back to the Home on the Range site
This information is from 4 generations of Barr Grandchildren, authorized by Mary (Barr) Norris

The Diary of Virginia D. (Jones-Harlan) Barr

This is the Diary of My Great-Grandmother
Virginia D. (Jones- Harlan) Barr
About her childhood life on the Kansas Prairie
Written on May 22, 1940
She wrote it for all of her Grandchildren to come.
She was born in 1866 
[NOTE: Mary Norris states in the Harlan family history that young Virginia was born 
July 3 1866, the day her mother, Virginia, died.]

In the fall of 1871, my grandfather, John C. Harlan, and family, consisting of his wife. two sons-Clarence and Eugene-his Daughter Lulu, and myself, landed in Smith County, Kansas. He And his sons homesteaded a quarter section of land, consisting of 480 acre, about six miles from the little town of Gaylord.

They first built a barn, and we lived in it until we got our house built.Then our experiences of what, at that time, was the far West, began..Some of then were vary pleasant, and some of them very hard. If people think they are having a depression at the present time, they should have seen what the homesteaders of That time experienced through floods, prairie fires, cyclones, droughts,dust storms, grasshoppers and poverty. Fortunately, there wasn't much sickness, the country being new, it was very healthy, and most of those who came there sick, generally got well.

Some years we had splendid crops,and those would have to tide us over the years when there was nothing. Every farmer had great piles of corn in his yard for he neither had lumber no money with which to buy any, to make corn cribs. There was such an abundance of corn someyears that the price was so very low, they turned it for fuel. They had the corn, but no money to buy fuel. They took their corn and wheat to the mill and had it ground into cornmeal and flour, and stored it away for the future use. During the years in which there were no crops,the situation was similar to the present time, but instead of Old Age Pensions and W.P.A. work,the people in the East gathered up food and clothing, andshipped them by the carload to those who needed them. Some people lost heart and returned East, but the majority of them remained, and finally get a toe-hold, and became prosperous farmers.

Time has taken most of them away now, and in my family, I am all that is left. Some of the pleasant memories I have of those days are the good times we used to have.

Because the people had left their relatives and friends behind when they came West to grow up with the country, they very lonely, and welcomed anything in the way of enjoyment. They made friendly visits with neighbors for miles around, and when any entertainment was planned, everyone was willing to do his part to make it a success,

Our house was the largest in that part of the countrytwo large roomsand the was only one with a board floors, which was made of wide cottonwood boards. Because of this, and due to the fact that my uncles were the only musicians for miles around they played the violin and guitarmost of the parties and dances and taffy pulls and church services were held at our house. It was the center of attraction.

My grandfather was probate judge for the eight years, and young people used to come from all over the country to secure their marriage licenses, and to get married. The wedding ceremony would take place in our home. Maybe we would be in the midst of our washing, and up would drive a big lumber wagon with a hilarious wedding party. We would slick back our hair, don a clean dress, straighten a chair or two, and ceremony would be performed; then they would be on their way.

Sometimes the wedding would be pathetic- an older men would bring a 15 or 16 years old girl, and the parents would come along to give their consent. Sometimes the wedding dress was a sight to behold, being made of some flimsy goods, and by someone who didn't know the first thing about dressmaking. The styles in those days were quite completed to make, with full trimmed skirts, and skin tight basques. The basque was made of several small pieces, and if the right pieces were not joined together, it looked all whopperjawed, and that would be the way the bride would be dressed.

The income from these weddings is what helped to tide us over the first eight years of our sojourn in the West.

We had the only sorghum mill in our community, so the farmers would bring their sorghum cane ( if the grasshoppers hadn't ruined it ) and our folks would make it on the shares. It was a very important part of our food, as sugar was a hard thing to get in those days, One had to make a two-day journey farther east in order to get it.

I remember that my uncles used to drive, every so often, and buy supplies to last for weeks at a time. Among the supplies would be a small package of white sugar, which was to be used only on very special occasions- just for our tea when company came, The rest was stored in box, and shoved way back under the bed. Our cakes and pies were sweetened with sorghum. Our canned and preserved fruits, if anymostly wild grapes and plums, dried apple and water melons- were sweetened with sorghum, so it was a very important food to have.

Any refreshment served at parties, or if friends came in for the evening, consisted of popcorn balls and taffy.

