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My Teen Years in America by JN Pivonka


by J. N. Pivonka

It was the later part of April, 1880, that my father, Jacob M. Pivonka, brought his family of six children from the province of Moravia, which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and settled on a quarter section of land bought from Aaron Bortz, about six miles southeast of Rush Center, in Rush County, Kansas.

The children were Mary, 16, Charles, 14, Jack, 10, Myself, John, 7 1/2, Frank 4,and Ralph l 1/2 years old. The other settlers on the same section of land were Joseph Schroter, Sr., with his son Anton, their son-in-law, Frank Holopirek, with their children, Charles, 4, and daughter, Mary, 2 years old, who later married Joseph Kraisinger of Timken. Also Joseph Schroter, Jr., with his two sons, Raimund and Clement. Joe Schroter was a blacksmith by trade and did blacksmithing for a number of years.

The Schroters had a very sad welcome to the new country. When the trails of the stone house they were building were up, a storm came at night. They sought protection from the strong wind and rain on the inside of the walls, and a bolt of lightning struck, and killed two of their youngest sons.

With the help of the neighbors, father built a part dugout stone house on top of a steep bank facing north, as the settlers had told him that there were practically no winters here. The house was about 14 by 20 feet on the inside. A thick beam cut from a cottonwood tree was used for ridge pole, and the branches furnished the rafters, then covered with basket willows, sod and magnesia, which completed the roof, which was waterproof except where the crooked rafters sagged under the weight of the sod and magnesia. There a pool of water would form and then continue "raining" for several days after every heavy rain.

When George Hamrdla's came from the "Old Country" they housed with us for some time until they found a place of their own. During their stay, Kansas produced one of the Kansas specials, a three-day rain, and the only dry spot in our house was under the ridge pole, which Mr. Hamrdla pre-empted. He was badly depressed from what "America in Western Kansas" really was, as compared to some of the flowery advertisements that he received from land men, so while promenading under the ridge pole, and avoiding numerous tin pans with the musical "ping, pong, ping", of the water dropping into them, he gave vent to his dis­pleasure by cussing the rain, then America, and Columbus for discovering it, and then back to the rain.

We lived with Holopirek's while our house was being built. After we moved, we had to carry water from Schroter's place in buckets for house use. Father built a sled on which he placed 50 gallon wood barrel in which water was hauled to the house from the well one mile distant, where the cattle had to be driven every day to water.

Father laid out a field of about ten acres, and started Charles breaking

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it out with a team of long horned Texas oxen. He himself got a job at Larned on the Santa Fe railroad during the summer. While Charles was doing the breaking of the sod, sister Mary with sharp spade, and I with a hatchet, followed him planting corn into every third furrow, dropping two or three grains into each opening, and then tramping it closed with the heel of our bare feet. Every so often we would drop in a few seeds of water and musk melons, that had been given us by some of the neighbors.

We had about thirty hens bought from different neighbors that would spare them from their flocks, so that the lot was well assorted. Brown and white Leghorns, barred Rocks, buff Coochins, some black and others spotted, an assortment to meet anyone's fancy. We had only one rooster the first season, afterwards, the rooster was chosen for his bright plumage, or for his loud and melodious crowing.

Rush Center was our trading point, and usually one weekly trip was made by myself and Jack carrying a few dozen eggs, which were traded for coffee, meal, flour or sugar, and also to get the mail. The Arbuckles coffee was about .15 per pound, flour .65 to .75 for a 50 lb. sack, and eggs were .07 to .09 per dozen. Of course, we walked all the way. Part of the way there was no road, or track, only part of the way near the town was a rutted road which we followed. Of course, there also were no fences, so we traveled "as the crow flies".

