REMINISCENCES RELATING TO THE LIFE OF
LETITIA TOWNSEND FOLSOM
By her son, Edward O. Folsom
This morning, October 9, 1915, I am alone in a hunter’s camp on Long Lake, in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Three fellow teachers and I are spending a few days here, ostensibly to hunt and fish, but in reality, in my own case at least, to enjoy nature in the solitude of the woods; to enjoy roughing it entirely free from the many restraints imposed by city life; and, above all, to replenish our store of vitality and energy which is severely drawn upon during the year while we are performing the daily duties incident to a teacher’s life. We are in the deer country, and this morning it was agreed that while my three companions were making an effort to secure at least one trophy to prove our prowess as hunters, I would take the more certain and effective way of restocking our sadly depleted larder, by going on a foraging expedition to a settlement a few miles distant. I have just returned with a pack basket filled with supplies.
It occurs to me that I was recently requested by Cousin Emma Charles to prepare a biographical sketch of my mother’s life. Realizing my inadequacy to prepare such a sketch, with merit in any degree proportionate to that deserved by the subject, but also realizing that it would please Mother if I should make the attempt, I agreed to comply with the request.
Now is a most appropriate time to begin, as the surroundings here are in such complete harmony with those things which appeal most strongly to Mother’s fancy. Unsullied nature, whether in the form of unbroken miles of level plains, rugged woods and hills, roaring cataracts, or peaceful glens and valleys, always strikes a responsive chord in her poetic nature; and if she were here this morning looking out over Long Lake, I am sure she would be recalling Cooper’s description of Lake Glimmerglass or, perhaps, reciting other verses descriptive of scenes similar to these presented here.
With these introductory remarks I will proceed with my sketch, hoping to receive an inspiration which will enable me to write something at least moderately acceptable to those interested.
Mother was born on January 11th, 1841, at Fredericktown, Ohio, her maiden name being Letitia Ann Townsend. Her father was married twice, his first wife being the mother of four children: Samuel (who died in infancy), William, Hannah, and James. His second wife was the mother of nine children: Elizabeth, Bethiah, Rachel, Asa, Esther, Mary, Thomas, Ruth, and Mother.
Mother’s father belonged to the Society of Friends and was a staunch abolitionist. We children never tired of hearing her tell of his work in aiding slaves to escape from the South.
The best account I can give of Mother’s early life is to here insert some reminiscences written by herself sometime ago.
“Father was a strong abolitionist, and his voice rang with no uncertain sound in support of the cause: I remember so well when the Society of Friends took a stand against anything made by slaves; and this necessitated us wearing clothes all very much alike, as the variety of patterns to be secured from other sources was decidedly limited. I think that the younger ones of the families sometimes rebelled at having to wear the plain similar patterns; but we submitted, as what our parents believed to be the right thing to do, we did.”
“Mother died when I was six years of age. I was the youngest of thirteen children; all gone but myself. Four of us who were unmarried at the time of her death lived at home until Father’s death, which occurred when I was nineteen or twenty; and we then broke up our home life. Sister Ruth married, and Mary, Thomas and I went to Iowa, where others of our family had gone a few years before. Arriving in Iowa I taught school there for a few terms, and then with twelve other young people, went to various places in Missouri to teach the Freedmen. Emmeline Howard and I were stationed at Springfield, where we stayed, I think, about six months, and then went back to Iowa. I always think of that period as one of the most pleasant of my life. We were ten miles from where the battle of Wilson’s creek was fought, so of course the country was in a state of desolation. The eagerness of the colored children to learn was both pathetic and interesting. I used to look over the hills sometimes in the morning and see dark forms wending their way to the school house, which, by the way, was the building used during the war as a hospital. One incident, which I will relate, stands out prominently in my mind: The agent who went with us to locate us, said that if we would take the county examination, we could draw pay from the county. The Yearly Meeting was paying us, I think, twenty or twenty-five dollars per month. We decided to take the examination. Accordingly the County Superintendent came. In the building there was an old bedstead on which we sat, he on one side and Emmeline and I on the other, and he questioned us. We were fresh from school, and came through the ordeal all right. When he got through with the required examination, he said, ‘Now I want to see what you know about algebra – not that it is required of you.’ I think we made a pretty good impression, for he said, ‘Now if you will give up the idea of teaching the colored people, we will give you any position you want.’ But we could not be disloyal to the Society that sent us. When vacation came, we decided to leave. I went to LeGrand, Iowa, and lived with Brother Thomas until I decided to give up school teaching, and get married to Obed Folsom. Our wedding took place on one of the coldest days of that winter – January 17, 1867. If Charles Townsend should ever read this, he will remember the event, as he was one of the prime actors, and his sister Belle, also, tho she has now passed to the Great Beyond.”
