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 His experience with the daughters gave us a perfect format to talk about ways to reduce the overwhelming layers of historical documents many others had into a story.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.