Thursday, May 31, 2012

IV: First lesson: Make no assumptions

       I was trying to see the road as Sadie would have seen it from the seat of a covered wagon, or even afoot as she occasionally mentioned, imagining the snail-like pace, the methodical plodding of the horses and mules, the intimacy of the land unveiling itself at each turn. Time a slow, stately river without haste or hurry. The notion itself seemed utterly alien not merely because of its antediluvian conception but for what it implied about modern travelers for whom speed is the soporific to numb themselves between origin and destination. Coupled, of course, the mandatory accoutrements such as DVDs for kids in the back seat, cellphones to connect to anywhere but the present (I’ve heard it said that cellphones are talismans to stave off man’s essential loneliness, possibly the most logical explanation to date), four-lane highways to insure against impediments such as small towns or roads hewing to the natural terrain, and generous allowances for speed. God help us if we have to actually watch the scenery.

I have to admit, though, that our detour to ford the river chafed. Sure it was only a minor reversal of 15 miles or so but it was still going backwards and not forward which is the basic law of momentum. The temptation to drop the hammer and fly like the wind was a firefly’s spark that came and went, acceleration and washboard surfaces a guarantee for unintended consequences of the direst kind.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to follow Sadie or to retrace her route for Lori’s sake. We all have our unspoken personal motives, mine being the unambiguous desire to see new territory. I’d never been to Arkansas nor laid eyes on the Marais des Cygnes River in eastern Kansas whose name sounded nothing at all like it was spelled. Translated, it means Marsh of the Swans, named by the French for the trumpeter swans that migrate down from the far north to overwinter. Such lyricism is a far cry from the staid, meat-and-potatoes descriptions of so many of our waterways. The Big Blue, crossed by Sadie and crew at Irving and circumnavigated by ourselves, was originally known by the Kaw Indians as the Blue Earth River. I’ve seen its blue earth glistening in the dawn but never its river blue.

As I said, it wasn’t far, a short jaunt back to Blue Rapids where we took the scenic cutoff through agricultural riverbottom, across the bridge and east four or five miles to a sign whose wordage escapes me. Something about a cattle company, not that it matters. A sure sign—pun intended—that we’ve slipped the shackles of our former urban lives is that I no longer need to navigate by road designations or numbers but by habitations, structures, former structures long removed from the earth’s surface or signs whose placement means more than the message. The road made a beeline for the south until the river meandered in from the west at which time it meandered equally as much. A few miles of this and we came to a seldom-used track bearing to the right into a heavily-wooded grove of oaks. In Sadie’s time it was the road from Irving joining the main thoroughfare toward Fostoria and Westmoreland, meaning we were back on her trail.

We turned on a southward course at the old Cudney place and entered the bottoms. The suddenness of the transition was like watching an opera curtain rise onto a set piece of unparalleled depth. Grassy hills receded to either side with the forested ribbon of trees delineating the Blue on our right, and in the hazy distance the Black Vermillion snaked down from the northeast. After the narrow confines of the river road the sky unfolded into an immensity that bore down like a weight, freckled with the black specks of vultures pendent and motionless against a churning mass of clouds.

The Vermillion is an irascible river, steep-sided, muddy, prone to flooding. Wise travelers pay attention to its moods, as we learned last year when we led a caravan of relatives toward Spring Creek Cemetery. My failure to take into account recent deluges brought our little group to a stop where the road disappeared into an unexpected lake a good half-mile wide. Because a detour entailed close to 50 miles of backtracking we decided against pursuing our original plans and dispersed to our own homes. It wasn’t a big deal, more a fact of life in rural America where roads are rarely certain. To live here is to develop a certain pragmatism about transportation and your chances of getting from point A to point B: The road will either get you there or it won’t. 

Past the bridge over the Black Vermillion the road forked and forked again, implacably heading toward higher ground. I imagined Sadie looking back for a last glimpse of the river, broader now with the Vermillion’s ruddy addition, before the undulant hills closed in. I wonder what she thought then, what Arkansas might have promised to lure them away. The elevation gain would have slowed them but they didn’t have far to go. Shadows were lengthening when they pulled into the yard of Springside School, a one-room schoolhouse serving the community of the same name.

Nothing remains of the community or the school, no sign, no marker, and very little information can be found on the Internet. Which explains, in part, why we blithely sailed past without a wave or a fare-thee-well, heading for what we were positive was Sadie’s campsite at Spring Creek School a few miles distant. How we confused the two remains a matter of conjecture but clearly it was partly a lack of research and a lot of assumption, a toxic mix that led us to place our last iris on the wrong stone marker and to walk around the tumbled stones of the wrong school.

