What Price, Buffalo Valley
As Published in the Kansas Optimist, April 15, 1937
By Gail French Peterson
I'm an irredeemable old hick, no doubt. Nevertheless, it seems to me everything really worth while has happened right here in Buffalo Valley. One can prove almost anything in the whole range of human existence by its history. Jamestown's Commercial Club is no more concerned today with W. P. G., than were the Johnson's, Olson's, Ansdell's and the Nelson's 68 years ago. With any of those names "a good story goes there."
Naturally, my typewriter keys click smoothly on "Olson" for they were neighbors of my family; the kind of neighbors one recalls with the pleasantest of recollections when one recalls old times. Of course I don't remember Mr. Olson. Unfortunately I was born too late to remember many of the first settlers. Hans Olson came to Grant township in 1869 and homesteaded the northeast 1/4 of 15-5-5. Go out on the Kackley road from Jamestown and north a few rods at the tip of the last long bend, the west side of the highway, where Buffalo creek sneaks south before slipping under the mill bridge, and you will find a scraggy box elder tree and a gopher-like mound of blow soil where Hans built his crude dugout that summer of '69.
When I say crude I mean just that, for it was little less than a square hole in the bank covered with brush and sod. Mr. Olson was not a farmer coming to Kansas to branch out in business. He was a cobbler by trade and had been well trained in the old country.
Emigrating to America, he came to Chicago where he was caught before he knew what it was all about in the "westward ho" movement of the Scandinavian colony company. He cam to Kansas alone, dug in there on the creek bank and like many another tradesman who knew nothing of farming, wondered what he was going to do with his 160 acres of prairie grass, with only his cobblers outfit, and no shoes in the country to cobble, and no tools or knowledge of farming. To bad there wasn't an Agricultural Adjustment Act in those days, but there wasn't, and the settlers had to work out for themselves the hopelessly discouraging situations that arose. Hans was no exception and he saw plenty of those hopeless situations to make the best of.
In time he managed to secure a yoke of oxen. And what a yoke they were! Long after the other oxen used ill breaking the prairies had passed into oblivion, and were referred to as so many cattle, the neighbors spoke of that long horned yoke of Hans Olson's. They had personality and it was their long horns that did it and made them live in history. The claim is still undisputed in that part of the country that they had the longest horns that ever grew on a critter. No exact measurements are available but the Christensen brothers, Christ, Julius, and Ivor, were all built along long reaching lines and no one of them could reach from horn tip to horn tip of those remarkable creatures.
Hans got on to the hang of things a little by the spring of 1870 and commenced braking out his claim. There had been a whole winter in which to figure things out and the smartest thing he ever did was to write to his sweetheart in Norway and persuade her to come to America and marry him. This little Norwegian sweetheart was very young; a mere slip of a girl, but she had spunk and courage and common sense enough for twins, Right from the start she showed her metal and proved to Hans she was no softie. It was early summer of 1870 that she arrived in America. By that time, Hans had several neighbors, among them the Stephen Christensen family, who lived on an adjoining homestead.
A regular stage and freighter line was operating that spring between Junction City and Fort Kearney, Nebraska, that made a stop at Lake Sibley. Hans had a letter telling him his sweetheart would arrive on a certain train at Junction City, but, since his oxen were slow on the road, and he was pretty busy anyway, he made arrangements with the stage driver to met Ellen for him and bring her to Sibley. The stage driver was willing to do this favor, but when he met the little prospective bride, she told him through an interpreter that she didn't know him, qnd wasn't gallavanting over the prairies with a stranger. He could tell Hans for her, that if he wanted her he had better come for her himself. She would wait there a week, and if he didn't come she was going back to her old home in Norway.
Hans was at Sibley of course, to meet the stage when it returned from Junction City, and the driver gave him the message. It is reported that the man about to be married took one good look at those slow action long-horned oxen and realized he would never make it in time with them, so he hurried back home to his good neighbor, Christensen, and borrowed his team of ponies and the buckboard and nearly set the prairies afire getting down to Junction City to meet Ellen. They drove back to Sibley and were married there, and that was the second marriage in the county.
