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Saturday, February 27, 2021

How I’m Coping Without My Bookstore


My old girl, Sarah, in her younger days

“It’s only temporary!” Loretta (played by Cher) yells at her father when he asks to see her engagement ring and she shows him (as he points out) what is obviously a pinkie ring. 


Everything is temporary”! he yells back.


“Moonstruck” is one of my favorite movies, one of those rare films with nary a clinker. Every scene and line is perfect. I think of it as I write this post today because, as you know, my bookstore in northern Michigan is closed while I take my annual seasonal (winter) retirement.


The daily “Shelf Awareness” newsletter has had a regularly occurring feature since sometime in 2020, inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, called “How Bookstores Are Coping.” The feature tells stories from all over the United States about how supportive customers have been, online orders being received on store websites, tales of curbside delivery; etc. And every day when I read those stories, I feel like a deserter from the front lines, although Dog Ears Books is not closed for the winter because of the pandemic, but only so this aged bookseller can have a respite before taking a deep breath and plunging into another busy season as one of the “working aged” (as another of my still-working friends informs me we are identified). 

Resting on her laurels in old age

Open for business only four months last year when stay-at-home restrictions were eased, I was full of trepidation beforehand, but after another still-working friend helped me out with a professional deep cleaning and I got all my pandemic precautions in place, things went fine. In four months, only two people complained about. having to wear masks (one of them told how to wear it correctly, up over his nose, made a fast exit, and that was okay, too -- his choice). Everyone else was cheerful, and more than one person thanked me for requiring masks and hand sanitizing at the door. 

Sarah with me for her last bookstore season


Bookstore people! They are the best!


Out here in Arizona in the early winter of 2019-2020, I was happy to arrange a couple of very parttime volunteer gigs for myself. On Monday mornings, at the Friendly Bookstore in Willcox, a venture of the Friends of the Elsie S. Hogan Community Library, and on Wednesday mornings in a program that paired older volunteers with at-risk children in early grades at the local public school, reading with them and having them write stories. I loved that git – the first volunteer job of my life! The children were darling, and naturally I felt right at home in a bookstore. 


Then came the stay-at-home order, and everything came to a sliding stop – which is much faster than it sounds. No more reading with little kids at school. No more selling books and honey. No socializing with neighbors, either. 


Well, you all know. We were “all in it together,” we were told over and over. Now, almost a year later, we hope the end is in sight, but life is still not back to normal, and the stories of “coping” continue.


The first winter the Artist and I came out West, there were three independent bookstores in Benson, just 30-odd miles down the pike from Willcox. The one we frequented most often and always found stacks of books to buy closed when the bookseller decided 25 years in business was long enough. The second, which we belatedly discovered on a back street, was gone without explanation last year. And the owner of the third, way out in the country, on a ranch with donkeys (and yes, a little dog, too), died in late 2020 at the age of 90, after 46 years as a bookseller. 


From three indies to none in five years. 


So now, unless we want to drive down to Bisbee or all the way to Tucson (where I had discovered the wonderful Book Stop not long before shelter-in-place order hit), neither of which we’ve done so far this season, we’re thrown back on the pot luck of thrift shops and FOL bookstores, which are better than nothing -- and some very nice and friendly and COVID-aware -- but nothing like the curated collection of an indie. And the FOL place in Benson has been closed since the first of the year. 


I miss the indies and supporting my fellow indie booksellers, my colleagues. Who knows? Maybe before we leave for Michigan this spring we’ll make it back over to the Book Stop neighborhood in Tucson or down to Meridian Books in Bisbee. I hope so. Because I have not yet abandoned the front lines myself, and it’s important to me to support with my purchases – support that really counts -- others who are out there in this always-risky, always changing business called bookselling. 


We indie booksellers all need to make money to stay in business, but we didn’t go into this particular business to get rich. You know why we do it! You wouldn’t be reading “Books in Northport” if you didn’t love books!

Not there now, but I shall return!

Postscript Update, 3/13/2021: The Friends of the Library bookstore in Benson, closed January and February, re-opened March 3, and we made our first visit of the year on March 12. I was delighted to find the volunteer in charge none other than Lenore, retired from the the former Benson bookstore we visited so many times. She was able to tell us that Mary Ann, another of Benson’s booksellers, moved her shop to Apache Junction to be nearer her son. (Mary Ann's and Lenore's former Benson bookshops appear in this old post.) Also, that the heirs of the late Win Bundy, bookseller at Singing Winds bookstore (the one with the donkeys), are trying to figure out how they might re-open. That would be fantastic, as Win's inventory of books on the Southwest was nothing short of mind-boggling.


