Friday, January 27, 2012

Isaac Visits the future Hoopeston

When we left Rossville, Illinois, there was another place I wanted to see. I remembered that in the spring of 1871, Isaac, his friends John and Frederick, and this cousins Ezra and Henry, had borrowed a buggy to take a Sunday drive north of Rossville to the farm of a man named Hoopes. It was a time of rapid expansion of rail lines, and promoters would arrive with promises of new rail lines to serve rural communities and small towns, predicting that at every point where two rail lines intersected, a prosperous town was certain to grow. One such crossing was planned on Hoopes Farm, and the young men wanted to see if any evidence of actual construction to back up all the promises could be seen.

Having found the town of Rossville in the atlas, I also noticed a town with the name of Hoopeston, and although Isaac had called the prospective railroad town "Hoopstown" and had expressed his doubts that the promoters' predictions would occur, the location in the atlas and the farm described in Isaac's Journal seemed about the same. I wanted to see the countryside along the route the five men took to reach Hoopes Farm, which Isaac had described: "Some considerable tracts of prairie land lying open yet...noticed few wild geese and ducks on west side of road on few ponds...Passed by old Hoop's [sic] residence--on a very beautiful mount, commanding the landscape on every side, presenting beautiful prairie views." Our drive north of Rossville, nearly a century and a half later, passed through interesting country, but my imagination could not impose on the landscape the open prairie Isaac had described in his journal.

The five young men continued on their journey, and Isaac wrote: "...reaching the famous prairie site where the great future Hoopstown is to rear its wealths. ...Hearing so much about Hoopstown and R.R. crossing from the lips of Rail Road Maniacs, one gets to feel as I did--craving to gaze personally on the covetous spot then make up mind accordingly." Despite his skepticism, Isaac admitted in his journal: "What musing and dreaming takes possession of any one, contemplating the scene and project. Could we easily raise the means? Could we possibly buy these covetous acres at reasonable prices? Could we get all the Western R.R. to intersect this charming spot? ...But sighing Ah! It is all desert prairie yet. Not a habitation within three miles!"

Although Hoopstown was only a railroad promoter's description, with the prairie grass having been mowed to mark the future placement of the tracks at the time of Isaac's visit, the work on the railroad lines soon commenced and a town grew around the crossing. When we reached Hoopeston, we drove around to explore a little. By chance, we discovered the library. It was still open, so we went inside and met Linda Mitchell, Director of the Hoopeston Public Library. With limited time to spend and no research preparation or notes, I was ill prepared, but she graciously spent time with us, checking to see if any of their collection of local newspapers might have been published as early as 1871. They had not. It was an impressively busy library, which is always wonderful to see. We looked at what limited information she had to share from that era, and my husband took a photograph of the framed Hoopeston town map from 1893 (apologies for the glare from the glass).

As Isaac had stood on the spot where Hoopstown was predicted to bloom, he had imagined the potential an investor might gain if the town were to succeed: "...what a wealth and prospect would we enjoy." Instead, he dismissed the prospects for the future of the town on Hoopes Farm and returned to Rossville to form a milling partnership with his cousin Henry Werner and Mr. Ross, which lasted only a few years before Isaac moved on to stake his claim in Kansas. As Robert Frost wrote of roads not taken: "...I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the under growth; then took the other...And that has made all the difference."

Friday, January 20, 2012

Isaac's Years in Rossville, Illinois

On the spur of the moment, my husband and I decided to drive to Northampton, Massachusetts, for a Willa Cather Seminar at Smith College. With no idea what a great adventure we would make of our impromptu road trip, I left all of my research about Isaac behind, except for what was on my laptop. Only when we stopped for the first night did we look at the atlas and realize how close to Rossville, Illinois, we would travel. Of course, we had to make the detour to see the town where Isaac had lived in the 1870s.

During 1870 & 1871, Isaac had been the proprietor of a drug store, but he had chosen to sell that business when the railroad came to Rossville. Druggists in those days sold liquor "for medicinal purposes," and Isaac was concerned that an unsavory crowd would arrive in town along with the railroad and cause trouble for him as a respectable businessman, demanding liquor for reasons other than their health.

Deciding whether to bring the railroad to Rossville was a tumultuous time for the community. Isaac sided with those who opposed it, and for a time he was among the majority. Isaac wrote: "Voted about 5 to 1 against issuing Bonds and about same ratio repealing former obligations. It was rather interesting and ridiculous during all day, to notice all round humanity how much Rail Roads on their brains, Bulls and Bears out in Rossville Wall Street crowds on store porches, freely and liberally discussing...and cussing."

