Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Historian's Responsibility

From my first blog entry to the present, I have written of my belief that so many of our personal and our political mistakes can be avoided if only we learn from history.  (See "I Love History," 1-3-2012 and "Year's End," 12-30-2011 in the Blog Archives.)
I follow a wonderful blog titled "Brain Pickings" that always gives me ideas for reflection when I find time to visit it, and a recent posting inspired this week's blog with ideas taken from Erich Fromm (1900-1980), William James (1842-1910), and contemporary Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz.  A common thread in their writing inspired me to consider the challenge of creating interest in information in a world so filled with competing distractions. 
Artist:  Artero Espinosa
German psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm used the analogy of the development of a rose bush to our own power to direct our lives. He explained that while we have come to understand the impact of soil nutrients, optimal temperatures, sunlight and shade to aid in the growth of a rose bush, that does not prohibit the ability of the rose bush itself to bend its growth in reaching for the sun.  Likewise, each individual can reach for his or her own potential growth, despite external factors.  Fromm wrote:  "The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conductive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand."
My desire to tell Isaac's story and share the important history of a region that was the center of the Progressive Movement in the late 1800s is driven by what I see as the importance of knowing that history so that its experience can guide us today.
A contemporary Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz, (born 1968) expresses how art can play a role in educating readers in a rapidly changing world.  In an interview, Diaz said:  "One of the best things about art, as anyone who's studied a Victorian text knows, is that the future comes faster than we imagine, and there is a future coming up, of young artists and young critics and young scholars, who are thinking in ways that make the current conversation about our art look incredibly reductive." 
One important role for writers of history, I believe, is to make what we write relevant to young readers so that their perspective is not limited to their own experiences.  There is a certain arrogance that distances both young and old from each other.  A positive thing about young people is their confidence in themselves, but it tends to blind them to lessons of the past; a positive thing about older people is the wisdom they have gained from experience, but it tends to blind them to the innovation necessary in a changing world.  Writers of history must find a way to bridge both of those chasms in attitude that separate young and old.
William James (1842-1910)
A quote from William James (1842-1910) expresses the challenge of bridging those widely varying daily perceptions of our common world.  "Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience.  Why?  Because they have no interest for me.  My experience is what I agree to attend to.  Only those items which I notice shape my mind--without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.  Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground, intelligible perspective, in a word.  It varies in every creature, but without it consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive."
Any parent or teacher already knows that the typical teenager only pays attention to what interests him or her.  Likewise, if we are honest, by middle age most adults no longer pay much attention to the culture shaping teenagers. If capturing the attention of differing ages of people living at the same time in order to create a common experience is difficult, it is understandable that writers of history face an even greater challenge to capture the attention of readers about a historic period about which the relevance to their lives is not immediately apparent.
Newsboys (eyeing newsgirl) from the 1800s
To bring this discussion into today's news, I offer two examples from the same day's New York Times.  Nicholas Confessore, writing about how the GOP elite lost its voters to Trump, pointed out that "...faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade [while] the party's donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered" were paying attention to different events. As William James explained, "Only those items which I notice shape my mind..."
In the same day's newspaper, Yamiche Alcondor, who is covering Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, described the world his supporters were experiencing:  "the anger at Wall Street; the indie rock anthems; and the kiwi slices consumed aboard his campaign plane" align Sanders's appeal to the cultural moment "for liberals, young people and union workers."  In short, again quoting James, "Interest alone gives accent and emphasis..."
Whether you are a politician shaping history or a writer sharing history, you will not reach potential voters or potential readers unless you can capture attention in a world so filled with distracting appeals, or as stated by James: "My experience is what I agree to attend to..."  No matter how compelling nor how significant the lessons of history may be, they can only shape the minds of those living today if they are noticed.  Providing a reason for reading history is the responsibility of writers who believe it is important to share that history.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Animal Buddies

Photo credit: Larry D. Fenwick
Within the past few months each time we go to town we have noticed a horse and a goat sharing the same pasture.  At first we didn't think much about it, but gradually we realized that these two animals were friends.

Returning home last week the sun was perfect and the two animals were close enough together and near enough to the road for us to get a nice photograph of them.  My husband turned around and went back, and when the two buddies saw us stop, they came to the fence to pose.

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
 I recalled a video we had seen on television not long ago about an old blind horse and a goat named Jack, who decided on his own to become Charlie Horse's guide.  According to their owner, no one trained Jack or encouraged the relationship, but for 16 years the goat would lead the blind horse to a favorite grazing patch, where the two friends would spend the day together until it was time for Jack to lead Charlie home.  The video may be watched at and you can find it by googling "goat guides blind horse."  After Charlie's death, the owner recognized the rapid decline of Jack, and made plans to bury Jack beside Charlie in the clearing where the two of them loved to spend their days together.

As unusual as it may seem, if you google "animal buddies" you can find other sites with photographs of animal friends you would never expect to see together.

