Sunday, September 02, 2012

XXII. Fish crows and the opening of the South

       We left Mansfield with the sun lifting from the hazy east as did Sadie from the outskirts of Joplin though our modes of transport were so very different, and the roads, too, ours smooth and relatively level to facilitate speed and hers a latticework of straight lines and ninety-degree bends and the Center Creek drainage to cross with its steep ridges and teeth-jarring stony base. “We had five big hills to go up one side and fall down the other and the rocks about shook us to pieces,” Sadie wrote. Our own journey was mundane if not boring to her own adventures which included getting stuck on a particularly steep incline and having to double-team the horses to haul their covered wagon to the crest. For all that she kept an eye on the land and the habitations of its people and judged some of it akin to the best of Kansas and others to what she termed Misery in every sense of the word. 

“The morning breeze is real cool,” she wrote, probably when they broke for lunch. “They have had no frost here. We have seen the nicest roses and lilies and all kinds of flowers here in October, just think of it.” 

Sometime on the morning of October 20, 1912, they passed through the small town of Sarcoxie (called Sarcolie in her diary). The town perched on bluffs overlooking Center Creek, its town square reputed to have once been the former abode of Chief Sarcoxie who chose the location for its spring. Following the upheaval of Manifest Destiny settlers found the land ideal for strawberries, and for a while it was known as the Strawberry Capital of the World. Allegedly the town printed its own currency with an emblem of a strawberry and during the Civil War flew a Confederate flag from the flagpole in the center of the square in an act of contrariness. The strawberry fields were still there when Sadie and her partners passed through, something she noted in her diary. “The land here is not very rough and not much timber, most all prairie,” she wrote. “We have seen acres and acres of strawberry beds and the nicest of wheat fields.”

The strawberry fields are long gone. Now the town boasts itself as the Peony Capital of the World, and if the square is an example of it then the name is well deserved. We pulled into the square and got out to stretch our legs, and while admiring a mural painted on an empty downtown building met a passerby who provided the town’s history as well as offering a peony catalogue available at the bank across the street. Other people stopped to say hello making Sarcoxie the friendliest place we’d stopped in since our departure from Blue Rapids. 

More importantly was the idea that Sadie had been here. We were back on her trail and headed in the right direction though there was no sense of her presence here. The downtown area had fallen on hard times but the central park was manicured and the town mostly clean but we looked in vain for something we could call hers. It seemed emptier somehow, lacking an essential element known only to the two of us. 

The terrain rolled like ocean waves, lush and green and sparsely settled. Where Sadie and the others stairstepped down toward Pierce City the names of the various social structures perfectly described the early settlers’ impressions of the land’s beauty: Prairie View, Spring Valley, Pleasant Hill, Pleasant View, Fairview and Mount Pleasant. Our own modern road followed the former San Francisco and St. Louis tracks to what’s left of Wentworth, a minuscule settlement that wasn’t much bigger in Sadie’s time. Three miles further on the tracks rebounded off steep bluffs to snake down through a narrow cleft of a valley where it looped eastward into the city along the Clear Creek bottomland. 

Like Mansfield, the town was something of a mixed bag architecturally. Its centerpiece was a magnificent historic edifice taking up a city block, though on either side vacant lots bespoke of the destruction caused by a tornado in 2003 that damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the downtown area as well as nearby homes, many of which were later torn down. The patchwork of open lots reminded me of Greensburg which fared even worse with its F5 tornado, and has never fully recovered. On a darker note, the town was infamous for three lynchings that occurred in 1901, an incident that caused Mark Twain no end of bitterness. His essay about the lynchings, originally titled The United States of Lyncherdom, was so inflammatory that Twain himself thought it best shelved until a later date; when it was finally published in 1923, it was a watered down but still stinging diatribe against not only the lynchers but the unpardonable smirch to the state’s good name. “And so Missouri has fallen, that great state!” he lamented. 

Geography dictated that Sadie and crew entered town on the same road as we did, and passed by the downtown area with its superb architecture. The sense of her presence was strong, perhaps best described as the influence exerted by a magnet on iron filings. It was a definite stirring, a quickening of the pulse, a feeling of being watched or perhaps even waited for. At being tugged or pulled, or drawn into. We parked on the main road and thumbing through maps determined our next course but mainly read Sadie’s diary for clues while a few inquisitive faces peered from the glass windows of the police station in an otherwise deserted town. 

It was a Sunday, Sadie specified, and one of the horses was inclined to be balky if given the chance. “We have seen some log cabins but none to my taste,” she wrote. “We came through the edge of Wentworth and we are now camped in the city limits south of Pierce City in Lawrence County. I washed an apron. We have had supper and will retire as we are all very tired.”

She made it sound so ordinary, so normal, that it takes an act of the imagination to center her in her time. The world was moving toward a war that would be called the greatest in history, ways of life were becoming obsolete and a sort of modernity was advancing at a pace that would only accelerate in the coming decades, yet here they were strangers in a strange land plodding along at a turtle’s pace in covered wagons many thought relics of a former century. New Mexico had just become the 47th state of the Union, Robert Scott died a lonely death in Antarctica, the unsinkable Titanic sank, the U.S. Marines landed in Honduras and Cuba and Nicaragua, Tarzan of the Apes was published, the first Keystone Cops film debuted, Kansas, Arizona and Wisconsin voted for female suffrage, the Girl Scouts was founded, and the first aerial attacks in modern warfare were carried out by Italian dirigibles on Turkish troops. And in Pierce City, Mo., little of that mattered.

Trains were the news of the day, endless series of trains rumbling along the tracks a stone’s throw from their encampment, frightening the horses and setting the dog to howling. That itself was a breadcrumb left behind which we eagerly followed. A growing sense that we were on the cusp of finding Sadie and the others, that they were watching and waiting for us to decipher the clues of her brief entries, gave us a sort of preternatural awareness of our surroundings. As we drove through the main intersection we saw to our right a city park nestled against a tall rocky bluff and whipping the car around in the middle of the street made our way across the railroad tracks to a narrow lane on the far side of a white-steepled Catholic Church. A sign marking the edge of the town’s established borders made the park the only possible location of Sadie’s camp. 

“She was here,” Lori said breathlessly, echoed by my own sentiment. More than that it seemed she was here, weary but ebullient over the beauty of the land they had traversed, the changing land flowering at her arrival, the riven uplift of the Ozark Plateau beckoning them onward toward what they hoped to be a sort of Promised Land, and here in the near distance a vehicle approaching with her great-granddaughter staring back across an immeasurable gulf of time. We parked beside a placid lake reflecting the clouds and stepped out into birdsong of a different dialect, green herons and Carolina chickadees and high above a pair of fish crows with their high-pitched jeering calls, and it was not at all difficult to imagine Sadie shouting “They’re here!” to a small knot of people gathered around a cookfire, Lucile with her broken doll, the stray dog, the Charleses and Goldie and the matronly Maryetta, Sadie clapping her hands in joy and for a long expectant moment as real as the clouds in the sky, and as ephemeral, just think of it.

(To be continued)

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