Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Isaac's Catalpa Trees

Perhaps it was the deep shade cast by the large, heart-shaped leaves of the catalpa trees that made Isaac love them as he did.  What he specifically mentioned in his Journal was the sweet perfume of their blossoms.  Blooming in late spring, the flowers resemble miniature orchids--delicate petals of white surrounding an open throat bordered with a tracery of burgundy accented with yellow.  Isaac found the fragrance of the catalpa blossoms sweet, but others find the scent overpoweringly strong, as I learned when a dinner guest once asked me to remove a catalpa bouquet from the room. 

The blossoms are followed by green seed pods 10" or longer, resembling elongated green beans.  These pods darken to brown by autumn, and their appearance gives the tree the common names of cigar tree, Indian cigar, and Indian bean tree.  A friend of mine understood that name literally as a youngster and tried to smoke one of the long brown seed pods.  It didn't work.

The name catalpa has an interesting history.  The Native American name for the tree was Catawba, but the botanist who wrote the first formal scientific description of the genus made a transcription error which resulted in the scientific name being Catalpa.  In some regions of the country, the Native American name of Catawba is still used. 

Catalpa leaves are the only food source for the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpa).  The popularity of these caterpillars among anglers for use as live fishing bait has encouraged some fishermen to plant small catalpa groves to assure a ready source of what Southern anglers call "Catawba-worms."

One day, with the catalpa trees in full bloom and a new batch of chicks scratching around the chicken yard with the hens, Isaac had visitors.  The ladies who called were from the Antrim community a few miles to the east of Isaac, and like others sometimes did, they came to admire Isaac's farm, and especially, to enjoy his trees.  Isaac wrote in his Journal:  "[Misses] Gibbs & Mrs. Bushel called in buggy to see place & trees, got chick & catalpa bouquette, & well pleased," the bachelor homesteader offering a bit of prairie chivalry.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Guest Post by Misty Beck

After posting the blog remembering Memorial Days from the past, I asked my cousin, Misty Beck, if she would share as a comment an amusing story about how my Uncle Arthur taught her the tradition of decorating graves.  I fear that some of you aren't taking time to read the comments that visitors post, which are certainly worth reading.  In case you missed reading Misty's, I asked her if I could share her story for Memorial Weekend.  I've added this picture of me with my parents, decorating my grandparents' grave when I was about the age that Misty describes in her Guest Post.

Misty's Comment:
My grandparents (Arthur and Wilma, in Lyn's photograph posted May 10, 2012, 4th man from left and 4th woman from left) were adamant that when I was a child in the late 70s and early 80s, that I learn about the meaning of Memorial Day.  But, more importantly, my granddad insisted that I know where all of the family graves were located.  I remember every year as a child loading up the boxes of flowers (replaced with the ease of reusable plastic flowers in their later years) and heading to the cemeteries.

Our route included Farmington at Macksville, Byers (Naron), and Iuka.  At the cemetery, I would sit in the back of the pickup, or if we were in the car on the trunk--they didn't worry so much about safety back then. My granddad would drive, and when I found a family grave, I had to knock on the back glass.  He would stop, and then I had to show him where the grave was and tell him who was buried there.  This probably started when I was 3 years old.  My granddad died when I was 8, but I have very vivid memories of our trips to the cemeteries and how important it was to him that I know where those graves were.

While locations were important to my granddad, my grandmother found other things important.  Every year as we finished at the last cemetery (Iuka), she would remind me that we had one more set of flowers to put out.  See, my dad was adopted by my grandparents, because his biological mother died when he was born and his biological father couldn't take care of him.  Her grave was our last stop every year, because my grandmother always said we needed to thank his birth mother because she gave my dad to my grandparents.  And, if she hadn't, they wouldn't have me.  Of course, that was my grandmother's way of making it important to me.

I could probably still find all of the graves but must admit my Memorial Weekend pilgrimage is much shorter.  I just visit one cemetery to decorate our family graves there, but I am thankful that my grandparents took the time and energy to educate me on these great family traditions.  And, as I leave the Iuka cemetery every year, I put a small bunch of flowers on my dad's biological mom's grave...just like Gram always insisted.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Water on the Prairie

