Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Isaac's Prairie Orchard

The importance to Isaac of his peach orchard is reflected in several entries in his journal, beginning when he mentions the fragrance of the blooms each spring and continuing through the harvest of peaches when they ripen.  Isaac did not can the fruit or convert it to jams and jellies.  Instead, he relished the pleasure of eating fresh peaches to his fill while they were available, as well as sharing his bounty with neighbors.  Like growers everywhere, even today, he dreaded the late frosts that meant there would be no peaches for that season.

The peach orchard was also the venue for some special events.  When his twin brother traveled from Pennsylvania to spend two nights with Isaac on his homestead, they spent the last evening of his visit together, hoeing around the peach trees.  They had not seen one another for a decade since Isaac had left Wernersville, PA to make a life in the West, and the two brothers would never see each other again after that visit.

The peach orchard was also where Isaac scattered corn for his flock of wild quail.  Isaac loved all of the wild birds on his homestead and timber claim, and he protected them from neighbors who trespassed to poach his game.  He fed them simply because he enjoyed having them on his land, not because he ever killed them to eat.  When his flock froze to death during a severe blizzard, he grieved for what he called his "pet flock of quails."

When a traveling salesman called on him one autumn selling apple trees, Isaac ordered 40 trees.  It may have been only a coincidence, but his decision to raise apples happened right after his mare Dolly delivered the colt he named Jimmy, and it is reasonable to imagine that Isaac considered not only how he would enjoy fresh apples but also how his two horses would appreciate the treat.  The trees arrived too late for fall planting, but he set them out in the spring.  Unfortunately, he struggled with hungry rabbits eating the bark during the following winter, and his 40 trees were reduced to only 4.  By the next season he was down to a single tree.  His dream of raising apples on the prairie had failed. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fruit Trees on the Prairie

Sand hill plum branch
Very few trees managed to survive the frequent prairie fires that raced unstopped across the open range, but the stubborn thickets of sand hill plums managed to survive and spread, living long enough before they were overtaken by a prairie fire to produce fruit.  When the early settlers arrived to claim homesteads, they were grateful for the hard little plums from which to make jellies and to savor the taste of fresh fruit in season, despite the small amount of pulp around the hard central seed.

Once they could plant a garden, melons were added to the seasonal fruits they enjoyed, but it took a while for fruit trees to be planted and grow to the size necessary to produce fruit.  Even with his fruit trees, Isaac Werner looked forward to the seasonal plums and melons.

When I was young, my father bought a quarter-section of land just west of our farm.  The sons of the family who had lived there when my father was a boy, the Kennedy family, had not returned to the farm, and they leased the land to be farmed by Glen DeGarmo.  When Glen died, they sold the land to my father and they sold the old house to someone who moved it to a new location about a mile north and a half mile west of Pratt, off Hwy 281.  Left behind were the old trees, and among them a trio of pear trees.  Every summer, my mother and I would go there to pick the pears for pear butter.  The trees were very old, and there were fewer pears on them each summer, but there were always enough for a few jars of pear butter.

Pear Varieties
Mother stopped taking the effort to make pear butter after my brother and I were no longer at home, but one summer I was home during pear picking season and we went over to gather some pears.  There were none.  We assumed the old trees were no longer able to bear fruit, although we did check occasionally for a few years if I happened to be at the farm during the right season.

One year I was visiting at the time Mother had a farm women's club meeting, and I went with her as her guest.  I happened to be seated next to a lady who had moved into the community after I left home, and she and her husband were my parents' nearest neighbors to the north.  As we were visiting, I was enjoying getting to know one of Mother's friends, and somehow the conversation drifted to jelly making, and I spoke of the sand hill plum jelly we always made.  She was so excited to tell me about her own jelly making since moving into the community,  and she began describing the three old pear trees she had discovered at a deserted homestead from which she had made wonderful pear butter. 

As you can guess, she had found our three pear trees and had begun picking them clean every year before we got there to pick our share!  She was so embarrassed when I told her that my father owned that land and we too had enjoyed the pears.  

For many years my husband and I lived far away from the farm and were never back at the right time to pick the pears.  By the time we rescued the old farm house and I went across the section to find the old pear trees, they were dead.  Perhaps I should plant some pear trees this spring.  I believe that dear neighbor lady is still living in a nursing home, so until my own trees produce fruit, I really ought to go in search of a market that sells pear butter.  I'll bet she would enjoy it!

Next week's blog will share the story of Isaac's fruit trees. You might enjoy revisiting the following blogs from the archives:  "Isaac's Giant Melon," 9-20-2012; "Plum Harvest," 6-14-2012; and "Sand Hill Plums," 3-1-2012.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Isaac Claims a Homestead

"He could not breathe in a crowded place--
He wanted his air and his open space--
He watched while civilization neared on the path
through the wilderness..."
William B. Ruggles, "The Pioneer"

The pull westward for Isaac B. Werner had begun while he was still a teenager, and soon after his father died in 1865, Isaac left his father's rich Berks County, PA fields in the Lebanon Valley.  Leaving behind the picturesque Pennsylvania-Dutch community, Isaac and his older cousin Henry traveled first to Indiana, but the promise of the western frontier pulled Isaac onward to Illinois.  In Rossville, IL Isaac established a prosperous business as a druggist and later a milling partnership, but after a few years the gradual civilizing of Illinois reawakened a longing for "his air and his open space," and in 1878 he claimed his homestead and a timber claim on the Great Plains of Kansas.
Posters enticed settlers

Isaac was not some dandified small town druggist without calluses on his hands nor lacking farming experience in his background.  Experience in the milling business had added some agricultural knowledge to his youthful experience on his father's farm.  Yet, not even the Illinois prairie years had prepared Isaac for farming in Kansas.  Foremost was the limited rainfall, which caused crops that were lush and promising in the spring to wither and die in summer's heat and drought.  Next was the fierce wind, which propelled the blast-furnace heat into tender crops.  Fields of corn that had managed to receive the necessary rain and escape grasshoppers and chinch bugs often succumbed to the wind's gritty sand that shredded leaves and blew the essential pollen away before it could fertilize the waiting kernel, ruining the crop for both fodder and the development of the corn.  Add to that the sandy loam soil, and nature's trick of hiding patches of gumbo in unexpected places, and Isaac and other settlers faced unanticipated agricultural challenges.

