First photographs of Ellis reveal a railroad track accompanied by hastily assembled buildings set in the middle of dusty prairie. Even though the picture is black and white, it is clear sunshine and open space are plentiful. What is missing is a tree. Any shade to be found had to be man-made.
A decade later, photographic records reveal cottages with newly planted trees struggling to take root in an inhospitable environment. The local newspaper editor petitioned residents to plant more trees throughout town and on farmsteads.
Look at a picture taken in the 1880s in the locale of the current stone house by Big Creek on West 11th Street to see a thriving orchard. Shade trees tower in the background, indicating how Ellis had changed from desolate prairie to an oasis in fewer than thirty years.
In another photographic series, rows of trees grow near what is now Playworld Park. In surrounding neighborhoods, healthy shade trees shelter houses and yards, providing respite from the sun and homes for birds and squirrels.
By the 1920s, Ellis looked like an Eastern community with its tree-lined brick streets. It is easy to imagine an autumn stroll through town and seeing hordes of neighborhood children breaking the prairie plane as they raked fallen leaves into golden mountains.
After the Dust Bowl’s dry years, snapshots of Ellis reveal fewer shade trees and none of the optimistic orchards that grew at the end of the 19th century. Aerial pictures tell the tale of waterless months and the toll those took on lovely greenery that once adorned yards, parks, and streets. The oasis had diminished.
Since that dry decade, residents have replanted and nurtured trees and bushes in Ellis and the surrounding countryside. Mother Nature has done her own seeding along waterways, creating a ribbon of green as far as the eye can see. Once again, families can hang a tire swing on a big old branch or set their lawn chairs under an accommodating cottonwood. All that is changing with this current dry spell.
Watching this drought take its toll on western Kansas prairie plantings reminds us to value surviving flora. Without significant moisture soon, many locals will lose plantings that have taken generations to grow.
Perhaps we ought to perform memorial services for the dead since these plantings have been around longer than many of our family members have. A thirty-year-old lilac in my backyard succumbed a month ago. Two more-brown than green yews outside our bedroom inhale last bits of carbon dioxide and expel final gasps of restorative oxygen.
Along Big Creek, decades old cottonwoods and ash trees suffer heat stress. Heart-shaped cottonwood leaves yellow long before Mother Nature signals the fall leaf drop. Some leaves just fall, skipping the colorful part of their existence.
What will future generations see when they look at pictures of our yards, parks, and streets? Will they see this as another cycle that came and went, or will it be a permanent part of their prairie existence.