Early Inspiration – 5 stories, drafts, 2017
Whealy Heirloom Trumpet Vine
On my father’s side, there are three common spellings of our family’s name – Whealy, Whaley and Whalley (all pronounced “whay-lee”), which were used somewhat interchangeably for no apparent reason. (Having had my name – Whealy – mispronounced my entire life as “whee-lee,” I encouraged my son Aaron to legally change the spelling of his surname to Whaley while he was still in college and had virtually no contracts to change. My ancestors were “Orangemen” (Protestants who emigrated from England to Northern Ireland, about 1770 for my ancestors), and “The Troubles” that ensued in that Catholic country are still ongoing. My great-great-grandfather was Joseph Whaley, born in Ardstraw Parish, County Tyrone, Ireland in 1815, who immigrated first to New York and then to Perth County, Ontario, Canada in 1840, where in 1842 he married his cousin (not that uncommon in those days, and certainly explains a lot). His wife, Elizabeth Bradley, was born in 1820 in Hollyhill, Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland and died in 1887. Joseph died well before in 1870 and both are buried in Knox Churchyard, North Easthope Township, Perth County, Ontario with Whealy headstones. (See what I mean about interchangeable spellings.)
Their son William George Whealy, my great-grandfather, was born in Perth County, Ontario in 1843, so my ancestors had already immigrated to North America at least five years before the Irish potato famine (1845-1849). William George left at age 23 for the lumbering regions of Michigan, and in 1866 married Mary Magwood in Kewanee, Illinois, who was born in County Monaghan, Ireland in 1845. They lived in Starke County, Illinois from 1867-1870, then moved to Woodson County, Kansas in 1870, and finally to Sumner County, Kansas in 1871 among the earliest settlers. William George built a small frame house, transporting the lumber from Chenute, Kansas 130 miles away, which was the first dwelling erected between Wellington and Oxford, and the first house in what would eventually become the tiny unincorporated town of Dalton. As a pioneer settler, he “pre-empted” 160 acres in the thinly settled country, which eventually increased to 400 acres of “finely located land,” where he farmed and raised cattle, and reportedly “prospered.”
William George and Mary Whealy had 11 children, and my grandfather, Arthur Caldwell (A. C.) Whealy, their third child born in 1871, was the second European child born in Sumner County Kansas. My grandfather grew up on the prairie herding cattle and, according to his obituary, was bitten by a rattlesnake, but lived. He married Clara Belle Burford in October 1901, but she passed away less than a year later. In 1905 he married my grandmother, Elizabeth Lynn Hartley, his former classmate at Kansas State Normal School (later Emporia State Teachers College), who was teaching nearby in Conway Springs. They moved into the house my great-grandfather had built in Dalton, where my grandfather owned and operated the general store in addition to teaching school. My grandparents both taught school for fifty years and their final teaching jobs were in Mitchell, Kansas, a tiny cross-roads town west of Salina, where they retired and both lived until age 89. My childhood memories of visiting their little house in Mitchell include: my grandfather milking a goat, needing the milk for his ulcers, and growing large yellow tomatoes which he could tolerate; the screened porch filled with my grandmother’s violets; her great raisin-filled sugar cookies, still my favorite; playing dominoes for entertainment after supper in the evenings; my frail grandfather sitting on a tall stool while my father cut his wispy hair; hunting by myself at age 12 with my mother’s single-shot 410 shotgun and proudly bagging my first two pheasants, which my grandfather, father and I cleaned and we all had for supper.
My grandparents had four children, three girls and my father who was the youngest, all born at home in the small house my great-grandfather had originally built in Dalton, Kansas. My father, Arthur Ellesemere (A. E.) Whealy, was born September 3, 1907. At the time, my grandmother was reading about Ellesmere Island, farthest island north in the Canadian Arctic near Greenland. She thought it was a pretty name, but apparently misspelled it, or the book did. Dad told me that at about age three was the only time he ever remembered seeing his grandfather, William George, carrying a bushel of apples out of an orchard and putting it on a wagon. Not long after that William George was murdered in Nogales, Mexico while on a cattle buying trip. My grandfather and a lawyer rode trains down to Nogales and tried to find out what had happened, but the sheriff told them that they better just take the body and go home. William George hadn’t been shot, but sure was dead. At age 68 he probably just had too much money in his pocket, wrong place at the wrong time.
