George Streynsham Master.

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stalks attain a size and height which give
them a resemblance to young forests of
hickory, and the men with plows look lost
among them ; and as for the ultimate yield
in ears and bushels, is it not proclaimed
everywhere in those graphic and seductive
land advertisements which tell how Kansas
was ten years ago the twenty-fourth state in
the production of com, and is now surpassed
by only three of all the thirty-eight ? The
small cost and labor of tilling is doubtless
the chief inciting cause of this extensive
recourse to a crop which, however boun-
teous it may be, offers but slender profit
unless fed to live stock; but I suspect it is
a crop that also has special favor with
firontier people — ^perhaps without their ex-
actly realizing the preference — ^because of
the resolute, imperious, army-with-banners
method it has of possessing and holding
the country. For com is by nature aggres-
sive and determined* The smaller grains
feel their way timidly in a primitive soil, and
the aboriginal verdure disputes every inch
of progress with them. But where this
autocrat of the cereals takes root it scorns
rivalry, and its sway is complete and endur-
ing. And so these leagues upon leagues of
Kansas com, seen in the summer and in their
glory of silked and tasseled and sunlit
strength, convey a signally striking impres-
sion. They do not merely cling to the earth,
but they seize it and make it their own;
you know that those dense and advancing
ranks can never be stayed, never tumed
back; and somehow the vast expanse of
unconquered prairie yet spread out before
them and all about them — ten acres to each
one acre of theirs — seems overawed and
contracted by their masterful influence. It
"» "**imam wood come to Dunsinane.



The business of wheat-culture in Kansas
is of leading importance, also, and espe-
cially picturesque. In the exclusive wheat
districts, there are no fences, and the dif-
ferent fields are divided only by wagon-
trails or little belts of furrowed earth similar
to the border-lines of a map ; and the fields
embrace many hundreds, frequently more
than a thousand, of acres, whole townships
at times looking to be single farms. Stand-
ing in June upon a spot of elevated prairie
near Abilene, for instance, you can view a
tawny zone of waving, swaying wheat, five
miles in breadth and over thirty miles long,
with the Kansas River running midway
through it (more like a shadow than a
reality), and the incalculable uplands rising
firom it on either side, and faUing away in
gentle swells and curves to the distant
horizon. The immensity of it, the strange
billowy motion, the sorcery of color whidi
designates the various stages of ripening, go
to the making of a scene not easily for-
gotten. And less than fifteen years ago
this was all a desolate and unblest extent
of buffalo-grass, set down by the ironical
geographers as a desert. It seems past
belief; and yet the yellow, flexuous wonder
is duplicated again and again, with slightly
varying circumstances, through twenty
counties, and compasses at last an aggre-
gate of about two million acres.

The harvesting of these extensive areas
of wheat presents a picture of unique and
fascinating interest. The pastoral old
"cradling" process is here superseded by
an epic; the plentiful reaping-machines, with
their glare of paint and bumished steel
and their great overwhelming " reels," have
a kind of Homeric character. There are
probably a score of these machines in sight
at one time; first the ordinary, original
reaper, which leaves the wheat lying behind
it in a swath, like mown hay ; next the self-
raker, which drops it in convenient little
bunches, ready for binding ; then the header,
which clips off only the tips of the stems,
emptying them into a large, imcouth box on
an attendant wagon; and finally the self-
binder, that perfection of farm machinery,
that ghostly marvel of a thing, with the sin-
gle sinister arm, tossing the finished sheaves
from it in such a nervous, spiteful, feminine
style. (I wonder what Solomon would have
thought of the self-binder ?) How rapidly
and how deftly the keen sickles cut their way,
and what straight, smooth openings they effect
through the close and clinging stalks ! Every-
where is eagerness, energy, urgent action.



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tor time is precious and foul weather may
intervene ; but how methodical it all is, nev-
ertheless, and how small is the measure of
wasted power! Each stroke counts; each
step is a triumph. The fields change like
shiftings of scenery in a pantomime. There
are unexpected new lights and shades;
boundary lines are abruptly transposed and
confiised; the landscape is momently made
alien. Ainong the glistening stubble rise
numberless shocks and bulging stacks; a
steam threshing-machine is suddenly dis-
closed, half hidden in profuse and buoyant
flakes of straw; and, if you look closely,
you will discover that plowmg and harrowing
for another crop have begim m places where
the harvesting is barely completed.

