Alice Smith Dow, 1854-1943, was one of De Soto's early residents, moving to what she described as a village in 1860 when her father, the Rev. W.H. Smith, became the town's first minister. He was later responsible for the construction of Stone Church at 84th and Peoria streets. The family lived a quarter-mile west of homes and businesses hugging the Kansas River at what is now 85th Street and Penner Avenue.
In conjunction with the De Soto sesquicentennial, this is the second installment of Dow's 1940 recollections to appear in The Explorer.
As I recall the old mill, it made a lovely, picturesque spot. Almost overhanging the river was the main floor, where the circular saw cut into the hearts of those giants of the woods, a little car carrying the trees to the saw, then dumping the saw dust into the water below. The sweet smell of it as it fell from the saw filling the air. There was no wall on the west side, but there was high ground where the logs were piled as they were hauled up the steep, rocky hill from the woods.
I think that great wagons with two wheels, eight feet in height, and drawn by six yoke of oxen, would not arouse more interest than the finest motor car. It was built something like a gun carriage. The butt ends of logs were swung by chains to the axle, and the length of the tree trailed behind, making grooves in the road. It was a slow progress, but time was long in those days.
On the east side, where the hill fell steeply down and made the basement, stood the grist mill where corn was ground -- corn meal being the staple food for that time. We had flour occasionally, which was hauled from Leavenworth, that city being the only one in this part of the country. I think the flour cost $10 per 100 pounds.
There was a two-story frame building standing were Dr. Mark's home now is. I do not know the purpose for which it was built, but, as I remember, it had four rooms, two above and two below, one of which was the first schoolroom in De Soto. Do not be shocked when I tell you a lady by the name of Eve taught, and that is the best information I can give you. After a while, I do not know how or when, this building disappeared, and the schoolhouse that is still standing now was built, and is now used as a dwelling. But as we grew up, it was a sort of a social center, where singing and spelling schools and other educational and social affairs were held, also preaching services, as there were no church buildings in the village. My father preached there as well as at Olathe, Gardner and other points. I recall also that a lawsuit was tried in that building at one time.
There was no post office in De Soto; the mail being brought by stage between Topeka and Kansas City. Mail for De Soto was left at Lexington -- where there was a large stage tavern and barns where the horses changed -- the road running east, leaving De Soto on the side. There were only two or three houses in Lexington, beside the tavern, which is now a farm. My father, having a horse and buggy, would often drive up for the letters and packages of newspapers (most of them being for him). I often accompanied him. How often I think about those rides across the open prairies with sunflowers nodding above our heads, and clumps of hazel where the nuts in the ruffled husks hung thickly in "brown October," and of the snow blowing across the wide land, and of me wrapped in buffalo robes -- father always having one or two in his buggy.
Men's hearts were heavy with the war; news eagerly waited for. But how slow, as compared with these rapid days. Alas, no more do we find the nuts and flowers that grew and blossomed so profusely in those faraway days. I only know one small meadow (on the Jewett farm) that was never plowed, where the pink fog, white larkspur and many other flowers still grow and blossom as in the long ago.
The grass was the cover of much small life, quail, prairie chickens and rabbits. We often found the nests of quail and sometimes prairie chickens, now and then the eggs and often 12 or 14 tiny birds that we would take home and try to raise by hand, but with no success. These little ones soon learned to hide in the grass, while the mother quail would trail what seemed to be a broken wing, luring us away from where her young were hidden, until she thought they were safe. Then, away she would fly with no trace of injury.
How lovely the prairies were before the plow had upturned the sod and driven away the native wildlife and flowers.