Historical Details

This Too Shall Pass Away

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 10/29/1970

By Clara Doolittle
(“This Too Shall Pass Away” was written by Mrs. Clara Doolittle, former Van Tassell teacher, and will be published in several installments by The Herald.

Mrs. Doolittle, who now resides at 1055 N. Country Club Dr., Mesa, Ariz., recently received a diploma from the Famous Writers’ School of Westport, Conn. She is also an experienced lecturer and in a recent letter said, “If you know of an organization which would care to avail itself of this service, I would enjoy the opportunity to come to Lusk or any convenient location, free of charge.”

The first installment of Mrs. Doolittle’s manuscript tells of her trip to the Van Tassell ranch where she and Mr. Doolittle lived. In other installments she relates stories of Van Tassell and its early residents.

For a small town girl breaking the ties which had bound her in a close family relationship, parting was not easy.

Papa shut the door and turned the key, I stepped back to look once more through the glass panel of the door into the house. The dining table was set for supper, but my plate was not there. “Why should it be? Neither was my chair. I was going away, perhaps never to return.

We were on our way to the station, from where the evening train would bear me away from the ones I loved to the rigors and disappointments of a homesteader’s wife in a distant state.

My new husband, Harry Doolittle, a graduate in Law from State University, was a born farmer. He heeded the call, “Go West, young man.” Putting thoughts if a legal career in the background, he had gone ahead to file a claim on a governments homestead and make a home for us. Of course, I would go too.

Mama was in a conservative black dress, hat, and gloves. She had had her cry and faced the separation from an only daughter as something inevitable; Papa carried my straw suit case. My small brother, wide-eyed with excitement, accompanied us slowly and silently up the street.

I stopped to look once more in the big window of the dry goods store, where were displayed the current fashions in dresses, shoes and hats. I knew I would not see such fashions where I was going. I was proud of my reflection in the glass window. I was wearing my gray silk wedding suit and my big beautiful black hat with the six fluffy ostrich plumes.

The late summer sun was dropping behind the big maple trees that bordered the well-kept lawns. Crickets and grasshoppers chirped and sang their late summer farewells and scurried away into the brown grass. Birds chirped softly as they settle snugly together in the branches. It was the lonesome hour. Saucy little brown squirrels cracked hickory nuts and deftly gouged out the sweet morsels with their sharp little teeth. A dog lay asleep in the shade, rousing only to strike at a big blue fly buzzing in his ear.
Small groups of former pupils had come to the station to bid their teacher “Good Bye.” Little boys giggled; little girls cried. I did too, as I loved them all.

Finally the train, sounding bell and whistle, growled and squealed and trembled and slowed to a stop. Mama wiped her eyes while Papa spoke a few words to the conductor who held his big silver watch in his hand to check the time of departure. I stood in the vestibule of the car waving a clammy hand and a moist handkerchief as the one car strained, panted, chugged a lurched to get started.

Hours passed. We crossed the broad Mississippi at midnight. Lights along the shore glimmered on the black water. Cities rushed by. Small towns lay sleeping.

On the train passengers talked or snored. Lunch boxes were opened and odors of fried chicken and apple pie drifted about. Mama had packed a lunch for me. It was in my handbag. I could not bear to see it now—maybe later. Babies cried, men argued over a card game. Women, exhausted by a night of conversation with strangers, slept.

Meanwhile, time passed slowly. It was morning. I imagined Mama frying pancakes and pouring milk and coffee. I hoped that she had, through force of habit, put out my little pink cup. I always had my cocoa in that cup. I imagined Papa in the sunshine on the back porch, silent and sad. My small brother, busy with pancakes and syrup, might break the silence.

“Where do you think she is right about now?” he would say.

Papa would take his big silver watch from his vest pocket and study it.

“She should be pulling into Omaha, right about now, I reckon,” he would say, and I was.

The train stopped a short time at a siding in Omaha. We strolled down the board sidewalk to the station to buy some peanuts and chewing gum. While we waited, an empty cattle car was attached and with the little red caboose trialing in the rear, we again chugged laboriously on our way.

The big black metal water cooler was empty. The heavy galvanized iron dipper fastened to the wall by a heavy chain, swayed and clanged in rhythm to the motion of the train. Puffs of grey dust floated in the stagnant air, released from the red plush upholstery of the seats as the passengers restlessly changed their positions. Big blue flies bumped and thundered against the windows where children had scribbled naughty words on the dusty glass.

The debris of the night before still cluttered the aisle, Empty lunch boxes and bags, egg shells, apple cores, chicken bones, bread crusts and soggy sandwiches, made walking a hazard.

Across Nebraska, the farms and ranches lay peaceful and quiet, Herds of fat cattle and sleek horses grazed along the streams and in the meadows. Further along the green pastures turned to grey weeds and brush. Little tornadoes of sand along the railroad track gathered strength and volume as they hurried on to become part of a dist storm across the endless sun-baked stretches of arid land.
Another day and another night passed the same as before. Signs along the track gave notice of “Cattle Crossing,” “Slow, Watch for deer.” The train haltingly obeyed. “V.T. (Van Tassell) Ranch”, was next. Two minutes and we would be there.