After my grandfather, A. C. Whealy, passed away in 1960 when I was 14, my father took me out to Dalton, a few miles east of Wellington and a mile south, and showed me the foundation where his father’s general store had been. Then we went over to the small white house where my father had been born, which was all boarded up. We peered in the windows through cracks between the boards, but the house was completely empty. We were standing on a small porch, and climbing up a couple of the posts was an old Trumpet Vine that was just beginning to flower. I asked my Dad if he remembered it, and he said that it had always been there, even when he was a small child. That meant that his parents, my grandparents, had touched it and maybe even my great-grandparents. Trumpet Vines sucker readily from the roots, and quite a few sprouts were coming up. We pulled up a few and cut chunks of the roots with my father’s pocket knife. The next morning I planted several of those cuttings along a back fence behind my mother’s garden, and within a couple of years it was growing strongly and had really spread.
Besides growing at my parent’s home where I grew up in Wellington, Kansas, I’ve planted starts of it at the handmade hardwood house I built in the woods of northern Missouri (late 1970s), on a fence beside the entrance of the Historic Orchard at Seed Savers Heritage Farm (late 1980s), and at three locations in northern Michigan (2010 and a few years later). Last spring (2016) my son Aaron took starts to his farm near Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin where he and his three sons successfully planted it. That’s five generations of the Whealy/ Whaley family who have touched that same plant, and maybe six generations if my great-grandparents did too. In other words, my grandsons are touching the same plant that was growing on the porch of the home in Dalton, Kansas that was built in 1871 by their great-great-great-grandfather. The sacredness of that Trumpet Vine, a living heirloom throughout the lives of so many generations of my family, deeply affected me and my thinking 15 years before I started Seed Savers.
Turkey Red Wheat
Almost exactly nine months after the end of World War II (late April 1946), I was born in South Dakota, among the first and now the oldest of the Baby Boomers. During the war my parents lived in Souix Falls where my father was a civilian instructor at the airbase teaching Morris code to Air Force pilots and crews. My earliest memory – not quite two – is of my father carrying me down across a rip rapped slope to the spray of the falls, and looking back up over his shoulder at the old black car parked above. Nearly 40 (?) years later on my only trip back, I was the keynote speaker on the first (?) Earth Day at Augustana University in (19??). Well, I just had to visit that same spot at the Sioux Falls, and chuckled when the scene was still exactly as I remembered.
In 1948 my parents moved back to their hometown of Wellington, Kansas, just south of Wichita almost on the Kansas/Oklahoma border. My parents had both grown up in Wellington, both just one generation off of the farm. My dad was born in 1907 a few miles east in a small white house in the tiny town of Dalton, where my grandfather owned and operated the general store and was Postmaster. My mother was born in 1914 in Burlington, Kansas farther to the northeast. Her parents farmed near Honnewell, down by South Haven, slightly north of the Oklahoma line. Both of my parents knew everyone in and around Wellington and everyone knew them.
Sumner County proudly claims to be the “Wheat Capital of the World,” producing more bushels of hard winter wheat than any other county in the U.S. There was a county in North Dakota, however, that actually did produce more bushels, but the Sumner County locals would tell you, “That’s durum wheat, spaghetti wheat, soft and not nearly as good a quality.” Durum wheats are planted in northern areas in the spring and harvested in the fall. The winter wheats that I grew up with are planted in the fall and can be grazed throughout the mild winter and into the spring (as long as the cattle are taken off before the plant develops its first joint), and are harvested in early June(?).
Imagine if you can the immense beauty of golden grain as far as you can see moving in the wind like ocean waves. Wheat harvest back then was an exciting time, really something to experience. Local farmers were all out in the fields with their small combines and farm trucks (usually 2½ ton Fords with wooden sideboards). Combine crews for hire were also coming through, having started earlier down below the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, following the harvest all the way up into Canada harvesting the durum wheats in late fall. Farm trucks were lined up for half a mile to dump their loads of wheat at the Hunter Mill, eventually to be ground into flour. After my grandfather retired from farming, he worked at the mill loading 100 lb. sacks of flour into railroad cars. Granddad drove a Cushman scooter to and from the mill, and as a small child I’d wait for him each evening with a handful of raisins. He’d drive up grinning, covered with flour, and I’d give him his raisins. Then he’d put me between his knees, standing on the floorboard of his scooter, and give me a ride a few blocks up to the end of our dirt road and back.