Something about Sadie’s mention of Springside School cast a doubt I could not shake, nor was I alone in being troubled by the differences in names. While I drained the thermos into our insulated cups, Lori penned a simple “Spring Creek—Springside?” in a small notebook. Sadie’s occasional misspellings were just that—Pamona for Pomona, Sarcolie for Sarcoxie—minor quibbles easily dismissed. My own mistakes were less forgiving. If I was wrong on Springside School, I was wrong on the roads they traveled to Westmoreland. In fact, I was probably wrong on just about everything. How were we to know what was right and what was wrong?

(To be continued)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

 The townsite of Irving, now a ghost town

End of the trail: where the old Irving road once crossed the Big Blue River.

III: An uncertain and irregular trail

       So from the start: Genesee Street by the levee, early morning sun breaking through roiling clouds, a slash of sunlight gilding the concrete signpost. Lori places a fresh-cut iris at the sign’s base and we’re off, heading south to follow Sadie Vail on her grand adventure. The only thing missing is almost everything: the creak of harness, the rattle of chains, the methodical clopping of hooves echoing off hard-packed dirt. Any similarities lie in our excitement over the road ahead.


Recreating a journey taken a century ago is a quixotic quest at best, if not a fool’s errand. Though Sadie listed many of the towns they passed through on the way to Eureka Springs, several have grown into cities, most have withered and a few disappeared entirely. Again the unanswerable questions: how different were the paths we chose, Sadie in 1912, ours one hundred years later? Some were probably the same, at least in stretches of uncertain lengths. Poring over 1912 highway and plat maps makes me realize that so much has changed as to make today’s highway system utterly alien to what came before. Roads were either gravel or dirt, many impassable after rains, rough and rocky or wet and boggy, winding hither and yon dependent wholly upon geography and terrain above all and shortness between destinations of which there were many more than today. Geological obstacles such as Rattlesnake Hill outside of Garnett have been realigned, planed and tamed to a gentle slope, whereas in Sadie’s days it presented difficulties of unimaginable proportions. Indeed, several entries were surprising for the limited number of miles covered, hampered as they were by terrain, obstinate mules and bottomless roads. 

All that would come later, of course, but within blocks of our departure doubts were already thickening like the clouds boiling to the east and south. Did they follow Genesee through town or sidestep around the round town square onto Main? Not knowing was a bur under my proverbial saddle. I’d known all along that tracing their exact route was hopeless but now that we had started it became a distraction that would follow us every mile of the way. I would eventually succumb to a sort of numbing indifference punctuated by brief bouts of euphoria whenever finding ourselves exactly where Sadie had been, and though those moments were few and far between they salvaged what otherwise might have become merely a historical travelogue.

And if theirs was an inauspicious beginning with its balky horses and crushed canine, ours was only slightly better. Forecasters were all but apoplectic over predictions of a collision between blastfurnace air and a southbound cold front, an apocalyptic clash prophesied to combust over Fort Scott by early evening. That its epicenter was our destination wasn’t surprising. In the Midwest one quickly gets the impression that hell-weather can not only seem deeply personal, but occasionally targeted toward the individual.

A purr of the engine, the crunch of gravel under the tires. It was the best we could do, and we did, down Genesee at a crawl to the railroad tracks, east at the elevator, diagonally past the old Hannah poultry plant and so out of town, dust pluming behind us and the green ribbon of the river snaking crosswise from the bridge to intersect us near where Sadie and crew stopped for lunch. 


“We camped about one mile from Irving for dinner,” Sadie wrote. “I had a campfire. We got a phone message that I had left my coat and scarf at Grabhorns. I will have it sent to Topeka. That was our only bad luck. Charles Jewell's horse has balked 7 times today. We had lots of fun.”

One gets the impression that it was something of a summer camp ride for Sadie, more entertainment than exodus. (She was, it appears, having much more fun than Charles Jewell.) But her journey had just begun, its newness still virginal and unblemished. But where did she receive the phone message? It had to be in Irving, a town that no longer exists thanks to land speculators, flood control planners and the Army Corps of Engineers. Irving was one of a string of unfortunate towns stretching from southern Marshall County to the confluence of the Big Blue and Kaw rivers that were bodily removed to higher ground (such as Randolph) or bulldozed, sold off or submerged beneath the rising waters of Tuttle Creek Reservoir. The fight was as bitter as it was fruitless and still rankles in the minds of the older generation. Irving’s greatest claim to fame happened on May 30, 1879, when two tornadoes an hour apart obliterated the town, the first taking out the north half and the second raking what remained.  Between 17 and 40 people died, depending on sources. For most of a century no other American town endured multiple tornadoes within a 24-hour period, a record it no longer holds. In the wake of the disaster the town rose phoenix-like from its splinters while an inspired L. Frank Baum penned a book about a young girl and her dog whisked away via cyclone to a magical land named Oz. Kansas would never be the same.

