Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Captain Albert Barnitz: His Letters and Journals

Following the Civil War, many officers born and raised in the East found themselves serving their country on the Kansas frontier.  One such man was Captain Albert Barnitz, born in Pennsylvania in 1835 and reared in Ohio.  He studied first at Kenyon College and later continued his education at Cleveland Law College.  While there, he published a book of poetry titled Mystic Delvings. This hinted at innate writing tendencies that modern readers still enjoy.

Barnitz’s road to the Kansas frontier began after the death of his first wife who died in childbirth in 1860. Still grieving, he soon joined the 13th Ohio Infantry as a three-month volunteer in 1861.  Following that service, he enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a sergeant.  By 1863, Barnitz achieved senior captain rank.

Following his recovery from severe injuries, Barnitz returned to serve under the command of George A. Custer in the Shenandoah Valley and fought his last battle at Appomattox.  He returned briefly to civilian life, but received a captain’s commission in the U.S. Army in 1866.  The following year he married his second wife Jennie Platt, and they began their Great Plains adventure that included writing and saving a series of letters and journals which shed light on military and social life of the time.

During his military career, Barnitz served at several frontier forts, including Leavenworth, Riley, and Harker.  His wife Jennie joined him at several of these postings.  When they weren’t together, they wrote one another regularly. Albert also kept a journal of his experiences over decades.   Fortunately for posterity, they saved these documents.

Through these letters and journals, readers can time travel to the years 1866 – 1869 on the Plains.  Robert Utley collected and edited them into the book Life in Custer’s 7th Cavalry.  Barnitz and Jennie write about military experiences, life on the prairie, Hancock’s failed expedition, a battle with Indians at Fort Wallace, Camp Alfred Gibbs (near the town of Ellis, Kansas), and Jennie surviving a flash flood at the site of the first Fort Hays.

Of interest to history buffs, Albert and Jennie’s letters reveal personal information about the Custers, Colonel Alfred Gibbs, Major Joel Elliott, Miles Keogh, and other famous colleagues.  Through this couple’s running commentary, readers see these historical personages as real people with their strengths and frailties.  In addition, readers see the evolution of Barnitz’s attitudes about these individuals and realize Captain Barnitz and Jennie’s opinions weren’t static.  This couple’s correspondence must’ve engaged Robert Utley completely as he studied their decades of text.

Their letters reveal Albert and Jennie’s love story, his desire to be a good officer, and his disgust with fellow officers who drank too much or abused their troops. Interested in nature, he provides excellent accounts of wildlife, plants, and weather in this region as well.

Because Barnitz had the observational and writing skills of a poet, he thoroughly recorded the essence of military life during one of the frontier’s most active periods, providing a time machine-like glimpse into a vanished era.  Life in Custer’s Cavalry is more than communication between a man and woman. It’s an invitation to visit their world.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Details Change but Stories Go On

We’ve visited daughters, grands, and friends throughout Western Kansas for several weeks and I’ve noticed Dollar Stores thriving in rural communities. Apparently, these replaced old-fashioned dime stores everywhere. What happened to the high ceilinged, wood-floored mom and pop shops similar to those Grace Stetz or my grandma and grandpa owned in Ellis, Bucklin, and Meade?

Times and people change, but there’s no way candy or toy aisles in today’s variety store hold the same appeal as vintage eye-level, glass-rimmed displays that captured a nickel-holding child’s attention. I’ve seen posts where folks of a certain age wish they could return once more to enjoy Grace’s or my gramma’s lemon-oil -scented exhibitions of the latest dollies, cap guns, or licorice bits.

I recollect the satisfaction of pulling open the heavy front door and stepping into a vast anything expanse of necessities people required. Curious explorers had to first navigate past a 4’ x 6’ divided candy display strategically located to capture interest and money. Wood dividers separated glass bins full of malt balls, chocolate stars, licorice babies, jaw breakers, caramels, and other cavity-inducing treats you could buy by the piece. Once you broke its spell, you traveled either left or right.

