Lane County's Pioneer Women
By Ellen May Stanley
The first settlers in Lane County, in the west-central part of Kansas, arrived in 1878. Most came eager to start a new life on a new portion of the frontier, but many did not expect what they found, never-ending prairie, unceasing winds, long distances to neighbors, and primitive living conditions. The women especially were not prepared, based on their previous lives back east.
One event that softened the frontier experience for Lane County’s women began on September 1, 1881, when a woman using the pseudonym “Word’s Wife” wrote to the Lane County Gazette, “seeking ladies who would like to enter a Home Corner of the Gazette in which we may consult as wives, sisters, and mothers about anything of greatest moment to us.” The women lived too far apart to visit each other, so Word’s Wife suggested coming together once a week and having a chat in the newspaper.
The column drew many contributors and readers in its short lifespan. The topics were far-reaching in the many aspects of life in general in the newly settled area. Responding under such aliases as Aunt Ruth, Lenora, Charity, and Aunt Catherine, Lane County women quickly brought the Home Corner to order.
Words’ Wife, who kept busy cooking for a family of 10, told of her feelings about the column, “I enjoy our wild western home and with the Home Corner I expect to enjoy it more than ever.” Aunt Catherine thought the Corner seemed like a little family having an evening talk. Aunt Ruth hoped there would be warm affection in the dear Home Corner that “will keep our hearts aglow and cheer our inner life.”
Lenora said she wanted to become acquainted with other women and to know who needed sympathy and with whom to rejoice. “How frail we are. We have few neighbors, so no society but our own thoughts, no Sabbath school or church privileges, scarcely seeing anyone outside our own family from one week’s end to another.” The resulting feelings of discouragement and heartsickness caused many to consider leaving dugouts and sod houses and returning to the friends and privileges they once enjoyed. Lenora believed the remedy for “this state of things” was the Home Corner. While women could not hitch up a team and visit friends and neighbors, nothing prevented them from visiting in the newspaper.
The group knew no age limits. Gazell said she would like to enter the Corner and say a few words even if she was only 12. In contrast, Aunt Eliza said she was an elderly lady of 55 years. Although getting along in age, she was interested in the Corner and thought reading it would be a nice way to spend the approaching winter evenings.
Participants in the Home Corner shared a keen understanding of each other’s hardship and the amenities missing from their lives on the frontier. Lenora said her family, like many others, came to Kansas to find a home but their experiences had not been very romantic as many had been led to believe. “It has been a series of solemn facts all the way.” Changes she mentioned were those from a life of ease and comfort to one of trials and hardships, from plenty to privation; from the best society, such as church and school privileges, to a life of utter exclusion.
Caper added: “Dear me! Doesn’t it take a sight of contriving and turning and twisting to make ends meet in this new country? If a woman has any knack or grit, she certainly has use for it all here.”
Despite the disadvantages, however, the women saw signs of potential in the new country and continued to hope for the best. Word’s Wife commented: “The column for many dear sisters has come in with words so fraught with hope and good cheer. Certainly this is evidence that the foundation is here for society pure and refined.”
Aunt Ruth, who had lived in Kansas for more than two years, reported she often felt discouraged and sometimes almost despaired of securing those things for which she had come to Lane County. But the prospect now seemed brighter and although the days of schools and churches and railroads and easy methods of transportation might be longer deferred than she thought upon arrival in this country, she saw hope that our county may afford us such advantages as are rarely found elsewhere.
Word’s Wife wrote that she and her family had been in the county for a year and a half and had suffered many of the hardships of frontier life. “We almost froze to death in a storm a years ago last spring before our house was finished.” But in a great show of strength, she had helped plant and care for the crops of corn, cane, rice, corn, and millet; she drove an ox team, herded cattle, milked cows, fed the turkeys and chickens and planted and raised a garden of lettuce, onions, radishes, beets, beans, parsnips, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, potatoes and tomatoes.
Food was a great concern to the early settlers, and the women requested and provided “recipts” (an earlier term for recipes.) One woman said one advantage of the shortage of food was that she did not have much cooking to do because sometimes she had trouble finding something to cook.
Piemelon, a member of the squash family, easily grown and apparently tasteless, was one vegetable that perplexed a number of women. Lenora told Star, who formerly offered piemelon recipes, if she would give a “recipt” for making piemelon palatable, without using a large proportion of other items, Lenora would vote Star a public benefactor. Lenora did not mean to seem rude, but she had often been surprised to see hogs eat piemelons.
Although far removed from the fashions of the east, the women continued to think about their personal appearances. Charity quoting Paul from the New Testament, wrote: “women (should) adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly array but with good works.” However said Charity, if Paul spoke to the women of western Kansas he would have said: “Ye women be careful that you so adorn yourselves that you will not lose your own self respect and the respect of your husband and children. In your struggle for bread and butter do not neglect your personal appearance.”
The strong desire for company led several of the women to suggest that they all take part in a social visit. The meeting would be one that interested the women, help them become acquainted with one another, and include a basket for dinner.
William Lee, editor of the Lane County Gazette and the husband of Word’s Worth, announced in that the first quarterly meeting of the Home Corner (name of the column to which the women had been writing) would be at Mrs. W.H. Lee’s residence, one-half mile west of California (the name of Lane County’s largest town, before Dighton was established) on Saturday, December 24. The sisters were to come early, bring their dinners and stay all day.
On Christmas Eve, 1881, Lane County held its first women’s club meeting, with forty members present. Unfortunately, the opportunity for these women to continue sharing through the newspaper was short-lived. Hard times caused the Gazette to close on March 23, 1882, bringing an end to the column. However, during its published life, the Home Corner column enabled women to maintain their spirits, integrity, and humor, and it softened the frontier involvement by bonding their lives with those of other women sharing the same experiences.