Her Passion was Pianos

Perhaps once in a lifetime, a person might just encounter an unforgettable spirit whose influence extends far beyond one human lifespan. This is the story of my chance meeting with such a woman who gave her heart to music and pianos all her life. February being the month for passion, it seems like a good time to share the story of E. Marie Burdette.

Back in my early days of piano service work, I offered my limited skills to local friends, just trying to help out. Joyce was one of those friends. At one piano appointment, she invited me to play with her in an upcoming county-wide piano duet festival. I’d never heard of such an event, but the idea intrigued me. Through the teacher of her teenage step daughters, we signed up. The year was 1992. The piano teacher was E. Marie Burdette. The event itself was one in a long history of monster piano concerts in Cowley County, dating back to the 1930s, all of them organized or influenced by this tiny whirlwind of a musician and piano teacher.

That 1992 festival was held in the gymnasium at Cowley College, with about 25 home model acoustic pianos loaned by local families, churches, and music stores. They arced in  rows around a director’s podium. The whole experience was a blast. For me, it was also a life-changer.

The idea of getting two dozen borrowed pianos together–and tuned!–in time for a weekend rehearsal and concert astounded me. I was hooked. And I wanted to be part of the next one. Sponsored in every leap year by local music clubs as well as the county’s Walnut Valley Music Teachers Association, I decided to support the groups, and to get my own children involved in the next piano duet experience. I joined the WVMTA. Later I located the Wichita PTG chapter and joined it also, in hopes of being part of the prep work on the 1996 monster concert. Sadly, never since 1992 were acoustic instruments involved, and never again on the gym floor. Instead, ten or twelve Clavinovas were provided for stage use in the Brown Center auditorium at Cowley College. A couple times, we added a few of the college’s acoustic pianos, and in 2020, we utilized the stage Steinway D piano, but the challenge of tuning up to 30 pianos did not present itself.

Those monster concerts were the idea of the amazing devotee of keyboard music and pedagogy, Miss E. Marie Burdette. In 1992, she observed her 91st birthday, and though not present at the festival itself, she sent her students in droves. It would be another five years before I actually met her, when she called on me for piano service. With a bit of trepidation, and a bit more awe, I answered her call to the modest brick home her parents built in 1942. I have taken care of her 1966 Mason and Hamlin A ever since.

Emma Marie Burdette, (E. Marie) whose name is nearly synonymous with “piano” in Winfield, was born July 3, 1901 in Cedar Vale, Ks. She was half of a set of twins, born moments after her brother Penrose. Her family moved to Winfield in 1909, where they settled. Her first piano lesson at age 8 was at Winfield’s College of Music, a school on Main Street that exists today only in the historical museum. From that first lesson, she knew she wanted to be a piano teacher. She excelled in the art of performance, and joined the College of Music faculty before graduating from Winfield High School in 1920.

After four years teaching at the College of Music, she spent a year in New York as the assistant to nationally recognized composer and teacher Mrs. Crosby Adams. At the end of her year, she returned to Winfield with continued employment at Southwestern College, where she taught until her retirement in 1970. During the summers of 1927 and 1930, she studied organ with Marcel Dupre and piano with renowned European masters in Paris, France. Her friendship with the Dupre family lasted a lifetime, and she brought them to Winfield for performance and speaking engagements at Southwestern College.

Miss Burdette belonged to all the music organizations in existence during her lifetime–piano, organ, and teaching groups. She served as an officer in most of them. Through her connections, she brought international talent to Kansas and Winfield. Some noted guests were Marcel Dupre, Mrs. Crosby Adams, and the widow of Edward McDowell. There is even a report that she brought Rachmaninoff as a performer to an early regional music conference held at Southwestern College.

But her biggest legacy involves the students she taught. She loved teaching, and she loved her students. There are many Winfield residents who remember her lessons and how much she cared. She never turned down a student, regardless of age. My friend Joyce, that 1992 duet partner, took lessons from Miss Burdette as an adult. “She never treated me like a child, but asked why I wanted to study piano. What were my goals? And then her focus was to help me reach those goals.”

She never pushed a student to do anything they didn’t want to do, but instead offered understanding and gentle encouragement. “You can do it. You have what it takes!”

Encouragement was a hallmark of her teaching method. “Even when her aging eyes fluttered closed, she knew when I made a mistake,” Joyce said. “Her eyes opened, and she offered a gentle reminder—’remember the fingering”, or she helped with the count ‘one-sy, two-sy’, was all she’d say.”