Kids usually chose left—toward the toys. Grandma and Grampa maintained a selection of Big Chief Tablets, coloring books and crayons, paints, plastic and metal cars and trucks, building blocks, and more. In addition, they placed a bouncy horse nearby so a young patron could ride and make birthday and Christmas lists while parents inspected needles, thread, underwear, mittens, hats, dishes, pots, pans, utensils and more.

A favorite section was the pottery display. The always dusted shelves were full of pastel vases and teapots decorated with flowers and pine cones in bas relief. While an adult attending auctions, I imagined Grandma and Grace would’ve benefitted by warehousing those Hull and McCoy pieces to finance their retirements. What they marked with $3.00 price tags, estate auctioneers sold decades later for a $100 or more.

From the time I first walked, I loved visiting my grandparents’ business. As family, we entered through the alley door where we first noted grandpa perched on a chair in his railed office, surrounded by still-boxed merchandise and stacks of unsold comic books, with an eagle eye view of the floor below. Few shoppers knew he watched their exploration of each department. He knew who’d left hankies unfolded or fingerprints on a shiny race car or who slipped something in their pocket before paying. Of course, it was Grandma or the clerk who returned mussed items to their former pristine conditions before the next customer visited.

While modern box stores keep rural residents in paper towels, soap, and bathroom products, visiting them isn’t anything like a trip to an old variety store. The lights, linoleum, and metal stands are too bright, and the candy is packaged as are the toys. A kid can’t try out potential purchases ahead of time. Besides, you can’t buy anything for a nickel!

Someday, our grown grandkids will reminisce fondly about the Dollar stores of their youth and tell their own youngsters what they missed out on. Details change, but stories go on.

Gardens Then and Now

By St. Patrick’s Day, my fingers itch to sift soil and plant seeds or potato eyes. Some March 17ths permit starting new growth while others force me to wait. Recently, I read a garden-themed post from old Fort Hays dated March 26, 1871.  it stated, “Ten men have been directed to report for work in the post garden and all the prisoners will report each afternoon until further orders.” Clearly, military leadership was eager to turn over that loam and insert seeds saved from previous harvests.

I thought back to old photos I’ve seen of early settlement days where barren prairie dominates the view. It’s easy to imagine how hungry residents and travelers would’ve been after a winter without fresh greens. Just thinking of eating straight-from-the-plant corn, tomatoes, or melons must’ve wreaked havoc on salivary glands. I know how I long for tender spinach or lettuce freshly plucked. In my imaginings, I taste sunbeams before they reach the roots.

Unlike us, those hardy souls couldn’t grocery shop to buy vegetables recently shipped from California or Mexico. Even canned goods offered less selection than consumers have today. You know soldiers and settlers anticipated fresh produce for long months.

Thinking about this historical document raised numerous questions. How big was this garden to require so much labor? What did they plant? How did they water it? Did prisoners see this as punishment or were they, like me, glad to get dirty hands? Once plants began production, did the commander post guards to prevent unauthorized reaping? What procedures did they use to store harvests and seeds for future use?

During past summers, I’ve seen reproduction kitchen gardens behind officers’ quarters, but with ten assigned men and additional prisoners to help, this endeavor required substantially more acreage than those small plots. After all, mess halls feed hundreds. If I planned this, I think I’d place it between the stables and creek so it would be easy to gather fertilizer and to create an irrigation system.

This thought reminded me of decades ago when an older gentleman in south Hays nurtured a phenomenal truck garden on the site of an old dairy. Every year, his abundant crops dazzled family and friends. Every one with a defective green thumb or too little time looked forward to buying his tomatoes, cucumbers, and other lush produce. When I recall his undertaking, I imagine the fort garden must’ve been similar. Every row would have been just as orderly and precise.

