Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Kansas Ice Storm

Our Red Bud Tree
The weekend of January 13-14 we had a wonderful trip planned to see the showing of Home on the Range, a newly released docudrama about our Kansas treasure near Smith Center--the cabin where the lyrics to our state song were written.  Instead, the Smith Center Premier was postponed one week by the ice storm that hit Western Kansas.  We did attend the premier the following weekend, and next week's blog will share that wonderful weekend, but this week is devoted to our epic Kansas ice storm and reflections on nature's hardships for our early settlers.

At the front corner of our home is a red bud tree that has been there as long as I can remember.  As is their nature, this red bud has continuously recreated itself by sending up new trunks as its elders die.  It survived through more than a quarter century when the old house was vacant.  But, the ice storm was a fierce opponent in comparison to drought and neglect.  We may try to shape up what is left of the tree, but it really suffered.  (See "Emulating Isaac," 8-14-2014 in the blog archives, about transplanting seedlings, including a red bed seedling.)

Our ancient cottonwood
The blog I posted about cottonwood trees has been one of readers' favorites, many of you sending comments admitting how you love these old trees.  Isaac B. Werner wrote in his journal exactly how he started his cottonwood trees from 15" cuttings, which from his arrival in 1878 to 1885 had resulted in 3,400 trees on his 320 acres, with plans that year to add 2,000 more cuttings.  (See "Cottonwood Trees, posted 12-2-2011, to read my original post.)  Since publishing that post, many of the giant cottonwoods in our area have died, their silver trunks lying on the ground like fallen soldiers, and many more are likely to have fallen victim to the recent ice storm.

We have very few left on our home place, and this old beauty lost most of her limbs, what remains looking more like a giant slingshot than the arching shade tree that it was before the storm.!

In 1944, my parents returned to the farm following my grandfather's stroke, and they planted three rows of elm trees south of the house to block the hot, south winds.  They probably chose elms because they are fast growing, but they are also susceptible to broken branches in Kansas winds, and very susceptible to ice damage.

My parents planted the elm tree rows too close together and they tended to reach for the sky in an ongoing competition with their neighbors for canopy space.  The result was tall, naked trunks and crowded crowns.  The ice collected on the upper branches and the weight brought them down, leaving trees that look more like poles than shade trees.
Limbs litter the ground

Elm trees are trashy by nature, and a stroll across the yard nearly always involves picking up fallen branches along the way.  However, the litter on the ground after the ice storm was monumental.  I dragged branches into piles that my husband could pick up with the front-end loader of the tractor, trip after trip (both for me dragging the limbs and for him carrying them away.)  We had hired professional tree trimmers last summer to help clean up our trees, and we were so pleased with how they looked.  Not so much right now!

Limbs covering the garden

Some of you will remember my blog about our vegetable garden in the old chicken house foundation.  Since posting that blog, we have moved the vegetable garden to a sunnier location, but the foundation continues to hold my herb and flower garden.  In the photograph at right you can see part of the foundation, as well as the orange water hydrant, and somewhere beneath that litter are my herbs and perennials.  It was one of the first areas I cleared.

As I worked, I thought of the early settlers, using manpower and horses, mules, and oxen to remove the dense prairie sod to clear fields.  I recalled Isaac's pride as he watched his cottonwood cuttings take root and grow, representing countless hours bent over sticking the cuttings in the ground, followed by constant weeding sand burrs and stickers, as well as sunflowers competing for the water he hand carried to the young trees.  I remembered his labor hand picking potato bugs off his plants and his joy when his carefully tended peaches were in season.

Elm trees stripped of limbs
Perhaps thinking of Isaac and my ancestors as they worked this prairie soil is some explanation for why I grieved for the loss of favorite trees that we had loved, but I also felt a kinship with the land.  I know that many of these trees will never be beautiful, but they will struggle to survive.  They will send out new branches in the spring, and already branches bent by the weight of the ice have arched upward determinedly, looking better than I had dared to hope they would.  Many of them can't be saved, but next spring the seeds they released in the summer will sprout.

Mother Nature gave us an ice storm, but she followed it with calm, sunny days and milder temperatures than are usual for January.  It was actually pleasant when I was working.  It's looking better now--but I was very grateful to see David Wood and his crew arrive to help us pick up the debris we hadn't reached.  Thank you so much, guys!  We are on the waiting list for the crew that worked at the farm this summer with their tall-armed buckets, this visit needed to reach the limbs hanging overhead dangerously.  Mother Nature will surely send winds to bring down some of them, but we are among the lucky ones who suffered no damage to buildings from falling limbs--thanks to the tree trimming last summer.

