(To listen to the audio of this blog post, use the purple play button.)
· Reno County Picnic: Grasshoppers
It’s August 3, 1899, at the Old Settlers’ of Reno County picnic in Riverside Park, Hutchinson, Kansas.
Loretta McMillan Collins, 51, eating watermelon; Sarah Jane Riddle McMurry, 45, drinking blackberry cider; and Julia Clementine Latimer Whiteside, 31, eating fresh cherry pie; are sitting in the shade. They’re all wearing fancy hats and talking about the good ole’ days.
However, at age 31, Julia’s hardly eligible to be considered an old settler. Born May 6, 1868, in Jackson, Tennessee, she’s young enough to be a daughter of her husband, Houston Whiteside, Sr.
In 1888, Julia came to Hutchinson to visit her aunt. Julia met Houston and they married the following year in Memphis, Tennessee, at her uncle’s, her father having died in 1887. Julia was 20, Houston was 43.
Julia Clementine Latimer Whiteside inscription on the crypt in the mausoleum
Their two children, Ada, 7; and Houston, Jr., 9; are nearby. Ada’s drawing in a sketchbook; Houston Jr. is catching grasshoppers.
Sarah Riddle, born April 16, 1844, in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, married Jonathan McMurry, 27, in Shannon, Illinois, in 1867, when she was 23.
Sarah Jane Riddle McMurry gravestone
Sarah and Jon have enough children, seven to be exact, that just updating friends about their extended family could monopolize a conversation. Today, only their youngest, Edith, 15, is with them at the picnic. She’s listening to her elders.
Loretta McMillan, 51, born September 21, 1848, in Leavenworth County, Kansas, married Charles Collins, 22, at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1866, when she was 18.
Loretta McMillan Collins gravestone
“How is Charles?” Loretta Collins asks Sarah McMurry. This is always the question. The inquiry represents a long-standing bond between families. Charles Collins was the first sheriff of Reno County. He appointed Jon McMurry his undersheriff. Their mutual respect and family ties led Sarah and John to name their third child in his honor. Charles Collins McMurry was born in April 1872, three months after the county’s first election.
“He’s fine, thanks,” replied Sarah. “He and his wife, Rose; and Vernon, their one-year-old, are well.”
“Look at the men,” said Loretta, pointing her jaw towards their husbands. They must be telling war stories.”
“Sure looks like it,” agreed Sarah, “when Jon gets excited, he talks with his hands. Now he’s pointing towards his thighs. That’s where he was severely wounded at Big Hatchie during the battle in Tennessee.”
“Now, Houston’s grabbing his bad arm,” responds Julia. “I’m just glad they can get together and talk. Even though we both survived the devastation of the Civil War, Houston knows that I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be permanently scarred. You can’t explain war.”
“The war scarred a lot of people, not only men,” said Loretta. “While they were off, our families were home, doing their best under trying circumstances.”
Changing the subject, Loretta said, “Watching little Houston catch grasshoppers reminds me of the Rocky Mountain locust invasion of 1874.”
“Those ‘hoppers came out of nowhere from the west during that dry and hot summer,” said Sarah. “For days they obscured the sun, flying high in the air; they looked like snowflakes in a snowstorm.
“Streams of grasshoppers would detach from the main body, coming to the ground and devouring corn stalks and anything green. When they landed on our house, they sounded like a rainstorm.”
“Some people thought the swarms of locusts were a sign of the end of the world,” said Loretta. “They quoted Exodus 10 where the Lord told Moses to have locusts swarm over the land of Egypt and to have them devour everything growing in the fields.”
“I wasn’t here in Reno County for the state’s grasshopper plague,” said Julia, “but Houston said the farmers were devastated because when the grasshoppers, or locusts, devoured their crops, they also ate the grains for the following year’s crops and the feed for their work animals.”
“They ate everything but the mortgage,” said Sarah, with a half-smile. “They would eat clothes off the clothesline, get into houses and clean out food in the cupboards. At night, people had to shake bedding to dislodge the grasshoppers before retiring.
“I heard about a woman who was wearing a white dress with a green stripe. The grasshoppers settled on her and ate up every bit of the green stripe in that dress before anything could be done about it.
“I can still hear the crunch of the grasshoppers underfoot when we walked outside. We couldn’t avoid them.”
“Farms were lost and many settlers returned to their former communities back east, broke and defeated,” said Loretta. “A good many families would have starved to death or frozen in their homes without the aid of communities outside of Kansas.”
“The frequent rains and flooding in May and June of 1877 in Hutchinson were another memorable event,” said Sarah. “When Cow Creek flooded, two-thirds of the city was inundated. The Main Street businesses had two feet of mud and water rush into their buildings.”
“Sidewalks were wooden, not stone,” added Loretta. “I remember the sidewalks at First and Main being washed away, even though they were staked down. Rowboats were used to ferry people who wished to remain high and dry.”
“On some streets, even riding a horse was dangerous due to the high waters,” added Sarah. “One man was drowned crossing the creek.”
When Sarah started to recall the blizzard of 1888, Loretta realized that Julia would again be left out of the conversation.
Sarah was aware from the society page in the News that Julia and Houston regularly entertained honored guests at their home on east Sherman. Julia was often described as having a beautiful and cultured voice, being a ‘silvery soprano.’
“Was it difficult for you to adjust to Hutchinson from your life in Tennessee and Ohio?” asked Loretta?
“Houston made it easy for me,” answered Julia, “and the timing was right. My father had died the year before we met. When I visited my aunt here in Hutchinson, Houston and I were attracted to one another. He paraded me around as a classical amateur singer.”
“Did you have plans for the stage?” asked Loretta, knowing she may have gotten too personal.
Julia hesitated just a second before answering. “Neither Houston or I were prepared for a career in theater, although I had offers for professional services. We didn’t need the money,” replied Julia. “Instead, we’ve chosen to support the cultural arts. Houston expects a home theater to be built in a couple of years.
“Recently, at a celebration at home I sang, Non Mi Dir (Don’t Tell Me), from Don Giovanni, by Mozart.”
“It looks like Jon is getting his fiddle out,” said Sarah. I’ll bet he’s going to play Fisher’s Hornpipe or Money Musk.
“While I’m trained in classical music, I enjoy good music anytime,” said Julia, as she stood up, ready to move closer to Jon who was preparing to play.
Julia saw her husband walking towards her with his good hand outstretched. She reached for it.
If you’re interested in what Julia Clementine Latimer Whiteside’s soprano voice might have sounded like in the 1880s and 1890s, click here:
Edita Gruberova, at age 63, in 2010, sings the classical song Non Mi Dir, by Mozart. The musical piece is 6:31 minutes long.
One resource: History of Reno County, Kansas: Its People, Industries and Institutions, V1, (B. B. Bowen & Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1917), by Sheridan Ploughe.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.
Meanwhile this wonderful conversation is going on!!!
Jim Potter says
Side-conversations are part of history.