I remember when my Uncle Dan Kelley came courting myAuntLulu, she used to make a bid dishpan full of popcorn balls, and we would all sit around the fireplace and eat popcorn, and talk, and sing.

Uncle Dan used to sing the song , called 'The Western Home" LATER CHANGED TO "The Home On The Range." He composed the music way back in 1873. ( It is the same song that is heard so often over the radio today, and only recently, a halfmillion dollar law suit was filled, and lost, by a man in Arizona, who claimed to have composed the song many years later.) Uncle Dan had a lovely voice. He had recently come from Providence, Rhode Island, and knew all the latest songs.

He and Lulu would dance, while Eugene and Clarence would play the violin and guitar. It was on that old cottonwood floor that I had my first instructions in dancing. My uncles would show me how, and then they would play while I practiced with a chair for balance. I being only nine years old, that chair would get pretty heavy. Uncle Dan taught me to dance a little more gracefully.

One of the enjoyments of those days was spelling bees we used to have. The whole neighborhood would congregate at the little sod schoolhouse, and everyone took part- old and young. They would choose sides and spell one another down. Grandfather, having been a teacher in his younger days, took charge of the good old McGuffey spelling book, and gave out the words. There used to be some exciting times, and incidentally,they turned out many good spellers. They used to study hard between meetings.

How well I remember the thrill of the big Fourth of July celebrations. They were usually held at the Forks of the Beaver Creek-a lovely shaded woods. The whole county would be there. The entertaiment consisted if a little two-by-four band of some kind, and glee club or two. Somebody would read the Declaration of Independence ( which nobody listened to ) and there would be a few fire crackers, and barrels of lemonade- made in the shade. Never in all the years since then have I tested anything half so good. If one was fortunate enough to get an orange, that was a great year, as there wouldn't be any more until the next Fourth of July.

Then there was the platform dance, the floor being built under the shade trees of rough cottonwood boards. If one could manage to slide his feet over the rough boards, he had performed a miracle. But they all did- and liked it, too- even if they did scrape the soles from their Sunday shoes, and were not likely to get any More , very soon

The getting ready for the Fourth of July was a wonderful time. The spring hat was never bought until just before the big bountiful picnic lunch was severed on long tables, everybody putting their lunches together. I can still see those great stack of chicken, cold ham, pies, cakes, salads, vegetables, pickles and jellies of all kinds, and we all tried to taste some of all of it. It is a wonder we didn't die of a acute indigestion on the way home----- But we didn't and most of us were there again the next year.

As the sun began to sink low, long lines of wagons And filled to the last inch with large families- began to weed their way homeward, and they probably wouldn't get there before midnight , according to how far they lived. After getting up before daylight to get an early start, and crawling into bed at midnight , they would heave a sigh, a call it a day. And such a day!!!! No one ever thought of complaining of it being too great an afford to make the trip. They were too anxious to see, and talk, to people after Months of loneliness on the farm.

Another pleasure we had was in the fall when the wild Plums were ripe. Several neighbors would put the covers on there wagons, and drive out to NortonCounty, it was about 66 miles, to The big sand plum patch, and there they would camp for several Days. That particular kind of plum grows on a small tree or bush, Which is loaded with plums. One can sit under a tree and strip the plum into a bucket with vary little effort. They are delicious and sweet-not sour like ordinary plums. We would bring home quantities of them, and preserve them with sorghum. So, we not only would have a fine holiday, but get plums, too.

The main traveled road was near our house. Often travelers would stop, and if too cold, they would ask permission to bring their bedding in and sleep on the floor. We were always willing they should, for it not only broke the monotony, but they brought news from the East. There was no such thing as a daily newspaper, and we were always hunger for news. If any of them happened to be musical, my uncle would invite them to stay a day or two, and we would have an enjoyable time. We had no fear of holdups or thieves, for they do not operate in a country where everybody is more or less broke.

One night, a family by the name of Potter, with several children, stayed at our house, and the next morning were on their way. In a day or two, we heard they had camped beside a creek, and in the night a terrible storm and cloudburst occurred which washed them all away. That was one of the tragedies of those times.

