Editors note: According to his sister, Anna Sourbier Griggs, page 199 in the 1985 Pioneer Stories of Meade County, Charles K. Sourbier had "contracted infantile paralysis as a small child and never did walk." Charles had a gift and jewelry shop in Meade until his death in 1940. Being a pioneer in this county must have been difficult for the healthiest of folk, and one has to admire the grit and tenacity of this man who experienced it from a wheelchair. This story was submitted by Doug Freeman who is a descendent from the Sourbier family and also the family of Richard W. Griggs, also a well-known name around Meade County. Doug explained that the family name was originally "Sourbeer" but they changed the spelling at some point.
Pioneer Life From the Sidelines
by C.K. Sourbier
This will be just a rambling account of small things as they came into my sight and hearing in the early days of the settlement of Meade County. These things were observed and experienced from the sidelines by one who had to ride or be carried wherever he went. If this record of the everyday happenings of long ago brings a smile of remembrance to the older ones and a glimpse of pioneer life to the younger, I will be amply repaid for the time and effort in setting them down.
I shall begin at the beginning and record events of a young American family transferred from the east and [their] settlement in the plains country of southwest Kansas. When I was about six months old, my parents, who were living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, decided to go west and settle in Kansas. My father had been a soldier in the Civil War, but his army experience had made him dissatisfied with city industrial life. He, as well as all his brothers, were mechanics in the iron mills of Pennsylvania.
The family arrived at Leavenworth, Kansas, in March of 1869. Here, in a month or two, a team of oxen and an old government freight wagon, the kind with three inch square iron axles, was purchased. The household goods were loaded and the slow journey begun to the south, to the open free land in Cowley County.
Just what induced my father to pick this part to settle in I do not know, as one could secure free land in any other direction. This land in Cowley County had just been purchased from the Osage Indians and they were still occupying it, but getting ready to move into the Indian Territory. The land was un-surveyed and settlers just located where their fancy struck them. My father located on a splendid quarter section on Timber Creek at the mouth of Dutch Creek, four miles north of where Winfield was afterwards built.
He built on this land a cabin of walnut logs secured on the creek that ran through the place. Here my sister Ida was born. In September 1870, I sustained an attack of infantile paralysis. My parents decided to take me to the east for medical attention. My father secured employment in the iron rolling mills of Indianapolis, Ind., and here the family resided until in the summer of '79.
I began to hear my parents discussing the idea of returning to Kansas and the frontier. So, it wasn't long until new clothes were being made, supplies bought, boxes packed and preparation made for the west. After four or five days of tedious railroad travel, we arrived in the last week of December 1879 at Dodge City. After some delay, as accommodations were at a premium, my father secured room and board for the family at a boarding house run by a Mrs. Tate. She began asking my mother questions as to where we came from and where we were going. On my mother telling her that we were going down about fifty miles into Meade County, she threw up here hands and exclaimed, "Good, heavens, you're not going down on one of those God forsaken claims."
Dodge City at that time was a busy bustling place, freight wagons lining the streets, and it looked just like it was, a pine-board frontier town. In a day or two, my father secured the services of a freighter to take us down to the land he had selected in July. We rolled out one wintry morning headed south across the long toll bridge, the heavy wagon banging and screeching on the frozen trail. The landscape did not look very inviting to us just out of a large city, not a thing in sight, just bleached buffalo grass and low rolling hills.
At noon, we reached the Mulberry and stopped to feed the team and eat our dinner. The teamster began gathering buffalo chips for a fire, pulled out a big black coffee pot that looked as if it had been used for the past ten years and proceeded to boil coffee. My mother noticed the coffee pot and the material for the fire and would not taste the coffee. She got bravely over this in the years to come and cooked many a meal with “prairie coal.”
We crossed Crooked Creek at Emerson's Ranch and were encouraged by the sight of the timber along the creek. By nightfall we arrived at Milligan's, located on the northeast corner of the present Leach farm. The arrival of our family of six just about swamped the accommodation of this frontier tavern, but we were all finally packed away and slept soundly our first night in Meade County.