Rush Center business part of town was all south of where the inter­section is at the present time, with a two story white painted Pennsylvania House on the southeast corner of the present intersection, that we could see from a long way off, and the rest of the business was mostly on the west side of the street on south. The County Offices were upstairs in a stone building about three blocks south, the bottom floor was a general store. After the railroad was built in 1886, the depot and the Fred Harvey house were built half a mile west, on account of some disagreement between the City, which had changed its name to Walnut City,the railroad retained the name of Rush Center. It was rumored that when the county seat election was held, that Rush Center voted to move the county seat to LaCrosse, but I do not think that this was so. Also, some rumor was that the vote was split in three parts, Rush Center and Walnut City both wanting the county seat. During the boom, Walnut City boasted of five hotels, two newspapers, two lumber yards, a flour mill, bank and oodles of boot leggers.

Brother Jack hired out herding cattle for stockman in Ash Valley, in Pawnee County, for $5.00 a month. This was our second year. Father again worked for Santa Fe and was shipped to Canyon City, Colorado. His foreman was Mike Sweeney, who owned a farm near Pawnee Rock, and he gave brother Charlie a job to help his son Jim on the farm, after father came home. Sister Mary hired out as chamber maid in a Larned Hotel, later as a cook, which job she held until her marriage to Tom Hill. She lived in Larned continually until her death in 1957.

We raised more different kinds and more melons the first summer than I have seen in the field since. Us little ones almost lived on them, and by the looks of our faces almost lived in them. Biting the sweet, red or yellow meat from a two foot slice of a watermelon was an art that resulted in a streak from ear to ear that was melon washed. 

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Our corn grew stalks that were eight to ten feet high, but no grain formed on the two or three ears. The seed was bought at a feed store in Rush Center, and was not suited for this region. The corn stalks, however, had some redeeming features, as the heavy foliage furnished feed for the cows, and a denuded stalk made good fuel, and supplemented the cow chips. We had a small four hole cook stove that was used for cooking, as well as heating, and took almost all of one person's time to feed it, and carry out the ashes, which was quite an easy job, as there was only a four or five foot ledge in front of the door, then ten or more foot slope down into the ravine.

The winter that was to be with little or no snow, or cold weather, according the statements of the older settlers, surprised all. There was plenty of snow, and more than plenty of strong, cold wind blowing into our home-made north door, so that we got full benefit of it. Us three smallest ones spent most of our time in bed covered with mother's feather bed brought from the old country, or sat huddled in the corner back of the little stove.
After each snow storm, father went hunting the jack rabbits, which were abundant, and provided us with our" only meat during our first winter. Rabbit, corn bread, sorghum molasses, and coffee, was our regular menu.
Father and mother would exchange visiting with our neighbors winter time to play "Twenty-one", with cards made at home cut out of cardboard, with characters made with pencil, later they bought a pack of "Steamboat" cards for 10$, to play with. The stakes were grains of corn, or of coffee. While father and mother were visiting, us little ones would pop corn. Where it came from I do not know. If no pop corn, then the feather bed was our refuge.

As stated before, our corn was a failure, but we planted some rice corn, which resembled milo to some extent, having a central stalk on which grew a goose necked head of grain, when also out of two or three joints of the plant grew suckers with small straight head. The grain was white, flattened like lentil, with a strong mouse odor to it. This grain, and a stack of well headed millet, furnished feed for the hens through the winter and following Spring.

Mother, with the help of us three little ones, dug a well about fifteen feet deep, but found no water. A big "gully washer" rain came and filled it full, so that we had water at least part of the time for house use. The stock was driven off as before. This was while father was away working.

As stated before, Jack got a job cattle herding with a Pawnee County farmer during the summer, and came home late in the Fall, then went back again the next Spring. His wages were raised to $6.00 a month. He learned to speak the English language ahead of any of the rest of us. Also, the farmer's wife taught him to read some in the "Youth's Companion" for which he subscribed later on, and in which I started to learn reading the language.

In the fall of the first year, Charles and Mary helped to cut broom corn for a farmer named John Beal, and for their three days labor, they received a 50 lb. sack of XXXX flour, worth probably 75$ on the market. The flour then

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was branded XX, XXX, or XXXX, according to grade, and not with a fancy name like it is branded now. Which of these was the best grade, I do not know.

