Last week my brother and I traveled to Kansas for our Uncle’s memorial service. My mother, a native of Kansas, moved to Ohio at the end of World War II with my father, her soldier husband. The letters she wrote her parents every Sunday testify to her deep homesickness, a yearning for the rolling plains and the sense of connection she had to the land of her birth. She filled my childhood with stories about riding a twenty-two-year-old mare named Black Beauty over dirt roads to a one-room school filled with boys in bib overalls and only one other girl.
When we made this trip in 2007, we had our mother along as a guide. This time we had to rely on our memories as we searched for graves in cemeteries and the house our great-grandfather built in Riley. We can no longer go to the farm where she grew up because it’s now part of Fort Riley, home to Big Red One, but with help from relatives and friends, we located the road to my grandparents’ farm. It’s one and one-half miles in the distance on the left hand side of the first picture, probably on the other side of the tree line.
Rumor has it that foundation stones still stand to mark the location of the house and barn, possibly the silo, but we could not explore for ourselves because access is prohibited. Understandably, the army does not want civilians getting in the way of tank maneuvers and shooting.
Even though the land is long gone, memories persist of our great grandfather, Frank Harrison, who wanted to build his future in America.
His parents in London did not want him to embark on this venture alone so they asked his brother Charles to leave his job and accompany him. Frank and Charles learned to till the soil by apprenticing themselves to a farmer, and then each took 80 acres of land in Madison Township, Riley County.
Frank’s future father-in-law had a pasture on the east side of his farm, and sent his cattle there to graze during the summer. One of his sons stayed in a small house on the property, and his sister, Hattie, to keep house for him. That is how Frank Harrison met his future wife, Hattie Baxter, the woman my brother and I knew as Grandma II.
Great Grandpa died in 1923, leaving Grandma II to live four more decades on her own. Never one to remain idle, she spent her time as a midwife and caring for invalids. And she did handwork. A prolific needleworker, Grandma crocheted doilies, quilted, made embroidered tablecloths and did much more. I was delighted when cousin Bruce, now 91, brought a box of her handmade items to the luncheon held after our uncle’s memorial service. I’ve always joked that I inherited my love of needlework from her.
Even though I grew up in Ohio, our family’s Kansas roots are deep. You feel a connection to the land when driving across the rolling countryside, when you see cattle grazing in the Flint hills, and when you visit with friends and family. My mother, uncle, and their ancestors may be gone, but their stories endure as long as we are here to share them.