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Life on the Prairie
The Story of the family of Moses Black

by Florence Black

Taken from: "Kansas Alumni" February 1975 - copyright

Some 85 to 90 years ago my father, Moses Black, came to southwestern Kansas with a surveying party. The group worked in Meade County and made camp by a little stream called Spring creek not far from where we later lived.

This surveying party would separate into two groups and periodically return to an appointed base. Their custom in making camp was to dig trenches and run the wagons over them for protection. Indians often visited their camps and were given food. On one of these trips after an absence of some ten days, my father's party returned to find that the members of the other group had been scalped by the Indians, their horses run off and everything but the rims of the wagon wheels burned. This tragedy broke up the expedition and the surveying party returned to Illinois. [1874]

Evidently the rolling, buffalo grass-covered plains, held a strong attraction for my father, for several years later, about 1885, he returned to Meade county and filed on a homestead. After a sod house was built and ready he sent for mother and the three children. My sister Frances and I were born in the soddie in Meade county. Mother and the children came west by train to Dodge City and by stage coach the last 50 or 60 miles. Many settlers brought old chests or other loved pieces of furniture. My mother brought books and old magazines. Little did she know what their value would prove to be, or again maybe she did know. Father in those early days was a surveyor. With his transit he was away from home often for weeks at a time, settling boundaries and establishing property lines. One of my early memories was being allowed to stay up into the night to watch father check the deviation of the compass from true north. Those nights made the north star seem very important. This checking was done periodically and I was never quite sure whether the. magnetic north pole jumped about or just what made the repeated checking necessary. I thought perhaps it was merely a case of Father's Scotch caution.

With Father away, Mother, the children, the chickens and a cow lived in and about the one-roomed sod-house. As far as I know the chickens and cow were "about," not in. That is, unless a chicken, or, later, a pig or a calf, were ill. Then they were often brought in and warmed up back of the cookstove.

These were the days of the open range--a1most no fences. There were very few roads or trails. If you were going some place you headed your horse in the direction you wanted to go--always carrying a hammer and staples. If you did come to a fence you took it down, crossed, and nailed it up again. Settlers coming in fenced their land spoiling the range, so it is the history of cattle countries that the cattle men tried to drive out the early settlers. Frighten them away if possible; sometimes riding round their homes at night, firing into the air; sometimes, if the family were not at home, setting fire to their buildings. By the time my family went west the Indians in general were on their reservations but periodically a band would ride through the country killing and stealing. One favorite method of frightening the settlers was to dress as Indians and stage an Indian raid. The cowboys, however, had borrowed and re-borrowed our books and magazines until they felt very friendly to us. They promised Mother that they would warn her and take care of us if there were real danger from the Indians. Many times Mother saw neighbors driving along the old Jones and Plummer freighting trail a quarter of a mile west of our house, wagons piled high with all the possessions they could crowd in, someone with gun over his knees facing front, another guarding the back trail, and the horses headed for Dodge and the railroad. At no time did the Indians really threaten us. Once after I was large enough to ride, an Indian band came through hunting stolen horses. I was on old Chief, a most trustworthy, but lazy, sorrel horse. I saw the Indians coming when Chief and I were perhaps an eighth of a mile from the house. My bare heels kicking him in the ribs had very little effect so I slid off and we raced (with my bare feet) through a sand-burr patch to the house. What a race!! I won by the length of the bridle reins. Had the reins been longer I would have left that horse farther behind.

Life was rigorous and there were some lean years for the early settlers. However I never heard my parents suggest that they regretted having moved to Kansas. I have heard many tales of the "Big Blizzard." Hundreds of cattle drifted with the storm and many of them died. Range cattle milled round and round our house and barns leaving blood-stained prints in the snow. We did not have enough feed to care for them and be sure our own would survive till grass was available again. If a cow got down one dared not help her up unless there was a pitchfork or other means of protection at hand, for she would almost certainly charge on her rescuers. One night a long-horned cow chased Father to the house and the next morning she was still there with head against the door. She did not survive the storm but with three children begging to share their own milk with the calf, the calf was fed and did survive.

