SMITH CENTER, KANSAS: THE FIRST VISIT
Vagabond Journal: March, 2003
[From Vagabond #5 & 6]
March 11, 2003
I left Fairwater yesterday, I left below zero temperatures and snow
cover. I zig-zagged across Wisconsin to La Crosse, across Minnesota
to Albert Lea, down through Iowa to Des Moines, then across to Council
Bluffs; from Omaha, Nebraska, to Highway 81 and down into Kansas; across
Kansas from Belleville to Smith Center. The book says it's a twelve
hour and forty-seven minute drive; I did it in twelve hours and fifteen
minutes. I filled the car with gasoline in Mauston, Wisconsin; Ames,
Iowa; and Mankato, Kansas. I didn't stop to eat until I reached Smith
Center. I kept moving.
Did I see the heart of the heartland? I saw crow and sun and field and
snow. I saw the shadow of crow fly into me. The hills between Des Moines
and Omaha: it looked something like Wyoming, that surprised me; it looked
something like Wyoming except there were a few too many trees and the
occasional cornfield, there was the roadside sign advertising "The
As I was heading south from York, Nebraska, on Highway 81, cornfields
stretched to the far horizon; the land was laid flat as if from some
great weight set on it.
Then I was driving west on Highway 36 in Kansas, the great Highway 36,
once the main east-west corridor across America. Ahead of me in the
distance, a ridge crossed my path - between me and Smith Center. Wheat
stubble in the fields. More trees than I'd imagined on the scruffy ground.
The lay of hills reminds me of the Penny Hills around Rugby, except
these seemed more sharply-formed, more severe, flat on top like little
buttes. I had not imagined these hills.
I saw hawks perched on posts not a half mile apart - are they a pair?
I saw twenty of the great round bales herded together in one bunch.
Where the road has been cut through, there were great chunks of sandstone
exposed, thick pieces, tawny as the landscape. On the full height of
a ridge, two radio towers stood like sentinels. A sign for "Crest
Vue Motel - East Mankato." There were remnants of snow, some measly
evidence, only the occasional handful of it here and there. I was entering
a world where the guys driving pick-up trucks wear cowboy hats. The
ponds had ice on them, but also open water. In Wisconsin they were still
walking on their lakes.
Cornfields and wheatfields. I saw a sadness of house with its porch
slumped in the final despair from which there will be no recovery. The
western sky was painted with long light and vapor trails; the honeyed,
clotted light fell on a landscape climbing and falling and climbing
again towards Smith Center. At another farmstead, a couple buildings
were calling out to the earth, "We're coming home;" they leaned
towards darkness. In two places, threshing machines had been set on
rises along the highway - lest we forget. On other rises I saw large,
new houses belonging to people with money.
Another herd of those great round bales, a hundred of them together.
Cattle in nearby feedlots.
A skunk lay dead along the road; it seemed to have two narrow stripes
along its back instead of the wider stripes I think I'm more familiar
with. Something about it was not what I'm used to. It still smelled
A sway-back barn ahead of me. I could see the sun through its boards.
I imagined huge jackrabbits.
Windmill. Elevator. Water tower. "We're here," these people
want to say.
Why am I so moved by this landscape, these scenes, that old farmhouse
with windows boarded up? What previous life did I live that I have this
intense connection? All the old cottonwoods talked to me like friends.
Was I a cottonwood once?
You don't know where the side-roads go, but I felt the need to take
As I drove west, the land rolled up and down and up. The sun set, it
revealed itself, it set again. It was a big ol' sun, it was a big ol'
red ball of sun, it was setting right over Smith Center as the town
came into view.
I stopped to eat supper at Paul's Cafe, my first meal of the day. I
slumped into a chair at a side table and Krista took my order - "cheeseburger
steak, choice of potato and vegetable, salad bar, soup, and coffee,
I had come so far to be home.
After supper, I found my way down Main Street in the thick darkness
to Ingleboro Bed & Breakfast. My Smith Center contact, Bobbi Miles,
operates the B&B with Bruce, her husband. Bobbi and Bruce greeted
me, they helped me gather my bags and shag them up to my room.
Why have I had to come so far to be home? All day the land spoke to
me as I drove, this land of which I'd write. Every grove of trees wanted
to whisper its story, every old house invited me inside to meet its
Perhaps it is a disability of some sort, this provincialism of mine,
this sense of place, this connection to the middle part of America.
Is acrophilia the opposite of acrophobia; and am I one who suffers of
it? Would some psychiatrist recommend a heavy round of sessions aimed
at breaking such an intense obsession with the land? Don't they lock
up people who think every old, bent cottonwood is talking to them, every
abandoned house, every sway-back barn?
Is there any hope for a man who has to go down every middle western
road to see where it leads; who has to eavesdrop in every cafe to hear
what the people are thinking; who has to touch old, grey barn boards
that vibrate with what they know, what they've seen? The symbols of
ourselves rise above the line of earth - the windbreak, the water tower,
the elevator, the church steeple. We are mere mortals yet we would be
little gods of the earth, each with his own habitation, his own local
place. We set our markers on the earth as if they would be shrines,
places to pray for rain, to give thanks for good harvest. Places of
refuge. Markers that say: "Mine." Yet as earth-bound as these
symbols are, how they reach for the sky! How they fashion the light
that swaddles them.
Minnie Osterholt of Alexandria, Minnesota, said it: "It feels like
home." And so it does. It feels like home and I feel like singing
great solemn hymns of every shadow and field, every brightness and pond,
every grove and barn, the emptiness and the fullness. If you dismiss
me as the region's raving lunatic, perhaps you lose some part of yourself
that you don't know, that you are uncomfortable with. I recognize that
it is not natural to want to cast yourself entirely into all the middle
directions until you know these people and this land, the customs and
the secrets and the sadnesses and joys, to cast yourself upon the land
in search of the beating heart of the heartland.
I recognize that it is not natural. It is dirty work, knowing the earth,
but somebody has to do it.
I met with Bobbi Miles and Irene Baumann, from the Chamber of Commerce,
Ivan Burgess, Jim Laurensin, and Alvin Luse at Paul's Restaurant. The
conversation was fast and furious and I took down what I could. I set
an interview for 4:00 p.m. this afternoon with Ivan Burgess.
Jim Laurensin is interim pastor at the First Christian Church in Smith
Center. He retired to Phillipsburg, some twenty-eight miles to the west
of Smith Center, and fills in as churches need a temporary minister.
Why did he retire to Phillipsburg? "I drove through it for forty-seven
years," he said. "Every time I drove through it, I liked the
Ivan Burgess said that for a small town to survive it needs three things
- good banks, a good medical center, and good schools. He thinks Smith
Center has all three.
Smith Center also used to have "some characters," Burgess
said. "They're gone now, or are in the nursing homes in chemical
straight-jackets. These characters have lent the town character. Now
they're in the nursing homes on Valium."
What kind of characters?
A woman gave her husband money to go get groceries, Ivan related. The
fellow used the money to get drunk instead. He went before the judge
for public drunkenness, he was hoping to end up in jail overnight. He
didn't want to go home yet. "No," said the judge, "that's
the best punishment for you - to go home and have to face your wife."
"A fellow had a little truck, it would haul three cows. The highway
patrol stopped him and said, "You're going to have to get a KCC
license for that truck. You need to have a KCC number painted on it."
"The hell I do," the fellow said. "I've already got more
work than I can handle." When the same fellow moved into town and
bought a ramshackle little house, his neighbors on the street plotted
to get rid of him. They voted in curbs and asphalt on their street,
thinking the cost of that would break him. When payment came due, however,
the fellow went down to the court-house and paid cash for his entire
assessment. All his neighbors had to stretch their payments out over
A neighbor complained about bootlegging in the big house across the
street from the Presbyterian Church. Sheriff John Mays went in to make
the bust. As he was going in the door, a woman pushing a baby carriage
was wanting to go out. The sheriff kindly held the door, then went on
into the house, searching for booze. He didn't find any. He realized
he'd been duped. The booze went out with the baby carriage. "I
ought to have known better," the sheriff said later. "I knew
they didn't have any kids."
