Kansas Collection Books: The Abolitionist, by George W. Schiller

Chapter 6:
Guerillas and Fire

     It was late evening when Albert signaled his crew to shut down the screaming sawmill. Since early morning they had fed huge walnut and oak logs into the saw. Great piles of sawn boards were stacked neatly in the drying kiln. As the saw slowed and stopped, Albert sent the crew to eat their evening meal and retire for the night. While he struggled with the long leather drive belt, Rufe, a giant Negro and trusted employee, arrived to give him a helping hand. Between them they changed the drive belt from the sawmill to the gristmill. Albert thanked Rufe and together they put the gristmill into operation. As was his custom, Albert operated the sawmill by daylight and the gristmill by lantern light. Since 1856, when he had first set up his sawmill and later his gristmill at the point where the Oregon Trail crossed the Black Vermillion River, he had fulfilled his dream. He was putting into practice his love for machinery and helping to establish a frontier settlement free from slavery. His next goal was to build a frame house for his family.

     Albert made several adjustments to the gristmill then opened the throttle of the powerful steam engine. The stones began to revolve, and as they gathered speed he opened the grain chute and the golden grain tumbled onto the stones. The meal ground by the stones fell into the elevator boot and was elevated into the holding bin. Rufe carried an armload of cordwood into the adjoining boiler room and fed the roaring furnace several small logs. As the ground grain filled the bin, Rufe sacked it into one-hundred-pound bags and carried them one by one into the adjacent storage shed. Albert seated himself on a stool at a small table and made entries in a logbook. A dim lantern hung overhead and swayed gently with the motion of the mill.

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     Life in the Kansas Territory in the 1850s was one of struggle and turbulence. Lawless, pro-slavery guerrilla bands roamed the countryside raiding, looting, and killing as they went. Strife and turmoil were rampant. Abolitionists, who opposed slavery as vehemently as their opponents favored it, displayed belated opposition to contest and curtail the pro-slavery proponents. After the Border Ruffians along the adjoining Missouri River had flocked to Kansas and stuffed the ballot boxes in early elections with votes to approve slavery, they sacked and burned several towns along the Kaw and Missouri Rivers, resulting in the loss of many lives. But rival factions, intent upon bringing Kansas into the Union as a free state, were equally determined to support their cause. Attempts had been made to establish a Kansas territorial government, but the U.S. Congress declared the fraudulent elections illegal. Therefore nothing was accomplished. Violent struggles continued, and the toll of death and destruction threatened the very existence of civilization in the territory. As warring factions ravaged the area, Eastern newspapers described the territory as "Bleeding Kansas."

     Albert did not believe that the Quaker philosophy of quiet submission and friendly persuasion would be effective in dealing with the outbreaks of violence. He did not shy away from defending his position of freedom for all mankind in the new territory by whatever means necessary. As his earlier reaction to the mistreated slave in Cairo proved, Albert's hot temper often overshadowed his Quaker upbringing, and the people who knew of his antislavery activities felt that his nickname "AB, the Abolitionist," fit him well.

     In the mist below the mill, three horsemen dismounted and tied their horses in a thicket of trees. They moved quietly but quickly to the open door of the mill where Albert

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sat engrossed in his bookkeeping. The rumble of the millstones muffled their footsteps and they were upon Albert before he was aware of their presence. With drawn guns and threats, they seized and bound him with ropes. As Albert called for help, a gunman struck him on the head with a pistol butt to silence him.

     Rufe, returning from the storage shed, heard the cry above the noise of the mill. Turning quickly into the mill room, he saw that one of the guerrillas had opened the firebox door and was turning to help the other two drag Albert toward the furnace.

     "Throw the stinking abolitionist in the furnace. Nobody will find him until morning," yelled the leader.

     Rufe re-entered the furnace room and seized a four-foot length of cordwood and returning to the mill room, felled the two nearest guerrillas with swift blows. The third, who had been intent on holding open the furnace door, turned and drew his gun. With another lightning blow, Rufe struck the man's arm and broke it. Seizing the man's gun, he held the guerrillas at gunpoint until Albert recovered enough to summon help. Early the next morning the three guerrillas were escorted under guard to the U.S. Army post in Leavenworth. The episode was just another in Albert 's life. He managed to survive this and other encounters that threatened his life.

     For nearly a year Albert operated the sawmill daily, turning huge trees into usable lumber which was in great demand by settlers for houses, barns and other buildings. The gristmill also ground corn into meal for members of the little community of Barrett's Mill.

     The valley was broad and flat. Summer rains were frequent, and the mill yard and surrounding area became a sea of mud. Surface water stood everywhere, and soon

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there were hordes of mosquitoes. With the insects came malaria, more commonly know as "ague." After two of their children, Winifred and Cyrus, came down with malaria, Albert and Mary decided she should take all four children back to Ohio where doctors and medicine were available. They had been living in a log cabin in conditions that were less than desirable.

     As Albert drove them east to Atchison in a covered wagon, Winifred and Cyrus, swathed in blankets, were alternately sweating and chilling. Albert was concerned about the children, but Mary assured him that she would nurse them back to good health.

