Monday, July 30, 2018

P.S. Another Stone Bridge

Thank you to Donna Bryan Whitehill, who shared this photograph of her grandfather and two other men atop the Trail Creek Bridge north of Denmark, Kansas not far from the bridge I featured in this week's blog.  She knows he helped build this one and believes he helped build the double arch bridge featured this week.  Not many stone bridges in the sandy loan country where I was raised and Isaac B. Werner staked his claims, but our ancestors used what they had available, and what beautiful bridges those men in north central Kansas built with the available limestone.

Be sure to scroll down to read this week's blog about the South Fork Spillman Creek Double Arch Bridge.

Trail Creek Bridge, north of Denmark, Kansas

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Landmark Kansas Bridge

Sign for Spillman Creek Double Arch Bridge
On our return from Red Cloud, Nebraska following the Willa Cather Conference, we decided to travel a new route which took us through rolling pasture land and post rock country, made especially beautiful by the lush green grass of spring.  Not far from Sylvan Grove in Lincoln County on Highway 181, we saw a sign for a historic bridge.  Eager to get home, we almost passed on by, but we are glad we took the time to explore this special place.  

When we pulled off the highway we headed to the gazebo to read some of the information there.  Unfortunately, the tree limbs and undergrowth along the South Fork of Spillman Creek below the gazebo obscure any view of the bridge.  We nearly gave up on seeing the native limestone used by settlers to create the double arch bridge.  However, when we crossed to the other side there was a mowed area that allowed a view of the bridge.

The water level was low, so the base of the two separate arched openings could be seen.  The semicircles that allow the passage of water under the bridge are 20' and 24' in diameter.

My internet research after returning home offers conflicting information about the date of construction.  Online Highways states construction in 1908 under the supervision of John Edward Beverly, using limestone rocks quarried in the hills southwest of the site, which date is consistent with the sign at the site.  One thing that is certain after seeing it is its architectural beauty.

Modifications were made to accommodate wider vehicles, and concrete, later asphalt, surfacing were added, but it was only in 1993 that the sharp curve of the old road resulted in a relocation and a new bridge.

In doing the research for this blog I found a quote from the August 6, 1891 Lincoln Republican (KS) newspaper, describing a creek-side gathering:  "There was a good crowd at the Emancipation Picnic Tuesday but they were there for fun, and did not care for speaking...the dance, swing, ice cream stand, etc. were so attractive that it was impossible to secure the attention of a sufficient number [to] justify the orators..."  I can almost picture a small crowd gathered to enjoy the shade in a spot along the creek much like where I stood to take the photographs for this blog.

 I was intrigued about the picnic and found that about 60 or 70 black settlers formed a community in western Lincoln County, which gradually disappeared as a result of people moving on and those remaining no longer living.  Perhaps the date of the newspaper article I found is an indication of that community at its peak.

As for the reason that brought them together, it dates to the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, which is still celebrated in some states, although the dates differ.  Florida celebrates on May 20th, the date of the first reading of the Proclamation in that state.  Mississippi celebrates "Eighth o' May," and Kentucky celebrates August 8th in Paducah and Russellville, because slaves in that region did not learn of the Proclamation until that date in 1865. Texas celebrates "Juneteenth" on June 19th when the news reached Texas.  

The District of Columbia celebrates April 16th, marking Lincoln's signing of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act on that date in 1862.  In 2005 it was made an official public holiday in the District.

As for Kansas, Atchison once was the center of a celebration on September 22 recognizing the date of Lincoln's Preliminary Proclamation in 1862.  However, the city of Hutchinson documents Black residents as early as 1889 celebrating the occasion on January 1st to honor Lincoln's Proclamation signing in 1863.  More recently, Hutchinson has scheduled the celebration in August, which is consistent with the newspaper date of August 6, 1891 in Lincoln County, KS.  In a few days, the  2018 celebration in Hutchinson will be held August 2-5, with a full schedule of events.  To see the schedule you may visit .

Was there ever an Emancipation Picnic near the site of the Spillman Creek Double Arch Limestone Bridge?  I don't know, but it was a great place for us to take a break on our drive home from Red Cloud and would have been a perfect spot for a picnic!

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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Poems of the Soil

Some of the titles Isaac Werner owned
Several days ago my husband forwarded an article he had discovered online saying that about 28 million people had read poetry in 2017.  The survey was a joint project of the NEA and the Census Bureau, and the number of people reading poetry represented 11.7% of the US adult population.  If you are unsure whether to see that as a poetic glass half full or a poetic glass half empty, compared to the last survey it is an impressive surge.  In 2012 only 6.7 % of the population acknowledged reading poetry.  The increased number of readers in 2017 is even more significant in that the 2012 survey had revealed a steady decline in those reading poetry since 1992.

