Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chasing Ghosts

"I see dead people."  Of course, that famous movie line is from the 1999 movie, The Sixth Sense.  However, after 2 1/2 years with Isaac and his Stafford County neighbors, I can identify with Cole Sear, the young man from the movie who lived with dead people as real to him as his flesh-and-blood friends and family. 
As I finalize my manuscript, I am making an effort to discover details about a few of Isaac's neighbors, and this week, I experienced the historian's idea of hitting the jackpot!
G. G. John is first mentioned in Isaac's journal when Isaac went in search of fertile eggs to use in the incubator he designed and built.  What he found at G. G. John's place instead were hens and chicks, saving him the trouble of hatching his chicks in the incubator.
However, my specific interest in G. G. John came from the Probate Records detailing the administration of Isaac's estate.  The last two years of Isaac's life were difficult, ending with Isaac receiving round-the-clock care in the homes of others.  The man who allowed Isaac to spend a few more months in his own home was G. G. John, who checked on Isaac every day, ran necessary errands for him, and built an invalid chair to help him move around his house.  When claims were submitted to the estate, John's claim for five months of attending to his neighbor was ten dollars.  In contrast, the couple who took Isaac into their home later claimed ten dollars a month board, plus $2.50 a day and $2.50 a night for his care!  This was during hard times when one young man was willing to work for thirty-eight cents a day and men in search of work rode the rails and could be arrested as tramps in many cities for simply having no sign of gainful employment.
I wanted to know more about the man who asked so little for helping a sick neighbor (in contrast to other neighbors who took advantage of an opportunity to cash in on Isaac's care!)

My first clue about G. G. John came from an undated newspaper clipping in my great aunt's scrapbook with the headline:  "Byers Author Is Remembered / Leaves Own Books in Farm Mansion."  A reviewer of the book was quoted in the article as calling John's book, Whose Son is This?, "socialistic is theme, but scintillatingly brilliant."  His home was described in the article as having 13 rooms, with a large library, an elevated music room, a large cold storage room off the kitchen, and two separate wings, each with its own staircase.  That would have been quite a country home for those times--in fact, for today!

Searching for a man who used initials (without knowing the names for which those initials stood) is challenging, and his last name of John created its own problems.  Search engines insisted upon adding an "s" to the end, or putting "St." at the beginning.  Even knowing the state where he was born and his approximate birth date had not allowed me to find him on 
Then, a friend told me about an 87-year-old man living in St. John who might be related somehow.  Crossing my fingers, I made a phone call.  Jackpot!  I spent a delightful couple of hours talking with Milton John about his Great Uncle George.  He shared wih me that George's parents had named all of their sons with double initials--O. O., E. E., and M. M.  Using G. G.'s newly confirmed given name and the names of his brothers, my search on succeeded, and I learned that George's father had an even more unusual pair of names.  His name was John John, a blacksmith and farmer born in 1831 in Virginia.
A few hours later I received an e-mail from Milton's sister sharing the birth, marriage, and death dates of George Griffith John!  I wrapped up my research with a trip to the court house deed records to confirm that G. G. lived on the land just to the west of Isaac's timber claim, making an easy walk for him to reach Isaac's house on his daily visits.
Neither his niece nor his nephew had a picture of G. G., nor of his Southern-style mansion embraced in porches.  Regardless, I can picture that house in my imagination, with a distinguished gentleman standing on the porch, holding a book.  How happy the kind, book-loving neighbor must have made Isaac each day when he visited those last five months Isaac lived in his own home.

So now you are wondering why I posted the picture of a group of men standing on the steps of the Stafford County Court House, aren't you?  Could one of those men be George Griffith John?  We can only guess...(unless someone out there discovers the real thing!  And, while you are looking for his picture, see if you can find a copy of one of  the books he wrote!!)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Writer's Angst

Books whose titles were in Isaac's Library
Most days the craft of writing is incredibly satisfying, but one night I experienced a serious bout of writer's angst, lying in bed awake, with thoughts jabbing at me.  I announced with satisfaction several weeks ago that my manuscript was finished, but I continued to tighten and polish it, each edit making it better.
Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.  Henry David Thoreau 
I have been living with Isaac for about two and a half years.  The transcribing of his journal was a sort of courtship.  The research was a matter of meeting his friends and family, getting acquainted with his neighborhood, and familiarizing myself with the books, ideas, and goals that were important in his life.  There was no point in considering an engagement to Isaac until I had done these things.
Next to doing things that deserve to be written, nothing gets a man more credit, or gives him more pleasure than to write things that deserve to be read.  Lord Chesterfield 
I knew very quickly after the discovery of Isaac's journal that his was a story that should be told.  However, it was not until I reached the point in his journal when he began to write about farmers organizing to confront their problems politically that I saw the arc to his story.  What had been a struggling homesteader's diary became a history of the populist movement with Isaac at its center.
Close the door.  Write with no one looking over your shoulder.  Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.  It's the one and only thing you have to offer.  Barbara Kingsolver 
I begin every day reading aloud what I wrote the previous day before writing anything new.  I edit with a more objective eye and I fall back into the rhythm of my writing, and only then can I start a new writing day.
An essential element for good writing is a good ear.  One must listen to the sound of one's own prose.  Barbara Tuchman 

