It was tradition. When it came time to depart a visit to my parents, Mother faithfully packed us out with goodies from my dad’s garden and her kitchen. We could count on serving her favorite coffeecake at the next day’s breakfast. And over the years, we all grew to love that coffeecake. Today, not as faithfully, but still often, I bake one to share with my now-grown kiddos. They love it too. Family traditions and comfort cooking bring happy memories and warm smiles.
Mother has been gone nearly 18 years now, but she lives on in our hearts and our lives. With her in mind, I baked up a coffeecake to take along on my Easter visit to our daughter and granddaughter a state away. In keeping with Mother’s trademark “simple and delicious” recipes, this Apple Coffeecake is a winner. It is also a great way to use up milk that has gone sour. But you can make it even with sweet milk, altering the ingredients just a tiny bit. If you plan to use 1 cup sweet milk instead of the sour milk, omit the soda in the recipe and add one more teaspoon of baking powder. Alternatively, you could add 1 T lemon juice to the sweet milk to sour it.
To bake this delicious cake, first mix together:
2 ½ cups flour
2 cups brown sugar
½ tsp salt
2/3 cup butter or margarine
Once it’s mixed so that the butter crumbs spread evenly throughout, the next step is very important. Remember: reserve ½ cup of this sugar mixture for later.
To the rest of the mixture add:
½ tsp soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
2 tsp baking powder
(Here’s where you determine if you need to change the 1/2 tsp soda to another tsp of baking powder–making 3 tsp baking powder total–or add a souring agent to 1 cup of sweet milk.)
In a small bowl, combine:
2 beaten eggs
1 cup sour milk
Mix well with the sugar/flour mixture.
Peel, core, and finely dice one apple of your choice.
Add the apple to the batter. Stir well.
Spread in a greased and floured 9” x 13” cake pan.
Sprinkle the reserved topping over the batter.
Bake at 350 for 40 minutes.
Simple. Delicious. And ready to eat in only an hour, fresh out of the oven.
Favorite dishes in our family originate in many places. Grandmother kitchens, as well as mother kitchens, mother-in-law kitchens, and those of friends have produced satisfying and tasty concoctions that remain favorites through generations. It’s surprising how often friends will exchange recipes that work their way onto the list of favorites.
I thumbed through the cards in my file and noted several that have achieved staying power. One was a main dish that has a name begging creative upgrade: “Hamburger on French Bread.” Through the years we have referred to this as “Topped French Bread,” or “French Bread Pizza.” Nothing seems to stick with permanence.
The recipe card was written in my mother’s handwriting, noting that its source was the mother of our good childhood friends, Fredia. Sixty years ago, my sisters and I belonged to a 4-H club and enjoyed getting together for learning projects with friends that we still keep in touch with today. I recall Fredia as an active 4-H project leader, sharing several recipes that had staying power, just like the friendship between our families.
On my latest trip to the grocery store, a display just inside the door offered French bread loaves at a special price. I took it as a sign that the “French Bread Pizza-zz” was next on the Comfort Food list. For many years, French bread loaves were offered in foil wrappers that could be used in the oven. No longer. But I discovered that the long narrow loaves fit nicely, in a diagonal orientation, in 13” x 9” cake pans, which is what I used to prepare this favorite main dish.
Here’s what you need to make this satisfying dish:
Cut a loaf of French bread in half, long ways.
Mix a pound of lean ground beef with 1/3 cup evaporated milk, 1/4 cup of crushed crackers, 1 egg, 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1 1/2 tsp prepared mustard, 1 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper. A handy tool is a potato masher.
Spread ½ of the meat mixture on each half of the bread.
Wrap in foil, or place in a 13 x 9 pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
Bake 20 minutes at 350 F.
Sprinkle ½ cup grated cheese on each half of the loaf. Bake 5 minutes longer.
Slice into desired servings and enjoy.
This recipe is a keeper. My grandson’s comment at dinnertime: “We need to make this more often!”