It might have been a different sheriff who was testifying in a trial
for statutory rape. "Now you know what statutory rape is?"
he was asked. The fellow said, "That's when they do it standing
A woman had a baby but the doctor hadn't been able to get to the house
to make the delivery. He called out right away, to see how the new mother
was faring. "Well, she's getting us supper now," was the husband's
The new motel in town had put up a sign out front. The mayor came along
and told the owner "The Highway Department says you're going to
have to move that sign back. It's too close to the highway." Well,
the owner didn't want to go to that kind of expense. He went to his
lawyer for advice. "How much will it cost you if you move that
sign right now," the lawyer asked, it might have been Ted Relihan.
The fellow estimated an amount. "And how much will it cost you
when they come after you and make you move it?" The sign never
got moved, it still stands where it was originally set.
"I think a lot of our character comes from the 1930s," Ivan
said. He remembered that during the Depression a lot of doctors had
to take chickens and produce in trade for medical care because folks
didn't have any money. One of those doctors died during the hard times
and the other physicians in town had to take up a collection to bury
Bobbi Miles reported a story about a love letter being found in a building
in town that had never been mailed. It was addressed to a married woman
and said how ardently he loved her and how hard it was to watch her
going about town with her husband. The letter writer couldn't stand
to see it any longer and was going to leave town. Well, the fellow never
did leave town, the folks involved still have kin in Smith County, so
the woman who found the letter never names names. But Bobbi told me
whom I'd need to talk to for more information about the letter and the
story of how it was found.
Bobbi also said that I have to ask Connie Lull about the first white
girl born in Smith Center, who drove the special spike into the railroad
tracks at the celebration of the Rock Island Railroad coming through
town in 1887, and then she came back to the community for the 50th anniversary
Irene Baumann remembered that the Rock Island carried passengers. She
rode the train from Lebanon to Smith Center for a school picnic about
1955 when she was a third grader. That was near the end of passenger
Someone mentioned a family named something like "Van Dorf"
coming to Smith Center and changing the name to "Williams."
Think how tough that makes it for genealogists, someone said.
Alvin Luse said his family name had originally been Deluce. Some portion
of the family changed the S to Luce, another portion changed to Luse.
We had been sitting at Paul's Cafe drinking coffee and talking, and
all of a sudden the morning had slipped away. It was time for Bobbi,
Irene, and me to get to the library so I could meet Connie Lull.
You don't just meet Connie Lull so much as you experience her. She is
so lively and expressive a woman that when she dies it may be a week
before anyone knows it, she will just keep going on built-up momentum.
Connie is a nurse, she worked as an emergency room and a surgical nurse
in Kansas City and Chicago and Denver. How did she ever end up in Smith
Center, then? She and a friend had been skiing, they came into one of
the watering holes that skiers frequented after a day on the slopes,
there she met a fellow who was a bank examiner, he was in town looking
at the books of the local bank, one thing led to another and when her
(now) husband came home to Smith Center to join the Smith County State
Bank and Trust Company, Connie came with him.
A city girl, when Connie came to Smith Center there was a little culture
shock involved. It was the Cold War, there were ICBM silos in Kansas.
The noon whistle blew. Oh, no! Connie thought. She was certain this
was it! America was being bombed. She was holding her breath, wondering
what to do, where to hide. The door to the house opened. Her husband
was home for lunch. "What are we gonna do?" she asked him.
"What?" her husband asked, puzzled. "Oh, that's the noon
Connie's son had been born by the time another whistle blew, "the
warbly one." Her husband was gone bowling. The wind was blowing
pretty stiff. We better get to the fruit cellar, she thought. They had
a fruit cellar out in the yard behind the house. She opened the door
and went down the stairs among the creepy-crawly things that lived there,
her son in her arms. She closed the door. She could hear traffic tearing
around the corner near the house, folks heading for shelter, she thought.
She waited. She waited and waited. She came up out of the cellar and
took a look and it didn't look so bad. She called her husband at the
bowling alley and asked how long she was supposed to stay in the cellar
after the siren sounded. "That wasn't the tornado siren,"
her husband said, "that was the fire siren. We have a volunteer
fire department. That's how they call the volunteers to fight a fire."
Connie tells a lot of wonderful stories about Smith Center history,
but only when you insist. She'd much rather you read the accurate version
of it in the pages of the big binders on the shelves of the library's
county history room. Over the years, the residents of Smith Center have
been pretty good about documenting their history, getting it down on
paper before it is lost. And all that county history and family history
looked pretty imposing on the shelves around us as we sat at the table
and talked - Bobbi, Irene, Connie, and myself.
Connie didn't want to tell the stories, she wanted me to read them off
the shelves, but she couldn't restrain herself. She had to tell me that
Smith Center was named for a General Smith who camped in the area during
the Civil War as he headed east from Colorado to join the conflict.
He was killed at the battle of the Little Blue. Connie doesn't know
how anyone knows where and when General Smith might have camped, but
that's the story.
She told about the 13- or 14-year old girl who drove the spike into
the rails during the celebration of the Rock Island Railroad coming
to Smith Center, and of the woman's return to the community fifty years
We talked about doctors in Smith Center, and industry, and Loren Jacobs
and the Technology Department at the Smith Center High School.
We talked about the Smith County Pioneer being the oldest business in
Smith County, it was in business before the county was a county. We
talked about Judd Wagner up at the long term care facility at the hospital,
age 103, one of the few remaining World War I veterans, the last supervisor
of the Smith County Poor Farm which closed in the 1950s. "You must
talk to him," Connie said. We talked of Milt Shrader, a former
Smith County resident who had owned a circus. During the hard times
one winter the circus didn't have enough money even to feed its performers
and they were starving. An appeal went out to Smith County, money was
collected, the circus was saved. Shrader never forgot the county's generosity
and when he died he left a trust for the county and every year the income
from the trust helps a variety of organizations and it also built the
library we were sitting in.
"Donation is a way of life out here," Connie said.
We talked about "the farm that was built in a day." In the
1950s, in an effort to get people to focus on and appreciate agriculture,
a barn-raising bee was held to build not just a barn but all the farmstead
buildings, and not just the buildings but all the fence-line to go with
it. "Every group had a task," Connie said, "and the whole
farm went up in a day." The Hastings, Nebraska, Tribune did a 50th
anniversary retrospective of that event in the past few years and interviewed
some of the participants. Connie couldn't find a copy of the article
at the library, so I'll have to go about tracking it down.
We talked about the time the First National Bank in Smith Center got
robbed. That was back during the days of Bonnie and Clyde and bank robbers
driving black cars with running boards and carrying submachine guns.
That was back in the days when one bank's security was the bank across
the street. The teller pushed the button under the counter to signify
a bank robbery was in progress, the signal went across the street to
the Smith County State Bank where Connie's husband's great-uncle took
up the shotgun and came marching across the street. He was met by a
fellow in a crisp suit and fine fedora with a submachine gun. "Don't
be a hero," the bank robber said, waving the great-uncle back with
the machine gun. The great-uncle backed away. The bank robbers took
hostages and made their escape standing on the running board of the
car just like in the movies. They headed out of town towards the northeast,
a rooster tail of dust following them down the dirty road, they came
upon a house being pulled down the road towards them, taking up the
whole width of the road. Some days it just doesn't pay to get up, they'd
gotten only a couple thousand dollars from the bank and a diamond engagement
ring they'd taken off one of the girls, and now there was a house in
the way. The bank robbers pushed some of the hostages out of the car
then and there. They had released the rest of the hostages by the time
they were captured in Nebraska.
Connie and I talked some about the banks in town. Smith Center has two
good banks. Connie's husband, Murray Lull, is the fourth generation
president of Smith County State Bank; she thought I should take my questions
about the role of the bank in a small rural community to her husband
and to Burk Phelps or John Ballhorst at the competition across the street,
the First National Bank.
I went to Paul's Cafe for lunch after concluding my interview with Connie
Lull. I had the hot pork sandwich that was the lunch special. One of
the waitresses - who had poured us coffee in the morning - asked how
my day was going.
I went back to my room at Ingleboro Mansion and made some phone calls.
Murray Lull could see me at the Smith County Bank at 2:30 p.m. I tried
to get Dr. R.G. Sheppard on the phone but he was out on the golf course,
his wife said. I told Mrs. Sheppard I wanted to talk to him about being
a surgeon in Small Town Rural America all these years. She said he'd
likely tell me more than I'd care to know, but she didn't want to set
an appointment for him, could I call back after he got home from golfing.
