The sunflower, the emblem of Kansas, although the writer does not know that it was formally adopted as such, is pre-eminent among the wild flowers of the boundless prairies of the state. It is fitting that it should be acknowledged as their emblematic blossom, for they grow rampant everywhere. During the drouth and hot winds, when the great walls of corn are shriveled and blasted by the fierce sirocco, it continues to thrive, its big yellow flowers nodding and swaying to the breezes. It is most prolific on broken ground, and while its growth is spontaneous, the oldest settlers report that when the country was new and the land uncultivated, the sunflower was principally confined to the soft and loamy soil along the streams but as the sod was turned they raised their coronets of gold as if to greet with graceful courtesy a welcome to the homestead settler. They grow rapidly, and if a tract of ground is left idle for a season, the sunflower will reign supreme, growing to a height of from three to a dozen or more feet, covered with golden blossoms that turn their bright faces to the sun, continuing to follow its course until nightfall finds the greater part of them looking westward. They bloom early and continue all through the summer.
Nature-loving individuals, whose asthetic faculties find enchantment in every plant in the universe, also find a charm in these wild floral beauties of Kansas.
When the pioneers reached this "Eldorado of the West" the unlimited sea of prairies were a garden of blossoming plants, replete and gorgeous with exquisite coloring, but with each succeeding year the sod of the sections continued to turn, the herds were confined to small areas of pastures, where the greater part of the bright lined flowers were trampled to death in the hoof-trodden soil. The graceful coreopsis that once grew in profusion, transforming the green fields into "cloth of Gold," is now confined to a few of the more remote hedges and corners of fields.
The "niggerhead," a blossom which closely resembles the sunflower, though more diminutive, is a friendly rival of that plant and thrives in the same localities.
The most beautiful, perhaps, of all the wild flowers of Kansas is the sensitive rose. Its fragrance is deliciously sweet, a quality which in all probability won for it the name of rose. Certain it is not from any resemblance to the "queen of flowers," for there is no similarity between them. From the base of two stems which are covered with leaves that grow in pairs, and shrink when they come in contact with the human hand, instantly close, to remain in that condition for the rest of the day, spring out a cluster of the little blossoming balls, about an inch in diameter, the deepest pink or cerise in color, each little film tipped with the merest touch of gold. The blossom is extremely fragile and dainty, yet if handled with care, will retain their beauty and exquisite perfume for several days. The author has found comparatively few of these graceful plants which prow on a spreading bush of from one to two feet in height, and once scattered their fragrance everywhere.
The lily family is principally represented in the specie known as field lily, and closely resembles the garden "tiger lily." The creamy water lily is found in a few localities in the region of Lake Sibley. The wild morning-glory has vari-colored waxen blossoms and grows in profusion along the brushskirted creeks.
The pretty little blue and white daisies are the first to appear in the springtime; they raise their modest heads with the first chirrup of the robin. There are innumerable beds of violets along the banks of the rivers and creeks, commonly known as "Johnny-jump-ups." Where is the school boy that has not matched his favorite imaginary game chicken against an adversary in the pit, and ruthlessly decapitated his opponent to the demoralizing of "Johnny-jump-up?"
Then there are buttercups that peep out from along the hedges and tall grasses. Of the dandelions there are two varieties; the ordinary every-day dandelion that grows closely to the ground. The fringed blossom that grows taller, is partially double and more of a lemon color in line. The white and yellow primrose are still found in a few localities. The big white and yellow thorn poppy is a handsome flower, but "distance lends enchantment" to its charms, for it possesses an unpleasant odor and its stalk discharges a sticky fluid. Each plant should be labeled "Don't come nigh me." The white and purple larkspur, now confined to a few fields, once grew commonly; also the pretty and fragrant verbena and petunia. A charmingly dainty and beautifully colored flower, bordering on deepest red of the cerise shade, is commonly known as the "Chinese rose," and blossoms bountifully in almost every nook and corner of Clyde during the months of May and June. From the tip of a slender plant, which does not reach more than twelve inches, in height, the little bell-shaped flower shoots out. The blossom is not unlike that of the rose moss, but slightly larger and the petals not so widely spread. The flower stalks of the wild parsnip, with their snowy umbels of exceedingly dainty beauty that is seldom appreciated, grows abundantly. The same is true of the yarrow and the sage flower that grow on the hills. "Snow in the mountain" that is cultivated with care in the east, grows along the roadside in Kansas. The hills are brightened by the white and purple asters, which come late in the summer after most of the other plants have come and gone. Golden-rod, one of the favorites of the family of wild flowers, grows profusely. In and around the hills a prickly pear or specie of cactus is found, and an occasional yucca, with its sword-like leaves and cream-colored bell-shaped flowers. This plant is a feature of the Rocky mountains. To the Indian it is known as "soap-weed." The root is of a saponaceous character and used by the more civilized tribes for cleansing purposes. The wild rose, long distinguished for its beauty and fragrance, is a native of Kansas. There are two varieties, one a small, low bush, the other a clinging or vining shrub, - the flower, however, is similar except the blossom of the latter is smaller in character. There are perhaps many more species of wild flowers than is mentioned here, and in all probability many varieties have become totally extinct.
