Thursday, August 17, 2017

Isaac Werner's 1889 Solar Eclipse

Path of the Eclipse Isaac Witnessed 
On New Years Day, 1889, a total solar eclipse moved across the United States.  Total loss of direct sunlight occurred in the upper northwest portion of the continental United States, but a partial eclipse was visible across the western states and central Canada, with lesser impact as far away as Hawaii and the rest of the U.S.

Isaac B. Werner described the event in his journal.  Almanacs of that era had forecast the eclipse, but some of his neighbors had not received their 1889 almanacs and were taken by surprise.

Isaac wrote:  "Jan. 1, 1889 @ 14 degrees calm and pleasant by noon quite warm and @ 72 degrees in sun, only few degrees from summer heat.  ...about half past 2 o'clock eclipse commenced ... by 1/2 past 3 Sun about 2/3 hid.  I went up to Beck's after my mail -- Many persons noticed about peculiar Sun shine quite dim for clear day, but did not know of eclipse as but few are provided yet with new almanacs, the latter get short for distribution among drug stores."

On August 21, 2017, Americans will have the opportunity to experience a solar eclipse.  Those watching from Central Kansas, where Isaac had his claims, will share the dimness he experienced.  However, many Americans will experience the awesomeness of a total eclipse.

Path of the August 21, 2017 Eclipse
Isaac's response to the New Year's Day 1889 partial eclipse indicates the noteworthiness of it by the simple fact that he mentioned it in his journal, for it would have been uncharacteristic for Isaac to have elaborated something minor.  However, essayist Annie Dillard could have told Isaac, as she tells the rest of us in her essay Reflection:  Total Eclipse, "A partial eclipse is very interesting.  It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse.  Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane."

Poets have tried to describe the experience, as Emily Dickinson did in 1877.  "...Eclipse was all we could see at the Window/And Awe--was all we could feel..."   I searched for the words of other poets, but those I found were lame in comparison to Dillard's essay:

"I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky.  I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun.  It did not look like the moon.  It was enormous and black.  If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.  (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon -- if, like most of the world's people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing -- then I doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Lois of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.)"  

Total Solar Eclipse
No wonder countless Americans who could easily view a partial eclipse from their own front yards are instead choosing to travel to locations along the path of the total eclipse as it crosses our continent, for the first time the path will traverse coast to coast in nearly a century.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932), (the wife of an astronomer and observatory director, who served as his assistant, edited his scientific papers, and shared many of his research trips), published her own account of a total eclipse, describing the early changes in light and the response of birds and animals to the changing scene.  Although her initial descriptions are more academic, the emotional experience of the actual eclipse transforms her language.

"Darker and darker grows the landscape.  ...Then, with frightful velocity, the actual shadow of the Moon is often seen approaching, a tangible darkness advancing almost like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom.  The immensity of nature never comes quite so near, as then, and strong must be the nerves not to quiver as this blue-black shadow rushes upon the spectator with incredible speed.  A vast, palpable presence seems overwhelming the world.  The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly.  Birds, with terrified cries, fly bewildered for a moment, and then silently seek their night quarters.  Bats emerge stealthily.  Sensitive flowers, the scarlet pimpernel, the African mimosa, close their delicate petals, and a sense of hushed expectancy deepens with the darkness.  ...Often the very air seems to hold its breath for sympathy; at other times a lull suddenly awakens into a strange wind, blowing with unnatural effect.

Then out upon the darkness grewsome [sic] but sublime, flashes the glory of the incomparable corona, a silvery, soft, unearthly light, with radiant streamers, stretching at times millions of uncomprehended miles into space, while the rosy, flaming protuberances skirt the black rim of the Moon in ethereal splendor.  It becomes curiously cold, dew frequently forms, and the chill is perhaps mental as well as physical.

Suddenly, instantaneous as a lightning flash, an arrow of actual sunlight strikes the landscape, and Earth comes to life again, while corona and protuberances melt into the returning brilliance, and occasionally the receding lunar shadow is glimpsed as it flies away with the tremendous speed of its approach."  Quoted from her book, "Total Eclipses of the Sun."  (Consistent with the habits of her time, the author is identified only as "Mrs. Todd," her personal identity subsumed into her husband's name and reputation.)

Partial solar eclipse
On August 21, 2017 the path of the eclipse will give most Americans the opportunity to look to the sky, our safety glasses firmly in place.  From the descriptions of a poet, an essayist, and an  assistant-astrologist, the experience may be not merely interesting but highly emotional.  As Annie Dillard expressed the impact of the solar eclipse on her: "It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread.  It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering."  The images we may see on television and in print, taken through a telescope, may be beautiful, but what we may experience by viewing it ourselves cannot, apparently, be translated to photographs.  Now, if only the day will not be overcast!

Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Pratt County Seat Dispute

Early photograph of Pratt Businesses
Gaining the county seat in the westward expansion was extremely important to developing communities.  Often the seed for a town was not much more than a school.  Gradually a nearby home might be designated the community post office, a church might be built, and a few businesses might establish themselves there.  Rather than towns being far apart, there were many of these tiny settlements, almost all of which have now disappeared without a trace remaining today.  Even some of the larger towns have failed to thrive as automobiles and highways allow residents in the surrounding area to travel elsewhere for their shopping.  But for about one hundred years, being the county seat meant the likelihood that the town would prosper.  Naturally, people were willing to fight for that designation, sometimes with marketing, sometimes with trickery, and sometimes with guns.