To this day, January and February’s first hints of warmth excite me into planning the moment when I tuck that season’s hopes into recently tilled soil. That said, my anticipation can’t match that of soldiers who hadn’t eaten fresh vegetables for at least six months. This reminds me how spoiled I am to have a vegetable drawer full of carrots, celery, radishes, peppers, and lettuce no matter the season. However, my taste buds remind me there’s nothing better than salad made minutes after picking and washing the ingredients.

Spring Inspires Crazy Imaginations

Decades ago, a student growing up in a clever family used his weekly spelling words to write a story that I still chuckle over. Each spring, I recollect his tale about the Easter Cow who unless offered tasty grasses would scare off the more traditional, egg-delivering rabbit. To prevent empty baskets at their house, this lad and his siblings would share tasty greens with their unique but never seen bovine. Over the years, my mind altered this ingenious family’s holiday rendition until I have my own version that includes greening pastures and newborn calves.

All it takes to trigger flowing creative juices is to drive slowly down a country road on a sunny day with windows rolled down. The sound of tires rotating over gravel soothes the spirit and fires up the right half of the brain, which according to some researchers is the random, intuitive, spontaneous side. Some might call it downright goofy. A few miles into wide open spaces occupied primarily by cows and my brain alters the end result of this former student’s assignment to create entirely new possibilities when it comes to Easter eggs.

Over time, his story evolved so that newly greened pastures dotted with tiny, newborn cows tucked into ovals turned into Easter eggs in my imagination. Despite the fact that most giant rabbit deliveries come in bright colors, gentle pastels, or wrapped foil, my story involves rust, brown, black, sometimes cream, and occasionally speckled orbs soaking up spring sunrays while their moms nibble tender, green shoots. Chocolate eggs are little brown bovines basking in golden heat. The only bunnies are neighboring cottontails and jackrabbits—no anthropomorphic rodents carrying straw baskets in my version.

Even though I know kids prefer Cadbury and speckled malted eggs combined with sugar-crusted marshmallow Peeps to celebrate the season, I love to cruise dirt roads and view gangly calves with unblemished noses and shiny eyes, bodies either rolled up in tight little balls or wobbling on spindly legs. My mom seconds my thought that this is the one time in the life of pasture-raised beef that they’re ever so clean.

If I’m lucky, I’ll see little burgers-to-be frolicking across fields with equally cute calves or impatiently butting mommas’ bags to bring down belly-filling milk. Equally enjoyable is watching huge mothers who aren’t nearly so clean and adorable as their babes caring so tenderly for their spring deliveries.

What I learned from my clever student was that I need not tie myself to traditional holiday stories. If it pleases me to drive across Kansas prairies under cotton ball filled blue skies imagining pastures polka-dotted with newborns posing as shiny ebony and russet Easter eggs then I should savor such moments.

This youngster’s story evolved once he shared it with me, so who knows how this wisp of fancy will inspire new traditions in someone else’s imagination. After all, the Easter Rabbit started somewhere. Maybe someday an egg delivering armadillo or noisy magpie will help kids celebrate spring.

Dot Connecting Possibilities

Those who play connect the dots find the experience relaxing or agitating, depending on the outcome. Some see relationships between one idea and another despite having too little information to clearly link them. To complicate matters, lack of resources can limit time or money investments even though strong interest in a subject exists. I know this sense of tension well, especially after reading recent articles about Clovis Caches found in America.

I suspect few care much about Clovis culture let alone have a burning interest in stashes of stone tools ancient inhabitants concealed and didn’t retrieve. While made of common, not precious, materials, these relics equal buried treasure for those who love archeology and connecting to ancient humans.

The term Clovis Culture came into existence when a sharp-eyed New Mexican noted artifacts formed using a particular bi-faced fluting between Clovis and Portales. Since that discovery, scientists identifying stonework designed with this pattern characterize them as Clovis points. Scholars attribute the style to bison antiquus and mammoth hunters who lived at the end of the Pleistocene era about 13,000 years ago.

