November 9th, 1870, ten year old Percy G. Ebbutt left Blanxton, England with his father, brother and three other men. Percy’s father was a successful upholsterer, however when his business burned to the ground he thought it might be a good opportunity to try some adventuring in the wild frontiers of America. So, the party headed for Morris County, Kansas of all places.
I regret I cannot give you exact dates as Percy is not very good about keeping track of his time, so we will have to be happy with approximations. We do know he was in Morris County for the space of about 6 years, from 1870-1876. So everything I relate here falls in that timeframe.
Percy’s family settled on an 80 acre patch of prairie six miles north of Parkerville and three and a half miles west of Dwight. Now mind you, not a one of these men had any experience in farming or livestock care, except for one fellow who spent a couple weeks on a farm in an attempt to prepare himself before he left England. As it proved later, his short time on the farm didn’t help him much. The first of many mistakes they made was to build their hut on the wrong land on the north side of the hill. This ensured that they would be kept cooler in the summer months, as well as the winter. They also learned that the stovepipe was too close to the roof, which caught fire. It caused very little damage and they put it out quickly and rearranged the chimney.
When they first moved to the country they had absolutely no neighbors whatever. They were completely on their own. After surviving the first winter they made the necessary changes to their living habits. They built a very nice wood frame house, this time on the right land. It was still on the side of a hill facing north, but with six yoke of oxen they later moved it to the top of the hill where the view was better. As their situation improved so did the area. They gained neighbors like ‘Prairie’ Wilson, ‘Dutch’ Jake, George Dyson, and a large family named Quinn. The Quinns were kind of a peculiar family. Early one morning before daybreak, the mother and eleven children left the country never to be heard of again. The day after they left, the wagon and horses were returned to the lonely husband.
Since I am particularly interested in by-gone customs and entertainments I was struck by a house party that Percy tells us about. It was at the home of a neighbor they had not met and didn’t know, but it was generally accepted that everyone in the area was invited. He said “it was rather a peculiar gathering. There was no dancing and no music, and the time was principally spent in eating and drinking, and playing at silly, childish games, mostly after the style of “Kiss in the Ring,” but with all sorts of queer names to them.” He goes on to say, “I do not really know what took place during the game. I know there was a deal of shuffling about, something like “Sir Roger de Coverley” without the music.” Sir Roger de Coverley is a dance that we know today as the Virginia Reel. Percy said, “None of our party took part in any of these games, and we left the party early, voting it rather slow.” This is the only account I have ever found that mentions indiscriminate kissing at a party of that time period. The funny thing is, a Methodist preacher’s daughter was one of the girls at this party, and of course there were a lot of Methodists around. They were vehemently against dancing but kissing was quite alright.
Do you remember about a month back we learned of Hezekiah Brake who lived on Munkres Creek? Well, it turns out that Percy worked for old Brake for about 14 months. Funny thing is Percy calls him Zedekiah Blake, but we know who he is speaking of. He describes Brake as a ‘little shriveled-up man’. Although Percy admits his time working for the Brakes was a better situation than if he had stayed at home, he still had some complaints against the man. An argument the two had over watering horses finally drove Percy back home. Brake insisted the horses be watered first thing when Percy got them harnessed at 3 in the morning. Percy never knew what good it was to get the critters up so early. He told Brake that the horses wouldn’t drink, and Brake insisted he must make them drink!
During the time spent with the Brakes, Percy experienced an earthquake while out harrowing. He also tells about the grasshopper plague. They were two to three inches thick on the ground and you couldn’t help but kill dozens of them with each step. One winter Percy and Mrs. Brake both noticed their gums leaving their teeth. Because of all the salted pork and other meat they ate and the very few fresh vegetables on hand they were showing signs of scurvy. It did not affect them much but left a few teeth loose.
He tells of the Brake’s daughter and how a man came one day to ask her hand in marriage. The young man may have picked a better time as she was milking a cow when he asked. She refused him and a good thing she did. It wasn’t too long after, he married another girl and he eventually became County Treasurer. The dirty cuss left the girl as well as the county, but not without taking $30,000 of the county’s money with him.
Percy eventually worked his way up around the Manhattan area and hired himself to a couple different farmers there. His time in Kansas made him a proficient rider, decent cowboy, fair farmer and a good deal more experienced with life in general. Not having the best of relations with his father, he decided rather than stay in Kansas to head back to England and to his mother.
Percy was within a hairs breadth, so to speak, of never returning to England. You see the train he was on heading east through Ohio passed over the Ashtabula Bridge. In a matter of hours if not minutes, another train passed over that bridge and it has gone down in history as the Ashtabula Horror. December 29th of 1876, at 7:28 p.m., a passenger train plummeted 70 feet to the icy river below as the iron bridge collapsed. The famed Phillip P. Bliss and his wife were on that train. You remember, ‘Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.” Percy learned of his close call after he reached home.
In 1886 Percy published a book on his experiences in Morris County called ‘Emigrant Life in Kansas.’ And just think of it, if Percy’s train had been running a little behind schedule, we would never have his book. We would never know about ‘Zedekiah Blake’. We would never learn about life in northern Morris County in the 1870s.
I don’t know the last chapters of Percy Ebbutt’s story, but I do know that he somehow found his way to Canada and there he died. His father William and brother John remained in Morris County and are both buried in the Dwight Cemetery. We don’t know the reason for Percy’s parents being separated. His mother continued to live in England while his father was in America. They did not divorce but they did not appear to have made contact with each other since William left England.