Pratt County engaged in a bit of all three.  Here is a very brief summary of that history, starting with the designation of the area as a county.  A certain number of residents were necessary, and it is suggested that Pratt County may have counted its population a little generously.

Early photograph of Iuka Businesses
The governor came to investigate, and if it was a legitimate county to determine between Iuka and Saratoga which settlement should be the County Seat.  Clever Iuka promoters met the governor's train with a brass band (so the story goes) and escorted him to their community where he was entertained so 'graciously' that he never made it to Saratoga.

Naturally, Saratoga was not happy.  They contested the temporary designation of Iuka, but when irregularities were found among the necessary signatures, it was decided not to disturb the status quo while the irregularities were investigated.  Iuka retained its title.

Stone in the neglected Saratoga Cemetery 
Iuka's claim was based largely on being the center of the county; however, a legislative attempt to erase Stafford from the map of counties by giving parts of it away to its neighboring counties was defeated, at least partly because two townships had been overlooked in the giveaway.  That allowed Stafford County to survive and demand that its original boundaries be returned.  Once that happened, the reach of Pratt County was reduced, and Iuka was no longer at the center of the county.

A group of businessmen decided to form an investment company to establish a new town called Pratt Center.  Their citizen count involved the same sort of exaggerated numbers that the county itself had used to be recognized.  For a time the accusation was that for Pratt Center to have enough residents to be recognized as a town they must have counted the prairie dogs, which earned it the nickname of Dog City.

Nevertheless, the battle for the county seat now involved three communities.  Perhaps because the investment company used smarter legal tactics than the settlers in the other two communities, Pratt Center was named as the county seat and remains so today.  The small community of Iuka remains, but Saratoga has disappeared.

During those years of disputing claims to the county seat, there was certainly significant marketing, a serious amount of chicanery, and even a bit of gun fire (although most of it was probably aimed into the air rather than at each other).  Once Pratt Center gained the prize it wasn't long before the citizens voted to drop Center from the name of the town.  Today Pratt remains a thriving small city, with museums, a community college, proud citizens, and not a prairie dog to be found!

More stories about these early communities may be found in the blog archives.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.

(Notice the deceased woman's name on the old grave stone.  Many of these stones may be found in old cemeteries on which neither the woman's given name nor maiden name appears, but rather, the name of the husband at the time of her death is inscribed.  This often makes researching maternal family lines almost impossible.  Even if the given name appears, the maternal family line may still be difficult to ascertain.)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Story of Mary

Mary Elizabeth Lease, Wichita Library Lawn
Rudyard Kipling wrote, If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.  I love that quote!  Although I never put it so simply, it is exactly what I am trying to do in telling the story of Isaac B. Werner, his community, and the populist movement of the late 1800s.  The story about the populist movement, in which working class people--farmers, factory workers, miners, ranchers--came together politically to confront what they saw as excessive political influence by the wealthy men of the Gilded Age, is a great drama which most of us today know little about.  Isaac recorded in his journal a first hand account of the movement and the many leaders he heard speak, and one of those influential Populist speakers was Kansan, Mary Elizabeth Lease.  Let me tell you her story!

Mary Elizabeth Lease came to Kansas to teach in the Osage Mission, met and married a successful man, and enjoyed a comfortable life until the economic depression of 1874.  They moved to Texas and started over, from scratch, and it was there that she became involved in the Women's Christian Temperance Union.  Her organizing and speaking activities for the WCTU led to her involvement in women's rights, declaring, "There is no difference between the mind of a smart man and that of a smart woman."

Plaque, Wichita Library Lawn
They returned to Kansas, first living in Kingman, where she published articles in the local paper and studied law at home, juggling all of this with responsibilities as wife and mother.  They moved to Wichita, where she supplemented her legal studies reading law with a local attorney, and she was admitted to the Bar.  Her political involvement began with the Union Labor Party, but as the non-political Farmers' Alliance morphed into the People's Party she, like most other populists in Kansas, shifted her allegiance to that party. She became a paid speaker and a newspaper editor, always focusing on Prohibition, women's suffrage, and economic reforms.  In 1890, when the Populists challenged Republican US Senator Ingalls, Mrs. Lease traveled Kansas in support of William A. Peffer, giving 160 speeches on his behalf during the campaign season.  Following Peffer's victory, Mrs. Lease was often called, "the woman who beat Senator Ingalls."  At a time when women did not have the vote, she made a difference.

She was one of the most effective Populist orators and strategists, but she was provocative and intolerant of being marginalized by leaders who either disagreed with her or were disinclined to regard a woman with full respect.  Her place in the populist movement declined with the decline of the movement itself, and she is too little remembered and respected in history.