Prairie fires were one of the fears of my childhood. Mostly they were set by lightning. I have seen them burn for days, smoke visible by day and low flames on the horizon at night. If a fire were seen starting on the range all able-bodied men went to fight it, gunny sacks and barrels of water in the wagons. Fire guards were plowed and back fires burned. There was much excitement in the household when a fire was sighted. Until I grew up a bit I thought that I personally was in danger of burning. Later I knew that the danger was mainly that the range would be ruined and the cattle go hungry. In the first days when the family owned only one horse and buggy, and Father was away in that, fires were a very real threat. If a fire were sighted Mother pulled up the picket-pin and took the cow to plowed ground. One spring there were so many fires that if the picket-pin were pulled up the cow took herself to the plowed field. I have been led to believe that the chickens when they smelled smoke, would turn cn their backs and put up their feet the more easily to be carried to safety. I will not vouch for this for my experience is that chickens are not overly obliging.

Lightning killing the stock, and tornadoes, real or expected, were other excitements of childhood. Many times Frances and I were carried to the "cyclone" cave in the night. Only Father was supposed to go above till the danger seemed to be over. I never liked that cave--lighted by a kerosene lantern, dangers lurked in its dark corners. In the house, we had lamps, kerosene, or, as we called them, coal-oil lamps. The place seemed full of lamps when chimneys needed to be cleaned. This task, and churning, could be entrusted to very small girls.

When Father filed on his homestead it was near the site of a proposed town of Touzalin which he had surveyed. By the time I can remember, all there was left of Touzalin was the town well which was fenced to keep out stock. I have ridden over the town site many times. The Rock Island railroad was built through the county missing Touzalin by six or seven miles, so a new town of Meade, also surveyed by Father, was built on the railroad. Only the Rock Island saved the family from being suburbanites. I can remember the first time I saw the smoke of a train. Our education was not being neglected. We were first shown pictures of trains and then at the proper time of day Frances and I were taken to a slight rise on the northmost part of our place and sure enough--a wisp of smoke traveled across the horizon from east to west. Then later--my first visit to town and the train itself. I was large enough to run and run I did--for I had been cautioned to be careful when the train came, but not told that the train remained on the tracks. I headed for the ranch as hard as I could run--it took speed to catch and strength to restrain me. I'm sure old Chief, the sorrel horse, never would have caught me. The train was a combination freight and passenger train but I gave it only a glance; my first train, yes, but danger is danger and I planned to outrun it.

Our one cow grew into a herd--as a matter of fact each child had his own herd. My brand was a lazy F on the left hip. A lazy F was an F lying on its back. More land was acquired; a timber claim could be taken by planting a certain number of trees-no provision enforced that they be kept alive, and that was fortunate for without water very few trees survived. Water was all important. The wells of the region were drilled wells. The water level on our place was 150 to 200 feet deep. Water was pumped by windmills which ran continuously. wind permitting, and it generally did-thus filling tanks and ponds for the stock. The water from our well was salty, wonderful cold water and good indeed if you were born to it. Our neighbors, and strangers too, complained about it, and some even insulted us to the extent of bringing a jug of their own water if they were coming for a meal. I can remember the astonishment I felt when after we had lived in town for some time I went back to the home place and took a drink. The water really was salty. All water for household uses was carried to the house by hand. "Please bring in a bucket of fresh water was an oft heard request.