Eventually the idea of a railroad began to gain favor, and the Bonds passed. The dispute shifted to where the depot should be built. Isaac described the conflict: "Somehow no public certainty yet where Rossville is to have its Depot for R.R., on Gilbert's, Livingyard's or Henderson's. Some tugging by each, but I guess old Gilbert will about win the stakes...Seem being conducted rather quiet & reserved." Isaac sided with Henderson, but Gilbert had been an early supporter of bringing the railroad to town, and Isaac suspected that the railroad would reward him by giving him the site.

After Isaac had left Rossville, a friend had written him a long letter, describing how the village had changed, specifically because of two events in the 1880s--a tornado that had destroyed many buildings and a fire that had burned the wooden businesses. From my research I had learned that Rossville had become known as a charming tourist destination, with many antique shops, some of which had been destroyed by a fire in 2004 which burned the west side of Main Street. Therefore, I knew that the town Isaac had known was essentially gone.

We arrived in Rossville a few minutes after four o'clock, and because we had a schedule to keep in order to reach our destination in time for the seminar, we could not linger. Consequently, we only peeked through the windows of the closed Historical Society Museum and Railroad Station Museum, both of which looked very interesting. We also enjoyed driving some of the streets, although we found nothing that appeared to date back as far as Isaac's time.

What we were able to see, however, was the river at the edge of town. Isaac worked in his drug store six days a week. Naturally, he looked forward to the one day a week when the store was closed and he could be out of doors, often joined by a dog named Coally. "...took exercise stroll down the woods...[with] Coally to chase rabbits--started few out but Coally too fat to run, lost distance all time till rabbit out of his sight, but he yelped after them." Even during the cold winter months the river was a gathering spot: "Fine calm clear moonlight eve, boys again down on the creek ice skating and hollering about, enjoying themselves." Isaac's cousin Ezra played the accordion and Isaac described one late afternoon stroll: "...down the lovely woody acres to West bluff, there perched on an old stout log, struck up the music...never before heard in the woods--the eve with west landscape and water scape over the bottoms right before us, such lovely sunshine of declining Sol... lightly roaring on rushing stream, and few little snow birds, chirping lively about the brush. Who could avoid imagining more or less Venice and Italy surrounding us?"

The opportunity to lock his shop and relax with friends in the countryside was something to look forward to, but most of his time Isaac was a businessman, at work from early morning into the evening. He was in his mid-twenties and was proud of his friendships with older, experienced businessmen in town. He wrote of one of the early Rossville businessmen: "[You] do not find every day such enterprising men as W.J. Henderson, with corresponding capital in an inland town like Rossville. ...Others, of course, since his adventuring tried to follow him, but if he had not been here as a leader, who else would have dared to lead? And what would they have accomplished. No Sir, J.W.[sic] Henderson was so far the business pillar of the community."

Isaac's years in Rossville were good ones for him. After selling his drug store business, he was tempted by the possibilities of participating in the town being built near Hoopes Farm, prospering as the town grew. Instead, he stayed in Rossville to form a milling business with his cousin Henry and a man named Mr. Ross. He also bought two lots in the "New Town" development of Rossville, planning to build a home with a separate library for all of his books. Although like many others he was eventually drawn further West where he claimed a homestead on the Kansas prairie, for more than a decade and even during hard financial times when his need for money was desperate, he kept the lots he owned in Rossville, perhaps imagining he might someday return, or perhaps only unwilling to sell because of the memories of old friends and good times there.

Rossville is still a charming town, and the arrival of the railroad did not ruin it after all, despite the concerns shared by Isaac and many of the established merchants. Next week I will share our journey as we replicated Isaac's trip with friends in a borrowed buggy to see the location of the proposed intersection of two rail lines where "Hoopestown" was supposed to be built.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Finding Isaac's Grave

In early days, when bodies were not embalmed, funerals were held within a day or two of death. Town cemeteries were too far away to travel by wagon or buggy, so communities created country cemeteries. The land was often donated, sometimes by the family who first needed to bury one of their own. These country cemeteries dot the Kansas landscape, some containing only a few old graves, others still in active use.

About four miles north of Isaac's timber claim was Neeland's Cemetery. It had originally been named the Livingston Cemetery for the fledgling town of Livingston, but many people referred to it by the name of the family who had donated the land for the cemetery, and today, that is the name by which it is known. Neeland's Cemetery began when a workman for Neeland's Ranch died and was buried in their pasture. Following that burial, the family donated three acres for a neighborhood cemetery. I had visited Neeland's with my parents when I was a child, and I remembered the interesting old gravestones I had seen there, many of them dating back to the 1800s.