I said I would. I hung up the phone and asked myself: "Wasn't it
two degrees below zero yesterday when I left Wisconsin? What's this
fellow doing on the golf course?" It was a lovely afternoon, up
into the sixties, I think, with seventy degree temperatures promised
for later in the week.
Murray Lull looks like you want your banker to look, a little bit grey,
serious, as reserved as his wife Connie is animated. He is a banker
like his father was, like his grandfather was, like his great-grandfather.
Murray's great-grandfather and a partner had run an elevator over in
Lebanon. Together they bought the bank in Lebanon in 1880. They flipped
a coin to see who would continue to manage the elevator: the loser had
to go manage the bank. Murray's great-grandfather lost and put the family
in the banking business. "Otherwise I'd be managing a co-op elevator
some place," Murray said.
Eventually the partnership between Murray's great-grandfather and the
other fellow came apart. Eventually Murray's great-grandfather sold
the bank in Lebanon and bought the Smith County State Bank in Smith
Center. Eventually Murray gave up his job as a bank examiner and returned
to Smith Center to join the family banking business.
Murray and I talked about banks in small communities; they have a two-sided
obligation. On the one hand, they must protect the assets of their investors.
On the other hand, they want to help the farmers in the area succeed.
The hard times of the 1980s taught everyone some hard lessons - bankers
and farmers alike. A lot of farmers went bankrupt during the 1980s -
they had so much more debt than capital that they couldn't recover.
Small town banks have learned to watch more closely just how highly
leveraged the farm operators are. Murray explained: "Sometimes
we have to say 'The way your financial trend is going, you are going
to be out of business in a few years. We don't want to be part of your
last few years. Either you need to change what you're doing or you need
to find someone else to borrow from.'"
"And the good farmers are a lot more careful about watching their
leverage," Murray added.
Murray is not all gloom and doom about the prospects of small communities
in rural America, but he does say that he thinks towns may have life
cycles - infancy and adolescence, productive middle years, the decline
of old age, eventually death. Smith Center is not on its last legs by
any means, he says, "but it is getting a little grey." Smith
Center will likely still exist a hundred years from now, he thought,
but it will be considerably different than what we see today.
"You wonder how many stores on Main Street are one sale away from
closing," Murray said. The Lyons Den restaurant downtown closed
recently when the woman who owned it died of illness. Murray doesn't
know if it will re-open under new owners. If it doesn't, "that's
one more thing gone."
A friend Murray has had since high school operated a full service gas
station in Smith Center for as long as Murray has been back at the bank.
The fellow just closed down the business. He could see the handwriting
on the wall. He wanted to walked away from it while he could still walk
away, not be carried. "That's another one gone," Murray said.
"I get angry and frustrated that he had to do that, but I know
he made the right choice." Times change, there is no single culprit
that would be easy to blame. You have to adapt. If Murray were to speak
as I do, he might say: "That's the way the Great Wheel turns."
March 12, 2003
If Ivan Burgess is not telling you a story, he's feeding you a line.
There's a little twinkle in everything he says.
We sat at a table in the Ingleboro Mansion yesterday afternoon, I wanted
to know more about the fellow who has published his own "Twenty
Five Cent Echo" news-letter for the past fifteen years or so. A
Kansas journalism professor had subscribed to the "Echo" so
that when students complained there was nothing to write about he could
bring it out and show them you can write about anything.
Ivan doesn't take himself too seriously, but neither - I guess - does
he like the nickname some people call him by. I don't see any reason
to call him by that nickname here,
I'll save it and use the threat of it as leverage to get Ivan to sit
down again with me and my tape recorder at some point in the future.
It's enough fun talking to him, you want to have another opportunity.
The "Echo" skewers specific people in Smith Center, "but
only if they can take it," Ivan said. "I know who can't take
it, and I don't write about them." The people Ivan associates with
are pretty hard on each other. "If they think you're full of it,
they're not afraid to tell you," he said. I don't think he's afraid
to tell them either.
I got on tape this time Ivan's story about the fellow with the truck
that would haul three cows, about Sheriff John Mays trying to make the
Prohibition bust at the big house across the street from the Presbyterian
We got on tape, too, how Ivan came to live in Smith Center. His mother
had been born in a dug-out some miles northwest of Smith Center. His
father was originally from Smith Center, he worked laying track for
the railroad and the family followed the tracks. Ivan has what - seven
or eight brothers and sisters. When his father learned he had terminal
cancer, he bought the family a little house near the railroad tracks
in Smith Center. After his father died, Ivan's mother took in washing
and ironing to support the large brood. To earn a little income for
the family, a couple of Ivan's older brothers would go up town every
morning to do whatever needed doing. One brother would clean out a farmer's
chicken house for him; he'd get paid with a big container of milk that
the cream had been skimmed off of; he'd bring that home and it would
be milk for the children. "My mother would fix a meal," Ivan
remembered, "and then she'd step back from the table while we ate.
If there was anything left over when we were done, then she would eat."
"In those years we were probably the poorest people in Smith Center,"
Their house was near the train tracks and there was a hydrant out in
the yard. Hoboes got in the habit, when they got off the train, they'd
come into the yard to drink from the hydrant. One day the big container
of skim milk disappeared from the house. Ivan's older brother went marching
off towards the Hobo Hotel farther west along the tracks, a circle of
stones where the hoboes stayed when in Smith Center, where they sat
and talked, cooked their meals, slept. Ivan went tagging along behind
his brother. His brother marched right into the Hobo Hotel, he walked
up to the jug of skim milk that was sitting there plain as sin, picked
it up and headed towards home. None of the hoboes said a word. They
knew they'd crossed the line. You don't take from poor people. You don't
take from people what they can't afford to give.
About the time he was in the seventh grade, Ivan spent a lot of time
in the Hobo Hotel with those men. "They were ordinary people looking
for work," Ivan said. "In those days the train going west
through town was carrying men looking for work to the west. The train
going east would be carrying men looking for work to the east. I was
never afraid. Those were hard times. Those were good men. A kid couldn't
do that today."
"I sat with them all one evening," Ivan remembered. "When
I got up to go, one of the fellows said, 'Kid, come here.' He said,
'Kid, if you are ever riding the rails and pass through Denver, help
them fill the refrigerated cars with ice. It's hard work, kid, but when
you get done they'll buy you the biggest breakfast you've ever had.'
That fellow didn't have anything, but he gave me the best thing he had.
He gave me everything he could."
Ivan doesn't adequately explain why as a kid he liked so much to sit
and listen to the old men tell their stories. He liked to sit in the
barbershop and listen to them talk as they told and re-told stories,
as they sanded and smoothed the truth. "I don't know," Ivan
said, "it's just something I've always liked to do, to listen to
those fellows. I still do it today." His little "Echo"
newsletter comes out of that habit of listening to people talk, of watching
their little quirks. He is something of a student of humanity, you'd
say. "People are gonna be people," Ivan might say. And he
will be there to report it.
One thing he's noticed: "In Smith Center, when a doctor is finally
accepted into the community, it'll be 'Ol Doc Sheppard, he....' If they
say 'Doctor Sheppard,' why then you haven't been accepted yet. But when
it's 'Ol Doc Sheppard,' why then you know he's part of the community."
Why does he write? "When you can't do anything else," said
Ivan, "then you write. If you can't build cabinets or do plumbing
or make anything useful, all that's left is to turn to writing. Writers
are people who can't do anything else." He is unapologetic about
his position. If I don't like it, I suppose I don't have talk to him.
If I don't like it, I suppose I don't have to subscribe to the "Echo."
But I do subscribe. I give Ivan a $20 bill and he'll send me however
many issues that pays for at twenty-five cents for the paper and thirty-seven
cents for the postage to mail it to me.
We filled one side of a sixty-minute tape and when the second side was
full, Ivan was done talking with me for the day. "Gotta go,"
he said. I said I could put in another tape, I was sure he had other
stories to tell me. "No, gotta go," he said, and he rushed
off like a news hound pursuing a lead.
In the evening Bobbi Miles and I arrived at Dr. R.G. Sheppard's house
at the appointed time, 7:00 p.m. Ol' Doc Sheppard was waiting at the
door for us and waved us in.
His friends call him Shep.
