JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS. In the comments somewhere below, Prof. Fox mentions the regional artist John Steuart Curry. A fitting topic for my first foray into this space, not only because the great Kansan’s work exemplifies the populist spirit of my home, the beauty of the prairie, the virtues of self-sufficiency, the peaceful intercourse (though not without struggle) between man and the land, and the hardened edge of the farm, but also because I share a heritage with him.
Curry and his family hailed from Winchester, Kansas, a tiny farming hamlet of five-hundred and my family’s hometown (just a skipping stone’s toss from where I now sit). My grandfather was the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Winchester (as was his father before him), and several of their children were born in the parsonage down the street. In the 20s, it was the largest Presbyterian church in the state.
The church, pictured above, is a beautiful example of simple, hearty prairie architecture. White clapboard siding, large front porch (what good is a church without a front porch), high steeple (with a bell that can be heard all the way across town), big basement for church dinners and tornado avoidance, and cemetery out back. The whole thing built in a time when people liked to, had to, hold their history close.
The Curry family went to this church, though as my Grandfather said with sadness, some had “fallen away.” I was never sure if this meant they had moved to the big city or simply quit coming to church; and perhaps I was never sure which was worse. We went to church there often, having settled ourselves in the “big city” of Lawrence a few miles away. One memorable Sunday one of the kids got too close to the big circular wall fan installed to cool the sanctuary on sizzling summer mornings. The three-foot fan blades were unguarded (no bended-knee to government safety regulators here) and this curious boy put his head too close and got a bit of it whacked off. One of the men told us kids to run outside and find the missing piece of skull. I grew up believing that church was never dull and life was always close to the bone.
Anyway, more often than not, we would picnic afterwards in the cemetery. Curry is buried there along with most of his family and much of mine. All the kids loved the gravestones for hide-and-seek, jumping and tumbling. Perfect days communing with God and with our dead.
Other days we would go back to my grandparent’s house three doors down. In the living room was always hung a copy of Curry’s “Line Storm” which he did in both oil and lithograph. The quiet romance of that image–farmers on a hay wagon piled high racing to beat the coming storm–haunted me; still does. Now, this sense of loading the hay quickly and racing to shelter ahead of the coming storm is heavily with us all.