Voices of the Past & Present

Ralph M. Heath "Seward County and Southwest Kansas in 1886"

The following article by Ralph M Heath was published in the Southwest Tribune in January, 1961.


     April 8, 1886, was a perfect day in Seward County, warm and bright, with scarcely a breeze stirring. The heavy snows of winter were gone, the spring rains had come, grass was beginning to show green and prairie flowers were showing signs of coming to life again, after lying dormant through one of the severest winders the west had ever experienced.

     In the early hours of the morning, the westbound passenger train of the Santa Fe had stopped at Garden city, and among the passengers who alighted were my father's family, six in number, somewhat travel-worn from a journey of two days and nights, from their former home near the shore of Lake Erie in northern Ohio, to this new land of promise, which was that year rapidly settled, for the most part by homeseekers like ourselves.

     Our destination was to be Fargo Springs, a then thriving little frontier town on the north bank of the Cimarron River a town destined, as we thought in those days, to become the metropolis of Western. Kansas but which, after a few years, was added to the long list of ghost towns which sprang up almost overnight, and then disappeared as if by magic.

     At that time a stage line operated between Garden City and Fargo Springs, a distance of fifty-two mites, a stage coach running each way daily. These coaches were drawn mostly by western ponies and were relayed at Santa Fe, another early frontier town, which was about half way between Garden City and Fargo Springs. It was by stage coach over this line that we traveled that day. After crossing the bridge at Garden City, we plunged at once into a seven mile stretch of sand hill country, across which the knee-deep sand made the road seem impassable. It was over this part of the road that the men and boys were supposed to get out and walk, and did that this day, while the ponies floundered through the sand as best they could, pulling the coach loaded with the women folks of the party, and the luggage.

     That part of the journey I have never forgotten. Neither have I forgotten the thrill I experienced as we came at last from the sand hill country out onto the great level stretch of true prairie land, which lay on ahead to the southward as far as we could see.

     What a sight that was to a boy, who until then had lived in northern Ohio with its small fields and its large areas of timber land. Mile upon mile, little could be seen but buffalo grass, dotted here and there by claim shacks, but not a tree of any kind, not even a bush or sage brush.

     Until this time there had been very little sod broken, just a few acres on some of the claims, although on many of the wagons of the immigrants moving in could be seen ''hot foot grasshoppers'' or "Katy Did'' sod plows, which soon would be used in breaking the sod preparatory to crop planting.

     We had not driven far over this buffalo grass area when one of the passengers said to another, who had quite emphatically expressed his opinion of the sand hill country through which we had just passed, ''What do you think of this country HERE?"  Said the other, ''A country that can't produce anything but short curly moss doesn't look good to me." To which the first replied: ''Why man, that is buffalo grass. Buffalo grass, I tell you for grazing purposes – the richest grass in all the world.”

     To a lad of thirteen years, who had been born in a log house in a northern Ohio woods; this was a strange sight, and whether it was the vastness of it all, or because of the freedom it seemed to offer, I have never known, but it somehow had an appeal and fascination which gripped me, and always since, I have liked the prairie.

     Strange how trivial events will linger in one's mind, while important ones will sometimes be soon forgotten. That day, because of the number of passengers wishing to make the trip, it was necessary to use two coaches. All members of my family except myself, were in the extra coach, which was in charge of an inexperienced frontiersman as driver. Soon after coming to the level country south of the sand hills the driver of the extra coach had urged his ponies into a swift trot, and was soon so far ahead he was out of sight, while our driver was letting his team jog leisurely along, at what seemed to me, an unnecessarily slow pace. I called our driver's attention to the matter of the distance the other driver was ahead of us. I still remember his reply: ''Never mind, lad, I'll beat him into Fargo Springs.'' And he did.

    Several miles before reaching Fargo Springs, the first driver, with ponies badly jaded, was passed by our driver, whose team was still jogging slowly along, not much the wearier because of their long journey. To the automobile minded boy of today, who in a modern car dashes over a good paved highway, this same distance in a short time, this incident will be of little interest, but to the man who lived in that day and was a lover of horses, it will be both understood and appreciated.

     It was on this trip that I saw my first ox team, a large team of longhorn driven by an old bewhiskered man.The wagon was loaded with buffalo bones, and on top of the load were some sacks of the inevitable prairie fuel of that day.

     The little town of Ivanhoe some miles to the south of Garden City, possessed about the only water well for miles around. It was there that our driver watered his team, while I, with others, watched with interest, the motley array of forty or fifty settlers from the surrounding country, who had come with all manner of conveyances and water vessels to get a share of the precious water. All day long, and sometimes far into the night, we were told, they waited patiently or impatiently, their turn at the well.

     Ivanhoe vanished at last, and with it hopes, especially of an old German, who had come from Illinois and invested a small fortune there, expecting to build a Chicago on the Kansas prairies. I do not recall this man's name, but I do remember that he had built a fine home, a large livery stable and feed yard, a lumber yard and general store, owning at one time, practically the entire town.

     All along the way that day we could see places of human habitation: dugouts, one room board shacks, and soddies. Some of the dugouts were really that, as nothing could be seen of them except the roof with the storm door, which opened onto the dirt steps leading into the interior of dirt walls and dirt floors.

     Nearly all of the board shacks were of but one room and that one small and cheaply built, the soddies, in some instances were larger, some having two or three rooms.