Shep was a surgeon, a good one. Earlier in the day Connie Lull, who
had been Shep's surgical nurse, and who had worked with surgeons in
Kansas City, Chicago, and Denver, had told me that Shep was as fine
a surgeon as she had ever worked with, none was better in the operating
room than he was, Smith Center had been extremely fortunate to have
such an excellent surgeon all those years Shep served the surgical needs
of the area.
Shep didn't start out a surgeon. When he went to grade school in Joplin,
Missouri, he had to dress in black short pants and a white shirt. When
his folks moved to a farm outside Joplin, Shep had to keep wearing the
city school clothes to a country school and the other kids picked on
him, he was the city boy. When finally he'd worn out or outgrown his
city clothes and was accepted in his mended overalls, he moved back
into Joplin and now he was ridiculed as the country bumpkin.
Not such a good student in grade school and high school, still Shep
knew he wanted something other for his life than the extreme hard work
of farming. He enrolled in the two year college in Joplin (now Southern
Missouri State College). He credits a couple of his teachers there with
teaching him how to study. One of them in particular "made a scholar
of me," Shep said. That teacher had also noted the fine hands Shep
had, the manual dexterity. Because he had to work while going to school,
it took Shep three years to finish the two year course of study. But
when he was done, he was ready to face anything any other school could
offer. He knew how to study and the whole world lay open before him.
It was during World War II that Shep was in medical school at the University
of Kansas, and rather than drop out to work to earn enough money for
another year of his medical training, Shep joined the Navy. The Navy
paid for the remainder of his medical school, then when he finished
up he expected to follow the Marines ashore in an invasion of the Japanese
homeland. Truman dropped the atomic bombs, Shep wouldn't be needed in
Japan, so he was sent to Guam for assignment. His first service was
to residents on a Micronesian island south of Guam. He was the only
medical care available on the island. It was eight hundred or nine hundred
miles to another doctor. If Shep couldn't do it, well then it wouldn't
get done. This experience taught him a lot about making decisions and
accepting the consequences of those decisions - something every surgeon
needs to know - and it made clear to him that he wanted to get surgical
training. He served on one island, then on another, even a stint as
"sanitation officer" on Guam (of which he complained bitterly
to his superiors: "I'm a doctor, yet you have me checking outhouses
and screen doors.").
Eventually his service in the Navy came to an end and he was ready to
pursue surgical training. Earlier he'd thought of being an orthopedic
surgeon but his experience in the Navy convinced him that he needed
much broader surgical training. So he pursued a course of general surgical
Just as his training was nearing completion, Shep went to the Dean of
the medical school. Since Kansas had trained him to be a doctor and
a surgeon, he felt an obligation to repay the state by serving in Kansas.
And his experience in the Pacific convinced him he wanted to work in
an area that was under-served and truly in need of him. The Dean told
him there were three communities that fit that description. Shep set
out to visit them, to talk with doctors and residents of the communities,
to weigh the pros and cons of each community. Then he'd make his decision.
The first community lay between Kansas City and Smith Center, and Shep
visited it first. His second visit was Smith Center. Then he expected
to head to south-western Kansas to visit the third town that was looking
for a surgeon.
The welcome Smith Center gave Shep put an end to his search. Yes, it
was partly the warmth of the welcome that won him, partly the conversations
he had with the doctors already in the community. Yet, Shep told me,
the single strongest influence on his decision was this: They were holding
a reception for us in the fine lobby of the First National Bank. Shep's
wife Edie was in attendance - Edna Jean; she held the couple's young
son. The baby messed his diaper, the mess overflowed the diaper. "My
son pooped on the floor of the bank lobby" is how Shep put it.
The bank president ran to the drugstore next door for diapers, pointed
Edie to the restroom where she could clean up her son, then knelt and
cleaned up the floor of the lobby. "A place where the president
of the bank cleans your son's poop off the floor, that's where I ought
to serve," Shep decided. He didn't even visit the third community
on the list.
At the time Shep made his decision, Smith Center was building a new
hospital. The building that is the B&B I'm staying in - Ingleboro
Mansion - was serving as the community's hospital. Shep still had some
months left to serve on his residency when the doctors in town invited
him to come do a surgery. "I suppose it was a test," Shep
said. His reputation had preceded him, and doctors from all around the
area gathered to watch him do his work. They wanted to see just what
this young whippersnapper could do. The operating room wasn't at all
like what Shep was used to. There were windows along two sides, a ceiling
light, but none of the fancy equipment he'd had available to him at
St. Luke's in Kansas City. Yet he felt confident he could do the operation
Any good surgeon will watch the color of the blood in the tissue while
he's working, Shep will tell you. "You want to see bright red blood.
If the blood starts to look a little dusky, that means the patient may
be in trouble."
"How's she doing?" Shep asked the anesthesiologist working
with him. "This blood looks a little dusky." "Fine, everything
is fine," the other doctor said. Ten or fifteen minutes later,
Shep would say "I don't like how dusky this blood looks, is everything
okay?" The anesthesiologist said "Fine, fine." This continued
through the whole operation.
Once the last stitch was in place and Shep took off his mask, then he
noticed the lighting. His operating room had been lit by only a single
300 watt overhead light. Blood would look different under such lighting.
Afterwards the one doctor in Smith Center who would do minor surgeries
because he had to do them started telling his patients: "I've laid
down my scalpel. There's a fine young surgeon coming to town, there's
no reason for me to do surgery any longer."
Not all doctors are so gracious," Shep said. "He didn't have
to do that. What he did amounted to a good recommendation to everyone
in Smith Center." When Shep arrived to start his practice there
was a line-up of surgeries already scheduled for him. "I started
out behind," Shep said, "and in all my years I never caught
When he'd made his initial visit to Smith Center, Shep had been told
that another young doctor had been considering starting practice there
as well. Shep called the fellow where he was visiting his family. They
met, and on the strength of a handshake they agreed that they'd practice
together in Smith Center. The other doctor finished his residencies
earlier than Shep, and arrived earlier in Smith Center to get down to
business. Soon he was on the phone to Shep, he said "I'm dying
out here, there is more work than I can handle, I'd like to ask another
fellow to join the practice." Shep knew the other doctor's work,
he was a good man. But Shep worried: "Do you really think there'll
be enough work for all of us?" Years later, in a practice that
always included three or four doctors and sometimes even five, when
they were up to their elbows in work, when there were patients everywhere
they turned, one of Shep's partners was sure to tease him - "Shep,
do you really think there'll be enough work?"
The group's practice was unusual on two counts. First, all the doctors
were equal partners and shared the income equally. Second, they wanted
their patients to know all of them, they made rounds together at the
hospital, they picked each others' brains so that what one knew they
all knew. They accepted criticism from each other and learned from it.
"Our patients could see they were getting four doctors for the
price of one," Shep said. "When one of us was unavailable,
the patients had no problem with seeing a different doctor. When a different
doctor showed up in the middle of the night to handle a problem, that
"I didn't handle deliveries," Shep said. "I did Caesarians
when that was needed, but I didn't do vaginal births. One night I was
at the hospital, a woman was in labor, I thought I'd help the doctor
who was going to have to get out of bed to come in for the delivery.
So I checked the patient. I thought it would be a couple hours anyway
before the doctor had to come in. So I called him to tell him that.
While I was on the phone telling him it would be a couple hours before
the baby would be born, the nurse delivered the woman's baby right there
in her hospital bed. After that, for any delivery it was 'That's okay,
Shep, we'll take care of it.'"
Behind every good doctor, perhaps, is a good spouse. Shep had met Edie
at junior college in Joplin, Missouri. They knew they were meant for
each other but both of them had some things to prove to themselves -
Shep that he could be a doctor, Edie that she could dance. Well, she
could dance. She danced on Broadway. She danced with the Rockettes,
not in the regular line because her legs weren't long enough, but in
the specialty numbers. And when one of the girls in the line took sick,
they'd put Edie on the end of the line where her height (or lack of
it) didn't matter. Yet when Shep was ready, Edie was ready to give up
her dance career. She was willing to go and make a life wherever Shep
decided to practice. Generally, Edie thinks, the reason that there are
not enough doctors in rural America has more to do with the doctors'
wives than with the doctors themselves. "I think the doctors' wives
make that decision, And many of them want what the city provides, they
don't think they can be happy living in a small town."