Perhaps every grandmother bakes cookies. Mine sure did. And there was this one recipe that in my mind was unique to Grandma Georgia. Her recipe for Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies wouldn’t have stood out as special to me, just looking through recipes. Though I am fond of brown sugar concoctions, I have never really taken to raisins. But this cookie wouldn’t be the same without them. In her recipe file, she labeled them “Ola’s Cookies”. Her youngest sister was named Ola. She must have thought fondly of Ola whenever she baked a batch of these cookies. I think of Grandma Georgia. To me, the flavor speaks of delicious odors filling her simple house, her hearty laughter, and her ready hugs. These cookies say “Grandma” as clearly as anything ever could.
I must tell you that the mix of flavors–lemon, brown sugar, and stewed raisins– grows on you and it’s nearly impossible to eat just one. I will also let you know that for years after Grandma Georgia shared this prize recipe with my mother, we could not figure out her secret. Ours never quite ended up the same as Grandma’s cookies. However once upon a time she divulged her little secret (a bit resentfully, as if everyone should just know how to do this.) She always baked a test cookie before she put a sheet of them into the oven. After baking one, if it didn’t turn out light and fluffy, she added more flour. So we learned that recipes aren’t cut in stone. They are meant to be adjusted to preferences and current conditions.
Suffice it to say that the cookies turn out much better (more like Grandma’s) if the dough is very stiff to start with. You don’t want them spreading out too much during the baking process.
Grandma Georgia’s Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Measure a cup of raisin into a saucepan. Cover them with water and simmer them gently while you prepare the rest of the cookie dough.
Cream together 1 cup Crisco and 2 cups brown sugar. Note: I learned a few months ago that genuine Crisco has a component of palm oil in it, which is not environmentally friendly, given that much land in tropical countries is altered to produce the palm trees to meet palm oil demand. I used 1 cup of real butter instead with no detriment to the finished product.
Measure 3 1/2 cups sifted flour and sift with 2 tsp soda and 2 tsp cream of tartar. Mix the dry ingredients into the dough.
Drain the raisins after they are soft and plump. Add them to the cookie dough, and add 1 cup nutmeats, if desired.
Mix well with your hands. “Makes them soft,” wrote Grandma Georgia.
Drop by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet.
Bake 10 – 15 minutes in the pre-heated oven.
This recipe makes 4 to 5 dozen delicious cookies that provide a taste into the past, a simple, wholesome life filled with love and laughter.
A bit of Grandma’s life wisdom:
“When I was younger and my feelings got hurt or a problem was hard to solve, I would get my hoe, and I would hoe and hoe, as hard as I could, until the problem didn’t seem so big. I used to have a wonderful garden!”
With a sense of blissful excitement, I am pleased to announce the arrival of my latest book project, Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File. A divergence from my previous endeavors–hardly suspense fiction–there’s not a single piano in its pages, but it’s still ripe with story.
Georgia Wells Harris was a quiet woman, but she opened her home and her heart to everyone. Each of her family members loved her dearly. She lived a devout faith, slow to anger, loving through dissention, refusing to judge others. Born October 3, 1891 in the Ozark hills of Missouri, her family migrated to central Kansas before the turn of the century in covered wagons, and by rail. She lived through the depression, two world wars, birthed four children, and buried two of them before her own last breath. A farm wife, her realm was home and garden. She kept everyone fed through good times and bad.
She spent her free time crafting quilts and gave them away to each of her children, grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren that she knew. She socialized with clubs of neighbor women at church and in a one-room schoolhouse auxiliary called “72 Club.” She delighted in simple things and her easy laughter was contagious.
My grandmother’s dilapidated recipe file came to me a decade ago after my father passed away. Though I always knew I would share it someday, the time for sharing was postponed by the bustle of a busy life. I wanted to share the cards with all my grandmother’s living grandchildren, my two sisters and a cousin and me. But the project got tabled, and mostly forgotten.
Then a year ago, that busy life came to a standstill due to the COVID restrictions. I am not the only person who discovered that one blessing of the COVID time was to open the chance to catch up on long-overdue projects. This was one of them. In fact, the slower pace reminded me of Grandma Georgia and how I appreciated the slower pace of her life.
