Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Author of the Prairie

Isaac Werner's Homestead Claim Today

It will come as no surprise to those of you who follow my blog that I love Willa Cather.  She was not a Kansan, but she didn't miss it by much, since she spent much of her youth in southcentral Nebraska.  She was born December 7, 1873 in Virginia, but in 1883 when Willa was only ten years old, the family arrived in Nebraska.  The farm on which they first settled was about 20 miles north of the Kansas border, but a year and a half later they moved 16 miles south to Red Cloud.  From a prairie farm to a prairie town, Cather came to know and love the prairie, and that love is revealed in much of her writing.

Somewhere I read an unattributed quote that goes like this:  Anyone can love the beauty of the mountains, but it takes someone special to love the prairie.  Cather certainly loved both and used both in her books, but she had a special feeling for the prairie.  That is why I wish more Kansans would read Cather.  Our state is not often the featured landscape for novelists, but the prairie is featured in many of Cather's short stories and novels, as is occasionally our state.

Some of those to whom I have recommended Cather have found the pace of her stories too slow.  It is true that they aren't action filled.  But, part of that is the result of her attention to setting, character, and particularly to descriptions of nature.  I might paraphrase the quote above:  It may be easier to love a book filled with action and adventure, but it is worth immersing yourself in a book filled with deep explorations of characters and setting.

Willa Cather

So, why is my New Years blog about Willa Cather?

During the era of covid-19, many of us have found ourselves at home, away from activities that would usually occupy our time.  Several of my friends have mentioned turning to books.  Perhaps this is a good time to try Willa Cather.

Although I have read all of her novels and many of her short stories, there remain stories that I have not read.  An internet friend and writer has created The Willa Cather Short Story Project, in which followers have the opportunity/challenge to read a Cather short story a month.  I signed up!  All of the stories are available at the Willa Cather Archive on line, so it is not necessary to buy any books.  Those who sign up can simply read along or can comment.  As my friend who has originated the project says:  "The point is to read Willa Cather with pleasure, whatever that looks like for you."

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

Which brings me back to my particular love for Cather...for I just finished one of the short stories, "The Clemency of the Court," from which the following quote is taken.

The love of the plains was strong in him.  It had always been so, ever since he was a little fellow, when the brown grass was up to his shoulders and the straw stacks were the golden mountains of fairy land.  Men from the cities on the hills never understand this love, but the men from the plain country know what I mean.

This New Years blog is about using the opportunity that staying at home offers to read some of those books you have put off reading.  I know that many of you are already doing more reading than usual, but might it be fun to direct your reading in a particular way--to organize a personal project that you would enjoy during this unusual confinement at home.  I did that earlier with my marathon reading of all the Harry Potter series, and that was fun.  Maybe you have a set of Churchill's World War series or Sandburg's Lincoln that has been gathering dust.  Maybe it is poetry you prefer, and you could read a poem a day.

I understand that for some of us, the annual New Years resolution to go on a diet is needed this year more than ever! but maybe reading is a good way to keep your mind off the refrigerator too!  I will be reading Cather short stories as my resolution.  As I often do with my New Years post, you are invited to share your resolutions with me!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Merry Christmas from My Friend Mary Ann

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

I know that Christmas letters are often the butt of jokes, but they would not be if they were all written by our friend Mary Ann Marko!  She has given me permission to share her 2020 Christmas letter on my blog, and you are in for a treat!  (Only the images are mine.)

What to Make of a Covid Year

From January whisperings about a strange disease in a faraway land, to March when things began to look ominous, to the present, which finds us engulfed in a world pandemic, we have all taken a ride through some kind of a Sci-Fi horror movie.  Now we come into this season of gratitude and try to conjure up something we can to be thankful for.  No matter what, I will always be grateful for the moon, elephants, and cottonwood trees.  I am also grateful for the optimists who try to fill our cup at least half full with their postings of stunning sunsets, blooming flowers, jokes that force a smile, and photos of happy days.  We long to be with family and friends during this season, but are thankful for our warm, safe house to weather out this virus storm.  We are grateful, too, for Zoom that lets us at least see the faces we long to touch--to hold their hands.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

Sheltering at home has brought its own set of challenges.  Those dreams of long ago, when life was a frenzy of even a few hours alone with my sweetie, have turned to accusations of stalking.  (He says he was just trying to put the clothes away.)  We stop.  Regroup.  Find ways to make space for each other, seal the deal with a kiss, and carry on.

