Circe, Kansas, straddled the border between fertile low-river farmlands of the eastern half of the state and the upwards rise to the Great Plains. Elevation increased from 680 feet above sea level on the state’s border with Missouri to a high of 4,000 feet. In McPherson County, the terrain was best described as ‘un-decided.’ A 100-mile wide band running north to south was neither thick forests and verdant farmland, as found in the east, nor was it the flat, high plains prairie land to the west.
The town of Circe was the center of a patchwork of corn and wheat fields, interrupted by small forests and medium-sized lakes. The land in this middle zone, steadily rising (while flattening out) towards the Plains did not make for effortless farming. Farms spread out between and among the low foothills, the price of every successful crop always very dear. The essential elements of labor and water were anything but in ample supply. Planting corn, and sometimes wheat, along with raising livestock, families bet their lives on their efforts to wrestle life from the land. In this semi-arid climate, water was a most precious commodity. It commanded a high price from those who needed it, imbued those who controlled it with the power of life and death and brought about an end to those unfortunate enough to be caught between the two.
To the northeast of Circe, on the western side of a small range of foothills, was a natural spring. Hidden in the cleft of a granite outcropping and shielded from view by a grove of cottonwood, an endless supply of cold water bubbled up from the earth. Although it never stopped bubbling, the level of the water in the small pool never changed. The new water replaced the old which, in turn, sank back into the bedrock. There was no other outlet for the water, it did not form a river to flow away across the land. It was simply a pool, shaded by trees, surrounded by granite.
The English translation of the Shawnee name for this simple wonder of nature is ‘the crying stone.’ The spring was considered a sacred place. Warriors believed that its waters would hasten the healing of wounds. Mothers believed that babies bathed in the crystal cold water would become great men or powerful women. Medicine men knew that this was a place where the gods touched the earth. Many a shaman spent a lifetime trying to learn what might be learned, to gather what power might be found in this connection between the world of man and the earth.
In 1898, Theodore Baumeister and his wife Simone, German Mennonites, took advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act and bought two hundred fifty acres of farm and forest land about twenty miles to the north and east of Circe. Theodore and Simone left Germany with a dream of finding a place where they could build a home for themselves. Being members of a faith that was at the time very mobile, they planned not only to farm the land but to create a place where others might find safe harbor. They built the farmhouse and barn first. They raised cattle and hogs, and planted the fields with corn to provide a buffer against the sometimes violent swing in prices at the slaughterhouses in Kansas City.
The Baumeisters did well with their farm and managed to save the money needed to bring their dream fully to life. They built a large two-story structure they called the meeting-house, siting it between the farmhouse and the barn. Simone planted elm trees, as she could see in her mind a time when mature trees would offer shade in the extreme heat of summer in Kansas. The meeting-house provided sleeping quarters on the second floor and a dining and living area on the first. It was completed in 1910 and by 1912, as word spread, it provided a home to wanderers and pilgrims. Mennonites and Mormons and travelers from all parts of the country. There was always the sound of life in the meeting-house, no matter what time of year. Mennonite churches across the Prairie States spread the word of this refuge, and the meeting-house was always full.
But not long into the second decade of the new century, drums of war were being heard in Europe. Slowly at first, but as insidiously as the corn blight that starts at the very edges of a field, the politics of strife spread across the country, reaching into the wide, isolated communities of the Midwest. The simple and hard-working people of Circe began to wonder what it was those people did out there at ‘that German place.’ Eventually, the farm was sold to a young couple from ‘Back East’. The Baumeisters stayed on and lived out their days, working the farm, making strangers welcome.
The farm, known since 1927 as ‘Almira’s Keep’, was essentially the same as it was in 1912.
The sun, in the middle of an afternoon in the first week of August was every bit the monstrous orb found in a six-year-old child’s first attempt to draw a sunny day. The sun was looming, un-relenting and without the seasonal restraints offered by the other nine months of the year. The rising columns of red and silver in thermometers acquired a more ominous appearance; warnings of danger, rather than a reassurance of a comfortable afternoon outdoors. Very much the difference between a strong wind making a row of flags and pennants flap in colorful excitement and the triangular red flags stretched into solid, pointed wedges by the winds of an approaching hurricane. The sun ruled the sky without mercy and without promise of respite.
Hunk Dietrich thought it probably would get over 100 degrees before the sun set. He looked over at Eliza Thornberg and amended his weather observation to include, ‘women don’t sweat, they glisten.’ Hunk was in a good mood at the moment, sitting with Dorothy Gale’s college roommate at a picnic table in the shade. He felt the silence at the table grow from companionable silence to simple lack of conversation. The self-confidence he felt while talking and driving her car was nowhere in sight. Desperate to keep the silence from marking him as an inept companion, Hunk decided on a non-verbal strategy to re-establish his qualifications and ultimately, his right to sit with an attractive young woman. He stretched. Arms moved upwards and both legs outwards. Seeing the reaction of the girl, he realized he was out of danger, for the moment.