Jim, who started piano lessons with Miss Burdette as a Middle School student during the 1970s, still hears her voice as he plunges today into a Chopin Prelude he’s always wanted to play. “I have a heavy touch and she had this way—when I butchered a note, she touched my shoulder to demonstrate. ‘Not this touch,’ and then with another touch to my shoulder, ‘Like this.’” And he felt the technique in her touch.

Her students were her family, and her life. Single for every one of her 104 years, she worked tirelessly to teach, to pass on her love of music and pianos and organs. Her biggest efforts came about in those monster concerts.

A mass piano concert in Winfield probably in the 1950s

She organized several at Southwestern College in the 1930s, and one in Wichita as well. The 1939 Winfield event featured 340 participants and 42 pianos, including 15 grand pianos. But the 1945 event surpassed them all.

With help from countless community members, Miss Burdette organized a monster concert with 100 pianos on the gymnasium floor at Southwestern College. It caught the attention of William F. McDermott who wrote an article for Recreation about the music life in Winfield, Kansas, leading off with the piano event. The article “Mad About Music” ran in the October 1945 edition of Recreation and was reprinted in a shorter version in the November 1945 Reader’s Digest.

From McDermott’s article: “It soon will be time for another ‘Piano raid’ at Winfield, Kansas. . .Sedate citizens, with sleeves rolled up, will help to ‘hustle’ pianos from homes, churches, and club rooms—but mostly from Cunningham’s, the town’s leading music store—to the huge gymnasium of Southwestern College. There the volunteer movers will set up ‘pianistic battalions,’ ready to renew one of the most unusual music festivals ever held anywhere.

“. . .While the town of 11,000 ran riot with bands, orchestras, and choruses, for years there was nothing to satisfy the ensemble desires of the piano players. A piano teacher, E. Marie Burdette, pioneered the idea of a mass piano festival.

“The piano shifting is on a huge scale. Here and there home-built ‘dollies’ are used to trundle two or three pianos of a neighborhood into one living room for a week or two. There a group of players practice every evening from supper until midnight. Next they assemble at the music store where up to fifteen pianos are used for a week’s rehearsal each by consolidated groups—and finally there’s the grand rush on the gym with 100 pianos.

“For two days and a night at the gym, relays of players, assembling in company formation, rehearse in groups of fifty, polishing off their ensemble performance. A battery of tuners goes over the instruments and puts them in harmony. Now the big night arrives.

“Through an arch come the performers—lawyers, bankers, debs in evening gowns, mothers in their Sunday best, bobby-soxers and college athletes, grocers and insurance men, barbers and preachers. They march with heads high and eyes gleaming. . . At a signal the players seat themselves, two to a piano. The director lifts his baton, and 400 hands begin rolling over the keys.

“The music pours out like a mighty wave, filling the vast room to the rafters. The crescendo passes, and the roar of 100 pianos played in unison diminishes to a note so soft that it seems impossible so many instruments are in action. The crowd holds its breath as the nuances make richer the melody of the piece. Here is more than unity of performance; it is a unity of spirit born out of love for music.”

                                        

There was nothing E. Marie wouldn’t do for the love of her students, to share the music. Jim still hears her words of instruction and encouragement, her voice echoing in his mind as he practices. “I think she’d be smiling to know that she’s still teaching,” he said. “That has to be the greatest legacy of any teacher.”

E. Marie Burdette preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday.

A few years ago, Jim chose a Mason/Hamlin grand piano for his own, remembering Miss Burdette’s teaching instrument. Interestingly, her own 1966 model continues to inspire musicians in a generation she never met. In 2000, at age 99, E. Marie Burdette was recognized by the Kansas governor as the oldest working woman in the state. Soon after that, she did retire for good, after teaching four generations how to play the piano. Her Mason/Hamlin was donated to the Winfield public schools and I continued to care for it there. In early 2016, ten years after she died at age 104, a young man who had never had a single lesson, whose parents frowned on his interest in music, fell in love with Miss Burdette’s piano in the Winfield Middle School vocal room. School music staff helped foster Emerson’s interest, gave him lessons, encouraged him along. As a senior at Winfield High School, after only four years of sporadic piano study, he participated in the most recent piano duet festival at Cowley College. That fall he enrolled in the music program there.

When most of the music faculty in the Winfield school system retired following the COVID shut down, Emerson convinced the new music teachers (who were more into electronic instruments) that, rather than let the little mahogany grand piano just sit, unwanted and unused, they should give it to him. And they did. I have twice called at his little house to tune the Burdette Mason/Hamlin. While I’m there, we also talk music, pianos, pedagogy, and technology.

Nearing the end of his course of study in music at Cowley College, Emerson plans to continue piano study at Wichita State University, and possibly learn piano service work as well. Though he never met E. Marie Burdette, her piano changed his life and she would be smiling to know that also.