Those sin^ar huts, made of rough pine
boards, with canvas awnings, which you
notice now and then, were set up yesterday,
pediaps, and will be taken down to-morrow.
They are the quarters of the men engaged
in the harvesting, and very odd places they
are, with their rude beds of straw, their
long, narrow dining-tables, their clatter of
dishes, their ludicrous mimicry of towels,
combs, and looking-glasses. The harvesters
out here, you soon learn, go in squads or
companies, carrying their camp equipage
with them from place to place, and boaxxling
and lodging themselves. The owner of the
wheat simply pays a stipulated price per
acre for the harvesting, and is relieved of
all the vexation and inconvenience of that
sorest test of agricultural piety, the hiring
and taking care of harvest hands. In many
cases, he does not reside upon the land at
all, but has his home in the adjacent town,
where he probably also operates a grain-de-
vator, or holds a county office. The thresh-
ing is largely done upon the same plan, and
sometimes the plowing and seeding as well.
The smaller fanners secure all these advan-
tages readily by clubbing together; so that
only those who are remote from the settle-
ments need to own reaping-machines or to
do their own harvesting. Thus, one chief
branch of farming — and the most remuner-
ative one, when well managed — is shorn of
the worst of its traditional toil and difficulty,
and the result is seen in the significant fact
that, in the last three years, Kansas has pro-
gressed from the eighth rank to the very
foremost one, as a wheat-producing state,
her crop for 1878 exceeding thirty millions
of bushels, or about one-twelflh of all the
wheat raised in the United States.

One noticeable feature of the wheat dis-
tricts — the discarding of fences, namely —



is prevalent in most of the new counties,
and not a few of the older ones, also, each
county being authorized, by an act of the
legislature, to settle the matter for itself.
Upon the score of economy, the plan is
manifestly a good one (statistics show that
the cost of fences always exceeds the value
of the live stock fenced against) ; and in
the matter of appearance, a fenceless farm
has much to commend it over a fenced one.
Certainly, an utter absence of fencing is
preferable to the staked-and-ridered rail ab-
surdity which disfigures the natural scenery
of some states, or to the insidious barbed-
wire af&ir which a blunted public conscience
permits in other localities. A neighborhood
of farms divided from each other merely by
a S3rstem of right-angled road-ways has a
cheerful, confident, and hospitable look, and
gives an impression that the people must be
on cordial and trusting terms; where every-
thing is left out-of-doors, as it were, suspi-
cion of one's neighbors becomes a sort of
self-reproach. There is a leaven of genuine,
unspoiled veracity in such an outright renun-
ciation of the main artifice by which man
ordinarily asserts his sway over the earth ;
and it goes without saying that a pe6ple can-
not be lacking in self-respect who keep their
hogs fix)m running at large. I am not sure
but this fence question has a rudimentary
relation to human nature, like original sin.
They think so in Kansas, at least, where
they will tell you that man is bom either for
or against the herd-law.

It was reserved for a quaint and tmimag-
inative class of settlers from over the sea —
the Russian Mennonites — to supplement the
herd-law in Kansas with still another pict-
uresque and excellent thing, to wit : the fann
village, — an expedient' by which the farmer
secures all the benefits of society without
sacrificing any of the utilities of life in the
country. The Mennonite village is simply
a single long, straight street, with houses on
one side of it, twenty to sbcty rods apart,
and farms radiating from it in all directions;
instead of twenty families (or more, as it
may happen) who own twenty adjoming
subdivisions of land living upon twenty
aloof and separate estates, they establish
their homes in a cluster at the center of the
entire tract, where they have also a church,
a school-house, a post-office, a blacksmith's
shop, and sometimes a store and a grain
warehouse. The buildings are, as a rule, of
almost uniform size and appearance. The
sides rise slopingly from the earth, like a
wedge-tent, and are thatched with hay; the



