-mounted depth gauge. Examining some boulders, I found no abalone. I was seeing lots of fish. A giant manta ray swam above and a bit to the side of me. From fin tip to fin tip it appeared to be approximately 20 feet wide. I thought perhaps the water was having a magnifying effect. Seeing the huge ray helped me decide that I had achieved my goal to dive in the ocean. I went back up to the boat, and we finished out our day fishing for bonito. I researched rays later and read that some species could reach a width of 18 to 22 feet.

We said our goodbyes to our aunt and uncle and left early that morning to visit our cousin and family at Sacramento before journeying home. Little did we know, the adventure was not over! We arrived at their home about mid-afternoon. They had their boat and trailer hooked up ready to go. They said they thought we would enjoy finishing the day out diving and boating in the American River and Folsom Lake.

A short drive brought us to the beautiful waters of the lake. We put the boat into the river near the beginning of the lake. The water was cold and very clear. We busied ourselves exploring the bottom, turning over stones, and picking up some colored ones for our cousin’s rock garden. There was a small cove across the river and several hundred yards down. Our cousins had fished there before, and they were interested in the depth of the water in that cove. They called the area Rattlesnake Bar. You can see it listed on the map above. Since I had used up some of my air in the ocean, I ran out before Russ did. Russ agreed to check it out. The area was several hundred yards from us. Russ said if we took the boat closer he would swim the rest of the way.

We crossed over and dropped anchor in the cove. I dried off, put on a jacket, and watched Russ’s air bubbles on the surface as he made his way toward us. I remarked to the group that he was almost out of compressed air. With the equipment used at the time you could see the air bubbles and gauge the status. He was steadily pulling harder on the regulator. All of a sudden there was a big rush of air and Russ popped to the surface. “I am out of air, but there is something down here that you must see!”

“Aw man,” I argued. “I don’t want to get wet and cold again.”

“You’ve got to see this! It is a stump or mannequin on the bottom, that looks just like a man! I am not getting out of here until you look at it.”

I put my frogman flippers on, donned a mask, climbed on top of the boat cabin, and dived deep while Russ waited on the surface. Twenty-five feet down, I found what had gotten my brother-in-law so excited. Swimming in one pass beside the object, I determined it was a man. The figure was trapped on the bottom by gravel covering the lower portion of his legs. I could see red hair, a glass eye, and a pendent around the neck. The man’s arms were floating in front of him, palms upwards. Russ knew what he saw. He just could not believe it. I came up and quietly said, “It is a person. Now what do we do?”

We all talked it over and decided to go to the park headquarters. Darkness set in by the time we had the boat out of the water and found the headquarters office. Luckily, there was someone there and he called the sheriff’s office. Russ and I reported the discovery and location and thought we had finished our part, but the ordeal was not over. The park person put us all in a conference room with a map on the wall and instructed us to wait for sheriff’s officers.

After an hour or more wait, two sheriff’s deputies showed up. One was smaller in stature and very polite and professional. The second was a large brawny tough guy with a pock marked face and a personality to match. He did most of the talking. “Let’s hear the story,” he said. After we explained again what we found and where we found it. Tough guy leaned in, gave Russ and me a look up and down, and then asked gruffly, “You guys been drinking?” We assured him we had not. He grilled us some more and finally said, “Okay, meet us at Rattlesnake Bar with your diving equipment in the morning and show us where it is.”

“We need to get started back to Missouri, we are about out of vacation time. Also, our air tanks are empty,” Russ informed him.

“You can get your tanks filled in Sacramento and meet us and the patrol about mid-morning at Rattlesnake Bar,” the big deputy said. “We had better find a body there or you guys are going to spend some more time in California,” he added.

We arrived back at our cousin’s home in Sacramento late in the night and went to bed. I don’t know about Russ, but I did not sleep a wink. The deputy’s threat had gotten to me.

 

By morning I had almost convinced myself that it was not a body. We found the divers supply and had our tanks refilled to the standard 2200 psi. The two deputies and the coroner were already at the gravel bar cove waiting when we arrived.

Still wanting to leave as soon as we could, we timidly asked if they would need us to help retrieve the body. The tough guy deputy told us that we could not leave because the sheriff would have papers for us to sign the next day. I knew he still didn’t believe us. He informed us they were experienced divers and certainly did not need our help. That part suited us fine, but staying another day did not.

The coroner gave us a balloon float attached to a long cord. He told us to attach it to the body. I got my gear on. Russ was having trouble with some tangled webbing. I could not wait. I had to know for sure. I grabbed the cord and went over the side. Russ followed, and we easily found the body. I tied the cord to a rock near the body and we went back to the surface. Russ and I withdrew to some boulders near shore and our cousins took their boat back upstream a ways.

The sheriff deputies worked off the patrol boat and the coroner used a small flat jon boat with a transport basket. As we watched from the bank, both boats positioned over the balloon float, and the two deputies dove in.

The retrieval operation assembling at Rattlesnake Bar.

The retrieval operation assembling at Rattlesnake Bar.

 

Not too far into the task the coroner jumped up, stripped to his undershorts, and dove in after them. He came back up with the big deputy in tow. Seems the tough guy got sick and upchucked into his scuba gear. Even though it was a solemn and serious occasion, Russ and I found just a little bit of satisfaction out of that.

 

The coroner told us he would have the discovery papers we had to sign at the mortuary early the next day. We spent the rest of the day with relatives and said goodbye the next morning. We stopped at Placerville to sign the papers and started a marathon drive back to Missouri.

Clipping from the Sacramento Bee newspaper July 1962.

Clipping from the Sacramento Bee newspaper, July 1962.

 

Newspaper accounts later erroneously reported finding the body of Walter Anton Wood in 15 feet of water.  It was actually 25 feet.

 

 

Each year about this time, I think of the young drowning victim and his family. He journeyed so far to meet with a fatal accident. We journeyed so far to accidentally find him.

 

 

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Sod House Memories

Sod House

My sister Mary and I standing on the east side of our sod-walled house probably in the mid 1940’s. Dad and Mom had re-plastered the outside giving it a mottled look. They had re-roofed the house adding dormers.

 

The above picture is of a sod-walled house formerly located southwest of St. Francis, Kansas, in Benkelman township.  The house and farmstead were located on a rise about a mile or so south of the Republican River.  I have heard the farm referred to as “The Downy Place.”  A longtime friend of my late father thought that the house was constructed by the Downy family in about 1910.

 

The walls were constructed of Buffalo Grass sod.  The wiry roots were quite evident when the sod was exposed.  A conventional four-sided wood-shingled roof rested on top of the sod walls.  The floor was of regular pine flooring, attached on floor joists resting on stringer supports above the ground.  The walls were twenty-four to twenty-six inches thick.  The inside of the sod walls were plastered with old-fashioned hog hair reinforced lime plaster, and then painted.  The inside partition walls and ceiling were standard frame lumber covered with a fiber wallboard.  Our family stretched poultry netting wire over the outside and pegged it down.  A cement mix was then troweled over the outside.  This is called stucco.  Earlier plaster without wire reinforcement failed to stick for long periods.

The freezing and thawing action during the winter months would cause the cement stucco to crack and break.  My mother was constantly patching the stucco and worrying about mice and the snakes that would follow.  Her worries were justified.   During a visit to the area several years ago, Merle Moberly, a family friend and neighbor from the past, told of being present during a noon meal when a young rattler peeked over at the junction of the ceiling and the top of an outer wall.  He said that there wasn’t much fuss.  My parents quickly dispatched it and carried it from the house and went on with the meal as if it was a normal occurrence.

 

Mary and I

Close-up from picture above.

I was not born in the sod house, but it is the first home that I can remember. However, my double cousin was born in this sod house.  My next youngest sister Mary and I were born in a frame house on a nearby farm that my parents were renting at the time.  We moved to the sod house farm when she was a baby and I was probably two and one-half years old.  My youngest sister Joan was born near the time this picture was taken.  She too, lived in this sod house as a baby.  She was the first of us born in a hospital.  I remember the emergency run and my mother telling my father he did not have much time to make it.

My sister Mary and I appear in this picture.  I think the picture was taken about 1945 or 1946.  It was taken during the winter.  There are no leaves on the tree near the well and garden, and the cold frame used to start garden plants in the early spring is clearly in disuse.  My sister wears lace-up shoes and warm thick stockings.  I have on an ear-flap cap and overalls.  I quit wearing overalls when I became a self-conscious teenager.  In recent years, I’ve rediscovered the comfort and practicability of bib overalls.

