Emigrant Life in Kansas by Percy G. Ebbutt



A split in the camp.--Early rising.--The county treasurer.--Living in a dug-out.--The Grasshopper Relief Fund.--The old home again.--The sick cow.--The disappearance of the Quinns.--A rifle accident.--Building a schoolhouse.--Road-making.--How the land is divided

AFTER working for old Zedekiah for the time mentioned, viz., fourteen months, I had a little flare-up with the old man and left him. I don't know whether he had anything upon his mind, so that he could not sleep, but he had contracted the habit of rising at three o'clock every day, summer or winter, and I had to do the same. In the winter the fire was kept alight all night on the big stone hearth covered up with ashes, and it was an easy job for him to jump out of bed and start it blazing again. But for me up in my loft, getting up was a harder matter, and with the snow drifting

Page 140

through the chinks, the sensation was not tropical. Still, I had to crawl out, and then feed, water, clean, and harness the horses, though why this should be done at three o'clock in the morning I never could make out. This work took me an hour or more, after which I was at liberty to go in the house and sit by the big log fire with the old man till breakfast at seven, burning, as Josh Billings would say, a pound of wood and a cord of candles.

After breakfast Miss Blake and I milked the cows, and fed the pigs and poultry, turkeys, geese, etc., by which time it was daylight, and we could begin our regular work, wood-hauling, or whatever it might be.

Well, one fearfully cold morning I did all my work as usual, -except the watering of the horses, which I never troubled myself about now, as they would not drink so early in the morning,-and then returned to the house. After a while the old man asked me if I had watered the horses. I told him I had not, as they never drank so early.

"Well, have you tried?"

"No," said I, "not this morning; but I

Page 141

have dozens of times; I always water them now when they go to work."

"But, confound it! I want them to have water the first thing."

"But they won't drink."

"Well, make them. Go out at once and water them."

"It's no use," said I.

"Will you do as I tell you?"

"Anything in reason."

Then the old gent thoroughly lost his temper and let loose, reviling me up and down, and complaining of my ingratitude for his kindness in feeding and clothing me for such a long time. When I got a chance to put a word in edgeways, I said, "Well, if you are tired of keeping me, I guess I am tired of being kept, so we had better part."

Great grounds he had to complain, I am sure; I was doing a man's work for less than a boy's pay, and I had refused an offer in the spring to go and herd cattle on the Blue River at ten dollars a month, preferring to work away with the old man.

After the talk with him I had some breakfast, and then packed up all my belongings,

Page 142

which made but a very small bundle, said "good-bye," and started off to walk twenty miles to Parkersville, where I thought I might get a lift up near our prairie home.

I left with some regret; for, despite the old man's peculiarities and the amount of work required of me, I had spent some very pleasant days on Monkres Creek. I left behind me a barrel of walnuts, which I had gathered in the woods, and which I was going to sell. I also had to go without saying "good-bye " to Miss Blake, who was away for a few days. I was sorry for this, as we were very good friends.

She was engaged to a young farmer, and I afterwards heard that she was married shortly after I left. It was rather a wonder that she had not been married before, living in a country where fifteen or sixteen is quite an ordinary marriageable age, and as she was an only child, and would come in for a very good farm and a lot of stock. I believe she had received several offers, however. One evening, while I was there, a young man rode over from a neighbouring creek, and popped the question while she was milking the cows.

Page 143

He was rather far gone, I guess, and, upon her refusal, he pulled out a revolver and threatened to shoot himself, and she told him to blaze away. He did not do it though, but changed his mind, and, mounting his horse, rode away. He occupied a very good position, being the county treasurer; but I guess it was a fortunate escape for her, for he married some one else soon afterwards, and then deserted her and fled the country with 30,000 dollars of the public money.

After leaving the old man, I struck out for Parkersville, which thriving town I reached in good time without adventure of any sort. Immediately upon my arrival I made for the drug store. When I began to make inquiries as to whether any of my people or neighbours were -in town, I heard that my father and brother were living down in the timber, chopping wood and hauling it to town for sale. I was glad to hear this, for it saved me a seven-mile walk beyond the twenty I had already done, and I was mighty hungry. I soon found my way to our timber patch, and I guess I rather took my people by surprise, for, of course, they


Page 144

were not expecting to see me. I found them living in a dug-out, a nice warm crib, but only just about big enough for two people, and rather uncomfortably crowded with the addition of my presence. Still, we stopped here for a month or more, working away at the wood-chopping.

