Pioneer Tears

My first visit to the Rogler Ranch I was eleven years old on a beloved drive in the Flint Hills alone with Dad. He began to slow along Highway 177 in front of the immaculate, white house right before a bridge near the bluff. It had huge two-story colonial columns and a gorgeous, well-kept stone fence that enveloped the manicured lawn. It looked like an enchanting mansion right out of the Deep South. Today it’s a sad sight, but at least there are two modern vehicles parked behind, so I hope it’s being restored.

Past the bridge Dad turned into a stone-flanked drive across from the bluff. He had business to discuss, probably a school bond issue. I have little recollection of what transpired on the porch or inside the main two-story house. My childlike awareness was wrapped in the warmth of a lusciously green ambient fantasy of this stately home. A train passed as a sleuth atop the bluff and slipped through surrounding trees. Accustomed to Emporia’s frequent train whistles, I was silently thrilled.

As we departed our host invited us to see the original log cabin across the drive. Doubtful I noticed it on the way in, nor the barn or other out buildings. I was oblivious that it was over 100 years since this land was settled. It was a typical mid-western ranch and the barn was not even half a century old. I had little interest and no expectation for this tiny drab gray relic of a cabin, but the owner’s pride and energy of excitement to be able to share it with anyone was palpable. I gazed inside and was as speechless as Dorothy when she first opened the door to Oz. I was absolutely amazed as I entered a time warp into pioneer days. Every aspect of this one-room dwelling was clean and pristinely furnished in full color, the same as for their ancestors.

On the east wall was a simply crafted full-size walnut bed. Neatly spread across the mattress was a multi-colored crazy quilt. On the south wall a teakettle sat atop the wood cook stove that was also used for heat. Spread across the floor was a rag-braided rug. Modest curtains hung on the windows. Across the room a wooden rocking chair sat empty near the back door. A lonely antique ironing board stood in the corner with only a cold iron to keep it company.

Massive respect materialized for the pioneers who had such determination and perseverance to build this scratched out existence into a strong, upstanding ranch that I had taken for granted. This was it? This was all they had when they first started? Look at it all now! My family heritage has similar stories of driving covered wagons from Missouri to western Kansas and living in a sod house because there were few trees.

Today is not the first time I’ve been back to the Rogler Ranch since my 2007 return to Emporia. This is my first Pioneer Bluffs Fall Festival and this year celebrates the restoration of the 100-year-old barn. I cannot pass the log cabin without going in and instantly tears shoot out my eyes behind my sunglasses. Oh My God! I just want to weep for this tiny place and how despairing the Rogler’s would be to see it this way. Now the once beloved cabin is abandoned, empty, light shining through cracked walls and holes in the roof; with a bare but dirty, cracked and heaved concrete floor. It’s a shock every time I step inside, but I must.

I choke back my emotions. Maybe my current life challenges have reduced my emotional stability to this degree. Or maybe it’s the layering of each recent visit that has piled up my pained love for this place. Or maybe it’s the pioneer’s Spirits tugging at my heart. There were too many people around for me to fully feel whatever without being noticed. How could anyone else understand how heartbreaking this is for me? Maybe it is because my Dad has been gone eleven years now, and my mother two. Is it just another layer of personal grief? I still see in my minds’ eye what this cabin was and long for it to be that again. If I had the money, I would pay to restore it, but all I can contribute now is an antique crazy quilt.

Behind sunglass, I blink back tears as I walk toward the barn listening to the harmonious sounds of live musicians. The restoration is amazingly well done and I admire all the folks and their contributions of time, labor, money and resources. But it is another shock to step onto a new concrete floor where livestock once stood upon dirt and now the stables have been stripped away. There is no hay anywhere and it is full of clean white tables and chairs to feed the crowd an old-fashioned harvest dinner. Tears burst out my eyes again and even inside the barn I keep my sunglasses on.

Logically, I get it. The place needs to support itself with wedding and party rentals. In fact I’ll be attending a wedding here next weekend and it will be an absolute lovely venue. But please give me a moment to grieve, to weep for this historic old barn and that it may never again house livestock or harvest bounty. Gratefully I saw it a few years before this repurposing restoration.