 

At first glance the old sod house looks like something from a hardscrabble district.  If it was, we did not know it.  There were two other similar sod houses in the area that I know of.  One was about a mile southeast of our farm.  It was owned by the Owens family.  It was in very good repair at the time.  I don’t think it exists anymore.  There were many sod houses in the county in the beginning.  The early ones were very rough.  It was a treeless country and lumber for construction just was not available.  Kansas winters can be severely cold.  A sod house is easy to heat in the winter and cool in the summer.  We heated ours with coal and used corn cobs for fuel in the kitchen range.  The hand-husked and gathered corn ears were ran through a mechanical sheller that stripped the grain from the cob and left the cob whole.  I have eaten many a biscuit that was baked to perfection in the oven of a kitchen range using corn cobs for fuel.

A closer look tells us much about life in rural Western Kansas in 1945. To the far right, one end of a solar dryer, commonly called a clothes line, is visible.  The chicken house was beyond that.  The little house with a path was somewhere back there discretely hidden from easy view.

The ball bat with the taped handle leaning against the house indicated we were probably interrupted at play for the picture.  The erosion around the base of the house was not from water but from the relentless currents of wind.  The vines on the east facing windows kept the sun out and helped keep the house cool in summer.  In winter they lost their leaves and let the warm sun in.

The bushel basket of fruit jars in the cold frame were being collected and stored for reuse.  As many farm families did, we canned and preserved much of our table fare.  The hoop with the slat cross was a screen used by my mother to sift the chaff out of wheat.  She washed, then dried the wheat in the cook-stove oven.  She ground the cleaned and dry wheat with a hand powered grinder to make flour for whole wheat bread and pancakes.  We grew and produced most of our own food.  The fertile soil grew a good garden when irrigated from the windmill.

One or two coal-oil lanterns always hung by the side door.  The pail and string mops have significance.  During a windstorm fine particles of sand and dust would come through the smallest of cracks.  After a big blow there was always the chore of swabbing the place down.

 

Side of the sod house.

Close-up of side of the sod house.

The pipe protruding from the roof was a support for the radio antenna wire.  The battery-powered radio was a source of news and entertainment.  The resonant voice of Lowell Thomas reported the events of the war.  “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “Amos and Andy” gave us mirth and laughter.  “I Love a Mystery,” led us on thrilling adventures limited only by our own imaginations.  On this radio I first heard Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again” and Eddy Arnold singing Tex Owen’s “The Cattle Call.”

With an old guitar I tried mightily to imitate Gene.  My harried mother finally banished me to the outdoors.  Taking refuge on the seat of the John Deere tractor, I plunked away for hours.  I never succeeded in making a recognizable sound.  After awhile the old guitar mysteriously disappeared.

Only the lower part of the small tower for the Delco wind-driven charger is visible in the picture.  Anchored on top of the dormer, the wind-powered generator charged wet cell storage batteries located in the attic.  They in turn furnished six volt, direct current electricity to the radio and to one lone light bulb on the ceiling of the kitchen.  The batteries had to be serviced periodically. How do I remember the apparatus was six volt?  Because, when the wind stopped and the storage batteries ran down, my father took the battery from the old Model A Ford and ran the radio from that battery.

The fact that the storage batteries in the attic had to be checked regularly led me into one of several close calls during an active childhood.  My father went up the ladder and into the dormer to check the water level in the storage batteries.  An adventuresome family cat followed him up the ladder and hid in the attic.  My father left, closing the dormer door.  A few hours later the cat put up a howl to be rescued.  My mother told me to go open the dormer door and let the cat out.  As I opened the door, a gust of wind caught the door and it knocked me off the roof.  I fell headfirst onto the step below, breaking a board.  When I regained consciousness, I was stretched out on a bed with my anxious parents hovering over me.  They took me to Dr. Peck’s office in St. Francis, and after an examination he pronounced that he could find nothing wrong.  However, I carried one shoulder down for several years, finally growing out of it.

 

It was about that time that my grandfather Cole started calling me “Toughie.”  He was already calling my travel-prone older brother “Bigfoot.”  Not long before the fall from the roof, a horse I was riding fell when an embankment caved off.  I threw myself to the side, but the horse rolled on over me.  The old high back saddle kept the horse’s weight off me (a few inches back or forward and I would not be here telling this story).  The horse got up.  I got up, pulled myself back into the saddle, and went about business as usual.

Getting on a horse was a chore for a kid. I could not reach the stirrup with my foot… My brother buckled a harness strap through the fork of the pommel and left it hanging so I could get ahold of it and pull up.  Once up, I could not reach the stirrups from the top side either.  My father finally bought me a youth saddle. Once I had that saddle, life was better.

 

My brother Wayne “Bigfoot,” was the cowboy among us.  He was an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky teenager.  Wayne started running away from home when he was fifteen.  As he explained, “just to see what was on the other side of the hill.”  Finally the folks just let him come and go as he wanted.  He wanted to be a cowboy, and eventually he did work on several ranches in Nebraska, Colorado, and even in Florida.

The Cowboys

The Cowboys
When my older brother Wayne returned home for a while, the first thing he would do was break any unbroken horses that dad had purchased while he was gone. In a few hours he had the big deep-chested gelding doing anything he asked it to do.
The stupid part-Shetland pony was a different story.
Not many days after this picture was taken, I was riding it along the road and a pheasant flew up out of the road ditch. The pony went crazy and dumped me in the gravel. I had a bad wrist spring as a result.

There was almost a ten year gap between Wayne and me.  The folks had lost an eight-year-old girl ten days after I was born.  She evidently died after a long illness from what we now call polio.  My mother had her hands full with an inquisitive, overactive youngster and a runaway teen.  She often said her worry was that I tried or would try to do every thing my older brother did.  And I did, but I never ran away.  I accepted responsibility early and stayed with it.  Subsequently, my work has let me do many things and taken me to some amazing places.  The adventure stories our Tennessee-born, Texas/New Mexico-homesteader grandfather told us no doubt influenced “Bigfoot” and “Toughie,” but in different ways.

 

A windmill in the corner of the barn lot pumped water to two large stock tanks. It was my job to switch the pipe from a full tank to the empty one.  One full tank had to be held in reserve at all times.  In my mind’s ear I still hear the kee-lunk, kee-lunk of the pumping wind mill.  That sound is a heritage of the Plains born.

Rattlers were commonly found on the farm.  When on foot I usually went protected by a couple of vigilant stock dogs.  One dog was named Teddy, because he resembled a bear.  Teddy was a dedicated snake killer.  He would tease a rattler until it struck at him.  The moment the rattler was stretched out from the strike, Teddy would grab it behind its head.  After a few powerful shakes of Teddy’s head, blood would fly and the snake would start coming apart.  I learned to always keep some distance.  Teddy got bit once in a while, but developed an immunity.  Perhaps, the snakes just did not get through his heavy black fur.  Teddy had a litter-mate we called Timmy.  He was an even-tempered dog, but he was not as smart as Teddy.  Teddy was a natural heeler and made a good stock dog.  Timmy ran at the cow’s head and never learned to round up or drive cattle very well.

Teddy the Dog

Teddy the stock dog stands in front of the wood frame building being moved in near the sod house.
We named him Teddy because he looked like a bear. Don’t you agree?

Badgers were common on the farm.  They were destructive and left dangerous holes for the horses to step in.  One time Teddy and Timmy cornered a badger over in the rough land we used for pasture.  He backed up against a soap weed (yucca plant) and proceeded to fight them off.  Growing tired of the fight, he decided to dig himself in.  Dirt and sand flew every direction.  I watched in amazement as he dug while facing the dogs and holding them off.  He was soon out of sight.  Try as they might they could not dig him out.  If you ever get a chance to look at a badger’s feet up close you will see they look like, well sort of look like miniature shovels with claws.

 

Many of my sod house memories are of the different horses we had.  One mare was very gentle.  She would ride me around until she grew tired of it, then she would lie down.  I could kick and holler to no avail.  When I gave up and stomped off toward the house, she would get up and go to the barn.  Another mare learned that when I rode bareback, she could put her head down, give a slight buck, and slide me off over her head.  It seemed to me that she always picked a patch of sand burrs to do it in.  You haven’t experienced pain until you pull imbedded sand burrs out of your hide.  I put a stop to that nonsense when I got tall enough and strong enough to push my saddle on her and jerk the cinch reasonably tight.  We enjoyed many fun rides along the old irrigation ditch to the west of us.  It was constructed by homesteaders in the 1890’s in a failed attempt to irrigate that dry land.