However, in Isaac Werner's time I am almost certain the percentage of Americans reading poetry was much higher.  It was not uncommon for Isaac to read Shakespeare with friends, and his library contained multiple volumes of Shakespeare, including one 12-volume set.  Among other poetry books, he owned Milton's Poetical Works, Byron's Poetical, and Reflections of Byron.  In short, poetry was not confined to academics and the wealthy in Isaac's time.  

Nature and farming were favored subjects of poets like Burns and Wordsworth, and that tradition has not disappeared.  Irish poet Seamus Heaney, widely recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century, taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) prior to his death in 2013, and he had a strong connection with the soil.  His poem Digging reflects on watching his father dig potatoes and his grandfather cutting turf, describing:  "The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / Against the inside knee was levered firmly.  /  He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep  /  To scatter new potatoes that we picked,  /  Loving their cool hardness in our hands.  /  By God, the old man could handle a spade.  /  Just like his old man."  He ended his poem with a comparison to himself:    "But I've no spade to follow men like them.  /  Between my finger and my thumb  /  the squat pen rests.  /  I'll dig with it."

Perhaps the best-known living American poet of the soil is Wendell Berry, who lives on a farm in Port Royal, Kentucky near his birthplace, where he has farmed for over 40 years.  His poem, June Wind, shows his capacity for observing the things most of us take for granted, barely noticing their beauty.  "Light and wind are running  /  over the headed grass  /  as though the hill had  /  melted and now flowed."

W.D. Ehrhart's poem, The Farmer, describes a man who admits "I have sown my seed on soil  /  guaranteed by poverty to fail."  Yet, his poem ends:  "A farmer of dreams  /  knows how to pretend.  A farmer of dreams  /  knows what it means to be patient.  /  Each day I go into the fields."

On a writer's blog that I occasionally follow, poet Brittany R. Collins shared the story of being approached by a member of the audience after one of her poetry readings.  He told her, "There are things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand."  I love that idea.  Perhaps poetry really is a way to see the world differently, whether we are poets or among those people who enjoy reading and hearing poetry.

I don't know how many of you who follow my blog enjoy poetry.  I hope that at least some of you are among the 11.7% or so of us who read poetry.  Maybe some of you even write poetry.  I am a sporadic poet--taking pen in hand if something inspires me but lacking the discipline to write poetry with any regularity.  I will close with a poem inspired by Isaac Werner.

As many of you know, Isaac was a bachelor, but his journal made it apparent that he hoped to find an intelligent wife with whom to spend his life.  His neighbors teased him about finding a wife, and the nickname in the first line of the poem comes from that teasing.  The rooster was also the political symbol for the People's Party.

Populist Victorious Rooster
Memorial to a Prairie Bachelor

'Rooster of the Sandhills',
imagining his someday wife,
whose mind collects ideas
as painstakingly as seeking hen's eggs
hidden in the prairie grass.

A woman to sit with in the winter's hush,
each with a book,
ideas passing like the seeds of cottonwoods
that drift and settle in a fertile place.

Alone no more.
Companion 'neath his wing.
Supporting and protecting, he and she,
when times are good and front page roosters crow.

(c) Lyn Fenwick

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A History of Futuristic Prophesies

Donnelly's Caesar's Column
A recent post mentioned the futuristic novel published by Ignatius Donnelly in 1890, describing a world war in 1988 in which workers, debased and paid barely enough for survival, revolt against the wealthy, who control everything and live luxuriously.  Written during the Populist Movement, Caesar's Column, used the populist's political anger against Wall Street, Railroads, and Corporations to fictionalize a world in which the power of the wealthy is carried to such excess that laborers revolt with apocalyptic  violence that destroys the entire social structure.  Caesar's Column was in Isaac Beckley Werner's library.

However, Isaac's library also included the futuristic novel of Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, published in 1880.  In contrast to Donnelly's novel, Bellamy imagines a happier world, in which socialist ideals have been implemented to share the nation's wealth in a more equitable way.  Women are regarded as equals of men, in fact, having been given the equal right to propose marriage.  The novel describes a young narrator who is hypnotized in 1887 and awakens in 2000 to a changed world, which he initially dislikes but eventually accepts as better than the old world in which he had lived.  The ideas in Bellamy's book were so popular that Bellamy Clubs to discuss and propagate those social changes were established around the world in the late 1800s, including 162 such clubs in the United States.

Edward Bellamy
Obviously, novels projecting the future are nothing new, whether they describe the violent social destruction of Donnelly or the utopian social fiction of Bellamy.  Recently I read the bold predictions for our future discussed at a conference in Europe.  I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast some of those predictions for the future with the late 1800s when Isaac B. Werner kept his journal.

Most of the predictions are related to the growing capacity for Artificial Intelligence to assist or replace human input in many ways, some that we will find welcome and others we may find to be a frightening displacement of human intelligence and a major disruption of social traditions.