     They nearly all had ''car roofs'' and we later that the roofs were made of wide boards, with tarred paper, then that covered with a layer very comfortable covering, except when rains came. Then it was a marvel how they could leak, for several hours after the rain ceased! As we saw the houses of various kinds that day, we thought (as the occupants of them thought) that they were to be used for temporary purposes only, and until something larger and permanent could be built, never dreaming that within the next year or two a large percentage of them would be permanently vacated, and the useable material of which they were built, would be appreciated and used by the more courageous settlers, who still stayed on, hoping for a time when crops would be good and prosperity would set in.

     May I digress here to say that it was in some of these abandoned shacks and dugouts that schools and religious services were later held for and by the few hardy settlers who remained, for as has always been the case with American pioneers on all the frontiers they have occupied, they were never slow in establishing schools and churches. In this there is almost no exception.

     The people we met that day, and many others of those who were moving and whom we later learned to know well, were a great people. They had come mostly from states farther to the East -- Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania, pretty largely, but nearly all the states were represented by at least a few settlers.

     They were of all ages, but a large percentage were middle aged men and women with families of children. Another good sized group was composed of unmarried young men and women. As I now remember, practically all of the settlers of that time were American born.

     They had come out to this new and rapidly developing land for various reasons: for adventure, health, romance, and some (but I think very few) to cover up memories and mistakes of the past and to make a new start in life. There were businessmen, mostly with somewhat limited capital, who visioned possibilities of amassing a small fortune in short order by supplying the necessities of those who were moving in with practically all their earthly possessions in a covered wagon.

     There too were the professional men and women doctors, teachers, mostly young and energetic, anxious to get established in the profession for which they had made preparations.

     Their principal topic of conversation was the place which they had come, and the marvelous opportunities offered by this vast new land. All had high hopes for the future, but all seemed also to understand something of the privations and hardships they would meet and need to overcome before their dreams were fully realized.

     All the people we met that day, every last one, were strangers, but all were friendly and seemed anxious to be kind and helpful. One at once learns to love people who are like that.

     As my mind now goes back over a lapse of sixty years, to those people of the earlier days, I remember them as the best people I have ever known. With very few exceptions they were poor financially, but possessed of those rare qualities which make people rich. They were generous beyond measure, sharing with one another in times of need, of whatever they possessed. They were hospitable in a degree scarcely known today, for a total stranger was never turned away from the humblest home.

     For a friend, no hardship was too great to be endured -- no way too long, no storm too severe, no night too dark, but someone was ready to go to bring a physician to the bedside of a suffering child, or a gospel minister to the home of those who were sorrowing because of the passing of a loved one.

     They held as sacred the sanctity of the home and the fundamental teaching of the gospel as the only correct basis upon which the people of a community should live together.

     From this group of people such as I have tried to describe, it is only natural to expect many men and women of prominence to come. Such is the case, for from these pioneers and their descendants we hear often the names of people in almost every walk of life -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, men of big business affairs and those who have become widely known as political, civic and religious leaders.

     It was in 1886 that this southwestern portion of Kansas was really settled, as was also the part of Colorado lying directly to the west. The strip of land which is now a part of Oklahoma, lying just to south, then known as No Man's Land, and over which no state claimed jurisdiction, was not opened for settlement at that time and was not settled upon then, except in a few places along the water courses, mostly by venturesome cattlemen.

     Those who came to Seward County in 1886 and succeeded in breaking sod and planting a crop, even a few acres, were well repaid, for that year was one of the most favorable we have known. Rains were frequent, weather conditions really perfect; and an abundant crop of everything planted was raised. Such watermelons as we have never seen before were raised in abundance.

     But conditions changed, and the year 1887 was a dry one and so was the next, and the settlers left, almost in hoards. By the year 1890, as I remember, not more than five per cent of those who came first were still here.

     The railroad built into Liberal in the early spring of 1888, and meant much to the people at that time, as everything used until then, had to be freighted from the Santa Fe mostly, by ox and mule teams, and because of a better road, we usually went to Cimarron or Dodge City.

     A round trip required about six days, especially when we were loaded both ways -- with buffalo bones when going, and supplies of all kinds when returning.

     Fifty years (as of the time this was written) is a short time, but it has brought many changes, perhaps some for the better, some for the worse. I would not say that the settlers here in the early days were in any way superior to that great succession of hardy pioneers whose faces have ever been turned westward, but I do feel that if ever an adequate eulogy of the nation's pioneers is written, a page should be reserved for those western Kansas settlers who came, endured and stayed.

About Seward County Historical Society

The Seward County Historical Society provides historic and entertainment opportunities for the local, regional and international visitors to Southwest Kansas. From Dorothy's House to traveling exhibits and a repository of local history from the Spanish exploration of Coronado to current events, SCHS provides a venue and a committed group of staff and volunteers to insure local history is preserved and to reinforce the belief that Kansas truly is a place over the rainbow.

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The Seward County Historical Society provides historic and entertainment opportunities for the local, regional and international visitors to Southwest Kansas. From Dorothy's House to traveling exhibits and a repository of local history from the Spanish exploration of Coronado to current events, SCHS provides a venue and a committed group of staff and volunteers to insure local history is preserved and to reinforce the belief that Kansas truly is a place over the rainbow.

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