(Once again I got a little carried away and this article is longer than it should be. Please read what intrigues you and ignore the rest.)
By Steve Doner
When my twin sister and I were growing up, one of our daily chores involved gathering the milk cows when we got off the school bus each day. We would climb up on the tall wooden loading chute in our corral in an effort to spot the cows and save time and footsteps. Once the cows were spotted, we would set out across the prairie together. I have not thought about this in years, but the pleasure of having a companion along on this task made it much less of a chore than a daily adventure, at least for me. Jeanie may have a different view. We always found ways to entertain ourselves. We would challenge each other to broad jump prickly pear cacti, and would on occasion need mom to pull needles from our backsides. We would spin and twist ourselves as fast as we could in order to make ourselves dizzy, then point in the direction we thought our house was located, and then laugh hysterically when we pointed in the wrong direction. Why that was so funny escapes me now, but not the joy of the memory. We were interested in anything that moved except for rattlesnakes. We would catch lizards and horny toads, our favorite, sometimes taking them back home. We watched in wonder at dung beetles, tarantulas, dragon flies, ground squirrels, and anything that moved.Sometime around our eighth grade year, one of our cows died while calving, and Jeanie and I were given a bucket calf. In Colorado History class, taught by Mr. Buckhaults, we had to memorize the counties of Colorado. One of the earliest counties was Huerfano County, which once included Baca County even before there was Las Animas County. We learned that Huerfano was the Spanish word for orphan so that became the bucket calf’s name. He was a hereford and made a wonderful pet. When he was about 300 lbs, I would tie a rope around his flanks and jump on his back, and he would buck around the corral while I tried to stay on and pretend to be rodeo cowboy, which was the farthest thing from the truth. When Jeanie and I were in Jr. High, or maybe it was when I started helping out with the milking, we gathered the cows solo. Huerfano always hung out with the milk cows which was advantageous for me. After locating the cows as usual and trekking to them, I would jump on Huerfano and lay down on my back or stomach while he and the milk cows walked home. That took half the work out of gathering the milk cows and made the daily routine more enjoyable and contributed to my laziness.
Dad would warn us of the dangers involved in gathering the cows and cautioned us often about the most serious hazards; rattlesnakes and sudden Spring blizzards. “Keep your eyes on the ground, always looking for rattlesnakes, and leave them alone,” he said. Then he would occasionally relate the story of the two siblings buried at Konantz that froze to death while gathering the cows when our land was young. That account often morphed into a retelling of the Towner Bus Tragedy of late March, 1931 in which five children and the bus driver lost their lives in a Spring blizzard. These were stories seared into Dad’s psyche from his youth, and he was determined to create the same effect in us. In 2017, while taking an inventory of the gravesites in the Konantz Cemetery, I discovered the headstones of Cora and Charlie Dick, both died April 5th, 1895. I had always thought they were twins, like Jeanie and I, but Cora was ten and Charlie was only eight. I lingered at their headstone for a while, gradually remembering what I must have felt when Dad related their story to Jeanie and me sixty years ago. I was a kid then, but now a parent and grandparent, which provided a different set of emotions to sort through.
I have been working on an exhaustive account of the Konantz community for several months now; a project that was to be only a few pages long has now morphed into a much longer endeavor. In the research for that account, I literally stumbled across the newspaper article relating the events of that Spring blizzard of April, 1895. The tragedy is even worse than I imagined. Three children died in that blizzard. There were few fences in this new land and grazing on the open range was practiced by all so that after milking cows early in the morning, they were turned out on the prairie to graze. Gathering in Winter and early Spring had to begin early because the cows could wander several miles and darkness came quickly, which explains their early afternoon departures. Below are pictures of the children’s gravestones at Konantz Cemetery, the newspaper article that tells the story of the tragedy, a transcript for easier reading, and a few other newspaper articles related to the event with some explanation by me.
The account of Cora and Charlie Dick and Bertie Orth on 4/5/1895.