We rode horses, always bareback, long before we were large enough to climb on without using cunning. If you were away from wagon-tongues and such things about the barns, maybe you were near a barbed-wire fence, then if the horse could be maneuvered close enough you shinnied up the fence and were on. Horses are wise and your procedure had to be varied. Sometimes we would let the horse graze a bit, then throw a leg over his neck, and when the horse threw up his head you would slide back into place. I have had a horse whirl round and round with head still lowered. That was defeat, but one then tried some other plan--for walking home was unthinkable. At an early age you had your pride, and besides, you were probably several miles from home. Frances and I were nearly always out together so the first mounting was no problem, merely step on your sister's hand or hip and scramble on. To get the second girl on the second horse, that was something else again. One time the two of us were out on our horses and we found a range cow and calf which had crawled into our pasture. We started to drive them out and the cow charged my horse boring a hole in my left leg and lifting me off the horse. Luckily she went back to her calf and I had time to climb back on my horse, how I have no idea, maybe right up the horses leg. We rode home and put axle grease on my wound. The family was not told for they might restrict our rides. Next day my brother saw the same cow and she charged him. He lifted his leg out of the wayand she gored the horse in the flank. There was much concern for the life of the horse and after each conference over the horse, Frances and I would sneak off and put more axle-grease on my leg. Both horse and I survived. For the uninitiated, axle-grease, a very thick heavy grease, was bought in large cans and used to pack the axles of wagons and other farm machinery, a much more simple process than packing the wheels of a car. As I remember it you removed the wheel, daubed a generous amount of grease on the axle-shaft with any handy stick and replaced the wheel. That was axle-grease and it was quite satisfactory for medicinal purposes, too, we found.

Discipline on the prairies? and corporal punishment? Yes, indeed; but I remember only one real whipping each for Frances and me. Hers was a case of disobedience; she deliberately refused to wear her sun-bonnet when told to; mine was an accident, and in my mind should have gone scot-free. I stuck a knife in Frances' eye. I felt the whipping unjust and had distances not been so great I would have run away from home. As it was I left the family and settled down on the north side of the soddie, the side with no doors. I endured the isolation for several hours but when the family hitched the team to the lumber wagon to go chipping, I silently climbed in too, with my back toward the others. I picked up more chips than any two of the others that day. We gathered cow chips to burn in the cook stove. Chips made a quick fire but didn't last long so quite a supply was always kept on hand. There was no timber on the prairies to burn and coal was expensive while chips were to be had for the gathering. Trees were so scarce they were named. Every child these days knows the Lone Ranger, but we knew the Lone Tree. It was a storm-battered cotton-wood four or five miles southwest of our place and was the tree to whose limbs cattle rustlers were attached. Every region in those days needed at least one tree.

Education on the prairies? For a period our Scotch Presbyterian father taught our school, and I can assure you that was quite educational. He made examples of his children. On the other hand when my sister Zada was teaching us she helped me on the side. At that time there were four in the school, two Campbell boys and two Black girls. My burning desire was to finish the arithmetic book before Ross did. Zada helped me work ahead at nights. Ross saw no virtue in finishing the book, for what would I do then? It might be of interest to know that all four of us, 100 percent of the enrollment of that country school, later graduated from the University of Kansas.

I wonder if any of you have attended a school picnic like the one we had at the end of one of Father's terms of school. This was shortly after a Dyche expedition had been in our region digging for fossils. Our picnic was a day spent digging for Mastodon bones. We climbed into the buck-board and drove to the sand draws. We dug like beavers--it was hot digging in that sand. Finding the first bone spurred us on to dig for the next. Truthfully I am not sure whether it spurred us on, or spurred our father on, but the result was the same, we kept digging. My sister Frances thought it quite a "bust" (her own words) as a picnic but we came home with bones. The best ones were for the museum at the University of Kansas; the less perfect ones we kept. As I look back on it I am not sure that Mother was too fond of Mastodon bones about the house. She may have secretly agreed with Frances about the picnic.

Part of our extra-curricular education came from campers as they freighted from the railroad down into Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle country. Normally they camped out of doors but in case of bad weather any stranger was welcome inside. A new room and privacy could be obtained by hanging a blanket or sheet from a beam in the ceiling. Conversations ranged from tales of personal experiences and adventures of frontier life to the telling of trick problems which we were to solve. One loved visitor was a young Englishman who worked at one of the nearby ranches. He taught us many things, even including an extra special way of coloring Easter eggs. On a trip back to England he brought Mother a sprig of English ivy. That ivy, kept in the house in a pot, was much cherished and lived for years. We thought it great fun when he told us that he first knew father as "the man who carried a tooth-brush."

