Pages

Follow by Email

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Beware Westerners With Outstretched Hands

Welcome to extract number 6 from Toad’s Road-kill Café. I wasn’t in Oklahoma long - let’s face it, the Panhandle isn’t the most attractive part of the state.  Kansas seemed little better at first: I arrived in a deluge. 




_______________________________



Beware Westerners With Outstretched Hands



The rain had eased a little when I got to Studley.  The old ranch-house looked incongruous with its pale blue colonnaded veranda, stone façade and matching out-buildings: a honey-coloured island in a grey-green sea of pasture.  I found the front door open, so I poked my head inside and looked around.  There was a large gloomy hallway, low-ceilinged with a dark wooden floor.  Pictures of the place in the old days hung on the walls, their details more or less indistinguishable in the poor light.   I called out,  “Anyone home?”  but there was no-one, so I went across the yard to where a pick-up was parked by a large barn overshadowed by a huge, dripping cottonwood tree which was struggling to come into leaf.  A tall moustachioed figure in a bright yellow rain-cape, cowboy boots and a broad-brimmed hat was striding towards me from a fenced pasture.  In the shelter of the barn’s entrance he held out his hand.  “Don Rowlinson, Kansas State Historical Society.”

“Alan Wilkinson.  I’m over from England.”  I arranged my fingers carefully before taking his out-stretched hand.  One thing I’ve learned about westerners is that they tend to have powerful handshakes.  Get your fingers misaligned, or leave a thumb tucked inside your palm, and there’s every chance you’ll have them welded into that position for the next three weeks, such is the grip these fearless open-hearted types exert as they impress their neighbourliness upon you.  The friendlier a westerner is the more damage he’s likely to do.  And he doesn’t have to be a working farmer.  When it comes to extending the hand of friendship your average western historian can be just as lethal as your cowpoke – and Don was no exception.

Being a historian, of course, Don was immediately interested in my project.  Not only was it unnecessary to explain at great length the significance of what I was trying to do, but I didn’t have to pump very hard to tap into his considerable reserve of knowledge.  No sooner had I shaken the rain off my hair than he had me back at the ranch-house, seated in a spare room, and was treating me to an impromptu slide-show and lecture that went on for an hour and a half.

The house we were sitting in was built in the 1880s by Abraham Pratt of Ripon, North Yorkshire.  He’d joined the British Navy as a young man, and in the late 1840s was serving on a ship which was sent, via Cape Horn, to look for John Franklin’s Antarctic expedition.  The story is that when the ship docked, somewhere along the coast of southern California, the crew mutinied.  The reason?  It wasn’t about weevily biscuits, or flogging, or the suspension of the rum ration, but in all probability about the prospect of striking it rich in the newly-opened goldfields, for this was 1849, the year of the great California Gold Rush.  What Pratt’s role in all this was remains a mystery, but before long he was back home and established in the liquor trade, later starting up a soft-drinks bottling plant.  However, his itchy feet eventually got the better of him, and in 1878, at the age of 51, he was back, not on the west coast, but in what we like to call the Wild West, looking for free land – of which there was still plenty.  Particularly on the parched grasslands west of the Hundredth Meridian.  

Along the bank of the Solomon river, Pratt soon ran into his first cowboys – and got wind of the money to be made in rounding up wild cattle in southern Texas, fattening them for next to nothing on the open range, and shipping them to Chicago or K.C. by rail.  He returned to England, persuaded his eldest son John to come back with him, and set about making his fortune.  Western Kansas at this time was pretty much untamed.  The area along this stretch of the Solomon saw its first permanent homesteader, a Manxman, as late as 1876.  And the land itself was truly wild.  In 1874 it had been stripped by the same plague of locusts which did for the crops planted by Charles Ingalls and memorialised in The Little House on the Prairie.  In 1876 the northern Cheyenne Indians had alarmed cattlemen and farmers alike after they broke out from their Oklahoma reservation and came through on their way back to their northern plains home.  And in 1878 the locusts returned.  Along a fifteen-mile stretch of river one surveyor could only find four living trees.

