Jeff parkes
























by Jeff Parkes © 2006

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.

Wheeler, 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."

"Mostly 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 them."

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.

Standing on 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?

"How can you tell?"

"Something about your manner, I suppose. A mite more authority about you than with most folks. Come a long way?"

"New York."

"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."

"Only one thing?" Sarah dryly enquired.

"No. There ain't no schoolhouse, neither."

"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 few embellishments."

"This pamphlet doesn't have a few embellishments. It's a complete fantasy. I want to speak to the editor."

"That's what 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 what?"

"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. Louis?"

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."

"Mr Somers…"

"Hear me out, Miss…?"

"White. Sarah White."

"Well, 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…"

"How much?"

"Twenty-five dollars a month."

"You're right. Not much financial reward."

"But the town will keep the schoolhouse in good repair and provide the necessary fuel."

"You said there isn't a schoolhouse."

"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.

"The 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?"

"The what?"

"Furniture, Mr 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 fixed."

"By tomorrow."

"What?" Somers was startled.

"I plan on opening the school tomorrow. I require it to be ready."

"You'll 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?"

"Thanks." Sarah smiled.

"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 schoolhouse.

"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 promised?"

"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 your imagination?"

"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 did."

"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.

"By 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.

"Try telling 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 lie."

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 minute!"

"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."

"Are you drunk?" Sarah asked suspiciously.

"Not drunk enough. There's not enough liquor in this town to satisfy my need to get drunk."

"You know 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 others…"

"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 you do?"

"Start up another town, most likely."

"You've just 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?"

"You're asking me to accompany you to Texas?" Sarah asked incredulously.

"Why not? Next time I say a town has a schoolhouse, it'll be true."

"I'd 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 Somers' eyes.

"My God, do you carry those things around with you?"

"All the time. I keep comparing it with the reality."

"How's it look?"

"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 said.

"I hope that's a compliment - Ed." He smiled.

"It sure 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."

"No, but 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 Territory.


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