Another and important characteristic of Kansas is her good roads. During the winter months they seldom assume that frozen and exceedingly rough condition that marks those of the eastern states in the same season of the year. Again, in the springtime there is no "breaking up" as compared to the experiences with highways that are practically impassable. The extent of time or the period of bad roads in northern Kansas seldom exceeds three days, and are never in a condition to retard traffic.
With the approach of warm weather these reptiles began to show themselves in the early days of Cloud county. They were found in the door yards, in the dugout or cabin and on the prairies in gangs and droves. Settlers declared war upon them and would collect together for the purpose of exterminating places of habitation.
The subject is not a pleasant one to write of and it is enough to make one's blood run cold to listen to some of the thrilling blood-curdling snake killing experiences. What a bonanza it would have been for the unwholesome snake charmer. Although snake literature is not a pleasing subject, this volume would be incomplete without a chapter on these formidable reptiles that were gliding through the prairie grass, coiling in the middle of a path, crawling through the woods and bushes, basking in the sunlight among the rocks, myriads of them everywhere.
The late "Grandma" Christian, of Elk township, related an occurrence. Of 1884, which has few equals in the annals of snake stories. Mr. Christian had sent two boys to the lower part of the farm to clear the dock from the fence, when they came upon a monster of the species called "blow snake," which the boys assaulted "with intent to kill," when the male snake put in an appearance and fought for the protection of his mate.
The boys were victors, however, and as they beheaded the female, imagine their horror and surprise, when from a concealed pocket on the body of the mother, thirty-three infant serpents wriggled out. These brave youths exterminated the whole family, making a grand total of thirty-five, which they gathered up and carried home as tangible evidence of a snake battle that has few parallels.
It was not an uncommon event to see one of these unwholesome creatures gliding over the floor of the dugout, cabin or primitive school house. Behind the newspapers that covered the walls the settlers' wives would often discover that a pair of them had established a home, whereupon the unwelcome intruders would be hastily dispatched.
Kansas, not to be outdone in anything, comes forward with a snake yarn as told by in "old timer." The den was located about nine miles southwest of Concordia on the Wagner ranch. It was first discovered by a man named Johnson, in the year 1875. In the spring of that year the discoverer had an idea that there must be a den after having seen various kinds of the reptiles sunning themselves.
Arming himself with weapons of defense he began his tour of inspection and was horrified to see thousands of the venomous, loathesome, writhing, noisesome creatures. "Discretion is the better part of valor." With this motto our hero (?) "advanced backward," and waited to rally a force of men before making an attack. Wonderful stories were floated about and hundreds of curious sight-seers flocked to the den armed with all kinds of implements of war, pitchforks, axes, hoes, guns and clubs, and began the battle of extermination.
When interviewing an old settler, he told his version in the following manner: "In company with three other men I went out to see snakes, and did see them. First they were looped through the wheels, flying in every direction, at which sight the horses took fright, rearing and plunging, finally running at great speed, throwing reptiles in all directions, and, coupled with the motion and speed of their hoofs, snakes were thrown skyward, eight or ten feet high." When asked after this most wonderful recital. "Did you have anything in the surrey made of glass, covered with wicker?" he replied: "O, no, it was not necessary to see double; there were plenty without double vision."
