Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rural School Districts

Many people, especially those of us raised in urban areas associate one-room schoolhouses with Little House on the Prairie. The reality is that Geary County had rural school districts until 1965 with all the districts were unified into USD 475 or districts in the surrounding counties. While populations in these rural school districts fluctuated a good portion of Geary County residents were educated in a rural schoolhouse. Over the course of 110 years, 1855-1965, Geary County had 44 rural school districts.  The schoolhouses, many of which still stand today, were scattered throughout the county hosting anywhere from one to dozens of children.  After unification in 1965, one-room schoolhouses quickly became nostalgic icons of days gone by. 
The book, Project Heritage, compiled by Junction City Area of Retired Teachers in 1979, is rich with stories about life at Geary County schools. Life in the rural schools was certainly different than it is now.  Usually students that attended rural schools attended their first eight grades in one room.  The teacher taught all the grades and older students often had to help the younger ones with lessons.  Imagine trying to memorize your lesson for that day or the next while one of the other grades is standing at the front of the room reciting theirs. 
Geary County Joint District 88.
In rural districts students only attended until they completed the eighth grade.  While most eight graders are thirteen these days, on the frontier older children often missed part of the year so they could tend crops.  The result was that some students were well past the age of 13 before they completed their eighth grade.  According to Project Heritage, it was common at the time “to have 18, 19, 20, and 21-year-old boys in school.”
With boys as big as or old as grown men discipline could be a problem in schools. Today if you misbehave you’re given detention or sent to the office, but teachers today would never hit or throw things at students who misbehave. This was not always the case in the rural schools.  At the Alida School in Joint District #6, Mrs. Lester Elsasser remembers, “one teacher carried an open pocketknife and if one of the pupils misbehaved he threw the knife, sailing it right past their heads, sticking it into the wall behind them.”
Discipline isn’t the only thing that has changed. Imagine being a first grader, small and intimidated enough by the prospect of going to school and on your first day you’re confronted by full grown adults. When Mrs. Gilbert Blanken first arrived at Weston School in 1904 she remembers thinking there “were boys so large that they appeared to her to be grown men.” Imagine sharing your classroom as a six year old with someone the size of your father. 
What may surprise many people are the similarities between frontier schools and school today.  As many of us probably remember and hear children talk about there are favorite times of day; like now, recess and lunch were favored by rural students. They got to run around outside and play on the playground equipment, if the school was lucky enough to have it. Also, in the rural school districts, much like today, if students play around after school they’d likely miss the bus, or horse as the case may be. At Antelope School one group of children rode to school in a buggy and during the day the horse stayed in the barn at the school and in the afternoon the students would pile in and ride home.  One day the students decided to play only to realize later that the horse knew when school was out and headed home without them. 
Other behaviors displayed by students are very similar as well. When it comes to appearance no one is more self-conscious than teen and pre-teen girls. Christine “Crissie” Amthauer attended Weston School on Humboldt Creek Road.  She wasn’t allowed to wear her nice shoes in poor conditions so she wore 4-buckle overshoes during the walk and she would remove them about a half-mile from the school and hide the unattractive shoes among the rocks and walk the rest of the way in her nice shoes.  Many students today, especially the girls, are guilty of the same behavior; many wait until they’re at school before changing their shirts or putting on make-up so they can hide it from their parents.
If you take the time to look and learn about the rural schools in Geary County you just might discover how similar those students were to you and your children. If you want to read more about the Geary County schools including Junction City you can buy a copy of Project Heritage at the Museum Gift Shop.
The Geary County Historical Society is in the midst of creating a driving tour of our rural schools. We are looking for stories of your own or your family’s experiences to include in the tour. If you have an amusing, interesting, or important story you would like to share with us please call or come by the museum. You can also write it down and send it to us at 530 N. Adams, Junction City, KS 66441 or

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Letters from Wounded Knee

Recently, I have come across a few unique Native American artifacts within our collection. An Indian war club, purportedly picked up following the Battle of Little Big Horn, was found among some of our historic weaponry. These will be on display in our new exhibit “Letters Home” which is opening the last week of June. Along with artifacts brought home by soldiers, the exhibit will feature letters written by soldiers from 1890 to the present. The oldest of these letters were written by Ed Huston, to his future wife, Ariel Estes. 
Ed Huston joined the army in the turbulent years of the “Indian Wars” in the late 1800s. While he was stationed at Fort Riley, Ed was introduced to Zada Ariel Estes, who was ten years younger than he and lived on a farm outside Junction City with her family. As blacksmith for the Seventh Cavalry, Ed was sent to the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Agency in 1890—only a few months prior to the massacre at Wounded Knee. Throughout his assignment, Ed and Ariel kept up an active correspondence. Within these letters, both Ed and Ariel revealed their deepest fears and most earnest hopes of the future.
            On December 24 1890, less than a week before the massacre at Wounded Knee, Ed wrote to Ariel. He describes to her his first impressions of the Sioux living on the reservation, and assures her that they are safe, despite newspapers reporting the opposite. Ed’s writing is typical of the time period, with many spelling errors and a lack of punctuation. These have been left in the transcriptions so that Ed’s voice can be heard as he meant it to be.

