For the first time in too many years, people have good reason to find their attention drifting south of town toward the Great Plains Reservoirs, those bodies of water that have been a source of life in Kiowa County from the time long before Kiowa County was even born.
Nee Sopah. Nee Skah. Nee Noshe. Nee Gronde. Giving voice to the names calls up a distant time that has long since vanished from the vast, rolling plains.
Yet, even as the times and cultures and people changed around them, the lakes continued. They’re found in old newspaper photos of laughing young men and women who, wrapped in long scarves and thick coats, skated on their ice on a winter’s afternoon. They’re referenced in stories of ambitious men who broke their horses and their own backs, as well, digging canals that would tame the water and put it to the farmer’s use. And God alone knows how many family photo albums contain Polaroids of people in the water or on the water or even just sitting on the shores during playful, bright summer days.
When the drought set in and the lakes dried up, something more than just water evaporated and was gone. And most believed it was all gone for good.
Not so. As was just announced, permanent water is coming back to Nee Gronde—and maybe even Nee Noshe, too. We thought this would be a good time to reflect on other days that have disappeared, if for no other reason than to be grateful that what all thought was lost has indeed been found again. And my oh my, aren’t we glad.
Science has been studying the mechanics of human memory for years. The mind is an extraordinary thing with astonishing functions and abilities, and the keys to unlocking what we remember, how we remember it and why still remain somewhat of a mystery. Yet, there’s another equally important and profound question to be answered. Why do we forget?
Recently, a long time rancher of the High Plains observed that “history is so close here. It’s so…recent.” He relayed a conversation he’d had as a boy with a 90 year old man who remembered being with a friend, laying down on a bluff and watching two bands of Indians engage in a battle below. “Think about it,” the rancher said. “I knew a man who saw that with his own eyes. In the big picture, that didn’t happen so long ago. But we forget about that, don’t we. We forget that people we know would know about something like that.”
Life on the lakes of Kiowa County is similar, in a way, to the older man describing what he saw. If asked about Sweetwater, chances are most people would point toward the lake or pinpoint a location on a map. Some people might even mention a few small buildings existing there, at one time. But, in the “big picture”, there was a great deal more to Sweetwater than that.
Even though Sweetwater is only ten miles from the town of Eads and was being homesteaded roughly twenty years after Eads was already officially formed, the towns were distant from each other, so much so that, in the first decades of the 1900s, newspapers described people “traveling to Sweetwater to visit” or, once there, choosing to stay for several days.
The “town” consisted of one building that held the post office, which was opened in 1908. It also held a general store, initially owned and operated by Mr. E.H. Myers who was known as “the merchant prince of Sweetwater”, and a house where the “merchant prince” lived. Sparse as this may sound, even these accommodations made an enormous difference in the routine activities of life. Before the post office was built, homesteaders traveled 12 miles to Wiley to post a letter. Yet, despite the lack of amenities, generosity was in abundance among the people settling in the area. Newly arrived homesteaders frequently stayed at Harvey Rowe’s house the first night they came.
After time, people tried to expand their tiny community. An article in The Brandon Bell discusses the building of a new school in 1911 which replaced the “common shack” being used at that time. One descendent of homesteaders tells of a story where, whenever a car came down the road by the school, the schoolchildren were so excited they ran out of the schoolhouse simply to watch the car pass.
In those beginning years, the land might have been a little short on trees, but it certainly wasn’t barren. Dryland alfalfa grew almost up to the shore of the lake. Canals like the Kicking Bird were built in 1909, giving rise to the term “ditch country” that was hailed as the perfect place for fishing or having a church picnic on Sunday afternoons. And moisture was in abundance. An article that appears in the Kiowa County Press on May 22, 1914 states “each night and each day it rains”. Another edition just a few days later reports a brief hailstorm followed by heavy rain followed by 3 inches of snow.
Although short on buildings, the people of Sweetwater were vibrant and welcoming to each other and anyone who came from any of the neighboring fields and farms, as well. A dance floor was constructed in the middle of a pasture, and people from all around went every weekend to dance under the stars. For those who preferred a roof over their head, there was no shortage of dances at various farms celebrating whatever seemed worth celebrating, at the time. There were baseball games advertised as “Eads vs Sweetwater, Come and Play!”, Saturdays of “softball, swimming and supper on the lake”, “boat launchings”, fishing contests, “jolly midnight rides”, occasional cars full of “Haswellites” traveling to Sweetwater where they met up with “locals” for “fishing and fun” which, from the sounds of it, was longer on the fun part. The welfare of several Basque was a topic for news when it was written “the windstorm was not pleasant for our sheepherders Erramuspie and Arregui”. One particularly creative man used a pool of water off the lake to fashion a diving pool, complete with a homemade board that he planted in the water until the approach of winter—and the accompanying ice—forced him to put it up for a season. There were “chicken pie suppers” at the Sweetwater school, and, in the winter, skating. One specific article, dated February 9, 1923, mentions a total of more than 60 people skating on the lake, “made rough in some spots by snow”.
Nonetheless, the harshness of homesteading is scattered throughout the stories, as well. Names that had become familiar began to show up in ads stating “quarter section for sale”, ultimately appearing in “Public auctions” where “all is for sale”. Other ads came directly from the farmers themselves. One sorrowful note published in June of 1926 states “Leaving my farm” and lists everything for sale from tractors to teaspoons.
And then, as happened so often, the names of Sweetwater’s people show up less and less. Ultimately, the name of Sweetwater itself gradually fades from record until all disappears altogether.
But, for its time, Sweetwater was more than a physical place. It was, like many other places back then, an era, a way of living, a simple but real connection born of more than just geography, more than seasons and temperatures, more than not enough water or too much wind. It was a time when people, driven by either determination or desperation or both, went to a place far from home and, once there, found a connection with others based on the presence in their life of things that grew and people who stayed and moments that brought joy…and things and people and moments that did none of those things.
The commonality of Sweetwater happened a long time ago. A hundred years. And in this age when last month seems distant, a century seems ancient. And perhaps irrelevant. Which brings back the original question. Why do we forget?
Is it because, in that commonality, remembering is not a necessity. The experience of one is equal to the experience of all? There are many tribes, even today, who would disagree and say those experiences form our identity, our knowledge of who we are.
Is it instead because of the isolation so often found among those who live alone on the High Plains? Does one no longer remember because the experience belongs to one and one alone and could be of no value to someone else?
Or do we forget because, quite simply, no one asks.
The answer could be all three or something entirely different. Regardless, forgotten memories are too soon gone forever. And we are left with an observation made by that rancher who spoke to the old man. In his words, “I have questions about things that happened back then. But the people who would know the answer are gone.”