Hidden History: On a quest for a place to call home, all roads lead to Osage County – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: On a quest for a place to call home, all roads lead to Osage County

The Elmer Duff family at their cabin in Montrose County, Colorado.

In the 1870s, with the expansion of railroad lines, access to Kansas and points in the western part of the United States was made much easier. Individuals in places like Pennsylvania with similarities in climate started looking west for opportunities. Farming in Kansas reportedly involved less labor than points east, and land was cheaper and easier to purchase in large parcels. The Duffs, who had lived in western Pennsylvania, was one of the families that made that trip.

Elmer Duff came to Kansas with his parents, James and Mary, and six siblings in the spring of 1871 on a three-day trip via the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe from Mercer County, Pennsylvania, to Osage City (at that time the ATSF was only completed to Emporia). From Osage City they loaded their household goods on spring wagons and completed the trip to Lyndon. James bought 160 acres outside of town, and built a house with only one small window and two doors until a bigger house could be built.

Elmer married Laura Gill, in 1887. Laura’s family had also made the trek from Pennsylvania to settle at Lyndon. The couple set up a household on the Duff family farm, but after a few years Elmer needed to create a space for his own family. While Osage County was the place their parents settled, the population boom of the 1880s made it a bit crowded. Elmer and Laura started looking elsewhere for greater opportunities, open spaces, and a place of their own.

The territory of Oklahoma was opened for settlement in 1879, and the fourth and largest land rush in Indian Territory was in September 1893, drawing the attention of several Lyndon citizens.

Elmer and Laura took a large wagon and joined a group of others leaving from Lyndon intending to make their race from Arkansas City. The plan was to stick together as much as possible in making any land claims. Other members of the group, Lew Huber and George Fleming, had racehorses in hopes of giving them a leg up on the Sooners, those who entered the newly opened lands before the appointed time.

The Lyndon group joined 100,000 others in a dash across the Cherokee Strip for approximately 40,000 homestead sites. Despite their best efforts, the Duffs weren’t able to acquire a parcel and returned to Lyndon.

And so, Elmer was still searching for his place. In the 1890s, the last and greatest mining boom in Colorado occurred with a focus on gold and silver mines on the western side of Pike’s Peak. Elmer and George Hawkins, who was also from Lyndon, journeyed to Cripple Creek, which was one of the biggest towns at 6,000, and contained approximately 150 mines that produced millions of dollars in gold annually. While George stayed on, Elmer decided that the mining life was not a good fit and returned to Lyndon. Despite the setback, Elmer wasn’t done with Colorado.

Elmer and Laura Duff wedding photo by Harry Ford, 1887.

Lands opened to Euro-American settlement in territory formerly occupied by the Ute tribe in western Colorado drew the attention of Elmer and many others from Osage County. In 1901, word started to spread about the upcoming Newlands Act that promised to bring water to the arid lands of the west. One of the first projects proposed was the Gunnison Tunnel, which would divert water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley in Montrose County, Colorado. The land was beautiful and had been drawing multiple families from Osage County to it in the late 1890s.

Elmer’s interest was piqued, and he began making plans to make the move to Colorado. The family gathered all their earthly possessions, horses, cows, machinery, and furniture and loaded them on a railroad car at North Lyndon. While his family rode in the passenger cars, Elmer rode on the freight train so he could feed and water their stock.

The government was slow in implementing the Gunnison Tunnel, which caused Elmer and the other farmers that moved there to work hard to irrigate their own lands. Elmer hated it. He had to wear big rubber boots, and carry a long-handled shovel to open and close the ditches. Ultimately, it was too much effort and too little return, and the Duffs decided to come back to Kansas. They sold off everything aside from a few pieces of furniture that they crated and shipped back. Laura and the children came back in time for school to start and Elmer followed in time to plant the spring crops.

Elmer’s farm near Lyndon was a successful one, with award winning crops. But even with his irrigation battles behind him, Elmer found struggles in another form. Within a couple of years, Elmer started to feel so ill that he was not able to take care of his farm properly. Neighbors stepped in to assist, helping the Duffs harvest their corn and shuck the cobs. Folks made a day of the help and even brought dinner.

Outside help was just a temporary fix, though. Elmer continued to struggle and was finally diagnosed with diabetes. A diabetes diagnosis at that time was a death sentence. A child could only expect to live a year from diagnosis, a 30-year-old might live four years, and a 50-year-old possibly eight years.

Even with no real understanding of the disease or a way to fight the mortality rate, doctors knew of the relationship between diet and progression of the disease. A variety of diets were presented to slow the disease’s progression: a starvation diet, an oat cure, rice cure, potato therapy, and a milk diet were some of the options. Insulin was not discovered until 1921. The Duffs had several milk cows, so Elmer likely tried the milk diet as an option, but to no avail.

Despite his illness, he retained his gentleness, patience, and his faith in God. Within four years of the onset of his sickness, Elmer succumbed and died in May of 1909 – the same year the Gunnison Tunnel was completed.

Laura and their five children were left behind to mourn his loss, along with family, friends, and neighbors. Elmer and Laura are buried in Lyndon Cemetery.

The Elmer Duff family at their cabin in Montrose County, Colorado.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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