My Last Ride in the Old Covered Wagon

My father lifted me up beside him, and held me tight on a journey that ended in mystery.

Story written by the late Pearl (Harsin) McMillan

Published by The Denver Post, Empire , April 3rd, 1960

Obtained from Margery Cape of California

Reprinted here with permission from Ray Kurtz, Pearl's Grandson

Published in Harsin Happen'n's June 1996, Vol 1.6

To the western pioneer his covered wagon was more than just four wheels, a tongue, and some bows with canvas stretched over them. It was a shelter, a protection, and an abode for him and his family. Its bulging sides contained not only family but all their earthly belongings – all that they held most dear.

I rode with my parents in a covered wagon from Tapley, Kan. to Silver City, Iowa, 80 years ago when I was less than a year old. Four years later, I rode it again when we returned to Kansas, where mother's people lived.

While living in the midwest, two things caused us much anxiety. They were Indians and prarie fires.

Bands of Indians passed our hoe once or twice a week on their way to a fishing hole. The were called friendly Indians, but mother and I could never quite trust them, especially if father was not home. When we saw the Indians coming we would pile furniture against the outside doors until they were out of sight. We had no locks on the door except wooden latches.

One cold day, however, mother brought a squaw into the kitchen. She tore up strips of rags to wrap the Indian woman's freezing feet and ankles. Then mother gave her a plate of food to eat. The squaw asked for some lean meat for her little dog. Mother told her she was sorry but bacon was the only type of meat we had. The squaw took it, wrapped it in a piece of the rag and left. We often wondered which ate the bacon.

Prairie fires were most dreaded. Usually our last thought at night was to scan the horizon for signs of smoke. Most homes had fire guards around buildings, feed stacks and bins. The guard was a plowed strip, several feet wide, where men could start a backfire if they saw a prairie fire coming. Most people kept a barrel or a tank of water, with some gunny sacks near. These were soaked with water and used to beat out flames. I saw many prairie fires. Once a fire went each way around our home. The fire guards turned it and saved us.

While we lived in Silver City my father often got work on a railroad that was being built there. Sometimes we accompanied him, as many families did, and prepared camp fire meals for the men.

In the evenings after supper the families would all gather around one big camp fire and sing hymns and old folk songs. I remember The Little Rosewood Casket, Butcher Boy, Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage, and That Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim.

In 1884 an uncle living in Lyons, Neb., wrote father that there was a good farm adjoining his own which could be bought with a reasonable down payment.

We then sold all our belongings except a few things we could take with us. Father had accumulated a nice string of horses. These he planned to take to Kearney, Neb, which was then the big horse market of the west. With the money from sale of the horses and what we had saved, he wold continue on to Lyons to buy our future home. Mother and I were to visit at granfather's until he sent for us.

At last, after a long ride in the covered wagon we arrived at grandfather's home in Osborne county, Kansas.

After spending a few days there to rest himself and the horses, father continued his journey. I loved my father dearly and the morning he left was a sad one for me. I cried and begged so hard not to go, that he finally said to pacify me, “Oh mother, let her ride down to the corner with me.” It was about one-half mile away, in plain sight of the house.

He lifted me to the old spring seat beside him and placed his arm around me and held me tight as the wagon rolled along.

I do not remember much that was said on our last ride. Only this, “Daddy will miss his little girl. You must be a good girl and mind mother till daddy gets back, and remember to study hard.”

All too soon we reached the corner. He lifted me to the ground, gave me a little notebook and pencil (which I still have), and kissed me goodbye. I tore away from him and ran with all my might back toward the house.

For weeks I slept each night with his old felt hat clutched in my arms. It was all I had left of my father.

Mother received one letter saying he was nearing Kearney and as soon as the sale was made he would send her some money. The money never came and father dropped out of sight as completely as if the ground had swallowed him up. A search was made by relatives who inquired near and far, but no trace of him could be found. Neither could any report be found of the sale at Karney.

For 37 years his whereabouts remained a mystery.

In the meantime we continued to live in my grandfather's home and shared with him both love and care. The necessities of life were as freely given to us as to his own large family.

Mother worked wherever she could find work to do , either housework, cooking or sewing. Grandmother and her daughters took in washings, which they did on the washboard, and ironings, which they performed with old sadirons o charcoal irons.

The man folks all got jobs when possible and thus we continued to live. We smaller children did our share of gathering both food and fuel. The food consisted mostly of wild fruits. There were gooseberries, raspberries, plums, currants, elderberries, chokeberries, and wild grapes. The fruit was made into jams or jelly, and canned in tn cans closed with sealing wax. Corn raised in new sod furnished corn meal for mush and cornbread, also hominy and dried corn.

Cane was raised on small patches, then stripped and hauled to a sorghum mill where it was made into syrup. This furnished much of the necessary sweetening. Vinegar was also made from it.

We usually had a cow or two to furnish milk, cream and butter. These products were kept cool on cave floors or placed in a bucket and hung in the wall. Such was our refrigeration.

Kraut was made from both cabbage and turnips and weighted down in large crocks or wooden kegs.

Or coffee was 15 cents a pound, but even at this price, we made it go further by putting in some sweet potato peelings, washed and dried in the ovens.

We had what we called “poor man's” dishes. They were egg-butter custard pie and pudding; poor man's pie, which was bread and milk with egg, flavoring and sugar, something like a custard; vinegar sauce and pie, and minute pudding, which was like corn meal mush, only made with wheat flour.

For fuel we used corn stalks and sunflower stalks cut in stove lengths, and buffalo and cow chips. Sometimes when corn was cheap, say 10 cents a bushel, we burned some corn.