The article that started my exploration mentioned the Busse Cache that contained Clovis bifaces made of Niobrara or Smoky Hill Jasper. Anyone who’s walked country roads or plowed fields in Northwest and North Central Kansas has seen this frequently ochre-hued, silicified stone even if they didn’t know what to call it. Researchers have identified prehistoric quarries containing outcroppings of this desirable knapping material in Trego, Gove, and Graham Counties in Kansas and Fremont County Nebraska. That tidbit has me trying to connect points in history based on limited knowledge.

Interestingly, these western Kansas excavations produced desirable knapping material early hunters used for thousands of years. Oklahoma archeologists have found it in sites from east to west. To entice further, prehistoric mammoth and bison bones found during work on roads, bridges, dams, or other such dirt shifting activities occupy shelves and dark corners in regional museums and personal collections.

This combination makes me wonder how many Pleistocene hunters wandered this way in search of game and resources to make dinner-capturing tools. After all, the Great Plains supported modern bison and native cultures who depended on them for survival. This information increases my curiosity about how often their ancestors roasted a mammoth haunch under prairie skies.

Keep in mind state borders are fairly modern concepts so migratory people would’ve wandered from one watershed to another without worrying about taxes, land ownership, or other recent complications.  Nearly a decade ago, Dan Busse in Northeastern Colorado worked a field and noted a fingernail-size bit of Smoky Hill jasper that wasn’t native to his area. Upon further investigation, he dug up a hunter’s pack of fluted Clovis-style stones. Among them are several manufactured from Niobrara or Smoky Hill jasper, commonly found in western Kansas and Nebraska.

Add to this data information about KU professor Rolfe Mandel’s 2014 dig near Tuttle Creek. His team specifically searched for evidence of Clovis and pre-Clovis inhabitants in what is now Kansas. Their efforts are in the hands of lab analysts who work to verify their findings.

Though few Clovis Cache finds are documented in the U.S., such articles offer hope that any day now a Kansan could be turning over soil and make a discovery like a landscaper in Boulder, CO.  He recently found a stash of 80 artifacts used to butcher prehistoric camels and horses in his yard.

Though I doubt I’ll find such treasure, the combination of connecting dots leads me to expect I’ll soon read about the person who does.

Sturdy Stock

When news stories are filled with the evil that people do, it’s easy to get depressed. Add normal life struggles, and a person can get so downhearted to never want to crawl out of bed in the morning. When bad weighs heavy, I recollect family stories that remind me I come from sturdy stock, where wimping out wasn’t an ancestral option.

This particular line started as religious dissenters in England who survived rolling Atlantic waves in the hull of a dark ship that landed them near Plymouth, Massachusetts. After several generations as Americans, this group left New England to start a brick factory in Ontario, Canada. Along with changing nationalities, they switched religious preferences to Methodism.

As followers of Wesley, they migrated to Northwest Kansas in 1873. My 3x great grandfather finally answered the call to preach and found himself riding or walking waterways that drain this region. He knew the Sappa, Prairie Dog, Bow Creek, North and South Solomon, Republican and others like the back of his hand.

After his retirement, the Methodist Conference asked him to record the story he titled Forty Years on the Firing Line. The original copy was handwritten on Big Chief tablets. About 60 years after he recorded it, my mom transcribed and typed it into a legible document. Between his handwriting as well as inconsistent spelling and punctuation, she labored for months. Fortunately, she recalled she too descended from sturdy stock and persisted until she had a document that gave family members and historians a sense of early Kansas settlers’ lives.

When I read this, I wish he’d included more details. However, a much longer document might’ve deterred the editing and typing required to make it readable. He opens with, “So I have hurriedly written largely from memory, making many mistakes, leaving out much that might have proved interesting.  . . . I plead for pardon for all that I have failed in. I pray that our young men in the ministry of Jesus Christ—will not—complain nor murmur, but go where they are sent in Jesus name.”