Gravestones are genealogy records chiseled in stone. One particular stone in Neeland's tells the tragic story of the collapse of a sod dugout's roof during heavy rains. Nick Davison and his wife Mary were early settlers in the community, and soon after they arrived a daughter they named Beuna Vista was born. Less than five years later, another daughter was born, and she was named Bessie. Eighteen days after her birth, the weight of the rain soaked sod roof caused the ridge pole to snap, and the collapsed mud smothered the baby and her four-year-old sister. Memorialized on the beautiful stone are these two sisters and a third daughter whose life was also brief. Eight sons were born to Nick and Mary, but no other daughters.

Neeland's continues to be the final resting place for departed loved ones today. A symbolic modern stone tells its own tragic story of a young father who died in an accident, leaving behind his widow and three young children, the tragedy depicted with a pair of hands tenderly holding three little birds.

When I began searching for Isaac's grave, I considered several possibilities. The closest cemetery to Isaac's homestead was Naron cemetery in Pratt County, only about two miles from his home and the burial place of several of his neighbors. St. John was a possibility, because it was the county seat, where Isaac shopped, banked, marketed his crops, and attended farmers' meetings. With no family living close to him, it seemed reasonable that he might have chosen the county seat. Farmington Cemetery in Macksville is where my ancestors are buried, and Isaac was friendly with all of them, along with some other neighbors buried there, so that was also a possibility. And, there was Neeland's.

Isaac mentioned several funerals in his journal, with most of the burials in either Naron or Neeland's. His Probate Records include early claims submitted by the mortician and the casket maker, but only in the final accounting when his estate closed did the three dollar expense of his burial plot finally appear, with no indication of the specific cemetery. Because there was no claim for a gravestone, I assumed that Isaac was probably buried in an unmarked grave. The necessity of holding funerals soon after death meant that bodies were rarely transported any great distance, so I decided to begin my search at Naron and Neeland's, which were the two closest cemeteries.

The names of those buried in Naron are available online, but I found no listing for Isaac. There was no complete listing online for the Neeland's Cemetery, so I began inquiring who the members of the cemetery board were. With just a few phone calls, I reached one of the board members to ask if there was a record of Isaac being buried there. He was. Both she and I assumed his was one of several old graves in that cemetery that are unmarked, but she described the location of his grave, according to their records, and my husband and I went to see what we could find.

It was a cold December day, and I had been told that Isaac was buried in the fourth row, the second lot to the south of the driveway. We counted the rows, but in an old cemetery it is often difficult to determine exactly what placement of stones represents a row. We settled on what we thought was the correct row and I began pacing off fifteen feet from the edge of the tire ruts that serve as a driveway, since she had said that the lots were fifteen feet square. After fifteen steps I stopped, disappointed to see an empty space in front of me. "It should be about here," I told my husband. "I guess Isaac is buried somewhere in this empty area."

"Look beside you," he told me. To my left and about a half a pace behind me, there was Isaac's stone--a simple square column with engraving on the top to resemble a fringed cloth spread over the column. The carved letters were worn by age, but they clearly read, "I.B. Werner, Died March 21, 1895, Aged 51." The next day we returned with a spray of holly to decorate Isaac's grave, and each Memorial when we remember family with flowers, we stop by Neeland's Cemetery to place an arrangement on Isaac's grave. Perhaps his neighbors brought flowers to Isaac's grave for a while after his death, but for decades he had been a forgotten man. At last, Isaac is remembered.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Small town museums--Stafford County Historical Society

The Stafford County Historical & Genealogical Society is building poor. So many landmark buildings along the Main Street of Stafford have been gifted to the Society, that much of their budget is spent maintaining what they have received. It is another case of generous donors, unpaid volunteers, and a hard working Executive Secretary rescuing and preserving the history of the community for future generations. During the past two years, I have spent many days doing research at this museum.

The Stafford County Historical Society acquired a real treasure several years ago. For two generations, the Gray family operated a photography studio at 116 N. Main in St. John. Begun by W.R. Gray in 1905, the studio building also contained the family home. A son, Royal, followed his father's profession, operating a studio in Ulysses, Kansas, and another son, Dr. Arzy Gray, worked as a chemist for Eastman Kodak. After attending what is now UCLA, daughter Jessie became her father's business partner in 1940, assuming the business seven years later when her father died. When Jessie retired in 1981 she donated an estimated 29,000 glass plate negatives to the Stafford County Museum. The museum curator believes it is the largest glass negative collection in the country specific to one location. Imagine standing at a window and watching a parade of people representing nearly eight decades of one community's citizens, together with a backdrop of businesses, farms, sporting events, festivals, and other moments captured by the photographers. The people you observe are mute, frozen in their own times, and you cannot call out to them the questions you would like to ask, but they tell a story of their particular period in their clothing, hairstyles, and poses. Volunteers continue to labor cleaning the negatives and documenting the subjects portrayed, a time-consuming task.