It would have been a sorry homecoming for most brides for there was only the crudest of furnishings in the little dirt dugout. It did not daunt the spirited Ellen. She untied the big bundle of possessions she had brought with her from the old country and set up housekeeping. Unlike Hans, she knew all about dairy cattle and why and how things grew out of the ground. They planted corn that spring in the bend of the creek where they could break the sod easily with an axe and drop in the seeds. The weather was favorable that year, and it matured into a good crop, the first corn to be raised in Grant Township by a settler.
That fall a company of United States soldiers were encamped on the Loftus farm on the Cheyenne and in scouting about over the prairies, supposedly looking for Indians, they found Hans and Ellen's corn. Acting the old army idea that everything belongs to the army, they decided it would make good feed for their horses and forthwith set about husking it, putting it in neat piles ready to take to camp. When they finished the husking, they went back to camp expecting to return later and pick up the corn. Hans was on the job and beat them to it.
As soon as it was dark, he hauled the corn to the house and hid it. I hardly think he took the trouble to thank the soldiers for husking his corn and I am sure that the soldiers made no inquiry as to what became of the neat little piles they so gallantly husked. And that is the story of the first corn raised in Grant Township.
The first years the Olsons were on their homestead were hard and discouraging times. They acquired a cow and each year they broke more of the sod planted more corn.
There were several Scandinavian families in the valley that visited each other to talk of their old homes across the sea. They thought nothing of walking 'from six to ten miles to visit with their countrymen. Mrs. Olson was a very skilled knitter. Her needles would click so fast it was hard to see them make the stitches and she knitted all the time while she was walking either in herding or when she was going on a visit.
It was during the late 60's and early 70's that big cattle drives were made through this part of Kansas. In the spring the cattle ranchers of the Rio Grande and the Texas plains would start the herds northward and keep the cattle on the drift all summer, feeding on the lush grasses of the plains from Texas to the Dakotas. Ben French's place and the Peterson homestead (were) on the north side of the creek. Each year, the valley between the two salt marshes about four miles wide and from three to five miles from the creek to the north hills would be one solid mass of cattle for days at a time. They would be all about the Olson dooryard.
Mrs. Olson I grown up on a dairy farm and had no fear of cattle. She had been in the habit of visiting each week with Mrs. Nels Nelson, who lived four miles or more to the east along the Republican River, and one day when it came time for the accustomed visit, the entire valley was filled with the big shaggy Texas longhorns. But that didn't stop Ellen from making her visit. She took it for granted that Texas cattle were not the kind to be stampeded by a woman. Accompanied by a little Fox-Terrier dog that always went with her, knitting as she went, she walked through the herd of wild cattle for three miles or more without a single mishap and, in the evening, walked through the herd again on the way home. It must have been like the parting of the Red Sea, with Providence with her for while a woman might not have stampeded them, a Fox Terrier dog usually makes enough fuss to stampede any herd of cattle.
The Olson's first child was a girl, that died when a mere child and this was the first death in the township. In all, they had six children. When one of the children was born, they were still living in the dugout with its brush and sod roof. Mr. Olson had to go to a neighbors’ to work the next day and leave Mrs. Olson alone. He fixed things as best as he could so she could reach what she might need, since she was unable to get out of bed. He had not been gone long when she noticed a huge bull snake crawling through the brush of the roof above her bed. She covered up the baby and all day it crawled back and forth at times hanging down until she would think it would surely fall, but it didn't and Hans killed it when he came home in the evening.
In 1878, the year of the big flood, and that was the time the water came as a wall without warning, and did so much damage along the creek. The Olsons were still living by the creek and saw it coming, but before they could get hitched up and away it caught them and Mr. Olson lost the neck yoke. I believe the Christensen family saw their difficulty and came to their rescue but the water was so high Mrs. Olson had to wade more than waist deep and a few days their food supply was a jug of molasses and on a old shed a sheep was marooned and three half drowned hens were wading about in the mud. All the work of 10 years swept away within a single hour.
It was not all hardships for the settlers of Buffalo Valley. Sandwiched in between the heartbreaking experiences were many days of pleasant living.