When the news unnerves us, we remember we have Netflix, with the Tiger King and that chess girl, and The Crown.  We open another puzzle; read another book.  Our yearning for sweets triumphs over any resolution to eat healthy.  Kale and carrots do not do what Twin Bings and Blue Bell ice cream can do to tamp down the stress and sooth the spirit.  

We stay up late and get up late.  We bring in the paper with its predictable bad news, drink coffee, scroll face book, and now it's noon.  Lunch.  I need a nap.  Billy Collins reads poems to us in the afternoons and Heather Cox teaches us history lessons.  OLLI offers courses on line--very good ones--and I remember to tune into about half of them.  I have learned about flying buttresses, Neanderthals, viruses, crocodile, and all manner of animals and insects, how my brain functions, and how Google plays with it.  I have learned more about the constitution, and how, like the Bible, it can be manipulated to fit most anything one chooses to believe.  In searching for truth, I have learned to question everything I ever thought I knew.

Irregular adherence to safety measures keeps us home from church, grocery store, and everywhere else.  And so, we watch Mass on television (with coffee and cinnamon roll), order groceries, and everything else on line--staying safe, we hope.

Yesterday on my walk, I saw a neighbor's yard strung with bedding, and chairs sitting outdoors with a basket of disinfectants beside them.  My husband tells me there was an ambulance there when he came home from PT.  We hunker down even tighter.

Photo credit: Lyn Fenwick & Emy

If we travel next year (a vaccine and a thumb's up from Dr. Fauci being the key to our traveling), it will be to memorial services that are increasing, as is the pain of not being able to share the grief with family and friends in real time.

The giant poinsettia gifted us by a friend to usher in the season will be all the decoration we need for this year.  I am eagerly waiting for the stores to stock candied fruit so I can make fruitcake--I'm ready to open that apricot brandy.

We will spend Christmas home alone, happy in the knowledge we are protecting our families, and they us.  We await the Baby in a Manger to lighten all our burdens.  And when this year comes to a close, we will celebrate its departure by stomping on something and then banging pots and pans while demanding a new and vastly improved 2021!

My thanks to these special friend of ours, Mary Ann, for sharing her humor and wisdom, and to her husband, Gene, for providing her with such great material.  May the Holiday Season bring all our friends and blog followers the grace and humor of this message, and may the new year bring us kindness and health.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Two Special Blog Followers

 The challenges of Covid-19 have reminded  us just how important friends are.  I am certainly appreciative of my friends, made so visible by their support for my book and by their continued following of my blog.  And, I must add, the appreciation of staying in touch through many years with their annual Christmas cards and letters, and the new novelty of zoom.  I have missed seeing or hearing from others, as the opportunities which would have allowed us to stay in touch in the past are now impossible.

Many of us have stayed in touch through face book, and others have followed my blog.  This week's blog shares the fun of both ways I have connected with friends.

What fun to open my face book reminder about Isaac Werner's construction of a neighbor's house, posted December 10, 2020, to discover that somebody "Loved It."

Unfortunately for me, they loved it so much they wanted more information about the county section number, information that I did not have.  My blog had only indicated the general direction and distance from Isaac's claim.  While I was considering how to reply, I realized someone else had answered the question.

That was a relief, since my research records compiled while writing the book focus more on Stafford County legal descriptions, although Isaac had many friends and business acquaintances in Pratt County.

However, what it also reminded me was how much is now available online that I needed to use other reference sources to find when I was doing my research.  The conversation between my two face book friends had not only shared the certificate number and date of issue , but also an image of the certificate.
My information about this particular topic had come from Isaac's journal, a rare source material that included the number of days the construction took and the amount Isaac was paid for his labor.  I had also interviewed a family descendant, which was helpful in distinguishing for whom the work was done, since two brothers had the same surname and lived in the same community.  However, since the Moore brothers were friends but not major characters in my book, I did not take the time to go further.  My face book friends found the information online in no time at all.

 However, this story does not end.  An image of the location was also supplied before I had time to praise the two online sleuths for sharing their research.  