     As they parted at the river docks, Albert promised Mary that he would have a new house ready for them to live in by spring. He had been sawing choice lumber for several months and drying it in a kiln. He hoped to build a dream house for the family.

     "I will miss you terribly. But the conditions on this prairie are too much for a family to endure without good shelter. Go now, and may God bless and keep you safe."

     He released Mary from a tight embrace, wiped away her tears and kissed each of his four children. After they had marched up the gangplank to the deck of the riverboat, the gangplank was raised and the boat moved slowly into the downstream current. Albert waved until they were out of sight, knowing it would be a long time before he would see his family again.

     The long days of summer found Albert pushing his crews to saw as much lumber as possible. The lumber was placed into the long, low wooden kiln, and the small, smoldering fires were kept burning night and day. Warm, smoky heat filtered through the kiln to dry the green lumber.

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     The hot days of summer gave way to cooler days and nights. By September, Indian summer had arrived on the Great Plains. The cool mornings were invigorating and inspired Albert to start the new house, the foundation of which had already been formed and put in place. One evening he gathered together the crew of helpers he would need to frame the house the next day. The smoldering fires were raked from the ends of the kiln and the covers were removed. The carpenters and journeymen sharpened their tools, and everything was ready for them to begin building. Albert reviewed the plans he had drawn, and there was an air of excitement as they retired for the night.

     Albert was jolted from a deep sleep by Rufe, who was shaking him.

     "Mister AB, better wake up now. They's a bad storm comin' in pretty fas'. Hit looks real mean out thar."

     Albert donned his clothes as he ran to the mill. Dark clouds and lightning threatened on the horizon. Wind was whipping from all directions. Lightning struck a large oak tree just behind the mill and temporarily blinded Albert and the other men who had gathered there. The wind swooped down and picked up sparks from the little fires that had been raked from the kiln. In just a few moments the dry boards inside the kiln were on fire. Albert and his crew made futile attempts to smother the flames. But they withdrew in defeat and watched as flames consumed a year's accumulation of choice lumber. There was nothing they could do to salvage the newly dried lumber that Albert had promised Mary would be used for their new house. The men spent the night pouring water on the mill building to prevent the fire from spreading to the mill itself. Although Albert was devastated, he was not defeated. He would try again.

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     The next morning Albert and his crew salvaged what they could from the wreckage, hauled away the ashes and embers and made the mill ready to saw again. The fire in the kiln had done some damage to the mill, but in a very few days, the crew had the sawmill in operation again.

     The choice trees that grew close to the mill had already been sawn into lumber. Good trees were now some distance away, requiring men to haul the logs long distances to the mill by ox team. Albert hired more help to hurry along the sawing. For several days he put off writing to Mary about the fire and the delay in getting the house built. But when he did write, he promised again to have the house ready as soon as possible. Due to the unreliable mail service, he dispatched one of his men to carry the letter to Fort Leavenworth to be forwarded by U.S. Government military mail.

     In his letter, Albert related to Mary: "I'm sorry about the fire in the kiln. It was my fault; I should have been more careful. Please try to explain to the children that it will be some time before our new house is ready. The living conditions here have not improved very much. Each day becomes a struggle just to survive. I hope the children are now well again and back in school. It gets very lonely here without you. Each day brings new settlers to our village and we are now receiving supplies weekly by ox team from Atchison. We are selling food and other supplies to the settlers through a little store I have set up near the mill. We will build a larger building to house the merchandise as soon as possible. Travel along the Oregon Trail continues to increase monthly. We have applied for a government post office and I think we will have one soon. I miss and love you all very much. Kiss the children for me and take care of them and yourself. Write to me soon."

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     Albert's crew of men labored through the fall, cutting and hauling more logs to the mill. As the choice logs were sawn into lumber, the new kiln slowly filled. Fall rains had turned the mill yard into a quagmire of mud that made any movement difficult. Albert pushed his men as much as possible to fill the kiln.

     There was a great demand from the settlers for lumber to build houses and shelter for themselves and for their livestock and equipment. Besides Albert's, the nearest sawmill was some distance away on the Big Blue River. Settlers in the area around Barrett's Mill were begging Albert for lumber. Andy Miller, a settler close by, said, "Please AB., sell me enough lumber to put a floor in my tent. My wife and our four children are walking in mud inside."

     "Sure, Andy, I'll fix you up. Drive around to the mill and we'll load up what you need."

     Andy went away with enough lumber to put a floor in his tent. In addition, he had been given a load of sawn slabs for firewood to keep his family warm. Other settlers came seeking lumber as well. In order to supply the new settlers with enough lumber for their needs, Albert put the construction of his dream house on temporary hold.

     As the weather warmed in late winter, Albert resumed sawing lumber for his house, adding to the kiln. Every precaution had been taken to prevent another fire. Due to the unexpected delays, Albert had altered his house plans to a simpler design. The stone foundation for the house required some modification, and the cut stones were rearranged to fit the new dimensions. There would be a living room, parlor and kitchen downstairs. Mary had requested a kitchen large enough for her to prepare meals for the

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family as well as for the mill crew. There would be four large bedrooms upstairs, with adequate wardrobe storage space.

