My current book commission is a trove of so many stories it is sometimes hard to stay on-task. Every box I pry into or ancient-looking book I pull off the shelf at The Cedars (my client’s wonderful, completely haunted old family home) opens some deep vein of another story that, in and of itself, is novel-worthy. A movie could be made from such a book about Civil War-widowed G-Great Grandmother Jennie Bessie. Without her “darling husband,” and no other prospects for livelihood, Jennie took her five littles (age 11 to 2) to Kansas-Nebraska territory in 1878. I have her diaries to work from, and have stayed for long stretches in the headspace of this brave woman. Naturally, I had to go meet her.
Fortunately, I had a copy of an 1889 plat-map that indicated the location of Jennie Bessie’s claim. On Good Friday, a day when all government offices in Hodgeman County were apparently closed or tumbleweeds had pulled down the phone lines–I couldn’t rouse a soul down there to advise me–I headed without much of a strategy in hopes of finding this remote place where the Widow Simons and her young brood took turns freezing and starving for ten years. No one in the Simons family has been back there in almost 150 years, so I had no directions to follow. There were no roads on the map, only the Santa Fe Trail. I wasn’t sure how to find Jennie Bessie’s land with any certainty, but I took off from Lawrence and drove west and southwest. About 48 miles from where I thought it should be, I noticed Ft. Larned and decided to stop and ask for help.
A fresh-faced, digital-native named Canvas was the young docent (an oxymoron if there ever was one) who welcomed me at the historic site. Canvas wasn’t a bit daunted by the challenge. He studied my map, then manually plugged the coordinates of Jennie Bessie’s land into his iPhone’s satellite navigation app, which he then pinged onto my phone. For the next 65 miles, I just kept watching the blue dot of my car get closer to the red flashing dot of the claim’s latitude and longitude on the landscape. Eventually, I had to turn off the paved road onto washboard-gravel, proceeding slowly the last ten miles or so until the two dots were joined on the screen. Then I stopped the car, looked around, and this is what I saw:
It was the limestone block foundation of her house—the one Jennie Bessie had built to replace the newly-completed soddy that soon-after collapsed during the only big rain they’d have for the next two years. From her diaries, and son Collie’s writings, I knew exactly what I was seeing… even the creek in the distance—the one perpetually dried-out or flash-flooding. I stood right where the door had been… the very door where the horse named Bird finally stopped, having found its own way for many miles through a blinding blizzard with Jennie Bessie wrapped in a quilt in the wagon bed to keep from freezing to death. Inside that door were her cold, hungry children who would finally have something to eat.
If I’d discovered the holy grail it wouldn’t have thrilled me more than finding this arid, godforsaken place. I hadn’t seen a sign of life for miles and miles but, surprisingly, I didn’t feel alone. The wind, unruly, exuberant and strong, blew from every angle, jumping up and knocking into me like a big dog. There was a meadowlark song-talking, pausing occasionally in case I might sing-say something back, which I did, but not in a word-way. My reply was to feel the presence of stories in this place. My mind went into them until some sound said there was surely a rattlesnake dozing between these stones–a descendant of the one Collie stomped to death after it bit Bird, the beloved, reliable horse who was buried near the maple tree Jennie had transplanted from back home. It also didn’t survive.
As I sat on the hewn-limestone blocks, warm and companionable, I imagined how different this would have looked in her day. Instead of parched corn or sorghum fields, this would all be strong prairie tall grass, undulating and verdant. It would not feel desolate but hopeful, at least early-on. After the two-year drought, Jennie Bessie had to find work teaching in any nearby town where she could board with Grace, her toddler. The older sisters, Julie and Etoile were also sent to board with town families, leaving Collie (age 9) and Louie (7) on the claim until they could prove it up by 1883.
They abandoned it in the end, but she kept her family alive, reunited her children and raised them to become incredibly successful adults. This was Jennie Bessie Simons, “and don’t you forget it while she was teaching school and putting on style and agony.”
And I am the luckiest wordsmith in the world who gets to tell her story.