Which reminds me of one neighbor's wife that had quite a flock of children of below teen years, and who used the flour sacks to make dresses for them by cutting off corners from the bottom of the sack, and a half-moon slice from the middle, and the dress was ready to slip over their heads, with the brands of XXX or XXXX in bright red color on their backs, so that she could tell if it was Joey or Jenny at a distance.

The big fat woman was not only resourceful, but also a big liar. Her husband was a spindly, weak man, tailor by trade, and went to Kansas City to follow his trade to support his family, while the woman took care of the children and four milk cows. They dug a well, that like all wells dug on top of a hill, ended when the black shale was hit. But the woman bragged that they found coal, and her husband carried a lump of it to Rush Center, and traded it for a sack of flour.

Joseph Schroter, Sr., was of inventive mind. They related about him that he invented self-propelling bicycle like a perpetual motion, while in the "Old Country". The hind wheel of the machine was smaller than the front, but the rider's weight gave it more traction, and a chain from it to the front wheel which was larger and travel faster, would pull the hind wheel. It was a wonderful idea, but for some reason it did not work.

So Mr. Schroter, Sr., got another idea. He bought an old mower, took it to Joe, Jr.'s shop to convert it into a grain header, Joe, Jr. tried to convince his father that the scheme would not work. So the old gentleman turned to Joe's oldest son, Raimund, and asked him:  "So, Raimund? What do you think? Will it work?" "Yes, Grandpa, it will work!", asserted Raimund, nodding his head. "Now, then Joe. See! That boy of yours has got more sense than you have!", elated Joe Sr. declared. But Joe, Jr. was right.

It was my job to herd the few head of cattle that we had, and when the well that we had been watering them at ran dry, then I had to drive them daily three miles down the creek where there was plenty of water in several large pools. A farmer named Beal, not the broom corn Beal, also had his two daughters to bring their stock there to water. The bunch of us, including three of the XXX flour kids, waded in the pool until the water got real muddy. Suddenly, I saw something black, with mouth wide open and whiskers sticking out swimming towards me. I started backing away to the edge of the pool, and looking back of me saw more of the frightful creatures coming right at me. Out I rushed out of the pool as did all the rest of the children. I did not know what the horrid things were.

The following day the Beal girls brought a milk pail with them and caught it full of the cat fish, there appeared to be hundreds of them in the pool. I did not know that they were good to eat, the girls could not tell me as we did not understand each other, and it would have been a waste of effort if I should have taken some home with me, as mother would not cook them, as she had an aversion to the smell of fish. Years later, when father built a fish pond, and stocked it, and caught some fish, he had to cook them himself.

I learned my A,B,C's in the one winter of schooling in Europe. Now

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while minding the few head of our cattle, I learned to read by Czech by means of an almanac that was brought with us, which had stories in it, and which I carried with me and read from beginning to the end, and possibly over and over again. Thus I secured my what might be called "cow tail education" in Czech reading and language.

The most unpleasant thing about herding cows and reading at the same time, was that being barefooted, I often stepped on the little ball cactus, or sometimes on the broad leaved pear cactus, who two inch spines were easier to extract than the little ones of the ball variety, which seemed to have small hooks on the end of the tiny spines. The pear cactus spines would penetrate about an inch into the sole of the foot, and often break off.

After about two months of going barefoot the soles of my feet became hard with a glass like finish, which the cactus spine did not penetrate very often. Then in the fall, when I started to wear shoes, and soaked my feet in hot water, the sole would start to peel, and strips nearly a quarter of an inch thick would slice off with some spines bedded in it.

The cactus were dangerous to bare feet, but their blossoms were beautiful. Early in the Spring, there would be large patches of white and purple daisies, later followed by purple flowers of wild turnip, and the tall spikes of majestic soap weed, called Spanish Bayonet by some, and many other blossoms that I never learned the names of. I always expected to see rattlesnakes coiled under the soap weed clump, but never found one. However, I did find one coiled under a spice weed and made a grab for it, believing it to be a nest full of young birds, only Jack, who was with me, jerked me back and saved me from snake bite.