Prediction:  AI is already helping nurses in diagnosing cancer and it is 4xs more accurate.
Isaac:  Isaac died of an undiagnosed illness that I was able to identify more than a century later from his symptoms and activities described in his diary that were medically unknown at that time.

Prediction:  AI legal advice for basic legal questions now available offers 90% accuracy as compared to 70% accuracy of a sampling of human lawyers, and it is predicted that in the future only specialists in the law will remain in practice.
Isaac:  Isaac had a friendly relationship with local attorneys, but Populists generally grouped lawyers with the rich and powerful men they distrusted.

Prediction:  Traditional automobile companies will go out of business and cars will become, basically, computers on wheels.
Isaac:  Isaac first went into debt to buy a horse, implements, and a wagon, the transportation of his time.

Prediction:  Because people can either work from home or work as they commute in their quieter electric cars, people will move away from cities for more pleasant surroundings, and cities will be quieter.
Isaac:  In Isaac's time, many people homesteaded to escape crowded, unsanitary conditions in the cities.

Prediction:  Desalination of salt water will make fresh drinking water readily available in many places now without fresh water.
Isaac:  Wells on the prairie were dug by hand, and Isaac was often hired for that chore, using the wench he owned.  Because wells frequently became "crickety," (fouled by crickets) they often had to be abandoned.

Prediction:  A medical devise that works with your phone will take retina scans,, blood samples, and measure your breath to identify nearly any disease, giving access to medical analysis in remote places.
Isaac:  As a druggist in Rossville, IL before coming to Kansas, Isaac often dispensed medicine, including liquor for 'medical' purposes. 

Prediction:  3-D scanning devices on phones will allow shoes to be produced precisely for each individual's feet and printed at home.
Isaac:  At Isaac's estate sale, a man named Hainline bought all of Isaac's shoes and boots, apparently a size that fit him perfectly.

Prediction:  Robots will replace humans in fields, and a $100 robot will be available for even farmers in third-world countries.
Isaac:  In the beginning, before Isaac went into debt for a horse of his own to break more sod, he walked his fields with a hand planter, and after acquiring a horse to pull implements, he was still plowing and planting one row at a time.

Several of these predictions are already tested, and the issue is not whether they are possible, but rather, whether they will actually be implemented and when.  Predictions are nothing new, and they do not always come true.  But, it is certain that Artificial Intelligence has already changed the world and will continue to do so. 

These predictions were posted by Udo Gollub from Berlin, Germany from a summit he referenced. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Antonia's Cellar

The cellar at the Pavelka Farm

When we first visited the Pavelka farm several years ago, I saw these cellar doors, one of the strongest images from Jim Burden's visit to Antonia's family farm as an adult.  At the 2018 Centennial celebration of the publication of My Antonia, when our group visited the farm, I was delighted when the cellar doors were opened.

 Standing by the steps down into the cellar were a group of Anna Pavelka's great granddaughters, and as I eavesdropped they were saying exactly what you might expect teenaged girls to say:  "I'm afraid to go down there.  There might be spiders, or snakes!"

The younger great grandchildren had no such reservations.  Their curiosity overrode any such fears and down the steps they went--boys and girls!

Of course, what I thought of was Nina saying to her mother Antonia, "Why don't we show Mr. Burden our new fruit cave?"  And, who could forget Jim describing: "Anna and Yulka showed me three small barrels; one full of dill pickles, one full of chopped pickles, and one full of pickled watermelon rinds," or Antonia telling Jim how much sugar it took to make the preserves.

Then there were "Nina and Jan, and a little girl named Lucie" who showed Jim the jars of "cherries and strawberries and crabapples."  And one of the older boys reminded: "Show him the spiced plums, mother.  Americans don't have those."  

Antonia used the spiced plums to make kolaches, and one of the traditions of the Cather Conference is kolaches with coffee on Saturday morning.  In 2018 there was even a class to teach attendees how to make this Bavarian pastry.

However, what caused my mind to flash back to the novel most vividly as Anna Pavelka's young descendants emerged from the cellar was this passage:  "We [Antonia and Jim] were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight.  It made me dizzy for a moment."

That image, of Anna Pavelka's young descendants emerging from the cellar will stay with me for a very long time. 

I hope you have enjoyed this series based on the 2018 Cather Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which shared a time when those in Isaac Werner's community on the Kansas prairie were living in much the same way.  I hope this series of blogs has made you curious to read (or re-read) My Antonia, or even to visit Red Cloud to make your own pilgrimage to see the many sites easily identifiable as inspiration for Willa Cather's novels and short stories.  The exhibits in the Opera House are impressive, including the current display of what the Shermerda women might have worn in their homeland before immigrating to America.  You can also visit The Willa Cather Foundation online to learn about special events occurring in the Opera House.

(Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.)