It was the middle of the night. Shep was in surgery. He was reconstructing
the face of a woman who had been in a car accident. Her face was broken
up badly, she had lost an eye, Shep was reconstructing the eyebrow and
stitching up the eye-lid. He recognized he'd need a glass eye to hold
everything properly in place but he didn't have a glass eye. "Call
Edie," Shep told the nurse, "tell her to bring me one of the
"Shep, it's three o'clock in the morning. Edie will be asleep,"
the nurse said.
"No, she's probably up," Shep said. "She's probably cleaning
The nurse called. Edie answered right away, she was up, she was cleaning
the refrigerator. She brought a marble out to the hospital for use as
a temporary glass eye.
Shep has enjoyed all his years of practice in Smith Center. He says
he worked with a great bunch of people. He appreciated that his services
were needed. He appreciated that his serves were appreciated in the
community. He thinks Smith Center residents knew they were getting very
good medical care. He worried about retiring in the community, however,
because he wasn't sure people would let him stay retired. When the need
was great, wouldn't people keep calling him? Fortunately, another surgeon
came into the community to meet its needs. Shep's phone doesn't ring
except when someone needs a partner for a round of golf or some tennis.
He has enjoyed nearly twenty years of retirement in the community where
he served for so many years."
"People here respect me and appreciate what I've done for the community,"
Shep said. "If we had retired to Colorado as we talked about, I'd
be just another somebody. Here people know me."
March 13, 2003
Yesterday Bobbi Miles, Irene Baumann, and I were headed east on Highway
36 out of Smith Center, we had a full tank of gas, and we didn't have
to be home til supper-time. We were going to the geographic center point
of the lower 48 states just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas; we'd have
lunch at La Dow's in Lebanon; we'd do an interview or two; we'd stop
at the farm Irene's family owned and talk about that. It was a lazy-eyed
agenda, nothing would hold us to strict account. It was a lazy-eyed
day that felt like spring.
The rolling land was starting to swell with a pale green fuzz in the
warmth and bright sunshine, it was such a lovely day it smelled like
spring. "How am I ever going to
go back to Wisconsin?" I whined. "It was two below zero when
I left there Monday morning."
"Call your wife and tell her she's moving to Smith Center,"
one of the women suggested.
We stopped at the marker just west of the intersection of Highway 36
and Highway 281. A sign there read: "In a park three miles north
and one mile west is the exact geographic center of the 48 contiguous
states. The location has been officially determined by the U.S. Geological
Survey. It is the point where a plane map of the 48 states would balance
if it were of uniform thickness." There were two sunflowers etched
into the sign, two heads of wheat, a tornado funnel cloud. No - I'm
am kidding about the funnel cloud, that's not on the sign; you start
to notice that some folks in Kansas don't like kidding around about
Across the road from the park that lies three miles north and one mile
west, that is to say, right across the road from the geographic center
itself, is "Hub Dairy - the Farm Built in a Day." I've promised
to tell that story. The geographic center point we'd come to see is
actually in the middle of a field on a farm owned by Randy Warner. It
lies at Latitude 39 degrees, 50 minutes; Longitude 98 degrees, 35 minutes.
One monument indicates the center point had been located by L.T. Hagadorn
of Paulette and Wilson Engineers and L.A. Beardslee, County Engineer,
from data furnished by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. The marker
was sponsored by "Lebanon Hub Club, Lebanon, Kansas, April 25,
Just past the park is an old motel that now serves as a hunting lodge;
it is owned by a group of pheasant hunters from Texas. Originally it
had been a motel with restaurant. The restaurant was gone, the brick
and stone of the motel has been painted green, there is paint peeling
off window frames and overhangs, the one window with the curtain tugged
a little bit open was so dirty you couldn't see much in the room. "Hunters
don't ask much in the way of beauty," Bobbi suggested. Here was
a dog bowl under a scruffy, overgrown evergreen, there was a small broken
bottle with a Jack Daniels label: "Down Home Punch - Country Cocktail."
Over there, a couple spent shot-gun shells, Remington Express, 12 gauge.
There was wind in the trees. "The wind always blows out here,"
one of the women said. The motel is a monument of its own, a monument
to the dream of a fellow from North Carolina who stopped at the center
point back in the 1950s when Highway 36 was the main east-west route
across the country. I found out later this fellow had had "a vision"
that told him, in essence, "build it, they will come." Perhaps
they came for a while, but not for long. Now the hunters come. On the
opening day of pheasant season, the population of the county probably
doubles, the locals stay home because everything is overcrowded. Bobbi's
B&B is booked years in advance for the opening weekend of pheasant
The monument in the little park stands in the wind, or against it, the
US flag and the Kansas flag flying straight out. Irene remembered that
when she was young the Girl Scouts from Lebanon would ride their bicycles
out from town to camp in the park overnight; she was among them. Last
summer a documentary crew showed up to get some footage of the exact
center of the US. It was July, it was hot, the sun was beating down,
the cameraman was insisting he had to film from the exact center. "Well,
I'm staying in the car," Bobbi had said. "You go on."
It was as if the country folks were having a laugh at the expense of
the city feller. "Farther, farther," they'd say, waving the
cameraman into the distance. "Go on, more to the right, farther,
farther." Finally the camera man disappeared over a rise in the
earth and one of the locals reckoned maybe he should go retrieve the
The producer of a movie called "X-man" bussed a bunch of students
from high school in Smith Center out to the geographic center point
and had them stand in the shape of an "X" over the site. This
was used as footage in the movie.
A Japanese quiz show was filmed in the little park at the site of the
center point. All the questions were related in some fashion to the
United States, what better place to film the session. The board used
as part of the question depicts a large map of the United States. In
several places the surface of the wood spins from a blue blankness on
one side to Japanese characters on the other. That board still sits
in the window of an empty storefront in Lebanon, if you want to see
"We call this area the Heart of America," Bobbi said. "We
don't mean the continent. When we say America, we mean the USA."
"I don't think it is anything we do that has created the attention
the center gets," Bobbi said. "They are interested in the
center and they come to us. Perhaps it's a failing on our part, not
creating interest. Perhaps there's something we could do to promote
it better, but I don't know what."
Earlier we had joked about middle westerners working so hard to be known
for something. We want the biggest ball of twine, for instance, or the
most kinds of barbed wire. Sometimes we have to be very specific in
our claims: "The first white girl born in Smith Center."
Then we got out of the wind, Bobbi and Irene and I, and headed for lunch
in Lebanon. "There, along the pines," I said with some glee,
Irene Bauman is originally from Lebanon, Kansas, nearly 15 miles northeast
of Smith Center. She can sit in a car on Main Street in Lebanon and
say "That building used to be a grocery store, there used to be
another grocery store over here. That was a drug store. The bank is
still in its original building. Yes, once there were three grocery stores
"The building behind us was the telephone office," Irene said.
"That's where the lady said and said 'Number, please.' School teachers
and families used to lived in apartments on the second floor. My parents
used to have a shoe repair store here somewhere."
Later we'll hear there was a time where there were five groceries in
town. There used to be two drug stores, a men's clothing store, a variety
store, an appliance store, a grade school, and a high school. Now there
is the post office, the elevator, the beauty parlor, the American Legion
Hall, an insurance agent in the old gas station, the branch of the Smith
County State Bank and Trust Company.
There is a music club in town that Irene said is "alive and well."
It puts on variety shows, with skits and musical numbers. "The
women dress up to play the men's parts if they have to. They do it because
they like to sing. They put the money they raise towards upkeep of the
community hall which used to be the theater when the community supported
Even in Smith Center, Bobbi added, the movie theater has been owned
by a community group to keep it in operation. "You buy a membership,"
she said. "You get three passes per month. If you have to pay to
see a movie, it's usually $4 for adults, $2.50 for kids, but on Tuesdays
everybody gets in for $2.50. It's always on Tuesday. If Christmas falls
on Tuesday, too bad, there's no cheap movie that week. We don't have
movies on Christmas. There is only one movie showing at a time, no matinees,
the movie changes on Friday, on weekends in summer there'll be two showings,
at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m."
We were in Lebanon. We were going to La Dow's store for lunch. La Dow's
is a general store. That means, Irene said, "they do whatever is
needed." There were groceries and hardware on the shelves, hair
curlers and Bible stories, dowl rods and dolls, cheap plastic toys,
greeting cards, underwear.