Mary Elizabeth Lease
Isaac B. Werner was among her strongest supporters, and he traveled to hear her speak, was published in her newspaper, and corresponded with her regularly.  It was through his journal entries that I first became acquainted with Mary Elizabeth Lease, and finding research about her was challenging.  You can imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that a larger-than-life bronze statue of Mrs. Lease stands on the lawn between the Wichita Public Library and Century II!  She was a strikingly beautiful woman, nearly six feet tall and quite slender for a woman of her times who had borne five children.  She could hold the attention of a crowd for three hours, modulating her voice from a whisper to a challenging call to arms.

Remember her story!  Mary Elizabeth Lease made a difference, not only to the Populist Movement in Kansas but also to all of us today who take for granted many of the Populist ideas that have become a part of our nation.

(You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Makes Things Obsolete?

Isaac Werner's penmanship
When Isaac B. Werner kept his journal, his tool was a pen.  Previous blogs have shared Isaac's effort to improve his penmenship, having a "good hand" an important indication of an educated man.  

Typewriters had been invented by the 1880s and 1890s when Isaac was keeping the journal about his years on the Kansas prairie.  The picture of an 1881 Hammond typewriter below was taken from the Editor's Page of Elle Decor.  Michael Boodro, editor, titled his editorial "When Does An Object of Desire Become Obsolete?"  His question inspired this blog.

I took a typewriting class in high school, perhaps my sophomore year, and as I recall, everyone in my class took typing, both boys and girls.  I believe that was when I asked my parents for a typewriter, and I think my portable typewriter was a birthday gift.  It served me through high school, college, and law school and was my only personal typewriter until the computer age arrived.  I did use electric typewriters for a couple of jobs, and I remember the clatter of keys and the ding of the bell as it reached the end of each row of typing.

1881 Hammond typewriter
In his article for Elle Decor, Michael Boodro recalled that he asked for a typewriter for Christmas when he was twelve, adding that he was an unashamed nerd.  In his editorial he used the evolution of typewriters to explore the impact of technology on the way we live.  However, he also pointed out that even those things which retain their function are often abandoned for reasons of style.  In other words, we often trade a perfectly serviceable automobile for a new model, or we discard clothing and furniture strictly because the styles change.

Mother's Underwood

The Underwood typewriter of unknown vintage pictured at left once belonged to my mother.  She used it to type her articles for the local newspaper, and although the sticker on the back of the machine states ownership of the copyright in Underwood Elliott Fisher Co. and production in the USA, it does not include a copyright date.  Mother loved writing, and becoming a news reporter in her senior years was like a dream come true.  I don't know where or when she acquired the Underwood typewriter, but it has a sticker from a Hutchinson business on the front, and I suspect she bought it when she became a reporter.

Although its date is uncertain, it seems older than the 1970s or early 1980s when Mother first became a reporter.  Unlike Michael Boodro, Mother would not have rejected it because it wasn't a new model.  Rather, it might have suited her imagination of what a 'girl reporter' would have used when she first dreamed of being one.
Nostalgic Mug

When Isaac Werner ordered a book on Spenserian penmanship, would he ever have imagined that slightly more than a century later students would no longer be taught cursive writing?  Will handwriting, even block printing, disappear except for jotting down brief notes as we communicate more and more by e-mail, text, tweets, and who knows what?

The advertisement for the mug pictured at right reads:  "The Lost Art of Penmanship Mug," and continues, "Kids today may not be taught cursive, but some of us fondly remember learning to mind our p's and q's...  Now you can enjoy the nostalgia of pretty penmanship with this 'educational' 12-ounce mug decorated with lower- and upper-case letters."  I believe the generally accepted origin of the saying about p's and q's relates to pub owners calling out to patrons to mind their pints and quarts in case they needed a refill before the legal hour prohibiting serving liquor arrived.  Will cursive penmanship soon be as obscure as the origin of that saying?

Many, including me, have argued that cursive writing deserves to be taught, not only for aesthetic reasons but also because taking the pains to write legibly--even beautifully--encourages thoughtful reflection, something often lost in the hasty pounding of a keyboard, abbreviated texting, and scribbled printing.  The essay in Elle Decor was directed toward the impact of technology on furnishing our homes, but perhaps Boodro's ideas should also cause us to reflect on the impact of technology on communication and reason, as well as beauty.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sedimentary Formations

Natural Bridge near Sun City before demolition
Some of you who are long-time followers of this blog may remember the blogs about the Natural Bridge near Sun City, KS, and you may also remember the blogs about Isaac Werner's potato-selling trips to Sun City, during which he ruminated about the unusual terrain and rock formations.

The photograph at right clearly shows the layering of sedimentary rock in the Natural Bridge near Sun City taken prior to its destruction.  It also shows how water gradually cut an opening in the rock to create the bridge.

Photo credit:  Moondigger
Many beautiful formations can be found in the United States.  The picture at left, taken from below with the camera aimed skyward "Inside Lower Antelope Canyon" by Moondigger, shows the effect of erosion by wind and water that has exposed the elegant sculpturing of layers of sandstone.

In Southwestern Utah a more rugged example of Sedimentary Formations consisting of siltstones and limestones from the Middle Triassic Period illustrates another means of layering in sedimentary Formations.