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Baudelaire for Breakfast

Having a new young dog that needs exercise and training is a little bit like having a new baby in the house, in that my mornings are not at all my own. Quiet writing time? Ha! I’m lucky to get a paragraph or two written in my journal, and as far as reading goes, many mornings it’s crazy to try to get very far in a book before Peasy has been outdoors for a good run. 


The other day the Artist and I (dog in backseat, of course) went over to visit the very nice, very clean and well-organized little FOL bookstore over in Sunsites, a.k.a., for postal purposes, Pearce. Pearce itself, like Dos Cabezas, is an old mining ghost town where only a few people live; a few miles to the north is the large subdivision of Sunsites, where the post office and library bearing the name Pearce are now located. I hoped maybe to find a good book in French, and in the poetry section, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a little bilingual paperback edition of Twenty Prose Poems, by Charles Baudelaire! 


So this morning, after Mr. P. and I had a good, rousing, morning outdoor adventure, when it was warm enough (with jacket) to sit out in the sun and read a little Baudelaire while Peasy gave his beautiful white puppy teeth a workout on an old cow bone, the short pieces in the Baudelaire book seemed like something I would be able to absorb despite distractions of dog and birds. (The Western bluebirds made another appearance at my birdbath ths morning!) I was more than a little shocked, however, to find a mistranslation in the very first prose poem in the book. The phrase was not at all tricky, either. An old woman, enchanted by a pretty child, approaches the little one with a smile: 


Et elle s’approcha de lui, voulant lui faire des risettes et des mines agréables.


That is the French. The English is given as:


And she approached the child, wishing to smile at it and make faces pleasantly. 


“Make faces pleasantly”? No, make pleasant faces. The French uses an adjective, not an adverb. Moreover, “making faces pleasantly” (in my opinion) hardly makes sense. Is it good English? What do you think? Anyway, that's as far as I got this morning. 


Later, toward midday, when the three of us were all settled down, the Artist and I in our reading chairs and Peasy fully engaged in tearing apart a new dog toy his Aunt Deborah had sent him, I was able to finish an entire short book, After the Fire, a book of poems and annotations consisting of background biographical information by the mystery writer I’m so hooked on these days, J. A. Jance. The author wrote the poems secretly, early in her first marriage, and hid them from her alcoholic husband, who had made it quite clear to her that there was to be “only one writer in the family.” (In the end, he remained a wannabe, she became the writer.) Only after his death, which occurred a year and a half after their divorce, did she rediscover the poems, hidden away in the box containing family birth, marriage, and divorce documents. 

My critical response is that Jance serves her readers better with her fiction than had she determined to continue writing poetry. Even so, the work is fascinating for its honest revelations. When writing the poems, Jance thought of herself as creating “art,” if only for herself, not engaging in self-analysis or exploration of issues in her married life. 


The artifice of “art” allowed me to maintain emotional distance. I could look at what was happening without ever having to come to terms with what was going on in my marriage. It spared me the harsh reality and hard work of actually doing something to change our disaster-bound direction. Looking at my poetry with the benefit of hindsight, I see how, even as early as 1968, a part of me understood that my marriage was doomed….


-      J. A. Jance, After the Fire


But her secret poems, not intend as anything else when she wrote them, later served her as a kind of journal of those earlier years, each one bringing back memories of the time of its creation and her surroundings on that day. To read more of Jance’s present life, see here.


Another book of poetry, Bone Rosary: New and Selected Poems, by dedicated poet Thomas Lynch, I’m reading much more slowly and will tell you about at length, in a separate post, when I come to the last page and collect my thoughts on what I’ve read, and I’ll do the same with my current serious nonfiction book, Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility, by Alex Zamalin. 


My bedtime reading is not singular this week. The after-movie, read-aloud book is The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, by Ernesto “Che” Guevara. I try to stop each evening at a cliff-hanger point in the story, which isn’t hard, considering the kinds of roads Che and his friend, Alberto, are traveling on and the instability of their motorcycle, resulting at one point in nine crashes in a single day. Then I turn from the excitement of a motorcycle-buddy road trip, before turning out my bedside light, and read silently to myself a few pages from a YA novel, You May Already Be a Winner, by Ann Dee Ellis, and I’m already anticipating two more bedside books awaiting me. 