Next week I will begin sharing our wonderful visit to Smith Center for the premier of a movie you will want to see and more about the history of our state song!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Inaugural Day 2017

A cold windy day on Isaac's old homestead
As I reflected on a blog for Inaugural Day 2017, I happened upon a poem by Kansas poet, Christopher Todd Anderson titled "On Being Asked for a Political Poem.  His poem begins, "My eyes drift across Kansas, its drab winter fields/ and bird-churned skies, its highways like frozen/ gray rivers, its oak trees clutching brown shawls/ of dead unfallen leaves, a rough threadbare comfort."  Anderson is an Associate Professor of English at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, and I related immediately to his imagery of my home state.  However, the title of the poem suggested a purpose other than images of the Kansas landscape, and as anticipated the tone changed, expressing the rancor of the past political season.  The emotions expressed by the poet in the last stanza may reflect what many of us are feeling about the past political season as the Inauguration draws near. "Tomorrow trees will still march through / poems like buckskin priests praising the sun, and gods / will roost on power lines, then glory in flight.  But now / every word is on fire, every blackbird and maple leaf is / a red ember.  Sing your children to sleep, sing, for worlds / are burning as we stir anger like sour milk into our coffee.

I was drawn to the words spoken by past presidents in Inaugural Day to see how they sought to sooth the rancor of emotions enflamed during political campaigns.  On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson began with humility, expressing his gratitude for being entrusted with the office of president, "...declar[ing] a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire."  Having begun with humility, he continued with respect not only for those of the majority which elected him but also respect for the minority, whose rights he was also charged by the Constitution to protect.  "...[T]hat though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.  Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.  Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things."  

The late 1800s, during which Isaac B. Werner was politically active, were rancorous times, when the common man felt that wealth and power were exerting too great an influence on government.  On March 4, 1885, Grover Cleveland gave his first Inaugural Address.  He, too, began with humility and a reminder that the responsibility of a President to govern for all the people differs from the political necessities of a campaign.  Isaac would certainly have read Cleveland's  Inaugural Address.  "This impressive ceremony adds little to the solemn sense of responsibility with which I contemplate the duty I owe to all the people of the land.  ...[T]he best results in the operation of a government wherein every citizen has a share largely depend upon a proper limitation of purely partisan zeal and effort and a correct appreciation of the time when the heat of the partisan should be merged in the patriotism of the citizen."  The severity of political hostilities during Cleveland's campaign is apparent through his appeal to set that all aside:  "At this hour the animosities of political strife, the bitterness of partisan defeat, and the exultation of partisan triumph should be supplanted by an ungrudging acquiescence in the popular will and a sober, conscientious concern for the general weal."  He reminds his audience of the need to "renew the pledge of our devotion to the Constitution," saying that citizens are best served "...if in the halls of national legislation that spirit of amity and mutual concession shall prevail in which the Constitution had its birth."  It is worth noting that influence from other nations was also a part of Cleveland's Inaugural Address, for he warned of the importance of "...rejecting any share in foreign broils and ambitions upon other continents and repelling their intrusion here."

And so, on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will join those past Presidents who have presented to the American people their ideas for governing this nation under our Constitution.  May all of us, like the poet Christopher Todd Anderson, calm the "red embers" that have burned our spirits in the past months to let our eyes drift across our respective landscapes, trusting that our politicians will follow Cleveland's advice to 'pledge their devotion to the Constitution' and as Jefferson urged, 'restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection' our liberty requires.'  Such wisdom is not confined to Presidents and ordinary citizens but perhaps especially to those elected to represent us in the Federal House and Senate, and in State Houses and Governors' offices across the nation, without regard to party!  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Beavers in Kansas

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
Look closely.  Slightly above center and to the left you will see a beaver dam.  That lovely setting was photographed in Kansas and gave me the subject for this week's blog.  

Isaac B. Werner never mentioned beavers in his journal, and it is likely that there were no beavers on the Rattle Snake Creek near Isaac's claims.  Beavers are vegetarians, and while they feed on aquatic vegetation, such as cattails, waterlilies, sedges and rushes, they also like twigs, stems, and bark from trees.  When the early settlers like Isaac arrived to stake their claims, prairie fires had kept trees from getting established, so beavers would have found no wood to nibble nor with which to build their lodges.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
Of course, as trees were planted and prairie fires were controlled by the settlers, trees could be found, and beavers began to build their dams in creeks and rivers.  While beavers will chew any tree, among their favorites are cottonwood and maple, both varieties that Isaac and his neighbors planted.

Beavers build two types of lodges--a conical lodge surrounded by water to protect them from predators and a bank lodge excavated in the bank of a stream, river, or lake where the water is either too deep or too fast moving for them to build the more common conical lodge.
Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

Their lodges are made from sticks, mud, and rocks, with at least two water-filled tunnels to access the interior chamber where they sleep, eat, groom each other, and raise the baby kits born each spring.  The peak of the lodge is not covered with mud in order to provide a ventilation shaft.

The beavers build dams where the water is not deep enough to protect them from predators, and by backing up the water they create the depth to fill their entrance tunnels with water so predators cannot enter the interior chamber.  In slow moving water they build straight dams, like the one I photographed, but in fast-moving water the dams are more likely to be curved. 