In 1877 not only did the annual rainfall encourage potential settlers with the total amount that fell.  More importantly, the rain was well distributed over the growing season for winter wheat and corn.  Relying on that, many homesteaders decided to stake their claims for a farm on the prairie, and the number of acres claimed at the Larned Land Office, where Isaac filed his homestead claim, jumped from 145,977 acres in 1877 to 246,377 in 1878, the year Isaac arrived.  Unfortunately for the settlers, 1877 rainfall proved to be an unusual year, with subsequent years not only receiving less rainfall but, more significantly, the rains that came were at the wrong times for crops.  By 1880 the prairie was in a drought.  Many settlers gave up and abandoned their claims, and Edwards County lost half of its settlers between 1880 and 1882.  As bad as those years were, however, the 1890s were worse.  Rainfall on the prairie was at best undependable and at worst inadequate to sustain crops year after year.  [Craig Minor, West of Wichita, Chapter 10, "The Weak Shall Flee," University Press of Kansas, 1986]

For those who stayed, dependence on collecting rainfall for domestic and agricultural needs being inadequate, every farm needed a well for their own water and for their stock.  These wells were hand dug, and water was raised by pulley, rope and bucket.  From Isaac's Journal, it appears that wells often had to be cleaned or new ones dug when old ones became fouled or dried up.  In January of 1888, Isaac wrote, "One luxury I feel having about me again, that is plenty of well-water, two wells, cleaned and ready to use for house and stable. 

Isaac owned a windlass, or a sort of winch, and he was often called upon by his neighbors for its use in digging wells.  One man worked at the bottom, digging down to the depth needed to strike water.  Another man remained at ground level to crank the windlass that carried the dirt being removed from the bottom of the hole to the surface, where the dirt was dumped and the bucket or other container was returned to the bottom to be filled again.

Because the soil in the area was generally sandy loam, a curb at the surface was typically necessary to protect against cave-ins.  Even if the well had been dug without installing a curb, one was often needed to keep debris out of the well water.  Isaac mentioned needing a curb for his stable well after heavy rain washed dirt and the kind of material typical around livestock into the well.

A common cause for needing to clean a well, according to Isaac's Journal, was the water becoming "crickety."  Anyone who has battled keeping crickets out of basements and cellars can imagine the challenge of keeping those insects out of an open well.

Isaac mentioned bucketing water to his garden plot and to his young trees, but hand watering the larger fields was impossible.  In some regions, farmers were trying irrigation, but not in Stafford County were Isaac lived.

In October of 1887, an agent for the I.Y.L. Windmill Company stopped by Isaac's homestead for a visit.  Isaac listened with interest to the man's description of the machine, but after being told by the agent that the windmill he recommended for Isaac's farm would cost $240 (a huge amount for those times), Isaac declined.  He was already so far in debt that he believed a windmill was out of the question, even if a lender could have been found from whom to borrow the cost.  However, neighbors Charles Shattuc, the Bentley family, and others gradually acquired windmills.

By 1891 when the journal ends, Isaac was still lacking the financial ability to afford a windmill, although he did acquire a used pump for his well from old neighbor, Jesse Green.  A newspaper ad from the County Capital describes the increase in sales of the "Aermotor Pneumatic Water Supply System," claiming 45 were sold in 1888, with significant annual increases in sales leading to the prediction of 60,000 sales in 1892.  Interestingly, this ad was taken from a newspaper published in 1895, but the ad neither updated the sales numbers through the year of publication nor validated actual sales in 1892.

Many of the early settlers believed that "water follows the plow," in other words, that if they planted trees and broke sod to plant fields, rainfall would increase, and the arid plains would become a land of abundant crops.  After nearly two decades of testing that theory, homesteaders came to realize that Nature paid little attention to the foolish beliefs of men.

Farming has changed since Isaac's time, but put a group of farmers together, and chances are that in the course of their conversation the topic of rain will be discussed.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Memorial Day at Farmington Cemetery

When I was a child, Memorial Day was an occasion for honoring America's fallen soldiers and visiting graves of ancestors.  Tin cans and canning jars were covered with tin foil, around which a bow was tied to create a vase to hold spring flowers from the garden or peonies ordered from the grocery store and kept in the bottom of the refrigerator to keep the buds from opening too early.  Memorial morning men dressed in suits and ties, and women wore their Sunday dresses with hats and gloves to go to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves.  It was important to arrive early enough to get the graves decorated with time to stroll through the cemetery admiring the decorations and visiting with friends and neighbors, especially those who now lived out of town and returned for the annual pilgrimage to decorate the graves.  The picture is of my parents, aunts, and uncles in about 1949.

