Archive for Monday, August 7, 2006

Author: Adversity forged true Kansas character

August 7, 2006


Two-thirds of Kansas lies west of U.S. Highway 81, away from the state's major population centers, distant from its biggest universities.

Western Kansas can be a harsh, often desolate place, where rain is scarce, livelihood uncertain and hard times common. But many believe it is where the true Kansas character was forged.

Its inhabitants - those who've lasted two, three and four generations - are a special breed.

"They've had to be psychologically strong and balanced, have a lot of common sense and be hopeful - be optimistic that next year is going to be good," said Craig Miner, a history professor at Wichita State University.

Miner is an expert on western Kansas. He's researched its history extensively. His father, grandfather and great grandfather grew up in Ness City, where the family still harvests wheat.

Miner's latest book, "Next Year Country: Dust to Dust in Western Kansas, 1890-1940," chronicles the region's drive to survive, to hang on long enough to try again.

"It's a story of adaptation to a challenging environment," Minor said. "It's also a story of experimentation - finding out what was possible, what worked and what was desirable."

Wheat worked. So did dry land farming techniques, labor-saving mechanization - tractors and combines, mainly - and the development of drought-resistant seed varieties.

"Kansas State University set up experiment stations all over western Kansas, which tested these varieties - it really was a good example of how universities and all their egg-headedness can really make a big difference," Miner said.

Much has been made of the impact of Russian Mennonites introducing Kansas to Turkey Red. Not so appreciated, Miner said, are the efforts of the K-State botanists who developed hybrids that improved yields and were more drought- and pest-resistant.

"As a state, we've gone from raising 1 million bushels of wheat in 1930 to 4 million bushels today," he said. "That's amazing."

Experiments that didn't work include rain making, sugar beets and ditch irrigation.

Humor reflects optimism

While researching "Next Year Country," Miner read 34 weekly and daily newspapers - all within a 50-year span, all on microfilm.

"There is no better way to get to know a town than to read its newspaper," he said. "They may get some things wrong, but it's hard to fool residents of a small community about what went on yesterday."

History, he argued, has given the region's editors short shrift, noting that many were every bit as well-reasoned as the Emporia Gazette's better-known William Allen White, as colorful as The Atchison Globe's Ed Howe.

The Goodland Republic in May 1894 reported: "A farmer of this county has put green goggles on his cows and reports that it is a success. They eat everything that comes in their way, from fence posts to last year's sunflower stalks."

The Colby Free Press later shared that a barn containing 1,000 bushels of popcorn had caught fire, filling a 10-acre field with mounds of popped product. Afterward, an "old cow in the neighborhood with defective eyesight saw the corn, thought it was snow, and lay down and froze to death."

Humor played a key role in defining the region's character, Miner said.

"Those who laughed at themselves and their troubles were more likely to make it through than those who could not," he wrote. "Their optimism, reflected in jokes and exaggeration, created a perverse pride."

Western Kansas, he said, has known adversity.

"In the 1890s, wheat was selling for around 25 cents a bushel," he said. "In 1918, because of World War I, it was selling for $3 a bushel. By 1923 it was selling for a dollar a bushel, but by 1933 it was back down to 25 cents.

"Now, if you'd bought land and you were paying interest - that was a hard adjustment to make," Miner said. "A lot of people didn't make it."

Drought only made things worse.

"To grow wheat, you need about 18 inches of well-timed rain," Miner said. "There were times in the 1890s and the 1930s when the annual precipitation was under nine inches."

University input

To survive, the region's farmers had to be efficient, which created a demand for knowledge - a demand that K-State was quick to fill.

Now mostly forgotten, K-State, along with the railroads and the local Farm Bureaus, put on traveling chautauquas that promoted, Miner said, "better wheat, fatter hogs," for the men, "home economics" for the women.

"These shows drew 5,000 people in towns like Lincoln," he said. "They were enormously popular."

Understandably, western Kansas became known as "K-State Country," a title that still holds true.

"K-State was much more active in its outreach - much more than I'd realized," Miner said. "KU, I think, wasn't as hungry because it was successful in what it was already doing."

Still, Miner said, KU's Francis Snow was well-known for weather-predicting efforts. "He kept detailed precipitation records that went all the way back to the 1870s," Miner said. "And he would publish them in the newspapers, trying to detect a pattern."

KU geologist and Kansas Geological Survey founder Erasmus Haworth opened the region's gas and oil fields.

"For the longest time, it was thought there was no oil or gas to be found west of El Dorado," Miner said. "Erasmus Haworth set out to show there was."

Haworth's legacy hasn't been lost on Ness County.

"We're in an middle of an oil boom right now - that's what happens when oil goes from $15 a barrel to $70," said Jerry Clarke, publisher and editor at the weekly Ness County News. "Our (property) valuation went up 15 mills this year alone."

But the good times, he said, aren't expected to last.

"When the oil boom is over, we'll be struggling," Clarke said. "We're losing people daily - the young people leave, the old people stay. We've lost some businesses. We just had a dress shop close that was here for 40 years."

Clarke, who grew up in nearby Jetmore, said he's staying put.

"I do believe people in western Kansas settle for less," he said. "By that I mean, it was 113 degrees Tuesday when my kids and I went to Little League game. Or, we have to drive 60 miles to get to a town that's bigger than we are."

Miner, 61, said he's not ruled out the possibility of writing a 1940-to-present history of Western Kansas.

"Right now I'm researching Kansas in the 1850s and how the national media framed the whole Bleeding Kansas thing," he said.


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