Winter. Not just any winter, but the rip roarin' change of season only the hardy inhabitants of the Kansas prairie know. Percy learned quickly about the challenges meted out, on a daily basis, to this land and its people. By November when it was time to break up the herd, the English lad remembers slogging through sticky black mud, astride his pony, fighting to keep himself, the pony and the cows on the move, wishing for a macintosh and watching the rain spill from the tops of his water filled boots (when he was "fortunate enough have such luxuries") and swirl into the deep cold, wet mire that once had been solid ground. Memories of fishing, swimming and eating wild grapes or fat, juicy frogs legs must have been distant and blurred.
The cold, clear days of December were welcomed with great sighs of relief. Most of the cattle were returned to their respective owners and the forty or so remaining cows could be turned into the corn field to munch on stalks and fodder. Percy settled in to wait for the snow. However, Mother Nature had another idea. December didn't bring a blanket of frost but, instead, a prairie fire. Raging and whipped into a frenzy by the harsh north wind, the fire almost wiped them out. Thoughts of safety vanished as the house, built with care between northern and southern creeks, was saved only by the sacrifice of the wood pile, the great straw stack, most of the hay and wheat, the cattle corral and fencing and a portion of the stable. The cows Percy tended for three seasons had no where to stay and no food for the remaining winter. Thinking all the while of rapidly dwindling profits, hasty arrangments were made with a neighbor to keep the cows. The cost was to be a hefty one-fourth of the livestock surviving the winter. Feeling fortunate to at least have their house, the people settled, again, to wait for spring.
The remaining winter months were hungry and bleak. There was a shortage of produce and a scarcity of cash. Coffee and sugar were replaced with a drink made from roasted rye and homemade"treacle." The English made their treacle (syrup) from molasses and soon it was as much a staple for them as for their American neighbors. It liberally flavored everything from pork and beans to candy. Not that candy was on the menu. Spring couldn't arrive soon enough.
Flood and fire and near famine (little in the way of vegetables, pork for baked beans was a tiny bit of highly salted meat, almost no beef and mutton only twice in six years), Percy must have thought pestilence to be not far behind. The plague didn't make an appearance but "ague" or "the shakes" became a familiar term and in the warm weather the boys were warned against swimming in some water.
Warmer weather also brought a peculiar form of religous celebration to the banks of a river, not far from the English homestead. Again, Percy and the Methodists met and mingled and although some found glory in that week of psalm reading, sermon giving, hymn singing and hand clapping, the English boy was not among them. He found "considerable amusement," in addition to plenty of good food and drink, could be found at this odd revivalist gathering, but not much else. The camp meeting was most certainly an American phenomena.
Shortly after the parsons and elders rolled away in their wagons, word came from Junction City that grasshoppers were on the way. Percy likened them to the hoards of locust described in the Bible but there was no miracle and farmers stood by helplessly as the insects "came on slowly, like snow. A glittering cloud high in the sky and all sparkling in the sun" suddenly turned into an oppresive living net covering everything with several inches of green and brown bodies. This attack went on for days, stripping foilage until there was nothing left for the 'hoppers to eat. Still powerless, the men could only watch as the critters slowly departed, spreading devastation across the wide strech of Kansas, into Missouri, Arkansas and Texas.
The winter following was again an empty one. Inadequacy of food and provisions added to unpleasant, backbreaking work. Percy worked for an old man, chopping wood and tending cattle. He awoke at three o'clock each day after a night of trying to keep snow drifts from the chinks in the walls of his loft. Tired of this regimen and of doing a "man's work for a boy's pay" Percy decided to say good-bye. He left both full of regret, for he did like the man, and minus a barrel of walnuts. He'd gathered nutmeats from the surrounding woods in hopes of being able to sell them for a spot of extra money.
Not one to look back in anger, Percy simply went to Parkersville to rejoin his father and brother in "the timber." Not having crops to harvest because of the grasshopper infestation, the family chopped wood and hauled it into town to sell. Others were in the same predicament and it could have been a time of complete despair, but the area farmers chose to join together to build a school-house. The entire community pitched in, quarrying, hauling and dressing stone, digging foundations, preparing joists and hauling lime and sand to make mortar. Percy found this spirit of cooperation to be a good commodity in a land where money was scarce but friendliness abounded. After the school-house was completed this cooperation even extended to the school-marm. Teachers engaged by the people of the county were "boarded around" by the neighbors. School-marms spent a week with one family and then packed their things and went to stay for the next week with a neighboring family.
