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.

It’s here!

Yesterday, the arrival of my copies of In the Shadow of the Wind signaled a rite of passage for me. My book, a glossy paperback with my name on the front and my photo on the back, is finally done. But my journey is far from complete. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Will anybody want to read it? And if they do, will they treat it with favor? Perhaps I’ll never know, but the story is there, offered for anyone who might be struggling, who has experienced the tragic loss of a loved one far too soon in life. I feel a little arrogant to think that anyone would want to read a memoir of my life. After all, who am I? I’m just Ann, plain and ordinary.

Perhaps this describes the vast majority of us. Within our small circles of life, each of us makes our mark. We live. We love. And we die. Some of us complete the circle sooner than others. Some of us travel parts of the circle more than once. Most of us, sooner or later, will feel the pain of a loved one’s death and question what purpose remains in our empty lives. And we must find a way forward. Pup on the prairie Anticipating questions from friends who read the story, I offer answers in advance.

Q:        How long does it take to write a book?

A:        This one? Thirty years. In the Shadow of the Wind was a project begun decades ago, in another place and another time in my life. When events of life intervened, and my new life started, I put this project away and literally forgot about it. Without the detailed journals I wrote at the time the events occurred, it would have been impossible to write this memoir.

Q:        Why did you decide to write it now?

A:        In 2010, my father died suddenly after a heart attack. He had supported me during my earlier losses with unconditional love and encouragement. At his memorial service, I mentioned how much it meant to me when he endorsed my forty day retreat into the wilderness. Afterward, people wanted to know more about the retreat. It was like somebody from beyond tapped me on the shoulder to say, “It’s time. Write.” Perhaps it was a last gift from my father. Perhaps Craig himself had something to do with it. But at that moment, I knew my life had just changed. I would write again.

Q:        A lot of the chapters in your memoir are very personal. How can you put such personal, private details out there for strangers to read?

A:        I think a story like this has to be personal, or it will be very dull. Readers need to feel the emotions, to laugh and cry with the writer, in order for the writing to ring true. Yes, it’s personal. Some of it is so personal that I didn’t tell a soul about it when it happened. But I did tell my journal. And the story is about a different me, the young woman of three decades ago. As I worked with these words, I could feel what she felt, and think her thoughts, but it was almost like they belonged to somebody else. Perhaps the insulation of time, the passage of these decades, was necessary. I couldn’t have written it when the emotions were fresh. It was too painful.

Q:        How do you know you’ve been called to write?

A:        Just a feeling, I think. How does a pastor know he or she has been called to preach? There is a notion from within, a driving force you can’t ignore. And then there are some signs along the way.

I like to think the Great Spirit still speaks to us. The timing of events at two places in my life led me to believe that someone somewhere was sending me a message. When Craig and I lived through repeated crises, the arrival of Phoebe Dawn was a miracle. Timing was critical. She was born on March 2, 1984. We met her and brought her home on March 5, three days later. Before the end of March, Craig was in the hospital. Had she been an April baby, we’d never have met the precious child who gave Craig the inspiration and drive to fight for his life and gave me purpose to carry on after he was gone. I thought, and still do, she was a gift from God. 4 Phoebe Dawn, a ray of sunshine

Q:        And the second place when you felt a supernatural nudge?

A:        That has to do with my efforts to record the story over the last four years. During the year following my father’s death, the very same pastor who had been with us through the loss of our babies, who had preached at their graveside services, came back into my life. He was sent to my current church. I felt it was a sign.

Additionally the year 2012 was the year I was pulling the story from my journals. Much of the tale takes place in 1984, a leap year. The year 2012 also was a leap year, the seventh leap year since 1984, and the very first year since then when the calendar days exactly meshed with the days of the week all year long. As I wrote, it was almost as if I was reliving that time twenty-eight years ago. Every event became vivid in my mind. Coincidence? Perhaps. But if so, a strange one I could never have foreseen.

Q:        Where do you go from here?

A:        I’m not sure. The books are printed. Once again, my shy nature balks at putting them out for strangers to read. But if someone wants a copy, they are available. Someday, there may be an e-version. That will be another adventure for me, a new learning experience.

Q:        You’d just let the books sit in your closet?

A:        I still find it a little bit hard to believe anyone would actually want to read it. I have been operating for the last four years under the premise that I was supposed to write the book. I was directed—ordered—to do it. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. Somebody somewhere needed my story or would need it. When it was ready, they would be led to it somehow.

As I get older, I find fewer and fewer things that I am certain of. There are so many differences among us, so many opinions, so many arguments. But one thing I still firmly believe is that we are here to help each other. Whether neighbors in our home towns need assistance, or people in Bangladesh and the Maldives who are watching their homes disappear under a rising sea, we are called to help.

Other creatures might need help too. Perhaps a wild kitten has fallen between bales in a haystack, Monarch butterflies can’t find the milkweed they need to feed new generations, the birds on Midway Island strangle in human trash, or the arctic ice of the polar bears recedes further every summer. These fellow passengers on spaceship Earth also beg for assistance.

Or maybe it’s a mother, grieving for a lost child, or a young widow facing an uncertain future. If we’re not here to help, what are we doing here anyway? The needs are there. The opportunities to get involved are endless.

5 Silhouette for wedding invitation

Q:        Do you have any parting words?

A:        My wish for each of you is that you will be able to meet the winds of your life head-on, and learn how to soar through troubled times.

For myself, I feel most satisfied when my days include time spent writing. I’ve already started a novel about a piano tuner who solves a mystery by uncovering clues hidden in various pianos she tunes. It’s received hearty endorsements from instructors at two writing workshops I attended this summer, and I’m excited to continue writing. I’ll have to step up my time table, however. I may not be around for another three decades—and I have more ideas hatching all the time.

Q:        What about your memoir? What’s it really about?

A:        A short summary of In the Shadow of the Wind: A Story of Love, Loss and Finding Life Again:

Following a series of tragic losses, thirty-year old Ann Darr struggles alone in a strange and frightening world.  The young widow and bereaved mother retreats to the wilderness for comfort and healing. Planning to stay forty days, she sets up a solitary camp on the river bank of her family’s abandoned farm homestead. Marooned by rising flood waters after only a few days, she faces her own mortality.

There is life after loss. Through a sequence of extraordinary events, In the Shadow of the Wind tells how one ordinary woman learns to dance on the threshold of fear, to cherish every moment of life, and to believe in her inner resources to conquer adversity.

Part 3 Forty Days in the Wilderness

Q:          Where can I find a copy of this book?

A:          Right now, they are in my closet. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, either reply to this post or send me a private message on Facebook (Ann Fell, FHSU) to let me know how to reach you.