"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, September 14, 2018

Talking About the Homestead

Map of the Family Homesteads and Surrounding Area ~ 1890s
Sketched out in the 1940s by Wayne Wallace Lindsey (1889 - 1951)

Madrid, Perkins County, Nebraska

Detail of Perkins County ~ Grant = County Seat

In 1887 my great-grandparents (my mother's paternal grandparents), James Sankey Lindsey and Sarah Elisabeth Hartman Lindsey, headed west from Ohio to settle a homestead in Perkins County, Nebraska, taking along their three children: Mabel (b 1880 in Ohio), Jim (b 1883 in Ohio), and Nellie (b 1887, along the way, in Illinois). During their years in Nebraska, three more children were born: Wayne (b 1889), Beatrice (b 1891) and Sam (b 1893). My grandfather Paul (b 1895 in Oklahoma) and his two younger sisters Virginia (b 1897 in Kansas) and Gail (b 1899 in Kansas) were born after the family gave up the homestead claim and returned to Kansas.

Sometime in the 1940s, my grandfather's brother Wayne sketched out the above map, recalling all of the homesteading families who lived near them in Madrid, Nebraska (in the 1890s). The two Hartman - Lindsey homesteads are near the middle: "Grand Pa" (Sarah's father, Charles Gordon Hartman) marked with an "X" and "H sted" marked with an X (James & Sarah's place). Another "X" on the "Road from Madrid" marks the "School where mother taught" (Mother = Sarah Elisabeth Hartman Lindsey). If you look at the right hand column listing all the other families, you can see at the very top of the list is another school -- maybe "Rucker" School. Going south from there, the families seem to be: Williams, Randall, Simon, Janes, Bauer, Kegras, Cutler; to the west are Olesons, two unnamed farms, and Kenaugh; and further west on the "Road from Madrid" is Sam Culver.

It was the adventure of a lifetime, but it was also a tough, harsh time, filled with adversity, frustration, and loss. Saddest of all was the death of 4 1/2 - year - old Nellie in 1891, when she fell from a horse. Yet somehow my Great - Grandmother Sarah persisted, caring for the other children, teaching school, and maintaining connections with relatives back East.

Sarah's account of the devastating drought reads like a testimomial in a history book (for additional narratives, see The Great West, p 424; and "Drought and Depression in 1890s Nebraska").

On July 30, 1893, she wrote to her niece in Ohio:
We have had the worst drought this summer that we have ever had. We have always had what we call our spring rains, until this year we had none until the first of June we had a thunder shower [which knocked James unconscious!], and two light showers since . . . . This is the first spring without some early garden vegetables. Even 3 years ago when we suffered so from drought we had early vegetables, but later ones such as beans, peas and beets, etc. did not grow. But this year we have not had any of any description -- nor a bite of fruit. Our wheat was blown out entirely by the severe spring winds and the drought has burned up the corn. It is general too, and the coming winter will be the worst that the homesteaders of this county have ever known.

I see by the papers that the governor of Kansas has called an extra session of the Legislature to afford relief to the drought stricken farmers in the western half of the state, immediately south of us.

Well, as a result of this succession of crop failures, Jimmie [her husband James] has at length concluded to take your advice and go where he can gain something for his labor but he cannot go until his time on the homestead expires, which will be a year and a half yet.

Thus far our experience in this country: a good year follows a general drought and invariably a great many eastern people who have heard of the rich land. So long as the poor fools will come and will have the land, we hope to dispose of ours so that we will not lose everything by this dearly bought experience. It had to be experience with us too for we thought it was a grand country, and have laughed at folks for moving away. People cannot live on a crop once in 3 years. That is the average -- as we have found it, but we kept on hoping that the rainbelt would be extended and we would have rain more regularly. . . . The effects of the rainfall we do have are carried away by the constant winds. I have not kept account but I don't believe we have had a dozen days this last five months without strong winds all day long -- sometimes ceasing at nightfall but renewing their energies with the sunrise.

People are deceived by the appearance of the country and the occasional good crops. A very wealthy gentleman from Philadelphia has purchased hundreds of acres of land north of Madrid and has been at great expense to have it plowed this summer. Another from the central part of this state has done the same. Had we the amount of moisture required to grow vegetation, never was there a more fertile country; but we are so far from any stream that it is impossible to irrigate it. The winds are very destructive and disagreeable, once the sandy soil is cultivated the wind blows it in great clouds across the country almost blinding the people and filling the houses with dust. This is what we call a sandstorm. It blows the pig pens full of sand like drifts of snow so that the pigs can walk out over the top of the pen.

. . . We don't know where we'll go but we will certainly go -- if we live -- as soon as we can dispose of our claims.
[Letter to be continued next time . . . ]

As the historians will tell you, immigration to Nebraska slowed to a halt in these years and thousands of covered wagons (18,000 of them in 1891 alone) reversed their westward path and returned to friendlier climes. In 1895, three of these wagons belonged to James and Sarah, who was expecting my grandfather at the time.
In his autobiography, my grandfather writes:
I was born in a covered wagon in the fall of 1895 in Choctaw Indiana Territory near Stigler, Oklahoma. My father left Perkins County, Nebraska, two months before I was born, with his family in three wagons outfitted for sleeping, and with 30-some loose horses He was headed for Arkansas and intended to trade horses for land.