After Father and Mother were married they lived in Iowa about eight years. During this time their first three children were born: Omar, George, and Mary. Omar died when he was five years of age, and George lived but little more than one year.
Their first move was to eastern Kansas near a little town called Barclay. This place was the site of a small colony of Friends. It was here that the rest of the family was born: Edward, Helen, and Nettie, in the order named.
It was while we were living at Barclay, that passing events began to come within the range of my memory, and I shall try to relate some of the incidents closely connected with Mother’s very active life, as I remember them.
How I wish that I could make what I have to say something more than a mere recital of events; I wish that I could make every line breathe a tribute of praise to the splendid Christian virtues, to the unselfish devotion, and, withal, to the cheerful, light-hearted tranquility of our mother. The privations of frontier life with all of the disheartening, heart-sickening discouragements and disappointments which those privations include, never succeeded in making Mother one of their victims. Through it all she neither lost her buoyant spirit, nor her abiding faith in the loving care of God.
Two of Mother’s sisters were at Barclay, for at least short visits, while we were still there. I remember them quite well. Aunt Esther Hathaway was there for a time with her daughter, Mary Wright; and Aunt Elizabeth Barrington was there with her son, George Barrington. Joe Wright was always a favorite with us children. His rollicking good nature and friendliness for us made a strong appeal.
Aside from unimportant events, though important to a child’s mind, I do not remember a great deal of our life at Barclay. I know that Mother greatly enjoyed having her sisters there. Ruth Abbott, a sister of George Barrington, also lived there for a time. She and Mother always seemed much more like sisters than aunt and niece. They were alike in looks, and had many characteristics in common; and their enjoyment always seemed complete when they were together. Mother was also active in a literary society which held weekly meetings in the school-house. Her speciality was preparing papers in verse for their programs. This has always been her favorite diversion and anything appealing strongly to her fancy is almost sure to find expression in rhyme.
We lived at Barclay for about eight years. Tommy Barrington came there to visit his brother George, and while there heard some glowing accounts of what was being accomplished in farming out in western Kansas, in the Arkansas Valley, by means of irrigation. He made a trip out there, and came back with some magnificent samples of onions, potatoes, and, strange to say, some sediment from an irrigation ditch; all these having been produced by irrigation. The onions and potatoes certainly argued well for the fertility of the soil; but just why the sediment should have so strongly impressed all who saw it in favor of the country where it was produced, I cannot imagine. As Father afterward found out, the sediment was a serious drawback to farming. It was a deposit left by the muddy water as it flowed over the ground. This deposit gradually became quite deep, and when exposed to the sun, baked and formed a very hard crust through which it was difficult for roots to push their way. It was very common for land agents to exhibit this sediment as one of the big arguments in favor of the country where it was produced. When cut up into cakes, its smooth velvety, slate-like surface was rather attractive; and people did not seem to stop to consider of what possible value it could be. At any rate the combined influence of those onions, potatoes, and sediment was too much for Father to resist. He made a trip to the western part of the state, and under the homestead law, filed on one hundred and sixty acres of land. As soon as the property at Barclay could be disposed of, we moved out to Garden City, then a little frontier town consisting of practically nothing but a small hotel, a store, station, and a very few residences.
I think a brief description of this country to which we had moved, as it then existed, may be of some interest. This was in the winter of 1881. Western Kansas formed the eastern edge of that arid, semi-desert strip of plains which reached to the Rockies on the west. The soil was very fertile, but the almost entire lack of rain made the raising of crops entirely impossible.
The attempts made by a few hardy pioneers to farm there before the days of irrigation, made a most dismal record of hardships, disappointments and inevitable defeats. In every case it was a choice between starvation or its alternative – a move to some other country.