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
Isaac B. Werner staked his claims on the Kansas prairie in 1878, and for six years he managed without a horse.  He acquired the horse he named Dolly Varden (See "Isaac's Dolly Varden," 12-28-2012 in the Blog Archives), and Isaac named Dolly's first colt Jim.  Two years later Isaac bought Jule, a gray mare with a colt by her side that he named Baldy.  

Baldy's first brush with bad luck happened when he was three.  A neighbor named Frazee was helping Isaac one day in mid-July, and when his dog misbehaved Frazee picked up a rock to throw at the dog.  His aim was poor, and he hit Baldy in the eye.  In Isaac's own words, "Frazee knocked Baldy's right eye out with a stone throwing at his worthless nuisance of a dog, showing hardly as much judgment as an ordinary 15 year old boy..."  Isaac lost sleep worrying about Baldy, and he treated the eye socket with a "linament half Lard and half Turpentine."  Baldy survived the ordeal, but his life seemed ill-fated.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
One morning in early April of the following year, Isaac went out " put [the] colts on rye pasture and found 'Baldy' horse cold dead by fodder stack and 'Jim' keeping him company." About a year apart in ages, Jim and Baldy were buddies, and Jim kept watch over his friend until Isaac arrived.  (According to Isaac, death was the result of eating cane "..after much freezing, too much indigestible stalk shell in it.")

For those of us who have loved special animals in our lives, we know each one has a unique personality and a great capacity for affection.

Isaac loved his horses, his cats, even his favorite chickens, and he certainly loved and protected the wild birds on his property.  (See "Isaac and His 'Pet' Game Birds," 8-8-2013.)  As for the hogs...not so much!  (See "Isaac's Bad Luck with Hogs," 9-11-2014) 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Occupying My Time

Those of you who follow my blog already know what a fan of Willa Cather I am.  My husband and I enjoy attending Cather conferences and seminars, although most of the attendees are professors who teach Cather and have studied her more thoroughly than I have.  However, as with any addiction, I have expanded my reading beyond Cather's novels, short stories, and poems to dip my toe into some of the scholarly writing.  It was exciting to all Cather fans when her letters were finally made available to scholars, resulting in the wonderful book, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.  Having met and visited with both of the editors made the book even more special for me, and their depth of knowledge goes much further than just the letters they selected for the book.

Becoming acquainted with other attendees at the conferences and seminars is a huge part of the fun in attending.  Over the years, several of them have asked why I did not submit a proposal for presenting a paper.  My answer was always, "Because I don't want to appear foolish because of my shallow depth of knowledge about Cather."  Honestly, these people must have read everything she has written, including newspaper articles when she was just a young girl!  Not only that, they are on a first name basis with all of Cather's acquaintances.  They know all of the real people from Red Cloud, NE that Cather transformed into her characters.  It was (and is) very intimidating to imagine becoming well enough informed to write a paper to be read before this group.

However, that is exactly what I have committed to do.  My focus is on comparing Cather's writing in her World War I novel, One of Ours, with the writing of W.W. I poets.  You may remember that the discovery of the W.W. I toy soldier by construction workers during the remodeling of our home launched my reading about W.W. I.  (See "My Steadfast Tin Soldier," 9/25/2014, and "My Steadfast Tin Soldier, a Sequel," 10/2/2014, in the Blog Archives.)  Among the books I read (and continue to read) were poems by soldier poets.  I can't pretend to have the depth of knowledge about Cather that other presenters at the conference will have, but I hope to share interesting comparisons of scenes from Cather's novel with the W.W. I war poems.

Of course, Isaac B. Werner died in 1895, before the start of W.W. I in 1914, and although this blog is about Isaac and his times, I thought you might enjoy reading about what is diverting me from working on the revisions to my manuscript about Isaac and his community.  I am busy doing research and writing--but for now I am taking a little history detour to W.W. I! 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Beecher Bibles and Rifles

The Beecher Bible & Rifle Church
Henry Ward Beecher has been the subject of several posts in this blog, including his influence on Isaac B. Werner's journal ("Finding Isaac's Journal," 10-23-2011; "Historic Diaries," 5-14-2015), his broader influence ("Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," 12-7-2012), and his position among wealthy men and women of the Gilded Age ("Turmoil in the Gilded Age," 1-14-2016).  However, this post relates to his very direct role in the history of Kansas.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854 focused the spotlight during the prelude to the Civil War directly on Kansas by allowing its residents to determine whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state.  While allowing voters to determine the nature of their own state may have seemed to be a reasonable solution, the result was a competition to populate the state with voters sympathetic to one side or the other.  In effect, both sides set out not to stuff the ballot box with bogus ballots but rather to stuff the state with sympathetic voters.  Some of these new-comers to the region were genuine settlers; others came solely to establish temporary residences to serve their side of the issue.
New England was home to many people opposed to slavery, and some of them decided to leave New England and settle in Kansas.  New Haven, CT not only raised money for the resettlement but also some of their most prominent men joined the group willing to leave comfortable homes and established reputations for the uncertainties of Kansas.  When a meeting was held to raise money for the Connecticut-Kansas Company established for this venture, Henry Ward Beecher prompted others in the crowd to make their own pledges after making his pledge for money to buy 25 rifles if others in the crowd would meet that number with their pledges.  They did, with a total of 27.  Rev. Beecher's congregation in Brooklyn, NY honored their minister's pledge, sending not only $625 to buy the rifles but also 25 Bibles given by one of Beecher's parishioners.