Original 1933 Cover
 Isaac was not alone in his decision to leave the more settled parts of America and start fresh on the vast prairie lands which had previously been the domain of Native Americans and a few trappers and hunters.  Many American children have been introduced to the saga of Western expansionism through the "Little House" books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In Little House on the Prairie, Laura's family built their log house near what is now Independence, KS, having moved into Indian Territory in anticipation of the land being opened for settlement in the near future.  In Little House in the Woods the family returned to Wisconsin to settle on a pre-emption claim.  In Little Town on the Prairie, the Ingalls family moved to South Dakota where Laura's father finally claimed a homestead and they remained, participating in the growth of the town of DeSmet.

Replica homestead
Each of the Wilder's attempts to claim land relied on a different means.  Briefly, these are the three situations.  The Homestead Act of 1862 was signed by Abraham Lincoln, but it did not open all of the Western land for homesteading.  Some eager settlers moved onto land that was not yet opened and attempted to fulfill the requirements for homesteading--building a structure in which to live, making improvements to their property, and physically remaining on the property the required amount of time to mature their claim as if it were homestead.  If that land were subsequently opened for homesteading, they had a head start on other claimants, usually having claimed the most desirable, more fertile land by pre-emption, and they could remain.  Pre-emption could also apply to buying a claim and finishing the requirements started by someone else.  In the case of Indian Territory, those settlers were not always rewarded by their early settlement, as the case of the Oklahoma Land Rush and the term "Sooners" shows.  When the government made a new agreement with the Indians in Oklahoma, and that land was opened for homesteading, early settlers were not allowed to prove up the land they had settled and improved.  Instead, they had to return to the boundary and participate in the Land Rush with everyone else.  Those who hid and pretended to have "rushed" for the land they staked were called Sooners, (whether they were new settlers or preemption settlers trying to secure the land they had developed), given that name because they jumped the starters' guns the morning of the rush, taking advantage of getting to their claim sooner than those who began the rush at the designated starting places and time.

Stafford Co. Map 1885
Isaac came to southernmost Stafford County to stake his homestead in 1878 on land officially open for homesteading.  He built his residence, initially a dugout, and began making improvements by planting trees and breaking sod, and he remained on the land for the requisite 5 years necessary to prove up his claim.  In order to secure his patent, he took two neighbors before a local judge to swear with him that he had lived on the land for the required time and had made improvements.

According to the US Department of the Interior statistics, more than 270 million acres of public land, or about 10% of the land that made up the 48 contiguous states, was transferred to private ownership under the Homestead Acts.  Isaac claimed 160 acres, the maximum allowed under the Homestead law, and received his patent from the government, signed by President Grover Cleveland.

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

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Isaac and my Grandmother

Ad from County Capital
Returning from a trip to St. John one day, Isaac Werner stopped at a neighbor's house to borrow a sewing machine.  He did not mention the purpose for which he used it, but I suspect it was for mending, as he never described buying fabric.  He did, however, make banners for the People's Party parades, so that might have required a little stitching.

Maude Hawk's Quilt
Prairie women were often busy at their sewing machines, often making clothing for their families.  Every scrap of fabric was saved for other uses, particularly for quilts.  Occasionally special fabric was purchased to use with the scraps to make a special design, and the family quilt top made by my Grandmother Maude Hawk as a gift to my mother was of the second type. 

Students tour the quilt show
As I remember what my mother told me, Grandmother Hawk was working on two different quilts and gave Mother the choice between them.  Mother was young, and she liked the bright pink flowers of the one she chose.  The other quilt was a wedding ring pattern, and Mother came to realize later that it was a more intricate pattern, but she had made her choice, and I believe the wedding ring pattern quilt went to her younger brother, Junior.

Money was very tight in those times, and Grandmother Hawk had not purchased quite enough pink fabric to complete the quilt.  Later, when she bought more, the dye lot was slightly different, but over the years the pinks have come together in color.

Wedding ring & Dresden Plate

When Mother was in her 60s, Grandmother finally brought the quilt top to her, saying, "Pauline, I guess I'm never going to get this finished for you."  It was fortunate that the gift had been presented when it was, for Grandmother fell and suffered a severe injury that necessitated her entering the Clifton nursing home near Junior.  I suppose that was how Mother learned that the ladies at the Clifton Church did quilting, and she hired them to finish the quilt.  Before Mother's death, she passed it on to me.
Macksville Centennial Quilt

My mother-in-law Irene was also a quilter, often making baby quilts for children of strangers she had read about in the newspaper who were going through some personal loss or injury, but she also made many quilts for babies in her community.  She made several blocks of a fundraiser quilt made for the Macksville Centennial, and she wanted to win it back in the raffle so badly that we gifted her enough to buy 100 tickets.  She didn't win, but 25 years later, after her death, we toured the quilt show where that Centennial Quilt was again on display and enjoyed seeing the blocks she had done.  The photographs with this blog were taken at that show, a lovely display of both antique and modern quilts.

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