They came through Caney, Kansas, and on southeast when they had to halt for my birth.

By this time they were all chilling. Everyone was full of ague [malarial fever] from drinking water out of creeks. They saw graves being dug in every graveyard they passed, so decided to come back north.

The country around Caney had appealed to them so they came back thus way and traded horses for eighty acres of land in the Sand Hills of Cascade Community, immediately west of Caney.

By the time they got settled they had been on the road and in camp one year, I was ten months old when we stopped one - half mile west of Cascade Schoolhouse."
Paul Jones Lindsey (1895 - 1983)


Here I am with my grandfather in 1981,
around the time that he jotted down the above
story of his childhood and recounted several
hours of oral history that my kind husband Gerry
has painstakingly transcribed from cassette tapes
to digital files for safekeeping.

When I encountered the following poem in Plainsongs -- appropriately, a literary magazine from the Great Plains of Nebraska -- I felt the truth of my ancestors' homesteading experience:
This Is Not the Farm I Talk About
When I Talk About the Farm

Show me a vase of daisies,
and I will turn over dirt, point
to chopped root of thistle
pulled the day before.

All summer
I filled the back of her truck
with purple flowers
then set the field on fire.

If you squint, you won't see
sweat or prickled skin or the way
we curled away at night
from the brown recluse
that paced our headboard,
from a loaded revolver,
from spirits of animals stretched
and pinned to the wall -- for protection
or company, I don't know,
we were very alone.

Sometimes I heard wheelbarrows
bumping over rocks, saw horses
running in the two - by - fours
we'd used to build the barn. Or, if not
horses, someone's face missing
half its nose, a small child
rocking. A splinter of wood
was a gash of cloud,
and it all meant something.

The chicks are learning to pluck
maggots from a steaming pile of straw.
It is winter,and you can warm your feet
to burning on last week's shit
stomped flat between two trees.

Genevieve N. Williams
Contemporary American Poet ~ Nebraska & Iowa
Associate Editor Dwight Marsh explains that "This poem is an anti - pastoral, a tradition with a distinguished history, probably as old as the pastoral itself. The pastoral idealized country life where the only problems were indifferent maidens and calluses on finger tips from strumming lutes. . . . But debunking the myth of idyllic country life is wide spread. . . .

"'This Is Not the Farm . . . ' enumerates some brute realities of rural life: thistles, fires, spiders, sweat, armaments, predators, injury, splinters, the rawness of the life cycle of ingestion and excretion in a range of animals . . . . The poem is a bitter lament for the hard life of farming, in terse forceful images and language

Plainsongs, Vol XXXV, #3, pp 2 - 3
Spring 2015, 35th Anniversary Issue

In one of those remarkable literary coincidences that I love writing about on this blog, I was recently thumbing through one of my old notebooks of saved poetry from 1984. One of my favorites that year was "The Drama Critic Warns of Cliches" by Evan Zimroth, photocopied from Poetry magazine (April 1984). In all these thirty - four years, I can't recall ever having stopped to read the poem on the facing page until that day last month:

Once, on the last ice-hauling,
the sled went through the surface
of the frozen pond,
pulling the son under
the thrashing hooves
of horses. Listening for him

after all her tears was perhaps
what drew the mother
into that silence. Long afternoons
she sat with the daughter,
speaking in the sign language
they invented together,
going deaf to the world.

How, exactly, did they touch
their mouths? What was the thought
of the old man on the porch
growing so drunk by nightfall
he could not hear
mosquitoes in his ears?

There is so much no one remembers
about the farm where sound,
even the bawling of the unmilked cows,
came to a stop. Even the man’s name,

which neighbors must have spoken
passing by in twilight, on their way
to forgetting it forever.

Wesley McNair
Contemporary American Poet, New Hampshire & Maine
In a radio interview with McNair, Mary Kuechenmeister observes that "Drawing from his personal experiences, McNair's poetry is emblematic of both family and economic hardships, and New England living." For example, McNair recalls the time during his childhood when his stepfather "began building a garage, which we lived in for many years, actually, while he got the wherewithal to start a house. So this garage was probably one of the most forlorn family homes in existence."

In "Mute," McNair memorializes the bleak reality of rural farming, the untimely loss of life, the relentless elements, and the inevitability of nature. If the farm itself grows mute, then we must talk -- and write -- about it for its own sake and for our own. Although from different parts of the country, both Wesley McNair and Genevieve Williams insist on the anti - pastoral rather than the cozy romantic Home on the Range. Their poems bear witness to the lived reality of my great - grandparents, to the persistence and stamina required of them in their search for a homestead and a home.

"Barber ~ Shop ~ W. W. Lindsey"
One of my Great - Uncle Wayne's Barbershops

Some of my second cousins: Dick, Katheryn (top left)
Marilee, Joyce, Jeannie (front row) Fitzwater
Wish I could name the other two, but alas I cannot!
Nor do I know the exact location of the shop but know
that Wayne had shops in Chautauqua, Elgin, Havana, Peru
~ all in Southeast Kansas ~
and that in one of them, he shaved Emmett Dalton!

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, September 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

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