by Jeff Parkes ©
Sarah White saw the pamphlet in the
public library. It featured a coloured picture of a town with wide boulevards
for streets, well-spaced houses with trees around them, factories, churches,
and a river with steamboats tied up along the waterfront.
Kansas Territory, the caption read. Come one, come all. It's the grandest
country, and the situation of Wheeler is such as to scarcely admit a doubt of
it becoming, in a short time, a large and important place. A most delightful
location on the Missouri River.
Gazing at the colourful picture Sarah
felt drawn towards it. Perhaps here lay the answer - to turn her back on New
York and head for the new lands in the West. Only 35 she felt nearer 45 and was
convinced she looked it. For nearly twenty years she had been imparting
knowledge to children reluctant to receive it. Her parents were both dead, her
sister moved far away to Chicago, and there was no one left in New York to care
where she went or what she did.
Her mind was fully made up when she
read in the pamphlet that: A score of schoolteachers are needed. We want them
immediately and they will do much good. Yes, Kansas was obviously the promised
land and Wheeler its paradise. A friendly neighbour was not so sure.
"The West is full of savage, heathen Indians, my dear. They do
unspeakable things to women - I daren't even think about it."
exaggerated, I should imagine. Anyway, they've all been placed on reservations,
well away from the towns."
"And then there's the cowboys," the
neighbour relentlessly persisted. "No virtuous woman is safe near a cowboy."
"You read too many dime novels, Mrs Turner," Sarah laughed.
"Maybe I do, but mark my words, there's more than a hint of truth in
Kansas Territory was legally opened for settlement in 1854. Four
years later, when Sarah was journeying to Wheeler, settlers were swarming
towards the wide open spaces. Towns were springing up everywhere, each one
proclaiming its virtues to a willing public. After a long train journey to St.
Louis and a five hundred mile riverboat trip up the Missouri, Sarah stood on a
rough wooden jetty and gazed at the town of Wheeler.
There were no
churches or schools; no fine residences or wide boulevards. Rather less than
two hundred dwellings made up the town of Wheeler, mostly made from wagon
side-boards or sod slabs, and with roofing made from hay thatch or canvas. One
rambling, muddy street ran between the flimsy structures.
the makeshift pontoon, which was the only visible evidence of a waterfront,
Sarah felt annoyed and bitter. She wished she could board the river boat and
sail away, but it was too late.
Picking up her two heavy bags, she
grimly walked up the street looking with distaste at the ramshackle buildings
on each side. A large sign on one bore the legend WHEELER GAZETTE. In the
window were several pamphlets identical to the one she had obtained in New
York. She angrily marched into the office.
"I want to see the editor."
Her peremptory demand was made to a shirt-sleeved man with long,
unkempt hair and untidy side whiskers. He didn't look up from the printing
press he was working, but growled out a reply.
"He's busy trying to get
a newspaper out."
"That's no concern of mine. I demand to see him."
The man looked up. "You just got off the boat?"
"Yes. And I
just want to say
"You ain't a schoolteacher, are you?"
Sarah was immediately deflated. Was it that obvious?
"Something about your manner, I suppose. A mite more
authority about you than with most folks. Come a long way?"
"You must be tired. There's a hotel at the end of the street. Cheap,
but good food. I recommend it till you get settled in. A teacher, eh? That'll
please the ladies. The one thing this town lacks is a teacher."
one thing?" Sarah dryly enquired.
"No. There ain't no schoolhouse,
"Nor much else that is advertised as being here." Sarah threw
her copy of the pamphlet on the counter.
"The town won't grow without a
"This pamphlet doesn't have a few embellishments.
It's a complete fantasy. I want to speak to the editor."
you're doing." The man was putting on a coat. "Editor, copywriter, maintenance
man, printer, reporter and floor-sweeper. Ed Somers, at your service, ma'am."
"Are you responsible for this travesty of the truth, Mr Somers?"