Visits to her in my young adulthood always slowed me down and I relished the peace of her quiet life. Last October I pulled the little pink recipe file box from my hutch and began to catalog the cards. It didn’t take long to realize that there were very few duplicates. I would have to split them up. How could I possibly divide them into 4 equivalent batches? What if I sent the wrong recipes to people? Then there was the valid possibility that maybe–just maybe–we’d all like the entire set of recipes.
The idea of making a recipe book was born the moment I realized it would be impossible to split up the cards and be sure that the right granddaughter received those appropriate for her. Why not make them all available to all of us? I began to type the recipes into word documents on my computer. As I typed, it became clearer how much of our lives are told by the food we eat, those favorite dishes we share with our loved ones.
She had noted names on many cards, to remember who provided those recipes to her. Some people I knew. Many I barely knew. Some were total strangers to me. Her dear daughter, and some of us grandchildren were noted, but there were other family names I had only heard about, including Mabel and Florence Ethel (Pete) whom you might recall from the story “High Courage.”
I became doubly excited about this booklet idea. In addition to creating my grandmother’s recipe book, I would use this project to learn how to format manuscripts for publication. The project took on multiple objectives.
I intended to surprise my sisters and cousin at Christmastime.
Well, some things just can’t be rushed. Christmas came and went, and I was still working on designing the cover with the help of my computer-savvy stepson. What’s wrong with Valentine’s Day, I thought? Often in past years, our “Christmas” greetings became Fellentines. This could fit right into that.
But Valentine’s Day came and went also, while waiting on the printing process.
However, I am happy to announce that the project has come to a very successful completion. Last week, I received my first order of the recipe books, and I packaged up several to send off and surprise family members. The unexpected books by now have reached every destination, so the secret is out!
When chatting about this project in December with some friends, I mentioned that I didn’t expect anyone beyond family to be interested. But some friends insisted that they would like the opportunity to have one of these traditional family cookbooks. I felt quite honored by that declaration. My proof-reader sister asked if I’d autographed all the books, and I replied, “I autographed NONE of them. I don’t really feel like it’s my book. It’s Grandma Georgia’s.”
With satisfaction, I can report that I did manage to work through the steps to format this booklet without assistance. Very cool. No need to shy away from that process in my future endeavors. And with love filling my heart, I can say that the opportunity to read through some of Grandma Georgia’s letters was incredibly rewarding. I had kept every one that she sent me before she died June 25, 1990. The correspondence allowed me to season the book with bits of her life philosophy. In this blog’s new “Comfort Foods” category, I will share a few more recipes, as well as snippets of philosophy, in coming weeks. There will be recipes from Georgia’s kitchen, but also some from other beloved friends and relatives. Stay tuned!
My heart is full. I offer the recipe book with love to anyone who needs a lift.
COVID season provided ample opportunity for reflection. Who am I anyway? Or who are WE? How did we get here? Where are we headed?
Much of my ruminating led to angst. We don’t know for sure where we are headed. Events of the last year placed a lot of lifelong assumptions, assurances, and dreams under the scrutinizing lens of a societal microscope and we came up lacking—lacking equality and justice, lacking compassion, lacking financial security and equity. In other areas we have far too much—distrust of each other, division, despair.
Through it however, I discovered that an open mind, willingness to embrace new ideas and habits, reinforcing resilience, and following new paths to adventure were good medicine. Laughter with friends, online or masked, helped also.
Another of my go-to tactics was to remember good times and loved ones who have departed. I recall they made it through difficult days—or even years—and that helps. If they did, so can we.
I discovered one good way to access memories is through food. I am no gourmet chef. In fact, I am one of those people who really HATES to cook. I have always looked at food preparation as a necessary inconvenience. However, I discovered that preparing family favorites passed along by loved ones was therapeutic. I delighted in preparing dishes that make me think of lost family members. Call it comfort food. The stories behind favorite family recipes, their origins and evolution, offer warm fuzzies in the way of good memories, as well.
Today I launch a new thread in my blog–Comfort Food recipes, brought to me by dear friends and beloved family members. Many of the originals live in my recipe box, and when I read the ingredients and instructions, penned in my grandmother’s or mother’s handwriting, it’s as if they are just around the corner, waiting to share some familiar conversational topics. In “Comfort Foods” I will share food stories also, the memories associated with the recipes, and how they came to be favorites.
