Thursday, October 15, 2009

Trip To Oklahoma Homesteads

Mine, my father's, my grandparent's, my great grandparent's, and my great great grandparent's. It's taking me some time--my whole life--to come to terms with the fact that Minnesota is not my homestead, but Oklahoma is. Usually, upon entering that windy southern state, an immense dread, heaviness, and darkness pulls me under as if I were drowning in tar. This time it was different. Maybe because I was older, empowered, on a mission to do research for my next book, I don't know. But here--in many photos--is some of what I found, and most of it is only the tip of the iceberg I'll never know.

I come from German Mennonites on my Dad's side, who escaped the Spanish inquisition in the Netherlands by settling in northern Poland (Prussia at the time), and then escaped Prussia by going to southeastern Ukraine near the Black Sea in the late 1700s. They wanted religious freedom and nonviolence, i.e., no military conscription--this last reason is why they were constantly on the move, and why, in 1874, my great great grandparents (20 and 21 with a 1 year old son) came to Kansas via Castle Garden / Battery Park in NYC (pre Ellis Island days), then to Oklahoma in 1894 in one of the many land runs that displaced the last of the crammed-together Native American tribes in Oklahoma Territory. You should see the pictures--men on horseback and families in wagons on a starting line, then screaming south in clouds of dust at breakneck speed after the gunshot. So begins the pictorial narrative.

Great great grandparents, Abraham and Elizabeth Janzen, who I put money on never spoke a lick of English. Abraham was her second husband who she married in Kansas, after her first husband, Peter Kliewer, died of a fever just a few weeks before their first daughter died of it, too--daughter was 3 months old, and wouldn't be the last infant to pass away.

A small part of Washita County in western Oklahoma, centered around the town of Corn (Korn prior to WWI). The green squares are individual Native American quarter sections (80 acres), and the tan 80s belong to white settlers.

I struggle with the depiction and oral retelling from family of white settlers as brave and such. Yes, no doubt they were, I have no idea. And no doubt they were a product of self-serving religious and cultural mantras that lead to events like the 1st dust bowl (when will the 2nd one be?). I find it hard being both a product of too much higher education and a good Mennonite descendent. But there's more to the story than this--I just haven't found it yet.

(I'm also afraid that whatever I write on will not be the positive, rosey-glasses sort of thing everyone down there might want to read or expects to read. It won't be. It will be. But it won't be.)

Elizabeth earned her living--and supported her family in tough times--throughout her life as a seamstress, and this is the sewing machine she bought in 1875. It's in the Corn Museum on loan from the family.

The Janzen homestead today, home to great great grandparents, great grandparents, and grandparents. It is stunning how all across the plains the last reminders of these places are windmills. Not silos, not stone walls, but in the end just thin metal towers that beat tornados and lightening and fire (which all took a surprising number of family barns, churches, and other landmarks).

The Janzen place as it stood, perhaps in the 1920s or 1930s. Not sure. Someone is. (not sure why it wouldn't load correctly, either)

Pic of me, grandma, and my sister on a forced pilgrimage to the homeplace. It was burned down by a farmer in the 1990s or so when cows got stuck in the cellar, died, stunk it up, and as with all structures, was buried with topsoil and farmed over. Lost forever.

The Bergthal Church cemetary where Abraham and Elizabeth are buried. It stands across the street where another prairie disgrace happened.

Apparently locals were tired of windows being broken and vandals getting in, so they just gassed the thing a few years back. This pisses me off to no end. What is it in us that insists on razing our lives, physically and emotionally? There is so little left of us, and especially of those before us. We pushed millions of bison to within extinction down to a few hundred head, wiped away millenia of Native American culture, and now do the same to our own culture and sense of place. No wonder we are crazy. You won't find any historical markers, except here at Bergthal, ironically. Someone may remember just by chance where something was, or some old cedar tree might still mark the location of the first sod post office in Corn in the 1890s, but that's it. Poof. How long will it be before some farmer cuts the cedar down for a few more square feet of wheet or maize (or milo, as I heard).

My great grandparents, John and Katie Janzen. John quit smoking when he found the lord. Also died of a heart attack trying to get his car out of an icey / muddy / snowy country road one January. Someone found him there soon after.

Here is Gyp Creek (lots of gypsum) where John often fished, about 1 mile south of the Janzen homeplace. Catfish, I think.

And under the nearby cement bridge are mud swallows and their poop.

Here was a (in)famous tree, the Hanging Tree at Big Jake's Crossing, where Native Americans were hung after burning and skinning cowboys who had first retaliated against (read killed) the Native Americans who stole some of their cows to feed their starving families. History is rich, isn't it? Eye for an eye for an eye for an eye.... I was also suprised at how older folks still very much harbor stereotypes, ones I can only imagine as a Saturday morning cowboys and indians cartoon.

Where my dad spent his first 6 or so years. The house was moved to Weatherford. I went inside the barn, disturbed a huge owl, and saw lots of rusting things.

Where they kept the baby chickens / brooder house.

Also, apparently, where they kept the lawnmower.

Chicken coop, which was filled with roll after roll of barbed wire.

The only few sunny hours of the damp trip. Last remnants of the front lawn.

