Thursday, March 29, 2012

Isaac's Victorian Court House

The early Stafford County Court House was in a wooden structure, but as the town of St. John grew, some of the town leaders believed a more distinguished building was appropriate. As is often true in political decisions, the location of the court house was a subject of dispute, some believing it should be built in the town square while others preferred to preserve that public space for a park. As is even more often true in political decisions, the expense of building the court house created further arguments.

At last, a group of prominent citizens decided to use private funds to erect a brick building of which the town could be proud, and since they were bearing the expense, they chose the location--the corner just to the southeast of the park. They selected brick rather than wood, not only to make it more elegant but also to reduce the risk of fire destroying the building and all the important records kept inside.

The story is told that one of the County Comissioners refused to accept the gift of the building. Somehow he was tricked into coming to the new structure to sign a document, and this act of business was deemed to show acceptance of the building, waiving his objections.

The citizens of the county decided that it was irresponsible not to reimburse those people who had spent their own money to build such a fine county building, so bonds were voted. Later, someone discovered a state law prohibiting voting bonds to repay private individuals for something already given to the county. The local newspapers followed the dilemma of whether the county had a moral obligation to repay the private donors, regardless of the legal prohibition concerning bonds, with arguments from both sides published.

Despite the controversies of its construction, the Victorian court house was enjoyed by the community from the time of its construction in about 1886 until September of 1925, when a petition signed by more than one-fourth of the taxpayers of the county asked the county commissioners to levy a tax to raise funds for a new court house. Within three years enough money had been raised to begin.

The elegant Victorian court house that Isaac Werner visited for business, lectures, and meetings was not replaced because people had tired of its style. Rather, the Board of County Commissioners' minutes of February 1, 1928, describe the conditions of the forty-year-old structure: "...the walls of which are what is commonly known as soft brick...are now cracked and the key stones in some of the arches of the doors and windows have loosened...and the walls of said building are spreading apart and have spread apart to the extent that the county has found it necessary to support the same by rods and other devises, and the plastering on said Court House is in bad condition and in many places has broken loose and fallen and much of the plastering is now loose and in danger of falling and injuring persons within said building, and the shingle and old and dilapidated and the said building needs a new roof." The minutes continue to describe a gaping crack running completely from top to bottom and from east to west, as well as fire risks and other dangers.

For all those reasons it was decided to demolish the grand old structure, to salvage any materials that might be used in the new building and store them on county-owned lots elsewhere in the city until they were reinstalled in the new building, and to rent space in The Delker Building in which to conduct county business while the new court house was being built. During the previous year, three architectural firms had been interviewed--Rutledge & Hurtz, Mann & Co., and Hulse & Co.--with Mann & Co. of Hutchinson chosen to draw the plans and supervise the construction of the new court house. With everything in place, the work proceeded quickly, and the new court house was dedicated in 1929.

Isaac claimed his homestead and timber claim in 1878, before St. John was much more than an idea in the minds of a group of early settlers and four years before St. John was chosen as the county seat in the election of April 14, 1882. In his early years as a homesteader, Isaac lacked a horse, and trips to town were made on foot. The map of Stafford County shows the location of St. John near the middle of the county and Isaac's homestead and timber claim in the southwest part of the county, adjacent to the Stafford-Pratt County line. The dotted line from Isaac's homestead to St. John shows the approximate route Isaac would have walked, sixteen miles according to Isaac's Journal. By the time the Victorian court house was built, Isaac had finally acquired a horse, and he traveled to the court house frequently for personal business. When he became active in the Farmers' Alliance, the Stafford County Agricultural Association, and the People's Party, he made many visits to the brick court house for meetings and conversations with political allies. Like Isaac himself, the existence of the elegant court house has faded from the minds of most Stafford County residents. Isaac, his friends, and the rich history of their times are worthy of being remembered, and I am enjoying making those introductions to those of you reading my blog.

(Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

...And May I Add?

Spring has arrived in Kansas, and with a couple of days of rain, the wheat is growing, leaves on the trees are opening, and everything seems to be eager to crowd the season a bit. The sand hill plum blossoms opened earlier than usual, and like Isaac and his friends, we all have our fingers crossed that a late frost won't spoil the plum crop again this year. I opened our last jar of sand hill plum jelly a few days ago, and I need to restock the shelves this summer.

I'm not complaining, but the rain knocked some of the petals off before I got outside with my camera to take pictures, but for those of you who read my post of March 1, 2012 titled "Sand Hill Plums" and are interested in seeing what blooming plum bushes look like, I'm posting two pictures taken yesterday as we returned from Stafford. (You can click on the photographs to enlarge them, and if you look closely, you may be able to see the thorns.)