I start the series with a favorite from my Grandma Georgia, “Peach Seed Jelly.” Yes, you read that right. It is jelly made from a pan of peach seeds. Though I don’t know its origin, I can visualize Grandma Georgia tending to those peaches from her wild peach tree on the west side of the wheat field. After canning the sliced peaches, she discovered how to make use of them down to the leftover seeds, probably with a little help from her friends.
This story has to start in the springtime. After the recent polar weather we experienced, I look forward to this year’s spring. Will the fruit trees bloom again this year? Will the balmy weather allow them to produce fruit again? A few years ago, I learned that the flowering tree at the corner of a building my dad built on the property next door was a peach tree. Prior to that I assumed it to be an ornamental plum since it had never produced fruit in the three decades that we’ve lived here. As it grew, it gifted us with cascades of blossoms during several springs. The fruit finally showed up, and for the last two years, branches were laden with delicate, small white peaches. There was enough to collect and can for the winter, along with several pints of white peach jam.
The story could stop there. But it doesn’t. When I was a child, Grandma Georgia shared a recipe for “Peach Seed Jelly” that my mother utilized several times. Mother discovered that you don’t have to make the jelly during the summer’s canning season. Peach seeds can be frozen and kept a year or two—until there are enough to make a good batch of jelly. When the peach jam jars are empty, and canned peaches nearly depleted, winter is a perfect time to thaw out those peach seeds and make jelly.
Cover the peach seeds with boiling water and simmer on the stove for about five minutes. Let the seeds stand overnight in this water.
Next morning strain and measure the juice.The seeds will now be relegated to the compost bin, or offered to the hens to peck over.
Add 1 package of fruit pectin to each three cups of juice. For this batch, I measured 9 cups of juice, so I needed three packages of pectin.
Bring this to a vigorous boil, stirring constantly.
Add equal parts of sugar as juice. 9 cups juice requires 9 cups sugar. However, I have reliably had better luck with a ratio of 4:3 sugar to juice. 9 cups juice to 12 cups sugar.
Cook at the boiling point until drops sheet off a spoon in the jell test.
This takes maybe 15 – 20 minutes.
I have never been certain when this point is reached, or even identifying drops “sheeting” off the spoon but I discovered that you can test a spoonful on a lid or small dish. Place it in the refrigerator for a minute to see if it jells.
When it’s ready, seal the jelly in pint jars. Process 5 minutes in a boiling water bath.
This is a delightful jelly, with a flavor that cannot be duplicated in any purchased peach jelly or jam. One year, after a top-ranking ribbon at the county fair, my daughter took it to the state fair. No doubt about it, Peach Seed Jelly is a family favorite. After a successful batch, we get quite protective of it. We have even been known to ration its use by novices, just in case they don’t find it as desirable as we do!
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
George Chandler, his son Gene, and the horse Ned went doggedly forward and when the man felt sleepy in spite of himself, he knew he must act. He stopped the horse and slid out of the saddle. He could hardly support himself and clung to the stirrup. The horse dropped his head to the snow and snorted furry icicles from his nostrils. The man pulled the chilled boy into the saddle and carefully wrapped the blanket about his cold feet and legs. He removed the long wool scarf from his own neck and wound it round and round the head and shoulders of his son. He slapped his hands against his chest and stomped up and down until he felt renewed circulation of blood in his veins and his feet did not feel so much like frozen lumps.
When he felt somewhat restored, he gave Ned a slap on the rump and grasped the stirrup firmly. They proceeded on their way. The wind remained bitter and fierce. The cold grew more intense. George thought it must be after midnight. He was sure they were still several miles from home.
He gave himself up to thought. He believed in prayer and he had to have some help right now. He asked God for strength and endurance. He prayed for the son in the saddle and for the precious daughter who had been so faithful during these months when he had been forced to be away from home. As he prayed, he was strengthened. He felt reassured that they would reach home.
