Thursday, February 27, 2014

Isaac's Potatoes

In the earliest years on his homestead and timber claim, Isaac B. Werner did not have a horse, mules, or oxen with which to break sod.  He had to trade his labor in payment for using neighbors' animals and plows to break sod for planting, and that allowed him only limited acreage for row crops.  Instead, he focused on planting trees.  (See "Isaac Plants Cottonwood Trees," 12-2-2011 in blog archives.)

Gradually he was able to open more land for planting, and eventually he acquired a horse of his own.  (See "Isaac's Dolly Varden," 12-28-2012 in blog archives.)  His two main crops were corn and potatoes, and he gained a reputation for raising particularly fine potatoes.

Harvesting potatoes
 When our nephew came for a visit, we arranged the opportunity for him to see the farm operation of a family that raises potatoes.  Naturally, I could not help but contrast the commercial operation of today's farming with the methods used by Isaac.

Potatoes arrive from the fields
When Isaac determined that his potatoes were ready for harvesting, he had two options--he could plow them out of the ground using his horse Dolly and a plow, followed by hand picking the potatoes turned up by the plow, or he could manually hook the potatoes from the ground without plowing.  It was a very labor-intensive job either way, and Isaac was often frustrated by the inability to find neighbors available to help at the time they were needed.  Contrast Isaac's method with the image of the machinery at work in the field today.

As Isaac by himself or with the help of neighbors dug the potatoes, they were generally transported to his house by wheel barrow.  The number of potatoes that could be dug in one day were a matter of a few bushels, in contrast to the far larger numbers dug by machinery, and Isaac had no need for machinery to convey the potatoes for cleaning and sorting, although transporting them by wheelbarrow was a back-breaking job.

Sorting the potatoes
Isaac stored his potatoes in the basement of his house.  He built bins to hold them until he had time to sort them by quality and size.  Occasionally he had help sorting them, but it was generally a job he did himself.

In order to transport his potatoes for sale in town, Isaac had to build rectangular, bushel boxes from wood.  He did this in the winter, when he was not busy outdoors, and the boxes were not sold with the potatoes.  Building the boxes was time-consuming and the wood used in their construction was expensive, so he recycled their use.  

Huge bags of potatoes inside semi-trucks
He transported the boxes of potatoes in his wagon, pulled by horses.  It was a heavy load, if the wagon was full, so in the early years when Dolly was his only horse, he borrowed a horse or mule from a neighbor to help pull the load to market.  Today, potatoes are loaded by machinery into huge bags and are transported by trucks.

Isaac experimented with many varieties, getting his seed potatoes from growers in other places to test in the Kansas sandy loam of his fields.  The names were often almost poetic--Rosy Moon, Rocky Mountain Rose, Early Maine, Monmouth Prolific, Strawberry Red, Chicago Market.

In 1885 he wrote in his journal:  "...had my barrel of Irish Seed Potatoes 2 3/4 bushels unloaded, the following kinds and quanties..." (after which he listed several varieties), concluding with these words:  "11 kinds total".  Like Isaac, modern growers continue to plant test fields to determine the best varieties to grow.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Trip to Sun City

Downtown Sun City
 When a friend read about a fun bar and restaurant called Buster's in Sun City, Kansas, she suggested that my husband and I join her and her husband for dinner on Halloween week-end.  She had heard that patrons were encouraged to costume for the occasion, but we settled for boots and jeans.  We fit in perfectly with the other ranchers and farmers, although there were a few people in costume.

Opposite side of the downtown street
We accepted the invitation not only because we looked forward to an evening with our friends, but also because I was eager to see Sun City.  First, I remembered school bus trips to see the caves and natural bridge nearby.  Second, I wanted to see the old town where Isaac had traveled by wagon to sell potatoes.  Unfortunately, we were delayed in starting the drive (because my friend had hit a deer on their way to our house with her brand new pickup).  By the time we reached Sun City it was too dark to see very much except the well-lighted restaurant and a group of people gathered around a fire nearby to keep warm on the chilly evening.

A few days later, my husband and I happened to be nearby and detoured to see Sun City in the daylight.  The photographs accompanying this blog were taken that day.

Terrain near Sun City
As Isaac's reputation for raising quality potatoes spread, and awareness that he kept part of his crop in his cellar to use as seed potatoes became known, he developed a market in his neighborhood.  He realized that selling seed potatoes in the spring might provide competitors for his own potatoes when they were harvested later, but the cash received in the spring was needed.  As he had anticipated, at harvest the neighbors had their own potato plots and did not buy his potatoes.  Even the markets in towns were glutted.  Consequently, he had to load his potatoes into his wagon and travel to areas where potatoes were not grown.  That was how Sun City became a marketing destination.