And I cannot close today’s post without noting the passing of poet, publisher, and bookseller Lawrence Ferlenghetti, whose poems I discovered back in East Lansing in 1967. (The book was A Coney Island of the Mind.) Ferlenghetti lived to the ripe old age of 101, and his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, also the home of City Lights Books, has been as well the home of the nonprofit City Lights Foundation since 1953. The bookstore received historic landmark status in 2001. Finally, let me note that the Baudelaire volume I had in hand several times today was published by City Lights Books. 


Thank you, Mr. Ferlenghetti, for getting your good work for literature done in the world for so long.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Peasy Tales: His First Rodeo

It wasn’t my first rodeo. That happened way back when in South Dakota when I was still in utero. Naturally, I didn’t see much, however, so junior rodeo events here in Willcox, Arizona, have been a big part of my winter enjoyment since 2015. It's a big part of the culture of southeast Arizona, where ranch life is still real, and the high school sports teams are the Cowboys and the Cowgirls for good reason.


Of course, we can’t know for absolutely certain that our new little rescue dog has never been to a rodeo before, but it seems like a pretty safe bet. How would he react? With his extreme shyness, I wasn’t sure he’d be getting out of the car at all, what with crowds of people and running horses and bawling calves and all kinds of noise and hubbub -- and especially a gaggle of little children pretending to be puppies and romping up and down the noisy metal ramp to the grandstand and generally having a wonderful time. So much going on! While he was in the car, though, two people came up to the window, and he didn’t freak out, which is big progress, for him. 


So much going on!

Rodeo time is happy time!

So, when the noisy “puppy” brigade cleared out, and things got calmer at our end of the grandstand, I decided to try Peasy on his leash by the rail. Ringside! And he did pretty darn well for his first rodeo! He wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but he sat when I asked him to sit, and he didn’t have anything like a meltdown, just remained wide-eyed and mesmerized.

A doggie-nosed window

Front seat view

Sorry I don’t have pictures of Peasy by the rail, watching the action. Because I hadn’t been able to handle dog and camera and get pictures of dog all at the same time, I thought we might go back for a second day on Sunday and I could enlist David as photographer, but that will have to wait for the next rodeo, because Sunday turned out to be a different kind of day for our pack....

However – and Lynn is gonna love this! -- a dog trainer I met earlier in yesterday at the feed store, a woman who had three Aussies with her in the store, came out to where she had parked next to us, looked at Peasy, and said, “Oh, yeah, he’s an Aussie, for sure!” I’d told her we’d been going back and forth and that opinions had been divided between Aussie and border collie. (Other dog people have been just as sure that he’s border collie.) Well, the border collie is part of the Aussie’s heritage, so – whatever! He is all dog, there’s no doubt about that!


Having Peasy do as well as he did in new situations on Saturday helped me to feel more optimistic about his future, whatever it turns out to be. He is such a sweet, funny, cute little guy -- but he also has so much to learn that sometimes I feel overwhelmed. He and I might get signed up for some professional lessons sometime soon. I think he's worth it.

Rodeo time is family time.

Overnight we had a monster of a storm, winds so strong they sounded like they wanted to tear the roof off the cabin. Along came – what was it? Rain? Hail? Sleet? In the morning there was new snow on the ground, and my first thought was that it must have been a cold morning for cowboy church out at Quail Park. That’s the first Sunday morning event of every weekend junior rodeo, though we seldom arrive before noon ourselves. Peasy and I got outside for my walk and his first run and romp of the day and then came back indoors, where I sewed his bear back together for him and made Valentine muffins for David, and the three of us lay around the shanty, cozy inside while the mountain winds blew, waiting for the sun to break through the clouds again.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Our One Dog, Many Books Life

Another day dawns...

Life With Dogs


Somewhere in my Cochise County travels, I picked up a copy of Abigail Thomas’s memoir, A Three Dog Life, and now I want everyone I know to read it. It’s that kind of book, though in the beginning you’re not sure it will be.


I found my husband lying in a pool of blood, his head split open. Red lights were flashing from cop cars and emergency vehicles….