"Sure. I'm the boomer."
"The promoter. Me
and half a dozen other guys formed a syndicate to buy the land and create a
town. That was no more than nine months ago. We've come a long way since then."
"Not far enough, as far as I'm concerned. When is the next boat to St.
Ed Somers shrugged. "Coupla days, maybe. You can never be sure
until you hear the whistle."
"Two days!" Sarah gasped. "I don't think I
can stand this place for two minutes."
"Oh, come now, it ain't as bad
as that. We've already got nearly everything here. Takes time to build a town
and make something of it. But we need a school if we're gonna attract families,
and that's what makes the difference between a way-stop to pass through and a
town where folks want to put down roots."
"Hear me out, Miss
"White. Sarah White."
Miss White, why don't we give each other a trial? After all, I don't know no
more about you than you do about Wheeler. You say you're a teacher. Why don't
you stay around and prove it?"
"Will you be able to prove that Wheeler
is a proper town?"
"O. K. Miss White, I'll admit it's unattractive and
doesn't look too permanent. But this is only the start. Everything you see in
that pamphlet is gonna come true. The railroad's gonna come through here. We'll
have decent houses and shops and factories - maybe even a college. What's more,
I aim for Wheeler to be the county seat. In a few years' time Kansas will be a
State and then
"Wheeler will be the State Capital," Sarah
skeptically completed the dream.
"O.K. so it's a long shot. But that's
what you've gotta believe. We need a teacher, Miss White. I can't promise you
anything but hard work for little financial reward
"Twenty-five dollars a month."
"You're right. Not much
"But the town will keep the schoolhouse in good
repair and provide the necessary fuel."
"You said there isn't a
"Nor is there today, but tomorrow - who knows? What do
you say, Miss White? Is it a deal?"
Sarah looked at his twinkling eyes
and marveled at his boyish enthusiasm. There was something about him; something
she trusted. Smiling, she held out her hand. "I know 'm going to regret this,
Mr Somers, but it's a deal."
Ed Somers was as good as his word. Within
two days a schoolhouse had been built out of roughly-hewn logs.
finest building in Wheeler," he proudly said as he showed it off to Sarah.
"That's not saying much," she tartly replied. "There's no floor."
"God's earth is surely good enough, Miss White."
"So some might
think. Where's the furniture?"
Somers. Desks and chairs - and a blackboard."
"I don't have a fancy
desk - and I sit on a crate."
"Your Spartan conditions don't impress
me, Mr Somers. I'm not going to ask the children to sit on a dirt floor. How
can they possibly learn to write properly?"
"O.K., O.K. That can be
"What?" Somers was startled.
plan on opening the school tomorrow. I require it to be ready."
have a chair for yourself and seats for the children, Miss White."
"What about desks?"
He exploded at last. "You'll have to
improvise, woman! Everybody else has to, so you'd better learn how, or else."
"Or else what, Mr Somers?" Sarah enquired, sweetly.
"I'll do my
best," came the muttered reply.
The next day, when Sarah took
possession of the schoolhouse, she found two rows of boards placed on rocks. A
plain and slightly battered chair stood behind a large, wooden crate.
"Came all the way from the east in the Mueller's wagon," Ed Somers
explained. "It's not as sturdy as it might be - got run over by one of the
wagon wheels, Mueller's been aiming to fix it ever since, but he ain't got
around to it yet."
"It will do for now. Please thank Mr Mueller for his
contribution to the schoolhouse."
"I reckon it's the least he can do
seeing as how he's also contributing five kids, as well." Sarah looked around.
"I don't see a blackboard."
"On the crate you'll find a small order
catalogue. Just choose the one you want and I'll order it for you. You'll get
it in a few weeks. That's the best I can do," he hurriedly added, anticipating
her protest. He started to walk away.
"Mr Somers." He stopped and
turned with a sigh, ready for yet another demand. "Yeh?"