The site where Spring Vale was located
Isaac had never traveled to that region of the country, and he described the terrain in his journal:  "Curious country around here, once a flat country but gullies started & washed by ages & frosts crumbling projecting rock flattened bluff sides down to gentle sloping & now green grass covered."  His first trip started at 3 a.m. when he arose to grease his wagon and then went to Eggleston's place to borrow a mule to hitch up with Dolly.  He spent the night at Judge Purdy's place "22 miles south of Cullison" and continued to Sun City the next morning.  He reached his destination by 11 a.m. and sold his potatoes by noon for $1 to $1.25 a bushel.  He started home, traveling through Spring Vale and Turkey Creek Mills, and spending the night in Cullison.  

Turkey Creek
In October, Isaac made another trip to Sun City, stopping this time for an overnight stay at J.P. Chinn's ranch.  The weather was colder than his first trip, and despite covering his potatoes, a few were frost bitten.  He lingered to visit with the Chinns the next morning, finding them "a clever family," but he reached Sun City by 11, disappointed to find the potato market "somewhat so scarce, finally I sold 5 bushels at Hotel & 16 1/2 to dry goods store (Douglas) all at 1.00 for bushel = $21.50"  

Isaac made his last potato trip to Sun City in early November, selling his entire load of 25 bushels to "one store W. of the Post Office, at 95 cents."  

During our visit I asked about the old hotel and was told it had been torn down when the fire station was built.  I didn't see any building that I could identify as dating back to 1887 when Isaac made his marketing trips, but I did photograph some interesting old buildings.  We went out of our way to drive through Spring Vale, where Isaac had stopped for the night on his October return home, staying overnight in the feed stable.  He stabled Dolly and the mule there, paying 35 cents, including hay, and he spent the night in the stable with them.  There are no longer any buildings.
One of the curving, unpaved roads we traveled

We had passed by Turkey Creek Mills along the way.  It is now a private club.

Although we left paving to explore the country through which Isaac traveled by wagon, we always had the benefit of graded roads.  We found it hard to imagine Isaac's trips with a mare and a mule pulling a wooden wagon loaded with 25 bushels of potatoes through the irregular terrain.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Prairie Bachelor Reflects on Marriage

In his mid-20s, we know from Isaac's journal not only what he felt about the responsibilities of marriage but also what his future marital plans were.  He wrote:  "According to brother Henry's late letter, the Home boys [in Wernersville, PA] still continue pretty fast-tampering with the cup of Sorrow--till ending in wedlock.  Then simmer down--like a final anchor and enjoy the ups and downs of married life and the animated fruits of their toiling.  While I a thousand miles away, like a Hermit delighting mostly in my ever so dear and trustfull, best companions, Books, and intend continuing so at least for coming 5 or 10 years--no telling though how circumstances unexpected might interfere."

"Circumstances unexpected" do interfere in all of our lives, and in most instances it is how we react to those circumstances that determines the course we take as much or more than the circumstances themselves.  We cannot know all of the romantic opportunities that Isaac allowed to pass by without pursuit, nor can we know of all the romantic ventures he attempted unsuccessfully.  His journal offers clues that have been shared in prior Valentine blogs. (See "A Young Man's Fancy," 2-9-2012 and "Romance on the Prairie, 2-12-2013 in the blog archives.)  He certainly admired some of the young ladies in Rossville, whom he referred to as "Juliets" and "Venuses," but except for some fumbling attempts at flirtation, Isaac seemed not to have had much romance in his life during those years.

Suffragettes Marching in 1912
On the Kansas prairie, he was a thoughtful neighbor to the divorced Mrs. Isabelle Ross, but whether his intentions were romantic or merely neighborly is uncertain.  He called upon the much younger prohibition Lecturerer Miss Blanche Hazelett at the home of Dr. McCann where she lodged, an evening Isaac enjoyed very much but about which we cannot know Miss Hazelett's feelings.  And, he left a cryptic note in his journal, "2nd refusal," which perhaps had a romantic explanation but isn't clarified.