Jobs were scarce after the war and for a number of years my father was a John Deere parts man, so he knew virtually all the farmers in the county. For several years when I was a child, he would take me out during harvest to where one of his friends was combining. The combines back then were small, no cab, just a seat and steering wheel. My father would stand beside his seated friend, and I would get to ride up behind in the grain box, probably about 6’ square and even less deep. The wheat would spill out in a stream from a curved spout and I’d let it cover my legs, playing in the constantly growing pile of wheat. We’d ride around the field until the bin was full, and then as the load of wheat was being augured into the truck we would say thanks and take off. What great fun and lasting memories for a little kid.
One spring evening when I was not quite a teenager, my father came home from work and said we should take a ride because he wanted to show me something. That part of Kansas is flat as a board, but there is a slight hill a few miles north of town that looks out over the countryside. Standing there he pointed out a rectangular 20 acre field of wheat glowing red in the evening sun, surrounded by a sea of gold. We drove over to take a closer look. The wheat was tall, and the stalks and heads of grain were indeed reddish, unlike any I’d ever seen. Dad explained that it was Turkey Red Wheat, brought from the Crimea in Russia by Mennonites who had immigrated in substantial numbers starting in the mid-1870s to the area around Nickerson, Kansas up near Hutchinson. He said it was widely grown in the 1920s, still fairly common when we moved back in the late 1940s, but just a decade later was almost gone. With concern and a sadness I’d never seen, he told me, “I wanted you to see it before it disappears.”
The sandy soils along the rivers were not only good sites for peach orchards, but those sandy fields were also great for growing watermelons. Every summer when the early varieties of watermelons got ripe, farmers would start bringing truckloads of melons to town. Each year (in the early 1950s) on a Saturday afternoon my Dad would drive our family down to the far side of town –past the Hunter Mill and across all the railroad tracks – to where a friend of his had set up a tent in the parking lot of the It’ll Do Tavern. In the shade under that tent and out of the sweltering sun was a large round horse tank, about 8’ across, filled with water, blocks of ice from the nearby ice plant, and ice cold watermelons.
After talking to his friend for an acceptable period, my Dad would examine several of the watermelons, give each one a hard thump with his index finger (“plink…plank…plunk”) and expertly select one that he thought was sufficiently ripe. His friend would take a butcher knife and cut a 2” square, shoving the knife in deeply four different times along each side of the plug, all the way to the heart. Then he would pull out the skinny green, white and red pyramid and give it to my Dad, who would examine it, taste it slowly, and finally nod his approval. After paying and shaking hands, the watermelon was loaded into the trunk of the car, and then straight home to slice it up and eat it while still cold. What a great annual ritual.
Wellington, Kansas is just 19 miles south on Highway 81 from the south edge of Wichita, where we occasionally went for shopping and appointments. Watermelon season was also cantaloupe season, and at that time of year there were always old pickup trucks parked along the highway with homemade signs peddling “Rocky Ford Melons” (cantaloupes, actually). Young guys would load up several bales of wheat straw and drive out to Rocky Ford, Colorado, which was known far and wide for its cantaloupes. They’d buy as many as they could haul, layered in with the straw, to bring back and sell along the highways and in vacant lots across Wichita.
I was always a nosy kid, into everything, probably seven or eight at the time. While my mother was picking out some cantaloupes at one pickup, I wandered on up to the next one. The kid was a stereotypic punk – long greased hair in a pompadour, on-the-road unshaven stubble, pack of Marlboros rolled up in the sleeve of his dirty t-shirt, and even a new tattoo on his forearm. But what really fascinated me, he was sitting on the tailgate of the pickup eating a large slice of yellow watermelon. “What’s that?” I asked, never having seen one. He glared down at me, cocked an eyebrow and sneered, “It’s a yellow watermelon, kid.” I just turned and walked away, because he actually scared me, but oh how I wanted a bite. My mother said she had only tasted a yellow watermelon once, really sweet, but thin skinned and couldn’t be shipped, so were never available. I had to wait a long time for that bite.
