Southwestern Kansas Seen With Eastern Eyes

“Acres upon acres of the stalks of corn or sorghum cane stood like regiments of soldiers in solid phalanx; hawks in great numbers flapped their wings over the fields where wheat or millet had lately been harvested; but between the tracts that had been cultivated lay vast stretches of unbroken prairie.”

Eastern ideas get ruthlessly shaken when one enters the actual life of the much-written-about Great New West. The state of mind of a little boy of my acquaintance, who, on being sent to school in Germany, wrote home in his first letter, “I don’t like Germany at all. They drink beer,” and in the second, “I don’t like Germany. We drink beer,” finds its parallel in the feelings of many a homesick emigrant who goes to the frontier without the important preparation of a temporary residence in the Middle West. Slowly and surely, without making much note of the process, is the Easterner transformed into a new type of man as he comes under the influence of that wonderful fascination which has led to the proverb, —

The American haven of eternal rest
Lies ever just a little further west.

It is sometimes said that “the perfect American is an Eastern man with a Western veneer.” But though the East has been stimulated and enlivened in its migration westward, yet the modifying process is not an easy one; neither can it be carried on without loss in some directions, which the enthusiastic pioneer is very likely to overlook. Perhaps a fitting subject for the representative American novel, which critics sometimes tell us is yet to be written, might be found in the conflict between Eastern and Western ideas which is now going on in many a soul on the Western plains.

No State or Territory west of the Mississippi has had a greater infusion of New England blood at its earliest settlement than the one which is the geographical centre of the country. “New England emigration saved Kansas,” said a Boston man on one occasion. “No,” was the reply of a Westerner, “but it has done a greater thing. It has Americanized the Yankee.” Both statements contain some truth.

The true Kansan loves to recount the events which have made the history of his State remarkable. There was the great immigration in 1854, when the Northern conscience was aroused to prevent the extension of slavery, and company after company of settlers, in canvas-topped wagons, moved westward, singing the songs of Whittier. Then came the border war, in which “Bleeding Kansas” was for several years the centre of the nation’s thought. In 1861 Kansas entered the Union, and during the great conflict that followed she sent into the army and lost by death a larger proportion of her citizens than any other loyal State. After the war was over there were years of business depression, Indian raids, drought, and grasshoppers, justifying the motto Ad astra per aspera, which is borne on the coat of arms of the State. Yet, though its history has had so much of conflict, it has had much of encouragement also. We well remember how Easterners and foreigners gazed with wondering eyes upon the great sheaves and tall corn-stalks of the Kansas exhibit at Philadelphia in 1876. Since then severe droughts have again occurred, but now, after a few years of large crops, the vacant lands of Kansas are fast filling with settlers.

To Southwestern Kansas we took our journey from the shores of the Atlantic while the early fall flowers were blooming. We feasted our eyes on the hills of Berkshire County and New York, brilliant in autumn colors, with the homesickening reflection that we were soon to be out of sight of trees and rocks and hills, and after a journey of nearly three days we steamed into the Union Depot at Kansas City, with its labyrinth of railroad tracks. Then we bade good-by to the comforts of Pullman cars and the services of railroad porters for a tedious journey of thirteen hours in a crowded “local,” over one of the unfinished railroads, with alphabetical names, that are resting in a state of indecision as to their future course. At first the stations were frequent, and the otherwise monotonous scenery was varied by large villages, with fine farms and orchards and streams of water fringed with great trees. Then the towns grew smaller and rarer. The river beds seemed nearly dry. At increasing intervals we passed tiny farmhouses of wood, or stone, or sod, each having the inevitable melon-patch and perhaps a bed of peanuts or sweet-potatoes; and now and then appeared an emigrant wagon, with green body, red wheels, and canvas sheeting, slowly toiling across the solitary plain. There were large reaches of landscape thickly covered with dwarf sunflowers, whose golden heads seemed but a little larger than the ox-eye daisies of our Eastern meadows. Acres upon acres of the stalks of corn or sorghum cane stood like regiments of soldiers in solid phalanx; hawks in great numbers flapped their wings over the fields where wheat or millet had lately been harvested; but between the tracts that had been cultivated lay vast stretches of unbroken prairie, its dry, dead grass variegated by golden-rods and other yellow or blue fall flowers. After the daylight faded the tedious evening ride was varied by a salute of appropriate Kansas weather, a sudden storm of high wind, with thunder, lightning, and hail, which, however, our train passed quickly through. Variety was also given by the stories told by a young man behind us, who was instructing another, evidently a “tender-foot,” as a new-coiner is called, in the ways of the country to which he had come. “Why,” we could hear him say, “the landlord said he should not put up any partitions in his hotel. He couldn’t afford such a waste of room. He could put a man to sleep in the width of space that a wall would take up.”

