Life In Western Kansas

(1932-1935) -- (15-18 years)

Chapter 3 Section C



by Glenn D. McMurry



Dad had contracted to purchase one and one half sections of land. It was about four miles south of Hanston and on the east side of the main north-south road which ran through the west part of the town. The land had no buildings on it. We, of course, had great hopes of eventually having a house and the necessary farm buildings on our new farm.

In Reno County we had been used to crossroads laid out every mile between our farm and Hutchinson. Here, it was different. Between our land and town, the only crossroads to the east were more like cow paths than roads, with one exception. There was one road that went into Jetmore. Little did I guess in those days that I would be teaching in that town in future years.

The unpaved road in front of our land ran straight north to Hanston except for a slight jog to adjust for the correction line. Incidentally, such adjustments are found on all north and south roads which are one mile apart throughout the farmlands of Kansas. I assume that is true in many states, but I'm familiar with only Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

About a quarter of a mile to the west of our farm, across the main road, was the Sawlog Creek. In some places it was 30 to 50 feet deep. At a distance the creek couldn't be seen. You could only see what appeared to be a row of bushes. However, when you got close, you discovered that through the years the creek had cut a 50 to 100 feet wide canyon. What you had thought were bushes were really very large elm and cottonwood trees growing on the sides of the creek. There were also lots of hackberry bushes among the trees. They produced berries that were used to make jelly by those of us who could not afford anything better.

There were some bridges, of a sort, across the creek. They had been built by the county or the farmers, depending upon who first felt the need. These "bridges" were low cement devices with a culvert that allowed the water to flow through. They were placed in the bed of the creek. The county could not afford to make bridges that spanned the creek from bank to bank.

Most of the time the water, what little there was, flowed through the culverts permitting wagons and cars to cross on top. In most places, one had to go down quite a steep grade to these "culvert" bridges, and then back up again. By today's standards, those up and down grades would never pass inspection.

Unfortunately, when the rains came, the roads could easily wash out. Sometimes the farmers who needed to use the washed-out road would repair it, and sometimes the county would get the job done. In any event, it would often be days before the road was again passable.

When a heavy rain came, the water rushed downstream in a fast torrent, carrying trash and uprooted trees and bushes along with it. The water level rose and covered the culverts. An on-rush of water could wash a car off the bridge and carry it downstream. I've even seen the Sawlog Creek get so full it overflowed its banks and spilled over onto the high land.

Regardless of such hazards, folks were glad for the creeks, such as the Sawlog, which were a water source for livestock, crops, trees and other greenery in this otherwise bare land.

My walks to Sawlog Creek where very large elm trees grew added to my tree climbing experiences. Many trees had limbs overhanging the creek banks that were 12 to 14 inches in diameter. I could walk on the limbs, many feet above the ground, without holding on. Indeed, I could be Tarzan!

Down the road toward town the Sawlog Creek meandered off toward the east and intersected with the main road. A little further on, another Creek, the Buckner, crossed the main road. It was also equipped with the low "culvert" bridges.

Those bridges were an important part of my high school days. Except for the years we lived in town, they had to be crossed at least twice a day. Then, there was church, grocery shopping, going to the bank, and all other legitimate reasons for going to town.

The road on which we entered town wasn't really Hanston's Main Street. It was just called "the highway through town," and went along the western edge of Hanston. Maybe when they laid out the roads in the early days, the people decided they didn't want wagons, buggies, or even cattle rushing through town.


The Elevator

Staying with the Osborne's served us well for awhile and we were thankful for the opportunity. However, getting Ted and me to school was a concern and as the weather got colder, we found our living quarters were really unsuitable. Of course, living in Osborne's basement was supposed to be only a temporary arrangement. Mr. Osborne learned from the estate directors that it would be all right for us to move into the elevator building in town where we had already stored our household goods. As it would be some time before we could build any type of home on the farm, our next step was to make that elevator into a livable place.

On the left is the old abandoned elevator with the "Hildebrand" sign over the front office.
On the right is the building where we kept our piano.

Elevators were not new to me. It had always been exciting for me to watch them operate back home in Elmer and Darlow. However, the fact that I was going to make my home in one, created a different kind of excitement.

