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Arc of Time

Ruth’s story is not remarkable, but in her ninety-three years, she witnessed two World Wars, survived early hardship, struggled through the Great Depression, and was Sunday School Superintendent for thirty years. You will recognize this woman—and if you have been fortunate—your great aunt or grandmother has told you your family stories.

Ruth Casebier McHenry was born December 13, 1894. Her mother, Dora, died when Ruth was two months old. Her father gave her to his half sister, Melissa Mark, (herself orphaned by the Civil War) to mother. Melissa and her husband had already ready raised six boys, but welcomed Ruth. A son lost his wife and two more little girls were added to the household; another death and two more girls moved to Melissa’s. “They were the best parents anyone could have,” Ruth wrote in her memoir.

“When Ethel, Pearle and I were growing up in the years 1900-1910 we lived quite a long way from town, so we never got to go anywhere. I started school in 1900. We walked two-and-a-half miles to Eureka. Us girls would go to the timber to gather hazelnuts, pick wild flowers and wade in the little creek. We were happy.”

The girls finally did get to go somewhere when the family left the farm in 1904 to run a hotel for coal miners in Foster, Missouri, about 80 miles east. Ruth writes, “I don’t how we got down there, but I know how we got back. There were no trains, planes or buses, so the folks fixed up a covered wagon with a big feather bed in it and we had a cow tied to the back. Us girls had the best time riding in that covered wagon for three days.”

In 1986, Ruth, my grandmother, gave me driving directions as we meandered through Leavenworth County and her memories. The graveyard where her young mother is buried holds a last remnant of pure Kansas prairie. The dell where she was born supports scraggly deciduous trees, and the hazelnut forest is now a dairy pasture. The little creek is gone.

Ruth wrote in her family memoir, “I graduated from eighth grade in 1910 and went to work as a hired girl for folks living north of McLouth.” While working there, she met Ernest McHenry and they were married in 1911 when she was sixteen.

The young couple moved to Kansas City where he was employed for $60 a month. They rented rooms in a private home. “That is where Dorothy, our first child, was born in 1912, on Edna’s Cole kitchen table. I had a very hard time. She took too long coming because I was so young and so small. Both of us nearly died.

“Then Grandpa McHenry wanted us to move out on a farm north of McLouth into an old Grange Hall. The wind just blew through that old building, liked to froze to death, it was so cold. 1913 was such a dry year, we didn’t raise any crops. Dad had to work for the neighbors so we could buy food.” Working as tenant farmers on several different farms, Ernest and Ruth had three more children. They finally settled on a small farm west of town.

“We worked so hard to keep this place. Dorothy helped a lot with housework and Harold with the farm work. Lois almost died with diphtheria when she was four. We borrowed money to buy 15 head of heifers and got started in the dairy business and sold milk. Dad hired so many different men to work and that made work for me. We had a lot of hard work with horses to farm with.”

On most Sundays, before the morning milking and chores, Ruth would butcher and dress five to ten chickens to sell after church. Harold delivered milk, Dorothy raised the chicks, and Lois collected eggs. In 1928, Ernest and Ruth took a leap of faith, buying 80 acres of farmland with a 3-story Victorian house for $8,000. “We didn’t think we would ever get it paid for. That was a lot of money to come by in those years. Dad worked for the city, dragging the streets, which were muddy then. Harold had the milk route and I sold baby chicks. We raked and saved all we could and had it all paid for in 1948.”

American history seems so short when hearing it from your grandparents. Covered wagon in 1904, learning to drive “by myself” in 1928, seeing the 1969 moon landing on TV. Ah, if she, carrying and marrying into abolitionist beliefs, only could have heard Obama’s Grant Park acceptance speech.

I present parts of my Grandma’s modest memoir to remind you of your family’s history. For Ruth’s story is not at all remarkable; every one of us has descended from strength and purpose. The American story of perseverance is in the DNA of all of us. My 2009 wish is that you, dear reader, can draw upon your family inheritance.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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