Belle of Georgia
The main rivers running through south central Kansas are the Ninnescah and the Chikaskia, both are Indian names. Large stretches of those rivers, except for a few shallow narrow channels, are a quarter of a mile wide and 4” deep, all with sand bottoms and lots of sand bars. There were peach orchards on some of the sand flats that lined the rivers, because the trees’ roots only had to grow down about 20’ to reach moisture. The winters there were so mild that sometimes peas were planted in gardens in late February, so frost only ruined the peach blossoms and the crop maybe one year out of four. Usually one of the other three years was a bonanza. Apricots, which flower even earlier than peaches, only produced a decent crop about one year out of four and weren’t widely grown.
Back then most every family canned large amounts of peaches, usually in quarts in a light syrup, perfect for dessert at the end of dinner or supper. For several years, starting when I was about eight, my grandmother would take me with her to pick peaches. My grandmother’s name name was Morna Murrel (Gardner) Coffelt, but all the adults called her Murrel and all of us kids called her Nana (pronounced Nah-nuh. There in southern Kansas, lots of words ended in “uh” – winduh, yelluh.). I was a good tree climber who loved to go along, and she needed the help. Nana would load several bushel baskets into the back seat of their little 1951 Henry J, so that she wouldn’t have to buy baskets at the orchard. We were also picking for my mother, who worked for 25 years as the secretary in the Soil and Water Conservation office in Wellington. We always left just after daybreak in the cool of the morning to avoid the afternoon heat, both for us and the newly picked peaches. The orchard was about 20 miles to the northwest past Conway Springs on the southern bank of the Ninnescah River.
The peach orchard was a seasonal component of a wheat farm. We drove down the long driveway and pulled in and parked with other cars beside the barn. There were a couple of small International tractors pulling wooden flatbed wagons, ferrying pickers to and from the orchard, driven by what appeared to be a father and his teenage son. I helped Nana up onto the father’s wagon, straw bale for a step, to join about a dozen other folks, legs dangling off both sides and empty baskets in the middle. Slowly we bumped our way down the central drive through the long rows of trees, some picked almost clean and others not yet ripe. The son’s wagon waited until we passed, bringing back folks who were done picking, bushel baskets piled high with gorgeous peaches.
The main varieties of peaches in local orchards at that time had mainly been developed at Michigan State’s South Haven Experiment Station, a series of eight varieties that were all crosses of J. H. Hale peach and had “haven” in their names. The ones I knew even as a kid were Halehaven, Fairhaven, and Redhaven, which had quickly become popular and were all “freestone.” By making just one cut all the way around starting at the stem cavity, the peach could be broken in half and the large seed removed free from the flesh, which made home processing much easier and quicker than the older “cling” varieties, whose flesh adhered to the seed. Right then that orchard was picking the last of the Fairhavens, which ripened like all of the other “havens” from reddish to yellow. I always thought that Fairhaven didn’t have quite the flavor, but was among the largest, some slightly bigger than a softball. Redhavens were smaller, but so good.
Nana and I walked down the rows to find a few unpicked trees that were loaded. There were tall skinny orchard ladders around, but that would have been strenuous and dangerous for her, and I preferred climbing anyway. I’d toss the ripe peaches down one-at-a-time, which Nana would catch and put in the baskets. She always arranged the peaches in concentric circles, layer by layer, thinking she got more peaches that way. The largest peaches were always way up in the top of the tree, and required really stretching while standing on thin branches. More than once I saw pickers fall completely out of a tree, but that never happened to me.
When the farmer stopped and let all of us off to start picking, I waited behind and asked him if there were any Belle of Georgia peaches in the orchard? He grinned at my question and then pointed out two trees on the edge of the orchard, which he said were kept for use by the family. I asked him if he minded if I picked just one or two, and he said that would be alright, but “ Don’t tell anybody else and don’t break any branches.” I assured him that I’d be really careful and thanked him. He wasn’t sure that any would be ripe yet, because Belle of Georgia ripened later, but said the season had been such that a few might be ready and I could tell by the color.
