My mother Patricia Devereaux Irwin, the baby of seven children, was born on December 26, 1912. She was raised on a twelve-acre farm three miles outside of Manhattan, Kansas, on Wildcat Creek. (A photo of Wildcat Creek taken in 1937 is the featured image on this post.) There is evidence that the field in front of the Irwin home was once an Indian campground. Numerous Indian artifacts, such as arrow points, broken pottery, and brass were found through the years on this property. Mother and Daddy framed a collection of the arrowheads they found mostly on this property. Most of the points are quite impressive. The old trail to Fort Riley allegedly crossed Wildcat Creek a hundred yards or so from the farm, and the Indian campground was high enough to be out of danger from the creek when it flooded.
My oldest sister Patsy has vivid memories of the farm. In a letter to me in 2010, she wrote:
In my mind I tried to follow the road from the main road along the gravel trail next to the railroad tracks to where the road curved to the left. Then I followed the road with the creek on the right side of the car and the alfalfa field on the left all the way to the house. I could see Gramma coming out of the house to greet us. She walked with a swinging gait, her hands held out to greet us. We could hardly get out of the car fast enough. She always had on an apron over a flour sack, homemade dress. Her hugs always had a sweet smell.
The only door they ever used led into the small kitchen. It smelled of bread baking and bacon frying. When I [Patsy] was young, in grade school, the only stove was a wood stove and oven which made the kitchen nice and warm in the winter but nearly unbearable in the summer. Because there was no indoor plumbing, a #2 washtub was the only way to take a bath. Baths were few and far between. Sometimes we would drive into town [Manhattan] to [our] cousin’s…to take baths. When we did get to use the washtub, it was a circus of splashing water and giggles. I’m sure Mother was tired out by the time Nancy and I were finished. By the time Tina came along, Gramma was fortunate to have indoor plumbing. Even then it was just a tin shower and no tub. Rather than getting in the shower with Tina, Mother would give Tina a bath in the large kitchen sink. It was just the right size for a baby bath. One thing I hated, though, was that the water smelled and tasted terrible. I have never smelled that smell since. The water came from a well, and for a long time the only way to get water into the house was from a pump just outside the kitchen door…
No plumbing meant no toilet. At night we used a chamber pot but during the day we had to trek to the outhouse. That was not a pleasant place to go…
Grampa had a Swiss milk cow named Boss. All his cows were named Boss. He would amble out to the pasture and call ‘Here Boss.’ She would usually be waiting for him…The barn cats would line up against the wall and wait for a squirt of milk.
In 1948 it seemed like their house was way out in the country, but today  the city of Manhattan, Kansas, surrounds the property. To this day nothing has been built on that property. Except for where the house was (it burned down in the ‘80s), the rest of the property is a flood plain.
Wildcat Creek runs in a horseshoe around the property…Mom and Dad would take Nancy and me fishing. The water was clear and cold. On still summer nights I could hear from my bedroom window the bubbling of the stream along with the loud chirping of frogs and an occasional owl. On a cliff overlooking the whole expanse of the farm was a zoo. A little girl’s imagination could run wild dreaming about the wild animal sounds that could be heard drifting down from that cliff – lions, elephants, peacocks and the like…
The following three and one-half minute clip is from 8mm film my father took in the late 1930s on a trip to the Irwin family farm in Manhattan, Kansas. Appearing in the video are: my grandparents, Mother’s sister Alice and husband Bill, Mother’s brother Bill and wife Wilma, Mother’s sister Lora (sitting on porch).
Patsy also said she remembers: lying in the hay in the top of the barn and looking through the cracks in the sides, the smell of the dusty hay, cherry trees in the garden, listening to the swallows chortle, picking and eating cherries until she was nearly sick, tomatoes as big as soft balls, sweet corn “standing tall like soldiers marching down the rows keeping order in the garden” (as she put it), abundant yellow butterflies in the summer and catching fireflies in a jar and watching them sparkle ‘til she drifted off to sleep.
My own vague recollections of the farm include the outside water pump, the smell of the water, a relatively large dark living room, and the tiny interior water closet. The thought of spiders in the water closet frightened me, as did pulling the chain to flush the tank high on the wall above the toilet for fear it would fall on me. The bathroom fixtures were fairly new, but it all seemed very old and creepy to me. The only thing in the kitchen I can remember is the wood burning cook stove (I have a miniature replica of it), and the outside well water, which was eventually pumped into the kitchen and dispensed with a hand pump. I remember a dark, rickety, narrow, steep staircase but not much about the two bedrooms upstairs that they led to. My sisters and I slept in the back room of the old farm house. At certain times of the year, my sister Nancy spent hours sitting on a bed in that back room polishing with butter some kind of bean-like seeds she collected outside. (I think it was butter.) I slept on what I assume was Daddy’s army cot, which we used often, even at home when we had overnight guests. That back room was frigid in the winter, but a wood-burning pot-bellied stove stood in the middle of the room and kept the room at a cozy temperature until the fire burned out, but by then we were fast asleep.
Mother’s memories of home:
I remember the hikes in the hills with Dad to cut a Christmas tree each year. Mother would phone the Rosencutters to get permission. Every Fourth of July there was a picnic in Walnut Grove and we kids shot off firecrackers. If it rained we’d go to the basement and sit under the house overhang and shoot our “lady-fingers” there.
After I left home I always looked forward to the visits home. I’d eat breakfast with Mother and Dad at the cluttered breakfast table and watch birds at the window feeder. Breakfast was home-made bread toast made on the hot coal-and-wood stove and a fresh brown egg. Dad always had hot oats sugared and creamed, egg and toast, and “larrupins.”
“Larrupins.” I’m not sure what that means. I looked it up, and I’m still not sure specifically what it means. My best guess here is that it means something (anything) really tasty.
Mother wrote later in life that she learned how to swim in Wildcat Creek and once, when it flooded, her mother took her in a row boat way up the flooded creek. Patsy told me that Mother didn’t like living on the farm and couldn’t wait to get away from it.