Snakes, in unison with Indians, buffalo and prairie dogs, are fast growing to be things of the past. Kansas has had her full share and meed of all these pests.
We find, according to historical reports, there was a visitation of grasshoppers in Kansas and Missouri in 1820. Another raid is reported by Father John Schoenmakers, of Osage Mission. He says "they came down like snow." They hatched in the spring of 1855 and destroyed all the crops and all the grass on the prairies in that vicinity. The grasshoppers visited Osage Mission again in 1856, but most of the crop had been garnered. They hatched in the spring of 1857, but "a sudden freshet swept them all away." In the same year they appeared in Lawrence and Leavenworth counties.
February 26, 1867, the Gopher Bill was changed by the senate into a grasshopper bill, giving a bounty for all scalps of grasshoppers furnished with the ears.
Colorado had "hoppers" in 1864-5, but they did not come to Kansas. In 1866 the grasshoppers first struck Cloud county. They put in an appearance on August 30, the day the county was declared organized. The sun was clouded by them and myriads of them covered the trees and ground, spreading consternation among the settlers, for they felt assured it was an evil omen, coming on that particular day. The corn was too far advanced to be seriously injured, but every blade that was at all green soon vanished under their rapacious appetites. There were none in 1867 west of Junction City. They laid and hatched only in the northeastern counties and in Missouri, where they did some damage, but did not create a panic or much harm in Kansas, though they existed in great numbers, flying through the air.
In the year 1868 another great shower of grasshoppers came to the ground in Leavenworth, but did no harm, it being a year of great prosperity. Kansas was not the only country inflicted with these great pests, but the New England states had a visitation in 1874 and they did considerable injury to the hay crop, the fruit trees, and corn tassels, devouring the latter as fast as they appeared.
Wilder, in his "Annals of Kansas," says: "June 6, 1875, all of West and North Topeka were carpeted with grass hoppers; noses north and all walking; some full grown and winged; others shedding their slight silver sheaths; a line like an army; they leave no grass behind them; a strange sight; they do an immense work and are silent; Carlyle's type of a hero; and they eat up the town as heroes devastated empires."
In several counties they fought them with plows, coal oil and the spade. The following was clipped from an early issue of the Marysville News: "Grasshoppers go to roost just like chickens; they eat like people at a fine dinner; they get up on their hind legs and howl over disappointment just like a defeated politician; when they think they are about to get scooped they take a change of venue wherein there is similarity between them and Pomeroy. They believe in co-operation, like grangers. They strike for 'fat takes.' like the printers. They are weary, like Henry Ward Beecher."
All sorts of means were suggested and advised as an exterminator of the pests. Some concluded the evil might have its compensation. One, H.W. Allen, of Boulder, Colorado, by experimenting, is, said to have found that a pint of grasshoppers would yield about two ounces of lubricating oil, and it was thought probable that a crop of "hoppers," which had been considered an unmixed evil, might pay the farmer better than a crop of corn, but the ravishers left behind them a scene of desolation.
The people stood with folded arms and saw their luxuriant fields of corn stripped of every blade, helpless and hopeless, The Governor of Minnesota suggested they be crushed by rollers; caught in bags and traps: plowing under deeply of the eggs; co-operative action for the preservation of the prairie grass by burning in the spring, driving them into trenches where they would be destroyed, and scores of other means were proposed and advised. Another, but said to be an effective way of killing millions of young "hoppers," was a device described as follows: Take a piece of sheetiron ten feet long and two or three feet wide, turn up one side about one foot for a back, saturate a piece of cloth with coal oil and place it on the sheet-iron, which is drawn over the ground. The "hoppers" will jump on to it as it is drawn along, they touch the coal oil and it kills them almost instantly.
The theory that they were out of their natural element and could not permanently thrive has been confirmed by their flight and failing to return annually but at irregular intervals. It was also conceded a grasshopper would stand freezing and thawing.
In the autumn of 1879 they passed over in millions, clouding the sun, moving in a southeasterly direction, propelled by a steady breeze. The air was filled with them but they did not "bide a wee," much to the gratification of the people of Kansas.