Gene seemed to be sleep on the horse. George’s thoughts drifted. He remembered himself as a mere lad in the Army of the Republic. He recalled the joyful day he married Hannah Priscilla Crabtree. He remembered the home life in Missouri and the glowing reports of cheap land in Kansas. These reports had fired both his and his wife’s imagination, so he had purchased their present home from a local land agent whom he had trusted implicitly. They had loaded their belongings in the two big wagons. With the crated chickens fastened underneath the wagon beds, and the boys driving the cows and extra horses, they came west from Kansas City on the great trail.
The Chandlers reached their destination in northern Lyon County, Kansas a week later. No one would ever know his bitter disappointment when he had first seen the treeless, poor upland farm that he had bargained for. He had not known there was so much pasture in all the world. He had dreamed of a farm in the bend of a creek, but the creek turned out to be a gully that passed through his land as a raging torrent after a big rain, a dry slough the remainder of the time.
The horse dragged on. George staggered as he clung to Ned. His arms ached. With thoughts of the family that waited for him, he poured his last ounce of determination into his efforts. He resolutely lifted one foot after the other, glad that Gene was quiet.
The night was clearing enough that he recognized the little cemetery in the whiteness. Ned must have come this far west to avoid some very deep snow drifts. The horse was doing fine to know so much even it if did make the way a mile longer.
Thoughts continued like a rushing stream that would not be stopped. The Chandlers had worked at making a home on that upland claim. And then—oh dear God—there had been Delphia, the blue baby. Disconnected scraps of memories filled his laboring mind. “Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.” Preachers always said those words in burial services.
With cold misgivings he asked himself, “Is there more than that in life?” Hannah was taken when he had needed her so badly. Was she better off than he this terrible night? The harrowing experience of moving little Delphia’s body from the corner to the place at the head of her mother haunted him. It was noon on a warm May day when the little disinterred coffin rested on the green grass. His helpers stood around while he obeyed an impulse to open the lid to peek at his darling child again. In the first instant as they all looked the baby form was there in its original angelic beauty. With the impact of warm air, the little form crumbled into a tiny mound of ashes.
Shuddering, George forced his mind back to his present surroundings. “I must be awfully cold to let myself think in this way,” he thought. “I will not doubt. The word says the spirit shall return to God who gave it. God help me,” he prayed, “to be able to say, even tonight, The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.” Aloud he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord. I know that God giveth His children strength.”
At his voice, Gene mumbled “What did you say, Pa?”
The father answered, “We will get home. We are almost there.”
It was about three o’clock in the morning when the horse stopped at the stone house. The man gave a shout and dragged the nearly frozen boy from the saddle. The door flew open and Henry, followed by the tall neighbor boy, rushed out and half carried them into light and warmth. Charlie, the lame boy, limped away with old Ned, and while the people in the house worked over the man and the boy, restoring them with a tub of snow, Charlie fed and rubbed the animal that had brought his father and brother home safely home.
When only partially recovered from his night’s experience, the man whose sandy hair had turned white during the last twelve hours, turned to the bedside of his sick daughter.
As he stroked her hair, she spoke her last words, “I knew you would come, Pa.”
The father, with spasms of pain crossing and re-crossing his fine face, held the hand that so confidently had been placed in his. He realized his efforts to save this beloved daughter had been in vain.
As dawn broke over the windswept hillside, Etta Viola Chandler died. George gathered as many of his children as he could clasp into his arms. They clung to him or to each other as he bowed his head in submission and whispered so all could hear, “Thy will be done.”
That was the morning of January 19, 1882. The place was a quarter of a mile south of the original Santa Fe Trail that wended its way across northern Lyon County, Kansas. The Old Santa Fe Trail was the way thousands of people followed west in the 1800s. With their heads, hearts, and hands they literally created a democracy the likes of which is not found anywhere else on our earth.
Because of the bitter cold, Etta Viola Chandler, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, could not be buried in the little Bushong Cemetery beside her mother until January 24, 1882.
Notes about Mabel Chandler Harris, the author of this historical narrative, and the setting of the story.
Mabel was born to George Chandler and his second wife, Carrie, in 1890. She was one of eight children of this second marriage. The children in her “High Courage” story were mostly grown when Mabel was a child, but she must have heard this family story and her heart went out to their struggles.