“So Hunk, who are these people? I see at least three groups of people who obviously are not related. Everyone in the dining room over there seems to be friendly with everyone else. What the hell is the story here, Henry?”
Sitting on the unpainted wooden bench, Eliza Thornberg appeared as comfortable as any wealthy young woman seated in the summer parlor of a Newport mansion or dining at a wrought iron table on the patio at the Tavern on the Green. In contrast to Hunk’s half-rolled up sleeves, sweat-darkened collar and trailing shirt tails, her clothing made her look at home. As was the case when wearing expensive clothing, Eliza looked naturally beautiful. Her light blue silk blouse appeared to float around her body, emphasizing her figure without being, in any way, obvious. A small area between her shoulder blades found the fabric held close to the skin, the only indication of the extreme temperature. A barely noticeable tiara of glistening sweat was beginning to creep along the edge of her hairline, her dark brown eyes alive. There was a humor to her expression that softened the sharp edges of her smile.
Hunk relaxed, hopeful at the pleasant tone to Eliza’s voice. Hunk always felt confident and self-assured when someone asked him for information. He leaned across the table, as if careful to avoid being overheard.
“They’re just people. You know, folks who’ve lost everything…trying to survive… Wait, sorry, I guess I forgot.”
Eliza didn’t bother looking at her companion, interest in her surroundings was beginning to fade. The lack of intonation in her answer hinted at a growing boredom.
“You know, most of the people of the country losing everything and hitting the road, desperately trying to survive? The Great Depression, 20% unemployment…. bread lines. Go ahead you can stop me when any of this sounds familiar.”
Hunk stared at the girl, the gulf between their worlds a chasm. He felt a sudden desire to move away, go somewhere else, do something different. The where and the what were irrelevant.
As if overhearing the economic plight of their parents being discussed, a group of children ran close to the table. Their feet (and youthful energy) kicked up low clouds of dust. Like smoke cloaking the flames of low fire, the plumes of seared earth made the humid air feel much warmer. The sudden slam of a screen door made Hunk and Eliza turn towards the house and watch as Phyllis McCutcheon approached their table.
Hunk stood up and walked towards her, glancing briefly at Eliza he said,
“There’s someone who I want you to meet, wait here.”
Eliza took a pack of cigarettes and a Dunhill lighter from her purse, said with unmistakable indifference,
“Take your time, Hank.”
Hunk met the approaching woman at the edge of the shade cast by the small grove of trees next to the dormitory. Phyllis McCutcheon was a middle-aged woman, her worn, but expertly mended dress seemed to suggest an indifference to her appearance. After only a short time in conversation with her, this indifference showed itself to be more an absent-mindedness. Phyllis McCutcheon was one of those people for whom responsibility was the most important thing. She thrived on responsibility and helping others. People like her were always in demand. Unfortunately, (for people like Phyllis McCutcheon), this demand was in limitless supply. The people in her life would demand her help and she would attempt to comply. Her wardrobe was the first casualty in the daily battle to live up to the expectations of others.
Almost always of good cheer, Phyllis came across, to friends and strangers alike, as a woman who was always busy. At times this had the effect of making her appear pleasantly harassed, but never so much as to cause her distress. It was evident that she understood that the responsibilities she held were far too much for one person. However there was also a certain underlying optimism, she appeared certain that, given time and patience, everything would work out for the best.
Phyllis stopped in the middle of the yard between the dormitory building and the smaller farmhouse. She looked up just in time, barely avoiding bumping into Hunk, who was standing directly in her path.
“Hunk! What a pleasant surprise.”
Only slightly shorter than Hunk, she held out her notepad, as if it’s pages of indecipherable pencil marks constituted a passport. It was, to her, sufficiently informative to provide greetings, instructions, and acknowledgment for anyone she encountered in her very busy days. Hunk stood in front of her and waited. He’d known Phyllis since she decided to stay and help Almira Gulch run the farm/sanctuary/rooming house on the outskirts of Circe Kansas and knew that silence was not inappropriate.
Her arm moved very slightly upwards, as if to present her notes, he waited until the woman caught up with herself.