Viewed by us but not my photograph
Others of you who follow the blog regularly will also remember my posting of photographs taken of Castle Rock and surrounding outcroppings in that area of northwestern Kansas.

My fascination with sedimentary formations caused me to see one particular circumstance in a geological manner, rather than observing it for what is actually was.

Castle Rock in Kansas
A Kansas "mountain range"
Use your imagination to picture the "mountain range" at right as a sedimentary formation, laid down layer by layer.  That is exactly what I did for a split second as we drove by a Kansas field.  Of course, what I saw was not a mountain range built up layer by layer over eons but rather piles of grain unloaded side-by-side by a Kansas farmer who must have found himself lacking granary storage space.

While it may not have been a mountain range, it was beautiful and offered an interesting comparison of how different materials deposited on top of each other over many eons created the sedimentary rock formations we see today in such places as those pictured above.

The photograph at right shows the grain auger used to transfer the grain from the truck that brought it to the site onto the cleared area on which the grain is being temporarily stored.

The last image shows more closely the layering resulting as the auger deposits the grain on the pile, truck load by truck load.

Beauty is all around us, and with a little imagination, what we see can transport us to imagined places--a wind-shaped canyon, a far-away desert, a distant planet!

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

What is Populism?

Isaac Werner's Journal
The discovery of Isaac Werner's journal is what led to my manuscript with the working title of "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Homesteader and the Populist Movement."  However, what intrigued me as I read his daily accounts of solitary work, neighborhood activities, and trips to surrounding towns, was the social and political involvement that culminated in the Populist Movement.  Although I was raised in Isaac's community, I knew little about the important participation of my community and region in that movement.

I hope I have informed those of you who follow the blog about that involvement; however, the news of recent months has made "populism" a common word.  Just what is Populism?  How could news reporters have described the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as attracting a populist base, and what would their campaigns have in common with the Populism of the late 1800s with which Isaac Werner and his region were so involved?

I'll start with a simple definition.  The word comes from the Latin word populus, meaning people, and is intended to emphasize the power of common people and their right to participate in government through their numbers by using their votes to confront the smaller numbers of the wealthy and political insiders.  While that is a simple definition, the term is used in ways that have very different meanings, depending on the political goals of those being described.

Populism is not unique to America.  Populist Movements have arisen all around the world, and populist leaders have been elected in many countries.  Populism has been employed by both political parties considered liberal and those considered conservative.  It has been used to gather votes but abandoned once in office.  It has been applied to candidates as an insult and as a virtue.  In short, answering the question I raised in my title is probably impossible for one blog!  Perhaps it is nearly impossible for any number of words to pin down!

Political cartoon from the County Capital in St. John, KS
In an article by Marie Antelme posted in April 2017, she wrote:  "...there is no single definition of populism, and no common ideology that defines populist politics."  She did seek to distinguish between "Leftist political populism," which she described as more likely to attract lower- and middle-income voters confronting the wealthy, politically powerful and economically influential elite, and "Rightest" populism, which she identified as more likely to be anti-immigrant, racially resentful, and disliking elites whom they saw as protecting or supporting such outsiders.  Ms. Antelme is an economist with a South African asset management investment firm.  She analyzed populism from an economic perspective, concluding the "Countries with ageing population (like the US and many European countries) need a pragmatic, agreed policy on immigration," and concluding that the political parties in these countries need to find "...the right kinds of jobs--with sufficient pay--in a world of integrated supply chains and disruptive technologies, while providing effective social support as populations age."

Bloomberg writer Stephen Mihm, writing Dec. 13, 2015 during the political campaigns referred back to populism's origins in the late 1800s, describing it as a rural movement arising during the Gilded Age.  He wrote,that "...the Farmers' Alliance morphed into the People's Party" in order to confront "an era of rampant inequality, devastating financial crises and a pervasive belief that the game was rigged against ordinary Americans."  Mihm saw Populists of that era as very different from today's populists, but he listed five things populists of differing times have in common:  1. Anger, 2. Nativism, 3. Dislike of Wall Street, 4. Religious Prejudice (Jews in earlier times and Muslims today), and 5. Conspiracy Theories. (Examples of this might be Foreign Syndicates in the late 1800s buying mortgages to reduce farmers to serfs and accusations of 'fake news' today.)

FDR and Populist ideas

On March 22, 2017, Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio published a detailed examination of populism titled "Populism:  The Phenomenon."  He wrote:  "Populism is a political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man, typically not well-educated, being fed up with 1) wealth and opportunity gaps, 2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders, 3) the 'establishment elites' in positions of power, and 4) government not working effectively for them. ...Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative and exclusive rather than inclusive."  He summarizes, "In other words, populism is a rebellion of the common man against the elites and, to some extent, against the system."  His article goes further and contains interesting charts and graphs further explaining his analysis.

These three articles were chosen to represent the challenge of specifically defining Populism.  It is the origins of populism in the late 1800s in which Isaac Werner, his region, and his state played such a significant role, with which my manuscript deals.  The next historic period during which populism played a significant role was between the World Wars (1920-1930s).  According to one of Dalio's charts, not since 1930 has such a spike in populism occurred as we are seeing in recent years.