In past blogs I have commented on the disappointments that technology has brought to communication--the extreme rarity of a personal letter, the greater likelihood that people will correspond by text that by e-mail, and the rarity of a chatty phone call.  

Yet, this face book exchange illustrates the other side of technology.  Three people shared information, and the chain of the conversation was not begun by a request.  Perhaps that is one part of the technology that is overlooked.  I posted my blog without any expectation that I would receive information that I didn't have, and unexpectedly, all three of us learned something new.

The challenge to all of us, young and old, is to discover and utilize the new possibilities, but to do so without the loss of benefits from the old possibilities.  If nothing else, the Covid-19 isolation has shown us that we miss the smiles behind the masks (and bless us for wearing those!), we miss the impromptu meetings with friends at the grocery store, and we miss the traditional rituals that bring strangers together--the clerks in stores, the strangers we are seated beside at programs and sporting events, the distant relatives at family reunions...  If Covid-19 should have taught us anything, it should have reminded us that privilege and class mean nothing to the virus, and neither should our sadness for those the virus has taken.  If we have missed those impromptu connections with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, perhaps we have also learned the significance of smiles, thank yous, and traditional courtesies (like holding the door for someone whose hands are full).  And, like remembering the common humanity in all of us.   

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Finding Descendants of Isaac's Friends

A simple sod house in early Kansas.

When my husband and I returned to Kansas in retirement and rescued the old homestead that had been vacant for several years, our return to the family home represented the 4th generation of my family to occupy the ancestral home.  There are other generational families in the community but it is increasingly rare for a family to occupy the same dwelling that their ancestors occupied.

Such families were more common in my youth, and when I began the research for my book about Isaac Werner and his community, I tried to arrange interviews with descendants of people who either homesteaded or arrived early in the communities near Isaac Werner's claims.  Some of the older people I interviewed still lived in the area, but many others had moved away.  

It is a special treat for me to talk with descendants whose ancestors knew Isaac Werner and who are mentioned in Isaac's journal.  The man I mention in this blog is Robert P. Moore, and the ancestor to whom I spoke is a relative although not a direct descendant.  This remote family member still lives in the area Isaac described in his journal.  He told me how his own ancestor mowed all the way to Iuka so that when he walked there he could follow a mowed path.  Isaac did the same thing, mowing from his homestead to the Emerson School, so that when he walked to meetings held at the school house he didn't have to walk through tall grass, especially on rainy nights.

Robert P. Moore was five years younger than Isaac, and he was born in Kentucky to Andrew J. and Rebecca Moore.  By 1880, Isaac Werner had been in Stafford County about five years, but Robert P. Moore was still in Kentucky, living in Cordova, KY, with his wife Martha (also called Marthy) and engaged in farming.  However, within five years Robert and Martha were in Kansas, having settled about 3 1/2 miles southeast of Isaac Werner's claim.

My assumption is that they had not lived there too long, for they hired Isaac to build their house.  Of course, many settlers built temporary abodes when they first arrived on the prairie--dugouts, sod houses, simple wooden shelters, or even tents, and Robert P. Moore's family may have build such a temporary structure before proceeding with a house.

Sometimes one member of a family would come to stake a claim, and other family members would follow.  In his journal, Isaac mentions "staid overnight at Jim Moore's," but I am not certain of the family connection between the two men.

On January 30, 1885, Isaac got his tools ready to start building Bob Moore's house.  His journal entries describe a 2-story building, with two gable windows on the second story.  Isaac's February 8, 1885 entry documents having completed the finishing touches of laying the floor and hanging the door.  He had worked 8 ten-hour days, plus "1/4th hour", for which he was owed $12.10 and was paid $10.00 cash.

Isaac was known as a talented craftsman, and before he got his horse, he often did building jobs for cash to earn money to hire others to break sod for his farm.  He continued carpentry jobs throughout his life, including furniture and cupboards, and his tools sold well at his estate sale.  The obituary his family wrote for publication back in Pennsylvania described both Isaac's fine farm and his gifts as a carpenter. 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Zooming with Isaac Werner

 On December 1, 2020 the Fort Hays State University Foundation, Alumni Association, and Forsyth Library hosted a zoom book launch for my book, "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement."  I am late posting this blog, because since arriving home after the event until a few minutes ago, I have been sending messages and thank you's to not only the people who made the event possible at FHSU and The University Press of Kansas but all of the wonderful people who shared the zoom event.  If I have missed anybody, please forgive me.  So many were involved in the work it took to create the event and the effort to register and clear the evening to attend the celebration, especially for those who had never zoomed before.  To everyone, thank you for a perfectly wonderful evening!  