“It’s good to see you. Who’s your friend? She’s very… pretty. Will she be staying or…”
Hunk smiled, her fragmented speech a reminder of why he liked Phyllis McCutcheon. She had a sense of the incredible bounty in the world if one only took the time to look for it. The two of them very much a pair of castaways standing on the shore of the deserted tropical island, taken with the wonder of what they saw, seemingly unaware that they were shipwrecked and alone. There was, in their respective capacities to ignore immediate circumstances, security in their ability to make the right decisions and take the right actions when the time came, or circumstances demanded. Hunk recalled when Phyllis announced her intention to stay permanently at the Keep. During breakfast, Henry Gale went on at length describing the new and, apparently permanent, resident at the Gulch Farm, finally, his wife, Emily looked over at Hunk and said, “Sounds like another fool in paradise, Hunk. You two should get along.”
“I want you to meet someone.”
Hunk reached out his hand and stopped about an inch short of the woman’s arm. Keeping his hand at her arm, almost but not touching, he turned towards the picnic tables. Without seeming to notice the lack of contact, Phyllis turned with Hunk, and they both stood and looked at Eliza Thornberg, about twenty feet away.
“This is Eliza Thornberg. She’s a friend of Dorothy Gale, and I brought her to show her around Circe.”
Eliza looked at the two, waved her hand and seemed to laugh to herself.
Hunk waved back and looked at Phyllis, who then also waved.
Eliza put her hands to either side of her mouth and in a voice meant to sound like a shout, said,
“Pleased to meet you, Phyllis. My friend Henry has been doing a great job as tour guide, but I think he just hit his limit in the social graces. Would you bring him over so we can talk in the shade?”
Phyllis smiled, her eyes seemed to turn inward slightly, her posture, relaxed up to this point became a little more assertive. She turned and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,
“Hunk, your new little friend wants us to go visit her. Shall we?”
Hunk felt his stomach twist a little, a feeling that usually accompanied his efforts to interact socially with others. He looked at Phyllis,
“Visit we shall.”
Hunk put his right hand on his hip and Phyllis put her left arm through and held his forearm, and they walked towards the tables in the shade. Phyllis began to point to various parts of the farm as if she were showing a visitor the farm for the very first time. Hunk played along and nodded on occasion.
Finally, they stood in front of Eliza Thornberg who smiled at the mid-aged woman, held out her hand but remained sitting.
“Miss Thornberg, this is Phyllis McCutcheon. Miss McCutcheon, this is Eliza Thornberg.”
The three laughed.
“So, Henry here says,” Eliza saw the look of question on the other woman’s face and added, “when I first met Hunk, I mentioned to Dorothy that I thought he looked a lot like Henry Fonda. I still do. Don’t you? In any event, I was curious about the woman who owns this place, Mrs. Gulch, Almira Gulch? When I mentioned this Mrs. Gulch at the breakfast table this morning, Dorothy’s mother, Emily, got a very strange look on her face. It was a look of both hate and guilt, not a pretty sight. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to ask her why she looked like someone had just thrown a rock through a priceless stained glass window. I’m definitely not a shy girl, but I knew better than to pursue the topic of Mrs. Gulch.
In any event, I promised Dorothy that I’d hang around here until it was time to go back to school. I get the distinct impression that if that old woman wasn’t lying in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t be here because Dorothy wouldn’t be spending her summer vacation in this backwoods hole in the wall town.”
Eliza reached across the table and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,
“I’m not disparaging your little town; you know that, right?”
Hunk laughed and to Eliza’s surprise, reached over and tousled her hair, leaving it sticking out every which way. Stunned into silence she stared at Hunk who proceeded to pat the more disheveled hair back into place, smiled and said,
“Eliza girl, I have not the slightest doubt of your good intentions.”
Phyllis sat and observed the interaction. Finally, she seemed to remember the notepad in her hand.
“I’ve only been here at the Keep three years, but I can tell you that Almira Gulch is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.”
Eliza lead forward,
“Hey, Hunk!! Could you lend us a hand in the barn?”
The three looked up to see Tom Hardesty walk around the corner of the meeting-house,
“Eliza. How’re you Miss McCutcheon. Hey Hunk, we’re trying to load a truck, the lift stopped working and all I have is a winch and some halfway old guys. Could you lend us a hand? Won’t take but a minute.”
“Go, Hunk. I’ll wait here. Miss McCutcheon here is about to tell me the real story of Dorothy’s old-woman-in-the-bed.”
“The heck with that! What are we, old ladies sitting and waiting for the menfolk to do everything for us?”
Phyllis McCutcheon smiled but she locked eyes with the startled young woman from Philadelphia.
“Come with me, ‘Liza, I’ll show you a most wonderful cave in those hills up yonder, and while we walk, I’ll tell you about my friend Almira Gulch.”