The Arkansas River flows through this part of Kansas, and the idea of using this water as a means of irrigation had been put into actual practice just before Father visited the country; and the results were very gratifying, creating a great boom during the next fifteen years. This boom had not begun when we moved there, and there were absolutely no settlers except in the actual valley of the river, the valley being two or three miles in width. Beyond this valley on the north was a great expanse of level plains stretching away as far as the eye could see and countless miles beyond. The earth was covered with a carpet of buffalo grass – never very green, yet always managing to live during the longest droughts and to sustain the lives of the range cattle, antelope, buffalo, and wild horses, which roamed the plains at will.
At the time of which I write, the Buffalo were just disappearing; but the antelope were still there in great numbers. They, too, have now been exterminated and this beautiful, gentle animal is now practically an extinct species. Wild horses were quite common, and range cattle were every where, unrestrained in any way save by the semi-annual round-up.
No description of this country is in any way complete without mentioning that strange, deluding phenomenon known as the mirage, with which all plainsmen are familiar; and still I feel entirely inadequate to the task of even vaguely describing its mystifying effects, which take a variety of forms. On a hot day, if not cloudy, beautiful lakes of water form, sometimes along the horizon, and sometimes quite near to the observer. This imitation of water is perfect, and any one unfamiliar with the plains is entirely justified in being misled. There is absolutely no reason for thinking of it as anything but water except the knowledge that none exists in that place. As one approaches these phantom lakes, they waver, recede, and disappear. Again, if any object happens to come within this water-covered area, no matter how small the object may be, it is raised to an unreal, fantastic height, and it appears ghoulish rather than earthly.
I should also mention the cactus and sage brush which was found here in abundance, and seemed to thrive where all other vegetation shriveled and died.
I realize though that I am yielding to my usual impulse of going on without end about the plains. As a boy I learned to love them; and I still love them as no other place, though they seem dreary and entirely uninteresting to those who have never come under their spell. This country, then, to which Father and Mother had come was up to that time a cattleman’s haven, and veritably the land of the cowboy.
The next seven or eight years were probably, in many ways, the hardest of Mother’s life; yet I think she cherishes the memory of that period, and holds dear to her heart many of the experiences through which she and Father passed.
The homestead on which Father had filed was thirteen miles north-west from Garden City. The survey had been made through that region for an irrigation ditch; but the ditch was not completed so that water could be brought to our place until about two years after our arrival. It was useless to move onto the place until water did reach us; so Father had to arrange for another home for us during this interval. There was no house to be rented right in town; and the best Father could do was to rent an abandoned claim shanty about six miles north of town; the owner having given up the one-sided fight against droughts, and moved into town. Everyone else who, up to that time, had settled there had shared a like fate, and we were thus without neighbors. Reaching to the horizon on every side was nothing but the boundless plains, dotted here and there by range cattle and antelope, but entirely free from buildings or signs of human beings.
This was our introduction to the plains. We lived there until Father had built a house on a few acres of land, right in the outskirts of town, which he had bought. We then moved onto that place and awaited the coming of water to our claim. During this time Father was in very poor health and there was very little hope of his recovery. Mother’s burdens were certainly heavy. Father’s illness, added to the worry caused by the uncertainty of the final success of farming there, was most disheartening; but just when things looked darkest, Father suddenly began to get better and rapidly regained his wasted vitality. A great help and comfort to Mother was the arrival of Abijah Abbott and family. They came a very few months after we did, and Mother and Ruth Abbott were once more united. It is hard to realize how Mother could have stood the strain of that first year, had it not have been for the constant help and advice of Abijah Abbott and the comfort of having Ruth with her.
Frank Rich and Family had also come on from Iowa, and we were under a deep debt of gratitude to them for their never-ceasing kindness and generosity.
After that year Father decided to move onto the claim as it was certain that water would soon be there. As an indication of the customs which were in common practice out there at that time, I will relate a little incident: To comply with the law, Father had erected what was called a claim shanty on our claim during the year that we did not live there. Later, on going there to spend a night, Father found no shanty. Someone had come along and while I will not say he had put the shanty in his pocket, he had taken it with him; and I do not think the lumber overloaded his wagon. This was a very common occurrence, and any one putting up buildings on the prairie and not staying right there on guard was almost certain to have them stolen.