“Pine Ridge Agency
South D. T. December 24, 1890
 Dear Ariel,
I received your cind and welcom letter and was very glad to hear from yous and I’m glad to here that yous are all well and to let yous now that I am well dear we had orders to leave here but we did not break camp and don’t think we will soon I think if we do we will come to Fort Riley but I don’t think that we will move for a month yet but I wish that we would come home soon dear thare is no more danger here in Fort Riley the paper say more then what is true we get a paper here every day and read the news and then we laugh at what they say the half of it is not true but they must put something in the paper with the people will not bui them. Dear you can write to Pine Ridge agency now there is no danger for move now I said in my other letter that we would not move if you received them dear your father will be very near in North Carolina by the time that you get this letter and I am very sorry that you must spend Christmas alone but I would be there if I could get there but they won’t leave me leave here and if they would I could not get there now dear Ariel  I would like to be there to see and hear you laugh it would make me feel better and tell your mother not to be on easy there is no one up here to hurt me there’s lots of Indians here but they are not on the warpath it is comic to see them have a dance they  dress  thare selves up in feathers like you see them in geography and they dance around a ring and have a large drum in the middle of the rain and after they get through dancing they will give one another present such as rings and bracelets and other two numerous to mention my  dearest I did not get offended at all about the album you can except half of it and half the pictures you can put them in the way you like them dearest I wish that I knew part of that you have to tell me I think it would do me good when you would not have so much to say when I come home and then you will not forget part of it dear I hope that you will enjoy yourself on Christmas and I wish you a happy new year.”
            Ed returned home in the spring of 1891 and he and Ariel were married in 1892. They raised six children in Ogden. To see more of Ed and Ariel’s letters during this turbulent time, come visit the Geary County Historical Society this summer and ask about the “Letters Home” exhibit. We are still looking for more recent letters, emails and postcards sent from soldiers between Vietnam and the present. If you have any to loan please contact the museum! 

Photograph circa 1902: Ariel Estes Huston, Ariel Gertrude Huston, Cecil Huston on his father's knee, Ed Huston, Edward Huston, John Huston and Margaret Huston.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mary Axtell and the Biddies

Are you familiar with what the Geary County Historical Society does? Anytime that we go out to the schools to talk with the students we ask them that question. To keep it simple we explain that we are here to collect and preserve the history of the county. We do this by collecting artifacts, photographs, and stories pertaining to the county.

One of the things that most people rarely see when you visit the museum is the archives. Anything that is paper is stored in the archives. The information stored is varied; there are books containing early cattle brands of Geary county, family histories, letters, and a fantastic collection of paper dolls just to name a few things that we have run across. Many of the books and documents are one of a kind with information specific to our county.

It is in the archives that a plain spiral notebook resides. It is just an ordinary looking book much just like the ones that kids use to take notes in class. However this book contains a wealth of knowledge as it is filled with the musings and memories of Mary McFarland Axtell. She and her family were early settlers of Davis County. She started recording her memories at the urging of Lucille Biegart who loved the pioneer stories that Mary recounted.  

Mary was born on December 19, 1871 in what is now Geary County. Her parents Edmund S. and Amanda L. McFarland homesteaded a farm in 1860 on the southwest edge of town. Her memories are a wonderful resource on how time has changed Junction City and the surrounding area.

Her writings cover a variety of subjects. In one excerpt she found great enjoyment in watching the original nature channel; long before there was television.    

“Of late I’ve been thinking of the farm and especially the biddies and wondering if all farmers regarded their chickens as we did.

It has been said that a chicken has no brain; perhaps so, but I think a very good substitute.

For years we kept the English White Leghorns, the large type and they seemed more intelligent or perhaps more like humans than other breeds.

One old biddy always came to the house and laid her egg in the back porch. We timed her, 30 minutes to produce an egg.”

We had a small building in which we kept grain and one biddy would wait at the door to be let in to be fed. When finished she would stand to a window and croak. We called her the speaker. Another always came to the house for a bit of lunch after laying an egg- she was Polly.

