One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith


XVIII – Stone Fences

The dreamy haze of late Indian Summer hovered over the gentle slopes and timbered valleys of Auburn. It was good to be back on the farm with Mother and to follow bypaths to the homes of old friends. Robert Simerwell still lived in the log cabin to which he had welcomed me ten years before. His daughter Elizabeth greeted me at the door and introduced her husband, John S. Carter, a graduate of Indiana University. After a brief courtship, he had persuaded her to abandon her career as a schoolmistress and marry him.

She had already taught two or more terms at Auburn and at Shawnee Center, where she received the prescribed salary of twenty dollars a month, with the privilege of "boarding around" at homes of her pupils. In Ottawa, she was associated with the noted Chippewa Indian, John Tecumseh Jones, better known as Tauy1, who with his wife, an experienced white missionary, had a school for both Indians and white students. This soon grew into Ottawa University.

John Carter had been a teacher in Indiana before coming to Kansas. The young couple now made a home for Elizabeth's aging father, whose mental vigor and religious zeal were still evident. It was a privilege to know such a man.

One Sunday afternoon, James Dickson and I strolled aimlessly across the stubble fields to the banks of the Wakarusa. We scuffed through the leaf-strewn paths and teased the chattering squirrels. It was a fine time to be in the woods. Walnut, oak, hackberry, and sycamore trees made a picture more colorful than artist's palette could produce. We breathed deep of the cool autumn air, and laughed as we recalled early prophecies that one day large boats would be steaming up the quiet waters of the Wakarusa, bringing heavy commerce to Auburn.

The town had never regained the population it boasted in 1858, when our mill wheels were turning. All hope of becoming the state capital, or even the county seat, had long since faded. The final blow to Auburn's future growth came later, in 1868, when the Santa Fe Railway bypassed the town by seven miles.

The sun was still high when our wanderings brought us back to the open fields.

"Let's go where there are some girls," I suggested, not mentioning the particular lass I had in mind.

Jim must have read my thoughts. "There are girls at my house," he said. "Why not go there?"

We found Jennie and her sisters on the porch. They were merry and full of fun. Jennie blushingly admitted having peeked at me through the crack two years before.

"I couldn't let an Army officer see me in an old apron, and my hair going every which way!"

To be truthful, I could not imagine her hair looking other than lovely, falling in dark cascades over her shoulders and framing her sunny face, so full of animation. She was the same pretty child that I remembered, now ripened into womanhood; modest and unassuming, but carefree and gay. A man could lose his heart to a girl like that!

For a while my time was taken up with farm chores on Mother's place. There was wood to be cut and piled in sheds for the winter; potatoes, squash, and apples to be stored in the cyclone cellar; besides raking, trimming, and pruning in the garden and orchard. Dusk came early, with kitchen lamps sending out a warm cheerful light and the stove giving just the right heat for comfort.

The place stood in need of a fence; so I gave my attention to that, making it out of stone. This led to the building of many stone walls throughout the township along bottomlands and timber to protect the farmers' crops from cattle. The work included the grueling task of quarrying and hauling rock from limestone ledges. Good construction called for careful selecting of stones, fitting the first tier into the earth to insure a level foundation, and placing longer rocks on the outside of the wall to give it strength. Small chips were pounded into chinks and crevices. With a sharp tool for dressing rock, I knocked off any rough protrusions that jutted out and squared the corners. My technique improved with practice and I kept busy year in and year out, receiving $2.50 a rod.

In 1861 the state legislature had enacted a law stipulating that any farmer who failed to maintain adequate fences could not recover damages for injury done to his crops by stock running at large. At that time very little of the upland prairie was enclosed and a cattleman had almost unrestricted use of the range. Cattle were turned loose with bells around their necks and allowed to roam for months.

Barbed wire eventually proved the most economical and effective fencing material. Osage orange was also popular, making rapid growth, and becoming so dense and thorny that neither man nor beast could penetrate it. To determine just where a fence should run effectively was something of an art. My two years' experience in building stone barricades led eventually to my having a farm of my own.