This abandoned grain elevator had all its gadgetry, such as scales, large bins for storing grain, mechanisms for moving the grain from one place to another, and a large engine to make things work. It's primary purpose had been for storing grain, especially wheat, until it could be loaded into railroad cars and shipped to the various milling establishments. It was obvious that lots of grain from the Hildebrand Ranch had at one time been moved to market through this elevator, and that gave hope that some day, the land Dad was now farming would again produce abundant crops.

I was particularly interested in the operation of the machinery that moved the grain from the lowest to the highest point and then let it drop down into the big bins. The entire cup belt system needed to lift the grain was powered by a monstrous engine with only one cylinder. It had very large twin flywheels and was started by compressed air, similar to those I was familiar with around Hutchinson. When the compressed air valve was opened, the flywheels would begin to turn ever so slowly. Finally, they would gain speed. I can remember well the whish, whish sound at first, and then the muffled puff, puff, puff as the engine got fired up. At that point the clutch would be activated, causing the entire elevator system to function.

I was always snooping and examining everything around that elevator. I soon found that in the grain pit, about thirty steps below the ground floor, there was considerable wheat. I attached a rope to my bucket, tied the end to the top of the steps, and let the bucket down into the pit. Then I would go down, fill my bucket with wheat, climb back up, and pull the bucket up. We ground some of the best wheat for breakfast cereal, and fed the rest to our few hens.

The elevator complex consisted of the elevator machinery, an office and a storage section for storage of products that were sold to the farmers. In front were the huge scales over which the wagons of grain were pulled to be weighed. Back in the elevator itself was a trap-door type arrangement that permitted the wagons or trucks to dump the grain. I'd often watched the dumping procedure as a child, when most of the farmers came with horse-drawn wagons. It sometimes proved to be a precarious operation because the horses would get scared and try to move on before the dumping was finished. These memories and many more came to me as we proceeded to make our home in the Hildebrand elevator.

What had been the elevator's office was a room about thirty by fourteen feet. That became our kitchen and dining room. Poor Mom! Such an arrangement was certainly a let-down from her home back in central Kansas.

Behind the office was a large storehouse about thirty by sixty feet. Ted, Junior and I used it for our bedroom. It was not long before we found that our bedroom was far from a warm place. The wind blew threw the boards on the walls. The snow would drift over our beds. It was often far from comfortable, but we got along, and kept on dreaming of the home we'd be building later on the farm.

To the right of the office was another building. This had served as a headquarter's office for the Hildebrand ranching operations. Mom and Dad used it for their bedroom. We also put our piano there. As the room was only a few feet from the sidewalk along Main Street, when I played, I sometimes got lots of attention from the people walking by. I'm sure some enjoyed it, some could have cared less, and maybe some would have preferred quiet to the music.

There was still a telephone in the elevator office, and we used it a short while. However, when the telephone company found that we had no money to pay the bill, they cut the wire.

Oh, yes, there was an outhouse in back of the elevator. Naturally we were glad to discover that. No matter what its condition, we were sure we could "make-do" with it.

The Cook Shack

At first, after we moved into the elevator that summer, Dad and we boys would drive to the farm each day, caring for the livestock and preparing the ground for planting. Before long, we acquired a cook shack that someone no longer wanted, and moved it to the farm. Harvest teams that traveled from farm to farm doing custom farm work typically had a "house on wheels" as part of their equipment. It was used for cooking and sleeping.

We moved enough household goods from the elevator to make it possible for us to stay on the farm, and not have to travel back and forth to town daily.

When school started, and it began to get colder, we moved back to the elevator. Of course, Dad and Junior had to continue to go to the farm often to care for the animals and continue the farm work. Ted and I, being in school, got out of most of the work during the week.