Where Sadie made temporary camp was a matter of conjecture. I opted for the public wildlife area at the edge of the forest, seconded by Lori. Our own stop was at the memorial, a grassy clearing snowy with the lotus-like blossoms of the surrounding catalpa trees. Lori again laid an iris at the base of the stone monument while I poured fresh cups of coffee, not because they needed to be refilled but because I thought Lori might want a few minutes to converse with her great-grandmother. I tried imagining the town spreading beyond the dirt intersection but could conjure nothing but its current state of wild woods studded with buckled sidewalks and purple iris glowing like embers deep in the sun-dappled shadows. 

Once we were underway again I surprised Lori by heading east. 

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“The way Sadie went,” I replied, as if it were that easy. From what I could tell from looking at period maps, there was only one bridge over the river between Blue Rapids to the north and Randolph to the south, and that was at Irving. Like the town, the bridge, or bridges, had a checkered history. The first bridge, built in 1870, was a victim of the twin tornadoes; the second was swept away by flooding in 1903, and its replacement, bigger and stronger, lasted a paltry five years before it, too, floated away piecemeal. The bridge Sadie and crew crossed was fairly new then. 

We weren’t so fortunate. Floods took the final bridge in 1974, and with Blue River Valley cleared out for the reservoir project, there was no reason to rebuild. But Sadie went this exact route, then a town, now a rutted gravel road that eventually forks about a mile from the monument. A two-track continues east for a hundred yards before petering out near the banks of the Big Blue. We parked and stepped from the car into an explosion of birdsong, mostly dickcissels and western meadowlarks. Behind us the road gained elevation toward the townsite. For a moment I could see their wagons entering the descent, three teams and three wagons shimmering in the heat of early afternoon, dust rising, dogs barking, Charles Jewel’s horse prancing sideways and backwards, the early blush of adventure and hope still writ on their faces. “She was here,” I said, and we climbed in the car for a 15-mile detour to follow them across the bridgeless river.
(To be continued)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ice Age Monument dedication

Cave girls, glacial milk water, dignitaries: Blue Rapids had it all for the dedication of the Ice Age Monument. Top to bottom: Marcie Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation; Professor George Callison, paleontologist and artist, who imagined the monument and brought it to life; Mattie Sanders, one of the elusive cave girls hunting the peripheries of the monument (and slaying a T-Rex); Zoe Sanders, whose spear was a formidable weapon; Skyler Sanders, who carved a petroglyph of the photographer; Zoe Sanders in action; the monument, round like the only round town square in Kansas; the color guard backing Prof. George Callison at his introductory speech; Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey; Becky Blake, director of Kansas Travel and Tourism; Prof Callison with contractors who built the monument—Bailey Construction, Frankfort.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

II: Prairieland departures

Shortly after Ezra Meeker wrapped up his second recrossing of the Oregon Trail in Puyallup, Washington, on August 26, 1912, another covered wagon train prepared to embark on the leaf-strewn streets of a little prairie town named Blue Rapids, Kansas. 

There was none of the fanfare elicited during Meeker’s two-year exploit to raise awareness of the trail, its history and the pioneers who opened the frontier. Throughout Meeker’s journey the press and public were equally enthralled at his wagon, its team of oxen and the tales of derring-do. Crowds jostled him in New York City and Chicago; he was filmed with a moving picture camera while crossing the Loop Fork of the Platte River. A cloudburst in the Rockies claimed almost all of his books and other effects and nearly took the wagon. He camped at the Alamo adjoining “that historic spot where David Crockett was killed,” he wrote in his memoirs. “All in all, it was a more strenuous trip than the drive to Washington, and all things considered it was prolific in results.”

The same would not be said for Sadie and Fred Vail’s grand adventure. Other than a few friends, relatives and well-wishers, there were no pressmen, no cameras, no jostling mobs to see them off. Their trip would be in vain; less than four months after arriving, they boarded a Missouri and North Arkansas passenger train at the Eureka Springs depot and headed for home. By then Sadie was in her seventh or eighth month of pregnancy with their second child. She was 20 years old. 