There was a large depression in a field to the southeast of the sod house.  It was thought to be a former buffalo wallow.  After the field had been worked or after a hard rain, my mother would take us arrowhead hunting.  We often found arrowheads at the wallow site.  A young boy didn’t have to stretch his imagination much to picture Roman Nose or Tall Bull hidden in the grass and weeds, bow and arrow in hand, waiting to ambush the varied types of game that frequented a buffalo wallow.  We found large arrowheads and small “bird” sized arrowheads.  That experience and visits to Beecher’s Island whetted my appetite for frontier history.

During the summer our parents would sometimes let Wayne and I sleep outside.  Because of the rattler problem, we were relegated to making our pallets up on the floor of the hay wagon.  We would go to sleep watching the twinkling stars.  In our minds we were cowboys, camping out on a cattle drive.  In my travels I’ve never found skies equal to Kansas skies, night or day.

In later years, I found that the cattle drovers trail called the Western Trail went through our area.  Perhaps trail cowboys “Teddy Blue” and Tom Wray may have driven Texas cattle across those same buffalo grass and sagebrush hills.  Wray Colorado was named for Tom Wray.  He wintered a Texas herd there and became the first settler in the area.

 

My parents sold the sod house farm in 1947 and moved north into Nebraska.  In 1950 we moved to Missouri.  My brother Wayne was married by that time and stayed out west.  Our mother died an untimely death from cancer in 1956.

 

Dad and House

Our father John Ryan with the sod-walled house in the background. He remembered the touring car as being a Starr brand. He did not own the property at the time but was visiting some one living there.
Dad told me he believed the picture was taken in the 1920’s.

 

I drove my father to Cheyenne County, Kansas for a visit in 1958.  The old sod house was gone.  The sod walls had been torn down and returned to the land they were plowed from fifty-some years before.

Homestead

The old sod house homestead on the horizon viewed from the Highland school site. The sod house was gone by the time this picture was taken in 1958.
For more about Highland School, see the Oct. 24, 2012 post Alma’s Fire Shovel.

 

Other House

Another well-kept sod-walled house in the same community. It was the home of the Rollie Owens family. I remember visiting there as a child. Although it was in good repair, no one was living there when I took this picture in 1958.

When we lived there, my father had moved a frame house from a neighboring farm.  That is the building on the house-mover’s trailer in the above picture with Teddy, our dog. My father had placed it near the sod house and used it for a bunkhouse and storage.  That house had been added to and remodeled into a small home.

 

During a summer vacation in the mid-nineties I stopped in Cheyenne County, rented a plane and pilot, and flew over the farmstead on the way to Beecher’s Island.  Sure enough, the outlines of the old buffalo wallow could be seen from the air.  A Google map fly-over today shows a nice modern farmstead. A sprinkler crop irrigation system is used.  I can still make out the outline of the old buffalo wallow.

Photo From Airplane

Photo taken from the airplane flight over the sod house farm. As you can see here, it is now a modern, well-kept farm.
I was pleased that I could plainly see the outline of the old buffalo wallow where we picked up arrowheads. The outline is visible just below the airplane wing strut. The Republican River is in the tree line in the background.

 

The land of my birth still intrigues me.  In fact, I could say my Sundown Trail started there.

 

Categories: History, Kansas, times gone by | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Christmas Gift From Me to the Sundowntrail Readers

I’d like to share a story from my book Tales From Clear Creek. The story is titled The Horse.

Some backstory to the tale below . . . the horse’s name is not mentioned in the story. My Tennessee-born grandfather came to visit us the same day we bought the horse. We gave my grandfather the honor of naming the colt. He promptly said, “Call it Dixie.” The name would have been more suitable for a mare than a colt, but Granddad said to call him Dixie, and we did. The horse soon learned to come to it. Dixie the horse was always trustworthy and gentle. My younger sisters and kids from the community rode him, yet I would get on him and ride breakneck, chasing cattle.

As noted in one of the stories in Tales From Clear Creek, I sold the horse in 1963. Earl Powers contacted me when I came home on leave between basic training and AIT training. He knew the horse was gentle, and wanted him for his grandchildren to ride. Years later, probably about 1968 or ’69, Earl came into my office at the local electric cooperative and showed me pictures of the horse with at least a half dozen kids sitting on him. They were lined up from his withers to his rump. The horse would have been close to twenty years old at the time Mr. Powers gave me that picture.

 

Dixie Horse picture

Mr. Powers and Dixie

 

I hope you enjoy the story. If you’d like to purchase a copy of Tales From Clear Creek, click the “Books” tab above. To see all the wonderful illustrations done for the book by Tom Runnels, go to my Facebook Page.

Merry Christmas from the Sundown Trail.

 

First Horse

 

First Horse

 

He was just a weanling colt. We bought him at an auction. I rode home in the pickup truck with him. I wrapped my arms around his neck, and talked to him to reassure him. We had other horses, but this one would be mine to break, to train, and ride.

The months went by. He learned to trust me. He let me handle his feet. He grew accustomed to the halter, saddle, and then the bridle. We trekked all over the place. The colt followed me decked out in full riding gear.

We were buddies. He thought he was my peer, my equal. He was a pet and that would cause him to be more difficult to break. I knew I must ride him soon before he grew older and stronger. It took a long time for me to work up the nerve to make that first ride.

Finally it was time. I led him out into the middle of the hay meadow. I fussed with the tack, tightening the cinch on the old rodeo association regulation tree saddle. Made by the Gallup saddle makers of Pueblo, Colorado, it was a splendid, all-around, old-time, working saddle. I figured that once I was firmly anchored in the deep seat, I could ride him out.

I caught my breath, turned the stirrup out, shoved my foot in, and swung on. I hooked the off stirrup and settled in. I had my firm seat.

He turned his head to size up what was happening. I clicked my tongue and nudged him with my right foot. He stepped out, got his head down, and started to buck.

He made several short bone-jarring jumps. Then he bucked sideways. I lost a stirrup, then regained it. It seemed like an eternity. The border fence loomed up beside us. A barb on the top wire caught my pants leg and ripped a hole. I bailed off, fearing injury to the horse or myself.

My knees were weak. I leaned against him, letting him calm down. I let him blow, building up my nerve. I knew I couldn’t stop. I had to finish the job. Finally I led him back out into the meadow.

I stroked his shoulder and talked to him, taking the reins up in my left hand. Mounting up, I kept a tight rein, holding his head up this time.

He began to run. When he started toward the fence, I turned him by pulling his head around. He ran the full length of the meadow and then back again.

He was larger and stronger, but I stayed with him. Out there in the meadow we finally came to terms. I would ride and he would carry. A partnership began that was to last many years. He never bucked again.

His training progressed nicely. He learned to work cattle. We drove them from pasture to pasture or to the barn lot. Nothing fancy was needed, our stock was a mixture of dairy and beef. Dad had given me orders to go easy on the dairy stock.

I decided to train him with the rope. After all, every good stock horse should know how to work under a rope. I started by dropping loops over fence posts. Then I secured the rope to the saddle horn. I would get off and make him back off to tighten the slack. I would jerk and tug on the rope. He would face me and set back on it like a pro.

I shook a loop out, and twirled it around his ears and across his rump, time after time. I would ride alongside and pop the flies off the cows with the loop just to keep him familiar with the rope…

Several weeks later, we were bringing some yearling heifers up from the pasture. The small herd consisted of some Shorthorn and some Jerseys. One of the Jerseys was a little roguish. She had a perfect picture book set of small horns. In fact, she looked just like the picture that we used to see on the condensed milk can.

The cows were filing through the gate when the Jersey decided to make a break for it. The horse wheeled and went after her on his own, but she had a lead on us and was about to get away. In frustration, I flipped the loop after her.

Then things started to happen. The loop floated out over her back and settled perfectly over her horns. The horse went into a slide, throwing his weight to his rear legs. He was as solid as an oak tree when the heifer hit the end of the rope. She went airborne, turning a cartwheel through the air and landed on her side with a sickening thud.

I jumped off the horse and raced to the heifer thinking I had killed her. I jerked the loop off her horns and she just laid there groaning with her eyes rolled back in her head. I nudged her with the toe of my boot. To my relief she finally scrambled up and trotted towards the gate.

I coiled the rope and started to get back on the horse. Looking toward the barn, I saw my Dad standing in the doorway. “Bring it here,” he said. Head down, I shuffled over and reluctantly handed the rope to him.

The rope disappeared for several weeks and then one day it suddenly appeared on a nail in the feed alley. I watched it for several days. Finally, I slipped it down and tied it back on the saddle.  The horse and I were back in business. I never had anymore trouble from that heifer. She knew I could reach out and touch her!