The car, which had been full when we left Kansas City, was gradually emptied, until it contained, beside ourselves, only one woman and about a dozen men, who, in the dull evening glare, looked to our unaccustomed eyes like uncouth barbarians; and when, about one o’clock at night, we reached the little town that is the temporary railroad terminus, it was with some dejection of mind that, in common with several fellow passengers, we took an omnibus for the house of entertainment recommended by our conductor as the “only first-class hotel in the city.” Separate rooms were out of the question, but the courteous landlord, after canvassing his resources, succeeded in giving each of us a couch, or the fraction thereof, for the remainder of the night. But though accommodations were limited the kindly attention we received revived our sinking spirits. In the morning, after a good breakfast, we resumed our journey, and after a ride of two hours southward across prairie we took, with much curiosity, our first view of the town of Cleopatra, that has now been our home for eight months.

The city was born just five years ago. This means that at that time some men from a point further east came here “prospecting,” selected a town site, formed themselves into a town company, purchased the land from the government, obtaining the necessary papers, marked out city limits, and chose a mayor and councilmen, and then this was a city. The place at first contained twenty or thirty inhabitants, living together for a while in barracks, like soldiers. The “old settlers” of that not very distant period love to relate the infancy of the little settlement, and to show the picture, painted by one of the town fathers, of the miniature city, which consisted of one long, rude frame-building (the barracks), now made into a barn for a sheep ranch, and beside it a single tent, with slanting stove-pipe chimney, occupied by one man, whose wife was his companion. The picture also shows a noble dog, the pet of the little community, and all around nothing but blue sky and green-brown prairie.

It must be confessed that a city to which all building material and provisions and implements must be brought seventy miles over a roadless prairie does not present many of what we are accustomed to call “city advantages.” But the men made a grocery store out of an emigrant wagon, and went bravely to work, marking out streets, breaking prairie, and planning for sites of public buildings, and soon little houses began to appear.

Since then this baby city has passed through the various trials incident to childhood. It has had no mushroom growth like that of the railroad termini and the mining towns, yet as the county-seat and the trading centre of a promising stock-raising and agricultural district it has held its way hopefully through its vicissitudes, and is now both prosperous and expectant.

A year or two after the town was founded, the great “county-seat fight” occurred. The little town of Rival in the north of the county (the railroad terminus already mentioned, although this was before the time of the railway) wished to supersede Cleopatra as county-seat, and an election was held. There were less than two thousand people in the county, including men, women, and children, but cattle-men and cowboys from other counties gave volunteer assistance, and more than four thousand votes were counted. Much threatening passed between the Cleopatra men and the Rivalites, arid toward night something of a riot occurred. The votes were partially sifted at last, and it was decided that Cleopatra should remain the county-seat.

A year or so later came the railroad excitement. A railroad goes where it pleases, and usually keeps its own counsel. But the news had gone forth that the railroad was coming to Cleopatra, and the town was “booming.” A railroad, however, changes its mind sometimes, and one Sunday, fourteen miles of track that had been completed nearly to the city was taken up, to be laid in another direction. Monday morning found the town, which on Saturday had been so elated, in great depression, and many of its people lost heart and moved away. But Cleopatra is still sanguine of having a railroad. The agents of the great roads of the region are often interviewed and entertained, and the land agents are constantly assuring us that it is “as certain as fate” that the cars will be here before many months.

