Tales of a Sod House Baby
Stories of the Kansas Frontier as told by my mother, Helen McCauley Merkle
by Ellen Verell
Settling the Western Great Plains of our country was a unique experiment by an organized government. The Homestead Act of 1862 culminated the attempt by Congress to persuade citizens to go west in great numbers. Profit was their motive. Not since the Revolution had land been “offered free” just for the settling.
The area itself was unique… thousands of square miles of prairie grasses grew almost no timber. Building materials were rocks and earth. In certain places, even rocks were in short supply. This gave rise to the era of “dugouts” and sod houses.
American ingenuity and free enterprise were kindled to meet the challenge of settling the West. The railroads offered special fares on “emigrant cars” whereby whole families would be transported to the “Promised Land” for $52.
Established farmers wanted to take their own animals, seed and a few implements with them, which signaled the era of the “prairie schooner”… a marvelous contraption for transporting ones household over a sea of waving grass that often appeared to be water.
From St. Louis westward, the Santa Fe Trail became the highway for settlers… “highways” without bridges, without even the most primitive accommodations and often with no established settlements along the way. Some of the more adventurous came with only one or two, perhaps up to four wagons in the train, from points near St. Louis, Missouri and farther east.
Whole families joined wagon trains for mutual support and safety. One such train carried an entire “colony” of people from Zaneville, Ohio, to a point southwest of Dodge City, Kansas.
The recollection of these journeys, as seen through the eyes of the settlers’ children, is told in Tales of A Sod House Baby by one whose parents and grandparents made the trip. Some of the episodes are firsthand accounts and others are taken from a journal of a child who left Lee County, Iowa, at age seven.
Authenticity is the hallmark of the TALES. Everything from prairie storms to wildfires to murders to confronting rattlesnakes and rabid dogs is covered in this epic of the short-grass country of Western Kansas, 1879-1940.