High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – I

The months of slower pace due to COVID have given unexpected gifts. There is the opportunity to slow down and absorb information delivered online and in print. There is time to catch up on long-overdue projects, and time to consider our collective history. There is opportunity to consider what path we must now choose to proceed, and there is a longing to find comfort in memories of our loved ones–parents, grandparents, friends, distant relatives. The following 4-part story is a combination of catching up on overdue projects, as well as longing for the old stories told by my grandmother. Though I don’t remember much about the author of this historical family tale, I am honored to share her rendition of a difficult time in the history of the Flint Hills region that I love.

“High Courage” was written decades ago by my great aunt, Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part I

“I believe I’ll wash.” The slender girl appraised the Kansas sky that January morning in 1882. The blue of the heavens with its few white fleeting cloudlets was a vast dome over that prairie homestead located in northern Lyon County. Seventeen-year-old Etta Viola Chandler whiffed the warm air and turned to the little stone house that was home for herself, five brothers and three sisters.

Like a commanding officer, she marshalled her forces. “Gene, you and Henry get busy right now and get these rocks back in place.” She pointed to the corner of the kitchen where the wall that had been so hastily constructed during the spring of 1879 had already begun to tumble, leaving a large gap of the outer wall of their dwelling.

“Charlie, you and Bert get the team and bring in that jag of hay from the stack in the lower meadow. We cannot expect this good weather to hold this time of year.”

“Leo Nettie, wash the breakfast dishes and keep Annie out of the draft until the boys get that wall mended. I am going to wash.”

“Maisy, you and Lottie bring your buckets and we will get this wash water on to heat. We never have enough clothes until wash day, and then there is never soap, clothes line nor water to half do the job.” She smiled at the girls. “As soon as the water is in the kettle, you two can get ready for school.”

Etta sang softly as she picked up two wooden buckets. The three girls hurried to the well down near the slough and the corrals. The wash water was soon heating over the stove.

By mid-morning, her brothers clumsily filled in the hole in the wall. Situated nearby with the wash tubs, Etta rubbed on the washboard. The air that had been so warm in the early morning was somewhat chilly now. Though the sky was still blue and the sunshine was beautiful, she hurried the boys. “Hurry and get these rocks in place. There is surely going to be a change in the weather.” She lugged her load of wet clothes toward the already full clothesline and spread them on the brown grass.

An hour later as she carried out the last garments, her sleeves rolled to her elbows and her hair wet about her face, an icy blast of wind struck her. A shiver ran through her frame and she hurried more with the spreading of the children’s clothes on the grass. The ragged underclothes and the boys’ pants flapped in the wind from the clothesline. She emptied the dirty suds and rinse water and set the house in order.

The hole in the wall was stopped up and Etta dropped into a chair by the hot stove. She was shaking with a chill. Little Annie, just learning to walk, toddled to her knee. Etta called her sister. “Come and get her, Nettie, I declare I am having a chill.” Her teeth chattered uncontrollably.

The boys came in for their noon meal, stamping cold feet and blowing red fingers. “It sure looks like a storm is coming,” Gene predicted, as they ate their scant meal of cornbread and fried rabbit. Fortunately, they all liked rabbit meat as these little animals were plentiful and easy to catch. Fortunately, too, there was milk to drink.

Etta could not eat. She felt hot and then cold. As the boys sat around after the meal, little Annie fell asleep in her arms and with a reluctant apology, the sick girl dragged herself to the bed in the corner of the room, tucked little Annie under the covers, and collapsed beside the toddler. The others looked in astonishment at each other. “Let’s be quiet and let her sleep,” Leo Nettie said softly. “Land knows she needs the rest.”

Twelve-year-old Leo Nettie washed the dishes and put them on the curtained shelves near the stove. The boys sat on the wide board floor and played mumble peg with their pocket knives. The weather was certainly changing. The wind was coming from the northwest in spasmodic gusts and with it were tiny whiffs of snow.

“We better get those clothes in,” said Gene, the oldest boy, a strapping boy of fifteen. Together they brought in the partially dried wash and piled it on chairs near the fire. Leo Nettie, with an uneasiness she could not define, spread the garments out and soon the room was filled with steam as they dried.

When Etta woke, her head ached. She lay still. The warm bed felt good to her. She saw that the clothes had been brought in and were drying. She spoke her gratitude to the sister and brothers and they beamed with her praise. Soon after four o’clock the school-aged children came home from school. They warmed themselves near the stove. Five-year-old Maisy announced that Mr. Day, the teacher, had said there would be no school the next day if it snowed during the night and the roads were drifted.

The evening chores were attended to by the older boys and then supper of cornbread and rabbit was eaten in silence. Everything seemed wrong when Etta still lay on the bed. The group soon went to bed too. The house was quiet. The wind tore about the little house. Sleet fell relentlessly on the roof. Etta awakened, quietly undressed, and went to bed properly under the covers. But she was uncomfortable—first hot and then cold—among the blankets. She could not sleep.

“My,” she fretted, “I do hope I am not going to be sick and even pa not here to look after the young ones.”

(To be continued. . .)

7 thoughts on “High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – I

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