Mabel married Loren Scott Harris, the older brother of my grandfather Charley Harris, on June 7, 1915. They had one child, Florence Ethel, born December 22, 1927, who was a favorite cousin of my father, Wallace. He called Florence by the nickname Pete.
Pete moved to Wichita during her adult years and shared this “High Courage” story with her dear friend and tax accountant. When Wallace moved to Cowley County from Lyon County, he also hired Pete’s accountant friend to handle his taxes, and I followed suit. During one of my annual tax meetings, she presented me with a copy of Mabel’s story about the blizzard of 1882.
Loren and Mabel lived in Dunlap, Kansas, just up the road from the Harris family homestead on the Neosho River where my grandfather and father lived. Mabel had the distinguished honor to become the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the Methodist Church in the entire state of Kansas. She performed wedding ceremonies, and funerals, for many rural folks, including the Harris family.
The settler’s town named in the story, Bushong, Kansas, is today little more than a few neighborly homes on the paved county road due north of Americus, Kansas. To put more perspective on the horseback journey of Gene and his father on Ned the trusty horse, Bushong is a good 20 miles from the heart of Emporia. The stone cabin where Etta waited would have been even further. Gene and Ned traveled more than 40 miles in that storm, 20 of them on the return trip with George, in the dark, facing into the wind. That blows my mind. Teenage Gene indeed showed great courage, as well as a deep love for his sister and the rest of the family.
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
In the dead of winter when the weather was at its worst, Etta Viola Chandler was lying in her bed, sick. She knew that she was very hot, and that she was very sick. She thought of her mother who had always known what to do under any circumstances. She lifted her arms pleadingly out in the room and sobbed. “Oh, ma, I need you so much.” She continued to toss, finally sleeping fitfully.
After a long, long time, morning came. Gene peeked in from the bedroom and noticed her feverish face. “You need the doctor?”
Etta answered the question he had blurted out. Yes, she must have a doctor. Henry declared he would be glad to make the trip to Americus. As soon as he had eaten, he saddled his favorite horse and went for their good friend, Dr. Wright. Gene went out in the bitter cold to do the chores, paying special attention to all the livestock under his care, just as his father always did. Leo Nettie ironed the clothes and the children all cared for little Annie, who was unusually fretful. Before noon a kind neighbor came in to help. Henry had stopped at the Sanders place on his way to Americus. Mrs. Sanders, too, was alarmed at the serious condition of the sick girl on the bed.
Soon other neighbors brought food. Their presence provided comfort for the anxious children. Early in the afternoon, Dr. Wright arrived and with gruff frankness told them that Etta was a very sick girl. “She has pneumonia,” he said. “I’ll do all I can for her, but her father must get here as soon as possible.” He provided medicine, carefully giving the directions, and reluctantly left the house. Henry stood close to the stove to warm up after his trip to Americus.
At the window, Gene noticed the snow piling up. The cold wind blew through cracks in the stone wall. On the bed, Etta was conscious of Gene’s dismay. Her sympathy was aroused but she knew their father would want to be home under the circumstances. And she needed her Pa. She sat up in her bed and in her old way, she marshalled her forces.
“Gene,” she said, “you will have to go for Pa. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to send you out in the storm. But you have to go. Ride Ned. He is the strongest horse on the place and you and Pa can both ride him back. Leo Nettie, keep the fire burning hard. Don’t let the house get cold. And Henry, eat some dinner and then see that the chickens and stock are well cared for, because this night will be hard on them.
“Bert, you and Charlie, get in plenty of fuel and water. Lottie, you see that the littler ones are kept happy so they won’t bother Leo-Nettie who has so much to look after.”
She sank back into the covers and turned again to face Gene. She almost whispered, “Tell Pa not to worry but to come as quick as he can. You take the heavy blanket off the bed to wrap up in—oh, Gene, I wish you did not need to go.”
She turned to the others in the room. “Thank you, Mrs. Sanders, and thank everyone for coming.” Her eyes swept the circle of faces and lingered on the tall neighbor lad who stood with her brothers. “I’ll be all right when Pa gets here,” she ended confidently. She laid back on her pillow.