Another time, a man and hie wife came to our house, and after talking fir a while, the lady walked over to the corner where the guitar stood. Picking it up, she asked if it didn't belong to Virgie Harlan ( my mother ). We were dumbfounded , and told her that it did. After explanations, it turned out that she was a schoolmate of my mother's when they both lived in Indiana.

Mrs. Huff- that was her name- said they were living several miles from us., and when she heard that a family by the name of Harlan had moved into the county , she prevailed on her husband to bring her to see if it might be the Harlans she had known so many years before. When she saw the guitar, she recognized it as the one she and my mother used to play. This is a small after all. Of course they stayed, and we had a grand visit talking over old times.

There is quite a history attached it that old guitar, for what is left of it must be at least one hundred years old. It was brought for my mother, who, if she were alive, would be 93 years old , and it was second-hand when my grandfather bought it for her. It was a beautiful piece of work, being made of some kind of lovely wood. The edges were finished with ivory, and a inland mother-of-pearl circled the sound opening on the front. It had a great career, as it was plated at dances and entertainment all over that part of the country. My mother, my two uncles, my Aunt Lulu, and myself, all learned to play it. Eugene could play very nicely, and he taught me to play when my fingers were short to reach across the string board.

One time, when we were away from home, a heavy rain came up , and our roof leaked badly. The guitar lay on the bed, face up, and when we picked it up, it had water in it . Of course it came apart. Eugene glued it together again, but it never sounded the same. Finally, it fell apart again, so I had a trinket box made of it. On the lid is the wreath of inlaid mother-of pearl. I think a lot of it for the memories attached to it.

When I was born, my mother died, I was adopted by my mothers parents John C Harlan and wife. I didn't seem to thrive very well. When we moved to Kansas. I was six years old. And I was turned loose to get all the sunshine and fresh air I could absord.I guess I succeeded, for I am now 73 years old ,and still going strong. My father (Charles A. Jones) lived to be 95 years old, having passed on in February 1937, so I may live for some time yet.

My uncles used to take me almost every place they went, they even taught me how to drive the cultivator while they plowed. They fixed apart on the seat, so if I got sleepy, I could lie there and sleep in the sunshine. The Solomon River ran through our farm, and we had to haul water for our use at the house. When my uncle went for water, of course I went along, and they used to duck me in over my head. That was fun for them, but scared me so much that I could never learn to swim. However, I did use to ride horseback like a Comanche Indian. Most everyone rode horseback in those days.

My grandfather bought a little Texas pony from a cowboy who helped to drive a large herd of cattle from Texas to graze on the Kansas prairies. I rode this pony a great deal. I guess it had previously been taught to do tricks, and one day when I was riding, it suddenly reared up on it hind legs, and I slid off over his tail. Then he sailed home, the empty stir ups flapping at his sides. My folks were somewhat worried until they saw me coming home on foot.

I had other experiences with horse later on in life. One time I was out buggy riding with my "Boy Friend"(as they call them now a daywe called them beaux or escorts,) and we had Eugene's heavy work team. The last thing we ever expected them to do was run awaybut they did. All of a sudden , without any cause, they began to run. They kept it up for so long that the young man's hands cramped, and I had to take the lines. I turned them out on the first place of level prairie we came to, and drove them in a circle until they tired themselves out, and behaved the rest of the way home.

When we told Eugene about it, he scolded some. He said that in all the years he had owned them, they had never done such a thing, and that Joe must not have been attending to his driving. But not long after that, they ran away with Eugene, and of course, we had a good laugh at him.

Another time, a young man was escorting me, on horseback, to a dance at his father's home, several miles in the country. The horse he brought for me was gentle enough, but the one he rode was hard to mange. It would start to run way on ahead, and leave me far behind in the dark, and it kept that up most of the way. It is safe to say that I did not take any chances on riding in the dark, alone, going home that night. I stayed all night with his sister.

I often think of some of the exciting experiences I used to have in those days, and would have been scared to death if my own daughters had ever taken such chances.

Aunt Lulu had a rather hair-raising experience with horseback riding. In those days, there were no fences, and everybody just turned their stock loose to grase. In the evening , they rode horseback and rounded them up. This particular time, Lulu want up into the hills after the cows, and when she got there, what did she see but a lone buffalo cow, with her little calf. Old Mike, the horse she had ridden, was one my uncle used when chasing buffaloes. The men of the neighborhood would follow a herd, and when it came to the river to drink, they would single one out , and kill it for meat. Buffalo meat was very good, particularly as there was no such thing as beef to be had at that time. The people had brought only a cow or two, tied behind their wagons, when they came West, and were very watchful that nothing happened to cut off their only supply of milk and butter.