Our large one-roomed sod house had many advantages. With thick walls it was cool in summer and warm in winter. The deep windows were grand places for geraniums to thrive. A prickly-pear cactus grew on the roof but, Woe me, if you were caught climbing the house to pick the cactus fruit. None of us, no matter how small, could be easily excluded from family conferences. Neither, on the other side, was it easy to escape your elders. In the daytime, yes, but not at night. When company came in the evening, which was not often, there was no escape, so Queen, the St. Bernard dog, and I often crawled under the bed. I can imagine Mother's feelings when she saw two pairs of eyes, Queen's and mine, peering out from under the bed at the guests.

Fresh fruit was scarce and in winter we were generally allotted an apple a day from the apple barrel. If Frances and I ate ours early we sat and watched as the remaining members of the household ate theirs after supper. I can imagine that they sometimes wanted to do away with us, but there was no place for us to go, and besides, we liked to watch. Not infrequently someone felt so sorry or so exasperated that he gave us part of his apple. Sand hill plums were natives of the region as was a small wild grape. Neither grew on our place so going p1umming was an expedition. In good seasons we brought home tubs of plums. These were canned with almost no sugar and when they were to be served they were made into plum butter or stewed as sauce. They were wonderful eating. I can remember riding miles to the south of our place to where a stunted mulberry tree grew by the ruins of a claim house. The leaves were eaten off the tree as high as stock could reach but from the vantage of the horses' backs we could glean a few berries, that is on the occasional seasons when the tree bore fruit. In the spring we would ride to the tree many times before the berries were ripe, hoping to beat the birds.

Fresh meat was plentiful--catt1e and hogs were butchered in cold weather and chickens eaten during the summers. Vegetables were scarce.

We had no telephones, no electricity, no cars, no bath tubs--but at a comparatively young age we assumed responsibilities. We knew quite a lot about managing stock. If we were sent to cut out a cow and calf from the herd and bring them to the barn--and getting a calf can prove to be no small feat--we knew to stay with the task till they were in the barn. We knew flowers and birds of the prairies. Our knowledge of trees, however, was very sketchy. I still feel no close connection between a walnut table and a walnut tree. Christmas trees at school or church were small leafless trees wrapped in cotton batting. Trimmed with strings of cranberries and popcorn they were still pretty exciting. Education finally proved our downfall The family decided we must move to town. At first Frances and I were left on the home place with a young couple who moved in. After a week or so we were warned that on a certain afternoon someone of the family would come for us. Just before they were due we climbed on our horses and rode out on the range to the south. Our Last Stand. They were not to find us. We rode and rode and rode but finally returned. The family was still waiting for us, though not in the best of humor. Further resistance seemed useless so we were taken to town, thus ending life on the cattle range for the Blacks.

NOTE: Florence Black taught mathematics at the University of Kansas for 42 years until her retirement as professor emerita in 1960. These reminiscences were written in 1956 at the encouragement of her friends who wanted to preserve the memories. "Blackie"  as she was known affectionately, died September 13, 1974, in Lawrence, Kansas.

The following was taken from the book, "Black & Veach" (copyright0

An Exerpt from the story of Earnest B. Black

Moses Black's son, E.B. Black contributed to the book, "Black & Veatch" written about the engineer consulting firm in Kansas City, of which he was a founding partner. The following is an excerpt of this book:

"If anyone was born to be an engineer, it probably would be me," he mused. The son of a second-generation surveyor, he had learned trigonometry and how to operate a transit and run a survey line before he enrolled in the University of Kansas College of Engineering. Before he ever stepped foot on campus, he had been in charge of an irrigation survey in Oklahoma. Before entering the university, where he saw his first slide rule, he was using 10-place logarithm tables instead of the common four-place ones.

E. B. had been born 32 years earlier in Mount Sterling, Illinois, but he really was a Kansas product. His father, Moses Black, laid out the townsite for Meade, Kansas, E.B.'s home for many years, and much of Meade County. In the early days, his father also made surveys in Nebraska, western Kansas and Oklahoma.

Like his father before him, Moses Black continued to be active in his profession well into old age. He had held the office of county surveyor of Brown County, Illinois, early in life and was the only  Republican in that county to be elected to office, despite the region being a Democratic stronghold."We do have some interesting connections there," E.B. considered.