About 10 o'clock the high school band, playing patriotic songs, would march from the school to the cemetery, and a ceremony would be held at the Memorial for veterans, with two of the best young trumpeters slipping away to hide behind large gravestones or trees to echo the playing of Taps.  Memorial Day was always May 30th, and no one considered going to the lake or the beach.  It was a day to remember the dead, not a day for recreation.  When the memorial service ended, the band marched away, only going as far as the end of the cemetery before students raced to their parents' cars to shed the hot, wool band uniforms.  The crowd gradually disbursed, many gathering for large family dinners.  Afterward, when the women retired to the kitchen to wash dishes and gossip and the men found comfortable chairs in the living room where they could intermittently visit and nap, the kids would slip away to meet their friends at the swimming pool, which opened for the summer season that afternoon.  I am the girl with the tenor saxophone, marching in one of those hot wool band uniforms.

Those days have disappeared.  With Memorial Day turned into a holiday weekend, graves are still decorated at the Farmington Cemetery, but the flowers are primarily silk and the decorating is often done early so people can travel somewhere for the long weekend.  Jeans are typically worn for the practical business of anchoring the silk flower arrangements in the soil to stay in place through the weekend in the likely chance of strong spring winds.  There is still a VFW honor guard that marches on Memorial Day, but the music is provided by a CD player rather than the high school band.  People do linger for a while to visit after the memorial services, but the crowd dwindles each year, it seems.  There are still some families that have traditional dinners, and kids whose parents have not taken them to the lake still gather at the swimming pool, if it is the opening day of the summer.  My husband is one of the men in the VFW honor guard at the "new" Veterans' Memorial.

I used to tease my mother-in-law not so many years ago when she would ask us to drive her through the cemetery, where she would comment as we passed by the graves, speaking of those buried there as if she were pointing out residences along the streets of the town.  Now she occupies one of those cemetery lots we once drove past, and my husband and I find ourselves driving through the cemetery, speaking of friends and parents of friends buried there, just as she once did.  Since doing the research about Isaac's neighbors from the late 1800s, I now have several more graves whose occupants I almost feel that I know, and I give Isaac's old neighbors a nod as we drive by.  This is the "old" Veterans' Memorial to which our high school band once led the honor guard.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Isaac's Penmanship

With his usual eagerness for self-improvement, Isaac noted the following purchase in his journal:  "During P.M. looked over my catalogues to find some standard Work on Penmanship, feeling the want of such a work for occasional reference for some time, and just concluded to send for Spencerian's Compendium."  Actually, Isaac's handwriting is fairly neat and the difficulty in transcribing his Journal resulted more from his dense crowding of words and fading ink on some pages (suspected to be caused by his watering ink when the supply was running low), rather than from his handwriting.  In 1870, when he ordered the Spencerian handbook, he wrote with the flourish of a young man, expressing both in style and content the confident attitude of youth.  When he resumed writing in the journal in 1884, he was more thrifty of his opinions and materials, writing in sentence fragments, with little philosophizing and a smaller, closer script.

Spencerian script was developed by Platt Rogers Spencer in 1840, but it was his sons who published his previously unpublished writing guide after their father's death in 1864, and through their publication the Spencerian style of writing gained great popularity through about the 1920s.  When Coca-Cola created their logo in the late 19th century, they used Spencerian script. 

My handwriting over a drill from handbook.
  My own handwriting is often remarked upon, most often by clerks in stores when I am writing a check--even when I am signing those awkward electronic screens after swiping my credit card.  I have my mother to thank for my penmanship.  One summer when I was about ten, Mother decided that my cursive writing was unsatisfactory and set aside time every day for me to practice using my entire arm and shoulder, rather than  only my fingers.  I was required to make row after row of uniform loops across the page, and if she caught me drawing the loops with my fingers, the practice time was extended.  She had no name for what she was teaching me, but I believe it was the Palmer Method.

In 1894 Austin Palmer published a book titled, Palmer's Guide to Business Writing.  His idea was that using the muscles of the arm rather than the fingers, and simplifying the letters, reduced both the labor and the time it took for writing and allowed someone writing by hand to compete with the speed and clarity of the typewriter.  Gradually the Palmer Method replaced Spencerian script.  The drill above is from Palmer's handbook.