In short, we do not know whether Isaac turned his back on romance or Cupid failed Isaac.  What we can be certain of from entries in his journal is that Isaac was very supportive of Women's Rights, even going so far as to consider becoming a Lecturer in that cause.  The idea of advancing the rights of women was already an active cause when Isaac was born.  Many of the early champions of the women's movement were also opposed to slavery, and when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were barred from attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 because they were females, they held a Women's Convention in the United States.  The first Women's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, and in 1850 the first National Women's Rights Convention was held in Worcester, MA.  At that meeting, attended by Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth, a strong alliance was formed between Women's Rights and the Abolitionist Movement.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony
In 1868 Kansas Senator S.C. Pomeroy introduced a federal women's suffrage amendment in Congress, but it was the 14th Amendment with citizens and voters defined exclusively as male that was ratified.  When the 15th Amendment gave the vote to Black men in 1870, leaders of the women's suffrage movement felt betrayed by their male Abolitionist colleagues having failed to press for women's right to vote as well.

Disappointed but not defeated, Victoria Woodhull addressed the House Judiciary Committee in 1871 to argue that the 14th Amendment should apply to women, and Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth both appeared at different polling places in the 1872 elections seeking to vote.  Fifteen other women were arrested for illegally voting that year.

Many men opposed women's suffrage because they feared women would use their votes to prohibit the sale of liquor.  When Frances Willard became the head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1876, two years after its founding, she was an out-spoken proponent for women's suffrage.  (See "Before Carrie Nation--Prohibition in Kansas," 9-13-2012 blog archives.)  States began putting women's suffrage on their ballots, with mixed results; however, it was not until 1919 that women finally got the vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920.  Isaac, who died in 1895, did not live to see this achievement, nor did most of the early supports of women's rights.

So, ladies, this Valentine's Day as you remember the gentlemen in your lives, pause for a moment to remember the Prairie Bachelor who wanted to see women get the vote, who criticized husbands who treated wives with disrespect, who admired women who assumed roles typically reserved for men, and who never let his support for the social and professional advancement of women cause him to ignore a pretty face!

To read more about the efforts for Women's Suffrage, see the National Women's History Museum Timeline (1840-1920) at

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Macksville Methodist Church

Isaac B. Werner's relationship with organized religion was complicated.  During his childhood in Pennsylvania, community life centered around St. John's (Hain's) Church (See "Isaac's Childhood Church," in the blog archives at 2-23-2012), and his personal library contained books evidencing his religious study.  He admired Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," 12-7-2012 and "Keeping a Journal," 6-6-2013), one of the most famous ministers of that period, and a newspaper column written by Rev. Beecher was glued in the front of Isaac's journal.

Isaac was critical of anyone who, in his opinion, practiced their profession or craft in a careless way, whether the person was a farmer, a newspaper man, or a politician.  If Isaac felt that a minister was a second-rate preacher, he did not hesitate to criticize even a man of the cloth in his journal entries.  He seemed particularly critical of a minister because of such a man's ability to influence others.

In Isaac's community, religious services were held in the school house, conducted by lay pastors from other communities.  For example, Rev. Hoddle was a farmer-preacher from the Garfield community who came to preach at Emerson school.  Neighbors also held morning prayer services in their homes, especially during the difficult times when rainfall and money were both scarce.  When Isaac saw wagons parked at a neighbor's home for these morning prayer meetings, he reflected in his journal that studying better farming methods for the prairie soil might do their families more good than praying about their misfortune.

 Although Isaac's immediate community did not have a church, the town of Macksville about thirteen miles away organized the Methodist Episcopal Church even before the community officially became a city.  The church's charter was granted on November 13, 1885, and in March of 1886 Rev. B.F. Rhoads was appointed as the first pastor and the first church was built.  George Mack, after whom the town was named, donated land for the construction of the church, and for a time the structure was called Mack's Chapel.  Lumber and other building materials had to be brought by team and wagon from Larned, and it is likely that members from the community served as the carpenters.

The belfry, bell and steeple were added in 1888, and the original bell that called the early settlers to worship now occupies a place of honor outside the present church building, which was constructed in 1951-1952.

Among the names of those early members of the Macksville church appears George Hall, Isaac's friend and my great grandfather.  It was the Hall family that first took Isaac into their home when his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer live alone, and it was George Hall's granddaughter, Lucille, who preserved Isaac's journal and bequeathed the journal to the Lucille M. Hall Museum in St. John, KS.  (See "Finding Isaac's Journal," 10-23-2011, "Small Town Museums," 10-29-2011, and "2011 Victorian Tea," 11-8-2011.)  I cannot help but wonder if Isaac and my great grandfather ever discussed the Bible during their evenings together.