It is important to understand historically how Populism came into existence and the various ways in which the term has been used.  Kansas and Texas, as well as other states with large farming and working class populations, played instrumental roles in the creation of a movement as timely as today's news!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

History in Everyday Places

Recently we attended the annual Willa Cather Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and I was reminded how everyday we have occasions to learn more about the history of our nation and our region.  One of the speakers, Bob Ferguson, a stamp collector, spoke about images on stamps which share history.  Among the images he displayed during his talk was the one to the right, showing the stamp recognizing The Homestead Act.

The image shows a dugout which may very well resemble the type of dwelling Isaac B. Werner built when he first arrived in Stafford County, Kansas.  Partly dug into the earth and partly created with blocks of sod stacked to create walls, it would have been suitable for land like Isaac's where the terrain was less satisfactory for creating a cave.

Mr. Ferguson also showed the first day cover of the stamp honoring Nebraska's first homesteader.  With stamps from his own collection and images taken from the internet, he used stamps to share the history that is to be found in everyday places.  Even the more commonplace stamps we use can remind us of our past, not only historic events but also memorable people--politicians, sports figures, scientists, authors, and movie stars to suggest a few.

We also stepped inside the Red Cloud post office to enjoy another example of history in everyday places.  The paintings on the walls of the post office remind visitors of history in two ways.  First, the subjects of the paintings depict "Loading Cattle," "Stockade Builders," and "Moving Westward."

Second, the paintings also remind visitors of the 1930s and 1940s when they were created.  I had mistakenly believed that the post office art was the result of the Work Projects (WPA) initiated during the Depression to provide employment of various kinds, including the employment of artists to decorate government buildings with murals.  However, the post office art was created under the authority of the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department.  Artists of respected talent were selected by the Section of Fine Arts to decorate public buildings--if funding was available.

The art in the Red Cloud Post Office is oil on canvas created by artist Archie Musick in 1941.  He is considered a Regionalist, and he studied with Thomas Hart Benton.  He developed a particular technique using egg tempera and colored pencil, which technique he employed the remaining years of his career for smaller paintings.  He also authored the book Musick Medley:  Intimate Memories of a Rocky Mountain Art Colony, which described the art world of the Colorado Springs area from the 1920s to the 1950s.

So, while I have chosen to share history through my writing, there are places for us to be made aware of history all around us, including while doing such every-day tasks as adhering a stamp to an envelope and entering a post office to mail a letter.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

History from a Tourist Perspective

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
Several of my blogs have been the result of an impulsive response to a highway sign directing my husband and me to some historical site off the beaten path.  Sometimes those side trips occurred as we were traveling to a planned historical destination, and along the way we discovered something else worth seeing.  Brent Glass, Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, has written a book to assist Americans in learning about their country by traveling to important places, and many of the destinations described in his book include nearby or related sites worth including in the visit.  Titled 50 Great American Places, it represents what Glass considers Essential Historic Sites Across the U.S.  

We met Brent Glass at the recent Cather Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where he was one of the speakers.  Naturally, I was eager to read his book!

First, I was pleased by how many of the sites he recommends are places we have visited.  Perhaps that should not have been a surprise, since we both enjoy learning about history and plan many of our trips for that purpose.

Second, I was tempted to add more of his recommendations to our bucket list of future trips, as well as being affirmed in my hopes to visit places already on our list.

Several of my blogs have emphasized the lessons history has to teach, as well as pointing out that history has a way of repeating itself--not always directly but certainly in ways that share common issues.  Consider, for an example, the struggles of Isaac Werner and other farmers and working class people in the late 1800s during which time another group of Americans were living in what came to be known as the "Gilded Age."  In Chapter 38, Glass shares a quote from Will Rogers speaking in 1931:  "The only problem that confronts this country today see that every man that wants to is able to work...and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of the wealth in the country."

While considering the similarities of the economic issues of those two historic periods, reflect on some of the things we are hearing in the news of today.  The ability of Will Rogers to use humor to address serious social issues remains as relevant today as it was during his lifetime, and the state of Oklahoma has recognized his ongoing contribution to the nation's dialogue by naming Route 66 "Will Rogers Highway."

Route 66 opened as a federal road in 1927, and Glass points out the significance of multistate roads in giving Americans greater independence and mobility.  However, Route 66 also became the pathway to California taken by the Dust Bowl farmers migrating west.  During the Steinbeck Retreat about which I have written in recent blogs, we spent a great deal of time discussing The Grapes of Wrath, from which Glass quotes:  "...the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads."

Yet, many of us think of Route 66 as the theme of Nat King Cole's rendition of the popular lyrics urging a generation to 'get your kicks on Route 66' or we think of the TV show in which the Corvette was as important as the characters.  Route 66 was decommissioned as a highway in 1985, but Clinton, OK has a museum that preserves memories of the road's glory days.