When we moved to the claim we were farther out from town than any one else; north and west there was absolutely nothing in the way of civilization except a few large cattle ranches. To give some idea of the vast solitudes of the plains at that time, I recall that Father, in company with Abijah Abbott and two sons, George and Raymond, took me on a trip with them, and we traveled nearly two days without seeing any other human being with the sole exception of one cowboy. We did, strange to say, find a man’s hat lying on the prairie. It was a perfectly good hat, and we took it along with us. When we arrived at the ranch which was our destination a man at once came out to inquire if we had found a hat. He very frankly admitted that he had been riding the plains the day before in a slightly intoxicated condition and had lost his hat. His joy and surprise were equally great when his property was restored to him.
REMINISCENCES OF LIFE ON THE PLAINS
During our first year on the claim Father was away much of the time doing team work whenever he could find it to do, and thus earning a living until there should be an income from the crops. Mother and we children were necessarily alone at these times, and I think it was then that her rare traits as a mother and companion were shown most clearly.
She did everything in her power to furnish that which we lacked in the way of other children for playmates; and she would spend hours telling us stories of her girlhood days; of our relatives in Iowa; and almost daily of our two brothers, Omar and George, whom we children never saw. She had a rich store of poems and verses which we dearly loved to hear her recite. There was a soothing eloquence in her style of reciting, and it was her usual way of getting us to sleep at night. Our favorite selection began with the verse:
“They say I was but four years old
When Father went away;
Yet I have never seen his face
Since that sad parting day.”
At times now, when somewhat downcast, I feel that if in conformity to the verse:
“Backward, turn backward,
Oh, Time, in thy flight;
Make me a child again
Just for tonight.”
I could be made a child again, my first desire would be to lay my head in Mother’s lap, and have her repeat that old favorite of ours again.
Mother’s first caller created quite a little excitement. One day she saw coming across the prairie a strange looking person followed by three dogs. It was a woman on foot. Her feet were wrapped in gunny sacks; her hat, or head gear, was of her own device; the rest of her clothing was in grotesque harmony with these; and her face was almost cruelly browned and beaten by the sun and wind. Her general appearance was such that Mother at once decided that she must be crazy. But such proved to be far from the truth. She was a Mrs. Cook. She and her husband had moved into that country years before, coming from Philadelphia. They had managed to live through all those years of droughts, resolutely refusing to leave their claim when all the other settlers were abandoning theirs. While walking across the prairies after her cattle she had seen our buildings, and had called to get acquainted. She proved to be a most congenial and intelligent woman, and the many years of hardship through which she had passed seemed not to have daunted her spirit in any way. She had a well developed sense of humor, and managed to see the funny side of everything. We children wanted nothing better than to hear Mrs. Cook tell stories and laugh. She had very sensibly adopted that style of clothing which was at once most economical and the most comfortable for life in that country. The friendship which she and Mother formed then remains unbroken.
The next visitor which I remember was a genuine, old-time cowboy. We children saw him first, looming up nearly to the sky in a mirage northwest of our place. He was riding one horse and leading another pack horse. There were so many stories of the recklessness and lawlessness of the cowboys, that we watched his approach with some awe and dread. He was a perfect type of the cowboy that existed then – just such a subject as would appeal to the brush of Frederick Remington, or to the pen of Owen Wister.
He was fairly tall, lank, and had an iron grey mustache, and the proverbial sharp, alert eye. His wide-brimmed sombrero, fringed chaperjos, Colts revolver, high-heeled boots fitted with spurs, and his splendid saddle caused me, at least, to stand and gaze at him with open-mouthed admiration. He watered his horses, and Mother gained courage to ask him to come into the house and have something to eat. He accepted the invitation with alacrity; and how quickly he dispelled any lingering doubts which may still have existed in our minds! He was so hungry for company that he played with us and talked to Mother all at one time. He had been on the range for months, having seen almost no one but a few of his own men, and he was very anxious to get news from the outside world. His politeness to Mother was very marked; and when he found that she worried some about possible cyclones and various other things, he went out of his way to reassure her and to make her feel that we were as safe there as we could possibly be anywhere. When he left he made himself a sort of hero in our minds; and we felt that with such splendid fellows as he was out on the frontier beyond us, we were very well protected. We saw many cowboys after that, but not one ever did anything to alter in any way the high opinion we had formed of them as a result of this first visitor.