It was very fortunate for us that we had this timber land to fall back upon, as it was the only thing we had to keep us going during the winter, after losing nearly everything by the grasshoppers. I here was much distress all over the State, and a fund was organised, called the "Grasshopper Fund," to relieve the destitute people. Contributions were sent in in great numbers and from every State in the Union, consisting of money, food, and clothes. These were sent into large head quarters at Topeka, the State capital, and then distributed to different branches for redistribution among the suffering farmers. Of course, numbers of the settlers were new comers who were dependent entirely upon their crops for a living, having no capital to fall back upon, so that a bad year meant literal starvation. Therefore, in

Page 145

that respect, we were better off than many of our neighbours; still, we were glad to accept some of the relief. We got a coat each and some boots, and from time to time some flour and haricot beans, etc.

After living down here in the woods for a few weeks, we all moved up to our old prairie farm again, where Humphrey was living alone. I found the old place looking just the same after my absence of more than a year, and was glad to see the familiar cattle and horses again.

By this time the winter was nearly over, and we could set to work again with our ploughing ready for the spring crops. We had great fears concerning the grasshoppers when they should be hatched, but fortunately they did not live to do much damage. We had a few hot days early in the spring, which hatched them out in myriads, but they were succeeded by some frosts which killed the majority. If it had not been for that, the probability is that every green thing would have been destroyed, for their numbers were so great that the ground was alive with them, though at first only about the size of fleas. As it was, they did considerable damage to the winter wheat.

Page 146

Upon my return from Blake's, I found our best cow, or at least the one that had cost us most money, in a very bad way. She had been stuck in the mud, and was now so weak that she could not stand. She had been lying down so long that her skin was worn through in some places, and so now they had hung her to the roof of the rough temporary shed which had been erected for her, near where she had been stuck. It was close against a steep bank, which protected her from the north wind. She was suspended by sacks round her body, held up by ropes that just allowed her feet to touch the ground, though they did not take much weight. She was fearfully weak though, and after keeping her alive for some weeks by feeding her up well, she died at last as she stood.

Shortly after returning I heard that the Quinn family had left the neighbourhood. The old lady and all the children cleared out during the night, driving away with a pair of horses and a waggon, and leaving the old man behind. Two or three days after the team and waggon were returned, but nothing was ever heard of the family of eleven children and their

Page 147

mother. It was a most remarkable disappearance. I know that the old people did not agree at all well, and the children all took the mother's side, but I certainly never expected that they would decamp en masse. One day I was alone in the house with Humphrey, and came very near putting a bullet through him by accident. He was looking at one of my father's rifles, a long Enfield, which he thought was empty, and presently asked me if I could hold it out in position. "Yes, I guess I can; let's see!" said I. I tried and aimed it at him.

"Don't point it at me. Aim out of the window. Yes, that's all right. Now, let's see you cock it and pull the trigger. There is an old cap on, it won't hurt the nipple."

I pointed it out of the window, and pulled the trigger, when -bang !- there was a tremendous explosion, a smashing of glass and wood-work, and I was kicked by the recoil half across the room. The gun was not only loaded, but the muzzle was plugged up to keep out the damp. I wonder that the barrel did not burst and kill one or both of us. The plug was of cork with a brass top to it, and this was

Page 148

blown to atoms. The bullet went through the window sash frame, and the pieces of the brass smashed five panes of glass, and several were also found embedded in the wall on either side of the window and in a clock case near by. Humphrey was struck in the forehead with a piece of cork, and was very fortunate in getting nothing worse, as he was sitting near the window. It was a narrow escape for him; for, if he had not called out, I should certainly have pulled the trigger while aiming at him, and then nothing could have saved him.

This only shows again the danger of playing with fire-arms. Of course, we thought the gun empty, but evidently it had been loaded, probably by my father, when neither of us was by.