Isaac's journal
There is nothing like reading my work aloud to show me awkward passages or if I am being verbose or dull.  As I told someone once, if it bores you to read it aloud, why would you expect a stranger to find it worth reading? author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.  Colette 
By the time I finish a chapter, I have read it aloud to myself, deleting, rewriting, tweaking it in countless ways many times.  I then put it aside for several weeks to allow me to edit with a more objective eye.
Books aren't written, they're rewritten.  Including your own.  It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it...  Michael Crichton 
Eventually, all the chapters were written, and the process of polishing and editing the manuscript as a whole began--was the tone consistent, were characters properly introduced when they appeared and identified as they reappeared, were recurring events threaded through the manuscript in such a way that a reader could recognize the sequence as it advanced the story, were there enough clues to orient a reader without being redundant?
Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there.  Don DeLillo
I write at the computer, so when I edit, the old version disappears.  After completing a careful rewrite, which I see at that time as the best I can do, I print it.  I use colored paper clips to hold each chapter.  My first saved version of the manuscript was clipped with white paper clips.  My second version used red.  I have now gone through blue, green, pink and yellow.  The version I announced as finished used the yellow clips, the last color option in my box of paper clips.  The subsequent rewrites were not printed...not because I am out of colors but because I knew when I finished that they were not my last revisions.
The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.  Thomas Jefferson
I have realized that my night of angst was the result of knowing that, while I had been successful at tightening the manuscript, doing what Jefferson advocated, the manuscript was still too long.
I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.  Truman Capote 
My sleeplessness just may have been the ghost of Truman Capote poking me with scissors.  Writers know to ask themselves, does this advance the story?  If it does not, it must be eliminated, regardless of how interesting or beautifully written it is.  Doing all of the research that I have, I discovered so many interesting things, but taking Truman Capote's advice, I have cut wonderful sections from the manuscript that did not seem necessary to advance the story.  In short, I may miss them, but I don't think an editor will.  Perhaps I will share those deleted stories in future blogs!

My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start.  So far today, I have finished 2 bags of M&M's and a chocolate cake.  I feel better already.  Dave Barry

This time the manuscript really is "finished" and ready to be shown to others.  Isaac is about to make his debut--edited, polished, tweaked and slimmed down to make a good impression.  I'm not sure what color paper clip he will be wearing.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Earthen Prairie Homes

Isaac described the sandy loam soil of his claims as "light blow-sand," a description that would seem to indicate soil incapable of holding together in the rectangles of sod used to build homes or of supporting cave-like dugout walls and roof, yet these structures are well documented in his community.  It was obviously the mat of prairie grasses with their strong, dense roots that held the soil together for use in construction of the rude homes built by settlers.  The sod having been stripped from the soil long ago, we find it hard today to imagine the sturdy earthen structures of our ancestors.
When Isaac resumed writing in his diary in 1884, he had lived on the Kansas prairie for six years.  By then he had built a wooden house of two stories with a basement room and a cellar for storing his potatoes, grains, and garden produce like melons, turnips, and peanuts.  However, in his early years on the prairie he lived in dugouts.  His journal mentions two different dugouts, abandoned by 1884.
His wooden house was atypical among his nearest neighbors.  Brothers Will and Felix Goodwin living just to the south of him across the Stafford-Pratt County line lived in a dugout.  Will had a small dugout, and when Felix joined him in 1884, Isaac "staked off Will Goodwin's new residence" and commenced fitting on Will Goodwin's side boards...hanging door, making table..." and finally "set roof on Will Goodwin's new dugout," completing the larger dugout to accomodate both brothers.  In 1885 when Jesse Green's family moved to the claim just to the east of Isaac, they built a soddy, and Isaac went to Larned with Jesse to buy the Iron Board Roofing Paper to finish the soddy's roof.  That same year Isabel Ross staked her claim just east of Isaac's timber claim.  Isaac met with her to discuss building her soddy, but "so much advising and different architecture about, I glad to escape the job."  Tousley became her contractor, but Isaac worked on building her soddy, from top to bottom--staking the dimensions, making the door and window frames, shingling the roof, and digging her well.  George and Nancy Henn lived in a soddy just to the north of Isaac's timber claim, and Persis Vosburgh, another single woman whose homestead was just to the west of Isaac's claim, lived in a dugout. 
There were wooden houses in the community, but Isaac's closest neighbors, as well as many other early homesteaders who arrived on the treeless prairie, took advantage of the materials at hand to build their earthen homes. 

