Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Thankfulness in Difficult Times

The illustrations of Norman Rockwell captured American traditions so perfectly that they continue to resonate with us today, but Thanksgiving 2020 for most of us is going to be different.  Perhaps we will roast the turkey just as we do every Thanksgiving, but for many of us, family will not be gathered around the table.  Even so, we have reasons to be thankful.  This week's blog will share some of the reasons I have to be thankful, and I hope my abbreviated list of gratitude will remind us that although 2020 has brought loss and disharmony, there are also reasons to give thanks.

Credit:  Lyn Fenwick

If you are searching for a reason to be thankful, one reason is obvious.  Many people are making our lives easier by their sacrifices and volunteering, from those who continue to go to work every day so that we can buy products we need to those who volunteer at food distribution locations, to thousands in between.  But perhaps those for whom we must be most thankful are the health care providers who put their lives at risk, disrupt their own families, and break their hearts with the suffering they see around them--doing their jobs to help the rest of us.

In a time during which Covid-19 reminds us how fragile life can be, the importance of family and friends become more apparent.  A decade and a half ago, descendants of the first occupants to live in the house behind them gathered at the farm where we had often celebrated holidays.  Today, several of those in the photograph are gone, but the memories of good times together at this place with family and friends remain, and those memories are another reason to be thankful.

 This year, although tragedy and need will fill our memories, I have many reasons to be particularly thankful to many people.  To Fort Hays State University, for special recognition at Homecoming (celebrated virtually) and to the upcoming zoom celebration they are hosting Dec. 1st for the release of my book, "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement."  Too many people have been part of those two events to recognize them individually!  To the University Press of Kansas and the many people who played an important role in publishing my book in the middle of a pandemic.  To Lucille M. Hall, and those who keep her dream of a museum in St. John, Kansas alive--the museum in which Isaac Werner's journal was found.  To so many others that I cannot name, who loaned family images for the book, who encouraged me not to give up on the manuscript for over a decade, who followed my blog, who aided my research in museums and libraries, who welcomed me in a church in Wernersville and introduced me to a Werner descendant, who helped me find Werner graves, who ordered the book months ago and continue to place orders, who were strangers who shared information on and face book.  I was inspired to write the book because a stranger who died decades ago recorded the stories of his neighbors.  I wrote the book with his journal at its heart because I wanted to preserve the history of the struggles and courage of those early settlers for another generation to read.

Credit:  Lyn Fenwick
Each day, as I sit at my computer to write this blog and as I sat at the computer sharing Isaac Werner's story, this photograph at left is my view.  The lumber in the old part of the building you see came from the tenant house my grandfather built for his fulltime farm worker, which my father recycled to build their garage, and which my husband and I used to expand the building.  All of us build on top of what was left to us by those who came before us, and we leave behind what future generations will build upon.

I hope "Prairie Bachelor" will share with young readers today and in the future the struggles and achievements of those who came before them, and the hopes and dreams those forefathers and foremothers had for their descendants to come.  It is a pattern repeated generation after generation all around the world, and it is important to remind ourselves to be thankful of what those ancestors, and the choices and sacrifices they made,   did for us.  We should not forget people like Isaac Werner, and countless other forgotten men and women, who left no descendants but made a difference, whether large or small, documented or not, for those of us who followed.
Thank you to so many people who have made this a remarkable year for so many, facing difficult times  with courage and generosity. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Holidays in Unusual Times

For many of us--limiting or cancelling things that take us from our homes and eliminating most social occasions--the days begin to blur and run together, one no different from the rest. Seasons change but traditional occasions go uncelebrated--no fireworks on the 4th of July, no parades on Labor Day. I find myself needing to check my phone to confirm what day it is.
I have decided that although no family or friends gather at our home to celebrate, it remains important to recognize special occasions as more than just another day.
My decorating began with Halloween, and although there were no trick-or-treaters, witches and pumpkins and crows assumed their customary places. The morning after Halloween, they went back into their boxes for another year, and Thanksgiving decorations took their places.
My grocery shopping list includes the ingredients for our favorite pumpkin cake, and the turkey awaits in the freezer. My mother's ceramic topiary stands atop the vent shelf over the range, a special memory not only of the artistic talent she shared in so many ways but also a memory of the many family Thanksgivings celebrated in this house over four generations. Isaac Werner's journal describes many holidays, most of which he celebrated alone. In 1887 times were particularly difficult for farmers on the Kansas prairie. On Thanksgiving Day, he wrote: "Everybody busy with their work, little thanking for short crops and hard times, going ahead with the hay' [haying?] more promises ahead to accomplish something."
Isaac's journal entry for Thanksgiving 1888 was more encouraging. On November 29, 1888, he wrote: "Fair like day to work, very favorable to prepare for winter and gathering corn, and make one feel thankful for it [even] if he can't afford a Thanksgiving turkey. At night dance to be at Garvin's barn. Last Saturday he bought and shipped bulk of loose fat hogs in neighborhood shipped from Macksville, bringing a little cash to many needy ones." The sadness brought by Covid-19 is severe, but it is important to remind ourselves of the things we have for which to be thankful. As Isaac wrote, even if we can't afford a turkey, there is still reason to dance!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Challenges of Keeping a Journal in Early Days


One of the followers of this blog commented on how seeing Isaac Werner's signature moved her, bringing him to life in a way that his transcribed words alone could not do.  I have shared in an earlier blog post  how special it was for me to receive the gift of a book in which Isaac had written his name.  Although I still long for the discovery of a photograph of Isaac, his signature remains almost as intimate.  