You can tell when you're in a religious community, someone has said,
for the underwear tells the story. The more religious the community,
the plainer the underwear for sale, the more it's unattractive, white,
cotton. I wish I could claim this insight as my own: we can pretend
to be whatever we want, our underwear tells the truth.
Lorie La Dow runs the store. Lunch specials were posted at the east
end - chicken casserole, chicken on fry bread, soup, cobbler, hamburger,
turkey sandwich. Remarkable choices, considering. We sat at one of the
communal tables, talked with two little girls seated there, cousins,
four years old. Lorie went off to make some food, or help a fellow find
some dowl rods for the bird houses he was building.
Keith and Myrna Fricker came in and sat with us. Another couple came
in and sat in the chairs the little girls had vacated by then, a man
in baseball cap, the woman grey-haired, bright-eyed. Her left hand appeared
somewhat misshapen. I see only three fingers on it, and thumb. Other
folks are filling the other table, ordering, eating, talking. The men
at our table are talking about the price of fertilizer - $400 a ton.
If that's not the highest it's ever been, it's pretty close. Wheat is
down to $3.20 a bushel and it'll get down below $3 if we have a crop.
We need rain. It's supposed to rain in the area but it's expected to
"Maybe we'll get a smell of it," said the woman with the bright
After lunch we went back to the car parked in front of La Dow's. "This
fellow right here, the big guy," said Irene, "that's Keith
and Myrna's son." Another fellow came out onto the sidewalk, an
older man. "He was my dad's best friend," Irene said.
We drove south along Main Street. Irene pointed at a building. "That
was our Opera House," she said. "That's where I met my husband.
It was the 1960s. It was Lebanon's celebration. Every year they'd have
a teen dance at the end of the celebration. He came over from Kensington
with a carload of kids, maybe his sisters and the Williams boys, Henry
and Kirk. He came over and asked me to dance. It was hot and muggy.
It was awful in there. He said 'Let's go outside where it's not so hot.'
So we went out. My dad was the marshall in Lebanon, he was really busy
during the celebration but he was out there on the sidewalk. My husband
asked me for a date right in front of my dad. 'I don't know,' I said.
'Maybe I should ask my dad.' 'Well, how long will that take?' 'Oh, I
can do it right now,' I said. 'That's my dad.' The young couple was
married within a year.
We had a little time to kill, so we were talking. "They say some
Indian promised that Smith Center would never have a tornado,"
Bobbi told me. "They say we have never had a tornado. Last year
seventy five railroad cars blew off the tracks, that wasn't a tornado,
that was a straight wind. When trees blow down in Smith Center, they
say 'That wasn't a tornado, that was a straight wind, we only have straight
winds around here. I used to be afraid of tornadoes. Now the straight
wind has put the fear of God in me."
She turned and looked at me. "Oh, no," she said, "you're
not writing that down." She looked at Irene. "Watch what you
say around him, he'll write it down."
Phyllis Bell crossed the street carrying copies of her newspaper to
La Dow's Store. Irene flagged her over to talk to us. "Phyllis,
this is Tom Montag, he's writing a book about the middle west, could
he interview you?" We agree to meet at her house in a few minutes.
Phyllis Bell's house is a somewhat nondescript ranch house from the
outside, except for the Lebanon Times sign in front of it. We entered
the living room cum newspaper office cum historical library and research
center. For a moment it was a tussle to see if I am interviewing Phyllis
or she is interviewing me. Newspaper folks are used to asking the questions.
We did get down to the business of talking about the settlement of the
area and family history. Phyllis thinks immigrants from the northern
parts of Europe settled the northern tier of states here, those from
middle Europe settled the middle tier of states, and those from southern
Europe the lowest tier. It was German immigrants settling in this area,
she said, and some English.
Phyllis's grandfather, William Schroeder, was from Prussia. He came
to Kansas to homestead by way of Rochester, New York, where he'd operated
a tailor shop for five years. He'd left Prussia because of the forced
military conscription, he boarded a ship to America out of Liverpool,
England, he worked his passage doing tailoring for the sailors on the
ship. It was 1870 that he came to Kansas. He and the man who would be
his neighbor for the rest of his life walked together from Atchison,
Kansas, to Smith Center. (Merely a two hundred mile trek, according
to my map.) Schroeder staked his homestead on a plot of ground with
both river bottom and uplands. All the settlers along that creek were
Phyllis said her grandfather prepared three dug-outs down along the
creek - one as shelter for the horse, one for the chickens, and the
one he lived him. When the flood came in 1875, Schroeder tied his shoes
to his plow and went off to warn the neighbor of the rising water; when
he returned, his shoes had been washed away. His dug-outs along the
creek had been washed away, too, so he built a log cabin, which is still
standing. "It's petrified now, you might say," Phyllis told
me. The cabin had a rock foundation about three feet high, which helped
protect the log structure set upon it.
The family of Phyllis's grandmother on her mother's side came to Smith
Center from North Carolina by way of Ohio and Missouri. Her grandmother
went to work as a hired girl for her grandfather's neighbors, and that's
when her grandparents met.
Phyllis's grandfather's homestead patent was approved in 1879. Phyllis
lost the original of it in a fire in 1981, but has a copy that she showed
me. The name on the final homestead proof was "Shrader," not
"Schroeder." Because of the aberration in spelling, Schroeder
had to get an "Affidavit of Identity" in October, 1924, certifying
that Shrader and Schroeder were actually one and the same.
Even the 1875 census records show Phyllis's grand-father's name as Shrader.
The census also revealed that the neighbors had come in from Germany,
yes, and some from Iowa and Minnesota and Michigan and Missouri and
I had to cut short my interview with Phyllis Bell because we were now
due for an interview with Gladys Kennedy a block and a half away, in
a house set next to the building that formerly housed the Schuette Ford
Watch out what you say about Fords when talking to Gladys, her father
had been a Ford dealer, she had been married to a Ford dealer. My innocent
question had concerned which parts and tools one had to carry for break-downs
when traveling in the more primitive road conditions of the 1930s. "We
drove Fords," Gladys said. "They didn't break down."
Watch out what you say about tornadoes in Kansas, too. "We don't
have that many tornadoes," Gladys made clear. "All those tornadoes,
that's not here, that's down in Oklahoma."
Gladys has a curly mop of white hair. Her eyes sparkle with mischief.
Her faced is lined, marked with the years, every crease a sign of having
survived the hard times of the Depression.
Gladys is a quilter. The house we were in was Gladys's but was now given
over entirely to quilting. In fact, during the course of my interview
with Phyllis, there were two women in the other room bent over a quilt,
their needles singing to the cloth.
"We built a room on the back of the house we live in," Gladys
told me, "and now it's all filled up with quilting material."
She has already made an awful lot of quilts in her lifetime and even
now has something like a hundred and sixteen she is still expected to
We talked some about family history and the car business, about the
characteristics of the people of the area - "they'll do anything
for you." And we talked about Girl Scouts. Gladys has been involved
in Girl Scouts for much of her life. Irene Bauman remembers Gladys's
involvement when she - Irene - had been a girl. Gladys still leads a
troop. Scouting is something for the girls to do in a small town, Gladys
indicated. "It teaches them skills. It instills confidence."
Once we'd said good-bye to Gladys and were headed out to Twin Creeks
Farm, the piece of land that Irene's family owns, we swung past the
old schools at the north end of Lebanon.
The empty high school has a downcast look, as if every brick had soaked
in the sadness of school consolidations and closings. At some point
since Lebanon students started attending school in Smith Center, the
building had been owned by a business that saw fit to transform the
building's main entrance into a loading dock. Irene had graduated from
Lebanon High School. Seeing the building deteriorate pains her.
The Lebanon grade school almost shines by comparison. It sits across
a weed-roughened parking lot to the west of the high school, it's a
wide brick building, one story, a lot of wide windows in the front,
all the blinds closed to keep out the light. The school's alumni association
takes care of this building, Irene said. Each class takes responsibility
for the upkeep of a classroom; some display historical materials, class
pictures, and so on. It's a lovely building; if only a tornado could
pick it up, swirl it through the Land of Oz, and set it down again,
the facilities look like they could still be used as a school some place.