Through her passion for pianos, her gift to the world continues. This post is dedicated to her love affair with music that extends beyond the grave. May she rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that her music and her teaching will continue to impact lives for many years to come.

High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – IV

Bushong, Kansas 100 years after Mabel’s story

A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part IV

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.

The End

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.

High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882- III

A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part III

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.

(To be continued. . .)

High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – II

A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part II

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?

(To be continued. . .)

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. . .)

Two Hundred and Fifty Years

Today is Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Happy 250th birth anniversary to Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the world’s musical geniuses. I have tried to share some amazing works of this creative master with my piano students through the year. Thanks to the generosity of Carl Martin, some of us attended the symphony in February featuring a guest pianist performing Beethoven’s piano concertos. Each of the students has explored some of Beethoven’s work this fall. We took turns watching a family video called Beethoven Lives Upstairs.

What could have been an occasion for a great musical party is somewhat dampened due to the COVID virus situation that keeps everyone distant. But, Happy Birthday anyway, to a revered composer.

I try to imagine the world when he was born in 1770. That was just a few years before American revolutionaries declared independence from England. As a child in Germany, he could hardly have been aware of the struggle across the sea. But I have no doubt there existed notable unrest in the colonies the year Beethoven was born. In just six short years a new nation would begin, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that we are all equal. It was a grand experiment—government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Nearly 250 years later, on this day of celebrating the birth of Beethoven, I have to wonder if our country will actually make it another 6 years. The tumultuous last few years leave us as divided as we were when Abraham Lincoln’s priority was to preserve the union. Divisions are less neat this time around, with every city, county, and state in a struggle to retain a representative government for all its varied people.

We have witnessed the erosion of our constitutional principles, mainstream disregard for the voting rights of all citizens, militant objections to election results, and a seditious attempt by many elected officials to overturn the results of our recent election—to deny the voice of the people in the voting process.

While it’s gratifying to know that the electoral college fulfilled its role in confirming the election of the Biden/Harris team, there’s no denying that our new administration will face obstacles no previous incoming team has faced. Ever. In the last 244 years.

Lord, help them.

Not only is this nation deeply divided, we also face dire situations never before seen in the history of humans on Earth. We have desperate climate refugees fleeing homelands that have become unlivable, while at the same time the world’s wealthiest businessmen call for accelerating the depletion of Earth’s available resources in a blatant attempt to exploit nature’s blessings to benefit those wealthy few. We have unjust policies in regards to resource distribution, and disrespect for the limitations of the planet.

The human population on Earth approaches 8 billion people. If every single person were to consume goods and resources at the level seen in North America, we would exhaust five whole planets. Clearly this cannot continue. We only have one planet. The struggle for basic necessities is reaching extreme levels, and this doesn’t take into account other living beings that call Earth home. In the year 2020, we witness continued selfishness and ignorance in the refusal to recognize a planet-wide crisis identified by trained scientists around the world.

There is every bit as much unrest in 2020 as there was in the colonies in 1770. Maybe even more. And I wonder: What kind of celebration, if any, will we face in 6 years? Is our country, a nation founded on democratic principles of government by the people, even going to exist in 2026?

Unless we stop the militias, stop the abuse of our chosen government officials and public servants, stop exploiting the planet’s natural systems, and begin to show a willingness to listen to others and respect their needs, it seems unlikely that we will survive.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 5

And we come to the end.

It’s hard to come to the end of a magical journey, almost as much in this review a year later as the actual trip. On this date a year ago, I returned home from my voyage to Cuba and my life has never been the same. What did I learn from those few days abroad?

Cuba is a beautiful place. The countryside, the beaches, and the centuries-old architecture possess stunning allure. Indeed, some of the sights are unique to this small island nation.

But most memorable are the people. The histories of both our countries, the US and Cuba, run parallel and continue to tantalize and twist around each other, like sensuous dancers that move synchronously across a dance floor, matching minute moves, but never touching, so close it’s impossible at times to tell which is leading and which is following.

Our local guide pointed out the common traits of the Cuban people—pragmatism, survival skills, resilience, rebelliousness, creativity, passion, motivation and compassion. These characteristics arrived in Cuba with the African slaves and by necessity through 500 years of history were infused into the entire population.

The music and art of Cuba are recognized worldwide. Cubans excel as well in medicine and medical research. This small country is highly educated with an admirable literacy rate. Talented people devote their lives to advancements in their various fields.

When I was young, five decades ago, almost everywhere I traveled with my parents we found trinkets and cheap souvenirs stamped with the words “Made in Japan.” It was common knowledge that anything manufactured in Japan was cheap, substandard, and not durable.