Of course, I spent months transcribing his 480 page journal, so I can certainly recognize his writing.  Early blogs have explored the significance of dropping cursive writing from the curriculum of public schools.  The art of a distinctive penmanship has been a mark of education and aesthetic appreciation for generations, and the abandonment of that discipline is regretted as disappointing by many of us. 

In past years I was often complimented for my style of printing.  Today, I am more likely to be complimented for my cursive script.  Either way, I believe how we write introduces us in a particular way.  Many graduates of the past decade no longer have been taught cursive, and even their training in printing is treated as only an adjunct to the "real" writing they will be doing electronically.  In short, writing by hand is not taught as particularly important, and it certainly is not considered an extension of the writer's personality, respectfulness, or education.

Transcribing Isaac's penmanship from his journal was challenging, not because his writing was careless but rather because of how densely he often wrote and because some of the lettering was of a style no longer used.

However, the biggest problem was the ink.  I suspect that living far from town without a horse may have caused Isaac to stretch his ink by adding water when he noticed the ink well getting low and he had no plans for a trip to town.  The paleness of the ink did not appear to be the result of fading through  exposure to sunlight.

In 2016, the Berk's History Center republished the April 12, 1946 article by Luke Sutliff titled "An Old Recipe for the Making of Ink.  The recipe was taken from a 1748 German Almanac.  "It often happens that if people in our country have something to write they will take gunpowder and water, and make ink, and write with it."  The author of the recipe complained that when the gunpowder and water ink dried, it not only smeared but could be wiped off the paper.

Instead, his recipe suggested "pulverize a piece of cherry tree gum the size of a bean, let it dissolve in as much water as half an egg shell can hold and add the [gun?] powder afterward for then the ink will not wipe out."  The author also suggested "gallnuts from oak trees in the late summer when they are ready to fall and are soft" with a recipe including vinegar, vitriol and gum added later.

The ink recipes sounded confusing to me, but the 1946 article had added an ink recipe from the 1943 World Book Encyclopedia, and I hoped it might be simpler.  It wasn't!  It involved a "pound of bruised nutgalls, one gallon boiling water, five and one-third ounces of sulphate of iron..., three ounces gum Arabic previously dissolved, and a few drops of antiseptic such as carbolic acid."  I failed to make it through the details of steeping and straining.

Not only do I now understand why Isaac would have preferred to buy his ink in town and water it a bit if he ran low before he anticipated another trip to town.  I am also grateful for my ball point pens!

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Lending a Helping Hand

 One of the stories I included in "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement," described how Isaac Werner intervened to help a neighbor youth when the doctor from town had told the boy's mother there was no hope.  Isaac not only sat with the boy to give the young man's mother some time to rest, he also visited two neighbor ladies for advice about a better diet for the sick boy and returned twice with his tools to repair the unsteady bed and to secure the windows and doors letting in the cold.  His help over a period of several days and nights had a happy ending, for despite the doctor's prognosis, the boy recovered.

Isaac's numerous efforts to save the sick teenager may have been more than was common, but it was and remains common for neighbors to pitch in when a neighbor needs help.  Recently, neighbors helped harvest the corn of another neighbor in my community, so the tradition remains active.

The photograph in this week's blog is an example of such a gathering.  If you look closely, you can see that the thirteen men, (plus one dog to keep away the unlucky number 13!) are standing in front of several tractors.  The implements being pulled by the tractors cannot be seen in the image.

Often the gesture of helping a neighbor is the result of illness.  Sometimes it is the result of a death, the neighbors having gathered to help the widow bring in the crop.  The tradition does not depend on any particular reason for helping the neighbor, but rather on the need for help.

The picture and the identity of the famers were supplied to me by Doug Lamb a few years ago.  He is the young man with his thumbs in his pockets third from the right end of the row.  Doug has since passed away, as perhaps most or all of the men in the picture have.  The tradition they represent continues through some of their sons and grandsons.

From left, the individuals pictured are:  Clifford Locke, Cy Turner, Don Gibson, Verne Seibert, Red Satterlee, Edgar Preston, Paul Satterlee, Noel Graebner, Clinton Blount, Doug Lamb, Eston Piland, Bob O'Connor, and Harry Seibert's Dog.  A note at the bottom of the list of farmers given to me reads "Working ground for Verlin Tucker."

If anyone visiting this blog remembers the reason the men had gathered at the Tucker field or the year the photograph was taken, please share it in a comment at the bottom of this blog.

A Note: Linda Lamb called to share that the group of men gathered in the early 1960s, perhaps 1961 or 1962, to help a friend battling cancer. She commented that because the men were wearing jackets, it was probably early spring or perhaps fall, getting the land ready to plant wheat. I hope others may have more stories to share about this day of friends helping a friend. My hopes that others would add to this post came true. Tom Tucker, son of the farmer whose neighbor's came to his aid, has added a comment. For those of you who may not check the comments, I will share his words. "This picture was taken in the spring of 1963 or 1964, when my dad was sick fighting cancer. These great friends and neighbors came together and worked the ground the first time over in the spring while I was away at college. Nolan Cummings is also in the picture. I have this picture and a picture of the thirteen tractors all in a row on my wall at home. I will always be grateful to these folks." To add a note to Tom's comment, after graduating from college, Tom continued to farm for a while but now lives in Texas where he is a CPA.