We had an Indian scare the second summer of our life on the plains, though it was a tame affair. Father had gone away to be absent the entire week. One day Sister Mary went on horse-back to a neighbor’s place four or five miles distant, on some errand. On arriving there she found the house closed and deserted. She went to two or three other places and found the same condition existing; and she returned home rather frightened. Mother was badly worried, thinking there must be something wrong; but there was nothing for us to do but await Father’s return. A few days later we found that a rider had gone down the valley warning all settlers that the Indians were coming, and advising them to get into town at once. We were so far out that he missed us. Everyone else in that neighborhood went into town for a few days; and we were in entire ignorance of what was going on. The truth was that a band of Indians had escaped from the Indian Territory and gone on the warpath. They were coming in our direction, but were turned back by soldiers and cowboys long before reaching us. It would have been a week of torture for us, alone on our claim, had we known why our neighbors had fled.
Although it rains very little in that country they do have a terrific storm occasionally, usually accompanied by a very strong wind. We had an experience with one of those which was rather amusing to think of afterwards, though far from amusing while it was happening. Father had gone to town on this particular day. Along towards evening a very ominous looking cloud gathered in the northeast. It rapidly overspread the sky and presented a spectacle which was really appalling. Finally we could hear the wind coming, and Mother started us into the cellar which we entered through a trap door outside of the house. We had just gotten into the cellar when the wind struck. It raised the house slightly and moved it very nearly off its foundation. Our terror was increased by a great smashing sound which we thought was the house going to pieces. In the cellar was a large box standing upright. Mother kept milk on shelves in this box. Fearing that the foundation of the house would fall in on us, Mother crowded us all into the lower shelf of this box. The pans of milk were overturned, and we were drenched in milk from our heads down. All this happened in a minute or two, and the wind soon subsided. When we started to leave the cellar we found what had caused the smashing sound. The concrete chimney to the house had fallen and had landed on the trap door – smashing it into kindling wood. I think this experience more thoroughly frightened us than any other through which we passed, though under other circumstances our demoralized, milk-soaked appearance would certainly have been mirth-provoking. Though Kansas is reported to have many cyclones, this wind storm came the nearest to being one of anything we ever experienced there; and much of this reputation is not based on facts.
During the first few years of our life on the claim no schools had been established there, and we children were, of course, somewhat retarded in our early education. Mother still enjoys telling a story in this connection. Land agents very often stopped at our house when passing with prospective settlers. One day one of these agents was at our house, and he asked Sister Helen a few questions concerning her scholastic attainments. Much to the chagrin of poor Helen, he commented adversely and tactlessly on her lack of progress, and indicated how far along she should have been in her books. Believing that I would be chastised next, and foreseeing the impending disaster, as I, though two years older than Helen, and not yet attained to the standard set for her, I seized my had and beat a hasty retreat out of the house, to the secret amusement of Mother.
The country was now rapidly filling up with settlers, and a school district was finally organized; and Elma Lewis, daughter of Aunt Ruth Lewis, came out from Iowa to serve as one of the early teachers in this school. She lived with us for about one year, and we derived great pleasure from having had her with us.
Wilfred Heald, step-son of Aunt Mary Heald, had also come out from Iowa and taken a homestead adjoining Father’s. He lived in a dugout and kept bachelor’s hall. He was great company for all of us, being full of fun and always ready to play. I am especially grateful to him for the interest he always showed in my welfare; and an older brother could not have been more loyal or kind. Space does not permit my telling of the many things which he did for me, but they are none the less appreciated. He and Father had gone into the sheep business, and they kept their flocks together. I was the herder, and spent the entire day on the prairie with the sheep. I could relate many incidents of interest connected with this work; but I have already wandered too far from the main object of this sketch.
I must, however, tell of the terrible blizzard which swept down from the Dakotas, and through Nebraska and western Kansas in the winter of 1886. The day preceding had been bright but cold; and there was a hard crust of snow on the ground. We children had just returned from school when the sky was quickly overcast with dark clouds, and the wind blew a gale from the north. Father came in and said a terrible storm had started. We got the cows and horses in the barn as quickly as possible – the sheep were in sheds down at Wilfred Heald’s place where he was spending the night. The storm was so bad Father could not get to him to help with the sheep. The blizzard raged all that night, and the next morning it was increasing in its fury.
