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When Kansas Winds Blow

Story ID:510
Written by:Gail Lee Martin (bio, other stories)
Organization:Kansas Authors Club
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:anyplace Kansas USA
Year:1990
Person:myself
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When Kansas Winds Blow

When Kansas Winds Blow

When Kansas Winds Blow

I remember as a child thinking the Kansas wind blew constantly from one direction or another and I certainly remember how it helped make kite flying so much fun. Our kite flying was a family affair from the time we started making them until we were out on the prairie watching them dip and sway in the wind. We used cord, sticks, flour paste and brown paper decorated with bright crayon designs to make the body of the kite and made the tails from rags. Each were made very sturdy to stand up to the winds and so colorful against the bright blue Kansas sky.

I also loved to chase the tumbleweeds that rolled across the prairie as if alive. I also liked watching the windmills flashing in the wind and pretend they were sending secret signals. On a resent drive along Highway 177 northeast of El Dorado I discovered a replica of the American flag made from barrels or oil drums as they are called in the oil fields. They cut in half vertical and mounted on a fence post where it revolved merrily in the wind. I just had to take a picture as it reminded me of grade school days at Nolar. Each morning we would recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” while standing at attentions and saluted our Kansas and American flags flying bravely in the stiff breeze. It was there in history class I learned that the Sioux Indian’s word for Kansas meant ‘wind people’ or ‘south wind.’ Doctor Johnson of Eureka, who tended my birth thought I was well-named for a Kansas girl. Only Mother spelled it Gail instead of Gale.

Early pioneers made the winds work for them. My husband’s parents, Cora and Ren Martin, bought 147 acres in Greenwood County, then dug a well by hand in the early 1920s. A windmill was erected to pump water for the livestock consisting of cattle, horses, sheep and hogs, making life easier for everyone.

Some windmills are still being used in this area and have become a popular subject for photography buffs. I treasure a photo of a Butler County windmill silhouetted in the evening’s glow that my sister, Carol, took several years ago. Another windmill in a coulee east of El Dorado was a favorite of my grandson, Paul, for his 4-H photography project.

Kansas winds are almost varied as people’s thoughts. Dust storms in the prairies were never as bad as what western Kansas suffered through. The prairie grass held the soil much better, although the droughts years were bad. The worst dust storm to visit northern Greenwood County began in March 20, 1935, filling the air with a suffocating, penetrating blanket of coppery dust causing lights to be turned on in the middle of the day. The dust descended on Madison and by noon the air had become so filled with tiny particles of dirt that it was difficult to breathe. Visibility was cut to 299 feet and driving became impossible, so school was dismissed early. The silver lining to the dust storms were the beautiful sunsets of sensational colors from the dust-shrouded sun.

Early day settlers often looked to the winds for weather information. Some of the old sayings I remember my father quoting were: “It never rains if the wind is from the southwest. But it is sure to rain if the wind blows strong and steady for three days and three nights from the southwest.” Of course everyone has fished by signs of the wind. “Wind in the west fish bite the best; wind in the south the fish bite by the mouth; wind in the east the fish bite the least and wind in the north the fish don’t go forth”. I still fish following Daddy’s sayings after all these years.

Kansas wind can be good. The ranchers in the hills use the wind when they burn the prairie pastures in the spring. They are following the practice the Indian’s used to get rid of old, dead grass to let new growth grow and attract the buffalo. The same holds true today as the spring prairie fires burn the dried sharp stems of last year’s Bluestem grass to fatten the range cattle brought in by truck loads each spring. Tall plumes of white smoke on the prairie horizons have signaled the coming of spring in the Flint Hills for years. In oil country dark columns of smoke usually indicated a sludge pond being burnt. A method used in the early days to dispose the oil sludge cleaned from oil tanks.

Not all prairie fires are beneficial. Unplanned fires caused by carelessness or lighting strikes are a frightening sight, especially propelled by a strong Kansas wind. Out where I lived, the oil companies would set backfires in the evenings when the winds had died down. These fire guards were built around all tanks, powerhouses, pump jacks, offices, and homes. This was an exciting time for the children watching the fires and listening to the men talking in the stillness of the night. Everyone would work together setting the small fires and dripping wet gunny sacks controlled the fire thus creating a burned zone of protection. After the backfire was burned wide enough to keep a raging prairie fire from jumping it, the men would meet at someone’s home where the women had gathered to prepare refreshments, climaxing a pleasant evening.

In Kansas heavy snow storms accompanied by strong north winds can cause enormous drifts creating hazardous driving conditions and dangerous for anyone caught outside without shelter. Swirling winds can also trigger certain situations that create deadly tornadoes that have given Kansas a bad name. Could this be Mother Nature’s way of making the people of Kansas live up to their name of “wind people”?