First Water Well and Outhouse

A well for drinking water and watering the livestock was a first priority on our farm. At first we tried to use the conventional system to sink the well. That is, we dug just far enough to put the pump cylinder below the freezing line. Even though we were close to water, it wasn't close enough. Water is heavy and there is a limit to how far it can be sucked up by an ordinary hand pump. We had to have one of the farmers who had well-digging equipment sink a casing so we could put the cylinder deeper, and thus closer to the water level. Then, we had plenty of drinking water for ourselves and for the livestock. Livestock was limited to a few chickens; some pigs; two horses, Old Bess and Bill; and our one lone milk cow, Pearlie. With a chisel, we managed to cut down a large steel gas drum to use as a supply tank for watering the animals. Of course, there was no electricity and hand pumping water got to be a tiresome job. I hated it. All hands took turns pumping, but it seemed to me that my turn came around all too often.

Disposing of human waste on a flat piece of land caused another problem. Our first toilet was just a three-sided blind some fifty feet east of the spot where the basement was to be dug. After all, everyone likes to have some privacy. Inside the blind we dug a trench similar to those people make when they go primitive camping. It was truly a very crude affair.

Later, we were able to build an outdoor toilet using plans the government furnished. It had specific requirements, such as ventilation windows with screens to keep out flies. As many places in our country were without sewage systems, the government had done considerable research on how to construct and care for "sanitary" outhouses. Hundreds, probably thousands, were built all over the United States.


One of Dad's first goals was to build some type of shelter for the pigs, chickens, and some turkeys we hoped to get. It would also be used for storage of feed and various pieces of small equipment. After all, a farmer needs at least one farm building. Poor Dad, he was used to a barn, corn crib, silos, granary, milk house, chicken house, equipment shed and, of course, an outhouse on his Reno County farm.

We began to plan a building made entirely of native adobe and rock. Unlike the early pioneer times when lumber and cement were not available, materials were plentiful if one had money to buy them. However, we had little or no money to purchase such things.

Hanston clay or adobe, as it was called, was the stickiest stuff I ever saw. When it rained, and it did rain once in a while, that clay would stick to anything. When it dried, it was almost as hard as rock. While we lived on the Hanston farm, I spent lots of time cleaning shoes.

Telling about that sticky adobe reminds me of an experience I had one evening on a trip from Kinsley to Hanston after it had rained. Gradually I noticed that the car began to lose power, and finally, it stopped completely. When I got out to find what was wrong, I saw that the mud had coated the tires and continued to build up until it filled the space between the tires and the fenders. While I was walking around so much mud stuck to my shoes, I could hardly move. I've forgotten how I got home, but I left the car there until the next day. To make matters worse, the temperature dropped to freezing overnight. When we went back the next day, the mud was now frozen. We had to wait until the mud thawed until we could clean the tires enough to move the car.

True that mud caused problems with its stickiness, but that same quality is what made it good building material. It could be mixed with straw and made into adobe bricks, or it could be used, as we used it, to fill wooden forms to make walls for buildings. Many pioneers lived in adobe homes.

Our neighbors gave us suggestions as to where we could locate the best clay for making a good mortar. It was found high on the hill east of us. There was plenty of it and it was easy to find. It looked like the clay I now use to make ceramic items. We hauled wagon after wagon of the stuff and piled it where the new building was to be built. Then, we gathered rocks from the hills to mix with the adobe.

The plan was to make a building about fifteen feet by forty feet with a sloping steel roof. It was to face the south and all the windows would be on that side to let in as much sun in the winter as possible. The lone door would be on the west end. We had cold north winter winds, and such a building was the best protection from them.

After marking out the spot where the building was to be, we cleaned the area and dug a foundation ditch for the first adobe wall. Then we built a wooden form with 2x8's about six or eight feet long and twelve inches wide, and staked it to the ground. Our real work now began: carry water, mix mud, carry it to the form, drop big rocks into it, and then repeat the whole process until the form was full. The top was always kept rough so the next layer of mud and rock would stick to it. It took a few hours for the mud to set before we could move the form up for the next layer. We had to place the frames for the doors and windows as the walls were made. So, going up eight inches at a time, we filled forms and made the walls for our building.

It took hours and hours to make those walls. The next job was to plaster the outside to keep the rain from washing the adobe away. That was a perpetual job. The irony of the whole thing was that soon after we had finished the job, a strong southwest wind came along and blew off the roof. Of course, it had to be repaired. Soon, discovering that the building was too small for our needs, we made it longer. We never did get that building finished completely. We finally quit working on it with the east end incomplete. It served its purpose, however.