Next to a railroad for itself, the great desire of Cleopatra is to have the one that comes to Rival extended westward, so that that city may lose its, present importance as a terminus. To a looker-on, the local jealousy of neighboring towns is amusing. The typical Western man thinks that he can prove by mathematics and geography that the city in which he has cast his lot cannot fail of greatness, and one chief object of his life is to advance its interests. The events which cause anxiety to the residents, such as prevailing sickness or town disturbances, are seldom mentioned in the local paper. It would not be politic. They might hinder immigration. But whatever is detrimental to a rival town is promptly and fully reported. A man comes into Rival by rail, and inquires for Cleopatra. “Cleopatra?” says the Rivalite. “Seems to me I’ve heard of such a place. Hullo, you” (turning to another), “do you know where Cleopatra is?” “Why, yes,” is the answer, “I believe there is a little place by that name off south, but there don’t nobody go there, and there ain’t no road to it, only a cowpath.” Even the transient visitor is soon influenced by the local enthusiasm, and is ready to affirm that all the advantages of the region are concentrated in the spot where he happens to be.

The “county-seat fight” already mentioned is the only case of lawlessness that has ever occurred in Cleopatra. It has been a most well-behaved town for one on the border, and plumes itself not a little on its “good society,” as compared with some of its neighbors. We walk through its streets with the same sense of quiet and law protection as in a New England village. Yet the wise will sometimes say, “Other frontier towns have had their bloodshed. Our turn may yet come.” Once indeed, but a few weeks ago, it seemed that perhaps the time had come, when the temperance men of the town determined that at all hazards the state prohibitory law should be enforced. For a week the town was in agitation. Cowboys from the ranges came into town wearing their revolvers, threats were in the air, ladies avoided Main Street, and men walked around silent and with stern faces. The whole community waited as though beside a muttering volcano. Then the crisis passed, and for a time, at least, prohibition held sway.

On our arrival at Cleopatra, that autumn morning, we found a compact little settlement of from five hundred to one thousand people. We were unable to learn the number exactly, for pioneers do not stand still to be counted, and a wise man hesitates to accept the local census of a Western city. Through the middle of the town ran the arterial Main Street, flanked by wooden sidewalks and lined for half a mile on each side with little shops, most of them having the square sham or “battlement” front. The town contained two church buildings, a brick court-house, a school-house for three schools, a flouring mill, and a disused mill for making sorghum sugar. For the rest, it was made up of little private houses, containing usually from one to five rooms, and, at first sight, seeming to have been dropped down helter-skelter on the prairie; but a little familiarity soon showed us that there was method in the madness, which time and labor on the prospective streets would develop.

During the months that have elapsed since our arrival, the appearance of the town has been considerably changed. Several blocks have been built on Main Street, of brick or a soft red stone that is quarried in the neighborhood. A number of larger and finer houses have been built on a rise of the prairie at the north of the town, which has therefore been dubbed “Quality Hill” by the populace; and just now, under the influence of the news that a railroad company is preparing to send a branch in this direction, the town is having a bigger “boom” than ever before, and buildings of all sizes are going up on every side.

The interiors of the houses present all the degrees from furniture consisting chiefly of a trunk and some dry goods boxes to rich furniture with pianos and choice pictures; yet these differences depend less upon the worldly possessions of the people than upon the length of time since their arrival. Many a family living in one room with a few utensils has household goods waiting somewhere till a house can be built to put them in.

The little trees that have been planted in the city are still too small to obstruct the view, and all the larger houses and two or three windmills for raising water can be seen for miles around. The town looks very pretty as seen in the distance, and is the chief landmark of the region. To one within the city, however, the unfinished streets and buildings give an unpleasant feeling of disorder and discomfort, like that of a spring house-cleaning or a May moving. But a few weeks’ residence usually enables one to look at all things as temporary, and therefore endurable, like the discomforts of travel, or the inconveniences of a camping-out excursion.