The images used in this post are from the collection of Old Stafford County Pictures at the Stafford County Historical and Genealogy Society, available on CD at the museum.

The Santa Fe Trail Center near Larned, Kansas, has recreated both a dugout and a sod house for visitors to experience what living in these prairie homes was like.  Visit the Santa Fe Trail Center on facebook or see

Remember to click on the images for larger viewing.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Naron--an early settler, a town, and a cemetery

Near Isaac's homestead were two country cemeteries in use in the years before his death.  The nearest one was the Naron Cemetery in Pratt County, about two miles southwest.  The community of Naron took its name from an early settler, and the cluster of buildings included a store, a school, and a church.  In 1914 the town of Byers was founded about half a mile to the south of Naron, and the businesses in the old community literally picked up and moved to the new town.  The old Naron Cemetery continued to be used by the neighborhood, for it sits on a hill about a quarter of a mile northwest of Byers.

My aunt, Wilma Carr Beck, wrote a history of Byers, 1914-1964, in which she describes the celebration day of the new town, using information found in the Pratt Union newspaper.  The death of Naron and its rebirth as the new town of Byers was the result of the decision by the Anthony & Northern Railroad to locate its tracks where they did.  Byers was built along the north side of the tracks and was given the name of the railroad company president, O. P. Byers.  Relying on the promise of the railroad that the tracks would arrive in Byers on October 15, 1914, the town scheduled its celebration for that date.  The tracks did not actually arrive until later, but two political candidates did--the Honorable J. S. Simmons and Senator Jewett Shouse, and the town celebration became a sort of political rally.  There was also a balloon ascension and a barbeque dinner, and the citizens felt that their town was off to a strong start. 

As for the town of Naron that Isaac had known, Byers drew what was left of it like a magnet.  Many houses were moved, but the certain end to Naron was when W. F. Brown moved his store into Byers in March of 1915.  He carried a complete line of dry goods and groceries, and his slogan expressed his disappointment for the demise of Naron, as well as his commitment to Byers.  "We never came here and we don't intend to go away!" the slogan declared.  Using the pen name of 'Old Fisher Brown,' he wrote for the Pratt Union newspaper, and about the time of his commercial move to Byers, he wrote, "Old Naron was almost gone, but not forgotten."  Today, most of the people who remembered the old town of Naron are gone, taking their memories with them.  Even the town of Byers has nearly disappeared but for a few houses and one thriving business.

Isaac did not live to see the founding of Byers, but he certainly knew the settlement of Naron, often mentioning trips to the Naron Store, Farmers' Alliance meetings in the Naron school house, wagons parked around the Naron Church, and funerals held at the Naron Cemetery.  Naron was about a mile and a half south of Isaac's homestead, and the cemetery was about a half mile southwest of the town, so both were an easy trip for Isaac, even before he owned a horse.  Although Isaac chose to be buried in the Neelands Cemetery to the north of his claim, several of his friends and neighbors are buried in the Naron Cemetery, including:  Frank Curtis, whose life Isaac may have saved when he was only a teenager by suggesting changes in the boy's diet after the doctor had told his mother there was no hope; Charles Shattuc, who farmed some of Isaac's land as Isaac's health began to decline; William F. Brown, with whom Isaac shared an interest in books and ancient history, as well as progressive politics; Gus Gereke, who was a nearby neighbor and someone who joined with Isaac and others in planting a cooperative field of potatoes; and neighbors James Lattimore and Wesley Logan, whom Isaac hired to harvest a crop.  A visit to the Naron Cemetery cannot help but evoke sadness to see the several gravestones of infants and young children of Isaac's friends, their lives cut short by the hard times Isaac's Journal describes so vividly.

Reminder:  By moving your cursor over the images or clicking on them, you can enlarge the images to view them better.

International Visitors This Week

So disappointed that only one international visitor clicked on the "surprising" box below this week's post.  For the first time, France topped the list as the country with the most visitors this week, followed by Russia.  There were also visitors from Canada, India, Ukraine, China, Denmark, New Zealand and for perhaps the first time, Panama.  I do not check the listing of international visitors every week, so other countries may have been represented as visitors that I failed to see.  I can see the countries from which visitors come, but I cannot see who the persons are, nor can I tell who clicks don't worry about privacy issues.  I don't know where my faithful visitors from Germany, the UK, and Japan were this week, but I missed you!   I just wanted to spend one week letting my international visitors know how much I appreciate their visits.  I will be posting a new message later today.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Celebrating America's International Roots

Hola!  Li-ho!  Jum Reap Sour!  Hej!  Salut!  Ciao!  Labdien!  Hallo!  Moi!  Ohayoou!  Hei!  Zdravstvuyte!  Witaj!    

