Ellsworth County was home for lots of Elsa's relatives. So we're embarked on lots of fun investigations.
Today we circumnavigated the county. It's rectangular, 30 miles wide by 24 miles high, or exactly 20 Townships, each 6 miles on a side. The two largest towns are Ellsworth, pop 6000, and Wilson, pop 2000. Then there are three smaller towns: Kanopolis, about 700, Holyrood, perhaps 500, and Lorraine, maybe 300. Carneiro (Portuguese for sheep fold) might have 100 souls, and the rest of Ellsworth County lives on their farms and ranches. The most impressive establishment is a large natural gas refinery and compression station; The Sunflower State elsewhere, oil wells pump along in the middle of a wheatfield. Over the years the agricultural output has grown steadily while the population has declined.
The history of this part of the world is pretty simple. It was Indian Territory until the U.S. decided to open it up for settlement in 1862. The railroads came through, putting up small towns for the workers along the right-of-way; some remained as loading stations for cattle on the way to market. Saloons were the first commercial establishments in these towns. The early inhabitants were pretty lawless. Cavalry forts were built to protect the railroads and early settlers, (or to drive out the Indians, depending on your view of history.)
Texas cowboys drove their herds of longhorns along the Chisholm Trail, despite the objections of the local Kansas ranchers who feared ticks (longhorns were immune, domestic cattle sickened) and tried to guard their water holes for their own cattle. Other settlers came to farm the land, putting up fences and planting crops. Droughts, long winters in which entire cattle herds froze to death, prairie fires and plagues of grasshoppers -- all of the disasters Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather have described befell the Kansas ranchers and farmers. By the turn of the century it became fashionable for wealthy easterners to buy a Kansas ranch, to invite friends to play at cowboying for awhile in the summer. A few remained as serious landowners. Nowadays Ellsworth folks grow winter wheat and feed crops, and raise some beef cattle.
Unbelievably, we've discovered that three of these small towns have libraries; also, Ellsworth has two newspapers, and Wilson, one. Ellsworth also has a historical museum, which we visited yesterday morning. We were thrilled when, twenty minutes later, the staffer placed in our hands a copy of a photo, taken about 1897, showing Elsa's great grandparents Simon Cadwell and Rosma Bell Ellsworth Historical Society Cadwell, together with their ten living children. We still haven't gotten over this wonderful surprise.
Before the day was out, we'd talked with Jim Gray and Linda Kohls of Drovers' Supply, an Ellsworth mercantile establishment with a vast collection of cowboy stuff only. Jim has taken on the persona of a cowboy, rather like The Virginian of the the old novel, red suspenders, neckerchief and all. They told us tales of Elsa's great-uncle John Cadwell, who lost his shirt when the thousand head of cattle he bought in New Mexico died in the blizzard. It turns out Elsa and Jim are related by marriage; Minnie Gray, who lived to be 108, married Elsa's great-great-uncle George Levitt. (This family has adopted the more upscale spelling of LeVitt, at least for the east coast branch).
Later on, we met Elsa's mother's first cousin Nancy, who shared with us her recollections of farm and ranch life and some choice Cadwell family stories. We now know how to detect rye amidst the winter wheat (it sticks up higher), and we understand how a life of farming marries you to the land. There's no flitting around the country staying in motels for farmers. Nancy took us to the Buckeye Cemetery, out in the country on a dirt road, but immaculately kept, with solid granite stones, and filled with Cadwells and their in-laws.
We've got days of research ahead of us in Ellsworth County, reading old newspapers and looking through courthouse records. The exciting thing is that our relatives are slowly changing from names to people. And we're finding ourselves to be eager amateur detectives!