Isaac Beckley Werner's stone
When we left our farm to go to Hays, Kansas, home of Fort Hays State University, I asked my husband to make a special detour.  The book, "Prairie Bachelor," shares the story of a particular region leading up to and during the Populist Movement, as well as the other events happening across the nation during that time.  But, at its heart is Isaac Beckley Werner, his 480-page journal, and the articles he wrote for the populist newspaper, 'The County Capital.'  Isaac Werner has been a part of our lives for a decade now, and I wanted to pause at the lovely old Neelands Cemetery, where Isaac and so many of his neighbors are buried, to share a moment at his stone.
Mary, Larry, Lyn, and Leslie

That was only the beginning of a remarkable day.  When we arrived at the Forsyth Library, everything was set up so professionally that I knew it was going to be a great evening.  We were greeted by representatives of the Foundation, the Alumni Association, and the Library, and pictured are Mary Hamond, Larry and I, and Leslie Haas.

I cannot begin to thank everyone who contributed to the success of the evening.  When the Dean of the Library, Deb Ludwig, asked me if they could host a zoom book launch, I was thrilled.  Deb's last day in that position was the Friday before the event, but she will not be leaving entirely, a fortunate save for FHSU!  She led the planning for the event, but so many others contributed their talents as well, and they made everything work beautifully.  All I had to do was show up!  Since I have rarely left the house since February, showing up was a bit of a big deal, but we wore our masks and social distanced (this brief photograph being the only bit of a violation of the social distancing...but with masks on!).

Photo by Larry Fenwick
Every person who came was special, and those who braved learning how to zoom for the first time were particularly special.  There were 22 states represented among those who registered for the event, and one guest from Ukraine.  Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed many comments from my international friend Allen, originally Canadian.  Early in my blog a mutual friend who lives in Kansas suggested to Allen that he might enjoy my blog, and he became a regular follower of the blog.

Another group certainly deserves mention, for descendants of Isaac Werner's uncle were present as a family, including 92-year-young Jim Werner, whom I met in Wernersville 8 years ago and who was very helpful with my research, and Susan Davis, the great-great granddaughter of Isaac Werner's youngest sister, whom I met on early in my research and who shared family history and photographs with me as well.

I am sincere when I say that everyone who joined the celebration and many that were unable to join is special.  Many shared stories about their ancestors, some shared images, one gifted to me a book signed by Isaac that she discovered in a library deacquisition sale, others serve on museum boards and are directors of museums, are newspaper publishers and writers, others worked in libraries, courthouses, and in Hains Church in Wernersville.  Others followed my blog for a decade or are friends and strangers who continued to ask about the progress of the book.  It is dangerous to start naming so many reasons to be thankful for the help and encouragement I have received because I will unintentionally leave someone out--but not in my heart.  Sharing the zoom celebration was just one way to acknowledge how many people contributed to my completion of "Prairie Bachelor."   
Photo credit: Larry Fenwick
A special group in attendance were those from the University Press of Kansas.  It was not easy producing a book in the midst of Covid-19, but they did it.  I have personally thanked those present to celebrate with me through zoom, but there are so many others that made the book possible.

Deb planned the zoom book launch to be an informal gathering, a group of friends enjoying an evening with their favorite beverage, having an informal conversation with the author of a new book.  We discussed various topics but we had no script, no pre-planned  Q & A.  We wanted everyone to relax and have fun.  I hope everyone did just that.  I know that I did, and I think the photograph taken during the gathering makes it clear that I was having a great time.

Thank you to everyone who not only attended the zoom book launch but who encouraged and helped me along the way, particularly my biggest fan, Larry D. Fenwick.  I hope Isaac Werner would be pleased by the book his journal inspired, "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement," available at or to order by phone at 785-864-4155, or online or your favorite book store. 

The link to watch the celebration is .