The old red boxcar that served as a station was a welcome sight.

There he was, just as handsome as the day we had parted months before, but different.

Several of the villagers and cow hands had come to see the train come in and to appraise the latest of the “Eastern punks,” who had come in to take over the cattle country from the rich ranchers who had held the land as their own. One old rancher grinned, “By God,” he said, “That gal may be in the right church, but she’s sure as hell in the wrong pew.”

Roars of laughter greeted this outburst and I was embarrassed to tears. My big black hat was whisked from my head by a sudden squall of wind and rolled down the railroad track. I never saw it again.

Second in Series
The Lusk Herald, November 5,1970

The one building in the town housed the town hall. Other businesses came to life in future years, but for the present, this was sufficient.

The team and wagon were loaded and were ready to start for our new home. Groceries, a keg of nails and a roll of tar paper bounced in the wagon bed as we careened over rocks and ruts. Straining horses pulled us vallantly [sic] out of sand pits and over deep rocky crevices. There were no roads, only a wire fence to mark to township line.

The dusty Back-eyed Susans and blue blossoms of a nondescript weed dropped their heads as though praying for a welcome death, too long delayed.

Twelve tortuous miles and by careful scrutiny we could see the dot on the prairie which was to be home. We were hungry. I could scramble eggs and fry potatoes but that was all the cooking I knew.

Our furniture had not arrived from the East so I spread a dish towels on top of an old trunk. The can opener came into play. A few drops of kerosene sufficed in the oil stove for the warming of the eggs and potatoes. The big can of oil had been overlooked and was still sitting on the sidewalk at the grocery store in town. We sat on nail kegs for chairs. The big yellow moon rising behind a bank of purple hills gave us light through the open door. A thin veil of grey clouds raced across the face of moon, tearing themselves to shreds in their haste to get ‘nowhere’. A lone coyote sang a welcome.

Tears of happiness and loneliness filled our eyes. He (Harry Doolittle) leaned across and stroked my disheveled hair while I held his hand.

“I never thought I would bring a girl to a place like this,” he said.

We were contented and happy to be together. Eventually the cabin was replaced by a rough little house, the first plastered house in the township.

Settlers came and built cabins in the neighborhood. We felt close to one another. They came from many distant states and we formed a closely knit community. It was good to see Mrs. Miller’s snow white washing on the line a mile away. Mr. Thatcher would be out horseback rounding up his milk cows and another neighbor might ride by to borrow a piece of tar paper to mend his roof.

Our baby and our piano arrived almost the same time. Both were a joy. We danced from sun set to sun up to the tunes of “Too Much Mustard” and “Turkey in the Straw.” My husband liked to sing and gave out lustily with “When Irish Eyes Were Shining,’ and “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” We had such good times.

Good times and bad times were ours to bear. Late spring rains turned into devastating blizzards taking their tolls of livestock and sometimes human beings. We experienced many of these.

With the passing of the Homestead Act, the propaganda machine had begun to function. Promises of “cabbages as big as wash tubs” enticed prospective settlers. Soon land agents appeared who, for a small fee, would select the most suitable sites for the newcomer.
Rough lumber and tar paper shacks soon dotted the prairie as the pioneers streamed in. The old cow trails became roads after a time and barbed wire fences gradually appeared. All roads led to Lusk and Van Tassell where the Doolittles, Siefkies, Theilbars and Martins filed claims. The old timers…..Sides, Freeses, Ellicots and Pfisters were already here.

The first building was the post office presided over by Miss Wilson and her niece, Fay Porter. The two rooms overhead served as sleeping quarters for those fortunate enough to get there first. Later several buildings were erected, among then the James Clark Grocery, the Stewart Lumber Company, the two story Bushnell Grocery with the town hall overhead.

Mr. Bushnell and his wife with a daughter, Mrs. Carrie Canfield, supplied the usual food necessities along with soap, scrub buckets and mops. Arbuckle’s coffee sold for three pounds for twenty-five cents. Bacon was fifteen cents a pound and dried apples and prunes were a luxury at twenty cents a pound.

Romey’s Pool Hall was the recreation center of the village, Business was not brisk during the week but Saturday it came to life. Slot machines buzzed, billiard balls clicked, cards were shuffled and dealt and children played a penny machine for candy. Ranchers, unaccustomed to this social upheaval in their midst, having lived as they did in a peaceful and quiet way of life, leaned on the glass showcase. They discussed the price of hogs in Omaha, what effect the election and the summer drought would have on the price of grain and hay in Chicago, and sized up the newcomers who had taken over.

Frank Martins were good neighbors. We did not have an automobile, but Frank and Jennie would drive their Ford to our kitchen door, load us in and buckle down the flapping curtains. After filling the radiator, which must be done every few miles, we would take off for an exciting trip to Lusk. Mrs. Martin had been interested in millinery in Chicago. She felt that Van Tassell ladies should have a change of fashion so she ordered a dozen stylish chapeaux from the city. They were displayed at Peet’s Grocery Store, and all sold that afternoon.