Percy didn't have the opportunity to attend the school. He hired out as a "herder" and said good-bye to his brother to go to work for the Crompton family. He was to work for eight dollars a month plus board and lodging. However, he included his cattle in the herd and that brought a reduction of three and a half dollars in his wages. Percy and the eldest Crompton son shared many adventures, including lost cattle, stealing melons, snakes, wild bees, a nasty fight between the Crompton brothers and a near cattle stmpede. Difficult work but not the worst months the young man spent in Kansas, and he returned to his father and brother with twenty- seven dollars in his pocket, well tended cows and big plans.
Percy and John Crompton, both wanting to further their educations, set a scheme to go to a school in Junction during the coming winter. Tuition was free. The young men found a house and arranged for John's sister to keep it for them. By not spending a cent of his six month salary, Percy had the money to live somewhat comfortably, albeit on the cheap, during the coming winter. Only one thing stood in his way. Percy's father expected half of the six month salary to be given to Jack, Percy's brother.
No justice could be found in Percy's mind, regardless of the numerous times the situation was addressed. The elder Ebutt's argument being if his son stayed home and "got up" a herd, the money would have been divided amongst the family and this was no different. Percy argued, but in vain and was forced "to shell out." He announced he would be leaving but his father did not take this threat seriously and sent him and Jack to town to sell a load of wheat. Jack was also to buy clothing and Percy, books for school. Percy saw no point to the purchase of books as he could not keep himself all winter on a mere fourteen dollars, but arose at five o'clock in the morning, hitched the team and drove the load of wheat, and his brother, seventeen rough miles to Junction. After the wheat was sold and Jack went off to have his picture made, Percy walked to the general store, bought rough clothes, crackers and a pencil. As he ate his biscuits he left the following note for Jack: "Good-bye Jack. Don't wait for me. I'm not coming home anymore." After leaving his "epistle" on the whip handle and bidding farewell to the horses, Percy wandered east, his head full with thoughts, past and future, but mostly of England.
Percy journeyed to and through Fort Riley and Manhattan, but on the road in Pottawattamie County he met a young man who was looking for a stray cow. Inquiries as to available work were made and Percy sent to the father-in-law's farm. The farm, owned by the Anderson family, was large and looked to be well run. Percy was hired for seventy-five cents a day to husk corn.
Anderson, Tom Crofter (the man on the road), a hired man named Henry and Percy worked in the fields, side by side, in the warm September sun. Throughout the fall the men shucked corn, averaging one hundred twenty five bushels each day. When the last ear was thrown into the corn crib, it was mid winter and Anderson asked Percy to stay. Working with Henry, the hired man, he tended cows, drew water and hewed wood. Time with the Anderson's was not unpleasant and soon it was spring; time to sell the corn that was piled high in the cribs.
Selling corn is a lengthy process in which the corn is transported from the cribs on the farm by wagon, weighed on a big "Fairbanks" scale and unloaded into the "immense" communal cribs in town. It was very hard work, but also had a carnival feeling as the wagons were always surrounded by the townspeople's pigs and cows rooting and vying for the stray ears, and at the end of these daily marathon corn hauling trips, Anderson would visit the local saloon. He was particularly fond of a drop of whiskey. Percy didn't imbibe so as Anderson sauntered away from the wagon, a quarter of a dollar would be tossed to the lad. This was to be spent on himself and to buy candy or crackers or apples for the Anderson children. While the children received their share, Percy also managed to save a penny or two.
It was while living with the Andersons Percy first came into contact with a Kansas "Squire." The Squire, although a farmer like most of those in Potawattamie County, also was a kind of justice of the peace. The squire and twelve neighbors were called in to settle a dispute between Anderson and one of his neighbors. The dispute involved a young filly that was part of a trade gone awry. Percy and Tom Crofter even resorted to hiding the horse in a little ramshackle log house and feeding her during the night. The matter was settled quickly, once it went to "trial," but the fact the man called "Squire" lived in a one room log house and had not much to do other than the occasional marriage ceremony and trial was a source of curiousity for Percy. He was quite taken with what he termed to be a "very off-hand and business like" marriage ceremony printed in an American paper.
Squire: Have her?