By the time I was in grade school, students were taught to print before they were taught cursive, which had apparently produced the block-like cursive that my mother found ungraceful.  For many years it was the practice to teach children entering school how to print (also call manuscript).  Then, about grade three, cursive writing was taught.  Over the years, certain styles predominated, but unless you were a teacher or the parent of a child in school during these changes, you were probably unawae of the shifting styles and teaching techniques.  The pictures below are from the Palmer Method textbook, when penmanship was a serious part of the curriculum.
In recent years a new debate has arisen.  A blog from 2007 asked:  "Cursive vs. Printing:  Is One Better Than the Other?"  The author pointed out that cursive is a better exercise for strengthening fine motor skills, and also that children who can read cursive can read manuscript writing but the reverse is not true.  On the other hand, first teaching print (manuscript) is comparable to the text in books and educational material.  Furthermore, cursive is less legible and harder to read, the proof of which is the line below the signature line on many forms which asks:  "Please print your name."  (  An online debate from 2010 dealt not with what to teach but rather which to use, and responses were mixed.  A dialogue between two people leaving comments seems to reflect the younger point of view.  The first person wrote:  "I think in this day and age cursive is dying a slow painful death."  The second person replied:  "In an age where handwriting is going the way of the dinosaur, I would have to agree."  (

Now, in case you haven't heard, many states are abandoning the teaching of cursive entirely or are leaving it to the discretion of teachers to determine whether there is time in the crowded mandatory curriculum to devote to cursive instruction.  The Theory is that classroom teaching of "keyboard skills" is more valuable in the electronic age.

I know my blog is being followed by current & former teachers, as well as students, parents, and grandparents.  This is the perfect post for those of you who have not yet left a comment to express your opinions about the abandonment of teaching cursive penmanship in schools.
In Isaac's time, penmanship was an indication of a person's education and sophistication.  There were still many who could neither read nor write and who signed documents with an "X".  The illustration of Isaac's penmanship is taken from the flyleaf of his journal, actually written before he ordered the Spencerian Handbook.
In my time I have regarded legible penmanship as a courtesy, enjoying a hand-written note of news, thanks, congratulations or concern, thoughtfully hand written by a friend, far more than a greeting card with only a signature.  Taking the time to write neatly, whatever the purpose, seemed as necessary to me as taking the time to fix my hair and put on lipstick before leaving the house.  Perhaps today's generation finds both of my "necessities" old-fashioned!

One individual responding to the question of cursive vs. manuscript wrote:  "Well-done cursive is really beautiful, and I think in the letter-writing culture of old, presentation was almost half of the pleasure of reading a letter."  I tend to agree, although I bristle a little at the characterization of that tradition belonging to the "culture of old."  Her comment received this reply:  "I found a box of letters a few months ago between my grandfather and his sister during WWII, and they were all so beautifully written.  Each one of them was like a small piece of artwork."  I would add that each was like a small piece of history.  Yet, if teaching is abandoned, will the cursive writing of ancestors become undecipherable to their descendants?

Two of my favorite museum memories are visits years ago to the manuscript rooms in the British Museum in London and the New York City Public Library.  Reading a handwritten letter of a witness to the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which described how Anne's little dog had run out from under its hiding place within the folds of her long skirts at the moment the ax fell, imprinted the horror of her execution in my mind in a very personal way far beyond what reading those same words in type could have done.  And, seeing the cross-throughs and interlinings on hand-written manuscripts of famous authors allowed insights that will be forever lost to future scholars and would-be writers viewing today's computer-written manuscripts, where changes are deleted forever.

Although most writers probably compose on computers, during an interview on CBS author Stephen King expressed the significance of writing in longhand:  "It slows you down.  It makes you think about each word as you write it, and it also gives you more of a chance so that you're able...the sentences compose themselves in your head.  It's like hearing music, only it's words.  But you see more ahead because you can't go as fast." 

An Op-Ed by Trevor Butterworth concludes, "...there is plenty of evidence that handwriting involves a series of complex cognitive processes in which perception and motor action are intertwined."  In reply to his conclusion, I would ask, when penmanship is abandoned in favor of keyboard skills, are educators neglecting the training of young people's minds in order to make them more productive at communicating ideas devoid of reflection, reason, and innovation?
 If Isaac had kept an electronic journal, would I have found it worth reading over a century later?  The picture to the left is of the top corner of page 422 of Isaac's Journal, typical of his handwriting a year before the journal ends.  Perhaps not beautiful, it is certainly neat, with a creative flair to it.  I believe that the words he wrote each day by hand speak to me more clearly than reading them on a computer screen ever could.  I also believe that his daily habit of writing in his journal allowed him to reflect more deeply and create more imaginatively than today's rapid tapping on a keypad.                                 
Take a minute to leave a comment telling me what you think!