My husband and I were returning from the Stafford County Historical & Genealogical Society where we had hosted friends who spent the afternoon cleaning and cataloguing some of the glass plate negatives from the Gray Studio Collection. You may read my January 6, 2012 post about the "Stafford County Museum" collection by going to the blog archives. I bribed my friends a little by planning a tea party as an excuse for gathering at the museum, but it was really their spirit of volunteerism that caused them to accept my invitation.

The Gray Studio Glass Plate Negative Collection may be seen at

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mining for Gold at the Court House

On the southeast corner of the town square in St. John is the Stafford County Courthouse. It was built in 1929, replacing the one Isaac would have visited. I remember going there as a little girl with my father, and each time I enter the building, I am reminded of the echo of my father's leather soles on the marble floors. Today, as I create my own echoes walking the cool hallways, the building is filled with shadow memories that I experience as emotions. I suspect that the feelings inspired in me when I was a little girl had a great deal to do with my decision to study law. There was something unique about entering that quiet space in which people seemed to speak more softly, as if respectful of the business conducted there. I felt it then and I still feel it today. I suppose my sense of awe in entering what is a sort of people's temple of justice will always be part of me. The court houses I entered when I was actively practicing law were often busy and sometimes noisy, but for me there was always that special feeling about the honorable purpose of the building. My recent visits to the Stafford County Court House while doing research have not diminished those feelings, fueled by my childhood memories, my respect for the law, and my fondness for history.

Court houses are like mining for gold, the records filled with valuable information for a researcher to discover if she is willing to dig for it. Initially my research took me to the Deed Records to find information about Isaac's homestead and timber claim. Now, when I walk into that office, the women working there immediately ask about my progress on the book, research for which they have been so helpful.

Also in the court house is the District Clerk's Office, where one day I went to inquire about birth and death certificates. I was disappointed to learn that those old records are now kept in Topeka, the state capital. I must have mentioned that I was doing research on Isaac B. Werner, and while I visited with one of the women, the other lady seemed busy at her computer. Suddenly she asked, "What did you say the man's first name was?" "Isaac," I replied. "Well, there's no Isaac indexed in the Probate Records, but I have an I.B. Werner." "That's him!" I exclaimed. When she returned from the room where probate records are stored, she carried a thick probate file of Isaac's estate, from which I have learned so much about him.

Seeing my interest in the Probate Records, the women told me that they had recently finished indexing all of the District Court records, going back to the 1800s. Isaac was never a party to litigation, but several legal disputes are mentioned in his journal, so I was obviously thrilled to learn that those records were available. I periodically return to examine files, documenting litigation Isaac has mentioned, and both of those ladies have been terrific. In fact, they have shared suggestions about bits of history preserved in the records of the court house that would make wonderful stories for future writing.

Since Isaac died in 1895, the current court house was not the one he visited. In next week's post I will share a picture of the Victorian court house of Isaac's era, along with stories of how it came to be built, some of Isaac's visits there, and why it was replaced with the current structure.

I have lived most of my life in cities, and there are many things I enjoy about the urban lifestyle that cannot be matched in a small town. However, there is nothing quite like returning to the home of your childhood, where your roots go back a few generations, and experiencing the willingness of people to pause for a moment and invest their time and interest in you, something anonymity and the busy pace of city life rarely offer. Like Isaac, I enjoy doing business--and research--in a court house where people nearly always have a little time to chat.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Planting Osage-Orange Trees

For my birthday one year, I gave myself the gift of wandering the farm with a photographer's eye, pausing to take pictures of scenes I tend to overlook in the ordinary rush of life. One of my stops was the Osage-orange tree grove just north of the house. It was late October, and the nubby, lime-colored fruit was falling from the trees. Being round, the fruit rolled easily into the natural depressions beneath the trees, forming ribbons of green winding through the grove.

The Osage-orange tree has many names--among them hedge-apple, bodark or bois-d'arc, and bowwood, with the Latin name Maclura pomifera. The uses of the tree may be found in the names it has been given. Native Americans, as well as today's serious bow-makers, found the wood especially valuable for making bows. Bois-d'arc comes from Louisiana French and translates literally as "bow wood." For people on the prairie, the primary reason for planting the trees was for fencing. I do not know who planted the hedge-apple grove on our farm. It has been a mature grove of trees since I was a child. What I suspect is that the trees were planted by my grandfather for posts to fence our pastures.