Mr. and Mrs. Alex McCabe and their beautiful daughter, Genevieve arrived form Kalamazoo, Mich., and filed claims southwest of Van Tassell. They added much to the prairie culture and filled a much needed spot in our community. Both Mr. and Mrs. McCabe were registered pharmacists. Mrs. McCabe became the very efficient postmaster as well as doctor, nurse and veterinarian.
At the same time a young Harvard graduate who had answered the call-go west young man, Merrill Wade, had arrived to take up residence in the McCabe neighborhood. He could frequently be seen squiring the beautiful Miss McCabe on a horseback ride across the prairies.
Mrs. McCabe’s sister, Mrs. Josephine Watts, and her husband Dr. W. Ben Watts of Peoria, Ill., arrived with their young daughter Janet, but the romance of the West soon gave way to the urge for home and they departed.

The Federle’s, Ferdie, Rudophine, Max and Hattie filed on claims adjoining what now the extensive McMaster is holding.
The McMasters took over the Bushnell Grocery in Van Tassell. I believe there were three children. I recalled Gertrude and young Andre, who rose rapidly in the esteem of the people of the community.

Nicholas Van Sant and his wife and two children arrived. I always like Mr. Van Sant. He had a first class meat market, and he would select a choice piece for me and put in a nice meaty soup bone for free. He also bought cream from the homesteaders and we gathered at the market every Saturday afternoon to receive our cream checks. Mr. Calhoun, the village teamster, would come load the ten gallon cans of cream and take them to the railroad station for the afternoon train to Chadron. One hot summer afternoon something went wrong and a can of cream fell to the ground: the top of the can flew off and ten gallons of golden cream went streaming down the hot sandy road. Poor Mr. Van Sant.

The John Pendray family from southeast of Van Tassell gave us class and distinction. The family included Mr. Pendray, the typical scholarly gentleman, Mrs. Pendray with the big smile, little Arthur and the two lovely little twin daughters, May and June. They came to town in a car, a mark of affluence and distinction. We saw very little of the elder boy G. Edward Pendray. He was in school at Jireh College, but afterward became internationally famous in the field of science and an author.

The boys were here and the girls were not far behind. Mike Kuester the affable bachelor hardware merchant was respected by everyone. He was everybody’s fiend. If a homesteader needed a spool of barbed wire or a roll of tar paper and had no money, Mile would say, “Help yourself; pay next time or whenever you can.” He chose Stella. He was happy, contented and proud. Stella minded the store when Mike was busy elsewhere. They later became parents of a daughter Mickey.

The Jones boys came to town. Howell took over the bank. Warren and Edith paired off and a handsome couple they were. I liked to dance with Warren. We did a mean two-step together. (Warren Jones is judge of U.S. Appellate Court, Jacksonville, Fla.) Handsome Harvey Bass and Frances Dowling made a happy pair—likewise Lewis Bass and little Jennie. How I would love to see them all.

Andrew McMaster and the beautiful Genevieve McCabe were married in the church on Monday morning, December 13. Truly an Irish beauty in her blue wedding suit and velvet had with the silver lace festoons. Mrs. McCabe had to hurry to the post office after the ceremony to get the west bound mail ready for the early train.

Bob Bancroft and his wife, little Bertha Duell, whom I admired so much met us on the road home one late evening and told us their newly built homestead house had burned to the ground that day.

Orion Stenger married Pearl Still and became a well known land agent in Van Tassell.

Harvey Zerbe established a fine hardware business. His beautiful wife, Mabel, with the nice smile and the big brown eyes sang a solo at our first Memorial Day Observation and I played “The Star spangled Banner.” Nyal Roszell and Katherine Doolittle of the Hulse School gave recitations.

On Saturday night came the dances in the hall over McMaster’s Grocery Store.

The music was usually furnished by the Federles. Ferdie, the accomplished pianist, gave out with “Too Much Mustard”, a popular tune at the time. It caught on and Ferdie would respond repeatedly to shouts of “Mustard, Ferdie, Mustard.”

Mable Zerbe and John Breer from North Dakota made a striking couple on the dance floor while little Harlan tugged frantically at his mother’s skirts. I always pictured him with a pink bow in his hair as he had that night.

At the school masquerade Mrs. Harry Burnham appeared as a very senile old lady while Harry Doolittle, as a dirty old man, fought off her admirers with his cane. “She’s my girl and don’t you forgit it,” he advised them. The five little Dutch Cleanser Girls received first prize, but how to divide one prize for five, was a question.

The Charlie Williamses built a fine home up the hill from the Peet Grocery. The school house provided two rooms for the lower grades and the four upper by me.

Little Alma Ritterbush came to school sad and red eyed after the death of her baby sister. The funeral was in the church conducted by Reverend Gordon.

I will never forget little Eliza Van Sant, such a lovely child and so brilliant. Row after row of pupils would reply to a question “I dunno,” “I duuno”, but Eliza always had the right answer. I am sure she went far.

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