Most of the men in the town are capitalists in a small way. Speculation abounds, and money changes hands fast. A financial authority has said that; the country must be rich which does not make use of small coin. Except in the post-office the smallest money recognized here, either in prices of goods or in making change, is the “nickel.” Every two or three doors on Main Street we find a land-office, and land business is now brisk; but in a few months any one who wishes to “prove up” a good claim must go west to the next county. Trades of all kinds are starting, and every skillful workman has his hands over-full. Almost every man has two or three kinds of business and turns from one to another with amazing facility. In a certain sense the most successful man is the most versatile man. There are a dozen or more lawyers in town, but each gives a part of his time to other business. Here is one who has been a judge and a professor in a law school, but is now seeking health and fortune by dividing his time between a law office and a sheep ranch. His accomplished daughter is thinking of opening a private school in town, but in the interim spends a few days in the saddle herding her father’s sheep. Here is another lawyer, who is also a land agent and has a hog-ranch in the country; soon he transfers this to his partner, and takes charge of one of the local newspapers. Here is a man holding several county offices, but also superintending a coal and lumber yard. Some of his capital he invests in a grocery, and he is also engaged in cattle business in the Indian Territory. Almost every man has his farm outside, which he cultivates himself or by proxy, or is simply holding to await rise in land values.

But, notwithstanding the restless change of occupation, the streets seem full of idle men. Here are new-corners, “land-lookers,” and farmers and stockmen from the country, gathered in knots at the corners trying to make a trade. Men temporarily out of employment stand with hand in their pockets watching their chances. Main Street, therefore, looks lazy, and has an air of listless waiting.

A walk of five minutes from the court-house in any direction brings one out on the open prairie; then for a few miles there are farms, with here and there a settler’s dwelling, and beyond, on the south and west, lie the great stock-ranges.

On three sides of the town, at a distance of four or five miles, flows Wolf Creek, having, like most capricious Western rivers, a great bed, washed out by short-lived floods, with a little water and a great deal of sand. It is usually fordable at almost any point, but after a heavy rain, it is suddenly transformed into a mighty river, cutting off all communication between the country people and the town. In the distance, its course is shown by a straggling row of small cottonwoods and willows, twisted and broken by the floods. At the fords, posts are erected showing the depth of the stream and the heights to which the river has risen in various May freshets.

Thirty miles away lies the town of L——, our nearest eastern neighbor, a busy and rough cattle market, whose reputation in the region has suffered from its having been the scene of various acts of cowboy lawlessness. Two hours’ drive southward would take us across “The Strip,” a belt of land which the government is selling for the benefit of the Osage Indians, and into “The Nation,” as the Indian Territory is often called. But the Indians themselves are mostly far away in the eastern and southern parts of the Territory, and on crossing the border we find it difficult to realize the fact, recorded in an ancient geography, that

Chocktaw, Chickasaw, Cheri-o-kee
Indians live in this Territo-ree.

Three days’ journey by saddle southwest will take us across the sand hills and salt plains of the Territory into the great Texas Pan Handle. West of us, in the next county, there are as yet only a few settlements, but the tide is rolling on, and even now a company of men from Cleopatra are “prospecting” for a town site in the next county west.

Sometimes we drive in our spring wagon to Rival; not often, for we are too loyal to Cleopatra to do our trading in a rival city, even though the want of a railroad somewhat increases the cost of goods in our own stores. But we cannot be wholly independent of the town which has the nearest railway station. We do not see the cars, for the one daily passenger train both arrives and returns in the night. Yet even the track is a welcome sight to the prairie dweller, for it connects him with his early home and Eastern friends, and the great world of civilization on whose edge he dwells.