The land may have looked unpromising, but it had one asset that most of the Great Plains lacked – the material wherewith to construct a solid house.  Where others were forced to build sod-houses, or maybe a simple dug-out carved into a creekside or other declivity, the Pratts had struck – well, if not gold, then at least rock, in the shape of limestone.  Their first house was a one-room affair, in stone, with a sod roof.  It was enough: they had a home base, they soon had some cattle, there was grass in abundance, and they were in business.  And by 1880 they’d established a townsite and named it after their home back in England: Studley, just outside Ripon.  Studley survived – just.  But while the Pratts succeeded in encouraging others of their countrymen to join them, the Kansas Dead Towns Index lists a number of settlements that reflect some of their fellow-Brits’ failed enterprises, among them Wakefield, Runnymede and Victoria.

For the cattle trade, however, the good years were few.  In the mid- to late eighties, a succession of severe winters dealt a devastating series of blows to those exploiting the open range out west.  In Kansas it happened almost overnight.  The morning of 31 December 1885 was quite mild, but by nightfall snow had swept in from the north.  The blizzard that then raged – in temperatures as low as minus 30 F – wiped out 80% of the roving stock between western Kansas and the Colorado Rockies.

The catastrophe put a lot of cattlemen out of business permanently.  But not the Pratts.  They went into sheep, mostly hardy merinos from Texas, and made a pile of money – enough to live the life of English gentleman farmers.  It didn’t endear them to the locals any more then than their subsequent money-lending did.  

While Abraham Pratt was as happy as Larry out west, his son John was probably equivocal in his enthusiasm for their transatlantic venture.  He was still a young man, and he had a sweetheart back home.  At one time she abandoned him, being engaged to another Englishman for a spell, but in 1888 John finally persuaded her to come west.  She arrived at Lenora, some twenty miles to the north, on 30 December 1888, and they were married on the 31st.   She must have regretted it.  The western frontier then was above all a lonesome place for a woman, with few of the usual consolations: churches, shops, or anywhere else where she might meet other women of her own class.  At least twice she ran away, on one occasion walking all the way to Lenora.  But in October `89 she gave birth to a daughter, Hilda, and that was that.

It might have helped if John had not been so very frugal.  True, he had installed the first indoor bathroom in Graham County.  But the story goes that right up to the 1930s he insisted the family make their own candles.  Only in his very last years did the womenfolk persuade him to switch – not to electricity, but to oil lamps.  Yet John had made enough money by 1904 to sell all his land save eighty acres around the house, all his livestock except a milk cow, a team of horses and a few poultry, and sink his liquid assets into such stocks as Standard Oil, General Motors, Texaco, A T & T.   He enjoyed watching money grow, but didn’t seem to like spending it.  Perhaps his wife might have been better off had she married John’s brother Tom.  He knew how to spend okay: he had a fine house with a splendid garden, boasting the best lawn in Kansas, with lily ponds and a clay tennis-court. 

John’s daughter Hilda never married: she lived at the Cottonwood until her death in December 1978, being for the last nineteen years alone in the house.   When her mother died, at the age of 98 – this was in 1959 – her will stated her desire not to be buried in Kansas.  Hadn’t she frequently said that she wished she’d never come out there?  Her family took her at her word.  They didn’t bury her: they cremated her, and scattered her ashes around the land where she had been so wretchedly unhappy.

I could have sat and listened to Don’s stories all day, peppered as they were with random facts and statistics. At one point he took a detour and listed the measurements and cost of every window in the entire ranch-house, from memory.  But then he remembered that tomorrow was Saturday – and he had a busy day lined up.   “You sticking around?” he asked. 

“Well, I was planning to find a place to camp….”

“You got a bed-roll?”

“Sure.  In the car there.”

“Well okay, then.  You should be able to make yourself pretty comfortable in my office.  Got any supplies?”

“Some soup.  Can of ravioli if I can heat that up.”

“Great.  There’s hot water if you want to get washed, and you can fire up the old range. I’ll fetch you in some corn cobs and a few logs.”

Don helped me carry my gear in from the car, then took off for home.  He promised to come back later for another chat.  Like he said, not too many visitors at the Cottonwood had such an intimate connection with North Yorkshire.