-      Abigail Thomas, A Three Dog Life


Doesn’t sound like a book for everyone, does it? When I was trying to choose a section to read aloud to the Artist, I landed on a short chapter called “How to Stop a Dog Fight,” a chapter that had me howling out loud with laughter of recognition on the porch of the coffee house earlier in the day.


The next time the dogs start growling and circling each other, fling open the kitchen door and stomp down the steps shouting, “If you don’t stop that this minute I am leaving forever and never coming back!” Face the fact that this is probably not the first time these words have escaped your lips. Think about your children’s childhoods and fall further into the slough of despond. 


Somehow – was it my reading, or was it because the chapter doesn’t have the same punch taken out of context, or is it just something only a mother understands? – the Artist was not caught caght up in the author’s life as I had been. And really, I think now, though the urge to quote endlessly is almost irresistible, I’m pretty sure that the effect does come cumulatively -- and how could it be otherwise in a memoir? -- and that part of the laughter has a hysterical edge, coming as it does in juxtaposition with tragedy. So now I feel foolish, but I can’t buy the book for everyone I know, and I won't be back in my bookstore until spring, so you will all just have to find your own copy if you can't wait. 

He has found another treasure!

Thank heaven the Artist and I are both in pretty good health and as sound of mind as we’ve ever been, so one young, healthy, demanding dog “with issues” (mostly shyness and fear of strangers) is more than enough for our little hosehold. Dear little Peasy! What a handful! But every morning he is so full of bounding joy that it’s impossible not to smile and laugh at his antics. And laughter is reward enough for inviting a dog to join your family, because heaven knows the big, wide world of political people does not often give gifts of laughter.

Light vs. Clouds

Starving in Ireland


One grim book of history I read recently was The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith. A string of words on the dust jacket are what would have been a subtitle back in Victorian times: The Story of the Potato Famine of the 1840s Which Killed One Million Irish Peasants and Sent Hundreds of Thousands to the New World. Oddly enough, though Silas Durand was not Irish at all, it was my Silas Project (his diary, my transcription and commentary) that led me to the potato famine story. 


A couple of Silas’s throwaway lines in January and the first of February sent me looking for material on mid-century Ireland: first a sentence about being “tickled” when the Irishman was disappointed to find American equality more myth than reality, the second his choice of the Know-Nothings as a topic for his newly formed debate society. Silas recorded these two incidents briefly in his diary early in 1855, and I was curious about their wider historical context.


We probably all remember the name Know-Nothings from high school history, but what else do we recall of who they were and what they were all about? The 19th-century movement was known popularly as the Know-Nothings because it began as a secret organization, and any member asked about it was instructed to say, “I know nothing.” Their anti-immigration and virulently anti-Catholic position was a resentment- and fear-fueled response to the flood of 1840s immigrants from Ireland and Italy (Is it any surprise that the foremost leader and first martyr of this cause also found women’s suffrage an abhorrent and unnatural idea?), and their nativism found plenty of support among politicians as well as among a white working class, such that what had begun as the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB, formed in 1849) soon morphed into the very public – and briefly very successful -- American Party, the first serious third-party challenge in American politics. Between 1852 and 1854 the party won elections at every level and put xxx men in the U.S. Congress, but it disintegrated soon afterward over the issue of slavery -- a matter that proved even more incendiary and divisive than immigration.


There were no live television broadcasts to show the starving Irish to the world, whole families sheltering as best they could in muddy ditches after being evicted from cottages they had built themselves (all improvements in the end profiting only the landlords), and many in England believed reports of the potato famine to be a “false alarm,” the “invention of agitators” – in other words, what our recent former president would have called “a hoax” and “fake news.” It was no hoax. Since deaths went unrecorded, with uncounted numbers literally dying of starvation in the open, there is no way to arrive at a precise figure for the tragedy, but population numbers between 1841 and 1851 show a drop of two and a half million, and allowing for the roughly one million Irish who emigrated during the years 1846-51, this puts the death toll from starvation at approximately a million and a half. 


At first there was some public relief, as well as a long effort made by the Society of Friends (Quakers) to save lives, but in the third and fourth year of the famine the soup kitchens were closed, government work projects stopped, and the government in London announced a strictly laissez-faire policy, saying the Irish must help themselves. They were told to collect taxes -- in a land of bankruptcy and financial ruin, where no one any longer had the ability to pay taxes – and to provide locally for the relief of the destitute. At last even the Quakers stopped their efforts. Thad been willing to supplement government aid but were unable, they wrote, to substitute for it entirely.