"I know it's not much, Miss White, but I reckon all a
schoolhouse really needs is a good teacher."
"You've fulfilled your
part of the bargain, Mr Somers. You'll find that I'm quite equal to mine."
Sarah watched him stride away down the muddy street. He
was a man with purpose in every step; a man who could dream, but who also had a
sense of reality. If anyone could make Wheeler into a state capital, he could.
As the weeks and months rolled by, Wheeler began to take on some
semblance of the picture in the pamphlet. Sarah had it pinned up on the
classroom wall so that her pupils could see the dream and compare it with
progress being made towards its fulfilment. Main Street now boasted a row of
solid buildings instead of the temporary shanties that had first greeted Sarah.
There was a church, a warehouse by the river for the despatch and receiving of
goods, and a proper office for the newspaper where Somers was now employing a
reporter and two women to do the type-setting.
The population had
steadily increased with more families arriving on every boat. Not all of them
stayed. Some moved on to different towns, whilst others settled on land they
had acquired from the government. However, many put their roots down in Wheeler
and Sarah's role of children had grown to 30. They now sat on proper seats with
little desks, and her packing case had gone to be replaced by a large and
ornate desk. It looked a mite too ostentatious for such a humble setting,
especially when set beside the Muellers' old chair, but Sarah had grown
inordinately fond of it and had refused a new one. There was also a large
blackboard fixed to the wall.
One day the Gazette headline read:
Railroad Comes To Wheeler.
The town buzzed with excitement. The
railroad could be the clincher for the county seat.
"I'm glad to hear
the news, Mr Somers", Sarah said when the editor paid a visit to the
"Um." His reaction fell fairly short of enthusiasm.
"Is anything wrong?" Sarah asked.
"I've got all my fingers
crossed, Miss White, that's all."
"Do you mean there's some doubt about
the railroad?" "It's not absolutely certain. Only about ninety-five per cent."
"But according to the Gazette it's cut and dried."
"Never put your faith in a newspaper."
"Nor in an editor,"
Sarah said grimly.
"Haven't I given you everything you've asked for as
"No, Mr Somers, not yet. You haven't given me a town like
this one to live in." Sarah jabbed her finger at the picture on the wall.
"For God's sake, woman!" Somers irritably shouted. "It takes time to
build a town like that. Time and people and money."
"Then why fool
everyone with a picture proclaiming it as a reality instead of a figment of
"Miss White, do you really believe people would
settle in a shanty town? Would you have come if you'd known the truth?" Sarah
remained silent. "Of course you wouldn't. We had all this out the day you
arrived. You decided to stay and be a part of Wheeler and I'm damned glad you
"I would be grateful, Mr Somers, if you would moderate your
language when in the schoolhouse and my presence."
"Aw, what does it
matter what words I use? All you have to know is that you need Wheeler as much
as Wheeler needs you."
Sarah thought for a moment. "What happens if the
railroad doesn't come through here?" she asked.
"We're finished, Miss
White," Somers said quietly. "You and I - and Wheeler."
You could cut the air of depression with a
knife. The Town Council of Wheeler, gathered together in the newspaper office,
had just been given the news. The railroad was by-passing the town and going to
Atchison, some 30 miles away. The honour of being the county seat would almost
certainly follow the railroad.
The gloomy silence continued for several
minutes, then Mr Mueller broke it with a hearty slap of his thigh.
golly, I'll be hanged if I quit. This town is a good town and it doesn't become
bad just because the railroad goes to Atchison."
"Maybe not," Somers
glumly muttered, "but it's not helped. Do you realise how much business the
railroad brings? First you get all the men laying the line, then you get
passengers and freight. A railhead makes it convenient for businesses to centre
themselves on it. The more business there is, the more money. The more money,
the more attractive you make the town, and the more attractive it is, the more
people settle there. It expands, becomes a permanent part of the landscape;
becomes important and powerful. In other words, it becomes a county seat.
That's what I had planned for Wheeler."