Silently each one attended to his appointed task. The tall neighbor boy went out with Gene to see that everything was as good as possible for the dangerous trip to Emporia. Beside the cold, visibility would be poor and there would be many drifts on the road. It was already little more than a path.
Gene was well-wrapped. With his back to the wind and the big horse willing he made steady progress. Yet it was well after dark when the chilled and hungry boy finally reached the hotel in Emporia. George Chandler greeted his son’s announcement with consternation. He felt a premonition of impending disaster.
The hotel owner was understanding, but obdurate. “The supper must be served,” he said. “The house is full of guests, and anyway, it will be much better to wait until morning. No one can hope to make a trip to Bushong and beyond on a night like this.”
At his father’s side, Gene remembered Etta’s words, “Tell Pa not to worry but to come as soon as he can.” Gene said, “Pa, it’s bad but let me feed Ned so he can rest a bit and then let us be going. Etta wants you.”
While the horse ate and rested, Gene warmed by the oven door and had a good supper. The anxious father served the evening meal before he could prepare for the trip home in the face of one of Kansas’ worst blizzards. He knew they would be facing directly into the storm as they headed northwest into open country.
At first, both Gene and his Pa rode Ned but the horse was not as fresh as he had been six hours earlier, nor as willing to face the needle-sharp sleet that cut their faces. The animal was urged on by the worried man with the reins. The boy dug his face into his Father’s protecting back but his feet and legs soon became numb and he sobbed soft whimpering sobs that cut into the heart of the father. George tried to comfort the lad with kind encouragement, but fear had assailed him too. He had lost his bearings. He was not sure he was guiding the horse in the right direction.
“I will have to trust the horse and God,” he told himself. “I do not know where we are.” He fastened the reins around the pommel of the saddle, giving the horse his head. The animal, seeming to sense the urgency of the man’s knees, struggled on through the drifts around them. George fretted and worried for fear that they were not going right, until he was reassured by the lights and recognizable streets of Americus. He knew then that Ned would get them home if only the two humans could endure the low temperatures of the night.
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
In Etta’s wakefulness, she recalled the three years they had been here on this horrible Kansas prairie. She remembered the moment when the two covered wagons drawn by tired horses had turned off the Santa Fe Trail in northern Lyon County and had gone a quarter of a mile south to this location. Their stone house had been started by a former homesteader. She saw again the thrill of high hope in her mother’s face as they pegged their tent into place.
“George,” she said, and there was a note of finality in her mother’s voice, “this is not much of a place—upland—no trees—but I say here we will make our home. It will not be any harder for us than for the other settlers around here. We are not going to move anymore.”
“I agree with you, Hannah,” said George Chandler, her husband. “Here we will make our home.”
That was in March 1879. How cold the spring had been! How long it had taken to get this half-built house put together! How hard the sod had been when pa tried to plow! How the wind did blow!
How she had hated it all!
No wonder all the families around them were not finding life in Kansas at this time and place easy, but it seemed that tragedy did not follow others like it had her family. She recalled the rattlesnake’s bite on Gene’s leg that first summer and how pa had saved the boy’s life by splitting the leg of her screaming brother and then with his own mouth sucking the wound until no more blood or fluid of any kind came from it. The rattler was a huge one and had seven rattles and a button. They had killed it all right—chopped off its head—but it still wiggled all day long. After that none of them ever fooled with a rattlesnake, because they recognized one whenever they saw it.
The girl shuddered. Her mind would not be quiet and let her sleep. She remembered her ma’s pain when little sister Delphia had come the second spring. Delphia had been a blue baby and had lived only two weeks. She died March 26, 1880. Her little grave had been dug in the northeast corner of the new Bushong cemetery, which had been bought but not yet been laid out.
Ma had dragged all that summer in spite of her continued high hopes and then had worn herself out caring for Charlie, who during haying time had slipped off a load of hay and broken his leg. In spite of all that good Dr. Wright of Americus could do to relieve him, ten-year-old Charlie often cried all night with pain. Even though she was in the family way again, Ma stayed all night by his side trying to ease the suffering when the splintered bone continued to work out through the festering flesh. Pa took his turn, too. He was great for hot poultices. They did seem to ease the pain and drew out those pieces of bone from the leg.