Nor was starvation the only trouble during those years. Typhus and cholera contributed to the tragedy, spread all the more rapidly in workhouses, soup kitchens -- and on ships. Ships, ah, yes! As there looked to be no future for the Irish in their own land, those who could find any way at all sought to leave by whatever means possible. Passage to Canada was cheaper (some sold all they had; others had fares paid by landlords eager to be rid of them) than passage to the United States and entry into Canada easier, but most Irish had no wish to remain any longer under the flag of England, and so the vast majority who landed in Canada and survived crossed the border to the United States as soon as possible.


Such was the background in Ireland that led to the most massive emigration ever from any European country – and the entry into the young United States of vast numbers of desperate, unskilled immigrants, willing and willing to work for almost any wage offered – and such was the wave of a population movement that created fears triggering the rise of nativism and unsurprising political opportunism, much like what we have seen again in recent years a century and a half later. 


Black in America


A Page from History

But February is Black History Month, and eagerly I closed the book on the Irish tragedy and opened Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut, Jr., by J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass, a book I chose because Chestnut had figured in Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by the late John Lewis, with Michael D’Orso. 


I was only in grade school when desegregation became the law of the land, so while I remember vividly the photographs in magazines of that time, I still have a lot to learn about the historical background and details. 


…When black people in some nmbers stopped telling white people what white people wanted to hear and started expressing their real views, it was a shock. The civil rights movement exposed as a rationalization the white South’s refrain that their blacks were happy, didn’t want to vote, weren’t interested in integration. There they were, hundreds of them, lined up at the courthouse.


-      J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass, Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut, Jr.


Only halfway through the life of Chestnut, I have already committed to reading next, with a friend back in Michigan, a book she recommended called Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility, by Alex Zamalin. Despite the no doubt intentionally provocative title (provocative titles get attention), from one review I found online I gather that the author distinguishes civility in everyday life from civility in political life. I take it he is not recommending rudeness in conversations with neighbors but taking a position that might be called (if my prediction about the book’s content is correct, which I’ll find ot next week) against gradualism, which was the position of Martin Luther King, Jr.


J. L. Chestnut’s moment of “conversion,” as he called it, to what might be called political incivility came when he saw John Lewis face down Sheriff Jim Clark: 


…Clark said, “This is as far as you can go. Turn around and go back. You are not going in the courthouse today.” 


John said, “The courthouse is a public place and we have a right to go inside. We will not be turned around.”


And Clark finally said, “Goddamn it, go on in,” and in they went, with no smiles or handshakes offered by either side. I suspect that’s the kind of “incivility” Zamalin applauds in his book, but I’ll have to let you know when I get into it.


Bedtime Reading


Ready for later

Nighttime, after a movie and before falling asleep, I have to admit to a kind of temporary addiction (I’m sure it won’t last forever) and self-indulgence in the extreme: the author’s name is J. A. Jance, and the series of hers that I’m wallowing in at present features Joanna Brady, fictional sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona! 


My bedtime reading in general tends toward indulgence, as I’ve admitted before – Chiang Yee’s Silent Traveler series and Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe novels, set in Botswana. Bedtime reading doesn’t have to be a series book, and it isn’t always, but there is something calming about getting cozy with familiar characters, people you’ve known and spent time with before. It’s like time spent with old friends. You have history together. You don’t have to explain everything. You can recharge and greet the morning with energy for newer acquaintance.


I Go (Back Again) to the Dogs – Dog, Singlar, That Is


That would be – Peasy! He is energy, enthusiasm, eagerness, joy! He greets each morning with unbounded happiness. I have a home! I have a family! I get to go outside and run and find bones and sticks and chew them! I have a stuffed bear and a stuffed lion to run around the house with – and the lion even squeaks!


Peasy never knew life could be this good, and even when he is driving us crazy with his boundless enthusiasm for life we can’t help laughing at his antics. 


Postscript: An expected coincidence this morning is Dawn King’s blog post for the day -- her photo tour with and personal commentary of Selma, Alabama! Just when I had reached the point in Chestnut’s book where he recounts the 1965 event on the Edmund Pettus Bridge! So follow this link and read Dawn’s post, and then find yourself a book of 1960s U.S. social and political history. Read about those days when unrest and even occasional violence somehow spelled HOPE -- and think about what we can do to revive hope in our own time for all Americans.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Random Glimpses and Treasures

Gripping the wheel, flying toward the looming darkness of the Chiricahuas, Joanna felt incredibly alone….


