Kansas' Heritage Homes
Have you ever noticed those “sad appearing” abandoned farm houses along country lanes? In many cases, these houses, once cherished homes, are victims of progress. Today’s farmers are farming more acres, so some lesser desirable age-old living quarters are no longer inhabited.
One abandoned home that has peaked my curiosity is located between Norton and Phillipsburg, Kansas. That house, built of native rock years ago, undoubtedly was someone’s dream house with its high ceilings, steep roof, and tall, narrow windows reflecting scenic views of a fertile valley. Now, all but a shell, it remains to remind us of those glorious days of settlement in Kansas when men labored in wheat fields, and women prepared food using iron cookstoves.
Years ago, family farms of forty, eighty, or one hundred sixty acres dotted countrysides. Each house was designed to fulfill a family’s needs. A large family dictated more rooms; smaller families often “made do” with a two or three bedroom structure.
Those vacant homes, now with broken windows, fallen chimneys, and caved in roofs, at one time, represented the fervent dreams of early twentieth century inhabitants intent upon providing adequate shelter for loved ones. In viewing these shells, we understand that a few of those farmers, more interested in beauty than utility, designed homes with porches, bay windows, and other “moneyed” additions.
Some located their homes on ridges overlooking scenes of picturesque river valleys and crop lands, others built close to main roads desiring quick access to routes for supplies and grain markets and still others chose level land and planted windbreaks of trees.
Most of these houses had cisterns and cellars, necessary additions during settlement days. Cisterns, depositories for rain water, provided soft water for household needs. They also supplemented well water, at times.
Most of the younger generation did not especially like dark, damp cellars. In the first place, cellars were often abodes of snakes. Those curious slithery, frightening creatures found cellars good hunting ground for rats and mice.
However, there were many benefits to these underground chambers. Cellars, built near back doors, offered storage for farm produce, as well as safe places in case of tornados. Called “root cellars” these deep depressions in the ground provided space for harvested garden produce for winter usage. Potatoes, onions, melons, apples, and other fruits and vegetables were stored in bins and on shelves for later use. The deeper the cellar, the less chance of spoilage.
Cellars were, indeed, the supermarkets of yesteryear. Shelves became showcases of colorful canned fruits in shiny glass jars. The shelf content in general stores could not compare with the beauty or taste of those glass -enclosed fruits and vegetables painstakingly canned during the hottest of summer days.
Years ago many activities took place within kitchens. Family members gathered in the kitchen for meals, baths were taken in a large wash tub every Saturday night, and family members often huddled near the heat of the open oven door on winter days.
(Courtesy photo from Kansas State Library)
The kitchen itself was generally designed to meet the needs of the first family to inhabit it. Larger families dictated more space for a sizable table and chairs. Much time was spent gulping down cinnamon and sugar sprinkled cinnamon rolls, field corn cooked in hot water, and homemade ice cream made with sugar and thick heavy cream.
On really hot days, families ate at tables on porches or even outside under trees. Thresher crews were accustomed to eating in outside shade.
At times, flies and bugs caused a problem in sanitation. Cloths were often placed over food and dishes until everyone was seated at the table. This kept the insects away until the food could be eaten. According to one oldster, window screens represented the best invention during past years. The bugs, flies, and gnats invaded every corner and nook of these houses.
These old iron kitchen cookstoves heated water, and provided four or more burners for cooking. Several back burners were “warming burners.” All had ovens and some had warming ovens above the cooking surface. These stoves required constant monitoring. Feeding them took cobs, wood and, later, coal which controlled the amount of heat produced.
Chimney fires were also dangerous unless pipes and chimneys were regularly cleaned. Stove blackening was used to make the tops look better. Chimneys had to be cleaned of soot, a substance that seemed to spread and scatter at the first attempt to touch it.
Women, baking cakes or cookies, often tested the oven heat by putting a small sample of dough into the oven on a jar lid. If the dough baked well, the oven was ready for the product.