At the end of the chapter, Glass suggests the following places to include in your visit in addition to The Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch, and the Museum in Claremore (  Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (, Gilcrease Museum (, Woody Guthrie Center (, Rogers County Historical Society (, and Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program (

This blog shares only one of Brent Glass's recommendations, but there are 49 more in his book!
(Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Trains Settle the West

The theme of the 2017 Willa Cather Conference, held recently in Red Cloud, Nebraska, was "Picturing the American West, The Railroad and Popular Imagination."  Linked with the subject of railroads were the Opera Houses that were built in prairie towns served by railroad lines.  Not only did visitors coming to see performances in the Opera Houses sometimes arrive by train, more importantly, the trains allowed performers to travel from town to town, easily transporting their costumes and scenery. 

The image at left is from the County Capital in St. John to which Isaac Werner subscribed.  You will notice that the advertisement is dated June 4, 1890, but the railroad had arrived in St. John earlier than that date.

Sharing his stories about abandoned rail lines was James Reisdorff, who spoke to us from the Burlington Depot on the southern edge of Red Cloud.  His program was titled "Pulling Up Stakes:  When Trains Leave Town," and he shared the impact on towns that lose their railroads.  He also described how others like himself go in search of abandoned sites, some still having evidence of the old rails while others are discernible only from the elevated grade.

James Reisdorff at the Red Cloud Depot

The last morning of the conference a panel of Dr. Ann Tschetter, Dr. Elissa Sartwell, city planner and author Ann Satterthwaite, and Dr. Mark Facknitz discussed 'Railroads:  Myth & Metaphor.'  Dr. Sartwell addressed the tragic mistreatment of Chinese workers laying the transcontinental lines, using references from plays performed in the Opera Houses and cartoons belittling the Chinese to illustrate the era.  Particularly illuminating was the work of Dr. Facknitz, pointing out the significance of the railroad in Cather's writings.  I do hope their papers are published so that I can study them further.

Dining one evening at the Red Cloud Depot
A special treat was the performance of The Red Cloud Cannonball, a vaudeville-inspired performance of classic railroad tunes and humor.  Seated in the Red Cloud Opera House Auditorium, we felt as if we were experiencing exactly the sort of show Willa Cather might have seen.

For Isaac Werner and his contemporaries in Kansas, the railroads represented a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand, populists blamed the railroads for the unfair shipping costs charged struggling farmers to ship produce to the East, compounded by the distrust and resentment felt for the wealthy and powerful exerting unfair political influence concerning railroad regulation.  On the other hand, they sought railroad lines near their communities for transportation and shipping, and they desired the prestige of being a local director for the advancing railroads.  Isaac wrote in his journal about the stimulus to growth of the small prairie towns when the railroad arrived. 

I will never again take for granted the role of the railroad when I read a Willa Cather novel or short story, and I will reflect more closely on the role of the railroad in my manuscript about Isaac and the Populist Movement.   

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Preserving the Old with Something New

Dedication speakers and honorees with Rev. Charles Peek
Laura Bush delivering keynote
In 1932 a young teacher arrived in Webster County and was introduced to the writing of a former resident,  Willa Cather.  Cather could not have inspired a more devoted fan!  That young teacher was Mildred Bennett, and she is considered the founder of the Willa Cather Foundation, although it should be recognized that every leader must have those who share her vision and follow her.  When Mildred Bennett died, her vision was well established, but equally important, others have carried on the dreams she imagined, which include championing the arts and humanities.

Bennett's gift for dreaming big must have inspired the Foundation Board when they undertook the restoration of the Moon Block, a 2-story collection of commercial buildings stretching north from the beautiful Opera House all the way to the end of the block.  In 2015 my husband and I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the project and toured the interior.  Oh, my!  It took real vision to imagine that the neglected building could ever become the structure that was planned.

Ribbon Cutting at Cather Foundation Dedication
Yet, it has.  Because Mildred Bennett was a teacher who came to love the writings of Willa Cather and who asked, "What better way would there be for us to understand each other than through the fields of humanities and the arts?" who better to deliver the keynote address at the dedication of the National Willa Cather Center than a former teacher and librarian who as our nation's first lady stressed the importance of reading, and who just happens to be a great Willa Cather fan herself.  Fortunately, just such a person exists and agreed to speak at the Dedication!   On June 3, 2017, former First Lady Laura Bush presented the Dedication Address and joined other key individuals in cutting the ribbon opening the Willa Cather Foundation expansion into the Moon Block.

The Foundation carries on the mission envisioned by Mildred Bennett, not only preserving structures identifiable as the models for Cather's novels and short stories so fans from around the world can literally step back in time to experience sites described in her work, but also welcoming researchers to the ever-growing archives, hosting plays and lectures and other performances in the Opera House, providing writing seminars, hosting working retreats for visiting artists, and awarding scholarships to young scholars.  The back-stage facilities had been inadequate for performances in the Opera House, and some of the Moon Block space has remedied that.  The archives available to researchers, both in person and to fulfill requests sent from distant places, make preservation and access possible.  The hosting of events, the office space, the display of objects and information are now adequate to the Foundation's mission.

At street level, the renovations have created beautiful commercial spaces, which will be leased to business tenants.  In that way, the Moon Block renovation not only serves the Cather mission but also serves the entire community commercially.