It had been years since she had traveled Highway 181, but she knew it all too well. It led to a place in the mountains where volcanic activity, combined with wind and water erosion, had carved a forest of spindly rhyolite columns and magically balanced boulders. As a child, that part of the Chiricahuas had been Joanna Lathrop’s favorite place on earth.


J. A. Jance, Dead to Rights: A Brady Novel of Suspense



Not every book I read during my Arizona winters is set in the Southwest, let alone in Cochise County, but just as I enjoy the occasional Michigan mystery in summer and fall, so it seems natural to immerse myself from time to time in fiction and history set here where I spend my winter. Last night I was wide awake at 2 a.m. and got up to read a while, something that hasn’t happened in weeks. Sleepily, Peasy got up from his own bed to follow me and lie on the floor next to my reading chair while I followed Sheriff Joanna Brady to the conclusion of her Cochise County adventure. 

Indoors or outside, it’s pretty obvious that a dog lives here, isn’t it? The Artist and I have a little companion wherever we go these days.

But we three are not always adventuring to the Chiricahuas or the Dragoons or making a beeline down the Kansas Settlement Road. Often a day’s “adventures” are a simple trip to the post office and grocery store in Willcox, with stop for coffee (latte for me) on the porch at Source of Coffee, the wonderful new coffee house on Maley Street in Willcox. We usually carry books along with us, and sometimes I take my laptop. 

A bungalow is just about my favorite style of house, and there aren’t many in the Southwest (not nearly as many as can be round back in Traverse City, Michigan), so when this one in Willcox was being remodeled last winter I cast many an admiring eye in its direction. Now I’m very happy with what the new owners have done with it – and that they are sharing it with the rest of us!

Peasy may stay in the car or come up with us on the porch, depending on how we’re feeling that particular day, but if he’s in the car you can bet he’s sitting up and watching us like the proverbial hawk, eagerly keeping tabs on us and awaiting our return. Such is the life of a lucky dog who now has a home and family.

The Artist and I are lucky, too. We enjoy our winter days in the sun, however much or little we do on any particular day. There are also phone conversations and texts and mail to fill the social vacuum of these continuing COVID-19 days, and in the past few days I’ve had two long letters from old friends, one back in Kalamazoo and the other up in Seattle. Being separated by miles doesn’t have to mean being out of touch. One of the beauties of a letter is being able to carry it around and pull it out to read whenever the urge occurs. Kind of like always having a book in the car or in your big jacket pocket, isn’t it? 


As for Mr. P., he has his own little treasures. This morning it was a deer jawbone he discovered and brought home yesterday. Today on our morning walk, he carried his treasure proudly, lying down several times to gnaw to his heart’s content. I guess chewing can be as much exercise and fun sometimes as running and jumping. Ah, yes, life is good!

Postscript: I hit the jackpot again! Another letter, this one from back home!!! 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

And Then, They Weren’t in Kansas Any More

The name of the road intrigued me from the first time I saw it, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that it means just what it sounds like. Pioneers came by train in February of 1909 from Paola, Kansas, and stepped off the train in Willcox, Arizona, fourteen families hungry for farmland of their own and willing to work up homestead claims that would give it to them. 


…The land was not the gentle hills they were used to. The terrain was flat, and in the distance, there were mountains. 


      The land that had been opened for homesteading in December was twelve to seventeen miles east and south of the town. 


-      Marsha Arzberger One Hundred Sixty Acres of Dirt: A History of the Pioneers of Kansas Settlement, Arizona Territory, 1909


Author Marsha Arzberger read through homestead claims, journals, letters, and scrapbooks, government material and that shared with her by descendants of the original pioneers from Kansas. Those descendants, who included her own husband, also told her stories passed down in their families, and from these various sources she has put together a highly readable and entertaining history of life in a very concentrated area of Arizona’s Sulphur Springs Valley over a hundred years ago. Find it here


The immigrants from Kansas, as I say, came as homesteaders. Claims registered, most families’ next order of business was to hand-dig a well, after which could come the house (many originally only 12’x12’), corrals, chicken coop and barn. Neighbors frequently exchanged labor and worked together to get wells down and buildings up, and by 1909 the Kansas Settlement had its own school and teacher, with 24 pupils enrolled. the town of Willcox only a wagon ride away meant that building supplies, as well as food not supplied by family gardens, was within fairly easy reach.