 

Categories: Missouri, times gone by | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The Copper Kettle Gun Show

I will be signing my book Tales From Clear Creek at The Copper Kettle Gun Show, Ashland, MO Saturday Oct. 4. Stop by and see me at The Copper Kettle this Saturday!
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Historic Gun Display

Here is the information from the historic gun display I had at the Missouri State Fair this week. Many thanks to those of you who stopped by my booth and said hello.

Missouri State Fair

 

For those of you at the fair, if you found my book Tales from Clear Creek interesting, here are some blogs I’ve posted in the past about similar adventures.

Pre-Clear Creek Days: The Rusty Lantern, Alma’s Fire Shovel,

Post-Clear Creek Days: Lymon and the Broken WindshieldHarvest 1961

 

 

The Ealer Pennsylvania Long Rifle

longrifle

This gun is marked on the top land of the barrel near the breech; Ealer gun factory Phila. PA. The top land of the barrel is lightly engraved with an elliptic design. It is a full stock fifty caliber cap and ball with a 39 inch barrel. The right side of the buttstock has a brass oval cap box. The Buck horn type rear sight and a very fine German silver front sight are original. I purchased this gun at a rural auction several years ago. The auctioneer said it was from a Westphalia Missouri, area estate. The stock was in extremely poor condition with pieces missing. All the iron was there with the exception of the lock screw and tang screw. Nails had been substituted for these screws. The gun was probably made in the late 1840’s to the mid 1850’s. Note: Percussion caps were sold by St. Louis merchants as early as the 1830’s.

I dismantled the gun and cleaned it of dirt and scale rust. I inlaid pieces of maple to replace missing wood on the toe, both sides of the breech and along the fore stock. Screws similar to the original lock and tang screws were installed. Ordinarily it is best to leave old guns as found. This one was in very poor shape and I felt that it was a splendid piece of history that should be saved. As I researched its maker I found history indeed!

Lewis W. Ealer was born in 1791 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his gunsmith training in Maryland. He was first in the Fells Point area of Baltimore in business as a master locksmith and gunsmith. He later moved to Oldtown, Maryland. He had fought in the War of 1812, serving as a private in Hamilton’s rifle regiment, Pennsylvania militia. Ealer would have been 21 years old.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1837 and continued to follow the gunsmith trade. The 1839 Philadelphia Business Directory shows his occupation as gunsmith. The Federal Census lists him in 1840 and1850 as a gunsmith. The 1850 census shows that Lewis and Susanna had four daughters and one son. Their son being the youngest child at l8 years of age. The son Franklin A. Ealer is listed in later Federal and local censuses only once as a gunsmith, all others as a retailer. Apparently Lewis and Franklin were in business or working in Lancaster County in 1857 because they are shown in the county business and occupation records.

Although Lewis W. Ealer was in his Autumn years at age 71 he enlisted in the 68th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, August 23, 1862. His gun making experience was no doubt valuable to the military. Some records show him as a Lieutenant and others list him as a Sergeant Major. He was listed as a 1st Lieutenant when he was wounded on July 2, 1863 at the Peach Orchard during the battle of Gettysburg. He died of his wounds on October 6, 1863.

 

Bibliography

Kentucky Rifle Association
United States Census, 1820, 1840, 1850, 1860
War of 1812 Service Records
U. S. Civil War Soldiers – Ancestry.com
1890 Veterans Schedules, Provo Utah
Philadelphia Directory, 1839
Lancaster County, PA Business and Occupation Records 1857
Kauffman, Henry J., The Pennsylvania – Kentucky Rifle pp. 216
The Lancaster Co. Historical Society – The Muster Rolls of the First Regiment Second
Brigade, Pennsylvania by Brigadier General John Adams
Bates, Samuel P., History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-65

Categories: American History, antique guns, Civil War, guns, History, times gone by | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Rusty Lantern

I wrote this story years ago, long before lanterns became valuable antiques.  The story, or condensed versions, has been picked up and ran by several publications over the years.

A little backstory on Molly the mule.  A “Molly” is a name sometimes used for a female mule.  My older brother was in his mid-teens at the time of this story. He was a cowboy. He had ridden every horse on the place.  But the mule was his nemesis.  The hands mentioned in the story would talk him into trying to ride her and then place bets.  The odds were long but he was game.  They took her into a newly-plowed field close by, so he would have a softer landing.  Molly threw him off several times and then she let him ride clear to the other end of the field.  Once there, she unceremoniously dumped him and made him walk back.  End of game, she was tired of playing.

 
 
 

A story of days gone by.

 
It was rusted in a place or two, covered with grease and dust. The globe was still intact. The auctioneer set it in for a dollar and started begging for a dollar fifty, wanting someone to get him off the hook. He turned it in his hands and I saw the word Dietz embossed across the top. Dietz kerosene lanterns, they must have made a million of them. They were a common item in rural America a generation ago.

Dietz and John Deere, I could spell the words long before first grade.

I nodded my head and I swear he breathed a sigh of relief. I took it home and hung it on the stairwell.

On impulse, I worked the lever and raised the globe. Now, there are sounds and sights that we remember for only a day or a year and there are some we remember for a lifetime. The screak of the lantern took me back to my childhood on the Kansas plains …

 
 

The kitchen is warm, the smell of sausage, biscuits and gravy, and fresh coffee permeate the predawn air. The hands and family all set at the long table and the platters empty quickly.

We pick our corn by hand. One to three corn huskers work at it most of the winter. They are paid a few cents per bushel and board. I think the board is the most important part of their wages.

Breakfast finished, we put on the heavy clothes and step out on the porch to light the lanterns. The frozen ground crunches underfoot as they move to the barn.

The horses are waiting to be grained and Dad moves through the feed way dropping corn in the feed boxes as the hands put the harness on by lantern light.

“Watch that Molly son, she’ll bite.”

He is right, she will bite, unless she sees that you have a club handy. I guess we keep her because she is good to break young horses to harness with.

It is getting light and there is a flurry of activity. The harness creaks and chains jangle as they bring the teams to the wagons. Ned, Jim, Buck, and Shorty, and the others. They dutifully step across the wagon tongue and back in to be hitched. All but Shorty, every morning she balks at stepping over the tongue. Every morning the hands pop her on the rump with the end of the line and she steps over. She seems to think that is a required procedure.

The wagons rattle as they jolt over frozen ruts on the way to the field. Soon the sound of ears hitting the wagon backboards can be heard. The hands shout the horse’s names and few choice words in the clear morning air. Mom doesn’t allow cuss words around the house, but they are given freely in the field!

By this time he is milking and the lantern’s warm glow is lost in the cold morning light. I’m getting cold and start to whimper.

He ignores my pleas to go to the house, until he finishes milking. He rises from the milk stool and takes the lantern down. He raises the globe and blows out the flame.

“Here,” he says. “Take this back to the porch. Go in and warm up while you are at it.”

I grab the smelly lantern and scamper across the barnyard mindful of its warmth in my hands…
 
 
Dusk to dawn security lights, weatherproof lamps, three way switched circuits, and remote controls are a part of my life now. I have no use for an old kerosene lantern, but I’ll leave it hang in the stairwell. When I go by I’ll work the lever and listen to the screak of the globe going up, and remember how it was in the times gone by. 
 

Molly the Mule

The left foreground wagon is a two horse hitch. Oops! That is Molly the mule, and a horse to her left. I have ridden the wagon seat on the front wagon with Granddad Ryan. He would always buy me an ice cream cone after the wagons were unloaded at the grain elevator.
The rationing of gasoline during WW II did not bother my Grandfather Ryan. Even though we had tractors and access to trucks, he hauled his stored grain to market with horse power. The two back wagons are hooked together in tandem. Both the tandem hitch and the right front wagon seem to be three horse hitch.


 

Walt and his Uncle

Here I am (on the left) with my Uncle Art back in the days of rusty lanterns. Art Cole was a funny guy. Everything he said or did was spiced with humor. He was a good guy and my favorite Uncle. He worked in the California Citrus Industry. When he had time off he enjoyed visiting us on the farm.
As Mom prepared to snap the picture, he said, “Quick, stand up on the saddle.” We did, and instead of the “run-of-the-mill” cowboy picture it was forever different and a lasting memory along the Sundown Trail.

Categories: farming, Photography, times gone by | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Five Interesting Things About The Battle of Beecher’s Island

Recently I wrote a blog about The Battle of Beecher’s Island.  There were some interesting stories about this battle that I did not include.  I’ve listed them here.