The air was so full of fine, sharp particles of snow, that it was as dark as night out doors; these particles of snow, combined with the fierce wind that blew, quickly suffocated anyone who ventured out. Father, during the day, tried to get to the barn to see how the stock was faring; but though the barn was but a few yards from the house he was utterly unable to get to it. The cold was so extreme that we found it necessary to move down into the cellar to keep warm. Mother was greatly worried over the possible fate of Wilfred, fearing that he would try to get to our house and perish in the attempt. The storm continued all of that night, but abated early the next morning.
Before we had gotten up, Wilfred arrived. In order to keep warm he had burned his chairs, table, and all other furniture. The sheep, about twelve hundred in number, were all dead. Our barns were completely buried in snow; but when Father and Wilfred shoveled it away they found the horses and cows in good condition but hungry.
It is entirely beyond me to describe the suffering and loss of life which this storm caused. Several in our neighborhood who were staying in claim shanties were terribly frozen – some dying, and others losing their feet and hands. But the poor range cattle fared worst. The prairie was covered with their bodies. They were entirely without shelter; and they drifted with the storm until they succumbed to the cold and lay down and died. It is impossible to tell how may cattle died in our county alone; but there were doubtless many thousand. The grass was covered so deeply with snow that many cattle survived the storm only to die of starvation through their inability to paw through the snow and get to the grass. This storm was by far the worst which ever passed over that country, of which there is any record; and it stands today as the big over-shadowing tragedy of the early days.
I will not relate many more incidents of our life on the plains. Those which I have related, I hope, will give some idea of what manner of life it was. If it was a hard life in many ways, it had its full share of sunshine; and the time which we spent there marks one of the very happy periods of our lives.
Irrigation had proved to be a big success and continued to be a success until the water in the Arkansas River was exhausted, owing to the great number of farmers drawing from it, and the harvests were bountiful. Neighbors were now many, and they adjusted themselves to the manner of life of the community almost without a discordant element.
There were debating societies which held weekly meetings in the school houses; and the women organized at that early date, a women’s suffrage club. It was an active, live organization, tho I am not sure that it greatly influenced the legislature in securing “Votes for Women.” Tone was added to the literary side of life by the presence in the community of John H. Whitson, author of several volumes of fiction, and popular contributor to the Youth’s Companion and other periodicals. He and his wife lived on a claim near us. He spent his time in writing, getting his material for stories from his surroundings. His most widely read book “Barbara, A Woman of the West,” begins at Garden City, tho he gave the place a fictitious name; and Barbara and her first husband were, in a general way, Mr. Whitson and his wife. Any one interested in life on the plains will find some very accurate and vivid descriptive work in this book. Emerson Hough, author of “The Mississippi Bubble,” and stories of western life, spent a time at Garden City, collecting material for his work.
When we had lived on the claim for six or seven years, Father was elected to a county office; and largely to give the children better school advantages, he decided to move into town.
From that time up to the present there has not been much in our lives relating to Mother, of sufficient interest to record. We children went through the schools at Garden City and afterwards gradually scattered. Mary and I went to Wisconsin while Helen and Nettie remained near home. Father and Mother continued to live quietly and happily at Garden City, entirely satisfied, I think, with their lot in life.
Thus the years passed on until in the spring of 1912 occurred the saddest event of our lives. We were called to Father’s bedside to be with him during his last days. He had been failing in health for several years and passed away on April 1, 1912. We were consoled in our sorrow by the fact that he was fully prepared to go, and died as he had lived – an honored, upright Christian. Although this was a great strain upon Mother, she bore up wonderfully well; and really showed more courage and fortitude than any of the rest of us.
She still lives in the home at Garden City, spending part of the time there and part of it with some of her children. She was with us for about two months in the Spring of 1914. She was strong physically and her mind was as active as ever. We visited places of interest together, Niagra Falls among them, and she seemed to have fully as much endurance as any of the rest of us. I shall always cherish the memory of that Spring, and I trust that in the future we shall be permitted to have many more such visits.
The date on which I am writing these last lines is June 1916.
from the Townsend Papers – Pasadena Historical Society Archives, Thos. Townsend Manuscript Collection. Box 14, # 288. Transcribed by Bruce B. Abbott.