“The saddest event in the history of our county occurred in the southwest corner, in the death of three children, who lost their lives in the storm last week. Cora and Charlie Dick aged respectively 10 and 8 and Bertie Orth aged 13. Mrs. Dick and Mrs. Orth were each at home alone with their children, Mr. Dick having gone to Syracuse and Mr. Orth to the Cimarron River. Cora and Charlie left home between one and two o’clock on Friday afternoon (both riding one horse as was their custom) to get cattle. Soon after leaving[,] the storm came and that was the last seen of them alive. Sunday morning about 8 o’clock they were found by their father, three miles south of home, lying in the road dead. It is supposed they wandered over the prairie until exhausted and had lain down to rest only to awake in another world. They were lying with their faces together, and arms around each other with a peaceful look on their faces, that told no tale of the suffering they had undergone. By them stood the faithful horse they were riding. She had never left them through the 40 hours of blinding snow and sand.
Bertie Orth left home about noon the same day on the same mission and was found Sunday about 10 o’clock a half mile east of his home by some neighbors who were searching for him. He was a cripple and always carried his crutches on his saddle. He was either thrown or fell from his horse and being unable to walk had crawled some distance as was shown by the knees of his pants. His face showed the terrible-struggle he had made for life.
Baca County cemeteries seemed to spring up somewhat haphazardly and were often great distances apart. Augusta Oake’s account of the formation of the Stonington Cemetery is a great example:
“Since Matilda’s (William Oakes’ second wife) death was the first in that part of the new settlement, there was no cemetery within driving distance with a lumber wagon hearse. Concerned neighbors discussed the problem and decided they needed a few acres for a cemetery in their community.
Papa said he would give five or ten acres on the southwest corner of his tree claim (just east of where Chris McCall now lives, the old Moore Ranch). Everyone agreed, and Matilda’s body was laid to rest there.
Several months later Mrs. Yowell passed away. Her home was eighteen or twenty miles south and a few miles east of Papa. That was quite a distance to drive work horses and a lumber wagon. Neighbors reconsidered the cemetery location and decided the plot of ground Papa had donated was too far north; they needed a more nearly central location. Zack Walker volunteered some land on the northwest part of his tree claim, nearer the center of the settlement. Mrs. Yowell’s body was the first to be buried on that plot, which later became known as the Stonington cemetery.” (Guy, Augusta Oakes. Pioneering With God. Yukon Printing Co., Yukon, OK, 1972, pg. 5-6.)
The Minneapolis Cemetery was formed after a runaway team flipped a wagon over on one of the county’s first Anglo homesteaders and ministers, Chaz Howard, four days after Christmas in 1886. Konantz’s first six occupants were infants or children fourteen years or younger.
I was also surprised to learn that the Konantz Cemetery was originally called the Gillespie Cemetery. William Gillespie, sometime in 1886, was the first homesteader of Max Woolley’s place a quarter mile west of the cemetery which explains the early name of the cemetery. It was January of the same year, 1895, that the Konantz P.O., located just east of today’s Sipe’s Seed and operated by Bertie Orth’s father, Jacob, was moved from Kansas to the George Bohl homestead three-quarters of a mile northeast of the cemetery, where Flora Bohl became Konantz postmistress. It must have been shortly after that or when William Gillespie sold his homestead to Earl Florey in 1900, that the cemetery was permanently named Konantz.
I can’t even begin to imagine, or simply choose not to, what both mothers must have been going through knowing they sent their children out to gather the cows, their husbands were gone, no way or ability or chance to search for them and nightfall is coming. Then trapped in your house all night without your husband and no way to search in a storm lasting forty hours; all day Saturday, all night Saturday night, only to find them perished Sunday morning. The mothers and fathers carried on because they had no choice, quitting or checking out on the frontier was not an option. But, Oh!!!, how the experience must have changed them, forever. Simply incomprehensible, tragic, and horrible.