This summer a pasture of unplowed prairie was planted to wheat. The land was owned by my grandfather and tended by my father for his sister, who had inherited the land. During my childhood I had played in the pasture with my cousins, especially in the large sand hill plum thickets with their cattle paths and clearings which our imaginations transformed into castles and forts. Before the fencing was removed, I photographed the ancient posts that had been there all of my life, still as sturdy and free of rot as they had always been, and embellished with the patina of age. I do not know for certain that the wood was Osage-orange, but I know of no other wood that would have endured for so long.

In addition to cutting the wood for fence posts, settlers used the trees themselves as hedges. The growth pattern of the limbs is unruly and abundant, and while branches are young and tender they can be woven together to form an impenetrable barrier. Add to that the thorns on the branches, and planting hedge-apple trees along the borders of fields and pastures can create living fences.

In his Journal, Isaac describes helping a neighbor plant these trees: "I all day at putting up my 3 runner marker planter & helped Bob Bland drag their first 5 acres in osage seed (planted 5 acres in 2 hours)." Although Isaac does not describe it, presumably the seedlings that grew from the drag planting were later transplanted into rows or hedges. According to one writer, "No other wood played such an important part in the early movement West by the settlers as the Osage Orange."

Many people, including my mother-in-law, believe that the hedge apples themselves repel insects. Among those proponents, some suggest cutting the fruit into wedges to better release the milky juice. No commercial use of the juice has been discovered, but various compounds have been extracted from the heartwood for use in products such as an antifungal and a food preservative. The tree so valuable to homesteaders like Isaac may yet find modern uses.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Woodmen 's Gravestones

It was late May, and although the nights were chilly, one sunny day three children who lived in West Naron Township in Pratt, County decided to walk to their grandpa Cubbage's house. He lived up in Stafford County, but the two little boys were confident they could find the way, and their little sister Mary, not quite three, was excited to go along. It was hard for her to keep up with her older brothers, but she did her best. Once they got away from their home, the grass on the open prairie was taller than they had expected, and although they were sure they were headed in the right direction, they grew tired and still saw nothing that looked familiar. A passing farmer offered to take them home, and both little boys eagerly crawled up into the wagon beside the man. As he started toward the children's family farm, one of the boys said, "Bring Mary home too when you find her."

With darkness falling, the farmer went directly to the Naron School House where he knew that the newly formed Woodman of the World lodge was meeting. The group immediately adjourned to organize a line of about sixty men carrying lanterns, walking closely so as not to overlook a little girl lost in the dark on the prairie. They searched through the night, and just before daylight they found little Mary in the timber on Jeff Naron's claim. Exhausted, chilled, and sobbing in a broken slumber, she was lying on the ground eight miles from where the children had begun their walk.

Woodmen of the World is one of the first fraternal benefit societies in the United States. It was founded by Joseph Cullen Root in 1890 and remains a privately held insurance company. Its roots go back to a time when the social safety nets for widows and children did not exist. Men formed lodges whose members pledged to take up a collection for each man's widow and children should any one of them die. From this system of helping each other grew the idea of a private insurance fund for members.

Today's members not only carry on the benefit of private insurance but also continue the commitment to serving their communities. The thing for which they may be best known, however, is the tradition that extended into the 1920s of gravestones in the shape of trees. The form varied from tall tree trunks to small stumps, and because they were hand chiseled, the details varied with the artistry of the carver. The symbols of the organization are the maul, wedge and ax, which often appear on the trees. Not every member chose a tree gravestone, instead displaying the symbols on traditional stones. In addition to the symbols, only the carver's imagination limited the flora and fauna that might appear--flowers, mushrooms, vines, scrolls with the deceased's name or message, with ropes holding scrolls. Two country cemeteries in Isaac's community have beautiful examples of these grave stones. In Neelands Cemetery is a beautiful tree trunk adorned with ferns and mushrooms, bark artfully rolled back to reveal the name "Neil." On the reverse side is an inscription: "Remember me as you pass by; As you are now so once was I; As I am now you all shall be; Prepare for death and follow me."

In another part of the cemetery is the Wilson family plot, a stump for Little Fay, as was common for children of Woodmen of the World members, a somewhat taller tree trunk for the father, and a traditional stone for the mother.

In the Prattsburg Cemetery several milles away is another tall tree trunk, this gravestone bearing the three symbols of the organization at the top of the sculpture, with a carved rope holding the scroll with the name of the deceased, David Johnson.

There was also a women's organization, called Woodmen Circle, of which Ella Beaman was apparently a member. Her stone in the Prattsburg Cemetery is a beautiful example of the forked trunk design, with a heart-shaped carving bearing the traditional Woodmen symbols resting in the fork and additional details in the trunk and base.