 

1) The man the battle was named after had several other family members who were in the public light.

Lieutenant Beecher was the nephew of Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. He was also the nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, known for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Lt. Beecher’s father was Reverend Charles Beecher, a well-known evangelist of his time. Only a short time before the death of the Lieutenant, the family had lost his two younger sisters in a drowning accident. Beecher’s last words before he expired were of concern for his mother.

 

2) The indian chief refused to lead his men because he was afraid he would die.  After he was talked into leading the second charge, he died.  Also he was not a chief.

Roman Nose had initially refused to join the fight at Beecher’s Island because the night before he had unwittingly violated a taboo.  As a guest at a Sioux Chief’s lodge, he had been served a piece of meat taken from the fire by an iron fork.  He believed that the iron would draw bullets.  His men talked him into leading the second charge, where he was shot and killed.

Contrary to many reports, Roman Nose was not a chief. He was a warrior with the reputation of being a fearless battle leader. The Cheyenne had camped outside of Ft. Laramie and Roman Nose observed the soldiers as they drilled. Roman Nose copied many of their tactics. He was a large impressive individual, 6 foot 3 inches tall. His given name was Sautie (the bat). The soldiers nicknamed him “Roman Nose” because of his large hook nose. He took it as a compliment and adopted the name in English and in Cheyenne (Woqini).

 

3) One solider fought half the battle with an arrowhead in his skull.  

Early in the battle, Scout Frank Harrington was struck in the forehead by an arrow. He asked another scout to pull the arrow from his head. The arrow shaft came loose from the arrowhead. They could not dislodge the arrowhead. Harrington fought on with the flint arrow point sticking from his forehead. In the heat of the battle an Indian musket ball struck the arrowhead and dislodged it. Harrington survived and his wound eventually healed.

 

4) A rattlesnake almost ended a rescue attempt, but was stopped with chewing tobacco.

Forsyth knew they were in a bad spot. He selected Jack Stilwell and an older frontiers man, Pierre Trudeau, to sneak through the Indian lines under the cover of darkness and go to Ft. Wallace for help. The next day they hid in a buffalo wallow to await darkness again. A group of Indians rode near. The two Scouts flattened against the wall of the wallow and waited. The Indians stopped nearby. A large rattlesnake slithered through the grass and dropped into the wallow. It crawled towards the Scouts. Stilwell silently spit a big wad of tobacco juice right onto the snake’s head. The snake made a hasty retreat. Finally the unsuspecting Indians moved on.

 

5) The youngest fighter was only 16.  

Jack Stilwell was 19, but the youngest Scout was a 16-year-old Jewish boy from New York City. He asked to join the Scouts and was turned down at first, but Forsyth relented and let him join them. His name was Sigmund Schlesinger. Forsyth wrote later that he preformed with great bravery. Schlesinger went home to New York City and told the story of The Battle of Beecher’s Island many times.

 

Categories: American History, Civil War, History, Military, Missouri, soldiers, times gone by | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Battle of Beecher’s Island

A Place Called Beecher’s Island

Church was over and the group of friends were looking for something to do that Sunday afternoon.  They were teenagers.  Beecher’s Island, Colorado, made a nice outing.  Just across the Kansas/Colorado state line, it was about twenty-five miles from St. Francis, Kansas, their hometown.  They loaded up the old Dodge touring car and a Model T Ford.  For a group of teenagers in the late 1920’s, it was an enjoyable ride across the Kansas/Colorado prairie.  They still wore their Sunday-go-to-church clothes.

The group’s destination was a small park on the Arikaree branch of the Republican River.  It was named Beecher’s Island in honor of Lieutenant Beecher, the army officer that lost his life there.  This area is the site of a battle between Frontier Scouts and a large Indian force.  Like most streams in that dry country, the Arikaree is a wide, shallow stream, with sandy banks and bottom.  It was subject to flooding in the winter and spring months, drying down to a mere trickle between a few pools of water in the summer and fall.

Thirty years after the 1868 battle, some Scouts returned to mark the site and start an annual September reunion of the survivors.  The survivors have been gone for many years, but the annual reunion is still held in September each year.  The September 24, 1903 issue of the St. Francis newspaper reported that four of the surviving Scouts attended the annual reunion.  Some of the descendants of the Scouts have attended in modern times.

I recall my family attending the get-togethers when I was a child.  I think I remember attending church services in an old round-topped assembly hall building.  The grounds form a park belonging to the Beecher’s Island Association.  An Obelisk with the names of the Scouts on it commemorates the battle.

Obelisk

The bottom of the Obelisk on the grounds. The Scouts are named on the other sides.

 

After many floods, only a small vestige of the original island remained as my mother and her teenage friends walked along the sandy shore that day.  She worried about scuffing and damage to her dress-up shoes.  Her high heels sank into the sand and one struck something.  She stopped to take the shoes off.  A friend suggested that she might want to check out what the heel had touched.  They dug in the heel print and retrieved a musket ball.

Since the Army Scouts were shooting .52 cal. Spencer rifles and .44 cal. Colt revolvers, the much larger caliber lead ball would have came from an Indian musket.  The ball had a distinct crease in it.  It appeared to have struck a saddle ring or a belt buckle.

Through the years my mother kept the lead ball in a small box, with arrowheads she had found in a former buffalo wallow on our Cheyenne County, Kansas farm.  She stored the box in a drawer of her sewing machine cabinet.  The story of the musket ball intrigued me through the years.  It nourished my interest in Beecher’s Island and the western frontier.

Sisters

Twin sisters in the late 1920’s. My mother is on the right.
She was struck down by cancer in mid-life. Her fraternal twin lived into her 80’s.

 

The Battle of Beecher’s Island

During the Civil War, westward expansion slowed.  The Indian Tribes of the plains took advantage of the lull and formed alliances with former enemy tribes.  Together they vowed to stop the migration of the whites.  The Indians attacked the new settlers and railroad crews with a savage vengeance not seen before the Civil War.

The regular Army had difficulty in mobilizing and pursuing the raiding Indians.  A large force of soldiers and the required support force just couldn’t move fast enough to catch the raiders.  General Sheridan authorized the formation of a special strike force.  A well-armed group of 50 civilian frontiersmen under the command of regular army officers was formed.  The Scouts were issued Spencer seven shot repeating rifles, Colt six shot revolvers, blankets, horse gear, and other supplies.

Major George A. Forsyth of General Sheridan’s staff was placed in charge.  Forsyth had been on Sheridan’s staff since the last year of the Civil War.  In fact, Major George Forsyth made the famous ride to Winchester with Sheridan.  Forsyth had been breveted a colonel for bravery during the Civil War, giving him the right to the title but not the pay.

Second in command was Lieutenant Fred H. Beecher.  Beecher also had a Civil War background, having suffered a leg wound at Gettysburg that left him with a limp.  The surgeon assigned to the Scout group was Dr. J. H. Mooers, a former major and surgeon in the Union army.  Many of the civilian Scouts had been in the Union or Confederate service.  Scout William H. H. McCall had been a brevet brigadier general in the Union army.  With the exception of one, all the Scouts had military or frontier experience.

Forsyth picked up 30 Scouts at Ft. Harker and proceeded to Ft. Hays.  At Ft. Hays he signed on 20 more men to finish his allotment of 50 Scouts.  Among the Scouts was a former army Scout and interpreter named Sharpe Grover.  Grover had married a Sioux woman and lived for a time with the Indians.  He was still recuperating from a wound in his back that he had received a month earlier in a fight with hostile Indians.

The Scouts traveled west and north to Beaver Creek and found much old sign of a large group of Indians.  Since the sign was old, they returned to Ft. Wallace and Sheridan City, the temporary end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, then under construction.  They arrived at Ft. Wallace on the evening of September 5th and found that a wagon train had been attacked.  Two teamsters had been killed.  The surviving teamsters estimated the raiding party to be about 20 strong.

Forsyth drew rations and struck out at daylight on September 6th, to track the Indians.  The Indian raiders broke up into smaller groups to foil attempts to follow them.  Grover and Forsyth suspected the move, picked a track, and kept following.  They would lose the track and circle around the area until they found it again. The process took several days.  They crossed the South Fork of the Republican in the proximity of the modern day Kansas/Colorado state line.  On the north side of the river they found signs of much larger numbers.  In fact, they knew they had found a large village on the move.