There were many kinds of snakes everywhere. Beside the rattlesnake, which was the only poisonous one, there was the bullsnake, which probably was the most abundant, the blue racer, mustard snake, garter snake, the bull nose and others. My most exciting experience with rattlesnake was while herding cattle for a man named Brady, about three miles south of where Shaffer is now located. I had two dogs with me. A large one of mixed parentage, named Henan - what an odd name for a dog - the other was a little Cocker Spaniel named Trixie. I was lying down on a thick cushion of Buffalo grass with a straw hat over my face to keep the sun and flies away, near a bunch of cattle, when suddenly I heard fierce barking of the two dogs from a nearby draw, so I ran over to see what was going on.

There was a large rattler coiled up with his head drawn back ready to strike. Trixie was making lunges at him, yelping, then quickly leaping back, while Henan, opposite of Trixie, was just barking at the snake, but otherwise, did not seem to have any other interest in him until Trixie lured the snake to strike, then Henan got into the action, and before the snake could recoil, he leaped and caught the rattler and shook him vigorously for a few moments, then threw him away, the snake fell stretched out, and before it could recoil, he grabbed him near his head and almost chewed it off. This was a great demon­stration by dumb brutes. What cooperation can do
It is prevalent belief that a rattlesnake cannot extend his body while striking more than about two thirds of its length. This also has been my belief until I had experience many years later with one that proved this to be wrong. I was driving a car on a black topped highway when I saw a rattler coiled up right in the center of the road. I stopped. Not having anything else to attack

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the snake with, I got a tire chain and struck the snake two or three times with it, but must not have done much damage to it, but only to increase its rage. It finally got thoroughly mad and made a lunge at me, and this was the only time that I really saw the snake extend his whole body and even slightly leap off the ground. I finally killed it, but thereafter was more cautious when fighting a rattlesnake.

On the prairie there were many bleached skeletons of buffalo. Some men from Larned came with large racks on their wagons, gathered and hauled them away. What the bones were used for I never learned. We found many empty large caliber brass shells and bullets, and many arrow heads made of flint rock on the prairie, of which we soon had a large collection. The only larger game that was still here were the antelopes, of which we saw many herds.

Of the feathered game, the most abundant was the prairie hen, whose nests were very hard to find. They were made mostly in a patch of tickle grass about the size of a room. The hen would fly out of the grass, acting as though her wings were broken, likely to tempt you to try to catch her, and keep you from searching for the nest, which has as many as twenty eggs in it. It took plenty of time, and careful looking to find the nest.

Often I would flush out a hen with a flock of young chicks, which would disappear into the short buffalo grass while looking right at them, as their color blended with the thick grass. The hen would fly off a little way, fluttering as when chased off of the nest to draw attention from the chicks. The prairie hens would gather in flocks near sundown to do their courting, and their booming voices blended with the singing of meadowlarks and was pleasant to listen to.

There also were two kinds of snipes, that may not be the right name for them, but it is the only one that I have learned; the large one stood up about two feet high., with a bill ten to twelve inches long. The small snipe had a body about the size of a pigeon, and stood only about twelve inches high. Also, there were plovers, but no quail, as there was no shelter for them until we moved to the new place, and found plenty of them in the thickets of Dry Walnut Creek.

After living on this farm for two and half years without water, father bought a quarter of land from Joe Marrymee for $40.00. This is the farm that Ralph Pivonka now owns. It had a walled well on it that furnished only enough water for house use, the rest had to be hauled, or the stock driven to a well about one mile away. There was a small but well built sod house on the place, and dug-out site for barn stable.

After moving in in the early Fall, father and mother made daily trips to the old place to cut corn and bring loads of the stalks, and other crops to the new place. Myself, Frank and Ralph took care of the stock and chickens, and usually had supper ready when the folks arrived home. This usually consisted of potato soup. Once I tried a diversion by cooking some milk gravy, which I have seen mother make a number of time, and knew all of the ingredients. And thereby hangs a mystery.