It stands here, the wrong place and the wrong time.
"There were a lot of hard feelings when they closed the school,"
Irene said. "When you lose your school, you're about done."
She remembered she'd been a fourth grader when the grade school had
been built. Construction wasn't finished until three or four weeks into
the school year. "For the first few weeks of school," Irene
said, "there were kids everywhere in town. The old school had been
torn down. The new school wasn't finished. We had to crowd into the
high school principal's office for class. I don't know where he was."
"The farmer who owns the field at the center says he has never
seen the marker that's supposed to be out there," Bobbi told me
as we drove past the center point of the contiguous United States on
our way to Twin Creeks Farm. We were following a dirt road that looked
as if it had just recently been scraped out of the field alongside it.
Wheat stubble came right to the edge of the road. If it rained, the
road would be a mess; sometimes they get impassable.
We were headed a few miles north and a little bit east of the center
of the US. At Twin Creeks Farm, Irene struggled a bit opening the gate
to let us onto the land that has been in her family since homesteading
days. Irene remembered her grandparents living on the place and farming
it; when her grandfather died, the family created a corporation to take
ownership, each son and daughter with shares in the corporation. Shares
have been passed to some of the grandchildren, additional shares have
been sold, and at this point fifteen or twenty family members are share
holders. The original farmstead has been torn down, the house is gone,
the barn is gone. Foundations remain. Pieces of equipment rust in the
sun. A couple big old dead cottonwoods are shedding their bark, the
wood revealed as white as a sepulcher. Walking where the original farmstead
had stood, you might feel the earth's hum, you might feel the push of
ghosts trying to get your attention, wanting you to know "This
was important, don't forget it." When Irene got the gate open to
the place, we could take either of two paths to the house that Irene's
family has built on this side of the creek from the old farmstead. Bobbi
was driving, she took the high road. We pulled up in front of the house,
climbed the stairs to the porch, entered.
The house is in a continual state of construction and it has been for
twenty years or more, I think. Working to-gether on work-weekend by
work-weekend, spare moment by spare moment, family members poured the
slab and framed the structure, roofed it, sided it, plumbed it, painted
it, shimmed it, shined it. Whatever needed doing, Irene said, someone
would do. There had been no master plan, no preconception, no professional
consultation. Piece by little piece, the house got built by members
of the family who would use it as a refuge, a retreat, a gathering place
for family, a condo. The ground has been in the family since the area
was settled, it is sacred ground, pioneer spirits lived here still,
and love here, and bring back their children and grandchildren to see
what was ours. It's a nature preserve just for the family, a family-owned
park with a house that will sleep twenty when you put air mattresses
on the floor, more than that when you set up tents in the yard.
Whatever needed to be done - to get the house to its current shape -
got done. Everyone in the family pitched in and did his part, her part.
If you couldn't install windows, you prepared lunch and cooked supper
for the crew that could. You took them coffee. If you were a child,
you might help paint the screens or you might go down along the creek
to see what you could see. No one was in charge, and everyone was. When
it came time to put steps up to the front porch, maybe it was Uncle
Bob who called everyone from their work to determine whether they should
come straight in to the door or up the north end.
There was never an argument or disagreement or nastiness during the
building of the house, work was shared, no one felt put upon, no one
felt as if his ideas had been ignored. "We're a pretty unusual
family," Irene said. "The people who homesteaded here were
very gentle people and that gentleness continues to run in the family.
That's how we are. If we find a new family member who doesn't get along
that way, they have to get over it. That's how we behave."
During all those years of construction, even to the present day, family
members have kept a communal journal of their experiences at Twin Creeks
Farm. I saw the second book, pages from 1989 to the present, and had
time to read only from 1989 to 1994. The journal is an astounding record
of work and play, food and fellowship and family. Every visit someone
was assigned to record what work got done, what work needed to be done,
there are observations about nature interspersed, worries about war,
prayers, and pinochle scores. Anyone might make an entry. When someone
was trying to figure out how much lumber would be needed, he might draw
his sketches in the journal, and do his calculations. There are constant
notes of appreciation that the place has stayed in the family and is
still available when someone needs to take comfort in the lay of the
The few swatches I've extracted from the journal give a flavor of the
experiences of some remarkable people and this remarkable place, Twin
Creeks Farm. The journal is perhaps without compare as a document attesting
to a family's attachment to place. I'll want to read more.
March 14, 2003
I spent most of the day yesterday trying to catch up on my notes. I'd
never been so far behind, and don't know how it got that way. Perhaps
I want to record too much, is that possible? Every little detail seems
to speak to me. Everything I overhear. As Bobbi Miles said, "Watch
what you say around Tom, he'll write it down."
On Thursdays there is a brunch at Ingleboro in the morning, and later
a lunch. I took a break from writing up my notes and went down for the
brunch. Bobbi was there at a table with three women who come over regularly
from the Kensington area, and two others from the county celebrating
a birthday. There are stories everywhere just waiting to be told.
One of the women had come from Germany after World War II with her mother
and American step-father. Her father had been a German soldier who had
gotten home on leave long enough for his wife to conceive the baby that
became this woman. The soldier was killed towards the end of the war.
Her mother had been widowed four years when she met the American GI
who brought the woman and her two children to America. The girl was
ten years old, her brother some eighteen months older when they entered
the American school system without being able to speak a word of English.
There was still a lot of resentment against Germans at that time and
the school children wanted to "kill a Nazi" like their fathers
had: this was a lot of motivation to become American very quickly. "Within
six months you couldn't tell us from the other kids, that's how fast
Two of the women were sisters of Swedish heritage. Their grandfather
had been born in 1845; he had quite a brood of children when his wife
died. He was sixty when he remarried, his new wife was forty, and they
had three children together, including the father of the women I was
talking with. The women were retired, I think, but you wouldn't say
they were old, yet three generations stretched from 1845 to the present,
which would make the average length of a generation about fifty years
in that family. Pretty remarkable.
One of the other women asked me which town would be the South Dakota
town for my project; she was originally from South Dakota. "Redfield,"
I said. "Oh, my God, that's where I'm from." She told of her
grandfather coming from Denmark to South Dakota with two sons and settling
a farm a few miles north of Redfield. His wife and the rest of a large
brood of children were back in Denmark and unbeknownst to him he'd left
his wife pregnant when he set off for America. After two years he was
able to send for the family. His wife herded the brood onto the ship
that brought them to America; once they landed in New York, she herded
them onto a west-bound train. The train arrived in Redfield in the middle
of the night. The woman packed all the children but one son onto the
benches in the train station, then she and her son set off walking to
the farm; they knew from her husband's description how to find it. When
they arrived at the farm-stead, they found the house empty, her husband
and sons had already set out for town to bring the family home. When
the wagonful of father and children arrived back at the farm, breakfast
was ready to be served, hot and steaming.
Another woman, originally from Iowa, had ended up in southwestern Kansas
when she married her first husband; she came to Smith County when she
married her second. She'd seen a corner of Kansas as a child and she
concluded that she could never settle there. "Never say never,"
she said. She was so thoroughly Kansan she believes she wouldn't have
been able to marry her second husband if he'd been from Nebraska, only
fifteen miles farther north.
At 3:00 p.m. Dr. Pam Steinle came to Ingleboro Mansion to do an interview
with me. Dr. Pam has long brown hair, intense eyes, a surgeon's hands,
and - according to Ivan Burgess, as he stated in his 25 Cent Echo -
"a well-turned ankle." Dr. Pam is the surgeon in Smith Center.
It was never her plan that she'd end up here, but a higher power has
a plan for her, Dr. Pam thinks, and this is her mission.
Dr. Pam came to Smith Center some four years ago and is starting to
feel comfortable here. There is just enough surgical work to keep her
position viable. She has bought one of the big houses along the street
nicknamed "Relihan Row" and folks in town are interested to
know what she's doing in there. That's the blessing and the curse of
small towns - someone to watch out for you, yet someone watching you
all the time.
Dr. Pam grew up on a farm. She has always handled tools, she plays piano.
The manual dexterity a surgeon needs has come easily to her. She comes
from a Mennonite background. Growing up, she wasn't sure she could be
a doctor. Her father encouraged her, supported her. She hadn't intended
to get into surgery but she found while in a family practice program
that she was spending more and more time doing surgery, and the more
surgery she did, the more she gravitated to it.