Kitchens provided a place for food preparation whether for eating or canning. Kitchens were where family members spent time especially on winter evenings. Those kitchens were delightful places giving evidence of all kinds of cooking food through wonderful fragrances. Cinnamon rolls and baking bread brought the divine aromas of cinnamon and browning crusts.
Families spent many evenings in kitchens, the warmest places in these houses. Mothers had mending, Dads had newspapers or bibles, the children had home work. Occasionally, popcorn would be popped in a wire popper or fudge would be poured into flat pans to set before eating. That rich creamy confection was greatly appreciated because sweet treats such as candy bars or even ice cream bars were seldom purchased.
At times, the radio entertained and delighted every family member with such shows as Fibber McGee and Molly, the Lux Radio Theater, and the Bob Hope show. The radio introduced new performers, new places, and added information that astounded and pleased family members.
Hot summer days found women using large canners on stove tops. Quart or pint jars jostled in the hot boiling water. Removing hot jars from the extremely hot water took dexterity and courage. There was always the chance that once a hot jar filled with hot contents was lifted out of the hot water into the cooler air, it would break spreading scalding food and pieces of glass everywhere.
Rendering lard was another task accomplished with the aid of the kitchen stove. As the heat increased, the white fatty pieces began to melt. Eventually, after the fat was drained, cracklings remained. Those bits of rich crisp fat were tasty if eaten while hot.
Some families were fortunate if a small pitcher pump was located in the kitchen. Instead of carrying water from the well, the water could be pumped into a sink for washing dishes and other tasks.
On laundry day, the kitchen became a laundry room. Heated water from the stove, homemade lye soap, and cool rinse water made the cycle complete. Clothes were run through manual wringers and generally hung outside on clothes lines. Pantries, small narrow rooms, adjoined kitchen areas. Cupboards ,counters, and drawers provided space for dishes, leftovers, and cookware.
The dining room, generally used for company, was next to the kitchen. This facilitated food arriving to the table while hot. Most dining rooms had tables and chairs, not necessarily matching. The tables often had additional leaves used for family gatherings on holidays.
There may have been a bookcase or a desk with a mirror or a plant table where plants took advantage of a nearby window’s light or a china cupboard filled with various dishes. These rooms were heated with a wood burning heating stove that needed constant attention.
Parlors, holding special family treasures such as pretty glassware, photos, or embroidered handwork, was kept in readiness for the “important” company that sometimes never came. However, the best of what the family had in the way of furnishings and decorative touches were present in this room. Upholstered couches or love seats and chairs rested on flowered Axminister rugs spread on painted or hardwood floors.
This was where family photo albums and stereoscopes delighted and amazed viewers. Stereoscopes with realistic in-depth pictures of the world’s amazing scenes held our attention again and again.
Wedding pictures, graduation pictures, and others were displayed. A striking blue pitcher, a clear glass boat dish and a vase painted with realistic appearing pansies were prominently displayed on a parlor table.
Upstairs, usually the undisputed domain of children, was reached by a high narrow stairway. Summertime meant open windows and cardboard fans advertising the local funeral home. Winter days brought heavy comforters and feather bed mattresses smelling of moth balls. Early winter mornings the sun was glaringly bright through frosted windows, Who could resist trying to write his name in the frost or even draw a picture?
Snuggled under heavy comforters, immersed in feathery softness, everyone hated the thought of getting up and doing the assigned chores. Chores weren’t so bad in good weather; they were horrible during inclement weather. Wrapped in heaviest wool coats, wearing mittens or gloves, and overshoes, family members waded through mud, slush, and snow wishing they were any other place in the world. Even though the barn was warmer, everyone continued to shiver with damp coldness or winter winds and moisture.
These houses of yesteryear left a legacy of memories of shared love. Family members working together spun dreams and saw many of those dreams come true through hard work and determination. Even though many homes on those early farmsteads are now in disrepair or have been destroyed, the heritage of family love and caring, certain events of past years, and those bonds that held family members together working for a common cause are quite evident in the lives of those of us who lived in one of those homes and enjoyed close family relationships, the compassion of family members, and the very special heritage left by loved ones.