Etta jerked and turned over in her limited space. Little Annie stirred and the girl soothed the babe to quietness. She rubbed her own throbbing head—her hands were cold but they felt good when pressing against her strangely burning eyes. She could not sleep. Her thoughts reverted to that most terrible time of all back in March 1881.
On March 10, Ma went again into that dreadful time of childbirth. The younger children were bundled off to the neighbors. Mrs. Day, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Sanders, homesteaders all, had been so good. When the baby was finally born two days later, it was all right but Ma was so sick that they never even thought to name little sister. Everyone was trying to help Dr. Wright save the mother’s life, but Hannah Priscilla Chandler had indeed made her last earthly move. When the baby girl was five days old and was crying for some milk, the mother closed her eyes, overcome by too much bodily pain, want, and longing.
George Chandler bought a lot in the Bushong cemetery, two miles south of his farm. Hannah, his efficient and helpful wife, was laid in it and the body of little Delphia brought from the corner and laid at her mother’s head. This Kansas mother had died March 17, 1881.
Etta was sixteen years of age then. She was big and strong and knew how to do the homemaking work, so she became the woman of that upland claim. She was naturally an organizer and a commander so things went on about as usual. The baby was named Hannah Priscilla, for the dead mother, but she was called Annie.
Life was not always dull and laden with heavy work. Etta had a beau, too. Even under the bad conditions her love for her father and the children made the days short—and surely much better times were just ahead for all of them.
But doctor bills, funeral expenses, grocery bills, and the need of clothing for all of them nearly drove the heartbroken father mad. When he was a lad, George Chandler, had served in the Hospital Corps of the Northern Army and there he had learned to cook. Though he had tried to raise a crop that summer of 1881, but when autumn came and little grain had been produced on the land that God had intended for pasture, he faced the coming winter with despair. He had to earn some money.
The father talked this over with the older children. With the optimism of youth, Etta, Gene, and Henry agreed with his plan to take a job in an Emporia hotel as cook for the winter. The children all agreed to obey Etta and do just as she said. With many misgivings and secret fears, George Chandler, forty-years-old, left the little stone house on the prairie for a good-paying job in the city, twenty miles away. He hoped he would be able to pay his debts, buy family necessities, and come home the following spring.
Etta took her responsibilities seriously. Like an adult, but sometimes with girlish immaturities, she carried on day-by-day. Every night found her with tired muscles, throbbing head, and pressing problems. How could she manage on the morrow?
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.
“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.”
During this tumultuous and challenging time, today’s holiday to remember one of history’s honored leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives a chance to pause and reflect on some of his favorite speeches. Excerpts from addresses of Dr. King through the course of his career can be found engraved in granite at the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C.
We visited there a few years ago. The impact of those words gave a hush of reverence to the area. Today, I remember Dr. King, and ponder his life and his words, in the spirit of hope that the memorial offers to a divided country and world.
A few of Dr. King’s words, surrounding the massive mountain and engraved for posterity in granite, testify to the power of our spirit, through language. Long may the words provide hope for those in the midst of a struggle for justice and equality, until the day when everyone on Earth is valued as an equal member of the worldwide community.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. (Norway 1964)
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. (1963)
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. (Norway 1964)
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. (Alabama 1963)
Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in. (District of Columbia 1959)
I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world. (California 1967)
It is not enough to say, “We must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not only on the negative expulsion of wat, but on the positive affirmation of peace. (California 1967)
Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. (New York 1962)
If we are to have peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical, rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective. (Georgia 1967)
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (District of Columbia 1968)
Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. (1963)
This is not a complete collection of the quotations at the memorial. But it is most of them. One could spend hours there, meditating on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and pondering his legacy which is forever established through the power of his words. Located amidst the awe-inspiring memorials in our nation’s capital, it is fitting to remember this man’s life today, on the holiday declared to honor his life and legacy. And we return to that stone of hope during these difficult times, with renewed anticipation that a corner of our history has been turned and we will look toward renewed progress to uplift every person, and every living thing on Earth, with honor and respect.