Best Writing Workshop Ever!

Shot by Tom Parker at Jerry Stump farm

Last weekend, I was part of the best writing workshop I’ve ever attended. Ostensibly, I was the teacher, in Marysville, Kansas for a residency of teaching and reading my work. But the participants and their family stories made the workshop unforgettable.

We have a farm in Marshall County, seventeen miles from Marysville, and while ours is a long history on the land from the late 1800s, the family scattered like cottonseeds. None of us live there. Cliff and I go up and stay for a week every once in a while, but our parents were the last generation to live on and work the land.

The photo is not from our farm. It’s from one of the participants, Jerry Stump. His friend, Tom Parker, shot it on the farm Jerry’s  father bought and worked east of Blue Rapids, Kansas. As you can see, the land is still in production, and the photo is stunning.

On a side note, look up Tom Parker. He’s a remarkable photographer with a precision eye. I met him a few years ago when I did a workshop in Blue Rapids.

Many of the participants had boxes of documents and research, and we talked about ways to shape so many pieces of history. Jerry had the stories in his head. He’d driven one of his daughters around the farm and told her the stories, then a second daughter wanted to hear them, and a third. He came to the workshop to learn how to save those stories and maybe get them written down. He was a mathematician, he said. Not a writer. His experience with the daughters gave us a perfect format to talk about ways to reduce the overwhelming layers of historical documents many others had into a story.

Post Rocks have their own story.

From Jerry: “Post Rock is the proper name, so-called because it was used in fencing, especially where hedge posts from Osage orange trees were not available, such as further west in Kansas.  Hedge posts last forever as do post rocks. This post rock was used as a hitching post, a place to tie up your horse or carriage team.”

We had hedge posts on our farm. They do last forever! I can attest to that. And although some may lean a bit on our farm, they are still there and they do NOT rot. I helped dig holes, by hand, for some of them.

Post rocks come from farther west in Kansas where no Osage Orange trees grow; in fact, few trees in general grew in that western part of the state until settlers began planting them.

From the Kansas Historical Society: The area known as “Post Rock Country” stretches for approximately 200 miles from the Nebraska border on the north to Dodge City on the south. The limestone that is found here comes from the uppermost bed of the Greenhorn Formation. It was out of necessity that settlers in the late 1800s began turning back the sod and cutting posts from the layer of rock that lay underneath. By the mid-1880s limestone fence posts were in general use because of the widespread use of barbed wire.

The first time I saw Post Rock with barbed wire astounded me, growing up in eastern Kansas as I did. Rocks with barbed wire? Around wide stretches of grassland.

People who don’t live in Kansas think of the state as flat, flat, flat. And in Western Kansas, it is that. But the eastern third is the tail end of the Flint Hills with rocky outcroppings and hills. Our farm, for example, sits on a rise that gives us a view of the countryside for ten miles in each direction. Our east pasture sinks down into a rocky gully.

Jerry’s farm is in southern Marshall County lies east of Blue Rapids, named as you might guess, from water: The Big Blue River. And while there are plenty of flat fields, there’s also the outcroppings and springs and hilly gullies that defy farming. And the powerful Big Blue.

Blue Rapids, Kansas – Wikipedia. Among the first projects in 1870 were a stone dam and a wrought iron bridge built on the Big Blue River. A hydroelectric power plant was then added to provide power for manufacturing and for the town. The power plant was destroyed by a flood in 1903. In the late 19th century and early 20th century there were four gypsum mines in the area. The population peaked around 1910 at over 1,750. The public library, built in 1875, is the oldest library west of the Mississippi in continuous operation in the same building.

So much for nothing to see in Kansas except for miles of flat roads.

The next time you’re driving I70 through Kansas and bored, get off the highway, Manhattan is a good place to exit, and drive north. You’ll find some remarkable country, not boring at all. You might even spy a Post Rock if your wander off to the west.



13 thoughts on “Best Writing Workshop Ever!

  1. Post Rocks are new to me, but I won’t forget about them after reading this informative article. Your workshop sounds like a broad highway running between you and your students. How wonderful for everyone concerned.

    1. I like that! A broad highway running between students and teacher. Nice! Thanks, Allan. And true. It’s why I like teaching so much. I learn as much as I impart. Can you imagine…a room full of story tellers! And how cool is that.

      1. It’s like being in a room full of wiremen. You can bet that a few of the stories are actually true!

  2. Well, dang. This feels like old home week. Now I know exactly where you are, and I know the fellow who joined your workshop — at least by reputation. I’ve been to Blue Rapids, and visited there with Tom and Lori Parker. Tom is a photographer — the one responsible for the photos in the exhibit titled “The Way We Worked,” that hung in Marysville as well as in Blue Rapids. He and I collaborated on a post I wrote, and I’m just sure he’s the one who mentioned Jerry to me in conversation. Here’s a bit of information about “The Way We Worked.”

    It’s amazing how space and time can suddenly collapse. Now I want to head back to Blue Rapids to visit Tom and Lori again — her cousin, Chod Hedinger, also is a photographer and a volunteer at Konza Prairie. He took me on a wonderful tour while I was there. I’ve not spent much time in post rock country. although I’ve seen a few. I need to do that, too!

    My gosh, it’s a small world. That’s part of what makes story-telling so much fun. You never know what unexpected connections will be made.

      1. Jerry Stump emailed me this morning for edits to my piece. The photo was shot by Tom Parker! A friend of his, too.

        So I went back in, changed the caption, and linked Tom’s website in the paragraph. Jerry said Tom had wanted to get the exact right time, sunrise, when clouds were in the sky.

        Next time you’re up this way, maybe you should visit Blue Rapids and Jerry…..

    1. It is indeed. I know Tom Parker. I met him when he photographed me doing a presentation in Blue Rapids a couple years ago. His photography is stunning. Nobody photographs the High Plains like Tom.
      I’ll check out the link you supplied. Thank you. And hi cuz!!

  3. My dad grew up on a farm in Nebraska and has so many stories. I keep trying to get him to write them down or record them before he dies and they’re lost. So far, no luck. 😦 I really enjoyed this post. The Midwest is a wonderful part of the country.


    1. He’s not likely to, Janet. He’s probably not a writer. And he needs an audience when he tells them. Not a black box. But you probably have a cell phone. It has a recorder. Next time you visit him, just turn the recorder on without telling him or making it a big deal and say something like, reminded me of that story of….. and get it recorded. Or turn on the recorder when you phone him and put it on speaker. There’s ways to capture those stories.

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