Hello to all the international followers of my blog!  One of the surprises and great pleasures of my blogging has been the number of international followers that read my blog.  That was something I did not anticipate when I began my weekly posts in October of 2011.  The numbers began small and gradually grew.  The week of July 4th, my international visitors exceeded visitors from the USA.  That may have been an exceptional week, but the numbers of foreign guests remain consistently large.

They come from all parts of the world.  Listed alphabetically, they include:  Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, China, Columbia, Denmark, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. 

Because the United States is a country of immigrants, perhaps I should not be surprised.  A brief history of our nation's immigration patterns reveals that in the colonial era of 1600 to 1795 the largest number of immigrants were British.  Strictly speaking, these early arrivers were not really immigrants, for in the early years we were still part of the British Empire.  A large number of those arrivals were indentured servants, whose passage was paid in return for their commitment to work as a servant for a certain number of years, typically seven, and of those early settlers, 90% became farmers.  In addition to economic reasons, many came for matters of religion.  My book, Should the Children Pray? includes chapters for each of the original thirteen colonies, describing the religious reasons why many colonists made the dangerous ocean crossing.  Along with the British immigrants, a large number of Dutch settlers located along the Hudson River, with people from Spain settling in Florida, Texas and New Mexico, while the French settled along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast.

During the period of 1790 to 1849 there was relatively little immigration, but beginning about 1850 a new wave of settlers arrived--Germans who settled primarily in the Midwest, and Italians, Greeks, Humgarians, Poles, others whose language was Slavic, and many Jews--all arriving in significant numbers.  These immigrants tended to fill the need for industrial laborers, and the USA expanded beyond its original agrarian roots to become a world leader in steel, coal, and textiles.

Of course, among the population were the Native Americans, who had made their homes here long before the immigrants arrived, and Africans, who arrived against their will.  The Chinese added to the growing population, as did Scandinavians, who settled primarily in the upper Midwest.  In the late 19th century, settlers from Lebanon and Syria came, many remaining in East Coast cities like New York and Boston.  Unavoidably, this brief summary leaves out other groups who arrived before and during Isaac's years on the prairie and made their own important contributions.

Focusing on the migration of populations in Kansas, it must first be remembered that many Indian tribes were relocated from their native homes in the eastern part of North America to land in Kansas.  In 1854 certain Kansas territory was opened to white settlement, but the population shift really began after the Civil War (1861-1865) and increased with the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.  That settlement era included Black Americans seeking new homes after the Civil War.

Many of the Kansas homesteaders migrated from other states, their parents and other ancestors having immigrated earlier.  The largest international group coming to Kansas were German speaking, some coming from Germany and others from the Volga region in Russia.  There were also many Swedish immigrants, who arrived because of famine in their old country.  Mexican workers came along with the railroads and large agricultural operations, such as sugar beet production.

George & Theresa Hall with Maria & baby Lillian
Most of the homesteaders in Isaac's community relocated from other states, many from Pennsylvania (Isaac's childhood home), as well as a great many from Midwestern states.  However, there were also those who had not been born in the USA.  Among them were two of Isaac's close neighbors--George Henn and Gustave Gereke, both of whom came from Germany.  Surprisingly, the owner-editor of the County Capital newspaper in St. John, John Hilmes, came from Germany in 1872 and had acquired the proficiency with English to publish the weekly newspaper.  Of particular interest to me are my own great grandparents, George & Theresa Hall, who were close friends of Isaac.  They came from England in 1882, settling in Ohio for a few years before arriving in Kansas.  The baby on her mother's lap is my grandmother Lillian.  The picture was taken shortly before they left England for America.

Immigration to America continues.  In 2010 the countries from which the largest numbers of legal permanent residents came were Mexico, China, India, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic.  During the decade of 1990 to 2000, Kansas ranked 14th among all the states in the percentage of change in its foreign-born population, with a 114.4% increase.  The state with the greatest percentage change was North Carolina with a 273.7% increase.  The state with the least change was Maine with 1.1%

So, here is a tip of my hat to all of my international visitors.  I hope you continue to visit my blog and that you invite others to visit as well.  I thank all of you for the rich contributions your countrymen who have immigrated to the United States of America over the years have made to our national culture. 

To my international visitors, I invite you to "click" on the middle box below labeled surprising if you see your national flag on the map at the beginning of this week's post.  I had fun finding the flags for all the countries to glue on the map.  To my USA visitors, I hope you will open the comment box to leave a message stating the country of origin of your first ancestor who came to America.

Drought Link

The Blog Fodder, an early follower of my blog, has sent this link showing annual drought patterns in the USA back to 1896! Those of you engaged in agriculture will enjoy viewing drought conditions during important years of your families' histories. Thank you to Blog Fodder for this link and the many informative comments he has left to past posts!