The building we built of adobe.
Dad, Mom, Grandma McMurry and I are admiring our flock of turkeys.

The only other structure on the place was an old building that was moved in to be used as a shelter for the beet workers. We also found another portion of an old building which we attached to the beet workers' house, forming a type of lean-to. This served as a shelter for our horses and milk cow.

The Basement House

One Saturday in November, Dad and I went to the farm to do the chores and, as usual, we were dreaming about our future home.

"Let's take a walk and make some plans for digging a basement for our new house," Dad said. He was eager to get started, and I was thrilled just thinking about the project.

I was always full of ideas, just like Dad.

"You know, Dad, I think it would be neat to build our new home just a quarter mile north of our south border with the Osborne's. What do you think?"

"That sounds pretty good to me," Dad said. "Let's do some measuring and see exactly where that quarter mile would be," he said. "Grab a few stakes and a hammer, and we'll step off the distance."

It wasn't long until we had selected the right spot and placed the stakes. We didn't want to put the basement too close to the road, and neither should it be too far away. We felt that fifty feet would be about right.

Of course, these were only pipe dreams at the time. The entire family knew that a basement was out of the question at the moment. We had little money in the bank. What we did have was dedicated to putting in the crops, and purchasing feed for the cows, horses, turkeys and chickens. In fact, about the only cash income we had at the time was from government loans and subsidies.

Pre-cut houses seemed to be the rage about that time. Dad had seen a magazine advertisement offering a catalog showing floor plans for several such houses. When it arrived, we spent hours dreaming about the house we wanted.

"Do you think they could really cut the lumber in such a way that all we would need was a hammer and nails to put together a house?" I asked. "That picture makes it look so easy. Surely some sawing would be necessary."

We continued to talk and plan. A few weeks after Dad and I had staked out the place that seemed right for us to build, we decided that it wouldn't take much cash to dig a hole, just hard labor. We borrowed a slip to help us move dirt. This slip was an overgrown shovel with two wooden handles. In front was an arrangement for hitching a team of horses. The horses pulled and a person guided the shovel with the wooden handles. By guiding the slip carefully, a load of dirt could be dug and deposited in a pile some feet away.

When we got started we discovered we could use our tractor to pull the slip. It was much faster than using a team of horses. As the hole got deeper, however, we had to use horses. Then to finish the job, it took pure manual "shovel" labor.

The entire family, Dad, Junior, my cousin Ted, and even Mom, worked at that digging job. We wanted our basement house to be 30 by 40 feet and about five feet deep, so it was not easy work.

After we got the hole dug, we knew we next had to have money to purchase lumber to make forms for the basement walls. We just had to wait until we could figure how to get the needed funds, and wait we did. That hole was just that, a hole in the ground until the following September. It was then that things began to happen.

I had often heard of a "barn raising," but I had never before heard of a "basement raising!"

"Fred," the Methodist preacher, Rev. Howard Smothers, asked Dad one day, "would you like to have the folks from the church help pour the cement for the basement?"

I have already told how the church helped to welcome us into the community, and now this offer came to help us build our home.

Of course, Dad was very excited about the offer. "Great, Brother Smothers. We would really be happy for help. However, we'll have to get the money to build the forms before we can pour the cement. With that kind of offer, we'll have to find money to purchase the lumber and necessary supplies. We'll let you know just as soon as we are ready."

Dad, Mom and we three kids had faith something would happen to help us get that money. Someway, not long after Rev. Smother's offer and known only to providence, we did find the money. Frankly, I can't remember just where we did get it, but I do remember how thankful we were when we could tell Rev. Smothers we were ready. He made the plans with our church friends and a date was set for the basement "raising."

It was a glorious experience on the 13th day of September, 1933, when the cement for the basement walls was ready to be poured. The ladies prepared the eats, and the men pitched in with all their might and main to mix and pour the cement into the forms.

Unfortunately, everything wasn't all just hunkydory. We had skimped in the bracing because we didn't have enough lumber. Some of the lumber we used was old and unable to stand the weight of the cement. At a weak spot, the boards would break and cement would run out through the opening.