The next few
days were busy ones for Father as he was anxious to get the family
located on his claim, which was a mile east of Milligan's. He
employed a young man, Willard Milligan, to get him a load of dry
cottonwood for fuel. There was plenty of this on Crooked Creek and
also on Sand Creek, which could be had for the hauling as it was on
government land. I coaxed my mother to allow me to go along after
the wood. We started out in a northwest direction toward the head of
Crooked Creek. There were no
We secured our load of wood and at noon built a fire and were eating our lunch when a couple of cowboys rode up and asked to use our campfire. We said all right and gave them coffee. They had some biscuits and bacon, which they cooked by holding a slice on the end of a pointed stick close to the fire and letting the fat drip down on a biscuit held underneath. This was all new and interesting to a city boy. We got back with our load about sundown. In this Milligan family was an old grandfather about 85 who told me long tales of the war of 1812 and would sing the songs current at that time. It was unusual for very old people to be out on this new frontier as it was mostly people under forty with young families who moved out to settle the southwest plains.
In a day or two my father and a neighbor went to Dodge for lumber and supplies, father going on to Larned where he purchased a team, a new Mitchel wagon, a cow and some chickens. After they returned things were very busy on the claim, the weather being mild and sunny most all winter.
Our house was not a very elaborate affair, just plain pine boards with the cracks battened and paper inside. In size it was twelve by fourteen feet, with an attic and shingle roof, with three small windows and a door, unpainted. All of our neighbors had the same style houses, but a good many others had sod houses which were a lot more comfortable the year round, being warm in winter and cool in summer. More over, their owners claimed they were fire and bullet proof in case of Indian attack. They were merely intended as a stepping stone to the time when your farm made you rich enough to afford a real house.
It was astonishing how much could be put in one of these little frontier cabins and still have living room for the family. In the northwest corner was the big double bed; in the southeast corner the kitchen stove; along the south side by the window, was a long bench on which the children sat at meals with the table in front; a cupboard in the southwest corner and over in the northeast corner was the little stairway that led to the attic where some of the children slept. Over the doorway, to economize on space father had built a shelf on which was stored our stock of glassware brought from the east, consisting of cake stands, water pitchers, etc. One day with the wind blowing strong, the door slammed and all the glassware went with a crash to the floor.
The family consisting of my father age 41, Mother 36, myself 11, my sister Ida 9, Grace 7, brother Will about 4, moved into our new home the 10th of Jan. 1880. The weather was mild, warm and sunny… no wind. It seemed an ideal climate and little did we dream of the bitter blizzards that could drop down on us in a few hours. As spring came our garden and field crops were planted. During the winter many large herds of cattle drifted down from the north, driven by winter storms. In the late spring these herds, after the spring round up, were being driven north by hundreds of cowboys. There being no fences in the country, these cattle traveled over any crops In their way, sometimes intentionally by the herders, apparently to discourage farming in, what to them, was only cattle range. In the spring of '81, these drifting cattle herds became so numerous and caused so much damage that an organized effort was made to get them out of the valley. About twenty-five mounted settlers assembled one morning all armed, mostly with Sharps carbines that had been sent in the year before by the Government as protection against Indians. The cattle were rounded up and driven twenty miles or more to the south. Most all of the men, when they returned the next day carried a calf tied on back of their saddles. This was justified on the grounds that it was the only way to get pay for the damage done, the law being very far away.
The years of '81 and '82 were years with plenty of rain and good showings were made on the small acreage of crops planted, corn especially, and, as most of the settlers came from corn growing states, it was taken for granted that a country that would grow corn was a good country. Watermelons grew rank and heavy on the newly turned sod, plenty of them weighing fifty and sixty pounds. Anyone could have as many as they wanted, as there was no market for them. I have seen my father drive a sled load in from the field and pick up splendid forty-pound melons and toss them to the pigs.
Being able to take very little part in the outdoor life, I passed most of my time in the house making myself as useful as possible. I was very fond of reading and spent long days and evenings around the coal oil lamp reading everything we had and books borrowed from the neighbors. In fact a standing order when anyone went to a neighbor was to "borrow a book." My best source for books was at our nearest neighbor, Mrs. John Werth, who had quite a library of standard authors, Dickens, Scott, Poe, etc. and many bound volumes of Harpers magazine. The papers my father subscribed for were the Kansas Farmer, a church paper and a weekly newspaper from Topeka these we usually got at the post office once a week at Pearlette.