Well, when Mike saw the buffalo, he took after her, and nothing she could do would stop him. Of course, she was almost frightened to death. The buffalo headed for the valley, fortunately, and she ran right up between our house and the barn, with Lulu right behind. When Mike got to the barn, he stopped, and the buffalo went on, with the poor little calf so tired to could scarcely keep up with her. I guess Lulu didn't go back to look for the cow that night.

It was quite exciting to see a large herd of buffalo come down from the hills to Solomon River for water. When they are not excited, they usually travel single file, and after a herd of those heavy bodies had traveled in the same path, it makes a deep trail. There were not many roads laid out at that time, so when one wanted to drive anywhere, he just struck out over the prairie, The driver had to watch carefully for those trails, or he would be jolted from hie seat. When the buffalo would lie down and roll, it would leave a deep depression (not the kind the world is experiencing these days,) but shallow hole that would hold water when it rained. We called then buffalo wallow

Not long ago, I saw an article in which a man thought he was giving some early history. He said those depressions were made by Indiana pitching their tepees there. He must have arrived from the East recently, and didn't know what he was talking about. But in a few years, the buffalo were all gone- they had been slaughtered for food and for their hides.

Wild game was plentiful in those daysantelope, great droves of wild turkey, prairie chicken, quails, rabbits and squirrels. Uncle Dan was quite a hunter. Many's the time I have gone hunting with him and Aunt Lulu and their four boys. We would be miles from home, out on the prairie, when the sun came up, We would follow him with the team and wagon, while he shot prairie chicken and quail. Then we would go home and have a quail feast for breakfast. We had to be careful and not drive into a prairie dog hole, for it often meant a broken leg for the horse. Colonies of prairie dogs settle in one locality. They dig deep holes, and live underground, and if a horse steps into one of those holes, it is sure to break his leg. The dogs are about the size of a squirrel, and have a short, stubby tail. They sit up by the side of the hole on their hind legs, and bark like a young puppy. Every time they bark, their short tails flip just like a bird's every time it moves. Those prairie dogs kept queer company. Oftentimes, we would see an owl and a rattlesnake by the hole, and if we went near them, the owl flies away, and the dog and the snake darted down the hole.

Rattlesnakes were one thing we had to keep on the lookout for, for they were numerous, and deadly poison, They almost always give warning before they strike. They coil themselves, and raise their tails with the rattle on the end. If one ever hear that rattle "whip", he never forgets it. The rattle is of different lengths, according to the age of the snakea joint is added every year. After they are coiled, they can spring full length at one Strike, and if one happen to be in the way, it is just too bad.

On the way home from one of our plum patch trips, we saw a man sitting in the shade of his house, with his leg in a tub of hot water. Some of the men went and asked him what was the trouble. He said rattlesnake had bitten him. We afterwards heard he had died.

We had a little dog whose name was " Dime". His mother was a noted rattlesnake killer, and little Dime also killed many snakes. He would grab them by the back of the neck, and shake and bite them until they were dead. Quite often the snake would bite him, too, Then his head would swell up double in size, But he seemed to know what to do about it. He would go to the river and stick his head in the mud, and after a time, the swelling would go down. I have often thought that might be a good remedy For humans to use.

It wasn't anything unusual for house snake and blacksnakes to get into the house. Our milk house was made in a side of a hill, with dirt roof. My grandmother tacked a sheet up for a ceiling. One day when she went in there, the sheet was slugging down in the middle, like a snake was coiled there, Grandfather got the fire tongue, and grabbed it with all his might. A loud " Meow" issued from the sheet. It was our cat. She had crawled up there for a nap.

My first schooling was gotten in a neighbor's kitchen. There hadn't been any arrangement made for a schoolhouse near us, so the neighbor, Mrs. Smalley, who had been a teacher before coming West, offered to teach us in her home. There were only about a half dozen pupils. We sat on benches around the table. Later on, there was a sod schoolhouse built about two miles from uswhich was quite a walk for a little youngster.