--Which is not to say that life was, in general, “easy” for these pioneers. For example, when Fred Arzberger’s young wife and children arrived at the Kansas Settlement, no house awaited the young family. Instead, a wooden lean-to sheltered husband and wife, children, Gertrude’s piano, and all of their other belongings, as well, until a two-room wood-frame house could be erected with neighbors’ help. The exterior of the original family house on what is still known as the Kansas Settlement Road was adobe block, i.e., typical Southwest vernacular architecture. The second Arzberger house, its skeleton still standing today, was built on the road that has since taken its name from the Arzberger family.

The Kansas pioneers were farmers, but while everyone came to Arizona with the dream of “a farm of our own,” not all could hold out against the realities of soil and climate in the Sulphur Springs Valley. The Arzbergers, like other pioneers, worked hard. They planted gardens and raised livestock and poultry enough that they had vegetables and meat to sell, along with sauerkraut, pickles, cheese, and molasses, but in 1910, drought rather than rains arrived, and many homsteaders were forced off the claims they had hoped to farm and own. Some left Arizona altogether. Others remained close to their Kansas neighbors, working in the mines in nearby Dos Cabezas. The Arzberger family flourished on the land by turning to ranching and expanding grazing acreage that supported cows better than crops. In southeast Arizona in the 20th century, ranching could succeed where farming could not.


Marsha Arzberger’s history is at once detailed and intimate. She presents historical and genealogical facts without losing sight of the humanity that gives them meaning. Photographs tie together ancestors and descendants, frequent maps keep the reader oriented in geographical space, and stories bring the past alive on the page, while lists of individual claims are kept separate from the narrative – there for those who want them but not cluttering the story for more casual readers. 


From our winter ghost town cabin, the Artist and I drive the Kansas Settlement Road a couple times a week. Once last year we ventured from Rancho Sacatal, just east of Dos Cabezas, over part of the old Butterfield Stage road and down into the Kansas Settlement, coming out on Arzberger Road from an unfamiliar direction and giving me my first up-close look at the old house I had noticed so many times from the KS Road. The house fascinated me, and I made inquiries to one of our neighbors (a retired third-generation rancher), which is how I made the connection to Marsha Arzberger and learned of her book. 


The Sulphur Springs Valley is, for me, just about the right amount of territory for intense historical focus, and zooming in on the Kansas Settlement, with occasional forays to Dos Cabezas, Willcox, or Pearce, lets me look at the land now and picture its past. The author notes that while much is still the same in the valley, much else has changed in the past hundred years. Perhaps most obviously, farming has not disappeared but has become very different from what the first pioneers imagined for themselves.


Most farms became larger as irrigation became more sophisticated. By the 1990s, circular “pivot” sprinklers became the favored method of irrigation, which required more capital. Some large farm operations expanded to thousands of acres. … [At the same time] [r]anching continues in the surrounding mountains and throughout the settlement and the valley.


Originally, wells in the Kansas settlement were dug between 20 and 40 feet deep to reach water. In the twenty-first century, today agribusiness wells easily plunge 1,000 feet, and intensive irrigation for 12 cuttings of hay a year or to grow pistachios or pecans often means wells going dry for neighbors with smaller, more modest holdings. In the Sulphur Springs Valley, a valley without a river running through it, what will the future hold for residents and for agriculture as the water table continues to drop? 


It’s no secret that the history of the area goes back beyond the pioneers from Kansas. Before homesteaders came, this was Apacheria, this whole open valley between the Chiricahua Mountains to the east and the Dragoons to the west (and beyond in all directions). Only after the death of Cochise, Geronimo’s final surrender (of several), and the removal of the Chiricahua Apaches (first – forcibly -- to Florida, then to Oklahoma, and ultimately -- for those who had survived and chose to return --  back to White Mountain in northern Arizona) did the U.S. government open the territory to homesteading.


And before the Apaches came south from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska and ran the Spanish out of what became Arizona and New Mexico, who lived here? “Change,” as my freshman high school earth science teacher told our class so long ago, “is the only constant.” Even the mountains are not eternal. They were not always here, either. But they and we are here now.