It took a lot to make a town on the prairie. Courage, determination, hard work, tears and sometimes even blood. Even after all that, not all dreams were realized. Auntie May Hay's dream was one of them. Although there is no town there today, the Otterbourne site took my breath away with its beauty. After reading "Lady Doctor on a Homestead", I would like to revisit the site and pace out the homesteads and town grid I read about and visualize it all. Having come to understand a sod house at the Prairie Museum, I would especially like to see the archeological remains of "a dugout" if one still exists after all these years.
Auntie May had all the above prerequisites in her constitutional makeup. In addition, she had love, generosity, a glass that was always half-full and passion. I felt a sadness for her unrealized dream which was the result of circumstances and entities beyond her control. At the same time, the end result makes me want to learn more about how and why the railroad magnates made their decisions. It seems to me that Otterbourne could have been just as successful as Colby or Hoxie had it not been ignored.
Auntie May began her life in the state of Pennsylvania. This produced a special affinity in me for her right from the start since many of my own paternal kin also lived in Pennsylvania and still do. She was a teacher but not just any teacher. Her talents and wisdom were sufficient enough that she rose through the ranks to become her school district's superintendent. Her mother died when she was young. Although her sister married, Auntie May devoted her time and energy to her work and the care of her widowed father. She did become a mother, however, by adopting a niece and nephew when their own mother died while they were still very young.
The 1880's was a time for tremendous westward expansion for a young country just over one hundred years old. Many courageous pioneers traveled to new territories for the promise of land and a new life. The more wealthy among them invested in wagons and oxen teams to make the long journey. This enabled them to bring along beloved heirlooms and possessions although, due to many factors, those possessions did not always make it to their final destinations. Many others took the train to the end of the line from where they walked carrying their bundles. Auntie May, her aging father, and her two young wards were among the latter.
Emerging from the train at Grainfield, an already bustling prairie town busy building an opera house in the 1880's, Auntie May's little family band began to walk Northwest to find the perfect place to homestead. She was astute and did not just settle for anyplace. Survival depended on having an abundance of resources readily available. Being a teacher from Pennsylvania farm country she was educated enough to know what she was looking for. Although there is no mention of it, undoubtedly she would also have listened to the wisdom her father's years could pass on to her as they walked, explored, and searched. Finally, upon seeing a multitude of fish happily jumping in the crystal clear waters of the south fork of the Sappa River she pronounced they had found their new home and what would later become known as the town of Otterbourne had its humble beginning. She knew that a good supply of fresh water was necessary for life and the plentiful fish would provide a staple for nutrition.
The first residences on homesteaded land were dugouts. To today's generation this seems like nothing more than a "hole in the ground". In actuality, that is almost an accurate perception. A dugout was a cave like area dug into the side of a hill or riverbank. When winter came, however, a good dugout would mean the difference between life and death. Auntie May's father, like many single men, created and lived in a dugout the entire time he homesteaded. However, he helped his daughter to build a sod house so that she and the children would be safe, warm and comfortable when winter arrived that first year. It would be some time before She and the children would live in a frame house again.
Crops were planted in the Spring. Having seen to food and water, the bare essentials for living, Auntie May turned her attention to other community needs. The first of these was communication. Having left hearth and homes, friends and kin, people were hungry for news from back home and were eager, as well, to let others know of their own well-being. Anyone who has moved a great distance or been absent from home for a large length of time can understand and identify with this aspect of human nature. Loneliness was very much a part of prairie life leading to the centrality certain institutions ended up playing in the plains communities' culture. She applied for a federal postal permit and soon became the postmistress for the burgeoning little community she had named Otterbourne. In addition to providing much needed communication between them and the outside world, the little post office inside Auntie May's cheerful sod house allowed for a gathering place twice a week for community members to greet one another and exchange local information.
It wasn't long before Auntie May turned her attention to the educational needs of her young wards. The teacher in her, however, decided that it was a service that needed to be provided for other prairie children in addition to her own. She opened a grammar school in her soddy. This was only the beginning of her service to the educational needs of those who had traveled west. She took in school borders and progressed to a higher level of education as children grew older. Eventually she was appointed superintendent to organize a network of school districts to meet the growing educational needs of neighboring communities within the county. Miss Colby's school in Colby was designated school district #1 and her own Otterbourne school became school district #2. Eventually teachers began to be trained using standards she knew well from her training and experience in Pennsylvania.
