Posts Tagged With: Kansas

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.

 

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

The Kidder Massacre

Much of it was a vast, level prairie broken up only occasionally by rolling hills and the breaks of small creeks and the Republican, Arickaree, and Platte rivers. Roughly, Custer’s patrol area covered the modern day expanse reaching from Sharon Springs, Kansas; north to Julesburg, Colorado; east to North Platte, Nebraska and south to Hays, Kansas. It was a beautiful land, a harsh land, and without a doubt a tough ride on horseback… I know, I have traveled it on a harvest combine and behind the steering wheel of a grain truck. And yes, just a little bit of it on a horse’s back.

 I found this old picture in my fathers things. My grandfather John M. Ryan owned some wheat land between Goodland and Brewster,Kansas. It was in the general vicinity of the turnoff north to the Kuhrt farm and the Kidder massacre site. My father pointed the land out to me many years ago. There was a dairy on it then. I think this picture may have been taken on that land.

I found this old picture in my fathers things. My grandfather John M. Ryan owned some wheat land between Goodland and Brewster,Kansas. It was in the general vicinity of the turnoff north to the Kuhrt farm and the Kidder massacre site. My father pointed the land out to me many years ago. There was a dairy on it then. I think this picture may have been taken on that land.

 

Lt. Colonel, George Custer (formally a General) left Ft. Hays, Kansas on June 1, 1867. He led a 1,100 man contingent of the 5th Cavalry. His mission was to put a stop to the Indian raids and punish the Indians severely. He traveled north to Fort McPherson near the location of modern day North Platte, Nebraska. From Fort McPherson he took his cavalry back southwest to a point where the Arickaree joins the Republican River. It was near the location of present day Benkleman, Nebraska. He set up a camp there for a few days.

At some point Custer sent a 50 man wagon train south to Fort Wallace, Kansas to get supplies. On the return trip the supply train was attacked at, or near the crossing of Beaver Creek by a group of Sioux under the leadership of Chief Pawnee Killer.

Chief Pawnee Killer

Chief Pawnee Killer

 

The attack was repulsed with the help of a relief force sent from Fort Wallace and the wagon train returned to Custer’s camp with supplies. Custer continued to scout the forks of the Republican River. He sent a ten man detail under the command of a Major Elliott to Fort Sedgwick on the Platte to obtain new orders. Elliott returned with no new orders or information.

On June 29, 1867, the day after Elliott left Fort Sedgwick, new orders and a dispatch from General Sherman was received. The commanding officer of the fort organized a new ten man detail to be led by 2nd. Lieut. Lyman S. Kidder and guided by a friendly Sioux named Red Bead. Kidder and his detail left that morning for Custer’s camp.

Kidder

 

Near the abandoned campsite they struck the recent trail of the supply train and apparently thought that Custer had traveled south towards Fort Wallace. One logical reason Kidder made the mistake was that his detail probably reached the trail after dark.

As a result, Pawnee Killer’s braves and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers caught them on the open prairie. It was later determined that hey made a running fight for about two miles until they came to a small ravine near the Beaver. They made their stand there and were wiped out by the overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne.

Custer continued to scout the area northwest of the Republican River forks. He arrived at Riverside Station forty miles west of Fort Sedgwick on July 5. Using the newly constructed telegraph, Custer immediately telegraphed Sherman at Fort Sedgwick for new orders. He learned of Kidder and that Kidder may have ran into a large Indian force. Kidder’s order was to find Custer. Now, Custer was to look for Kidder.

On July 10, Custer’s advance scouts found two dead army horses on the trail. Further on they observed buzzards circling above the Beaver Creek crossing. Custer immediately sent out a search party. One of his Delaware Indian guides came upon the bodies and gave the signal. The bodies of the 11 soldiers and the Indian Scout were found piled together. It was estimated they had died 9 or 10 days previously.

The bodies were mutilated and desecrated by the Indians.

Custer could not identify any of them at the time. His troops buried them in a mass grave on a level area above the creek. The bodies were exhumed in late February 1868 and reburied at Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was identified by his father and taken home for a funeral and burial in the family burial plot at St. Paul, Minnesota.

 

I first visited the Kidder Massacre site as a child and revisited it about twenty years ago. It is on private farm land. If you visit remember that, and treat it with respect. Pull off I-70 and visit the town of Goodland while you are there be sure and visit the Sherman County museum. The town is aptly named. On down the railroad tracks, take a look at the huge concrete grain storage bins. For years if not decades the United States’ top export was grain and agricultural products. Western Kansas and its neighboring states have contributed their share. It is one of our favorite places to visit along the Sundown Trail.

Brochure

 

 

Some interesting facts about the Kidder tragedy:

1. Kidder’s dispatch from Sherman to Custer was a warning, “Beware of hostiles.”

2. Lt. Kidder was just a month short of his 25th birthday. In spite of his youth, he was a seasoned soldier. He had joined the Union army and served as an under age enlisted man during the Civil War.

3. Kidder later joined the Minnesota Volunteers with the rank of Lieutenant and fought the Northern Sioux in several battles in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory.

4. Most of the ten men were in their late teens or early twenties. All had been in the Army and on the Plains for at least a year.

5. Kidder’s father identified his son’s body by his shirt collar. The Indians had left it on the body, cutting the remainder of the shirt off. His mother had made the shirt for him.

6. Lt. Frederick Beecher led the reburial detail in February 1868. Kidder’s father accompanied the group. Beecher was destined to die later that year in a fight with the Indians on up the Arickaree River (now labeled a creek).