Samuel S. Black, Moses' father, was a local campaign manager for Abraham Lincoln, a frequent visitor at the Black home when traveling about on his law business. As a boy, Moses Black accompanied Lincoln and his father on campaign trips and during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Deeply interested in educational affairs, Moses Black read extensively. But when he moved to Kansas and started work there, his time was nearly filled laying out southwestern Kansas. E.B.'s eyes dropped to the old, worn, second-hand transit that his father had used for much of that work. It was kept in an old black box in a place of honor amidst the clutter and litter of papers and plans in E B.'s office. While the office was generally overflowing and in disarray, the black box with  the transit always was accorded a place in full view. Black reflected on how much he had learned from his father and that old transit before he even had entered college.

The transit had been purchased second-hand by Moses Black from a Chicago dealer in 1862, to use in subdividing government lands under a contract signed by Black's grandfather, Samuel. "It lacked two of the gadgets it now boasts, the principal one being the telescope level Father had put on when he needed a level instead of a transit," Black noted. "In those days no surveyor could afford both."

The government land to be subdivided was in the central part of southern Nebraska, near old Fort Kearney, on the north side of the Platte River. Moses Black was one of the members of the surveying party.

"The transit was one of the very necessary surveying instruments used in this work," Black remembered. "Grandfather's party went from the old hometown of Mt. Sterling, Illinois, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Here a wagon train was outfitted, a guard of U.S. soldiers was provided, and the party proceeded to the Fort Kearney district, 250 miles to the north west of Leavenworth."

In 1863, the Indians grew more aggressive and the survey parties moved in close to Fort Kearney. On July 4, the Army telegraph reported the fall of Vicksburg. Shortly after that, the Indians made it necessary to end the surveys, and the survey party returned to Illinois.

In 1884, Father took the transit to southwestern Kansas, and one of his first jobs was to stake out the town of Tuzalon, about 50 miles south and west of Dodge City, on the Jones and Plummer trail, which ran from Dodge City to the Jones and Plummer ranch in north Texas," Black would write years later in the March, 1942 issue of Civil Engineering. "The trail was used by wagon trains freighting supplies to that section of the country, which was not then served by railroads.

"Tuzalon never struck water, so Father staked out the town of Meade, four miles to the northwest. With the possible exception of the original town of Liberal, Kansas, Father made the first surveys for practically all the towns in Kansas in the 100-mile stretch between Meade and the west line of the state, and south of the Arkansas River. He surveyed Beaver, Oklahoma, for George Scrannage, a personal friend of Grover Cleveland.

"In later years I covered many miles with Father and the old transit on town-lot and irrigation-ditch surveys. It was once my job to resurvey - without Father's help - a large irrigation ditch in the 'Neutral Strip' of Oklahoma, which another surveyor had staked out while keeping the level rod always in front of his level, continuously pointed in the direction his ditch was supposed to run. This method did not allow for the earth's curvature and water never ran down the ditch built in the original survey, but it did run the full 10 miles of the ditch as resurveyed by Father's old transit.

One of the official duties of County Surveyors in Kansas was to semi-annually observe Polaris and determine and report on the declination of the magnetic needle. "It was my job to help Father make these observations," Black recalled, "usually by holding a light so that the transit's cross hairs were illuminated, to catch Polaris at eastern elongation. The true north would be calculated and staked on the ground for future reference, and the needle declination reported .. ."

"It was during my long (in hours) trips with Father through the frontier country of Kansas and Oklahoma in horse-drawn rigs and on foot," E.B. recalled in the Civil Engineering article, "that I got my first glimpse of an engineer's life, my first introduction to mathematics (through Robinson's 10-place logarithm tables) and the urge to carry on in the modern development of the profession followed by my father and grandfather."

For years, E. B. had attended the common schools of Meade County and later the normal college at Nickerson, Kansas, and was graduated from the University of Kansas in 1906, with a bachelor of science in engineering. After he graduated, he worked with the Santa Fe Railroad for about a year before heading to a Toledo, Ohio firm.


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