By the fire
      Tell Me A Story . . .

    Tell me a tale of the timber-lands --
      Of the old-time pioneers;
    Somepin' a pore man understands
      With his feelins 's well as ears.
    Tell of the old log house, -- about
      The loft, and the puncheon flore --
    The old fi-er-place, with the crane swung out,
      And the latch-string thrugh the door.

Stories have been told practically since the world began. They instruct us, inspire us, entertain us; they describe our history, explain our religions, and draw us closer together.

We want to hear these stories. They open windows to the world for us, and help us understand that world better. We want to tell these stories; they give us a way to communicate what we've seen, felt, experienced -- and, sometimes, a way for us to be remembered.

Many of the stories in the Kansas Collection come to us from times long past. When we read a letter, or a diary entry, or a passage in a book, we hear a voice that has long been stilled, and give it life again. These voices are an anchor in days when our families often live apart, when traditions are all too easily lost or forgotten, when the rush of every-day life keeps us from learning more about history and the past, or causes us to rely on a Hollywood version.

The storytellers in the Kansas Collection have much to tell us. Some of these stories are chilling, some are revealing, some are heartrending, others are just plain entertaining. Listen...let us tell you a story....

    Dr. John S. Gihon vividly illustrates the horror of the violent days in Kansas when North and South struggled for control:

....A short time after this rencontre, Brown, with seven others, left for their homes near Leavenworth, in a buggy and a one horse wagon. They had not proceeded far when a wagon filled with armed men passed them in the road, without anything being said on either side. Scarcely had they passed, when, at a bend in the road, two other wagons appeared, and also a party of mounted men. These were the Kickapoo Rangers, who had thus fairly entrapped Brown and his party. Escape was impossible, and as resistance would have been certain destruction, Brown yielded to the wishes of his friends, and surrendered. Then commenced a series of cruelties never exceeded by the wildest savages. Capt. Martin, of the Rangers, being unable to restrain his men, after numerous efforts, turned away in disgust from their wanton atrocities. While, however, the most of them were engaged in tormenting Captain Brown, Martin succeeded in aiding the other prisoners, who, in the meantime, had been confined in the store of a man named Dawson, to make their escape. The ruffians assaulted their unarmed prisoner with kicks and blows, and finally, after amusing themselves for some time in this way, literally hacked him to pieces with their hatchets, which, in imitation of the less savage Indians, they always carried. The fatal blow was given by a man named Gibson, who buried his hatchet in the side of Brown's skull, sinking it deep into the brain. Before life was extinct, his murderers carried him to his own house, when meeting his wife on the threshold, he exclaimed, "I have been murdered by a gang of cowards in cold blood," and instantly fell dead in her arms. Can Heaven look upon such deeds and bless the cause in which they were committed?

    Nancy Wisner recalls her home in Iowa in 1854, three years before moving to Kansas:

....Then I had my first introduction to rattlesnakes. I was sitting in the door, and the children were playing just outside when I heard that horrible rattle. I did not have to be told what it was. I grabbed the children into the house and put them up on the bed, and took hold of a board, as it was all I could get hold of. By the time I had done that it was inside the house and running across the floor. I kept striking at it and missing it for quite a while; I felt I must kill it or some of us would be bitten. At last I killed it, although I nearly killed myself. Then I told the children that I would never live in a place where the rattlesnakes came into the house, that we would get to the timber where their father was and tell him so. Well, we had not gone a hundred yards when we saw another one, stretched out sunning itself, so we passed by on the other side, but we had not crossed the field until we saw the third one, all of them large. The one we killed had seven rattles; that is as large as they generally are on the prairies. Although that was our first sight of a rattlesnake, it was not our last. For a number of years, they were plentiful. They were round about us, sometimes under our feet, sometimes gathered up in a bundle of something we were handling, sometimes in our houses. The strangest part of it was that none of us were ever bitten.

    Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, in his 1859 manual "The Prairie Traveler," provides a harrowing account of a forced winter march through the Rocky Mountains with few provisions:

....Persons undergoing severe labor, and driven to great extremities for food, will derive sustenance from various sources that would never to occur to them under ordinary circumstances. In passing over the Rocky Mountains during the winter of 1857-8, our supplies of provisions were entirely consumed eighteen days before reaching the first settlements in New Mexico, and we were obliged to resort to a variety of expedients to supply the deficiency. Our poor mules were fast failing and dropping down from exhaustion in the deep snows, and our only dependence for the means of sustaining life was upon these starved animals as they became unserviceable and could go no farther. We had no salt, sugar, coffee, or tobacco, which, at a time when men are performing the severest labor that the human system is capable of enduring, was a great privation. In this destitute condition we found a substitute for tobacco in the bark of the red willow, which grows upon many of the mountain streams in that vicinity. The outer bark is first removed with a knife, after which the inner bark is scraped up into ridges around the sticks, and held in the fire until it is thoroughly roasted, when it is taken off the stick, pulverized in the hand, and is ready for smoking. It has the narcotic properties of the tobacco, and is quite agreeable to the taste and smell. The sumach leaf is also used by the Indians in the same way, and has a similar taste to the willow bark. A decoction of the dried wild or horse mint, which we found abundant under the snow, was quite palatable, and answered instead of coffee. It dries up in that climate, but does not lose its flavor. We suffered greatly for the want of salt, but, by burning the outside of our mule steaks, and sprinkling a little gunpowder upon them, it did not require a very extensive stretch of the imagination to fancy the presence of both salt and pepper. We tried the meat of horse, colt, and mules, all of which were in a starved condition, and of course not very tender, juicy, or nutritious. We consumed the enormous amount of from five to six pounds of this meat per man daily, but continued to grow weak and thin, until, at the expiration of twelve days, we were able to perform but little labor, and were continually craving for meat....
     In traveling through deep snow during very cold weather in winter, moccasins are preferable to boots or shoes, as being more pliable, and allowing a freer circulation of the blood. In crossing the Rocky Mountains in the winter, the weather being intensely cold, I wore two pairs of woolen socks, and a square piece of thick blanket sufficient to cover the feet and ankles, over which were drawn a pair of thick buckskin moccasins, and the whole enveloped in a pair of buffalo-skin boots with the hair inside, made open in the front and tied with buckskin strings. At the same time I wore a pair of elkskin pants, which most effectually prevented the air from penetrating to the skin, and made an excellent defense against brush and thorns.
     My men, who were dressed in the regulation clothing, wore out their pants and shoes before we reached the summit of the mountains, and many of them had their feet badly frozen in consequence. They mended their shoes with pieces of leather cut from the saddle-skirts as long as they lasted, and, when this material was gone, they covered the entire shoe with green beeve or mule hide, drawn together and sewed upon the top, with the hair inside, which protected the upper as well as the sole leather. This sewing was done with an awl and buckskin strings. These simple expedients contributed greatly to the comfort of the party; and, indeed, I am by no means sure that they did not, in our straitened condition, without the transportation necessary for carrying disabled men, save the lives of some of them. Without the awl and buckskins we should have been unable to have repaired the shoes. They should never be forgotten in making up the outfit for a prairie expedition.

    E. T. McFarland tells this amusing story about a young boy at a dance in 1870's Kansas:

....A dance in those days meant a free pitch in and was well attended, the best of order good humor prevailed. The ceiling was some times very low for tall men which made them look quite comical as they would circle in the waltz with their heads bent down on to a line with their shoulders. It was customary to furnish supper on such occasions and the young men could spare no pains to make the supper a success by buying such luxuries as they could.
     On some occasion there was a dance at a big house, with a shed roof addition, near America City. The house floor was about one foot higher than that of the kitchen which in fact had no floor, except Mother Earth. In consequence a space of six inches appeared under the house. The dance was progressing nicely while two or three ladies were preparing a long table in the kitchen with a bountiful repast (repast meaning, meal). A small boy sat by the stove where he could obtain a view of the oysters and chicken. About this time a wandering polecat appreciating the situation stuck its head out from under the house floor and began to take observations.
     This was to much for the boy, he gathered on to a long handled skillet and let it drive at the innocent cat. Of all the loud sounding instruments engaged for the occasion this little performance discounted them all. Such as other stamped and so provoked, the supper was spoiled. The dance broke up, while the interest was equally divided between the boy and the cat. We have forgiven him now, since he has grown to about 6 feet in height.

Stories like these not only help us understand the past better, they also help us understand our present -- and ourselves. So pull up a chair, put your feet up, and let us tell you a story....

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