My father often took me along on these trips for the mail and supplies. The post office and store was kept by John Jobling, Sr. It was about twelve by sixteen feet in size, about three feet sunk in the ground and balance of pine lumber. Along one side was shelving and a counter. My father would carry me in and seat me on one end of the counter, and I would notice the things in the room. Over in one corner in the back part was the post office, just a pine table with some pigeon holes on it. In the other corner was Bennett's printing outfit on which he printed the Pearlette Call, the first newspaper in Meade County. It was a small hand job press 4 x 6 inches with a few small cases of type. The store shelves had glass jars containing loose black powder, different sizes of shot (there were many muzzle loading guns in the country), packages of Arbuckle coffee, with their gorgeous red and yellow labels, boxes and barrels of beans, dried apples, salt pork, axle grease, iron cut nails (this was before the day of wire nails.) There was saddles and bridles, rope, wagon covers and about everything needed in a hurry in small amounts. When a complete load of supplies was wanted, the long two-day trip to Dodge was made.
Our neighbors within three or four miles were the Elison and Captain A.J. French families, who came in the summer of 1878 and were on their claims when Dull Knife's Indians raided through the county in September. There were the Normans, Joblings and Capt. John Werth, who had been at Gettysburg on the southern side. In fact, three- fourths of the settlers had been in the Union or Confederate army and had taken part in famous battles and when visiting or meeting each other would spend hours telling of their experiences and adventures to which I listened with intense interest. Ruben Milligan, who kept the store at the original site of Old Belle Meade, the Lockharts, Colgans, Rockwells, Schmokers and further north were McCauleys, Waites, Feemsters with all of whom we were acquainted and often visited, the whole family going in the big farm wagon and staying all day, as everyone had plenty of time. There was no settlement farther south than the Colgan and Schmokers. The south half of the county contained only a few cattle ranches.
We had been hearing a good deal about the salt well that had appeared the year before, some fifteen miles south of us, and many were the theories advanced concerning the phenomenon. So several months after arrival in Meade County, one pleasant Sunday morning in the spring of '80, the entire family was loaded in the big wagon and traveled leisurely south until about noon. We arrived at the depression in the prairie known as the salt well; the sides of this were nearly perpendicular and the opening covered several acres. In the bottom was a dark green water. It being very difficult to get down to the water, father took a long lariat rope, fastened it to a brown one-gallon jug and carefully lowered it down to the water. After manipulating the jug by shaking the rope, it was filled and drawn up. Taking this home, it was slowly evaporated on the kitchen stove and produced three pints of coarse salt to the gallon of water.
On this trip between one and two o'clock, with the sun shining, we saw an extra-ordinary bright meteor fall from the northeast to the southwest and apparently explode.Severe electrical storms were of frequent occurrence. I remember one summer night we were awakened by a sharp, steady click like a telegraph instrument, apparently from the stove. We watched for some time and finally discovered by its blue flash an electrical current jumping from the iron stove to a pan of water underneath. This continued for about a half hour. When it had stopped, my mother lit a lamp and rushed to all the children's beds to see if any had been injured, but they had slept soundly through it all.
In these first years the only thing that could be done to earn a little cash was to gather the bones of the millions of slaughtered buffalo that had lain exposed to the weather for the past ten years or more. These bones, delivered at Dodge, brought around ten dollars per ton and helped many a pioneer family to hold on until better times. My father often took me along on these "bone picking" trips. The wagon would have on its double side boards, and we would start early and travel south or southwest noting where the bones appeared plenty, until noon. Then after lunch, we’d turn the team towards home and begin gathering the bones. Father would scout along on foot and stop where he located any, and I would slowly drive the team up. Sometimes one skeleton would be found, again two to six in one place. The short curly horns would usually be well preserved. After loading, Father would kick around in the ground where the bones had lain and frequently pick up one or two large-sized rifle bullets. At one time I had over a quart of these. Sometimes there would be a steel arrow imbedded in one of the bones, showing it had been killed by Indians. One piece of vertebrae about a foot long had three steel arrow points in it that had been driven through the bones and the points curled on the other side. On one of these trips, we camped a short distance west of the famous Lone Tree. While we sat around the campfire ln the evening, my father told me the story of the killing of Captain Short’s surveying party by the Indians just six years before.
