In 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the Kansas territory for settlement, many folks from back East came looking for new land and new homes. Because it was a wild, uninhabited country, the early settlers adopted the lifestyle of the Plains Indians. They became hunters and gatherers, until they were established in this new territory.
One of the first things that the early settlers looked for was a stand of hardwood timber. Groves of trees were not all that plentiful on the Kansas plains, except along the streams and rivers. These stands of timber furnished logs to build houses and barns. But, in addition, the timberlands usually contained various small game such as squirrels, rabbits, raccoon, opossum and wild turkey. The surrounding grassland contained coveys of quail and flocks of prairie chicken. There were also buffalo, deer and antelope. The changing seasons brought the migratory birds such as ducks, geese, doves and wild pigeons. Wild game was a plentiful source of food until the settlers could bring in their domesticated flocks and herds.
These wooded areas also furnished many kinds of fruits and berries to round out their diets. There were wild gooseberries and currant bushes up and down the streams, as well as blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, elderberries and choke cherries. The most abundant fruit was sand plums.
Grandpa wasn't much of a hunter, although he would occasionally join the hunters that traveled to western Kansas for antelope and buffalo. Grandma was the gatherer. Each year, in early summer, she would organize a gooseberry hunt. She would pack a huge picnic lunch, gather up all the nieces, nephews and grandchildren and journey into the timberland along the streams to look for gooseberries. Each person had a milk pail, and the one that gathered the most berries would be declared the winner for the day. The prize was an extra piece of chocolate cake and all the lemonade you could drink. We often came home with two washtubs full of gooseberries and also some wild currants.
Later in the summer we gathered wild blackberries and raspberries. The thorns were vicious and we soon learned to pick them very carefully. In the fall we picked wild grapes. That involved climbing the trees where the wild grape vines grew. That part appealed to me. Some seasons there were wild sand hill plums that Grandma made into jelly. That was, and still is, my favorite jelly.
All this fruit had to be quickly processed to preserve it. Some was canned whole, while others were made into jams, jellies or preserves. In some cases the juice was extracted to be made into jelly later. On one occasion the grape juice wasn't properly preserved. When I mentioned to Grandma that some of the half gallon jars in the fruit cellar were bubbling and leaking, she ordered it dumped out to the pigs. The hired man was given these instructions and I was sent to help him. Somehow the fermenting grape juice got into a 10 gallon stone jar where it sat for awhile. Later, Grandpa and the hired man did something else to it and that was my first taste of wine. It was pretty good, but all I got was just a small taste . . .
Hunting and gathering was a way of survival for the early settlers, but the practice continued for many years. Even today, each Christmas I receive a gift of a jar of gooseberry preserves from a good friend that lives on McDowell Creek up in Geary County. That jar of preserves makes my Christmas Day and it brings back many memories. However, I'm thankful that I can go to the grocery store and buy most any kind of jelly that I want without all the fuss and bother. The store-bought jelly is as good or better --- but it's the memories I relish.