Publisher’s note: This Long Time Gone piece by Priscilla Waggoner was originally published in the Kiowa County Independent on May 18, 2016. With the loss of Hazel Krueger on Friday, we felt it only appropriate to rerun the article in her honor.
Given the abundant harvest enjoyed by so many farmers in the area this year, it seemed only fitting to run the story about a descendant of the man known to some as the “Corn King”. The year was 1917, and A.A. Niemann raised the “most corn ever on one acre”. The corn may not be harvested yet, but, in honor of a farmer who broke a “most ever on one acre”, we thought this was a good time to revisit his memory. Besides, his granddaughter—Hazel Krueger—also tells a good story worth revisiting all on its own. This story originally ran on May 16, 2016.
As I look back on that afternoon, the voice that called out, “I’m in here, in the living room!” told me all that I would later learn about the woman I was there to meet. More than 90 years old, strong and sharp as a tack, Hazel Krueger, like her voice, was straight and to the point. Time is a precious resource not to be wasted by my dawdling and hemming and hawing in a needless attempt to be polite.
I walked into the living room, and there she was, seated against the far wall in her favorite chair, a second chair—for me—already pulled close. It was mid-afternoon, yet the room was dim, and it was a few moments before I took in the beautiful creations she’d made—quilts, hanging on the walls or covering a pillow on the couch or in photos within the pages of a small album she showed to me. As many as a hundred and fifty quilts, all sewn with care and precision and a love of color and pattern that was felt as much as seen. Later, she told me she could no longer sew because she could no longer see, and in the three hours we spent together, that was the only time she allowed a hint of sorrow into her voice. But the moment passed as quickly as it came, the result of will more than anything else.
Hazel spoke of her life with the same economy with which she spoke of herself, and as she told her story, I felt I was looking at the embodiment of a pioneer woman. Hard working, independent, quick to decide for herself what she wanted and equally quick to sacrifice for the sake of others, she is truly a woman of determination. Whether it was teaching herself to trick ride at the age of fourteen or, at seventeen, traveling 1600 miles to watch a baseball game, Hazel has viewed life as half task to be accomplished—half adventure to be lived. What a wise combination.
And so, she began her story, and I made sure to listen well. After all, we didn’t have endless time. Her baseball game came on the radio at seven.
Eight of us kids grew up on a farm twenty miles northwest of Eads, Colorado. I was such a tomboy. Mom said if I wanted to go someplace and there wasn’t a door there, I made one. She made my clothes out of the good part of Dad’s overalls, and my hair was cut short and shingled up the back because I wouldn’t comb it.
One of my earliest memories was of all of us sitting in a circle around my dad—who was reading a book to us while mom sat in her rocking chair doing mending. Dad would read several chapters of a book like Little Women or Jack London books. I just loved those times. Or we played card games. Dad taught us all how to play cribbage—he said it was to help us add faster. Mom’s rule was that we were to never cheat, argue or fight.
Growing up, our place was close to Rush Creek—we were one mile inside Cheyenne County. My school was west of our house, about a half mile. South Star School. And now it’s right here in town, on the same block as the hospital, except on the other corner. There were two schools out there at one time, it got so big. But years later, they sold the buildings. I don’t know where the other one went, but South Star School came here. I don’t know why it got that name, but the bell on that school…well, when they sold the school, my dad bought the bell, and they put it on the United Brethren Church. That’s where the mortuary is now. And so Jimmy Brown told us that we could move it over to the Methodist Church, if we wanted to. So the bell that’s on the Methodist Church came from South Star School. I bet not many people know that.
One of my favorite things to do was ride horseback. I would go out to the pasture to catch Nellie. Since she didn’t have a halter, I would lead her by the mane to the old Kit Carson Trail. There the ruts were deep so I was able to make a leap up and jump on her back. I guided her by pulling on her mane and using my legs. So, I’m going to tell you a story about Nellie. Dad took us to the stock show. We got to go a few times, but the first time he took us, it was during the 30s. And I seen all those trick riders riding around, standing up and I didn’t know they had things on their saddles to help them do that. So, when we got home, I would get on Nellie, and I’d sit on her and wrap her mane around each one of my big toes, then I’d stand up and get the reins and I had to always have her facing towards the barn so she would go. I know I fell off that horse a hundred times but it was lots of blow dirt and didn’t never hurt me. But I would try to ride—I must’ve been around 13 or 14—and do you know before that year was up I could put her clear by the house and get her to gallop and when I got to the barn I was still standing up. The door was open and I’d always have to scoot down because she’d go flying right in there. But I just thought, well, if they can do it, I can do it, too.
See, I didn’t get to go further than eighth grade because the buses didn’t run. And Dad wouldn’t let us board in town. He’d seen what happened to too many other girls who boarded in town.
In 1943 or ’44, the buses started running from Wild Horse to Kit Carson and they went right past our house. My sisters, Sara and Rosanna, they wanted to go to high school, but Dad said No, there’s too many chores on the farm. I was working at Fitzsimmons at the time, and I told Dad, if you’ll let them go to high school, I’ll come home and do the chores. I was only home for a few months when Dad said, “We’re doing fine. You go back to Fitzsimmons.” So I did.
I worked in the officers’ dining room—the injured officers. It was during the war, you know. I worked there from ’42 to the fall of ’46. It was hard but it was good, too. They were some real nice boys. I first went up there with some friends to clean house, you know, but then I learned about Fitzsimmons where it paid good—I could make $5–$6 a week, plus we got our quarters and all of that. Before I left…well, my dad told all of us girls...he sat us down one day and he said, “I can’t tell you girls what to do but when you’re on your own, you have to know what you were taught. And there’s one thing I want to ask. Please don’t smoke. I hate to see women that smoke. I can’t tell you what to do, but if you ever come home, you will not smoke in my house or in front of me.” That was his rule. But you know, my sisters were both valedictorians when they graduated.
My grandparents came here in 1917—my grandpa was A.A. Niemann. He was the Corn King of…anywhere, as far as I know. He raised the most corn ever on one acre. But, see, he had all that corn and paid so many corn shuckers and all of that, and then corn went down to 25 cents a bushel, and he lost everything. That’s when he gave up farming and moved to town. He came here from Pennsylvania, I guess because he had itchy feet. He was like my husband. He had itchy feet, too. We moved 20 different times—twenty!
I guess you could say I’ve done some interesting things. I don’t know.
In early 1941, my sister Louise and I were working in Las Animas doing housework. We both decided we wanted to go to the World Series in New York City. We saved our money and we had about enough to go. So, Dad leased some land from people in Illinois—they came out once a year to look at the land. Well, they told us we could ride back to Illinois with them if we wanted to, and so we did. And then they put us on the bus. We made it to Pennsylvania, but we still didn’t have enough money so we stayed with my grandma Baker and worked at a tomato canning factory for three weeks. Well, we finally made it there and we seen the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers—they were still the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was just before the war started. I was seventeen years old.
I had a good childhood. I was happy. But, you know, God has always watched out for me. Always. That’s why I have my favorite scripture—it’s Philippians. “I have learned in whatsoever state I am to be content.”