During the Summer we had several Indian scares. Rumors would seem to start from nowhere and before long some of the timid ones would hitch up and pile the family in the wagons and be on their way to Dodge. In a few days they would be back on their claims again. One evening, about nine o'clock, we heard a noise at the door and, on opening it, found our neighbor, Mrs. Werth, with a heavy shawl over her head and shoulders, badly frightened and holding a small .22 caliber revolver in her hand. She said a cowboy had stopped at their house that evening and told her the Indians were on the war path and would be along soon. She being alone, and her husband gone, she came to our house for protection. My father didn't take much stock in these reports; so after assuring her there probably was no danger and [that the rumor was] just started by cowboys and cattlemen to scare the settlers out of the country, he saw her safely home again.
dangers and hardships that the early settlers were subject to was
the menace of prairie fires. These, started by careless campers or
others, would smolder along slowly for days and then suddenly a high
wind would whip the flames along in a rushing, blasting flame,
destroying everything in its path, jumping the feeble fire guards,
leaving a blackened desolated land in its rear. These happened
mostly in the fall or winter when the prairie grass was thick and
heavy. Then, in winter, came the fierce blizzards
equipment we brought from the east was a small, iron, hand-printing
press that my father had built in a machine shop in Indianapolis.
This, with a few small fonts of type, was entertainment to me, and I
hoped, a source of profit in the future. I had just set this up
ready for business in one corner of the house when several men from
the Pearlette neighborhood called and stated they had heard we had a
press and wanted some tickets printed for a township election. They
had brought along some light brown store
There was quite a lot of game to be found in the new land that helped out in our "bill of fare" such as an occasional antelope, ducks, rabbits and, after a year or two, when there had been some grain raised, prairie chickens, which would come up around the house ln flocks of twenty or more. In the fall of '80, Andor Eliason and a small hunting party went off to the southwest into the west end of the "neutral strip" after buffalo. They found a number of small herds scattered in the canyons and breaks, remnants of the mighty herds that had roamed the plains a few years before. They secured several, and, on their return, sold the meat among the settlers. My father bought some of this meat, and I remember that I like it very well, as it was fine and tender with a slight gamy sweet taste.
The years of
1884-85-86 were the great immigration periods in Meade County and
Southwest Kansas. One could watch the Jones and Plummer or other
trails most any time of the day and see long lines of freight wagons
loaded with lumber and all kinds of supplies for Meade Center and
other towns that were just building. Every unoccupied claim was
filed on or taken by someone. Dug out, sad houses, shacks were
thickly dotted over the land. Dozens of towns were located, usually
consisting of a general store,
My father had brought out many wood- and iron-working tools, including a set for shoe repairing. He was often called on to help neighbors out on some mechanical job. Among the supplies brought out from the east was several lengths of one-and-quarter-inch iron pipe and an iron pump. These were used in making the first iron-cased pump well in Meade County. All the others had dug wells operated with bucket, rope and pulley.
About the only form of social recreation in the first year or two was the occasional visiting and preaching by itinerant ministers which would always draw a crowd from near and far, coming in heavy farm wagons, light wagons, buggies and horseback. The first Sunday School was organized at my father's house, and I will quote from his journal written at this time:
Sometimes it is noted that school was not opened on account of heavy rains or severity of the weather in winter. Part of the time the school was held at John Schmoker's across the creek at Belle Meade. Crooked Creek was a treacherous stream to cross when there had been heavy rain as there were no bridges and the bottom was sticky black mud, so it was thought a fair deal to make the settlers on each side of the creek take turns at crossing.
It was quite
awhile before the newcomers, fresh from their environment in the
east, could settle down to frontier life. I remember Capt. French,
who held down a claim about a mile to the west of us, had his wife
come out from the east after he had been located about a year. She
tried her best to carry out her social contacts in a formal way. One
afternoon in the summer of '80, with the sun blistering the prairie,
we noticed an object slowly coming towards us. On getting closer, we
saw it was Mrs. French. She was dressed as if she was making a
social call in some eastern city, a heavy ruffled dress dragging on
the ground, high heel kid
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