I heated some grease in a deep frying pan, sifte'd in a liberal portion of flour, scorched it, and added about a pint of milk and started stirring.

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I soon had the pan running over, so dipped some of it into the slop pail, added more milk and stirred, again the pan was running over, so more went into the slop pail, more milk was added, and more dipped into the slop pail, more milk was added, and more dipped into the slop paid until it was full, and I had the gravy pan under full control. The pail, was set out doors, and "Prince", our only dog, feasted on it until he had the appearance of an inflated balloon. He looked at me with sorrowful eyes, and staggered away, and we never saw him again. Did he die of overeating? Or did he grieve over the inhuman treatment and found another home for himself? Who knows?

I was now eleven years old, and up to this time I had very little chance to learn the American language. Now we had American neighbors, and while herding our few head of stock, I met our neighbor's son, Will McKinney, who was tending their much larger herd, so we met every day, and little by little we soon were able to understand each other. There was a little school house less than a mile from our home, and three to four months of school was taught each winter. So, armed with a primer, Rays Elementary arithmetic, and slate, I started my education.

Brother Jack started with me the first winter. He had advantage of me, as the wife of the farmer he worked for that summer learned him enough so that he started in the second reader, and helped me whenever he could. Also, while working out, he read some in the "Youth's Companion" and subscribed for it, the all of the children's page consisted of comic action of Palmer Cox Brownies advertising Ivory soap, and was the first to be read.

There was one handicap to our education. Our small bunch of cattle had to be grazed and driven to water every day, so we took turns every other day in going to school and herding, except if father had nothing to do and would take care of them, or if there was snow covering the grass, and the stock was kept in the stable. So after four winters of schooling my education was completed half way in Watsons third reader, primary speller and arithmetic, and elementary geography, a start in grammar and a copy book for writing.

There were about twenty boys and girls of all ages receiving knowledge from one teacher, either male or female, whose salary was $30.00 to $40.00 a month, I suppose they were paid according to the funds that were available for their hire. The water for drinking was carried in a pail from Jim Marrymee's place, which was a half mile distant from the school. Marrymee was a thresherman, and his steam engine stood where we went right by when we came after water. One day, I became daring, screwed up my courage, climbed onto the engine platform and pulled the whistle cord, hoping that Jim left some steam in it, but got no results. It may be that I did not pull the cord hard enough.

Of course, we played all kinds of games during recess. If there was snow on the ground not soft enough for snow balling - in which the teacher usually took part - then we played the "Fox and Geese". If the day was nice then we would play baseball, with a ball made from twine out of flour sacks, and the bat made out of two-by-four with one end rounded for the handle. There was only one base beside the home plate. The batter was out if the batted ball was caught, or he or she tagged when off the base, or while running between bases, which often re­sulted in chasing the runner who tried to avoid being tagged by leaving the path between the bases and was chased all over the grounds. The little scholars too small to play baseball played "Andy Over" over the school house roof.

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On Friday's, after afternoon recess, we usually had a spelling bee, between the scholars, or read and recited selections either prose or poems. Our school, and adjoining three districts, organized a literary society, the meetings were held on Friday evenings in rotation between the districts. The entertain­ment, or programs, consisted of readings, reciting poems, dialogs, or debating on some interesting seasonal subject. Spelling bees between the districts, and also reading weekly papers, which was filled with choice bits of local gossip, news and mock ad­vertisements. A new editor was selected each week for next week's paper, and every­one was expected to contribute to it. The adults took the largest part in these meetings.

The country slowly settled up, and the settlers became more prosperous. Father bought two large pony mares, and each brought us a colt. In the fall of 1885, he bought some Turkey wheat for seed that some Menonites had imported from Russia and sowed ten acres with it. The big snow that fell during the January, 1886 blizzard, soaked the soil so that we raised good crops. The ten acres of Turkey wheat threshed out over four hundred bushels, a good portion of which was sold to neighbors for seed, the rest was marketed in Larned or Pawnee Rock, some as low as .28 and .30 per bushel.