I can see grandmother yet, with her kitchen apron full of beautiful ears, She would hesitate before the stove, saying, “I hate to do this. Someone might go hungry.”

Houses were of various kinds – sod, dugout, bank and log houses. Most had dirt floors and roofs of brush and straw with gravel on top. One house we lived in was made of sod with a dirt floor. A ridge log with brush, grass and gravel formed its roof. We fastened unbleached muslin on the ceiling to keep the dirt from rattling down on the table and beds. The walls were plastered from a bank near out home. Then it was whitewashed with lime and was clean and beautiful. We put a homemade carpet on the front room floor and fastened it down with little wooden pegs.

We hung pictures in fancy homemade frames, with wreaths of yam flowers and other hand work under the glass. Sod windows were ideal for hose plants, especially geraniums and fuschias.

Clothing was scarce and even if new calico was only 10 cents a yard, we children could not expect new dresses very often. My youngest auntie, Viola, who was about my age, asked her mother for a new dress one day. Grandmother replied, “I'm sorry bit we do not have anything to make dresses of unless we should make them from a flour sack or a gunny sack.” Viola thought it over a minute and then said in an earnest tone, “I will wear one made from a flour sack, but I won't wear one made from a gunny sack.”

Thus the years rolled by.

Finally after 37 years, my uncle Robert Kirkendall, my mother's brother, , received a call one day to go to the deathbed of a man he had never known. When he arrived the man was very low but rallied his strength to tell this story:

I cannot die with this on my conscious” , he said. “Thirty -seven years ago I was a sheriff and headed a posse to overtake a group of men believed to be horse thieves and thought to be headed for the Kearney market with a large herd of horses”.

Our second day out we came on seven men with a large number of horses. They were at their breakfast campfire. We surrounded them and shot them down like so many dogs. Then we threw their bodies into a gulch and covered them over with dirt. As one man was dieing he called to me and said, “You have killed an innocent man, for believe me, I am no horse thief. I came upon these men yesterday. They asked me to join the what has happened to me. My identification is this broken front tooth and severed forefinger on my right hand.”

The sheriff's last words were: “All these years I have wanted to tell the truth but was not man enough to face it. That man's innocent pleading face has haunted me ever since.”

Is it any wonder that my eyes grow moist and my heart is stirred by sight or mention of an old covered wagon?

I'm nearing 80 but if I live to be 100, I shall never forget that last precious half-mile ride with my father in just such wagon.”

Pearl (Harsin) McMIllen

by Ray Harsin

January 18, 2014

Pearl's parents were Lawrence Gilbert Harsin and Mary Caldona Kirkendall Harsin. Lawrence was born in Marion Co, Iowa on Feb 25th, 1858. Mary was born August 15th, 1859. Lawrence had a nickname of Lars. After Lars died, Mary did remarry to a Net Taft and lived in Natoma Co, Kansas. Lawrence was one of the many children of John D Harsin, who was born in 1805 in Kentucky. John D. s the son of Garret Harsin (b 1753) of New York City and served in the American Revolutionary War. Lars was a grandson of Garret. John D. along with his brother, Garret Gilbert Harsin, went to Iowa to settle from Shelby County, Indiana. From Iowa, the children of John D Harsin eventually took their own direction, some remaining in Iowa, some to Kansas, some to Colorado and some to Oregon. Lawrence went on to Tapley, Kansas where Pearl was born Aug 28th, 1879. Later, the family moved to Silver City, Iowa. Pearl's grandson, Vernon Ray Kurtz says, “Pearl grew up in Osborne CO, Kan. And became a teacher and artist. She married twice. She was married to Clair McMillen. She was also married to a William Kurtz, with whom she had five children; Vernon Kurtz, Lawrence G Kurtz, Theodore Harold Kurtz, Alice Kurtz, and Beulah Kurtz. In 1960, Pearl lived in Colorado. The Social Security Index says Pearl passed away in Feb 1971, last residing in Littleton, Arapahoe Co, Colorado. Ray Kurtz once told me she is buried in Sumner Cemetery, Alton, Osborne CO, Kansas. I have not been able to actually locate her grave or headstone for a photo as of this writing (Jan 18, 2014).

Other notes I have about Pearl include:

Grandson of Pearl, Bob Anderson of Tucson, Ariz. Says, “ She wrote lyrics for 3 songs and a man named Herbert Buffum put them to music. They are listed on the Copyright list. The titles are:
His Mother's Prayer
Love Lines on Mother's Face
That Little Finger Pointing Upward.
The last song was inspired when she watched a tiny child dying with her finger pointing upward as though to Heaven. The child may have been hers. I'm not sure about that. That is the story my Mom (Alice Viola) always told about her mother, Pearl.
After Pearl married Will Kurtz, they live on a farm about 5 miles northwest of Alton, Kansas, which is still there. The farm has been successful until the Depression and Dust Bowl hit, when they finally lost it and moved into Alton. Will, my grandfather died in the 1930s and Pearl married a man named McMillen. Then she became "Grandma Mac" to all of us kids.
After he died, she moved to Englewood, Colorado to be near my parents (Paul and Alice Viola Anderson) until her death.

At one time she taught in a one room country school house. She ran for a political office of some kind- county commissioner or the school board, or something similar.

She was talented in arts and crafts and for a while after Will died, she ran a craft shop in Alton, making things out of Plaster of Paris.”

L-R Mary Caldona Kirkendall Harsin Taft (husband Nate Taft after Lawrence died), Pearl Harsin Kurtz McMillan (husband Claire McMillan ), Alice Viola Kurtz Anderson Front row Hannah A. Kirkendall .