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ends are about eight feet high, and of home-
made black bricks ; in the middle of the room
is a curiously swelled and tapered brick fur-
nace, for heating purposes, in which straw
is used for fuel ; m the rear, a door opens
into the stable where the cows and horses
are kept The church and the school-house,
and perhaps the residence of the " head
man " of the community, are in imitation of
the usual Kansas framed pattern, and made
of pine, accented at times by a coat of red
paint, with a modulation of deep green for
the solid board window-shutters. Each
dwelling has its liberal front yard facing the
street, encircled by young trees, and filled with
primeval and flashy flowers ; and not far ofl*
is the inevitable water-melon patch; for next,
perhaps, to its unquestioning faith in baptism,
the Mennonite heart hugs the water-melon
above all things. The names of the villages,
unlike the hap-hazard nomenclature of Amer-
ican towns, always have some distinct and
suggestive meaning, as Ganadenau (place of
grace), Bruderthal (vale of brothers), Hoff"-
nungsthal (vale of hope), and so on ; Hofi*-
nungsthal, by a touching appropriateness,
designates the homes of the poorest of the
colonists. There are ten thousand of the
Mennonites in Kansas, and they own in all
a hundred and fifty thousand acres of land ;
so you come upon these fantastic villages
quite firequentiy in traveling over the new
counties. The architecture is gradually im-
proving, too, as the latter-day devices of car-
pentry are slowly learned and accepted;
and in course of time, no doubt, the houses
will all be as big and snug as the " head
man's"; and new stables will be built, a
little farther away from the family parlor;
and the front yards will become bright plots
of blue-grass, with here and there an ever-
green ; and over the long, broad street, now
so raw and so practical, the cotton-woods,
growing in a thrifty row outside the gates,
will throw a grateful and inviting shade.

As a contrast to the Mennonite village,
nothing could be more marked than the
random cabins of the "homesteaders."
Miles apart they frequentiy are, as if trying
to avoid one another; but in the aggregate
there are very many of them (two thousand
or more of them must have been built in
Kansas during the last year alone), and
they represent what is perhaps the most
vivid and eventful, though the most fleeting,
phase of Kansas farming. The homesteaders,
you are to understand, are the pioneers of
slender means, taking advantage of the
beneficent law which gives a man (or



woman, if she be the head of a family) a
home upon the public domain at the simple
price of occupying and cultivating it for a
term of years — and meanwhile it cannot be
taken from him for any outstanding debts.
The majority of them were soldiers during
the late war, and they are therefore brave,
self-reliant and fertile in expedients; and
they have, besides, that gift of good spirits
which is more than gold in any scheme of
life. Their farms are small, comparatively
speaking, and their homes too often mere
places to eat and sleep ; they have but few
farming tools, and those of the rudest kinds ;
and in many cases their household furniture
is entirely of their own clumsy manufacture.
But they neither croak nor mope. They
will all tell you they are " making it" steadily
and surely; and some of their stories of what
"making it" signifies out here are richly
curious and impressive. One in particular
I recall, which may fitly stand, in all essen-
tial respects, for tlie general average of them.
It was related to me last October, in a
cheery, half jocular mood, as I sat at dinner
in the cabin of the narrator of it, a man who .
had carried a musket at Shiloh and Chicka-
mauga, and been a color-bearer in the
achievement of that milky-way of fisime,
Sherman's march from Atlanta to the sea.

"When I settled on my claim, three
year ago last spring,'* the homesteader be-
gan, " and got the shanty built, I had just
eight dollars and sixty cents left, and a sack
o' flour ; that was all, except a few dried
apples Sarah had brought in the box with
the dishes and bed-covers. We had no
stove, and so we dug a hole in the ground to
cook in; we hadn't any bedstead either,
and I fixed up some bunks out of barrel-
staves, like we used to do in the army, you
know. Our nighest neighbor then was four
mile ofif; when it was cloudy we couldn't see
the house at all. We got along, though,
and I broke twenty acres of sod and planted
it in com and garden-stufil Then we had
to wait for things to grow. The commissary
stores dwindled mighty low toward the
last, I tell you, but we stuck it out one way
an' another till the lettuce and the first
onions come — and one day I shot an ante-
lope : I don't believe fresh meat ever tasted
better than that did, not exceptin' secesh
chickens. Then, finally, the roastin' ears
got fit to pull, and when the com hard-
ened a little more, we grated it off on an old
saw we had, and that way made meal. And
all the time we'd be plannin' what we'd do
next year. I think that helped a good deal



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to keep us in heart; ifs a lucky knack in
anybody ; when a man quits lookin' ahead
I wouldn't give shucks for him. We didn't
weaken once, did we, Sarah ? "

"No, Dick," answered the wife, — a bright-
eyed little body, with a flush of rose in her
tanned cheeks, — ^** we didn't, not even when
your tobacco gave out ; " and an insinuating
smile lurked about her mouth.