Junior's job was to watch for such weak spots and plug the holes.

"Hold everything," he would yell. "I have a break here. Don't pour any cement in that corner until something can be done to brace the wall and stop the break."

If it is a little too wet, cement will run through even the smallest crack.

In the thirty's, there was no such thing as a motorized cement truck to bring cement from a central place where the exact mixture of ingredients were measured, thoroughly mixed and continually agitated. Every grain of sand, every sack of cement and every gallon of water had to be handled by manual labor. Too much or not enough of any of the three ingredients would change the quality of the finished product.

"Hey, you guys, you're putting too much water in the cement," or "We can't pour that stuff. It's too thick," were common complaints.

Once we began to mix and pour, it was Dad's job to jab a long two by four into the cement to be certain it was filling all the corners properly. Also, as newly poured cement was put on the old, he had to jostle it continually so there would be no apparent seams.

It seemed as if there were a thousand jobs to do all at once. We couldn't stop until everything was done. We ate and rested in shifts. The ladies were magnificent. They worked hard at supplying food for all the hungry workers. By nightfall the cement was all poured and we could rest. Everyone was very tired, but very pleased and happy with the results.

I remember Rev. Smother's remarks as he praised all the workers at the end of the day. "The Lord was certainly on our side today," he said. "The 'basement raising' job is done. No one got injured, no one got out of sorts, and no one cussed or swore over the problems we had. It was a wonderful experience. Even the weather cooperated with us. We should all give thanks."

By the next afternoon, we began to remove the forms and examine the quality of the job we had done. It wasn't a perfect job, but no one expected it to be. There were a few rough places in the walls, but all in all it was a fine job and we knew it would serve us well.

The following Sunday morning my Dad stood up in church and again thanked everyone for what they had done for us.

During the next few weeks, Dad and we boys poured the cement floor. Then we worked hard to get the framing on top of the ground so we could put in some windows and an entrance way. Last, we had to put on the roof. We covered it with rolls of tarred paper. It was important that those jobs were done before it got too cold and the snow came.

There wasn't too much we could do during the winter months. That spring there was lots of rain, and we were thankful we had done a good job in making our basement water proof.

Finally in May we were able to move in. That first night was a happy time for our family. There was still lots to be done, but, finally we were out of the elevator.

Here I am standing in front of our basement house

Mom and I did lots of things in that basement to make it more livable. Dad and Junior worked together outside, and Ted got a job on the neighbor's farm. Of course, I had certain outside chores also, but Mom always liked to have me help her inside, and I enjoyed doing it. Together we had lots of ideas about making the place a real home.

"Glenn," Mom said, "let's see what we can do to divide this big basement into some rooms. That way everyone can have a little privacy."

That was a fun idea and I got enthusiastic in a hurry. I began to gather all the old pieces of wood that I could find that might be used in making partitions.

"Mom, let's go to town and get all the large corrugated boxes we can find. We can flatten them and use them to make walls. We can also use the burlap bags from the beet seed.

My plan for partitions worked like a charm. The first wall divided the basement into two large rooms, lengthwise. The left side provided us with a living room, dining room and kitchen. On the right side, we had a bedroom for us boys and a bedroom for Mom and Dad. Then, what was left, was a washroom and entrance area. As for privacy, well, we didn't have much. Those walls were so thin that you could hear a person breathing on the other side. At least we could now dress and undress in private, and that was an accomplishment.

Mom and I built some cupboards and shelves for the kitchen area. I really learned how to measure and cut boards, and drive nails that summer. Some of the nails were bent ones that we pulled from the boards used for the cement forms. Believe me, nothing was wasted, because there was little or no money to buy new materials.

We had to carry all our water down into the basement. A well had been drilled long before we built the basement, and the plan was to put another one inside. However, since that well never did materialize, bucket after bucket of fresh water had to be hauled from the pump to the basement kitchen and washroom. Having to haul the water in from about forty feet away and then down the steps into the basement got to be a chore.

To make things worse, all the water hauled in had to be hauled out, except what we drank or used for cooking.