I have a pleasant memory of a friendship between a little girl about my own age and myself. Her name was Cora S. Kirrner. She lived in Gaylord, about six miles away. Her father (W.M.L. Kirrner) was one of the first county officers, and if I remember correctly, her mother taught the first school in Gaylord. Cora and I were the only little girls in our community at the time, so of course we would get very lonesome for someone to play with. Our parents planned a way for us to be together once in a while, and as six miles was too far to drive in a lumber wagon for short visits, they would let us visit one another several days at a time.

Cora's mother had a small organ (the only one around for miles) so when they brought Cora down to our house, they would bring the organ along. And what a good time we would have! Lulu would play the organ, Eugene the violin and Clerence the guitar, and even Grandmother would join in on the triangle. We had a regular orchestras, and the neighbors would come in the evening, because they were so starved to hear some music.

That friendship between Cora and I started 67 years ago, and is still strong. There have been only a few years in all that time we have been too far apart to not see one another often, all the rest of the time, we have had our regular visits. She is now Mrs. Jackson Raur of Mount Washington , Missouri. She still has her little organ- upstairs in a spare room. Sometime we go up there and play it, Just for old time's sake, even though the tones are not vary musical, and the bellows are rather wheeny.It has a history, too, because it was the only organ in that community, and was small and easy to handle, it was taken to all the Fourth of July celebrations, school entertainment and parties,and wherever there was to be any singing. It only shows that when people are lonely and deprived of entertainment, they will go to any amount of trouble to have some enjoyment. It was on that organ that I began my musical education- such as it is.

I had to smile when I heard people raving about the few grasshoppers that were here last summer. They have no idea what a real grasshopper raid is like. We saw them come in great clouds out of the sky, and they never left until everything was gone. When they came down, they would strike the side of the house with such force that it would kill them instantly, and they would pile up in ridges. They would eat the onions out of the ground, and leave nothing but the dry husk. We would have to go out every little while and drive them off the clothes on the line to keep them from eating holes in them.

One time , we had a fine field of corn near the house and we saw a cloud of hoppers beginning to light. We thought if we cut it down and put it in piles, maybe we could save some of it , so the whole family took corn knives and cut it down. But it was of no use- the hoppers only smiled, and said it would save them the trouble of walking from stalk. There wasn't any of it left by the time they finished.

The hot winds used to be pretty hard to endure. The worst ones would come about the last week in July , and it was like heat from an oven blowing in one's face. We would dip sheets in a tub of cold water, and hang them to the windows to cool the air. In one day, I have seen a green field of corn dry up so completely that it could be burned.

In the winter, it was something also again. The barn we lived in until our house was built was dug in the side of a hill, and the roof was on a level with the top of the ground. We were having some moderate weather, so my uncles decided they had better make the two-day drive to get our winter supply of food. In the afternoon, after the boys left, it began to cloud up, and by morning, we were in the midst of the worst blizzard we were experienced in all the years we lived in Kansas. The boys had chopped enough wood to last while they were gone, but that was soon exhausted. Grandfather and Lulu dragged wood into the house, and chopped it, for we had no idea how long it would be before the boys would be able to get home.

One day, we heard a big noise right beside the house, and we thought the boys had been able to get through the drifts. We went out to see, and there was a stranger, with a team of oxen and wagon. He was lost, and nearly frozen. The deep snow had made our roof level with the ground, and the ox team had just barely missed crashing through our roof. The man drove them on down to the river bottom, where they were sheltered from the wind, but they froze to death. The man stayed with us until the boys came home, and we were very glad to have him, for he took care of the cows, and chopped wood, and looked after things in general.

Another experience was several years later. Lulu had married Uncle Dan, and lived several miles from us. Uncle Dan had a big mule team, and did some freighting for the little stores in Gaylord, there being no railroad at that time. The nearest railroad point was across the line in Nebraska. I had gone to stay with Lulu while he was away, and a terrible blizzard came up in the night. The next morning we woke up, but it was still dark and we tried to go back to sleep, but couldn't. Soon the children woke up , and cried to get up, They said they were hungry. Lulu got up and lit the lamp to see what time it was, and to her astonishment, it was after noon.