"Well, that was tough," he returned;
" if an3rthing will make a man lose his gripe,
it's takin' his tobacco away from him. But
we had the fiddle left, Sarah. You wont
believe it, sir, but actually I used to sit out
on the grass in the moonhght, and play that
fiddle for hours at a stretch,— -dancin' tunes,
mind you, — and I know it made me feel
good, and made Sarah fed good, too, and
die children. It don't take so everlastin'
much to make folks feel good as you might



Did yoiu: crop turn out well ? " I in-
quired.

"Tiptop, for sod-corn. That was what
carried us through the winter,^-a fiiendly,
open winter it was, — and the next spring I
dickered for a cow and some shoats, and
bought me a sulky-plow, and put in forty
acres of com ; and that year's crop set me
square on my feet. Since then, we've made
it right along. Last year, I had twelve
hundred bushels of com to sell, and two
steers, besides poric enough to pay for our
winter's groceries. I count myself worth
to-day at least two thousand dollars, with a
good prospect; and this in less than four
year, with next to nothin' for a start. But
a man ought to have as much as three
hundred dollars to begin with on a home-
stead claim ; then he's aU right, and he can
make it every time, if he's got the sand to
stick to it, and aint lazy. The worst of it,
though, is the bein' so cut off from other
folks. Taint nigh so bad now as it used to
be, setders are comin' in so much faster.
It's wearin' on women, 'specially; men
don't mind it so much after a while; but
women — ^women are queer, you know."

" And do you still long for the old life
back in Ohio? " I said, turning to the wife.

** No," she replied, with a shade of pathos
in her face and in her voice, — ^**no, not now
— not since the baby died, and we buried it
out there in the garden. That was the sor-
riest time of all The grave was so little
and pitiful, and the prairie widened out
firom it so for; I hadn't ever mistmsted
before how big the prairie was. And it
seemed wicked like, too, not to have any



funeral. But after it was all over, I felt
more settled and at home, you may say,
and since that I've never once thought I'd
care to live anywhere else in the world."
She paused in a meditative way, and pres-
ently she added : " I'm always glad, though,
when the grass comes in the spring to cover
up the grave and make it look less like it
did that winter day of the buryin'."

An entirely new and noteworthy phase
has been recently given to homestead set-
tlement in Kansas by the exodus of freed-
men fix>m the Southern states. The colored
homesteaders, unlike their white congeners,
seem averse to the remote and single-handed
theory of farm-making, — perhaps from a
lack of individuality of character, perhaps
because the stress of necessity teaches them
a laudable caution; and so you will find
them located in littie clusters of a dozen or
more families, and sharing the use of one
another's houses, teams and farming uten-
sils. Sometimes there will be but one span
of horses or yoke of oxen, and only one
plow and one harrow, in the neighborhood,
owned in common, usually, and employed
a day at a time by different members of the
commimity. Such a system of agriculture
has evident and serious drawbacks ; but the
personal spirit of it is admirable and charac-
teristic, and goes to show that all the weight
and bitterness of slavery was not equal to
crushing out, but more likely increased, the
mutual S3rmpathy and brotherly kindness of
the enslaved. Their dwellings, as a rule,
are of the mdest construction, mere emp-
tions of miscellaneous boards, most of them
without floors or windows, and seamed with
glaring cracks; but you will also see now
and then a comfortable cabin of stone, with
paneled door, some fruit-trees in the yard,
and a tender attempt at hoUyhocks and
cypress-vines ; and you cannot help hoping
and reasoning that these occasional cabins
indicate triumphs of toil and fortitude pos-
sible to the humblest who dwell in sight of
them. For obvious reasons, the " claims "
are small, few of them exceeding forty
acres ; the fi-eedman, however, betrays little
ambition for a big farm, even under favor-
ing circumstances, and appears mainly
anxious to make sure only of so much land
as he can till with his own hands. To get a
home, however simple, which he can call
his own, and to secure a living for himself
and family, fills his conception of ultimate
jubilee.

