If Trees Could Talk

Cottonwood Tree
Old man Cottonwood

Ozzie spent this Sunday in Oz with Sammy and Toby and the Cottonwood trees.

Sammy is Ozzie’s skittish German Shepherd. Toby belongs to Hannah, Ozzie’s daughter. Toby is half Jack Russell Terrier half Mountain Cur.

Sammy is the alpha dog, but she prefers to stay by Ozzie’s side when they walk, only occasionally wandering off. If we are lucky, we spot a white-tailed deer and Sammy is off on the chase, but evolution has given the deer the advantage and Sammy always comes back without her prey. Toby is the curious one, ranging far and wide. Whenever they travel together, Toby is always first out of the car, always first into the lakes and streams, always last to want to go home.

Our plan was to head out onto the Walnut Valley east of Wichita.  We were in  search of abandoned one room schools. And the target of our search today were  the Townships of Hickory and Glencoe in Butler County, Kansas.

These schools once upon a time dotted the hills and valleys of rural Kansas like sunflowers. But like sunflowers, their season had come and gone. Now, the few that are left need a little care if they are to be preserved.

The townships of Hickory and Glencoe are due east of Wichita along Highway 400, about an hours drive if you keep to the speed limit, less if you are in a hurry.

This countryside is rural farmland and ranchland. If you look in the right direction – avoiding the modern highway, the telephone polls, and the occasional house, it looks pretty much as it did before the immigrants came and civilized this rugged landscape. In the late summer, the wheat has been cut, the corn stands golden brown and ready to harvest. The bales of grass and hay dot the landscape like giant rolls of quarters.

Later that evening, after Ozzie and the dogs had criss-crossed the hills and streams of the Walnut Valley, Ozzie asked Colonel Bob about the early days. Colonel Bob was born before the Great Depression in Beaumont. His great grandparents had homesteaded the Walnut Valley in the 1870’s, their farm was farmed by their children. His grandfather on his mother’s side had been the town doctor in Beaumont’s heyday, and by necessity, the country doctor for the townships of Glencoe and Hickory.

Colonel Bob told how the area once had been farm after farm. Farms then were not the conglomerations of thousands of acres that they are today. Instead, they were often 60 or 100 acres, as that was all that the machinery of the early days would allow for cultivation and harvesting. The automobile changed all that. And by the end of World War II, most of the small farmers had left for the cities, or by dint of hard work and education they became businessmen and women, or professionals, anything that didn’t depend on the vicissitudes of weather and commodity prices.

On the way to Glencoe Township, you pass Augusta and Leon. Your route parallels the route of the Frisco Railroad, but the tracks have long since been taken up. The track line is now overgrown with trees and the only reminder is an iron bridge here and there, a monument to man’s desire to conquer the land.

Glencoe Township is north of Highway 400. Beaumont marks its most southerly and eastern boundry. Beaumont was once a thriving railroad town, but without the railroad, its fate hangs on the fact that it has an airstrip for single engine planes.

Ozzie targeted a school three miles west of Beaumont and two miles north of Highway 400. The school is designated on a Standard atlas of Butler County, Kansas from 1905, so if you really want to find it you can.

Ozzie is not going to make it too easy. Ozzie feels that one room schools are like cemeteries and should be respected.

There it was, right where the map said it should be. Only, what was there was the remnant of a school, a few Kansas limestones, a burnt piece of wood or two, a sealed well, and the outline of a school. A motorist travelling by on the gravel and dirt would not even notice the school.

Ozzie found the corner where once upon a time the school stood. The school has no name. All that remains is the limestone foundation, scattered like the bones of a long deceased animal. A charred piece of wood or two lay about, telling the story that the building had burned long ago.

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What is remarkable to Ozzie are the Cottonwood trees in a gully behind the school.  They are about a hundred yards distant from the outline of the school. The trees line a dry gully where. It is dry now in the middle of Summer and the ground is parched. The dogs roam about in the hot Kansas sun, their tongues lolling out of their mouths, their breast heaving, all in a vain attempt to remain cool.

How hot was it?  So hot that Toby quit his running about to find shade and a little relief from the Summer sun. That is why the cottonwood was a welcome site for the early Kansas settler.

The Cottonwood trees were remarkable. One tree in particular was three arm spans in circumference. I have heard it said that Cottonwoods can live for 100 years and be 6 feet in circumference. At least one of these trees was 12 feet in circumference and was the great grandfather of all that stood about. The trees stood like massive guardians to all that had happened over the years. The buffalo, the Indians had lived on the land first. Theirs was an age in which prairie fires that swept the land clean of vegetation except for the Cottonwoods with their wooly bark. Or the buffalo herds in the tens of millions would migrate up and down the valley eating all the grass in their way.

Then came the settlers with their farms and their schools.For a time it seemed as if the rains followed the farmers. 1860 was a drought year and many settlers gave up. But then the rains came in abundant amounts for several years and the farms thrived. But like a Biblical boom and bust, feast and famine, the rains stopped or the grasshoppers came and farmers struggled to make a living.

The Cottonwood tree is the state tree of Kansas for good reason. The thick corky bark provides protection from the wildfires that swept the plains before the advent of the settler. Unlike the Oak, the Walnut and the Sycamore, which all required bottom land to grow, the Cottonwood could grow out on the prairie, all it needed was a creek bed or even a dry gully in which to flourish. The Cottonwood is not really good for anything except its shade. The flaxen seed which appears on the male tree in the Spring is not real cotton. The gossamer-like  seeds could become so thick that an early Spring showering would seem like a snowfall.

The leaves of the Cottonwood are like the Aspen of Colorado and when the wind blows, it seems like the shaking and rattling is the Cottonwood’s way of applauding the determination of the settler in trying to make something of so difficult a land.

These trees had seen it all.

Ozzie wondered what tales the trees would tell if only they could talk. Where are the children who once went to school and the parents who once farmed the land? But all he heard was the soft rustle of the leaves, murmuring that some things should be kept secret.

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