The most intelligent of the bunch Ed named Cau-de-priat and I cannot give the meaning, if Ed went in when the flock was at roost and spoke her name, she would respond. A coyote got her.

A rooster called Rufus was ours. He didn’t develop properly and the feathers didn’t lay down… He kept much to himself if another rooster was around and in winter Ed would bring him in the house to be fed and get warm. We would stand him in a basin of warm water and he would crow there or in our arms.

We would put him on a stool by south window and he enjoyed it, expressing himself occasionally with a crow. On being let out of the hen house he would chase the hens and take a tumble occasionally, pick himself up , looking much surprised as much as to say—what happened?

The above may sound foolish but living off a public road with few distractions we found pleasure and amusement in our surroundings.”

Writings and memories like this are important because they give us interesting accounts of pioneer life. Don’t discount your memories or the stories your grandparents told you; write them down because one day those things will be history also.

Photo caption: Amanda McFarland, mother of Mary Axtell, feeds her chickens. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Barnstorming Brothers: Herman & Henry Wetzig

         Kansas has always been a leader in aviation. But long before Kansas aviators such as Clyde Cessna, Amelia Earhart, and Walter Beech became household names Junction City was the home of two barnstorming brothers.
Henry Wetzig
Back in 1910 Herman and Henry Wetzig were making history when they flew their Curtiss machine. They had become fascinated with flying when they saw two Wright planes at Fort Riley. Also, it didn’t hurt when they learned that a pioneer barnstormer by the name of Bud Mars had received $10,000 for flight demonstrations at the state fair in Topeka.
They traveled to the Curtiss factory which was located in Hammondsport, New York to see the crafts for themselves. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation would later merge with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation (Wilbur and Orville Wright) and become known as the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The company was a leader in aviation development. 
The brothers located a Curtiss flying machine for sale at a factory in St. Louis. They were impressed with the machine and bought the craft for $4,000. With this purchase they became the first private owners of an airplane in Kansas. This flying “contraption” featured an open fuselage, a pair of wings and a four-cylinder “pusher” motor. The pilot sat on a small open seat out in the open in front of the wings. While thrilling, the operators were literally, “flying by the seat of their pants.”      
The Wetzig Brothers plane parked outside of the Junction City Courthouse.
Luck was on their side and the company that manufactured the plane also taught a flying course. As the Curtiss machine only had one seat there was no way for a flight instructor to go up with the pilot. The instructor explained the mechanics of the plane to the student. The student then taxied the plane across the field a couple times. Once that had been mastered the student was then “to take off and land in about a 100 yards.” This was done until the student was accustomed to the plane. The brothers graduated from the program in about a month.
The school also set them up with their first contract which paid $1500. It was to perform two five-minute flights at the fair in Concordia, Kansas.
The brothers performed in towns throughout western Kansas. When the weather turned cold they would travel south and perform throughout Texas and New Mexico. Despite the high fees that they were commanding for their performances they didn’t consider the business a success. Most of the income was eaten up by repairs. The planes were not able to make flights of any great distance and the Wetzigs had to ship the plane by rail road to the next demonstration, another expense.
Herman Wetzig
Herman Wetzig stated in his later years that he got awfully tired of bolting together and unbolting the plane at every stop.  
Over the years the brothers had several close calls. In an article published in 1957 Herman recounted that one time while flying the vibration of the motor caused the gas valve to close. With the motor dead he was looking for a place to set the plane down. He barely made it to an open stretch between two corn fields.
 Another time in San Angelio, Texas he was not so fortunate. The wind had been blowing all day. But in the business everyone knows the show must go on. Herman managed to get the plane off the ground safely but was only able to climb to 200 feet by the time he was over the town. As he turned the plane around to make another pass over the town the wind caught one wing of the plane and tilted it as it was passing over a street car line. One wing hit the top of the trolly pole. The plane plunged to the ground smashing to pieces. Herman was fortunate to walk away relatively unharmed.      
After the incident the brothers turned to other interests. They were always interested in anything mechanical. They operated an auto dealership and service station in Junction City.
Henry Wetzig passed away in May of 1951 at the age of 74. Herman lived until 1974 and passed away at the age of 93. They are both buried at Highland Cemetery.        

A Note of Thanks: In 1986 the Geary County Historical Society nominated Herman Wetzig posthumously for the Kansas Department of Transportation’s “Aviation Honors Award”. Josephine Munson prepared the nomination and interviewed his daughter, Mrs. Otis Walker. If it was not for Josephine’s initiative we would not have nearly as much information about the Wetzig brothers.