Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Kansas Homestead, An American Pioneer

Ness County, Kansas
October 7, 2010

The homestead is 160 acres in west central Kansas, near Walnut Creek and the small town of Beeler inhabited by a hundred or so down-to-earth folks, surrounded by fields and fields of wheat and other water-miserly crops , over 50 miles from the nearest college. The pioneer was born into slavery almost 150 years ago, titled the “Black Leonardo (da Vinci)” by Time Magazine in 1941, synonymous with Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a pioneer of American agricultural science in the early 20th century. Ness County, Kansas and George Washington Carver – an unlikely pair that only the American Way could put together and which I could not imagine as I traveled westward along Kansas Highway 96.

Historical marker on Highway 96
It was a warm, sunny day with hardly any traffic on the road except for the occasional passing car or the slow, cumbersome farm tractor that decelerated my truck and my wandering mind. Conditions perfect for stopping at and reading each and every roadside marker. The next candidate was on the other side of the highway with a pullout and a shading tree to make my stop more comfortable. The marker was just past a county road leading to a small farming community a half-mile to the south, and I expected the usual local propaganda touting the significance of this small community. The title of the marker, Homestead of a Genius, intrigued me. The homestead was only a mile and half to the south which was a tolerable detour and delay to Dighton and my lunchtime plans there. I was curious to discover the nature of the land that would bring this genius to the wilds of Kansas.

If you were introduced to George Washington Carver in school, the caricature of a peanut may be lodged somewhere in your mind as a tag to all of your knowledge about him. For Carver and peanuts will be ardently linked together as long as we have peanut butter. In addition to his experiments on new uses for peanuts, he experimented on other foods such as sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and cowpeas. He was also a leading scientist in agricultural soils and the practice of crop rotation. He lived and taught for most of his life at the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university in Alabama and over 1,100 miles from where I was standing.

I turned my truck around and started eastward, but before I built up any speed, I made a right turn onto the first road leading south. The road brought me to the heart of Beeler, a smaller-than-small farming town like so many in the Great Plains. A few homes, a smattering of businesses providing the basics for farmers, a farming co-operative, and the tall, out-of-proportion grain silos that draw attention from miles away to this spot in Kansas. It did not take long for me to come to the railroad tracks and discover that there was no town “on the other side of the tracks” and the road came to an end.

I had two choices: go west or go east. As I’ve been trying to go west for over a week now, the choice was now ingrained in me, but the road did not curve south, it just kept going west. The automatic choice was the wrong choice, and I turned the truck around again to head east. I soon came to County Road 312 and the choice to go north or south. Since I thought I was less than a mile from my starting point, I decided to forgo the flip of the coin (heads I go north, tails I go south) and head south realizing if I didn’t see something soon, I could backtrack to the highway and not miss lunch in Dighton.

I scanned the road ahead of me looking for any telltale sign of his homestead and watching my odometer to guess where the homestead would be if there was no visual sign. After soon crossing Walnut Creek and nearing the top of a slight rise, I noticed a jog in the barbed wire fence along the right side of the road and a small rock outcropping in the middle of a square formed by the jogged fence. This must be it.

Carver was born close to the end of the Civil War in southwestern Missouri, and slavery was still legal in Missouri in 1864. Carver’s entry into life would be tainted with the vestiges of slavery, and his first year would be one as that of a slave. With the end of his slavery and the onset of his teen years, it was not long before he hit the road to expand his horizons. He headed north and west into Kansas, earning his keep with new families and attending school, eventually preparing himself for the challenges of college. However, college was not ready for Carver as he was turned back by Highland College once they saw he was black.

The traveling bug was still with Carver though. The family he stayed with in Minneapolis where he got his high school degree was resettling to the further reaches of Kansas. One of the sons moved a couple of years earlier to Ness County and opened a store near the banks of Walnut Creek. A settlement began to grow around the store, and the new community took the name of the storeowner – Beeler. In 1886 Carver joined the wagon train to Beeler with hopes to homestead a section of land for himself. That was what brought George Washington Carver to the open plains of west central Kansas.

The northeast corner of the Carver homestead looking to the southwest
It was Carver who brought me to this quarter section of land an inkling south of Beeler. Even if homesteading was still an American tradition and I could obtained this 160 acres by building a home and farming the land, I doubt I would take on the challenge. The rock monument next to the road marks the northeast corner of the southeast quarter of Section 4 in Township 19 South and Range 26 East of the Sixth Principal Meridian, and Carver’s 1886 homestead lays a half mile to the south and west . The land is desolate of trees and other clues to water, and Carver actually had to haul water from his neighbor’s property to farm the land.  But no farming is happening now on the land. Short grasses on only slightly undulating land provides a monotonous landscape view that belies the habitation and crops grown on this land before.

1952 Homestead Memorial
To perfect the title to his homestead, Carver put in the backbreaking work to build a 14’x14’ sod house and to plow 17 acres for crops and trees that could survive this harsh climate. His work has dissolved back into the soil, and the still privately-owned land is a State of Kansas Walk-In Hunting Access for deer, pheasant, and quail. Except for the roadside marker dedicated in 1953, there is no indication that this land was a catalyst for the forthcoming greatness of this American pioneer.

Carver stayed here for only a couple of years, the yearning of college pulling him away. With the land as collateral, he borrowed $300 from the county bank to further his education. In June 1888 he said an end to his westward travels and packed his belongings. Carver headed east to Iowa and started his college studies, graduating from Iowa State University in 1894.

His ties to the land ended in 1891 when he obtained final title to the homestead and sold the property to pay off his loan. With that loan, Mr. Carver headed east to find his future; Mr. Hall backtracked to Kansas Highway 96 and continued west to find his.

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