Sunday, August 16, 2009

Three Stories of Race, Age, and Politics

Traveling along U.S. Highway 24 in western Osborne County, Kansas, one normally continues unawares west down the highway and then enter Rooks County. That's fine, as there is a lot to see and do in our fellow county to the west. But in doing so, you'd be missing out on Exploring a relatively small area along the western edge of Osborne County that is chockful of great little stories, all which add to the overall understanding of Kansas history and culture and thus are well worth the retelling.

Travel four miles west of the city of Alton on U.S. Highway 24 in Osborne County one can spy a quarter mile south of the highway another one of those great rural cemeteries that dot the county - the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
Back in the 1980s the money and materials were gathered to go through the cemetery and use temporary markers and a little concrete to mark several burials that otherwise would now be long forgotten. The simple words on the marker above never fail to grab a visitor's attention. Negro Hattie [died] 1904. One cannot help but wonder, who was this person? How did she come to be here?

A couple of questions here and there locally and the few barebones left of the tale of Hattie come forth. Born a slave, after the Civil War Hattie worked as a servant for white families. She came to Kansas and Osborne County in the early 1870s and worked locally for the Strange and Deering families until her death on March 5, 1904, unsure of her exact age but still remembered over a century later as having a great laugh and for being full of life. Not a bad epitaph in the end.
In walking through the Pleasant Valley Cemetery the above stone seems not much different from many other tombstones of the era seen there - aged, broken, and slowly disappearing into the ground. But closer inspection of when Naomi passed away brings up a surprising fact: when she died was 87 years old, which means that she was born in the 1790s.

Now, further east of Osborne County it no doubt becomes commonplace to find the final resting place of someone from the 1790s. But in this county, the number of such graves can be counted on one hand. Add to that the even more astonishing fact that 79 year-old Naomi claimed a homestead when she arrived in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood. Stop and think on this. How many 79ers you know today would have the ability, courage, and sheer energy to set about creating a farm from scratch?

Her life story is no less courageous. Naomi Sly was born April 9, 1792 in Vermont. At the age of seven she moved with her parents to Ontario Province in Canada. In 1811 the 19 year-old Naomi married Archelaus Farnam, subsequently becoming the mother of seven children. When the youngest child was three years old the husband died, leaving Naomi alone to support her family. She did so by working in turn as a miller, a seamstress, and a weaver. All seven of her children reached adulthood.

In 1867 Naomi and her son Jonathan sold their property and moved his family to Nebraska. In 1871 they moved on to Osborne County, where Naomi and Jonathan took out adjoining homesteads. The next year Jonathan died, leaving his widow and Naomi to develop the two homesteads and raise the eight Farnam children. In 1873 Naomi sold her land for one thousand dollars, an enormous sum in those days, and so helped the Farnam family establish a long term presence in the area. She passed away in 1880 at the respected age of - as her tombstone states in the manner of the time - 87 Ys, 9 Ms, & 18 Ds.
Two miles northwest of the Pleasant Valley Cemetery can still be found a stone farmhouse that belies its importance. For this was originally the home of Russell Scott Osborn, who had a hand in one of the more wild and wooly moments in Kansas history: the Legislative War of 1893.

Osborn was a Civil War veteran who after the war was ordained a Congregationalist minister. He homesteaded here in 1872 and organized a number of Congregational churches in the region. Osborn was also a stonemason and built many of the stone buildings in the area, including his own impressive 1873 house.

He was also busy as a spokeman for farm politics, and attained such statewide respect that he was elected Kansas Secretary of State in November 1892 on the Populist Party ticket. As Secretary one of Osborn's many duties was to formally read the roll for the Kansas House of Representatives at the start of the legislative session in January 1893. In this manner the various representatives officially took their seats. As the Republican Party held the majority of seats, Osborn refused to read the roll, thus allowing the Populists to claim majority, as some election results were still being contested.

With no one formally in charge, the House was in an uproar. Both parties elected a Speaker of the House and tried to conduct business. On the morning of February 15, 1893, the Republicans tried to get back into the House chamber, but were denied entrance by the Populists, who had barred the doors and insisted that they were now the legal representatives. The Republicans used a sledgehammer to smash open the chamber doors and evicted the Populists by force. The governor called out National Guard troops to restore order, and eventually the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Republican Party. In time Peace and new chamber doors reigned at last once more over the House chamber.
Osborn served out his two-year term and then stepped down from public office. In 1898 he returned to his farm in western Osborne County, then moved to Stockton, Kansas in 1904. Osborn died there in 1912 and was buried next to his wife in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.

A biography of Osborn using his own diaries and other writings is due for publication by Ad Astra Publishing in the spring of 2010. It is sure to provide new insights into this unique and fascinating event in Kansas history.

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