This group of settlers from New Haven settled south of the Kaw River in a place called Wabaunsee.  Not all of them were prepared for the hardships of settlement in this remote place, which they referred to as "The New Haven of the West," and some returned to New England. Others were committed, and they organized "The Prairie Guard" in response to calls for men to defend Lawrence and spent 6 weeks fighting border ruffians harassing other Free State settlers there.

Their faith was an important part of their Free State mission, and they organized worship services immediately upon their arrival.  It was not until 1862, however, that their stone church was dedicated.  By then most of their men were away fighting in the Civil War, except for the old and the young.  Eventually, most of these settlers returned to live out their lives in the area from which they had come, but the few that remained influenced the region's development.

Wabaunsee's population decreased but the church was maintained well enough for the structure to survive, with a particular effort made on the Church's Centennial in 1957 to renovate the building.  The pictures taken for this blog show the church as of January 2016.  In a park nearby, the Kansas State Historical Society erected a monument reading:  "In Memory of The Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony, Which Settled This Area in 1856 And Helped Make Kansas A Free State.  May Future Generations Forever Pay Them Tribute."  R.S.C., 1969

In 1856 Henry Ward Beecher spoke not only in opposition to slavery but in favor of using lethal force to oppose slavery, specifically recommending the Sharps rifle.  On February 8, 1856, the following quote appeared in the New York Tribune:  "He (Henry W. Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.  You might just as the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows...but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle." 

Sharps 1863 Carbine .50-70 Calibre Antique Original
It is reported that shipment of rifles were transported in cases marked "Books" or "Bibles," and Sharp's Rifles acquired the common name of Beecher Bibles as a result.  Because shipments were often made in secret, the exact number of rifles is uncertain, but it is estimated that about 900 to 1,000 Sharps rifles were purchased for the border conflict in Kansas.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Wamego's Attractions

The main street of Wamego
The city of Wamego, Kansas is not only a wonderful place to live.  It also has many reasons for visitors to be attracted to the city.  (See "Yellow Brick Road in KS," 1-28-2016; "A Visit to the World's Fair Inspires a Theater," 2-14-2016; "A Theater for Wamego," 2-21-2016 in the Blog Archives.)  The photograph at left shows the busy downtown and some of the store fronts that welcome visitors.

Hyeon jung Kim
The paintings of Sienna Clark wrap around one corner
Last week's blog mentioned the gallary located on the main floor of The Columbian Theatre.  When we visited, the paintings of Sienna Clark and Hyeon jung Kim were on display.  The mission statement of The Columbian Artist Group is "an organization of creative like-minded individuals dedicated to fostering the artistic growth and evolution of its members and promoting their talents."  The Columbian Theatre provides a large, well-lit environment to display a rotating gallery of members' work.  You may visit to read more.

Friendship House
We visited Wamego on Monday, not the best day, since some attractions and restaurants are closed on that day.  However, we enjoyed a pleasant lunch at the Friendship House Restaurant and Bakery pictured at left.  If you look closely, you can see the Yellow Brick Road that led us from the main street to the restaurant.

The Oregon Trail cuts across the northeast corner of Kansas, and deep ruts from the wagon wheels of settlers headed from the eastern part of the United States to California and states in between can still be found just northeast of Wamego.

Fortunately, we noticed the Wamego City Park, a beautiful park with an impressive train, lots of room, a mini prairie town with restored buildings, and most impressive of all, the Old Dutch Mill.

Wamego's Old Dutch Mill

The Mill was built in 1879 about 12 miles north of Wamego by a Dutch immigrant.  It took 35 teams and wagons when it was moved into Wamego in 1925 after first being dismantled--every stone numbered to enable it to be rebuilt just as it had been originally.  It is 25 feet in diameter and 40 feet high, and over the window of the mill is a bust of Ceres, the Goddess of Grain.

As this blog is being written in 2016, plans are underway for the celebration of Wamego's 150th Anniversary!  Also, Wamego is known for having one of the best 4th of July displays around.  Last year's display may be seen on youtube at

I know that many of you who follow Kansas State Football in Manhattan, as well as those of you who follow Kansas University basketball in Lawrence, drive I-70 regularly, and a side-trip to Wamego would make a delightful break in your trip.  For those of you who aren't often in that part of Kansas, maybe you should consider visiting some of the attractions I have described in recent posts.

This is our last blog about Wamego, and next week we travel down the road to a surprising historic site that is off the busy highway but definitely worth reading about.  You won't want to miss it!