I hope my blog posts over the years have made some of you curious to visit Red Cloud, and to hike the 612-acre native prairie just south of town.  To learn more details, visit the Foundation website at   Remember, you may click on the images to enlarge them. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Home on the Range at the Orpheum

Orpheum Theater in Wichita, KS
A recent blog shared Oscar Wilde's visit in 1882 to theaters in Kansas.  This week I am going to share a visit to another one of the great old theaters in Kansas to attend a showing of Home on the Range.

First, a little about the theater.  The Orpheum Theater opened September 4, 1922 and was designed by architect John Eberson to create the impression of a Spanish garden, with sidewalls depicting mock tile roofs, window grills, and wooden lattice arches across the ceiling.  When it closed in 1976, its appearance and the standard of its entertainment had deteriorated significantly.  For nearly two decades the theater remained dark, but today it is Wichita's Non-Profit center for the performing arts, concerts, films, and more.  It was decided to open the theater and complete renovations as money was available, most of which has come from private grants and individual donations.  The Orpheum is like a grand old lady with a few runs in her stockings, her hat slightly askew, and rouge that can't conceal the wrinkles, but the elegance underneath all of that remains.  

Our evening at the Orpheum began with meeting the cast of Home on the Range in the lobby before viewing the movie, after which the cast assembled on the stage to speak about their experiences making the movie, why they were drawn to the project, and their careers in general.  Starting at the left is Michael Martin Murphey, who not only played Judge John Harlan in the movie but was an early supporter of the project and of the restoration of the Home on the Range cabin.  Next is Darby Hinton, an actor from early childhood who portrayed the bartender in San Antonio, Albert Fraidlich.  Well known from playing Newly in TV's Gunsmoke, and a highly collected artist, Buck Taylor is seated in the center of this group and portrayed Trube Reese in the movie.  Next is Rance Howard, a life-long actor who portrayed Cal Harlan.  Rance has the further distinction of being the father of actor-director Ron Howard.  At far right is Mathew Greer, who played the old cattle trail cowboy Bill Jack Curry.  In the movie, Mathew sang the version of the song Curry remembered from hearing it on the trail. 

 Picking up from Mathew, (holding the microphone) in the next picture is Mitch Holthus, who played the announcer in the radio studio, an appropriate bit of casting, since off screen he is known as the 'Voice of the Chiefs' in Kansas City.  Mitch was raised in Smith Center and his father has been a driving force behind the saving of the Home on the Range cabin.  To his right is Mark Mannette, who played the lawyer-investigator, Samuel Moanfeldt, who determined the true origins of the song.  An actor and a professor, he bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Moanfeldt.  Seated at far right is Director, Ken Spurgeon.  

Our evening was not over, for we enjoyed the delight of front-row seats for a concert by Michael Martin Murphey.  While he may be best known for his sad ballad Wild Fire, the talents of this singer-songwriter extend well beyond that mega-hit song.  Even more to be admired by Kansans is his generosity toward the preservation of the Home on the Range cabin near Smith Center. 

We were in for an additional treat when Michael invited his son to join him on the stage.  I had never realized that the clear pitch-perfect voice that sings Western songs so beautifully is the voice of a genuine Irish tenor--although his name certainly should have been a clue!  That Irish heritage is further honored by his son's artistry on the Irish harp, and we had the opportunity to not only hear him accompany his father but also to enjoy a solo on his beautiful instrument.  Our evening at the Orpheum was definitely one to remember! 

You may click on the images to enlarge them.  

You may wish to visit to read more, and to link with sources to buy the Home on the Range CD at that site.  You may also visit to learn more about the theater and see upcoming performances appearing there.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hometown Memorial Day

I have written about the traditions of our community on Memorial Day in other blogs posted in late May or early June, and I am writing this blog in the evening after attending the 2017 Memorial Ceremony in our hometown.

My husband marches in the honor guard, so we arrive early so he can assemble with the other marchers, and I use the time to make a complete circuit of the graves of all of our ancestors and many of our friends.  It is a route learned when I was very young and the original part of the cemetery had many flowers decorating the graves.  Today, only a few in that section had flowers, their descendants having joined them in their final rest, or members of their families no longer living in the area.

Most people now decorate graves of parents and friends in the newer sections of the cemetery.  Even the open lawn purchased for expansion has gradually acquired gravestones.  For people like me, with ancestors that came to Kansas as homesteaders in the late 1870s and 1880s, several generations are buried in Farmington Cemetery.  Among those in the community who have carried on  family farms, more generations are likely to follow.

The Memorial Day Services are conducted at the 'new' monument near the west gates, but it is the second Memorial Monument in the cemetery.  The original  monument honored soldiers, sailors, and marines of the "Civil, Spanish-American, and World War.'  Remember, W.W. I was believed to be 'the war to end all wars,' and it was not called W.W. I until there was a W.W. II.

When my husband began marching in the honor guard, there were several W.W. II veterans among the marchers, and the Vietnam veterans were the 'young guys.'  Gradually the W.W. II veterans became the ones being honored in the memorial ceremony, and the Vietnam veterans became the marchers with gray in their hair.  With our current all volunteer military, there are fewer young veterans in our community to carry on the tradition.