I went to Pawnee Rock with father with one load of wheat, which was all in two bushel sacks, and was dumped right into the railroad cars. After unloading, we went to Gano & Logan's General Store to buy our dinner, which consisted of two large glasses of apple cider from a 50 gallon wood barrel, .05 worth of sweet crackers and .05 worth of cheese, a total of .20 for two dinners. After eating, father walked to a window two or three doors north of the store, tapped on the window, walked to the corner of the block, layed .35 on the sill, and when he came back found a half pint bottle of whiskey on the window sill.

The C.K. & W. - Chicago, Kansas and Western - railroad was built in the Fall of 1886, from Great Bend to Selkirk, Kansas, and a station was built at Timken, where August Kraisinger opened a general store, which became our trading point. Before this road was built, a bond election was held in the township, and bonds were voted to help the railroad to build the road. In return for these bonds, an equal amount of railroad stock was given to the township, so in reality the bonds would not have cost the township anything. But shortly after the road was built, it went into bankruptcy, the stock became worthless, but the township had to pay the bonds as they have been sold to "innocent purchaser", and Santa Fe, with whose equipment the road was built, took the road over.

John Smrcka, built a small stone house and lived in tie back part of it, the front being used as a store room from which he sold few groceries, Dr. Severas' pat­ent medicines and whiskey. Olney was the post office located one mile north of Timken, and was run by a man named Delaplain. John Mazouch carried the mail sack from the depot to Olney. Then Smrcka was appointed as postmaster. The name was changed to Timken, which was named after Jacob Timken, inventor of the Timken Buggy springs who owned much land east of Timken; the Kraisinger and Smrcka stock of goods were bought by Fred Miller, who had stores at Rush Center and Nekoma, and who built a store on the railroad right-of-way.

Timken became sort of a recreation point for the community. A dancing

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platform was built on a flat, shady place on the Walnut Creek on Smrcka's place. Also, a rope swing on a large limb of an elm tree, and whirly-gig made out of 2X12X20 plank, mounted on a stump, with a pivot at its center, then a refreshment stand selling pop, lemonade, candy and cigars, mostly the "Old Virginia" cheroots selling 3 for 100, and strong as a mule. Later, a baseball diamond was laid out, and games were played with teams from surrounding commun­ities. The music, usually was furnished by a fiddler, or an accordian player, who were paid by passing the hat.

Now the "Banner Cornet Band" was organized by buying used band instru­ments from a defunct band at Enterprise, Kansas, and soon became popular by playing for weddings, Decoration Day programs, political rallies and other occasions. There were only eight of us at the beginning, with brother Charles as the leader, but it soon increased to twelve, including Frank and Ralph. What we lacked in harmony we made up in volume of sound. For practice, we usually met on Sunday afternoons, at one of the members, in rotation. And the member at whose place we met as a rule furnished a keg of beer to keep our throats from getting dry.

Anton Vesecky played the tuba; someone shoved a number of donuts into the bell of the big instrument, Anton noticed that there was something wrong with the big horn, but could not locate it, so he poured some water into the bell and after turning it over in different ways, a half bucket full of soaked doughnuts squashed out onto the center of the dance floor.

At first, it was almost a solid Czech settlement, but was bordered by a number of other nationalities, who joined in our social life. Thus, the community became a cosmopolitan gathering of young people, who took part and pleasure in our social activities.

Brother Jack was an inventor. The crowning effort of his creation was mounting a wagon seat on the rear axle of an old wagon, placing a pole instead of a reach into the hounds, and hitching a team of our ponies. We would ride like two kings on the rattling contraption down Timken way.

This concludes the worthwhile incidents of my 'teen years of living on a central Kansas farm. Nothing very exciting, just describing every day life in the early days of Kansas and making the best of what little we possessed.

This document was apparently prepared by John N. Pivonka late in life, before his death in 1968, and published in the Pivonka Family Record in 1979.
Scanned and converted to HTML 4 August, 2005.