For a people whose lives have been so
bankrupt m domestic ties and opportunities.



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PICTURESQUE FEATURES OF KANSAS FARMING,



these colored emigrants are wonderfully
tenacious of the idea of home and owner-
ship of the soil. It is not too much to
assert, I think, that the real guiding motive
of the exodus lies in this strong desire to
achieve homes : it is as though a deep and
masteriul instinct of the race, repressed by
long-continued and compulsory gypsying,
had suddenly re-asserted itself with the force
of inspiration. They will tell you moving
stories, to be sure, of political and physical
oppression endured at the South since the
war, and some among them will declare
with set teeth that they ca:j)e North solely
to escape these perils. But you will find
the large majority of them saying that the
one supreme cause of their migration is this
consuming aspiration for a home, and a
little patch of ground, with a chance to earn
food and clothing, and educate their chil-
dren ; and this, mey have come to believe,
can easiest and most surely be reached
where there are public lands, fi«e schools,
and a moral atmosphere, imtainted by lin-
gering influences of the old slave days.
Their preference for Kansas over other
Northern states appears to be very much
a matter of sentiment, though possibly a
species of introspective advertising peculiar
to this best-advertised state in the Union
has had some effect also. They recollect
that Kansas was the home of John Brown,
and that makes it consecrated territory to
them, for the fi-eedmen reverence the mem-
ory of the grim and spectral old captain
above that of any other man in history, not
excepting Lincoln ; and so when they turn
their faces northward, they seek Kansas
through a feeling which to susceptible and
imaginative minds like theirs is in some
sense a superstition.

There are now (October, 1879) probably
ten thousand of these people in Kansas,
three-fourths of whom arrived during the
past twelve months. They have made half
a dozen or more settlements in as many of
the fi-ontier coimties, and have procured and
begun to improve three or four thousand
acres of land; and all things considered,
they have perhaps done as well so far as
could have been reasonably anticipated.
The climate, soil, crops and mode of life
are all new to them ; but they adapt them-
selves to their novel environment with less
difficulty than one would suppose, and
few of them manifest any disposition to
retrace their steps. The exodus, however,
is still an unsolved problem. It yet remains
to be proved if this singular and pathetic



movement has in it enough of logic, and
courage, and patience, and the enthusiasm
of common sense, to make it a success.
The burdens and sacrifices of founding
homes in a new country, even on the part
of those to such manner bom and bred,
have ever been heavy and exhausting, and
these unaccustomed pilgrims must, from the
nature of the case, expect to meet more
than the usual obstacles. The result will
depend, after all, upon themselves. Their
chief hindrance, their irony of fortune, so
to speak, is their general and extreme pov-
erty. But poverty can be overcome, we
know, by hard work and fiiigality ; and it
will not do for us to say that the fireedman
should stay away firom a new country
merely because he is poor; for it is by
going to a new country that the poor man
betters his condition, and the homestead
law was made for such as he. Neither will
it do to draw a distinction of color against
him, and warn him back because white
men alone have heretofore subdued the
frontier, lest he challenge the soundness of
our laws, the sincerity of our religion,— or
lest he turn upon us, as one of them was
recently moved to do, with the half-moum-
fiil and half-scornful retort : '* I am my old
master's own son, sir I "

Next to calamities like that the home-
steader's wife told of, the great besetting
fear of the settlers on the border — in all the
new and thinly peopled portions of Kansas,
in fact — is the coming of the autunm prairie
fire, which so frequency menaces their stacks
and cribs, their helpless stock, their stables
and cabins, and even their lives. Were it
not for its known danger and power of
havoc, this tempest and scourge of fire
would be a spectacle of commanding force
and beauty. First, you will catch glimpses
of what you take to be gray wisps of haze
away off on the horizon ; and watching, you
will see these vagrant particles deepen grad-
ually, and gather into a definite volume of
smoke, black like a rain-cloud, and bronze
about the edges. Then the strange, somber
bulk starts forward across the prairie, and
you hold your breath at sight of the rapid
progress of it (A mile in two minutes is
not an exceptional rate of speed for a fire
once fairly under way.) It halts an instant,
you note, over a broad swale where there is



Online LibraryGeorge Streynsham MasterThe Century, Volume 19 → online text (page 25 of 160)