Mom was often heard saying, "Someone has to dump the water buckets. They are full and running over. If you boys had done the job sooner, it would have been lots easier. Now that you let the bucket run over, you'll have to mop the floor."

Frankly, I think I carried most of the water. At least that's how it seemed to me. I suppose the others felt the same way.

Back on the old farm in central Kansas, we had been used to electricity. Out in western Kansas, we had none. We had brought our Maytag washer with us and finally were able to attach a gasoline engine to it. That made doing the family wash much easier, although it still did not solve the water problem.

Just thinking about the situation makes me weary. We had to heat the water outside in a big iron kettle and then haul it in buckets down to the basement. Mom usually had to heat some additional water on the kitchen stove to make really hot water for washing work clothes. The Maytag had a little pump on it that would discharge the waste water. We attached a hose and stuck it out the window so we wouldn't have to carry all the water back upstairs. That usually worked great, except when we had an accident and let the hose fall from the window. Then, we had a really big mess to clean up.

Because the gasoline engine on the washing machine gave off fumes, we had to attach a flexible exhaust pipe and stick it out the window so we would not be asphyxiated. That kind of gas fumes settles down to the floor and can be very dangerous.

We heated our basement home with a type of pot-belly stove in which we could burn either coal or wood. Our cooking was done on a four-burner kerosene stove. It had a removable oven that could be put on one of the burners. There was a thermometer on the front door that told you how hot the oven was, but didn't do much to tell you how to get the temperature you wanted. Nevertheless, Mom was still able to bake delicious bread.

Our bathroom, or I should say the place to take baths, was in the little room where the sink and washer were. Our tub was a wash tub. Of course, the water had to be heated on the kitchen stove. It also had to be carried in and out of the basement, as all other water. As you may have guessed, the toilet was the typical outdoor privy. In the winter, a trip to it was often a very cold experience.

There was very little privacy in our basement home and not much space where one could conceal his trinkets and keepsakes. Again, I put my creativity to work. I had things I wanted to hide. After all, Ted and Junior didn't need to know everything about my business, so I made a wooden box with a wooden combination lock. I thought it was terrific. It had all the fixings of a steel safe. Just turn the two pieces of round wood in the right position, and the tumbler would let the door open. I was sure I now had a place to put things that those kids could not get into--my own private hiding spot for the stuff I didn't want the other guys to see.

I got away with the safe idea for a while, but one day one of the guys found out how I made the combination and my secrets were exposed.

"Oh, we found out how to open that safe a long time ago. You weren't as smart as you thought you were. It was a snap," my brother Junior told me, while Ted stood by with a grin on his face.

Can you imagine how let down I felt? I moped around for hours knowing that Ted and Junior had been snooping in my stuff and laughing at me behind my back. It was like the Gestapo watching over me. It took a long time for me to forgive them, and, of course, I haven't ever forgotten the incident.

Thinking about my "safe" reminds me of my quarter collection, which was one of the treasures I kept in it. I tried to convince my friends that I had found some "genuine" counterfeit quarters.

"Hey, kids, look at this. These are counterfeit quarters," I said one day when I decided it was time to share my newly discovered treasure.

"Aw, cut it out," one of the guys said. "What gives you the idea that they are counterfeit?"

"Well," I said. "Take a look at them. Which ones have years stamped on them and which have no year at all?"

I had noticed the difference in the quarters and come to a sensational conclusion. Some coins had indications that there had been a date stamped into them no matter how worn they were. The other coins showed no evidence of ever having had a date. Something was decidedly wrong.

No matter how hard I tried to convince them that I had counterfeit quarters, they didn't believe me. Then sometime later I saw an article in the paper. It seems that a man who had worked at the Denver mint had stolen some dies. He had taken the front and back die for quarters, but not the die to print the dates. When the government investigators discovered some of his counterfeits, they were surprised upon analyzing them, that the bogus quarters contained more real silver than the legitimate ones. So far as I know, the counterfeiter was never caught, but the government profited from his villainy by melting his quarters and recovering the silver.

I regret that sometime during the years, my quarters were lost. Therefore, I have no proof of my story unless I can find the newspaper article that tells the same story. After all this time, that seems unlikely.

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