Before coming to Smith Center, Dr. Pam practiced as a surgeon for four
years in a prestigious clinic in a larger community. She is happy practicing
in Smith Center
because she is so compatible with the doctors she works with. "We
have the same ethics," she said. "We have the same attitude
about the importance of our relationship with the patient."
Older patients make up much of her client base, and Dr. Pam enjoys working
with them. She feels she can say to a farmer who wants a hernia repair
"Should we put this off until after calving," or after harvest.
That she is knowledgeable about the rhythms of farming helps her relationship
with her patients, and helps her understand their situations.
Smith Center is not unlike a lot of communities across rural America,
Dr. Pam thinks. There are good people and bad people, people who work
to make things better and people who work the system. There is the stress
of drought, the stress of a declining Main Street. The hospital in Smith
Center can't afford the latest technologies and as a result there are
some surgeries she cannot do. The hospital can't possibly provide 'round
the clock intensive care of a patient on a ventilator, for instance,
so if she suspects there might be a chance of complications after surgery,
that's a patient she will have to send elsewhere, for the good of the
patient. She does worry that a continuing decline in the population
here might spell the end of her time in Smith Center, when there aren't
enough cases to justify a surgeon in the practice. Yet if the case load
stays steady and she continues to work with such good doctors, she thinks
she could retire in Smith Center.
The benefit of a practice in a community such as Smith Center? You know
your patients. You can take time with them. You can talk to them about
the farm or their businesses.
A drawback? "I'm a single woman in a little town," Dr. Pam
said. "There aren't a lot of prospects. All my friends are couples
in their 60s, their kids are gone, they have time to socialize outside
the family. They are all twenty years older than me and when they die,
I face the prospect of being a lonely old lady."
She'd always thought she'd practice general medicine and would marry
a farm boy who'd take over the farm that had been in the family for
more than one hundred and twenty five years. That's not the way it turned
out. A higher power has a different plan and Dr. Pam is content to follow
In the evening yesterday I went up to the Smith Center City Council
meeting with Bobbi Miles. It's no easy job those folks have, always
stuck between the rock and the hard place. I know - my wife is president
of the village of Fairwater. I see that sometimes the people who volunteer
to run for city council or village board need the wisdom of Solomon
to guide their decisions. These folks went about their work with good
This was said to the fellow who made the first presen-tation to the
council, I think he is or was a preacher: "This has got to be short
- no sermons." Later I overhead a whispered "Once a preacher,
always a preacher...."
On the matter of music for some doings on Main Street: "It's got
to be country-western, not opera."
When working with the council, this was the deal, I think: Five minutes,
okay what's the bottom line, what is it you need from us?
"OK, Bobbi," the white-bearded fellow running the meeting
said. Bobbi made her report. One item concerned planters that would
be put out along Main Street with flowers in them. "I guarantee
you people that they will be taken care of." That's what they needed
Bobbi and I stayed at the meeting until Bobbi had finished her report
to the Council, then we left them to their business.
I packed up the car this morning, and as I headed for home I stopped
at the Pioneer office downtown to say hello and give them my books.
I talked for a bit with Linda Riedy and with Darrel Miller, the editor.
Linda said they have several writers a year come through interested
in talking about "the center." She said it like none of us
are very dependable. Darrel believes that the ideas coming from organizations
like the Farm Bureau have not worked, that the condition of rural America
continues to decline, that people are still leaving rural areas in great
numbers, that it is getting harder and harder for farmers to make it
and harder for businesses on Main Street to make it. Smith Center has
lost three car dealers in the past six years. Ten years ago he thought
maybe the population loss had stopped, but the latest figures show they
have lost another 250 people. Darrel admits he is something of a radical
about agriculture and has expressed some of his opinions in the paper
expecting that farmers might get riled. But they haven't reacted. He
thinks the promises of the County Extension Agent and government subsidies
haven't kept farm problems at bay and they may have made things worse.
He worries that too many Americans have lost their connection to a place
they can call home, that they're just drifters in an urban or suburban
landscape, they have no sense of community, no sense of belonging to
anything larger than themselves, no sense of continuity, history, responsibility.
Darrel recommended that I read Wes Jackson and talk to people at the
Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, and the Kansas Rural
Center at Whiting, Kansas. "What they are is a bunch of aging hippies,"
Darrel said, making something of a left-handed compliment, "but
they're deep thinkers." What we've been doing hasn't worked, he
indicated, and the folks at these centers are trying to imagine a sustainable
agriculture and the stable rural community of the future.
I have a couple of Wes Jackson's books. I'll have to see what the organizations
Darrel mentioned are up to. Walthill, Nebraska, is not that far from
West Point, Nebraska.
Before actually heading towards Wisconsin, I drove thirteen miles south
out of Smith Center to see the place where seventy-five train cars were
blown off the tracks in one of the fabled straight winds. I am surprised
to see they have tipped to the west side of the tracks instead of to
the east. It's a pretty impressive line of hopper cars laid out with
their bellies exposed. The line is a quarter mile long. I see some boxcars
I think had been dumped but have since been righted. Railroad fellows
who have been working back there drive out as I sit making these notes,
they give me the "What you doing here, stranger?" hairy eyeball
and drive on. At least fifteen axles and wheels sit on the ground near
the road, no rail cars for them in sight. You know what - now the wind
is blowing pretty good, it's a hard straight wind. Now the railroad
fellows are back. I can't imagine where they went and came back so quick.
But they're railroad fellows, you shouldn't be surprised; I've had some
in my family, too. Their pick-up stirs a wall of dust along the tracks
as they head back to their work.
I turn for home. It looks like spring here, it feels like spring, it
smells like spring. How can I face more Wisconsin winter? I set my jaw,
I lean forward, I lean into it.
Just south of the Kansas-Nebraska line along Highway 81 I saw a farm
disking anhydrous ammonia and corn-stalks into the field. Spring has
come to Kansas.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, the temperature was 73 degrees. In Omaha, 63 degrees.
When I got into Iowa, I saw remnants of snow, a lot of it still, some
of it in these fields not ready for planting. It's plain that I'm driving
away from spring. I can only hope that it's chasing me.
March 15, 2003
With every visit I make to a focus community, with every interview I
conduct, the burden of the project weighs heavier on me. This is not
some poem or personal essay. I'm dealing here with real people's lives,
with their real joys and sorrows. How can I do justice to what I'm finding?
How can I tell it true?
I'm painting a picture, but I don't yet know what I'm painting a picture
of. Definitely I don't want to write a book about the economics of agriculture.
Yet the condition of rural America is bound up in the plight of agriculture.
I haven't yet gone out to the farmyard to talk to farmers, to walk their
fields and feedlots. Certainly I'd have to do that before I can say
I've completed my task.
And, these days, there is more to the story of rural America than the
story of agriculture. What else is part of the story? The condition
of Main Street, for sure. Industry, or the lack of it. Schools and school
consolidation. I don't think I can talk about the middle west without
talking about faith. In Vandalia you hear the name of Jesus spoken in
public places, but not as a curse, as witness. There are thirteen churches
in Smith Center. In Maysville I heard the role of the County Extension
Service being questioned; its role was being questioned by Darrel Miller
in Smith Center, too. Dependence on the government for advice or subsidy
works against the self-reliance of farmers. Oh my God, I sound like
a conservative Republican: Hand-outs seem to destroy those they are
intended to help.
The interstate highway system is like the railroads of the 1800s: where
the Interstate goes through, those towns will prosper. Will the others
sink into the slow decline of wood wishing to be earth again? Grocery
wholesalers don't want to deliver to stores off the main routes. If
you can't sell a certain number of cars every year, we're gonna pull
And all of a sudden I'm writing about issues, not telling the stories
of the people here. And it is their stories I want to tell. I'm a poet,
not a sociologist.
I was almost inconsolable yesterday driving back towards my Wisconsin
home, inconsolable about what has been lost, about what I cannot know
of these peoples' lives. They've opened themselves wide, they are laying
every-thing out for me to look at. Sometimes I don't know what I'm seeing,
sometimes I don't have skill enough to do justice to what I'm getting.
I was inconsolable: will I ever be able to do what I must if I'm to
do this right? These are the real lives of real people and I'm just
a poet; sometimes being a poet is just not enough.