A rusty old driveway grader.

The wash house.

Wash house with pressure tank. In the back corner you can see the area where they once had a fire to heat a water basin hanging above.

Rusty old storage tank.

Crumbled milking barn. This is our equivalent of castle ruins, I think.

I know I'm a bleeding envrionmentalist. Whatever. I like this picture with the mid 20th century electrical stuff, and in the far distance, a large wind farm (click to exapand).

I like this shot, too.

Here are some final pics of other houses in the area:

That cow on the far right would NOT stop staring. I mean a straight on, vacant-cow-disturbance-in-the-force-telekinesis kind of stare.

-Fin- (for now)


MrBrownThumb said...

That 3rd from the bottom pic is really cool. There's something about red earth that makes me want to live there. It looks as red as Sedona and probably has far less annoying backpackers, retirees and hippies.

Chloe m said...

The older I get, the more I like old rusty stuff. And dilapidated ruins. Interesting history...and you are part of it!

Anonymous said...

MBT's comment made me laugh. He is quite the romantic, just like you are. When I look at the photos of the land, what I see is flat, flat, flat, flat. I do not find it beautiful, like here in TN, where the Indians lived before they were driven like cattle to dusty Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. No hippies or backpackers or retirees for sure there. Eastern Ok where I grew up is different, a few more hills and greener, thanks in part to the Corps Of Engineers who dammed the rivers to make lakes and irrigation. Nostalgia city. Those who rushed to the open land were made of tough stuff, be proud of them. Life was so harsh with high infant mortality rates, it's a wonder there were any descendents to procreate and produce you and me.

Anonymous said...

What a great history and great pictures. I am living on our family homestead that is now 125 years old (I am generation #5). It's so amazing to be the one to carry on the history. I hope you continue to share yours!

our friend Ben said...

Loved your commentary and photoessay, Benjamin! The two things that probably thrill me most in this part of PA are the Amish windmills and the fabulous stone barns, built by the Mennonites and Amish. Maybe some distant relatives of yours?!

Benjamin Vogt said...

MBT--No hippies! Ha. Just old folks. It is the Bible Belt, you know, but I wouldn't want to live there again--even though my dad thought they could let me built a house on some family land if I wanted to.
Rosey--I might put some rusty stuff on the front lawn and call it art. Would my neighbors?
Frances--Never been to eastern OK, but plan to. Where are the Ozark "mountains?" Near by?
Anon--You are in a rare position in our culture, and I think it's a good one to be in. Lucky you!
OFB--None of my kin in PA, which was a n earlier migration and a different school of thought. My fam did build windmills in Russia, though, and I think a few ruins are still left there. Plus, there's the recreated Disney-esque Mennonite Heritage Village to visit near Winnipeg to see a working windmill....

Les said...

What a great post. While crossing similar lands in Kansas this summer, I said to my wife how could anyone live here? Then I thought about what may have compelled people there, what forces were so bad about where they left to make them see these places as home. Where I am from is very similar, flat land, old farms, people who have lived there for generations, but it also offers the freedom of the bay and ocean.

Christopher C. NC said...

I am reminded of quick sand the way that endless flat ground wants to swallow everything that rests upon it as fast as it can.

Anonymous said...

The Ozark mountains come down from Missouri into Arkansas, very close to the Ok AK border. We used to vacation in Eureka Springs,AK, called Little Switzerland with the mountain peaks. Go there is you ever get the chance, it is exquisitely beautiful. Tulsa has a few hills, but as you cross into AK at Siloam Springs you can see the beginning of the mountains, a real vision to the flatlanders.

Aunt Lefty the Nimble said...

Mr. Vogt, John and Katie Janzen were my great grandparents. Their daughter Florence Elizabeth, 1917 - 2006, was my grandmother.

Thank you for this narrative and especially for the photographs.

-- Kim Heidebrecht

Benjamin Vogt said...

Kim--Thank you for stopping by! How neat! Florence was my grandmother's sister, Mildred, don't know if you ever knew her (I didn't realize Florence died the same year as Mildred). If you ever want to know more about the family lineage, I've been doing tons of research for my book and can go back as far as 1650 (Janzens)--with one lead I'm waiting on back to the 1500s.

Aunt Lefty the Nimble said...

Ben (or Benjamin?), my grandma talked about yours all the time. Apparently they were very close. You may not believe this, but shortly after my grandma died, I named a cat Mildred so my memory of grandma would have some company. Weird, I know.

I am very interested in learning more. I know a little about my grandfather's side, but little about the Janzens.

1650?! Wow.

Feel free to email. aunt dot lefty at comcast dot net.

Anonymous said...

This is a really cool website. You did a nice job with the photos. I am the farmer who lost 21 head of cattle that broke through the floor of the old farm stead house. It was long after the fact that I ever found out what had happened to those cattle. Very mysterious as to where they had disappeared for a very long time. Joe Hinz

Benjamin Vogt said...

Joe -- How cool that you found me! Can you tell me how long it took to discover what happened? I can't believe 21 head were in the cellar! How'd they fit? Why did you decide to burn the house down? How old are you, and are you a lifelong resident of Corn or nearby? You can email me too at (AT = @).