Beaver teeth are well adapted to their life-long chewing.  The teeth never stop growing so they cannot be worn away, and the orange enamel on the front side is harder than the softer dentin on the back side of the tooth, which allows the back side to wear away as they chew, creating a chisel-like edge.  The flat tail, which makes them so unique and so recognizable, serves as a rudder when they swim, a prop then they sit or stand upright, and a storehouse of fat during the winter.

Photo credit:  Larry  D. Fenwick
Less obvious are other amazing adaptations, like webbed hind feet for swimming but hand-like front paws to assist in building and harvesting.  Hearing and smell are excellent, and although their eyesight is poor, a transparent membrane covers their eyes to protect them while swimming.  Flaps close over their nostrils and ears to protect them while swimming, and they have inner lips that keep water out of their mouths while swimming with sticks in their mouths.  Even their fur is adapted for their aquatic life, consisting of short fine hairs for warmth and longer hairs for waterproofing, with castor glands on the underside of their belly used in the grooming of their fur and to mark their territory.

While it is true that they are North America's largest rodent (typically weighing 45 to 60 pounds) and their dams do sometimes cause flooding, they are a remarkable animal.  Native Americans respected them so highly that they called them "Little People." 

It was my husband whose sharp eyes first spotted this beaver dam and snapped a photograph that he sent to me without any information.  I wrongly assumed it was a photo he had taken off the web from an out-of-state location.  Later, he took me to the location of the dam so I could see it for myself and take more photographs.  I love the beauty of this Kansas setting!   

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Prairie Political Rallies of 1800s

On October 31, 1890, Isaac B. Werner joined two other men to travel to Pratt, Kansas, with plans to photograph the People's Party rally and parade the following day.  The cameras they would use belonged to Seth Blake, a farmer who lived seven miles south of Isaac, and the third man of their trio of photographers was named Petefist.

When they reached Pratt, crowds had already begun to gather, and the three men lingered among those preparing the B-B-Q for the next day's dinner.  Isaac had not had his photograph taken in 15 years, so he headed to Logan's Studio for a portrait.

The People's Party Convention had been held July 15, 1890, and there was great enthusiasm for the slate of men chosen.  While Isaac was in town on the 17th, following the convention, he had met amateur photographer Seth Blake, and they had quickly developed a friendship.  Isaac helped Seth build a dark tent out of layers of calico, and they decided to photograph People's Party rallies, documenting what they believed was an important time in American history.

Could the photograph above have been taken on November 1, 1890?

West Side Main Street, looking South, Pratt, KS

It may be impossible to determine exactly when that parade was held or the purpose for the parade, but there are possible clues.  Several current and past Pratt residents have collected the old photographs and post cards appearing in this blog.  I am hopeful that many sharp-eyed readers will see this blog and contribute comments to help solve the riddle of the patriotic parade pictured at the top of this blog.

Briggs House, built 1887 on the SW corner south of the current Barron Theater

Look at the two pictures above.  The Briggs House appears to be the structure that the band has just passed, and it is on the proper corner that a parade headed to the south would have passed.  This photograph was collected by Judge Renner and shared by his son Chuck, who also provided its date of construction as 1887.  Our knowledgeable local historian, Marsha Brown, has indicated that the building was located on the corner just south of the historic Barron Theater.  Therefore, the People's Party parade could have passed by that building in 1890.

Business built in 1887

According to another Pratt historian, Rodney Smith, who provided the picture of the building  at left, it was also built in 1887, and if you look closely at the photograph of the left side of Main Street, you can see the pediment holding a lightning rod atop that building.

This business building later became the 1st National Bank.  Isaac wrote in his journal about the 1st National Bank, but I am not certain of its location in 1890, prior to occupying this building.

If you return to the top of the page to look at the picture of the parade, you can see a band behind the lone rider.  St. John, Kansas had a brass band, and they frequently were mentioned in newspapers as participating in People's Party parades and rallies.

Isaac B. Werner wrote in his journal that the parade passed by him headed south on Main Street, that it was a mile long and took 3/4th of an hour to pass by him, and that he estimated a crowd of 8,000 to 9,000 people.  Werner, Blake, and Petefist took 30 exposures on three different cameras.  The Pratt County Register estimated the number of people in the procession at 5,000 with 800 vehicles.

There are clues to support the possibility that the image at the top of the blog could have been taken on November 1, 1890 of the People's Party parade that Isaac Werner attended.  The American Flag and the word "Victory" might indicate a political parade, or perhaps a 4th of July celebration. If you look closely, however, there are vehicles in the picture.  Are they buggies or early motor cars?  They may offer the best solution in determining the date of the photograph.

I hope to hear from some of you sharp-eyed historians with help in deciphering when the photograph of the parade might have been taken.  Although it may not be a photograph of the 1890 People's Party parade, it certainly gives a hint of what Isaac would have seen.