My father was a splendid shot with a rifle. I saw him once shoot at a prairie hen standing on top of a shed one hundred and fifty yards away, and cut its head off with the bullet.

During this winter the farmers set to work amongst themselves to build a school-house. A site was selected, and all set to work with a will. One or two quarried the rock, others hauled it to the spot, some of the Swedish

Page 149

fraternity dressed the stone into shape, while others dug foundations, prepared the joists, and hauled the lime and sand for the mortar I went with Samaurez to Council Grove to get lime, and on our return journey we nearly lost it and the waggon also, for we had a heavy shower of rain which might have slacked the lime and set fire to the whole lot.

We passed a waggon on our way back which had taken fire from this cause, and was being rapidly destroyed, the farmer standing by powerless. Fortunately, we had plenty of coverings with us, and by taking off our coats, too, we managed to keep the rain off the lime. The house was completed during the winter, and opened shortly afterwards; but I never got a chance to go, as I left home about the same time.

It is a very good system in a new country where cash is scarce, that of all hands combining together to do a job of this kind, as the work is done sharply; and as al] the men know each other, it is quite a friendly gathering. The roads were made in the same manner, the farmers assembling and bringing teams, ploughs, scrapers, and other tools, and

Page 150

setting to work under an overseer appointed by themselves. In this way hills are levelled, gullies filled up or bridged across with culverts, swampy places made sound, and a good road to town thus completed in a short time. The roads are supposed to be made around each square mile, but at present the settlers only make those that are really necessary to travel on; though anyone planting a hedge puts it a certain distance within his line, so that there is a strip of land on the outer edge of the section to be made good as opportunity arrives.

As I have before observed, the country is divided into square miles, -six hundred and forty acres; and it is proposed that around each of these, in course of time, there shall be a good road forty feet wide. This, when carried into effect with a good hedge on either side, will be a remarkable feature in the country.

This spirit of co-operation is practised even to the boarding of the school-teachers, or "school-marms," engaged at the school-house when built; he or she is "boarded around" amongst the neighbours week by week.

Page 151

The State is divided up in the following way by the government survey. There is a line through the middle, running north and south, and another, running east and west; and starting from here all the land is divided by straight lines into patches six miles square. Counting north and south the squares are called townships, and counting east and west they are called ranges. These squares are again divided into square miles, of course, thirty-six to a six-mile square. The square miles or sections, as they are called, are again divided as may be required by the settler.

The description of my father's land in the government title was as follows:-The west half of the south-east quarter of section four, township fourteen, range seven east. This would show its position at once on the map, irrespective of the county it was in, or of the position it occupied at the head of a creek. One would know that it was forty-two miles east of the centre, and eighty-four miles to the north.

The annexed diagram represents the township, and shows section four subdivided as it was.

Township Diagram

Page 152

Parker and Humphrey had the north-east quarter; Will Hopkins and my father the south-east quarter; Walter Woods the piece parallel to my father's, on the west; and the R signifies railroad land, H signifies land available for home-steading. X shows the land occupied by us. Township 14; or Range 7, east. (How the land is divided.) other parts were not settled, as the land was rocky and much broken up.

We were almost half-way between New York and San Francisco, as close to Fort Riley there stands a monument over the grave of an officer,

Page 153

which is in the exact geographical centre of the United States.

The land is not all available for homesteading, because for a distance of twenty miles on each side of the railway every alternate square mile belongs to the railway company. This mass of land-practically a strip of twenty miles wide and the length of the track-is given by the Government for opening up the country, and a fine reward it is too. It is by this time pretty well sold up, though when we first settled, it was all quite open, and formed good grazing land for our cattle. Beyond the twenty miles all the land was open for settlement upon payment of the small homestead fee, and here the amount of land one could take in this way was one hundred and sixty acres,-just double the size of a homestead within twenty miles of a railway.

Besides this, all over the State, there was one section in every township-that is, one out of every thirty- six square miles put aside for school purposes; its proceeds, when sold, going to the improvement of school-houses, or the payment of the "marms."

Go to Previous Chapter     Go to Next Chapter     Go to Contents