In the fall, winter, and early spring, prairie fires form a prominent feature of the landscape, and are a source of great danger to the inhabitants of the plains. Some of these fires are “put out” (that is, kindled) by the settlers at times when fire can be controlled, as a means of protection from wandering fires. Careless is the traveler who ventures far over the prairie without carrying matches so that he may burn for himself a place of safety in case of danger. A fire-guard is ploughed around the town, and every little country home is encircled by several furrows where fire can be fought. Often in an evening we can see eight or ten fires, dotting the line of the horizon at distances which we cannot guess. Sometimes in a rising wind a fire threatens the town or the neighboring farm-houses, and the men gather to beat it hack, and send counter-fires to meet it. The main fire-line leaps along roaring and crackling in the tall grass, and leaving behind miles of black, smoking ground, soon to be covered with a soft carpet of yellow green; but it also leaves side-fires and back-fires, which must be watched and guarded by those who are fighting fire with fire. Prairie fires in the distance, in a still evening, are very pretty things to see, but when wind and fire combine to resist human control, the feeling sometimes changes to excitement and terror.

Even more than in older communities do the people here talk much about the weather, and the opinions held regarding it are various enough to prove the truth of the definition, “Pleasant weather is a state of the mind in which it enjoys itself.” It does not take long for the settler who is well and prosperous to share a little the Western man’s enthusiasm; but a new-coiner usually feels that a climate in which the mercury is liable to change twenty or thirty degrees in a single hour is open to criticism. Even to the old resident the weather brings a continual round of surprises. When the winter northers blow, and for days we spend all our energies to keep from freezing, we almost refuse to believe what we certainly know, — that this is, on the whole, a warm climate; that, except for the northers, the winters are mild; that farmers do their ploughing in midwinter, and plant their potatoes in February; and that animals pasture without shelter the whole year through. Yet even during the heated summer the nights are always cool.

The heavy rains fall mostly from April to June. The later summer and autumn are rather dry, and November, bleak and dreary month on our Eastern shores, is usually considered a delightful season here. Winter storms sometimes bring a dry powdery snow, which blows fiercely in our faces, and makes drifts in the cañons, but seldom whitens the general surface of the ground, or prevents the herds from finding pasture. A wet and heavy snow, if it does come, is a sad calamity, for it takes away the food of thousands of grazing animals.

Dust is everywhere, inflaming the eyes, sifting through cracks, and rising in sand storms under the influence of a high wind. Mud, so great a trial in Eastern Kansas, is here little known. For a few hours after a heavy rain it plasters our overshoes, and almost holds us to the ground, but suddenly it is gone. Here are no swamps, no marshes of stagnant water, no damp night air. The enthusiastic resident assures you that there is no malaria, as in Eastern Kansas, — “That is impossible where drainage is so perfect.” Yet one soon learns that there is the same tendency to bilious diseases that is found in most parts of the West, and that fevers are frequent.

But the most remarkable feature of the climate is the wind, which sweeps past us from north to south, from south to north again, without a wind-break between us and the North Pole. It would be too much to say that the wind always blows in Kansas, but one who is in the process of acclimation feels that the pauses are both rare and short. Down upon us, often without a moment’s warning, sweeps a norther, usually of three days’ duration. Then the weather gradually moderates, and the wind changes to the south, to be succeeded shortly by another northern gale. Now and then we have an equally strong and trying south wind, a genuine sirocco from the Staked Plain of Texas, hot to our hands and cheeks, and almost irresistible in its force.

Occasionally in the spring there comes a day that seems to have all zones and seasons condensed into its brief space. Two or three such days are indelibly fixed in my memory. The morning may dawn upon us clear, cool, and soft, with sparkling dew, and the song of a thousand meadow larks. The sun comes grandly up above the clean-cut horizon. We feel no languor. It is a delight to live and breathe and move. The sun mounts toward the zenith, and the air begins to grow hot. It is insufferably hot. There is no tree, no hill, no rock, to give a cooling shade, and the deep-blue sky contains no passing cloud to give us a moment’s respite from the sun’s blinding rays. We think regretfully of the umbrella that yesterday’s wind turned inside out, and determine to put up a tent as soon as the weather is cool enough to encourage the effort.