What do I do with these tears among all these people? Across the room I’m relieved to see folding screens hung with art and quickly make my way to them. Thank God they have made this a festival of the arts. I bury my attention into each painting while gathering composure and hope that no one notices my fragile emotions. I’m good at putting on a happy face, and eventually take off my sunglasses, but I’m still not in gregarious style.

Upstairs I distract myself with fantasies of next week’s wedding wonder. I’ll laugh to be back so soon to party with friends and dance on the pristine loft floor. My friend Jane will be on stage creating and sharing her fabulous musical talents. This is a wonderful space for much fun, joy and laughter for future generations to come.

I descend the back stairway behind the stage pleased to see there is a chairlift for the disabled and happy I don’t need it. I quietly bid on a couple of Silent Auction items that Tracy made. I hear a nearby woman ask, “Why do they call it silent if you have to write down your name?” I think of what I might say if I were in a sociable mood, but keep silent. I felt sociable when I left home, but that cabin triggered my heart and mind.

Gingerly I make my way to the artists’ tent circle in the back yard and find a friend. Candace at Prairie Pastimes’ booth gives me a big hug. We visit briefly; long enough to agree when we will get together soon. A darling little girl walks past wearing a bright blue butterfly. Candace introduces me to Patty, who just painted that tiny uplifted face. I silently feel if I stick my face into anyone’s right now I might burst into tears. I calmly suggest I might be interested in a dragonfly on another day.

North of the house are antique cars and tractors on display as someone backs in a maroon El Camino SS. It reminds me of the one my parent’s had in the 1970s. Next to it is a 1956 Ford Fairlane like we had. I circle around the other side to see a car like Great Aunt Alice had until 1963 when she bought a brand new Ford. Down the row I see a 1963 silver Falcon convertible. Dad inherited Alice’s Falcon and gave it to me in 1976. I reluctantly let it go in 1994. I longingly admire the familiar lines. Really! All this family historical emotion lined up in a row? I could take photos, but I just need to feel this.

There are only a couple people in front, so I take the sidewalk past the porch and look at the neatly sunken flagstones. Donors have purchased a Deed to one square foot of Flint Hills property. The concrete-like stones are painted with inscriptions and covered with gloss sealer. How long will it last?

Cheryl is behind her table of books and beads. In public I answer her with, “All things considered I’m doing well,” but she knows there’s a lot going on underneath my response. She asks me to spell her so she can go to the restroom. I sit down to rest and realize I don’t need to rest. I feel physically strong and energetic.

After 4:00 I glance at my phone and see Ross texted me earlier. I quickly head down the road to Matfield Green for a quick tour of his “Tin House.” I walk the south side of town while waiting for him to finish mowing. We arrive for dinner at Pioneer Bluffs shortly before 6:00 and the food line is so long neither of us wants to wait, but I’m glad the event is successful. We pass through the cabin on the way to our cars and The Grand in Cottonwood. In one emotionless sentence I try to give it words, but there’s no time for me to express how deeply impacted I feel in this space.

Ross and I have quickly become friends this year. During dinner I notice I feel better than all week. He expresses concern for what he knows about my challenges and asks if he can try to summarize, but warns it might be dramatic. Of course, what else would he be? Actually, he is right on and if the truth is dramatic then so it is. He’s good with words and he nails it. I agree that after the death of my life when I finally recreated it, what I thought would be my passion for the next 20 years has vanished in seven and now I get to start all over again. He understands it is very painful for me. Maybe it is some of that pain that is seeping out vicariously through a pitiful pioneer log cabin. Who knows what painful challenges Rogler’s faced in 1859, or mine as a pioneer of the new millennium?

© Copyright B. Grace Jones 2015 All Rights Reserved.

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6 thoughts on “Pioneer Tears

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  1. Beautifully written and I understand completely. Humble beginnings and the great strength of the pioneers facing total fading away or people trying to remake them in their image and needs. It’s a rather stunning parallel. I’m glad you got to see the place in many stages throughout your life.

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  2. Beautifully said, Grace. You are the pioneer of your life, my dear. Prairie schooner or Ford Falcon, it’s all the same: the important part is the journey. Wishing you love and light and peace.

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