 

Suggested reading:

Find Custer! The Kidder Tragedy
By Randy Johnson
and Nancy P. Allan

Categories: American History, Civil War, History, Military | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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

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

Alma’s Fire Shovel

Alma Ewing was my first grade teacher at Highland school in Benkelman Township, Cheyenne County, Kansas during the 1945-46 term.  Highland closed down at the end of the school year.  The school house was sold and the small number of pupils shifted to other schools.  For the second grade I went to Mt. Zion, another one-room school, three or four miles east of our sod-walled home.  Alma taught there, too.  Sometimes I rode horseback, but most of the time the folks delivered me in the A-Model Ford.

My older brother Wayne had graduated from the eighth grade at Highland the year before I started and Alma had been his teacher, too.  He told me that she was a strict disciplinarian.  He claimed she used a fire shovel to administer spankings.  When things really got rough, so his story went, she stuck it in the stove to heat it first.

Fireshovel

This is similar to Alma’s fire shovel

I was young, but I had already caught on to my brother’s mischievous nature.  I didn’t set much store by his fire shovel tale.  That is, until one cold wintery day at Mt. Zion school.

This day the students were more fractious and noisy than usual.  Alma warned us several times to quiet down.  Soon the din would return to a low roar.

Finally she had enough.  Alma walked to the back corner of the room, removed the fire shovel from the coal bucket, opened the stove door, and placed the shovel in the fire box with the handle protruding out the door.  Silence fell over the room.  It seems the story had been told by others, also.  Alma had heard the story too!

The morning ground on in silence.  Finally the noon hour came.  We went out for recess and when we returned the shovel was back in the coal bucket.

Alma left her mark on me.  I’m happy to say that it wasn’t with a fire shovel.

Several years ago I was returning to Missouri along Interstate 70 from a vacation out west.  I learned that the Tri-State Threshers Association was having their annual get-together and steam engine show at Bird City in eastern Cheyenne County.  I turned north at Goodland and went about 40 miles to Bird City to visit the Association’s fairgrounds.  The steam engines were puffing and the whistles were sounding.  I was browsing the flea market, enjoying the displays including the Charles Lindbergh display.  Yes, there is Charles Lindbergh history in Cheyenne County, Kansas!  But that is another story in itself, for another time.

I stopped to look at the old schoolhouse display and realized I was looking at old Highland, District 66 school building.  After it had closed it had been sold to a service station owner who moved the building to St. Francis and used it for tire and automotive products storage.  The Threshers Association had obtained the school and restored it.

Highland School

Highland School in its new place

 

There it was complete with schoolmarm and class in session.

Highland School inside

A modern day schoolmarm pretends to teach class at the new school location during Tri-State Threshers Association’s annual get-together in Bird City, Kansas.

 

Highland school had traveled from its Buffalo Grass and sagebrush-covered hill on the western side to the flat land eastern side of Cheyenne County.  Alma Ewing would have been proud.

Walt at original Highland School site

Walt at original Highland School site – District 66 Cheyenne County, Kansas.

Categories: lessons learned, times gone by | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Close Encounters With Creatures of the Crawling Kind

The grizzly bear, the black bear, the wolf, and finally the mountain lion left, first the Midwest and then the High Plains at about the same time that the so-called civilized man moved into those areas.  With those top of the food chain predators gone, you would think that the outdoor people would have nothing to fear.  Wrong!  Those of us raised on the land know differently.  There is one creature we walk in constant fear of.  A creature that the mere sight of causes the hair on the back of the neck to stand up and the skin to crawl.  I’m talking about snakes. The poisonous kind of snake!

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

On the high plains of Kansas and Nebraska where I spent the first ten years of my life, the most common reptiles of the snake kind were the colorful bullsnake- a harmless and beneficial rodent hunter, and the deadly diamondback rattlesnake.  Both types of snakes were common on the farm we lived on in Cheyenne County Kansas.

I had my most memorable encounter with a diamondback when I was about six years old…  We had a rogue cow that had learned that she could stick her head through the fence and push over a weak post.  Once done she had easy access to the adjoining corn or grain field.  Dad looked over west toward the field of young corn and saw the cow out.  He laid his posthole diggers, a shovel, a post and tamping tool across the back bumper of the old A-Model Ford.  I came running out of the house barefooted wanting to go along.  He agreed to let me go if I stayed in the car.   

Down the lane we went into the pasture.  The cow had been through the procedure so many times that she readily went back into the pasture with a little encouragement from a switch.  Dad unloaded his tools and set about changing out the broken post. 

I was an active kid, and I soon reneged on my promise to stay in the car.  First, I moved to the running board and in an attempt to keep my bare feet off the blazing hot bare ground, I started jumping from clump to clump of the short, curly, and soft buffalo grass.  About the third clump I heard the warning buzz of rattles and felt an old diamondback move under my bare foot.  I went ballistic, screaming and jumping as high as my young legs would carry me.  Dad came running around the car yelling, “Did it bite you?!”  Of course I wouldn’t stop hollering, and he jerked off my overalls looking for fang marks on my legs.  When he did not find the bite marks and I calmed down enough to tell him how it happened, he deduced I was not bitten.  The poor old rattler lost its head to the posthole diggers anyhow.  It had no doubt curled itself tightly around the clump of grass to take advantage of the sparse shade.  This fact probably kept it from striking and saved me from a bad experience.            

Here in the Ozarks we have many harmless snakes, the most prevalent being the black rat snake.  But the ones to give a wide birth are the timber rattler, the cottonmouth moccasin, and perhaps the most hard to spot and thus avoid is the copperhead.  

Snake stories, I have told one or two.  I could tell a dozen.

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