In an arrangement with Fort Hays Kansas State University, the photographs are available for viewing online at where you can see hundreds of turn-of-the-century images, with more appearing periodically as the glass plates are cleaned. Unfortunately for me, Gray's Studio did not exist until after Isaac's death, and although I know he sat for studio portraits in both St. John and Pratt, I have not been able to locate those pictures.

Most of my time at the museum has been spent looking at old newspapers, so much better than doing that research with microfilm. It is quite incredible to handle the actual old newspapers, yellowed and brittle with age, but filled with news of the times--local, national and international, as well as gossipy community reports about new babies, neighborhood illnesses, crops, community feuds, and all sorts of things. After many days of standing at a raised table, carefully turning the fragile pages, and reading about what was happening in the world in which Isaac lived, I sometimes felt I had been there.

An amazing discovery for me was finding how often Isaac's own writing was published in the County Capital. He authored articles about his experiments with different varieties of potatoes, as well as his carefully documented experiments with corn, planting different varieties and recording dates of planting, as well as depths of sowing the seeds and distances for spacing the rows. I also found Isaac's name listed as an officer of several farmers' organizations, and articles authored by him related to his participation in those groups.

Michael Hathaway, the Stafford Historical Society's Curator and Executive Secretary, was a great help to me as I spent many days of research at the museum. Returning to read newspapers over a century old, I became a sporadic "regular" at the morning coffee sessions, joining a dependable crew of volunteers who donate their time to keep the museum going for little compensation other than a few cups of coffee.

(For some reason the link to the Gray Studio site is not working, but the address is correct, if you will enter it yourself. It is worth the visit!)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Love History

I am republishing the first post for those of you who have joined the blog recently. Together, this post and the Year's End post share my purpose for beginning the blog, as well as suggesting some archived posts you may want to read. I have progressed well on the book manuscript and will continue to keep you advised. Thank you for your support, and please continue providing your input with checks in the boxes at the end of each post, clicks on +1, and comments. If you would like to receive an e-mail advising you of each new post, it is easy. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and you will find a window asking if you would like to follow the blog by e-mail. Type your e-mail address in the window and click on "submit." You will be sent an e-mail at the address you typed asking you to confirm that you sent the request. Follow the instructions in that e-mail to confirm, and you will begin receiving the new posts. I appreciate very much all of you who continue to share the blog site with others who might enjoy it! Happy New Year!!

I love history!  It gives us such a road map of achievements to emulate and mistakes to avoid.  When I am discouraged by things happening in the world in which I live, I am heartened by reading history.  If they made such a mess of things--and they often did--and their world survived, then perhaps our own mixed-up world can survive the problems we have created.  It would be better, of course, if we learned the lessons of history and avoided those mistakes, but that happens too rarely to count on it.

History need not always be learned from books.  My brother was much more clever about this than I was.  He would sit quietly in the corner of a room filled with adult conversations, pretending to read or play some game but all the time listening to what was being said.  He learned many adult things this way when he was still a little boy.  I, on the other hand, could only sit quietly for so long before something was said that roused my curiosity and I asked a question.  Immediately, I was told to go outside to play.  I should have learned to stay quiet, but I was then and remain a person who asks questions.

Part of the great joy in discovering something new is sharing what you've learned.  For the past two years I have been immersed in research, initially begun with the idea of writing about three sets of great grandparents who homesteaded within a few miles of each other in south-central Kansas.  I was raised in the house in which my father was born, built by my grandfather and great-grandmother, so family history, as well as community history during four generations, gives me a strong sense of place and a foundation of knowledge about the neighborhood.  As I did my research I wanted to ask questions, but most of the people with the answers were no longer alive.  Since I could not listen for answers from the older generations, it reminded me of my childhood when I had to figure things out for myself.  I had no idea how much fun I would have doing that.

I am beginning this blog to share the adventure of my research and writing with you.  All three sets of my great grandparents will be mentioned in the book, but an unexpected surprise during the research took me on a different path.  Some of you know about my encounter with a bachelor homesteader named Isaac.  One of you observed how much time I have spent with Isaac and told my husband, "Your wife is the only woman I know who is having an affair with a dead man!"  All I can say to that is, it has been quite an adventure that has become my passion.  George Macaulay Trevalyan said it beautifully:  "If one could make alive again for other people some cobwebbed skein of old dead intrigues and breathe breath and character into dead names and stiff portraits--That is history to me!"

I hope that in coming months people will enjoy reading my book, but in the meantime, I'll share with you the adventure of researching and writing it.