That statement reminds me that around 150 years ago, Grandpa came to preach on the American frontier. Yes, the place I call home and consider modern and comfortable was a mysterious, unsettled land. Ill health had driven him from frigid Canada to Kansas. His father and 13 other family members joined this trek to homestead in Norton Co. He mentions they arrived on November 3, 1873 and were 128 miles from Lowell, Nebraska, their nearest trading center.

Thinking about Kansas Novembers I’ve weathered, his comment that “We were delighted with the country and especially with the climate,” surprised me. He continued with, “I believe it added years to the life of my parents and my wife who the doctor said would not live to get to Kansas and our boy 2 years and 3 months old, that weighed only 17 pounds whom the doctor said could not live is still alive and the largest man of the family.”

Over the next few months, I’ll share more of his experiences. His stories remind us western Kansans come from determined, capable gene pools. As descendants, we continue to make our communities fine places to live and raise families.

Staying Sturdy through Hard Times

Last week, I explained our family’s arrival in Kansas. In short time, those hardy ancestors faced more than isolation in Northwest Kansas. After surviving that first winter in their new country, they learned firsthand about plagues of Biblical proportion.

Grandpa didn’t spend much time whining in his memoir, but he explains how grasshoppers in numbers large enough to qualify as an Old Testament pestilence arrived. He says they devoured “everything that was green.” He’d traveled to what he termed Saline County, Nebraska where he saw insects “come down like snow until they were 2 inches thick on the ground.” According to him, “70 acres of fine corn just in the blister disappeared in 3 hours.” All that remained was stalks.  In addition to devouring corn, grasshoppers wiped out wheat and oat crops as well. I recall articles in old Ellis Headlights that verified this invasion. As a result, settlers depended on charity from churches and families still living in the East to help them survive those first years.  You know stomachs grumbled with hunger and growing kids wore hand-me-down clothing during such hard times.

Unfortunately, life didn’t improve the following year. According to Grandpa, grasshoppers came again in 1875 but “took the crops only in spots.” He explains that he and 3 neighbors lost their fields, but the hoppers left corn standing nearby. Despite, dire circumstances, he had a sense of humor, saying, “We had the sympathy of our neighbors which they lavished upon us. When I told them we were better off than we were the year before, they asked how that could be.” Tongue in cheek, I’m sure, this farmer/circuit rider explained, “We had a chance to steal. The year before there was no corn west of the Missouri River.”

Bad events come in threes, which held true for the insect invasions our ancestors experienced. A third year in a row, ravenous jaws zeroed in on Northwest Kansas. Grandpa Reuben says, “There were grasshoppers by the billions.” He tells a story about his brother-in-law accompanying him on church business. The two rode near Spring City, which is now called Lenora. They stayed at a church member’s home on Saturday night and awoke to “hoppers hung on the willow trees until they looked like weeping willows.” After the sermon and dinner, the two set out for grandpa’s evening appointment in a distant community.

Heading northeast, one thought he saw fire while the other claimed it was a dust storm. In short time, grandpa reports, “A hail storm struck us from the southwest and grasshoppers came down by the bucket full.” After battling their runaway team, they made it to church in time for Grandfather to preach. Shivering, he delivered his message in dripping clothes. The storm hadn’t hit this area, so the congregation found their preacher more than a tad curious.

Before evening ended, a passing traveler confirmed Grandpa’s experience, stating, “There were 2 feet of ice and hoppers in places and dead antelope on the prairie.” These difficulties didn’t dim Grandpa’s determination to preach and farm in Northwest Kansas. He did, however, say he never left home afterwards without his overcoat.

Again, vintage journalism verifies my relatives’ experiences. Such tales remind those whose families settled Kansas that we’ve particularly determined DNA pulsing through our bodies.