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Wellington Daily News - Wellington, KS
  • Sumner County historical society receives grant

  • A rare glimpse into Sumner County's past will now endure into the future.
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  • We have it pretty easy…
    – Roofs over our heads, grocery stores – minutes away, running hot water, emergency medical attention at a moment's notice, medicine to keep us living healthy long lives – potentially past our hundredth birthdays.
    Early Kansas settlers had it tough.
    Every basic necessity was a struggle to create or maintain.
    On a tall-grass prairie, the grass could grow as tall as a man. There were no trees in sight. Drought, tornadoes, even the grasshoppers were a menacing threat. In those days, the triple-digit days of summer held a different meaning.
    During the winter of 1886, horses and cattle succumbed to frigid temperature -- their breath, freezing over the ends of their noses.
    It's hard to really know exactly how hard it was for early Sumner County residents.
    But a notebook donated to the Sumner County Historical and Genealogical Society may have some of those answers.
    The notebook contains the "Prairie Letters" – letters written primarily by Emily Sell, a homesteader who lived in Rome, Kansas in the 1870s. She was one of 22 white people living in Sumner County at the time.
    "I couldn't imagine what life must have been like for those early settlers," said Elaine Clark, Prairie Letters Project Director. "There have been histories written about other areas of Sumner County during this time period, but very few collections of letters have been discovered which give a first-person perspective. That makes this collection of letters a priceless, irreplaceable piece of Kansas history."
    Clark wrote a grant proposal to the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) for the letter preservation project.
    "Transcription and preservation of these letters will give future historians, researchers, genealogist, and those interested in early settlement of the Midwest a first-person account of the hardships and difficulties of early homesteader," said Clark.
    Clark, and her husband Larry, traveled to Jordan Cemetery to visit Emily's gravestone.
    "I stood there and wondered what her life was like," said Clark, adding "these letters reveal much about the early days of Sumner County and the hardships and sorrows that families endured … these letters share the facts of everyday life for Kansas' early settlers -- babies that died because no doctors were available, weeks that go by before getting letters from family and friends, and children who can't get an education because they live too far from school, or they are needed to work on the farm."
    The KHC saw the value in the letters, awarding our historical and genealogical society a $3,500 grant.
    The nonprofit organization supports community-based cultural programs, serving as a financial resource, encouraging Kansans to engage in the civic and cultural life of their communities.
    Page 2 of 2 - "This transcription project will preserve these one-of-a-kind primary source documents for generations to come. What a treat to find out what stories these letters will tell," said Julie Mulvihill, executive director of the KHC.
    Some of the letters are nearly unreadable, the pen strokes slowly fading. Our local detectives aren't wasting time transcribing the letters.
    Modern technology is allowing curious well-wishers to watch the process of the transcription from the comfort of their own computers. Visit www.ksschgs.com, blog at www.ks-schgs.blogspot.com, or the SCHGS Facebook page.
    It's doubtful Emily Sell could ever have imagined her private letters becoming historic. She was just living her life. Soon, her story will be chronicled as history – the good and the bad.
    Do you have any research requests? Our very own group can help you out.
    The research center is free to the public, but donations are appreciated.
    The historical society also offers assistance researching outside of the facility for an hourly fee of $10. Copies, postage and mileage are extra.
    The group uses any money generated to go to the operating costs and research material.
    The center is located in the lobby of the Memorial Auditorium, 208 N. Washington. Operating hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (closed at lunch) every Tuesday.
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