I was working one day not far from the Dickson place and kept looking up, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jennie's sunbonnet. Disappointed in not seeing her, I decided to walk up to her house. As I turned into the driveway I discovered two young Auburn swains seated on the porch. After hesitating a moment, I started back towards the road. How absurd it was for an old duffer like me to be courting Jennie's favor! She had dozens of admirers.

"My cake's dough," I acknowledged gloomily to myself.

Just then I heard a tap on the windowpane and glanced in that direction. Jennie was beckoning to me. No further urging was needed, and before I knew it, I was enjoying fresh gingerbread and a glass of cold buttermilk, with Jennie a gracious hostess.

From that time on I saw more and more of Jennie and realized she was the only girl in the world for me. It soon became clear that she returned my affection. One evening I found Mr. Dickson sitting alone in the yard. This gave me the opportunity I had been wanting to ask for his daughter's hand.

"A good fencer makes a successful farmer," he said. "I am sure you will make a good home for Jennie. Remember, I told you years ago, I had just the right lass for you. I'm glad she is now to be yours."

Jennie and I were married in 1869 and our cup of joy was full. We began housekeeping amid humble surroundings in a little log cabin in the woods. I had saved enough to buy 160 acres of fertile land a few miles southwest of Auburn and soon built a larger dwelling of native lumber. I took delight in breaking my own piece of ground, tilling the soil, and following the constant rhythm of sowing and reaping.

After purchasing some fine Texas cattle, I spent much time in the saddle, rounding up the stock. You might almost say that all of Kansas was our grazing ground. The faithful mount that carried me through the war was now retired from heavy duty, and I rode a high-grade Morgan stallion, a rather vicious animal but another fast pacer.

One day, while we were still living in the one-room cabin, I started off as usual to see the cattle and was gone several hours. When I returned, Jennie was greatly agitated. A group of Indians had entered the house and taken everything they could find in the way of food.

Soon after that I succeeded in obtaining a good watchdog that we named Bruno. He barked menacingly when strangers came around and proved a strong deterrent to further plundering.




Friendly members of the Pottawatomie tribe, on the other hand, remembered the Simerwells with undying gratitude because of their work at the Baptist mission. They often visited the grave of their beloved teacher, Mrs. Simerwell, on a gentle slope across Six Mile Creek.

Graves of Robert and Fanny Simerwell, in Simerwell cemetery, south of Topeka


Later, when John Carter was building a two-story house north of the Simerwell cabin for Elizabeth and their children, Indians camping on the grounds nearby were invited to spend a stormy night in the unfinished structure. The floor to the second story had not yet been laid. About twenty men rolled themselves up in blankets and stretched out in front of the blazing fireplace. They were heard to exclaim, as they looked up at the roof, "Big wigwam, big wigwam!"

As a token of friendship, the Pottawatomies brought some red calico and a silk sash to Elizabeth's daughter Fannie, named for their teacher, and some sleigh bells to her son John.




When Jim Dickson married, Jennie and I persuaded him and his bride, Lizzie, to live in part of our new house until they could build their own adjacent to ours. Jim had never completely recovered from a physical weakness resulting from hardships during the war, and died when comparatively young. We gave what assistance we could to Lizzie in bringing up her six children.

Jennie and I were blessed with eight children of our own—six boys and two girls. Two of the boys were twins. In time I acquired 640 acres of land, enough to keep a man well occupied. Nevertheless, I accepted such responsibilities as Master of the Grange, Worshipful Master of our Masonic lodge, and superintendent of the Sunday School. In 1892 I was one of fourteen Republicans elected to the state legislature, and two years later, became treasurer of Shawnee County. This necessitated moving from the farm to Topeka for four years, but I kept my legal residence in the country.

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1 Said to be shortened from "Ottawa" or "Ottaway," Jones sometimes being known by the latter name.
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