Churches of various denominations became huge focal points for community life and spirituality on the plains. Auntie May was responsible for developing the first religious Sunday school and worship services at Otterbourne. She felt it was imperative for children to grow up with religious training so the teacher in her extended herself to offering a Sunday school of the Episcopal variety. She received permission from the Episcopal bishop to read sermons and lead singing for the purpose of providing worship services for young and old alike. People were so hungry for spiritual comfort, when the word got out, many came from miles around to attend the Sunday gatherings. Eventually, the first frame building was built in which to hold these and other community gatherings.
It would seem that Auntie May Hays had no lack of energy as she pursued one endeavor after another. Although we cannot know what her actual thinking was, the fact that she took years off her age professing to be ten years younger than reality could be an indication that she did not feel her age and did not wish to be looked at as elderly or relegated to a role she was not ready for. In addition to being a homesteader, postmistress, teacher and preacher, Auntie May soon added the role of prairie doctor to her resume. Although she had never been to medical school, she had learned much from her uncle who was an M.D. After a time, this uncle came and spent time helping her on the prairie. He eventually set up practice in Colby and the two of them worked as a team. She delivered many babies and doctored many injuries and childhood diseases. At her disposal would have been all the traditional plant medicines native to the prairie as well as some pharmaceuticals which could be purchased in neighboring town drug pharmacies.
Weather on the Kansas Prairie can be extremely harsh and unforgiving, both then and now. There are many stories during Auntie May's homesteading days of the effects suffered in the community from droughts, crop failures and winter blizzards. Some lost their lives as a result of these conditions. Fears and false alarms were experienced by Otterbourne residents when it came to Indian raids. They did not experience any direct consequences while other towns and settlers had many fatalities as a result of this clash of cultures. One odd thing is there is never a mention of tornadoes. This seems strange in light of their commonality today. This would be an excellent topic to pursue for someone interested in researching changing weather patterns and their reason.
While many settlers were dismayed and disheartened by the difficulties of prairie life and homesteading, causing them to leave and return back east, Auntie May's indomitable spirit remained unquenchable. The railroad was coming and Auntie May was as shrewd a speculator as any man of her day. Since the law allowed a person to hold only one homestead, she transferred legal ownership of her original homestead to her nephew. She then began another homestead upon which she built a large frame dwelling which contained separate space for her school borders. The original soddy was used for the cattle. She had also inherited the land from her father's homestead, for he had passed on during a winter blizzard, which she finished prooving up. She proceeded to map out a grid for a true town upon all this land. She dug a well at the center which would supply the town with good fresh water for years to come. She then proceeded to sell generous-sized town lots to those who, like her, were speculating on the railroad coming.
This was where the dream began to end. Otterbourne was passed up by the railroad. Auntie May began having financial difficulties. She was devastated by the death of her beloved niece who had married and moved to Colby. At the same time, her real age began to catch up with her. She developed Parkinson's Disease and her prairie days were numbered. Realizing she could not go on, she accepted her sister and brother-in-law's invitation to return to Pennsylvania and live with them. She lived with them the remainder of her days. She never felt sorry for herself; her glass always remained half full. Before she died, Auntie May deeded several pieces of her homestead lands to her sister. However, these lands were eventually auctioned off for non-payment of taxes and passed out of the family.
Auntie May Hay's story, which is inseparable from the story of the would be town of Otterbourne, is told in the book "Lady Doctor on a Homestead" by Bernice Larson Webb. At first glance, the title does not seem inclusive enough considering the many roles filled by this amazing woman. Upon further contemplation, however, the title is very appropriate. What is in a name? And what does it mean to be called a "doctor"? I would contend that Auntie May was a doctor in every aspect of her life. She was a prairie medical doctor, indeed. However, she was also a spiritual doctor, a preventive pediatrician of young minds, and a doctor for the soul. She was the glue of a community, loved and respected by all. She was the epitome of the pioneer spirit and both the warp and woof of the tapestry of a prairie culture.