These Woodmen of the World trees were my favorite grave stones when I was a child, and others have told me they felt the same way, but none of us knew that they were anything more than pretty sculptures. The significance of the stones became lost to our generation.

Isaac was not a Woodman. His ambition was to help farmers through education and cooperation, and so, he joined the Farmers' Alliance, attempted to establish Reform Clubs, and supported the Peoples' Party. While neither the Woodman of the World nor the farmers' groups Isaac supported survive to the present day in his old community, they served the people of Isaac's time who faced great hardships by not having to face them alone.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sandhill Plums

When Isaac arrived on the Kansas prairie in 1878 the land was waving grass from horizon to horizon, with little else left to accentuate the scene because of the prairie fires that swept the land so often. There were exceptions. In the spring, wild flowers, whose tubers and seeds lay waiting, burst into bloom adding splashes of color amidst the swaying grass. At the same time, thickets of sand hill plum bushes opened their delicate white blossoms, offering hope to the settlers of fresh fruit to come, for somehow, enought of the thickets survived the flames to reproduce.

Today's plains dwellers cannot appreciate what a welcome sight those blooming bushes were to the early settlers, who longed for the taste of fresh fruit. Sand hill plums are hardly bigger than cranberries, and unlike cranberries, the fruit has a central seed nearly half the size of the plum itself, leaving very little edible fruit between the seed and the outer skin. Regardless, the settlers enjoyed the beauty and slight fragrance of the blossoms and crossed their fingers that frost would not return to freeze the blossoms and deprive them of that season's tart little plums.

Isaac had a thicket on his "Timber Hill" but he had also saved seeds from some of the best plums to plant plum bushes near his house, finding that it took the seeds two or three seasons to germinate. They were also difficult to transplant because the bushes colonize from one bush with a deep root to form shallow-rooted bushes around it. These shallow-rooted bushes are unlikely to survive if transplanted, and it is difficult to tell without digging which among the bushes is the one with the deep root. Isaac explained in his Journal: "I took up some select Plum bushes on timber hill and set them in rows N. of house patch, 2 rows E. & W. Transplanting Plums generally failures by many. I determined to experiment at least, then also transplant some in the spring."

Because of the effort he had expended in both planting seeds and transplanting the deep-rooted bushes, he was annoyed when one of his neighbors raided his plums. "Lady Frack yesterday out on a plum raid through my door yard of nicest plums, vengeance mine, by calling nearest neighbors in to strip every bush." Today, with farmers having cleared fields for crops, few plum thickets remain. On Isaac's old homestead only some scraggly bushes have managed to survive in the fence row.

As a bachelor, Isaac had learned to cook for himself, but he never mentions attempting to preserve fruit. It would be nice to imagine that one of the neighbors who stripped the plum bushes to spite Mrs. Frack might have made a jar of plum jelly for Isaac, but he only describes the annual pleasure of gorging on whatever fruit was in season.

For my family, enough jars of sand hill plum jelly were canned every summer to last through the year. They were stored with the canned tomatoes, green beans, and two kinds of pickles on rows of shelves in the basement, the walls a kaleidoscope of tomato red, green beans, mossy green dills, noxiously-tinted (with green cake coloring) 3-day lime pickles, and the glow of the scarlet plum jelly. I do not continue the tradition of canning vegetables, except rare years when I can the 3-day lime pickles, but I do make plum jelly. Last year's late frost and summer drought left only a lonesome plum here and there, and we are down to the last jar of the previous year's jelly. One day, I set that jar with one that we received as a wedding favor in the window to admire the beauty of sunlight through the jelly.

Plum jelly is delicious, but it is impossible for me to separate the flavor of childhood memories from the taste of the jelly. Plum bushes have thorns, and picking the plums is a prickly business. They ripen at the hottest time of year, and filling a pail of the small plums is an exercise in endurance of heat, sweat, gnats, and often, mosquitoes. Once in the kitchen, with the jars and the lids sterilized, and the plums rinsed clean with all the stems removed, the process of cooking, mashing the last bit of juice from the pulp and skins, straining through cheese cloth to assure the jewel-like appearance, adding the sugar and a bit of lemon with Sure-gel to give you a little more insurance that the jelly will set, pouring the hot, sticky liquid jelly into the jars, sealing the lids and listening for the "pop" to know the seal is good, and finally cleaning the stickiness off the jars before putting the jelly on the shelves--all of this is the stuff of my memories, and when you add to that the memories of sitting around so many breakfast tables with loved ones it is impossible for any store-bought, expensive gourmet jelly to ever taste as good!

When we finish that last jar of jelly, we, like Isaac, will be forced to await another season's crop from the tough and prickly sand hill plum bushes with their sweet-tart little plums.