As I walked the cemetery I thought about all of the people I had known who are now buried there, and since I have spent so much time with Isaac's neighbors as I researched the late 1800s described in his journal, I have come to feel as if I know many of that generation who are buried in Farmington, their stones in the section of the cemetery where three sets of my great grandparents are buried.

However, perhaps what I recall most from the 2017 Memorial Ceremony was the participation of the two remaining W.W. II soldiers that once marched with other veterans their age. Although they no longer march, they still participate.  One delivers the familiar lines promising that although the flowers placed on their graves will fade, the veterans being honored will not be forgotten.

The other W.W. II veteran marched last year, although for the first time he did not carry a rifle.  This year he was not able to march, but he waited at the Memorial and joined the other marchers to stand between the flag bearers, supported by a helpful arm.  As determined as he was to stand, the ceremony was long, and he needed his wheel chair.  Yet, he remained with the other veterans, doing his part as best he could.  That is what moved me.  Every one of those men, (and this year, a female service member) was there because he or she saw it as their duty to serve.  They had served their country when the call came, and today they came when they were called to march in honor of those with whom they had served and generations of veterans before them.  It made me proud.  

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Oscar Wilde in Kansas?

Oscar Wilde
Can you picture Oscar Wilde scheduling a speaking tour in Kansas?  Yet, in 1882 he arrived!  This week's blog owes a debt to Charles Harmon Cagle, whose full article can be found at  I have supplemented research found in Cagle's article with some of Wilde's quotes that I thought you would enjoy.

"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying."  

The population of Kansas rural areas has dwindled since the time of Isaac Werner and smaller cities have shrunk, leaving emptier rural landscapes and a few larger cities.  However, in the 1880s great curiosity about the "wide open spaces" attracted foreign visitors.  Even small cities built opera houses that accommodated performances of all sorts.  In 1882 the famous English writer and lecturer Oscar Wilde came to Kansas.  Not everyone was impressed.

Pessimist:  One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.

Oscar Wilde spent only five days in Kansas, arriving in Leavenworth on April 19, 1882, and departing following his final lecture in Atchinson on April 24.  The opinion of the reviewer in Leavenworth was immediately apparent from the headline:  "His Lecture Falls Flat."   The reviewer of another Leavenworth paper briefly described the lecture:  "The famous aesthete, Oscar Wilde, who lectured to and bored such a small audience ..."

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious."

After traveling to Topeka, Wilde was interviewed by a more sympathetic reporter, who wrote:  "Mr. Wilde has a handsome soft womanish face, around which his long wavy hair fell in the finest decorative art.  He is a very pleasant conversationalist, has a wonderful command of words, and expresses himself in a very clear lucid manner, much contrasted with the soulful utterances of his burlesquers."  However, as for the lecture, he called it, " unrelieved waste of words, words, words; like a great desert of sand with the edges all around touching the sky and no green thing in sight."

"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

In Lawrence the reaction was not hateful but clearly tepid, describing Wilde's delivery as a "...not disagreeable sing-song, perhaps what an aesthete would call rhythm."  The Atchinson newspaper, however, held nothing back, reprinting a Kansas City paper's description of "...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound, and trash, signifying nothing."  But adding, "People will, of course, continue to go to see him as they do to view sideshow curiosities and monstrosities."

"Those who find ugly meaning in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault."

A different Atchinson reporter suggested:  "Mr. Wilde should dress like a gentleman, cut his hair, learn to speak plain, stop calling everything 'lovely' and 'joyous,' or 'stoopid' and 'dreadful,' and so convince the world of the existence of the good stuff there really is in him, buried beneath a heavy weight of idle affection."

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

So, who was this Englishman that got such treatment?  Born in 1854, a decade after Isaac Werner, Wilde was a writer of great variety--novels, essays, plays, and poetry; however, he may be best remembered for his unorthodox dress and his clever commentary, as are indicated by the photograph and quotes scattered throughout this blog.  At a young age he became a spokesman for aestheticism, and even in college he attracted attention by decorating his room with peacock feathers, sunflowers (which became a symbol for aestheticism), and blue China.  Mocked as that era's equivalent of a "sissy," he surprised four fellow students who physically attacked him by defending himself effectively.

"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Wilde's trip to Kansas was only part of an American lecture tour which began in January of 1882.  His lectures were received more warmly in places other than Kansas, and the originally scheduled four months were extended to nearly a year.  His flamboyant appearance and his literary successes, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, are part of his enduring fame, but also the scandal of his personal life, which lead to imprisoment for two years 1895-1897, is part of his reputation.  

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."

After leaving prison he made his home in France, where he died in 1900.  He is buried outside Paris, having died of cerebral meningitis which may have been traceable back to the incredibly harsh treatment he suffered at Pentonville Prison.

" the diary that we all carry about with us."

Isaac Werner must  have known of Oscar Wilde, although none of his books were mentioned among Isaac's library.

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."  

Isaac Werner believed in education, just as I do, but it is sadly true that we do seem compelled to learn some hard lessons for ourselves that past generations would have been all too glad to have taught us, had we only  been willing to learn from both their wisdom and their mistakes.

"Always forgive your enemies--nothing annoys them so much."