Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas on the prairie

Western Kansas is for the most part undulating prairies whose soil was formed thousands of years ago by the slow erosion from rain and wind of the Rocky Mountains to the east.

The Pawnee River flows through the area for 200 miles before it joins the larger Arkansas River. Small creeks, Buckner Creek and Saw Log Creek, in turn, feed the Pawnee, and in wet years the water is abundant. A thin line of timber forms along the banks of the river and creek, the principal variety of trees being ash, oak, sycamore, cottonwood, box-elder and hackberry. The bottom lands that can be farmed constitute about one-tenth of the prairie, the rest consists of hard limestone and the soft sand that is the result of the wind-blown erosion.

The climate is healthful, even invigorating, but it can be harsh. In wet years, the rains grow the crops and water the cattle, but in dry years, the crops fail and the cattle go thirsty.

Chistmas on the prairie

The following excerpt about Christmas on the prairie is by Kate Thompson Gilmore Bowen (1853-1928). It was written in December of 1925 to the Jetmore, Kansas "Republican," a newspaper still in print. The county was organized in 1879 and by 1885 had a population of 1,779. Jetmore, the county seat, can be found a bit north of Dodge City.    
Dear Republican,

...[Reading the Republican] sent me to thinking of a Christmas tree and entertainment I participated in when the settlers were all new and most of them poor. There was not an evergreen tree within a hundred miles that I knew of!

We had moved to Hodgeman Co Ks in the spring of 1885 and brought a family of five little girls. As Christmas of 1886 drew near, we realized we had brought them away from many things they had always enjoyed at that season of the year. We realized it was up to us to find the best substitute we could.

The first district school had begun that fall in the little school house - which was of sod. Our little town had a good little Sunday School every Sunday and preaching every two weeks. Mr. Reed was our superintendent and it was a union school. All the families met there to plan for a Christmas tree and entertainment. We counted our pennies and sent Mr. Will Burns to Dodge City with our money and a list of oranges, candy, green tissue paper (as near the shade of evergreen as he could find).

We chopped down a good sized hack berry tree - its top reached the ceiling- and cut the green paper in long strips half a finger length and fringed each strip as deep as possible, leaving only a plain margin to wrap around the bare limbs of the tree. We wrapped the whole tree and you, who did not see it, have no idea how pretty it looked. Popcorn was strung with needle and thread and festooned around it and oranges fastened on and dozens of little pink mosquito netting bags filled with candy and hazel nuts and a pretty red apple for each pupil (the later contributed by families who had had them sent from Nebraska) with an occasional tin horn, picture book and the little school house lighted by the biggest and best lamps the country side afforded.

I want to tell you it was a pretty sight.

We had a really fine program. One especially fine program comes to my mind, which some of you will remember called "Little Grandpa and Grandma Blackeyes". Little Jimmie Henderson and Little Effie Meyers took the parts and I can see them yet. Each with their sparkling black eyes and dressed for the part, and a little pupil stood between them to recite the piece.

In all of the county, there two cottage organs, our own and the Leeper’s. We put ours in the wagon and took it to the school house. Ella Leeper played nicely and she was our organist and the songs were the fine old Christmas hymns "Joy to the World" "Low in a Manger", and "Merry, Merry Chiming Bells", and many others that for generations have rung out in the Christmas air and cheered the hearts of God'd people.

The little school house was crowded and without even standing room. Many were there that had never seen a Christmas tree and many were carried back to their childhood and younger days in their old homes back East.

Tender memories were awakened long dormant and as we separated that night and rode home under the lovely Christmas stars that seemed to me to always shine brighter in the clear Kansas night we all felt the solemn influence of our Christmas entertainment.

Changes came to many of us before another Christmas.

My dear husband did not live to see the summer and sleeps the long slumber on the hillside of our ranch. And I and my little family had gone East and left forever the lovely rolling prairies with the beautiful sunrise and sun sets and the pure wholesome air, and those dear neighbors.

These and many many more thoughts of 39 years ago.
The original letter is available online. Kate Bowen married Jasper Clay Bowen in 1871. She was 33 at the time she wrote the letter, her oldest daughter was 14 and her youngest two. The letter was contributed to The Kansas Collection by Nancy Hampton Attey, the great granddaughter of the author.

Settlers began to arrive in Hodgeman County in 1877. With the Timber Culture Act of 1873, they were granted an additional 160 acres of land when they planted at least 40 acres of trees over a period of several years, allowing homestead claims of 320 acres. Schools always followed the settlers. The one in the following story was sod because of the absence of timber on the western prairies.

The numerous crop failures are evidence of the difficult life in Hodgeman County. The first sowing of wheat was cut short by hail. Then three good years followed with an interruption of a drought in the fall of 1878, before the failure of the spring crop in 1879. The settlers managed to get by on less than a housand milk cows with a small crop of sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, pumpkins, squashes and melons. A summer crop of millet, broom corn, rice corn and millet succeeded in but half of the county. In the fall and spring of 1880 the wheat crop failed.

And so we are reminded, the real things in life have not changed. It is important to make the most of what we have and be happy with simple pleasures and to share those with family and friends.

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