Squire: Done. One dollar.
Percy admitted this to be rather shorter than usual but considered most things acted on by the American "Squires" to be very simple.
The Andersons moved to a new farm, which was not so large, and soon Percy found himself looking for other employment. He was hired by a neighbor of the Anderson's, the Whiteman family, and packed his meager belongings once again.
The Whiteman family consisted of the parents and four daughters. In addition to Percy, there was another hired man. The Whiteman house was quite fine. It had five rooms and a verandah. There were green muslin "mosquito" blinds, a osage- orange hedge and a nice orchard. Mr. Whiteman was building a splendid stone barn and stables. It was quite the largest Percy had seen while in Kansas and he was taken with the farm and the Whiteman family. He found them to be more cultured, better educated and of a different caliber than the other farmers. Percy worked hard, as was usual in this harsh land, but took Sundays off to fish or swim or shoot and enjoyed a Fourth of July celebration, complete with "spread eagle" speeches, music, dancing, games and fireworks.
The Whitmans gave Percy the opportunity to see a more settled side of Kansas than he'd enjoyed before. There were fine horses and the family went to church on Sundays. The pond contained a variety of pan fish. And the harvest was rich. He learned what the term "cooking for thrashers" meant during the grain harvest. Great piles of food were available for the men including bucketfulls of coffee and more fried chicken and pumpkin pie than he'd seen in quite some time. The men who followed the thrashing machine were well treated, they "lived off the fat of the land."
At the end of Percy's agreed six months of employment, Mr. Whiteman paid the agreed upon salary but wanted Percy to take whatever he would in store-goods. This meant Percy took an order to the general store and then Whiteman paid the bill in corn. Percy "bought" a suit of clothes, a pair of boots and other necessaries but as he still planned on returning to England, needed as much cash as possible.
All things being square with the Whitemans, Percy left. He stopped for a few days to visit his friend from the Anderson farm, Tom Crofter, bought a silver watch, arranged passage on a ship, and went east on the train from Manhattan. Percy watched the Kansas countryside pass outside the train windows, seeing the first Anderson farm and other familiar sites. He did not stop to see his father or brother. He proceeded through Illinois, across the frozen Mississippi River, to Chicago and on to Philadelphia. Boarding the ship Pennsylvania to start "down" the Delaware River, he realized the big ship was surrounded by ice. Small ice-boats cut a sharp passage for them and within half a day Percy was on the sea for England.
The Pennsylvania was devoid of passengers, forty-odd compared with the over nine hundred on the trip from England. He was almost comfortable. The ship was stuffed with beef and butter and cheese, so with the Swiss milk and canned fruit Percy packed, Christmas dinner was pleasant. It had been some time since he'd eaten roast beef and plum pudding.
Upon his return to London, Percy jotted down some advice for those wanting to experience America in general and Kansas in particular. He reminisced with fondness and kind eyes when he spoke and wrote of his adventure on the prairie. He invited others to partake of the Kansas he knew. He assured friends and acquaintances he would return in a minute if he found he could not longer earn a living in England. Kansas, even with her rain and snow, mud and dust, grasshoppers and snakes, was a good friend.
Make up your mind to rough it. This includes sleeping on a board, without a pillow, indoors or out.
All in all, not bad advice even for the twentieth century. Thank you, Percy.
About the author, Susan Chaffin:
"I live in Woodbury Connecticut, a town where there are more antique stores than markets, with my husband (Chris) and two labrador retrievers (Moose & Casey). We also share the land with white tail deer, wild turkey, geese, racoons, fox, coyote and a variety of brightly colored birds.We have two grown children, Sean, who is a chef, and Erin, who is a junior in college. My undergrad work was in philosophy and English but I discovered history about 10 years ago and it has developed into a passion. I also love food (cooking and eating and talking about). Although I am researching a book on early women river guides and about to publish a workbook on writing personal and family history, I hadn't thought about combining food and writing and history until 'the other Susan' [the Voices editor] mentioned it. And what fun this has been! The recipies are all from my Kansas family: my mother Ruth Frisbie Hedrick (who just turned 85), my great aunt, Florence Cook Mamie Smith, and my great uncle, Bill Curth."
Editor's note: When I asked Susan to provide some information about herself, she suggested hopefully, "She's tall ... she's thin ... she can eat anything and never gains an ounce ...."!