Three or four covered wagons lined the street—the precise number is never mentioned, but it was probably three; one for Sadie, her husband, Fred, and their daughter Lucile, the second for Charles Chambers and his mother, Maryetta (Fred’s aunt), and a third for Charles and Goldie Jewell—with the Vail team in the vanguard. 

“We are leaving at 10:30 a.m., with our mules in the lead up on Genesee Street,” Sadie Keith Vail wrote on the morning of October 3, 1912. It was warm and sunny, auspicious weather for the start of what would become a three-week exodus to find work and land in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. 

Why Eureka Springs remains a mystery. They had only been in Blue Rapids about a year, having moved there from Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1911. Those first years of their marriage were restless ones, nor did it seem they could settle upon one place to remain long enough to sink roots. There’s some question about the availability of jobs outside of Blue Rapids’ mining industry, and some hints that Arkansas was in the middle of a growth spurt. Eureka Springs in particular was becoming famous for its “healing” waters, said to cure every disease or ailment known to man and a few that weren’t. According to early advertisements widely circulated around the nation, its springs were proven to cure kidney troubles, Bright’s disease, rheumatism, catarrhal troubles, liver complaints, stomach diseases, paralysis, diabetes, diseases of women and skin diseases. Ponce de Leon, in fact, thought the Basin Spring was the original Fountain of Youth—or so it was said. And the land: what wasn’t vertical was lush and verdant, the climate temperate, the air invigorating.

Maybe they bought into the idea of a promised land. If so, they were part of a long tradition of dreamers who swallowed the lies, delusions and half-truths of self-serving boosters. Manifest Destiny, the settlement of the West, was in part fueled by these misty-eyed seekers, and their bones and graves still littered the trails. But unlike those who followed the Oregon, Santa Fe or California trails of the 1800s, modernity had crept in with civilization so that their travels would be in many ways easier. Supplies were abundant at any town they passed, and they followed roads instead of trails. Indeed, highway maps were available, though certainly not to the detail of today’s offerings. 

But for all that, travel in a covered wagon was the same whether it was in the 1800s or early 1900s, with a few new wrinkles thrown in for good measure: automobiles and trains. Axles could break, roads remained primitive and subject to extremes of dust or muck, weather could wreck havoc, and, above all, forward motion was completely dependent upon four-legged creatures who tended at times to be irascible, cranky, obstinate and petulant. 

One such beast belonged to Charles Jewell. His horse balked at the reins, balked at the road, balked at the idea of leaving Blue Rapids on such dubious reasoning, balked for the hell of it. In desperation, Jewell ran the horse two blocks west to the park, where on the east side of a tiny rill stood a racetrack. Most towns had them—Frankfort and Marysville had extensive tracks—but those at Blue Rapids were destined to grow with the arrival of the county fair in 1916, when the track was expanded and a grandstand capable of seating 1,000 people was erected. Jewell prodded his balky horse into a gallop and let it keep the pace until it tired. 

While Sadie and the rest of the group waited, she jotted a few notes which would become a short diary of the trail. Surrounded by family and friends, she reminisced about the prior evening before as they said their farewells. “Last night all our old friends came by surprise to bid us all goodbye,” she wrote. “And lots more came again this morning. They said I had grit because I did not cry. All the rest are crying. But we all feel empty somewhere for those we are leaving.”

Their wagons were loaded with what few possessions they could squeeze in with the grub, which Sadie listed as a sack of flour, almost three bushels of potatoes, about 35 quarts of fruit. A small topsy stove went along for cooking and heating, and Fred’s traps, a trunk, suitcases and bedclothes, tubs and washboard, tool box and cooking utensils, a few children’s toys for Lucile. 

A menagerie of dogs accompanied them. Shortly after Jewell returned with his wearier but manageable horse, they started out. And immediately ran into a situation. A puppy belonging to Charles and Goldie jumped from a wagon and tumbled beneath a wheel. Goldie thought it was dead. Closer inspection revealed a faint pulse and the lift and fall of struggling ribs. They tenderly placed it back into the wagon.

One by one the wagons lurched into motion. Harnesses creaked, hooves clopped, people waved and cheered. They followed Genesee southward to the edge of town and cut over toward the town of Irving. Blue Rapids fell behind. On their right were the parallel steel rails of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, on their left the gentle downslope toward the Big Blue River. Before them stretched the open road. They were bound for Arkansas.
(To be continued)

Friday, May 04, 2012

I. Bound for Arkansas

      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)