But atmospheric stillness never lasts long in Kansas. The wind begins to blow, and our stifling breath grows more free. From the south the wind comes, reaching our, ears with a murmuring sound before we feel it in our faces. The prairie grass and fields of grain rise and fall, first in waves, and then in heaving billows. The wind increases in force and becomes a sirocco, scorching our faces worse than the hottest rays of the sun could do. There is no dignity in walking. We struggle with our skirts and wraps. We tie our hats down, we hold on to them with both hands, and still they escape us, and we rush madly after them. The clothes on the line at the next door flap wildly around, beating out their hems and splitting in every weakened spot, while the washer-woman is striving to keep her balance long enough to rescue them before their total destruction; lucky is she if they are not snatched from her grasp and scattered far over the prairie never to be recovered. Great tumble-weeds come rolling like hoops across the plain. Here comes a market-basket escaped from the hand of some urchin who for a moment forgot to be vigilant. We start to catch it for him, but it eludes us, and goes bumping over the prairie for half a mile or more, and is soon out of sight. A canvas-covered carriage is seized by the wind and rolled down the street. On the next house comes toppling down the stove-pipe chimney. Three or four “claim shanties” are laid over on their sides, and the builders of the large house in the upper part of the town will have to begin to-morrow putting up their frame anew. We think about tornadoes and cyclones, and then remark quietly, “This isn’t anything; just an ordinary straight blow.” Clouds of dust fill the air, penetrating the thickest veils, reddening our eyes, and sifting through the cracks of doors and windows to the utter ruin of all good housekeeping. The only comfort is in the thought that this state of things cannot last long; a change will surely come soon.

And here it comes. In the southeast, a black cloud appears, moving rapidly. We look anxiously to see if it is funnel-shaped, and a few nervous persons retreat to their cellars, or caves (that is, artificial excavations that serve as outside cellars for some of the houses). But this is not a tornado, only a Kansas shower. First comes a cloud of dust, sweeping with the rapidity of a whirlwind, and veiling the town from sight. The lightning blinds our eyes, and streaks the black sky with chains of light. Housewives bring sheets and pieces of old carpet to stop the cracks of the doors and windows on the windward side, and “hurry” must be the word, for in a moment the rain is upon us, not in drops, but in blinding sheets moving horizontally along. In a few moments the roadways are streams of running water, the tubs and rain barrels and cisterns are overflowing. The farmers exultingly exclaim, “This insures the corn crop,” and the local editor writes for his item column, “What slanderer said ‘Drouthy Kansas?’”

It is no longer rain; it is sleet and hail. Next comes a rift in the clouds, a perfect arch of rainbow, and the clouds roll away out of sight, leaving the clean-washed earth dotted with flowers. The afternoon wanes. The winds are still. The sun sinks in a blaze of golden glory, and almost without a twilight the day is ended. In the ocean of dark blue ether above and round us, the moon and stars are shining. It is the perfection of glorious night. We linger in its beauty, unwilling that sleep should claim the best hours of the twenty-four, but at last, the thought of to-morrow’s labors and vicissitudes drives us to our couch. We fall asleep, to awaken perhaps in a few hours and find that the bed-covering is insufficient. We wrap ourselves in all the blankets we can find, but are still cold, and grow colder. The south wind has given place to a norther, which creeps in through the seams of the windows, lifts the carpet in billows, and drives us back to our warmest flannels, and our rekindled fires.

In weather, as in almost all phases of this prairie life, it is the unexpected which usually happens. What adjective is there, applicable to weather, that may not be used in the superlative degree here! I do not wonder that this is called “Sunny Kansas,” but it is also windy Kansas. Yes, it is drouthy Kansas, but it is also fertile, beautiful Kansas.