That is not the case today! Products in the world market today which originate in Japan are highly regarded as top quality items. What brought about this change? A system which relied on input from the Japanese people. Ideas were prized and when they worked together, the people pulled their image to the top of a pyramid of quality.

It was the people who mattered.

Though a beautiful place, Cuba has many problems. My biggest impression from the tour was that her people are her richest resource. Working together, they will find answers to their many problems.

Given the talent, education, resilience and determination evident in the people I met, I have confidence they possess what it takes to solve the problems that plague Cuba.

If only we would allow them to do that.

There is a deep chasm that separates the way Cuban people relate to visitors—even visitors from the US—and the way our respective governments relate to each other. Sadly People-to-People relate much differently than Government-to-Government. Traveling can teach a traveler much, like the fact that there are multiple sides to every historical event. No country, people, or system of government is totally good, or totally bad. We should accept what works for the good, embrace change, encourage each other, and move forward together. After all, in light of the current global coronavirus pandemic, it may well be that Cuba’s medical community will discover the answer. We need their friendship as much as they need ours.

May our future together as neighbors and friends be bright.

 

 

On the Courthouse Lawn

The annual Flint Hills Folk Life Festival was held last weekend on the shady lawn surrounding the historic Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Each June, the organizers of this event plan it to coincide with the Flint Hills Symphony concert performed by the Kansas City Symphony.

“The Earth Has Music”

A freak storm on the eve of the symphony weekend ended up cancelling the big musical performance, but the Folk Life Festival continued. Wandering music lovers discovered music on the lawn, just a few miles up the road. There was even a bit of dancing.

If you took a closer look at the exhibits, you’d find artists demonstrating skills from the nineteenth century. You might find a basket weaver. Or an artisan busy making handmade soap. You’d find a field station for a frontier army, and Union soldiers patrolling the grounds. A mountain man displayed crafts and toys made from feathers and skins. A row of tents under the elms held many textile crafts with artists hard at work. And you might even be invited to try your hand at various activities. I helped with a quilting bee, learned about Tunisian crochet and rug twining, as well as conversion hints to turn my grandmother’s old red-eye Singer 66 treadle sewing machine into a hand-cranked version.

You could find a potter, busily throwing new kitchen pots on an old-fashioned kick-wheel or a woodworker making spoons from chunks of firewood. If you get thirsty, how about some homemade lemonade, or even root beer? And to remedy the nibbles, some kettle corn, hot and fresh. You might even find a book or two written by a prairie author, featuring life in those Flint Hills surrounding the historic courthouse.

If you took some time to sit in the shade a spell, and exchanged pleasantries with some of the other visitors, you would encounter people from several nearby communities–Council Grove, Americus, Emporia–as well as Wichita and Kansas City. You  might even find folks from as far away as Minnesota and Texas, who had chosen this weekend to explore the Kansas Flint Hills.

Disappointed symphony fans who took the time to look around returned home with an unforgettable memory from picturesque Cottonwood Falls. With nature weirding into increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events, the skills on display at the courthouse might even come in handy in the not-so-distant future. Take cues from the youngsters dashing around the courthouse, inventing games, twisting ropes, and flying feather kites. Life without all those electronic gadgets might have its upsides too.

 

 

A Who Dunnit—Why Dunnit Approach to Writing History

Kansas Authors Club District 5 is pleased to host a seminar at the October convention by Dr. David A. Nichols,  A “Who Dunnit – Why Dunnit” Approach to Writing History.

A William & Mary Ph.D., Dr. Nichols is a Kansas native and the author of Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy; A Matter of Justice; Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution; and Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis – Suez and the Brink of War.  All Eisenhower books were published by Simon & Schuster. Nichols is also the author of Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics (Minnesota Historical Society, 2012).

Revealed for the first time, Ike and McCarthy is the full story of how President Eisenhower masterminded the downfall of the anti-Communist demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy. Behind the scenes, Eisenhower loathed McCarthy, the powerful Republican senator notorious for his anti-Communist witch hunt. In spite of the public’s perception that Ike was unwilling to challenge the senator, the president decided that dealing with the challenges behind the scenes, operating with a “hidden hand” to bring an end to the witch hunt, was a better approach. In Ike and McCarthy, a 2018 Kansas Notable book, Nichols uses documents previously unavailable or overlooked to authenticate the extraordinary story of Eisenhower’s anti-McCarthy campaign in an eye-opening and fascinating read.

