It took Sadie Vail and her family 21 days to travel by covered wagon from Blue Rapids, Kansas, to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. She was pregnant with her second child at the time though she never mentioned it in the pages of her diary other than a few brief references of not feeling well. Her daughter, Lucile, is rarely spoken of. Mostly she wrote of balky mules, blind horses, severe thunderstorms, clear springs gushing from sheer cliffs and conflicts with trains and automobiles.
Theirs was an inauspicious beginning. One of the horses had to be ridden down to the racetrack to burn off excess energy, and then a puppy jumped from a wagon and fell under a wheel. They thought it was dead with a broken neck but by evening it lingered still. The day grew warm, the roads smooth. “We had lots of fun,” she wrote.
On the second day one of their mules dropped dead. They were camped on the outskirts of Westmoreland and had to decide whether to abort the journey or continue with a shortage of horsepower. As they deliberated—I imagine a solemn knot of men, women and children standing in a circle around the lifeless beast, its last violent twitches stilled to rigid immobility—the mule suddenly sprang to its feet. From that moment on it showed evidence of what Sadie called “its second youth,” with more energy and stamina than any of the other animals combined.
History comes to us in two views: the panoramic and the personal. Sadie’s diary of the family’s flight to seek a new life in Arkansas throughout October of 1912 falls into the latter category. It was given to my wife many years ago—Sadie was her great-grandmother—lost for an incalculable time, and then, like the mule, resurrected into new life.
One evening last week Lori read it aloud while I cooked supper. It wasn’t lengthy, a mere nine pages hammered out on an old typewriter. As with most historical documents that insert themselves into our imaginations, it generated more questions than answers. Why did they leave Blue Rapids? Why Eureka Springs? How did they navigate? What were the roads like? Did she know she was pregnant? Was there a larger body of writing of which this was merely an excerpt?
For provisions they took a sack of flour, almost three bushels of potatoes and 35 quarts of fruit. Their possessions were limited to a topsy stove (a simple metal box with two to four cutouts), cooking utensils, tubs, a washboard and a tool box, their suitcases and bedclothes. Accompanying them were Maryetta Chambers, an aunt of Sadie’s husband, Fred; Maryetta’s son, Charles; her daughter, Goldie, and Goldie’s husband, Charles Jewell. Sadie forgot her coat and scarf.
As Lori read of their slow progression through Rossville and Kingsville and Silver Lake, I was reminded of the the wealth of personal journals kept by travelers on the Oregon Trail. I’d read quite a few books on the westward expansion but none as rich and vibrant as the diaries of ordinary people. And except for the later date, the introduction of motorized vehicles, trains and rural towns where provisions were easily acquired, Sadie’s journey was little different. The group was completely dependent on horses and mules, at the mercy of the weather and forced to live off the land. They shot rabbits and gathered wild cherries, pawpaws and persimmons. They faced thunderstorms that threatened to topple the wagons, bone-chilling nights and mosquitoes “big enough to shoot.”
By Oct. 18 they were four miles east of Joplin where rain bogged the road into the reddest of gumbo. “I am beginning to want to get settled,” Sadie wrote.
The group forded the White River 20 times in six miles, leading her to comment that “they don’t believe in building bridges down here.” Hills rose into mountains riven by colorful cliffs from which springs and waterfalls erupted. A train almost killed them near Eureka Springs, where they finally pulled into a wagon yard and made camp on Oct. 24.
Work proved impossible to find. They looked over several tracts of land available for homesteading and liked none of them. The terrain was different than anything Sadie had known. Everything was either straight up or straight down. It would take some getting used to, she wrote.
A cold rain fell hard on Oct. 31, the date of the final entry. Mornings grew colder. Fred bought a load of slabs from the saw mill for 50 cents and they burned them through the night. “We are alive and feel fine,” Sadie wrote, but it wouldn’t last. Sometime in January or February of the following year the family boarded a train, bound for Blue Rapids and home. Hazel, their second daughter, was born on March 1, 1913.
After supper, Lori and I traced Sadie’s route on Google maps. Most of the towns she named are extant but several have disappeared, lost to time. Other than a stretch of interstate highway in Missouri (“Misery,” Sadie called the state), it was pretty much how I would elect to travel if I wanted to stairstep down backroads to the extreme northwest corner of Arkansas. As a native Westerner with a woeful lack of middle-American geography, I was surprised that the distance was less than 400 miles. What took Sadie three weeks could be covered in a day.
“We have to go, you know,” my wife said.
I hesitated, but only for a heartbeat. “Just say when,” I said.
(To be continued)
(To be continued)