Their house was built partly underground and partly above ground, and made the windows level with the ground. The wind had drifted the snow over the windows, and that was why it was still dark in the house. Later in the day, one of the windows began to show light, and a shovel appeared, and then a voice shouted. It was a neighbor on the next farm, who knew that Uncle Dan was away, and had come to see how we were , and found us completely snowed in. His coming was a fortunate thing , for we couldn't have gotten out of the house.There was a stairway which led to the door, and that was packed full of snow. Uncle Dan wasn't able to get home for several days.

Prairie fires were another dangerous thing we had to contend with. There wasn't much land plowed at the time, and if a fire got started mostly from campers who failed to put their fires out before leaving- the fire would have a clean sweep over miles of prairie lands, with nothing to stop it if the wind came up.

Then is when the people would begin to get busy to prepare a backfire. They would plow a few furrows, then leave a wide space of grass, and plow more furrows. They would then burn the grass between the furrows, so if the wind brought the fire toward the house, when it got to the furrows, it would go out..

I remember once, when a big fire was coming, whipped by a strong wind, the boys were preparing a backfire, and the wind brought such clouds of smoke that it nearly strangled both the boys and the horses. The boys had to lie flat on the ground, and bury their faces in the sod in order to catch a breath of air.

Sometimes fires would agora at night , and if they were not hear enough to be dangerous, it was a lovely night to see a line of fire stretch for miles along the distant hills. It would look just like a gigantic flambeam club marching in the distance.

We also had terrible dust storms, sometimes lasting for three days, and once in a while a real cyclone. Almost everyone built a cyclone cellar close to the house, and when a dangerous black cloud appeared, we didn't wait to see if a funnel would form- we immediately hurried to the cave, and stayed there until the storm had passed. Three miles was the nearest I ever came to experiencing a real, honest0 to- goodness cyclone, but at that particular time, we could see by the way the clouds looked that there was a terrible storm in action.

In the summertime, when it got too warm in the house to sleep, we would go out in the yard, and lie down on the buffalo grass, which was short and curly, and matted. This made a very comfortable bed, and the only thing that disturbed our slumber was the buffalo fleas. These were larger then the common flea, and when they got to thick, we would have to go in the house and light the kerosene lamp, and pick them off.

There were very few doctors in that locality at that time, so it was up to everybody to learn as many home remedies as possible- and we got along very well.

There was no such thing as a dentist. There was one man, who had plenty of nerve- but no dental instruments, If anyone was compelled to have a tooth pulled, this man would take a pair of pincers from his tool chest, and do the best he could. The patient had to have plenty of nerve to stand it .

Christmas in those days wasn't much like the present day holiday, when children get more toys than they know what to do with. I remember one Christmas, when the snow was so deep, my people couldn't even get to Gaylord, six miles away to get me a stack of candy. My Aunt Lulu was only eleven years older than I, so she took it on herself to provide some kind of a Christmas for me. She made a rag doll, painted a face on it with ink, put some buffalo hair on it, and I got as much of a thrill out of it as if it had been a real doll.

We each had a china animal left over from a previous Christmas so we exchanged these animals as our gifts to each other. I thought that was quite funny- small children are easily satisfied and I still have the little china animal which my Aunt Lulu gave me.

One of the fine things that existed in those days was the genuine sociability among the people. When a new family moved into the neighborhood, people didn't wait to get their pedigree before calling and making them welcome.

Most of them were nice, respectable people many of them educated and accomplished in various ways. They had come West to take advantage of the Homestead Law, and secure a home; or in many cases , they came to that new country in search of health.

The settling up of Kansas was a great experience, and I have always been glad that I had it.

As a fitting close to my story, and because it definitely belonged to those early days in Kansas, I am going to conclude with the words of the song now known as " Home on the Range", but when written originally was titled

"THE WESTERN HOME"

(Words by Dr. Higly and the Music by Daniel Kelley, Both of Gaylord, Smith County, Kansas, in 1873)

Oh, give me a home
Where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard
A discouraging word,
And the sky in not cloudy all day.

Chorus

A home, a home
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where never is heard
A discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

Oh, give me the land
Where the bright diamond sand
Throws it light on the glittering stream
Where glideth along
The graceful white swan
Like a maid in her heavenly dream.
[Note: There was more of the song I just didn't write it all. -Mary]
Return to Kansas Sights index.