Many people consider the grasshopper invasion a benefit to the state as it drove away the indolent class of farmers. Among the progressive ones who left many returned, loudly proclaiming "With all its grasshoppers Kansas is the very best country between the Alleghany and Rocky Mountains." Hard times and calamities are almost as much the result of "croaking" as actual necessity. As when there is not a superabundance of crops and business is stagnated, the people begin to preach doleful sermons and insist upon looking on the dark side of affairs. Hundreds who would not feel the hard times nor have any occasion to take up the cry, clutch the dollar in their pockets more tightly and thus increase the panic.
It was not many months ere many of the fugitives returned to their lands, feeling that Kansas held a future full of bright prospects, and was destined to occupy a place among the first ranks of her sister states, and it was surprising how rapidly the country improved and with what velocity they made comfortable homes in the fertile valleys.
On the grasshopper subject much has been said and written that is superficial, but perhaps the actual devastation of these pests could not be described. They would eat the blades from the corn stock, and through the shuck, into the ear, not leaving anything but the cob. The green peaches were eaten to the pit; beets and turnips were eat down into the ground, and not a vestige of vegetation left.
These fires often threatened the farmers with destruction and were a formidable foe to the homestead settler. Their advent into a community would bring out all of the available workers in the neighborhood, including the settlers' wives and children, equipped with water, old clothing, gunny-sacks, brooms, mops, etc., to fight the fire.
When the wind was blowing a steady gale - and the fire generally created one - the fleetest horse could not outrun the flames as they were lifted by the rising wind and carried along at a furious rate. The fire would often cross the rivers by bunches of burning grass being borne across by the wind from the opposite side.
Saturday, February 5, 1876, a terrific prairie fire swept over the county, taking almost everything in its path. A high wind prevailed. The fire originated on 'Mortimer creek about midway, and swept everything in the western part of the county, covering an area of about two hundred square miles and destroying several thousand dollars worth of property. Many lost their homes, hundreds of bushels of grain and tons of hay were consumed, and none of them could afford the loss.
On March 13, 1879, a fire swept over Lincoln township and a part of Republic county, which was one of the most destructive and most terrifying that ever visited Cloud county. The fire began northwest of Sibley and was driven by a southest wind which kept rising and increasing the volume of fire until every available man, woman and child were out combating the fiery element. The fire reached the line of Republic county and after spreading about two miles the wind whirled to the northwest and brought the fire back with redoubled fury into Cloud county. It is hardly possible to picture the situation of a community threatened by a disastrous prairie fire. The wind in this instance was blowing with such force as to make it almost impossible for pedestrians to be on the streets of Concordia between three and six o'clock in the afternoon. The air was filled with sand, dust, gravel, loose boards, etc., that went pell mell through the streets; and much worse was the fire. The scene was heartrending. Men, women and children, armed with rags and water, dared face the terrible foe and fought valiantly trying to save the property they had labored so hard to accumulate, but notwithstanding their brave efforts, before the sun went down the same evening not less than forty thousand dollars worth of property was reduced to ashes in the two townships.
Charles Burgren lost everything on his place, including a span off horses, span of mules, hogs, cows, wagon, etc. Mr. Burgren saw the fire coming and started to the assistance of a neighbor, but had to turn back on account of the flames coming upon him; but, unfortunately, did not retreat soon enough and was badly burned.
On the farm of Mr. Bowersox the worst tragedy of the whole calamity took place. Mrs. Bowersox, a young woman who had only been married about a year, ran to the stable to let the horses out, the men being away at the time. She had rescued one when she herself fell a victim to the flames and was burned to death inside the stable, along with four horses. When the body was discovered it was a scene horrible to contemplate.
The area swept over by this fire was about thirty square miles and at a rapid gait. Fire guards were useless; burning masses of corn husks, weeds, hay, etc. were sent flying through the air and setting fire hundreds of feet in advance of the main line and there was no remedy for it. It was beyond the control of human efforts,
Transcribed from E.F. Hollibaugh's Biographical history of Cloud County, Kansas biographies of representative citizens. Illustrated with portraits of prominent people, cuts of homes, stock, etc. [n.p., 1903] 919p. illus., ports. 28 cm.
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