On September 16, they stopped early to camp in a large open valley on the south side of the Arikaree River, a tributary of the Republican River.  The valley had good grass for the horses and pack mules, and the stream had fresh water..  There was a small island in the stream near the camp.  Forsyth later described the island as about sixty yards long and thirty yards wide.  It was covered by grass and brush.  A lone small cottonwood tree was growing at the upstream end.  The island was about three to four feet higher than the stream bed.

Air Photo of Beecher's Island

I took this picture on a flyover of Beecher’s Island area heading west about 20 years ago. The island would have been just past the left end of the modern day bridge. On the right is the Association grounds. At the time of the battle there were no trees excepting the lone cottonwood on the island. Floods have changed that and obliterated the island.

 

The Scouts had not seen an Indian, but suspected they were being watched.  They were indeed being watched.  A short distance upstream, around a bend the Indians had an ambush set up.

By stopping early the Scouts had unwittingly saved themselves.  The frustrated Indians went back to their camp and considered their next move.  The large Indian force, later estimated from 500 to 1,000 strong, was made up of North and Southern Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapahoe.  While the chiefs debated the next move, a group of young braves anxious to get at the hated whites and demonstrate their warrior skills, made their own plans.

A small group of mounted Indians struck just at daylight, rattling dry hides and yelling in an attempt to stampede the horses.  However, thanks to their experience and military know-how, the Scouts had their mounts well secured and many of the Scouts were up and ready for trouble.  Only six horses were lost.

Forsyth ordered the men to secure their mounts, stand their ground and return fire.  After a short skirmish the Indians retreated.  It was soon evident that a larger force was assembling around the battleground.  Indians came into view, upstream, across the river and on the grassy plain in front.  Only the downriver valley, the way the Scouts came in the night before, was left open as the Indians closed in.  Forsyth, Grover, and McCall recognized it for what it was.  A trap!  Forsyth ordered the Scouts to retreat to the Island, tie their horses and start digging rifle pits.

The Indians were both surprised and enraged at the maneuver.  It took them time to regroup and organize their attack.  During this time the Scouts distributed ammunition and continued digging rifle pits in the sand.  Two Scouts were killed and several were wounded by Indian sharpshooters.  Forsyth was the first to be wounded, taking a bullet in his right thigh as he directed the fortifications.  He would receive two more wounds later on.  The Scouts withering rifle fire stopped the first charge.  The Indians regrouped and changed their tactics.

The Indians were not prepared to attack a dug-in enemy with seven shot repeating rifles.  According to George Bent, the educated son of fur trader William Bent and his wife Owl Woman, a Southern Cheyenne and daughter of a Cheyenne Medicine Man, the Indians were armed with bows and arrows, lances, assorted muskets, and rifles picked up off other battlefields.

 

*Side note on George Bent
George and his brother Charles were in a Military Academy in St. Louis when the Civil War started.  George enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 17 and fought at Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge and other battles before his capture.  He was spotted in the prisoner camp in St. Louis.  Members of the Bent family and his father’s political friends obtained his release.  He went to Westport, joined a wagon train and returned home to Bent’s Fort.  He said he had not been home in 10 years.  Once there, George Bent embraced his mother’s Indian heritage and lived the rest of his life with the Cheyenne.

There were two renegade white men present with the Indians at Beecher’s Island.  Many would later claim that George was also in the Beecher’s Island fight.  He was in other fights, but he never admitted to being at Beecher’s Island.  However, he was able to give a good description of the battle from the Indians’ viewpoint.  In my opinion, Forsyth and Bent give the most reliable accounts of the battle.  Other writers of the period seem to use the bravado dime novel style that was common at that time.

 

The Indians regrouped and prepared for a full-fledged charge to overrun the island.  Roman Nose, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier War Chief, was persuaded to lead the charge.  He had refused to join the fight previously because the night before he had unwittingly violated a taboo.  As a guest at a Sioux Chief’s lodge, he had been served a piece of meat taken from the fire by an iron fork.  He believed that the iron would draw bullets.

The Indians posted rifles on the banks to keep the Scouts down in their rifle pits.  A mounted force of several hundred Indians led by Roman Nose and another chief approached in a headlong charge from the downriver side of the island.  They again intended to run full tilt over the Scouts.  The entrenched riflemen calmly shot down line after line of charging Indians.  At the last second the charge broke and skirted around both sides of the Island.  Roman Nose and his horse were both downed at this time.  The other Indian leader had been killed early in the charge.  Nineteen-year-old Jack Stillwell was credited with killing Roman Nose.

The Indians regrouped and charged again with large losses.  By this time, Lieutenant Beecher had been killed and five more Scouts were dead with Dr. Mooers mortally wounded.  Fourteen other Scouts were also wounded.  All of the horses had been killed by the Indians.  The Scouts were out of rations and later resorted to eating horse meat and one coyote that wandered too close.

Forsyth prepared to send Scouts Stillwell and Trudeau out on foot to Fort Wallace for help.  The 110 mile journey took them four days and nights.  On September 19, it appeared that the Indians were withdrawing.  Forsyth sent two more men out after dark with a dispatch to Ft. Wallace.  These Scouts, Donovan and Pliley, struck south and after two days intersected the Ft. Wallace to Denver road.  They soon made contact along the road with Col. Carpenter of the Tenth Calvary and his troop of “Buffalo Soldiers” as the African American troops were called by the Indians.  The Colonel sent a messenger on to Ft. Wallace and proceeded at once to assist the Scouts.

The Scouts spent a total of nine days on the island.  Of 51 Scouts, 5 were killed and 15 wounded.  The island was named in honor of the fallen Lt. Beecher.  It was later determined 75 Indians were killed and hundreds wounded.  Years later a Sioux Indian, talking to Forsyth, confirmed the number killed at 75.  The Indian then opened his shirt and displayed the scars of his own wounds from the Beecher’s Island battle.

Beecher’s Island.  My mother visited it before me, and I have visited there several times as well along the Sundown Trail.

West

Looking west from the location of the island. The bluff in the background is mentioned by Forsyth as the one where the squaws and children gathered to cheer the warriors on.

 

 

*Technical note:  The arms of the Scouts have been called rifles and the next writer will call them carbines.  Forsyth called the Scout’s shoulder arms rifles.  He also said they slung them across their back…  The longer barrel rifles had sling mounts, carbines have saddle rings.  I take Forsyth at his word on this one.  Also, in comparing my mother’s musket ball, I used .52 caliber to compare to the Spencers because that is the actual bullet size.  Normally they designate the Spencer by the cartridge case size of .56 caliber.  Thought I should explain, before I get called on it.

 

Information for the above article was obtained from:

My family’s historical comments and local lore.  Letters and papers of George A. Forsyth from the Manuscripts Collection, Stephen H. Hart Library, Colorado  Historical Society, Denver CO and The Colorado State Archives.  The Story of  the Soldier, by George A. Forsyth, published by D. Appleton and Company, 1900.  The Beecher Island Battle Ground Memorial Association.

 

Recommended reading:

Indian Fights and Fighters
Cyrus Townsend Brady  1904
Republished  1971  By the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska

Life of George Bent: Written from His Letters
George E. Hyde 1968
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma

(The struggle for the plains as seen through an Indian’s eyes.)

 

Categories: American History, Civil War, History, Military, Missouri, soldiers, times gone by | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Harvest 1961

It was the last of May in 1961. Twenty of us were following the harvest to make some money for college. In addition there was the supervisor, a mechanic, a gasoline truck driver, and a man and wife team that cooked our meals. The combine outfit was owned by Norman Hamm of Perry, Kansas. His family started the harvest crew in the 1940’s. It was the largest one-man owned outfit going. They called it Hammtown.

 

Johnson City, Kansas

Lined up and ready to move out near Perryton, Texas. We could be loaded and ready to move in one hours time.

 

The harvest equipment consisted of ten new Massey Ferguson 95 self-propelled combines. They were transported on ten shop-made trailers pulled by ten 1959 Chevrolet two-ton trucks. Other support equipment included bunkhouses made out of truck and bus bodies. The diner was a bus body trailer complete with kitchen and a table that would seat fourteen at a time. It was pulled by a truck equipped with a water tank, generator and freezer and other supplies. The diner was supplied with electricity by the generator. All the equipment with the exception of the combines was painted light blue with white tops.

A shower house on wheels with a gas hot water heater and water supplied through a hose connected to the supply truck water tank kept us cleaned up. When we reached our next stop the hoses and drop cords were placed on the ground between trailers. The cooks had their own private trailer. They put in long days cooking for us right there where we camped in the fields. When on the road we ate in restaurants.