     Work finally began on the house. The framework was made with oak beams, eight inches square, joined with mortise and tenon joints and secured with oak pins driven into the cross braces. The flooring was solid oak boards, and the inside walls were lathe and plaster. It was a sturdy house, built to withstand the storms that often occurred on the Plains. The window and door casements and other trim were made of black walnut. Albert planned each detail to make a beautiful home for his family.

     Issuing a rush order to finish the house, Albert set up a woodworking shop on the first floor so that the journeyman could work during cold days. He estimated the house might be ready to live in by summer, but the finish work inside would take many more months to complete. However, an unusually long winter slowed the work at the mill, and as the cold weather continued, Albert closed the sawmill and all the crew were put to work building the house.

     As spring arrived, activity at the mill resumed. By June Albert estimated the house would be ready to occupy sometime in July. So Albert wrote to Mary that she should secure passage on the riverboats and plan to arrive in St. Joseph, Missouri, as near as possible to July 15. He would meet his family in St. Joe. While there, he would purchase additional items needed to furnish the inside of the house.

     Albert left Barrett's Mill, driving a covered wagon pulled by his best team of draft horses. It was a four- or five-day trip, depending on the weather. He arrived in St. Joe two days early and shopped for the merchandise he would take back to the mill and general store. July 15 came, but his family did not. Albert waited impatiently for four

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more days, wondering where his family was and when they would arrive. He finally concluded he must go look for them, so he booked passage on a downstream riverboat.

     The next day, as he was pacing the deck in utter frustration, Albert stopped to observe an upstream riverboat passing by. Little children were playing on the deck of the passing steamer. Suddenly he heard a cry from one of the children. "Mamma, Mamma, there's my Daddy! that's my Daddy!" she cried, pointing to Albert on the downstream boat.

     Her screams caught Albert 's attention and he recognized his daughter Jane standing at the rail, pointing and screaming. He waved back and called to her, "Honey, go find your mother and tell her..."

     The other children had already run to find their mother. As the boats parted, he called, "I'll see you in St Joe."

     Mary appeared at the rail and answered, "Yes, yes! Please hurry, Albert!" Albert disembarked at the next river port, secured a horse and met his family at the dock in St. Joe. After many months nearly of separation, it was a joyous reunion.

     A week later the family arrived at Barrett's Mill, bursting with excitement and expectations about the new house. Albert explained that although the house was livable, the inside would not be finished for a while. The family was elated by the house. Daughters Jane and Winifred claimed one of the bedrooms, while William and Cyrus claimed another. It was a happy time for the family as they settled in the house that would be home for the Barrett family for the next 125 years.

     Albert was truly a contented man. He had his family with him, and they were safe and in good health. His wife, Mary, was as excited as he was about the new life they

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would be leading. He planned to spend considerable time with his family during the next months. There were several new things he wanted teach his children about growing up in a newly settled pioneer land.

     Although Albert had a strong premonition that the struggle to bring Kansas into the Union as a free state would be hard and brutal, his Quaker heritage gave him confidence that right would triumph over might. At thirty-nine years of age, Albert felt he was at the right place at the right time to be a part of destiny. Their house was now livable, but there were many more things that Albert had planned to make it truly outstanding. Much of the inside finish work had not yet been completed. Some of the rough boards required planing and sanding to bring out their beautiful appearance. Albert was adamant that the finish work be done properly, but he had little or no time to do the work himself. Neither did he have workers with the skills or the time to do the job to his satisfaction.

     Traffic along the Oregon Trail was increasing as word was passed along about the golden opportunities in the western territories. Barrett's Mill became a resting and stopping place for weary travelers. One late afternoon two young men pulled their crippled wagon close to the blacksmith shop and inquired about having it repaired. Albert visited with them and learned that they were brothers-in-law, having married sisters. Their wives had both died the same year, leaving them grieving bachelors. One was a skilled cabinetmaker, and the other had manufactured fine furniture in Illinois. They had shared their grief and had decided to try their fortunes in the new Far West.

     Not only did their wagon need repairs, but also they were tired and hungry. Albert, sensing their feelings, invited the two men to share Mary's cooking and offered them a

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place to spend a few days while their wagon was being fixed. As the two viewed the new house, they were full of praise and admiration. They made some suggestions to Albert, and the conversation led to an agreement that the men would stay and finish the inside of Albert 's dream house.

     The two brothers-in-law stayed two full years, applying their careful craftsmanship to make the Barrett house a showplace and a thing of beauty. One day the two packed up their belongings and moved on down the Trail. No one ever knew for sure why they had left or where they had gone.

     For over fifty years the Barrett house stood strong against the ravages of time, winds and floods. After AB passed away in 1900, the old house was moved nearly a mile south to higher ground by George VanVliet, his son-in-law and Walter Schiller, his grandson-in-law, in 1910. The house was then remodeled and updated. It was torn down in 1983 by one of Albert's descendants.

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