"But a town could be a good
place to live without being all that," Mueller protested.
that to all the people out there," said Somers bitterly, pointing to the
street. "And try telling it to all the people who haven't come out here yet."
He held up the pamphlet. "This, gentlemen, used to be a dream. Now, it's a
Somers viciously tore the offending paper into tiny pieces, threw
them on the floor and slammed out of the office.
Sarah was waiting for
him in the street. "Mr Somers
He took no notice, but strode away
towards the edge of town. Sarah ran after him.
"Mr Somers, wait a
"What is it, Miss White?" He continued his quick, angry walk.
"Do you want a new schoolhouse with two rooms? Or maybe you'd prefer three. You
shall have it. Would you like another teacher to help with all your pupils?
I'll arrange it."
"Please stop a minute," Sarah gasped, as she ran
behind, feeling most undignified.
"It's all yours - whatever you want."
Sarah grasped his arm and pulled him round. "Mr Somers, just where do
you think you're going?"
"Anywhere, Miss White - nowhere. Or, to quote
good old Davy Crockett - you can go to hell, I'm going to Texas."
you drunk?" Sarah asked suspiciously.
"Not drunk enough. There's not
enough liquor in this town to satisfy my need to get drunk."
it doesn't have to be the end of everything." Sarah gripped his arm firmly.
"You fought hard to get this far. Why give up now?"
"That's what they
say." He nodded towards the Gazette office. "They're right. If it's
worth starting, it's worth finishing."
"Miss White, I'll give you some
hard facts of Western life. Folks just like you come out here from the East -
many of them even from Europe, like the Muellers. They're all looking for
something. A better life, more prosperity, more freedom, a good place to live.
Now some, and God knows why, choose to try to wrest something from the ground.
They buy a little piece of earth with the aid of Government subsidies, and they
set up some kind of makeshift homestead. If they're lucky, the corn they've
planted grows and they get money to build something better for themselves.
"Other people come out here not aiming to be farmers, but wanting to
provide services for them. They start up towns, a few ramshackle buildings to
begin with - but they've all got this dream that their town will become the
centre of everything. The trouble is, they're all being put up in the same
area. Around here there must be half a dozen towns within a thirty mile radius.
That's too many for the number of people out here. Not all of them can survive.
Atchison sure as hell will, now it's gettin' the railroad, but as for the
"Wheeler will survive too and to hell with the others!"
Sarah said vehemently.
"Why, Miss White, such language. You must have
learned that on the streets of New York."
"Most of what I know about
life, Mr Somers, I've learned since coming to Wheeler," Sarah quietly said. "I
don't want to give up now - and neither do you. Where would you go? What would
"Start up another town, most likely."
said there are already too many."
"Maybe around here, but there are
plenty of other wide open spaces. I hear Texas is pretty big and wide open -
and it's already a State. What do you say we go together?"
asking me to accompany you to Texas?" Sarah asked incredulously.
not? Next time I say a town has a schoolhouse, it'll be true."
rather stay here and build on what we've already got. Don't let go now. Make
Wheeler look like this picture." She flipped open a pamphlet in front of
"My God, do you carry those things around with you?"
"All the time. I keep comparing it with the reality."
"There's a long way to go yet, but we're getting there."
"Yeh - we sure are.." For the first time Somers took a good long look
at Wheeler's schoolteacher. "You're some woman, Miss White," he eventually
"I hope that's a compliment - Ed." He smiled.
is, Sarah, it sure is. Now, I'll tell you what we'll do." He took her arm in
his and walked back along Main Street. "We'll build a college before anybody
else thinks of it."
"That isn't in the picture, Ed."
pictures can be wrong. Wheeler could be the educational centre of the county."
"Why not of Kansas?"
"Yeh, why not? It may become the State
University. Just imagine
They walked on together, arm in arm,
happily planning the future of Ed Somers and Sarah White - and Wheeler, Kansas