Belle of Georgia is an old-time legendary peach that dates back to right after the Civil War, seldom seen in our area, but I had already learned that each orchard usually had a few trees. When ripe, the large fruits are creamy white with a stunningly beautiful red cheek. The flesh is white with a little bit of red around the pit, super sweet flesh, firm but incredibly juicy, with an aroma and flavor that’s off the charts. As soon as our baskets were filled, I left Nana to finish her arranging and headed for the Belle of Georgia trees. Like a flash I was up in the very top of the tree, tiptoes on a thin branch, straining to reach a perfect, absolutely gorgeous peach. I ate it right there, slowly, savoring each bite, juice still cooled by the morning dew literally dripping off my chin. As the saying goes, “It just doesn’t get any better than that.” And, of course, I took one back to Nana.
My father told me a story about my grandfather, who had a small orchard near Dalton, Kansas that included several dozen peach trees. One winter some boys from Georgia came through and told my grandfather that they were expert orchard pruners, so he hired them to prune his peach trees. Just when they were getting started, grandfather was called away for a spell. When he returned he was horrified to see that “They were absolutely butchering my peach trees!” He ran them off and finished about half of the pruning himself. Next season the butchered trees were heavy with peaches and his weren’t.
Great-Grandmother’s Christmas Cactus
On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother’s maiden name was Addie May Childers and in 1887 she married Benjamin Edgar Gardner, so you might say I come from a long line of “gardeners.” She was born December 12, 1868 in Lucas, Iowa and passed away at age 84 when I was only 5. As a small child, I only have a couple of memories of my great-grandmother, one of driving through the farmhouse gate, dogs barking beside the car, on our way to Sunday dinner at the Gardner farm south of Dalton, Kansas. Another early childhood memory was holding onto one of her crutches as we walked together across the dirt road from my parent’s home to my grandparent’s farmhouse, again on the way to a Sunday dinner. Walking for her was difficult, even with a cane, because she and my grandmother and my mother all had bad cases of rheumatoid arthritis, causing crooked fingers and knees painfully sticking out to the side at odd angles. Luckily, I was mostly spared.
My great-grandparents were among the first settlers in that area, thought possibly to have been “Sooners” who entered what is now Oklahoma before the official start of the Land Rush in 1889 in order to plant the corner stakes of their claim early. My grandmother, one of their five children, told me stories of living in a “soddy” (sod house) as a child, just across the line into Oklahoma. That area, right on the Chisholm Trail, was all prairie with only a few trees along the “cricks.” Lumber was scarce and expensive, so the early settlers built cabins out of blocks of sod cut from the thickly rooted prairie grasses. The structures were inexpensive and remarkably well insulated, but damp. My grandmother’s chores included sweeping the dirt floor each day. Nana said their soddy was “fancier” than others because it had a cedar ceiling.
Obviously that was a long time before my childhood dinner at my great-grandmother’s farmhouse. My great-grandfather had passed away many years earlier and she was living with her brother, who everybody called Uncle Clarence and nobody seemed to like. As the story goes, Benjamin Gardner died after falling down a flight of stairs while sleepwalking, naked but had put his hat on. My mother, who told me the story, was a child sleeping on a couch at the bottom of stairs and remembered the incident vividly. Quite an exit, I must say.
Although not part of my childhood memory of that Sunday dinner, my great-grandmother had a huge Christmas cactus in a half of a wooden barrel on the patio out behind her house in the summer time, which got moved inside during the winter. Some years later, a few months after her funeral, her grand-daughter, my Aunt Dorothy who was my mother’s only sibling, went out specifically to look for the Christmas cactus. She found the wooden barrel upside down and the cactus was almost dead. But she salvaged part of the plant and root that was still alive and took it to Day’s Greenhouse in Wellington, who were able to grow several small pots of it.
The segments of the branches are quite thin, not thick and fleshy like most, and it’s more of a Thanksgiving cactus than a Christmas cactus, blooming spectacularly almost a month earlier. The tubular pinkish-purple flowers that form at the end of each branch are more than 2” long and the thickness of a pencil, with two separate circles of petals about an inch apart, unlike any I’ve ever seen. A large plant in full bloom is a breathtakingly beautiful and quite colorful sight. I’ve distributed starts of the cactus to my relatives living around Wellington, Kansas and grown large pots of it for my children, who also treasure it as a true living heirloom. For me, being able to touch the same plant that so many generations of my family down through the years have also touched is deeply spiritual. These living heirlooms are elements of our ancestors’ daily lives that are still alive, and therefore are uniquely sacred.