When I started doing research in 2009 I had no intention, not even a notion, that I’d soon be writing a novel. My mother died in February 2009, so I decided to do some genealogy research on my family. Lesson one: Don’t begin genealogy research after your parents die.
As I thought about putting something together about our family I came to the realization that I was missing a lot of the major pieces of the genetic puzzle. I took a one-day class in genealogy at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, home base for me. That whetted my appetite. I had been a journalist for more than 40 years so the idea of doing research appealed. Besides, I had flunked retirement and, aside from fly-fishing and birding, I needed something to do.
After another longer class in genealogy research using the great electronic tools available, plus a subscription to Ancestry.com, I was on my way. While my mother’s branch of the tree was closer, she being a Cleveland native, it was my dad’s side that intrigued. I knew bits and pieces of his family history, but not much. Not that Rusty (as his siblings called him and as he becomes in the novel) intentionally hid anything from us (I believe), it’s just that he was a quiet guy who led more by example than words. I recall once asking him, when I was probably eight or nine years old, why we had a grandma on Mom’s side of the family but not on his. His response was that his parents died when he was a kid. Okay. When you’re a kid you don’t think to ask the follow-up questions.
In genealogy research you start at the end of the story and work back to the future—or current. Several days in the archives in Dekalb and Noble Counties, Indiana, where Rusty and his family lived, uncovered a lot of family history. Along the way, a second cousin, Jackie Witt Breiby, Salina, Kansas, was discovered. Jackie turned out to have a treasure trove of information about her grandfather, my uncle Clifton, and the brothers’ lives in Kansas. Included were letters Clifton wrote during the Great War. The names and references in the letters left no doubt that my dad also lived in Kansas when he was a youth.
So, given the facts, the picture began to come into focus: Rusty’s mother (Emma Harding) did die when he was young, in 1915. His father remarried within weeks and moved from Kendallville, Indiana, to nearby Auburn. Within a year of his father’s new marriage Rusty shows up in Woodson County, Kansas, where Clifton was living. They had two uncles in Woodson County.
My next stop was Yates Center, Kansas, and the Woodson County Historical Society and Museum. It was a bitter cold day in late November when the wonderful people at the museum opened their doors to me for my project. The museum normally closes on Labor Day. When we established that I was closely related (my dad’s uncle) to George Harding, one of the county’s more prominent citizens and a compiler of reams of history, I was treated like the prodigal son on his return. I left with an armload of historical information written by my dad’s uncle, factual stuff about life on the prairie.
There were, however, many gaps in the story—such as how did Rusty get to Kansas? And with whom did he live? And what did he do? That’s when I took a deep breath and made the leap over to the dark side. After more than forty years as a journalist, where telling the truth is the first rule, I was about to make things up. Over the next couple of years, as I began to write what has become Lost in the Tallgrass, there were several trips the Kansas State Historical Center in Topeka. Archivists there helped with family records (Uncle George was a member of the state legislature, twice) and newspapers, photos, and other memorabilia for the period of 1916 through 1918. There were also several hikes with Susan through the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northern Chase County, Kansas. One spring, adrenaline pumping, I tramped through a controlled burn on the prairie. (see photos below)
To get a feel for cowboy life during that era I read several books by Professor Jim Hoy, Emporia State University, a Shakespearian scholar and author of numerous articles and books on the life of the cowboy and life in the Flint Hills—his home. When I couldn’t find the answers I’d hoped for, on a whim I called the professor to discuss my project. After a great telephone conversation he said if I was ever in the neighborhood I should stop by. I told him I’d be there in two weeks.
Jim graciously spent a day driving me around the vast Flint Hills region. We visited with his son Josh Hoy, a fifth generation rancher—the Flying W—who also happens to be a gourmet a chef. In his son’s century-old house, I learned about early days and ways of life in the Flint Hills on the tallgrass prairie.
There have also been several trips to the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival where I worked with talented authors eager to help wannabe novelists like myself.
The rest, as they say, is fiction. And in this story it’s about equal parts fact and fiction with some of the interesting true stories not making the cut. For example, in one of Uncle Clifton’s letters he advises Rusty to go back to Yates Center (the boys had for some reason drifted across the state to Deerfield) and live with the Peake family. I researched this family and discovered, along with owning the meanest turkey in the county, old Mr. Peake was a one-story kinda guy. His story was that as a youth he lived in Springfield, Illinois, in the mid 1800s, and had a neighbor, a tall guy who wore a stovepipe hat, walked and read a lot, and was a lawyer. That clue sent Susan and I off to Springfield and the fabulous Abraham Lincoln Home National Historical Site. It took the help of an archivist but, sure enough, Mr. Peake (whose home had been destroyed to preserve the National Park site) had lived a couple houses down the street from the tall guy destined to be one of our more important presidents.
Which left me with the knowledge that I was only two degrees of separation from President Lincoln and my father never mentioned it. Lesson learned: Start your genealogy research now.
Lost in the Tallgrass by Clyde Witt is available for preorder now at a 10% discount through August 14, 2014.