In A Matter of Justice Nichols presents a dramatic reappraisal of the thirty-fourth president’s record throughout the early years of the civil rights revolution, revealing his lesser-known role in advancing civil rights. The account traces pivotal contributions of Ike’s administration to such events as the Brown decision and the desegregation of Little Rock schools.

A gripping tale of international intrigue and betrayal, Eisenhower 1956 is the white-knuckle story of how President Dwight D. Eisenhower guided the US through the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. The crisis climaxed in a tumultuous nine-day period fraught with peril just prior to the 1956 presidential election, with Great Britain, France, and Israel invading Egypt while the Soviet Union ruthlessly crushed rebellion in Hungary. Dr. Nichols draws on hundreds of documents previously unavailable to researchers, enabling the reader to look over Ike’s shoulder and follow him day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, as he grappled with the greatest international crisis of his presidency. Nichols uses formerly top secret minutes of National Security Council and Oval Office meetings to illuminate a crisis that threatened to escalate into global conflict.

Lincoln and the Indians remains the only thorough treatment of a much-neglected aspect of Lincoln’s presidency. Placing Indian affairs in the broad context of Civil War politics and the settling of the West, Dr. Nichols covers the Sioux War of 1862 in Minnesota, the forced removal of the Navahos from their homeland to the deadly concentration camp at Bosque Redondo, and the massacre of Cheyennes by volunteer troops at Sand Creek. He also examines Lincoln’s inept handling of  the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory and the corrupt “Indian System” of government aid that mainly benefited ambitious whites.

Thanks in part to Nichols’ impact on the reassessment of Dwight Eisenhower as president; a poll of 193 historians in 2017 rated Eisenhower fifth among American presidents, following only Lincoln, Washington, and the two Roosevelts. David A. Nichols began his serious research and writing in his mid-60s after retiring from Southwestern College in Winfield, where he served for 25 years, including eleven as Vice President for Academic Affairs.

At the Wichita convention, Dr. Nichols will share about his most recent book (Ike and McCarthy) and related research, exploring research design, dealing with all kinds of sources, and finding a publisher. “Who Dunnit? And Why Dunnit?” You won’t want to miss his inside information and tips on meaningful research.

Like us on Facebook: Kansas Authors Club.

Convention registration information at http://www.kansasauthors.org

Hotel information:

KS Authors Club

Book ‘Em!

David A. Nichols

Books to Wake-up and Shake-up

http://www.amazon.com/Tyranny-Twenty-Lessons-Twentieth-Century-ebook/dp/B01N4M1BQY

On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder

Early in 2017, I sat in an examine room waiting for a dermatologist to examine a suspicious spot on my nose. To pass the inevitable wait time I had brought along the book I was currently reading. When the doctor finally breezed into the room, I was writing a memorable point from the book in my travel journal. He noticed and he asked about the book. Then he recommended one he’d found of utmost importance, On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder.

I was intrigued, as much by the recommendation of a physician to his first-time patient as anything else. On my return home, I looked it up and ordered a copy. Before the week passed, I had devoured Snyder’s treatise. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the 20th century,” Snyder wrote in the introduction. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”

Using examples from historical incidents within the personal recollection of my elders, Snyder listed steps we should take to stave off a descent into chaos. Among these:

Defend institutions. These include the courts, news outlets, and labor unions. Public schools, libraries and book stores could also make the list.

Beware the one-party state. Become informed. Vote. Run for office yourself.

Be courageous. Stand out. Give courage to others. Set a good example of what America should mean for the sake of coming generations. Hang onto the dream of liberty and justice for all.

On friends: Stay in touch with your neighbors. Make new friends and march with them. Make friends abroad. And keep your passport current.

Defend our language. Refuse to talk like everybody else. Separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

Believe in truth. And search for it. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.

As the events of 2017 accrued, it became clear that we are being led by a tyrant. I recommend Snyder’s book. Read it while it’s still allowed.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Will-Change-Men-Masculinity-Love-ebook/dp/B000FC0Y6S

The Will to Change by bell hooks

Friends recommended other books in my 2017 journey that carried an impact. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks, a black feminist writer, delved deeply into the ills of our society as a paternalistic creation. Traditional roles for women and men thrust upon children at very young ages may have contributed significantly to the simmering rage that fuels white supremism, racism, sexism, and ultimately the climate that leads to mass shootings. Until we can embrace the individual talents of every person, there will be violence in our future. Hooks’ study helped frame much of the tragic headliners of 2017 into a new perspective with increased understanding about how frustrated paternalistic roles have impacted events. We collectively need the will to change our ancient traditions of male dominance into an affirmation of every person’s unique gifts.

Wake-up and Shake-up To be continued. . .