 

Hammtown Sleeper

My bunk house, the Hammtown Sleeper. A converted school bus. Yes, that is me.

 

I was already an experienced and licensed truck driver. This put me behind the steering wheel of a truck pulling a combine at the start. Ten of us with combine and farm equipment experience were selected to operate the combines in the field. The combine operators also drove the truck-trailer rig hauling their assigned combines on the road. The other ten guys were assigned the job of driving the trucks hauling grain between the combine and the bins and commercial grain elevators. It was a different time, and I don’t think many of them held a commercial license. Back then it was called a chauffeur’s license.

We left Perry, Kansas early Memorial Day morning and headed south, first on the Kansas turnpike and then on the Oklahoma turnpike, and turned south toward Texas. We made camp somewhere in Oklahoma and arrived at the Waggoner Estates Ranch near Vernon, Texas late the next day. I had read of Dan Waggoner and the ranch’s place in history. At the time it was said to be the second largest ranch in the nation after the King Ranch. I believe it still holds that distinction.

Waggoner Estates Ranch

The main entrance to the 55,000 acre Waggoner Estates Ranch. The Ranch’s famous Quarter Horse Stallion, Poco Bueno (little good one) is buried near the entrance.

 

The first couple days there we were putting the combines in order. Putting the belts on, lubricating and adjusting took up most of our time. We did not get paid for downtime but we got our bunk and meals furnished. The meals were outstanding.

The farmer in me noticed that the wheat was short and thin and certainly looked to me to be low yielding. I asked a ranch employee about it. He agreed, saying that it had been overgrazed during the winter. But, he explained that the management was not concerned, if it yielded enough to pay the combine bill. “After all,” he said, “The ranch makes its money from oil, horses and cattle.” The wheat got better as we got further into the fields.

We cut the wheat in blocks called a land, with five combines to a land. The largest continual field of wheat consisted of 2,200 acres. The Massey Ferguson model 95 combines were considered to be some of the best machines at the time. They were manufactured at Toronto, Canada. On a good day we could cut 750 acres total. We were told the combines cost around $7,500 each. The Chrysler six-cylinder engine was mounted sideways and located under the operator’s platform. Controls were mounted on the platform in front of the operator. The operator was seated on the platform out in the open. There were no air-conditioned cabs. Hats or caps and shirts were advised. Some of us went shirtless as time went on.

We were on the Wagner Ranch about ten days. It rained several times while we were there. Rain, of course, kept us out of the field for a day or two. The supervisors were good to us. They would load us in a truck and take us to town, to a movie, or in one case a county fair. We were warned that if we got into trouble, we were on our own. I drew $20.00 of my pay. That lasted me the entire trip.

 

 

Of the twenty harvesters, most were in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest harvester was a 29-year-old Englishman. The rumor was that he came over on a work or tourist visa. He wanted to see the real United States and somebody in Topeka sent him to Hammtown. Guiles was his first name. I have forgotten his last.

I mean no disrespect, but Guiles was a bit obtuse and most of the time downright obnoxious. He left us about halfway through the trip. He decided he wanted to see Denver, Colorado. They had sent him to the heartland with a bunch of fun-loving youngsters. He left us with a lot of stories to tell. I will share a few of the most humorous ones before I move on. I imagine he has a lot of harvester stories to tell, also.

Guiles was prematurely bald. His head was slick as an onion. The first day we told him he needed to get a straw hat. He had already told us what he thought of cowboys. He let us know in his customary rough language that he was not going to wear a “#@!% bloody cowboy hat.” Even though several of us wore them.

After a couple days of Texas sun, his old bald pate was as red as the combines we operated. We saw him slip a five dollar bill to the cooks and they brought him a straw hat back from their trip to town. He promptly punched the crease out of it, saying he did not want to look like a bloody cowboy.

In that level country, the roads were wide with shallow ditches on each side. Guiles, lacking experience, was assigned to drive a truck to the grain bins at the railroad. Of course, they drive on the left side of the road in England. Guiles just couldn’t bring himself to drive in the right lane. He would drive his truck down the middle of the road. Barreling down the middle, he yielded to no one.

One morning a deputy sheriff car showed up just after breakfast. A tall Texas lawman with his pants legs tucked into his cowboy boots unfolded himself from the car and stated he wanted to talk to us. We gathered around. He reached into the car and got his ten gallon cowboy hat and placed it squarely on his head. He wore a regular western-style gun belt with a holstered sixshooter, ivory grips and all. He put his eyes on every one of us before he spoke.

“Somebody from this outfit has been running people off the road. All your trucks look alike. They can’t tell which one it is, just yet. If he don’t stop it, he is going to get to see what the inside of my jail looks like.” We all knew who it was, and some were watching Guiles. He had an absolute look of horror on his face.

When Guiles pulled out of the field with his first load of wheat that morning, he had mastered the art of driving on the righthand side. I never heard of another complaint about his driving. I think his opinion of cowboys had changed, also.

 

We loaded up and pulled off the Waggoner Estates Ranch on June 10, turning north up the Texas panhandle at Childress. North of Childress we crossed the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, east of the lower end of the Palo Duro Canyon. On we rolled over the Salt or Middle Fork and then across the North Fork of the Red River. At normal intervals the combines and support equipment took up about a mile of highway.

Perryton, Texas

On the Julius Johns farm at Johnson City, Kansas. The wheat is harvested and we are loaded up, ready to travel on.

 

We went through some country that I vowed I would visit again. The Canadian River area is some of the prettiest country I have seen. Yes, I have been back there to visit. Our destination was Perryton, Texas. We cut wheat southeast of there for several days. We broke camp and crossed into the Oklahoma panhandle. The caravan went through Liberal, Kansas and then west on to Hougoton. At Hougoton we turned north again and crossed the South Fork of the Cimarron River.

We setup camp near Johnson City and cut wheat around there and Ulysses. One of the wheat farmers we worked for at Johnson City had an airplane. We set up camp near the grass airstrip. One day the farmer’s two teenage daughters came out to the plane. It was obvious that they were dressed to go somewhere. A more adventurous youth struck up a conversation by asking them where they were going. They told him that the family was flying to Denver, Colorado to do some shopping. That was the closest big town. Denver would have been approximately 250 air miles.

The early settlers in that part of the country often referred to it as a sea of land. In 1961 it was mostly dry land farming. Now most of the farms are irrigated by sprinklers and ditch.

Having spent my early childhood on the great plains, the area was not entirely foreign to me. My Grandfather Ryan had owned land over the state line in Bent County, Colorado. In 1915 my maternal grandfather purchased a new steam engine and threshing machine in Amarillo, Texas. He moved north, threshing grain virtually over the same route we took almost 50 years later. Of course he threshed bundled and shocked wheat. He took several years to make the trip north. During the offseason he built houses and worked as a blacksmith around Liberal and several other towns. He finally traded his threshing rig for a blacksmith shop in Cheyenne County, Kansas.

On the move again, we crossed the the Arkansas River near Syracuse and stopped at Tribune. The cool weather and the rain had slowed the ripening process. We laid over a week at Tribune to wait for the wheat to ripen. In that dry expansive country each county seat had a park with a community swimming pool. We were allowed to set up our camp at the back of their park and use the swimming pool. The day we pulled in, there were only a few people at the pool. The next day it was swarming with girls. The word had got out that Hammtown was in town!

Tribune, Kansas

Jerry Parnell poses on the fender of his rig, at Tribune, Kansas.

 

Before I leave the subject of girls. I will tell of another humorous guy. His name was Doug Adams. He attended college in Arkansas and was a basketball referee on the side. He was a cut-up, with a gimmick he used. He would approach girls, on a street corner, in a restaurant or store. He would say in his best syrupy Arkansas drawl, “Excuse me ma’am. Do you know Doug Adams?”

Almost always they answered sincerely, “No, I don’t think I do.”

He would stick out his hand and say, “How would you like to meet him?” He always got a laugh and sometimes they actually shook hands.

I have forgotten most of my harvest friend’s names. I wish I had written all of them down. But, I remember the name Doug Adams.

 

We were of many locations and origins. I remember one youngster hired along the way. He was a replacement for a grain-hauler that had quit. He was probably 17 or 18. The young man was of very small stature. He wore a leather jacket with the picture of a wolf’s head painted on the back. He was asked by one prankster about the picture. He explained proudly that it was the symbol of the gang he belonged to. It was called the Wolf Pack. His tormenter said, “You don’t look like a wolf. You look more like a coyote to me. I am just going to call you Coyote!” The nickname stuck. Each time one of them called him Coyote he would get mad and want to fight. The little guy could not fight his way out of the proverbial wet paper sack.

One day I decided to intervene. I stepped in between and told them that it was time to leave him alone. I explained that he was like the rest of us, there because he wanted or needed a job. The same guy that named him piped up, “Listen to Ryan preaching a sermon. I reckon we should just call him Deacon.” For the rest of the tour, some called me Deacon, but they left the little feller alone.

Number 10 Truck and Combine

A shirtless Walt poses with his rig, the number 10 truck and combine, somewhere in Kansas.

 

Next, we continued north across both branches of the Smokey Hill River and cut wheat east of Mt. Sunflower. It is not a mountain. It is just a rise in the prairie. It is the highest elevation in Kansas. We turned east at Goodland and went near Oberlin. After cutting wheat there, we went north into Nebraska. Chappell on the south side of the Platte River was our next harvest stop. We cut on a farm west of Chappell in the Platte River bottoms.

Again, along the Sundown Trail we touch a bit of history: As our combine caravan crossed the main street of Chappell, Nebraska that July day in 1961, furniture store owner Dick Cabela was starting a fishing lure mail-order business just down the street… It is one of those, wish-I-had-thought-of-that moments.

The Sand Hills rose up on the north side of the Platte. Each morning as we sat on our combines waiting to start, we would watch a herd of antelope go to water. They would walk single file down a path out of the hills and proceed to a windmill supplied stock watering tank. They would mill around the tank until we fired up the combines. When the combines roared into action they would run for the hills.

The river bottom area had an abundance of deer and other wild game. To protect their fawns from the coyotes, the does had hidden them out in the wheat. The older fawns would jump up and run, but the very young ones would lay there and let us run over them. We learned to watch for them and jerk the header bar control up as we passed over, to spare them and leave some cover.

From Chappell we went to Lodgepole. When we finished at Lodgepole we traveled through the Nebraska Sand Hills. At Valentine we crossed over into South Dakota. We finished the season cutting wheat on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Normally the outfit would have went on into North Dakota and Montana, but it had been a poor crop year in those areas. We turned Hammtown south and journeyed home a month early.

 

Hammtown no longer exists. They ceased the harvest operation several years ago. Harvest 1961, remains a cherished memory along the Sundown Trail.

 

Group Picture

We pose for a group picture in South Dakota, before heading home. The man and lady on the left kept us fed. The gentleman in overalls was the mechanic. He could repair or make anything for the machines, right in the field. Doug Adams is showing the camera that he wears socks. I am the one wearing the hat. I wish I had all their names.

 

 

Categories: farming, times gone by, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 21 Comments

The Runaway Snowman

Sundown Trail has a guest blogger today – my daughter, Marti Ryan.  She is a musician and video blogger in Nashville, TN.
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I have always loved my Dad’s stories of when he was young. He grew up in a time that I can’t imagine – one room schoolhouses, riding horses, heading off into the woods with his dog to hunt furry woodland creatures . . . those days are long gone, but live on in stories and pictures. I’ve encouraged Dad to write a blog for years, and was tickled pink when he decided to start writing Sundown Trail. He has a collection of short stories called Tales from Clear Creek that will be available as an e-book soon, and he’s currently working on his first western novel.

But I didn’t come over here to write a guest blog to brag on my Dad (although I could spend an entire page doing just that). I thought it would be fun to write a blog about one of MY childhood memories. As you can probably tell from the title – it’s about a snowman.

 

Winter is drawing to a close, and as usual, Mother Nature is keeping us on our toes. She’s been teasing us with beautiful sunny warm weather, and then promptly throwing snow and cold back in our faces to remind us that’s she’s not quite finished with winter yet. I live in Tennessee, and bless their hearts, Tennesseans FREAK OUT when they see a snowflake. Missourians just slow down and plow ahead with their lives, but everything screeches to a halt here in Nashville at the MENTION of snow. Everyone cancels everything, and races to the store to buy milk, bread, and eggs. It’s become a local joke to post pictures on Facebook of empty shelves in the grocery stores when snow is forecasted.

Snow doesn’t last long here, so when we get any kind of accumulation, children rush outside for a few hours in a few inches of snow to have snowball fights, sort-of-kind-of sled, and build itty-bitty snowmen. Last week I opened my back door to an accumulation of snow, and briefly thought of building one of these itty-bitty snowmen as a tribute to the end of winter. After drying off my snowy, muddy doggies, I instead chose to make a hot cup of tea and remember a Missouri winter long ago when I built my very first snowman . . . .

 

 

I don’t remember if it was my idea, or Mom’s idea, but I remember being super-excited as I bounded into the front yard to play in the snow with Mom. My parents and I lived in a little yellow house on a little street in a little town in Southeast Missouri. The front yard was covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow, and I tramped around in the sparkling stuff, fascinated that it was sticking to my boots, and comparing my small bootprints to Mom’s big ones. She showed me that the snow not only stuck to my boots, but it stuck to itself, and I watched in amazement as she rolled a small snowball around the yard and made a large snowball. We repeated this action two more times, and soon had a stereotypical snowman ready for personalizing.

Our little yellow house was heated with a wood stove in the basement, and Mom took pieces of bark from the woodpile and made eyes and a smiling mouth for the snowman. The bark mouth kinda looked like he had teeth, which gave him a whimsical look. She then completed his face with the traditional carrot nose. I remember really really wanting a top hat like I’d seen on the Frosty the Snowman cartoon, but we didn’t have one. Instead, Mom placed one of Dad’s hunting caps on his snowy bald head. I was too little to reach the snowman’s face to help with the personalization, but not to be left out, I took little pieces of bark and made buttons down his front. Mom completed his look with a piece of pink plaid fabric for a scarf.

He was perfect. Or at least, in a little girl’s eyes he was perfect. My very first snowman. I was thrilled. Dad was impressed when he came home from work, and happy to sacrifice his hunting cap for a short while. My snowman was right by the living room window, so I spent the rest of the evening beaming at him from inside the warmth of the little yellow house. I went to bed that night and dreamed happy snowy little girl dreams.

 

The next morning, I bounced out of bed and raced to the living room. Mom was working on something on the dining room table, but I barely noticed her as I raced to the window . . . 

. . . and noticed the curtains were closed.

This was odd. Even as a little girl, I was attune to the circadian rhythm of the household, and the living room curtains were always closed at night, and opened first thing in the morning.

Yet there they were. Closed.

Not to be deterred, I threw open the curtains to greet my snowman. . . and the front yard was empty.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

The snowman melted overnight. That would have been the logical explanation.

However, that would also have been a really boring story. And I don’t do boring.

With glistening, wide eyes, I whirled around to Mom and opened my mouth to ask where my snowman was. No words could come out. I was so shocked he had vanished. Mom was coming around the side of the dining room table with her arms outstretched to administer comfort and an explanation. I sat in a miserable heap in her lap as she told me what happened.

It had gotten bitterly cold overnight, and everything froze solid. Including my snowman. There was a basketball game in town that night, and so all the high school kids were cruising around town afterwards. Mom and Dad woke up in the middle of the night when they heard noises in the front yard. They went to the window just in time to see some teenage boys load my entire frozen-solid snowman in the back of a pickup truck and drive away.

I was positively heartbroken.

Mom gathered up the tearful little girl piled in her lap and carried me over to the dining room table. She was making me a brand new snowman. There was not enough snow to make another snowman outside, so she created me one out of posterboard and construction paper. And this one had a top hat! Also, buttons and teeth.

Me and my Snowman

He was a very cool snowman.

Later in the week, we heard that several people had seen a snowman with teeth in the back of a pickup truck cruising around town. Looking back, I’m pleased to know he had quite an adventure before he reached the fate of every snowman when winter ends. And I’m happy that the boys had so much fun cruising around with my snowman.

A friend of my mother’s who wrote poetry immortalized my snowman in verse, and titled the poem “The Runaway Snowman.” There’s a book published somewhere with my snowman’s poem in it.

 

 

I learned very early the “make lemonade out of lemons” lesson as I played with my posterboard snowman well into the summer. There were other winters, and other snowmen, but my first one – my perfect snowman that I had for less than 24 hours – I will always remember. I hear that seven inches of snow was dumped on Missouri today. I imagine there are hundreds of snowmen in hundreds of yards across the Show-Me-State tonight, happily smiling frozen smiles throughout the night and ready to be greeted in the morning, while little boys and girls are dreaming happy snowy little boy and girl dreams.

 

 

Snowman The 3 of us

 

 

Categories: Guest Blogger, Missouri, times gone by, Winter | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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