November 5, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson

Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian

Old Jules is more than the title of a book by Mari Sandoz, it is the name of one of the monsters of American letters: the Simon Legree of the pioneer household who, married four times, drove one wife to the insane asylum and struck the fourth in the face with a handful of four-foot wire stays so that she tried to poison herself with strychnine. (“‘I learn the goddamn balky woman to obey me when I say, ‘hold [the bull calf].'”) A former medical student and scion of a proud upper-middle class family in Zürich, this immigrant from Switzerland arrived in the Nebraska Panhandle in 1884 at the age of twenty-five to settle on a dugout claim above the Niobrara River at the verge of Mirage Flats thirty miles south of Rushville, equipped with little more than a Vetterli single-shot rifle, the stamp collection he had begun as a boy, a team of horses and a wagon, and a spade. Jules Sandoz had scant use for the “American” pioneers coming into the country but affection for the Sioux Indians, who admired his marksmanship and took him with them on extended hunting trips in the Sand Hills. He became a surveyor and a locator, settling fellow Swiss (including several of his brothers) on claims of their own; ran the local post office from his house; resisted the wealthy “English” cattlemen who fenced the land and tried to drive the farmers off their claims (by lead colic, when intimidation didn’t work); and planted his lands to orchards and vineyards in a series of horticultural experiments that earned him a reputation as the Luther Burbank of the Sand Hills. Also he begat six children on Mary, his last wife, for her to raise. The eldest, Marie (she changed the name to Mari when she became an author), was born in 1896 without benefit of a doctor in the little house in the canyon of the Niobrara she later called the River Place, where her father moved after abandoning the dugout on the west side of the Niobrara.

Mari Sandoz grew up conversing with her friends the Sioux on Indian Hill, above the River Place. She died in 1966 in New York City, where she had moved in the ’40s to be near her publisher and indulge her taste for the theater. (Like Willa Cather, another Nebraskan of roughly the same vintage, she took an apartment in Greenwich Village.) In between she wrote twenty-two books, all of them set in the same region of the American West, mostly nonfiction, but including several novels as well. Her aim, she wrote, was to understand as much as possible about man, shaped by and shaping his world. I decided early that most writers do their best work in material with which they have emotional identity. Therefore I  restricted myself to the trans Missouri country-and its nearer settlement origins-examining modern man’s occupancy in the region from the stone axe to the A-bomb and jet propulsion. Through the discovery of this one region, this one drop of water, I hope to discover something of the nature of the ocean.

So the books kept coming: The Beaver MenThe Buffalo HuntersThe CattlemenCrazy HorseCheyenne AutumnThese Were the SiouxWinter Thunder..The first, Old Jules, a biography of her father, is the best known of her works as well as, perhaps, the best. “You know I consider writers and artists the maggots of society,” Jules wrote his daughter when he learned of her literary activities. On his death day, he requested that she write the story “of his struggles as a locator, a builder of communities, bringer of fruit to the Panhandle.”

It’s 234 miles from Laramie, Wyoming to Chadron, Nebraska, Laramie Peak in the Medicine Bow in sight for 174 of them before the descent from the Pine Ridge escarpment-the same Laramie Peak that the girl Marie used to strain to glimpse over the horizon from Indian Hill–begins. Chadron, home to Chadron State College, is a town 5000 people, plus change. Driving in on the main street I recognized Ed Detrixhe in his Carhart overalls coming out of a bookstore around the corner and followed his truck to the motel room he’d taken an hour before. It had been better than a 500-mile drive from Clyde, Kansas to Chadron, spread over a two-day trip to allow for investigation of the local necropoli along the way (cemetaries having a particular interest for Ed). We drank a couple of beers in the room before going to supper at the Old Main Street Inn, and sat up late over a bottle of brandy and a handful of publications orienting visitors to Sandoz country.

By morning, an early September weather disturbance caused by a cold air mass from Canada had passed through and the sunshine struck directly from a washed sky as if earth’s atmosphere had been lifted away at the horizon. We made an early start from Chadron, headed east to Hay Springs, then south across the high brown tableland to Mirage Flats where Old Jules settled his Dutchmen more than a century before.

Ed carried a map he’d acquired on his last trip to the Sand Hills, drawn by Mari’s sister Caroline Pifer (still alive today at age 91) whom he met in ’92. This map was a cartographical disaster, completely out of scale and giving inaccurate mileages between the indicated points of interest. We were looking for the Church of the Sacred Heart, built on a lot donated by Old Jules to the Catholics (in the interest of community building rather than piety). Though the country looked familiar to Ed after nine years, a lack of topographical distinction inherent in something called the Flats made identifying landmarks difficult although the Sand Hills themselves were visible now, floating like a tumulous fogbank on the eastern horizon across the Niobrara. Finally, he stopped to ask directions from a farmer inspecting the damage last night’s frost had done to his tomato plants and learned we were less than a mile from the church on the washboard road.

Sacred Heart was a dusty stone block with cracked walls, standing within a shelterbreak of brown trees on five acres of sunburnt ground that crackled underfoot. We tried the locked doors and walked back to the cemetary behind the church, its stones inscribed with the familiar names: Freese, Minten, Peters, Staskiewicz, Skudlas-Skudlases and Staskiewiczs buried within ten feet of each other, and Victoria Staskiewicz lying off by herself a little. Ed Skudlas, having been in the bushes with the blooming Victoria as well as with her older sister, married Maggie after she informed him she was pregnant. When in due time he discovered the lie, he looked up Victoria whom Maggie had scared into keeping her mouth shut about her own pregnancy. By now, Victoria had produced Ed’s child; two years later she poisoned herself with strychnine and died, aged nineteen. Today the Staskiewiczs and Skudlases all lie together, almost side by side, under thin weedy soil back of the locked-up church with its Mass schedule dropping, letter by yellowed letter, from the announcement board standing to the left of the concrete steps.

Half a mile south from Sacred Heart we came to the dugout site, where practical jokers dropped Old Jules sixty-five feet to the bottom of the well he was digging. They left the injured man by the side of the road for the soldiers to find on their way over to Ft. Robinson where Jules was treated by the post’s army surgeon, Dr. Walter Reed, who wanted to amputate but was dissuaded by the patient’s threat to kill him if he removed the injured foot. Though Jules kept the foot, it never healed and he remained a cripple for the rest of his life. “I can make a living better crippled than lots of men with two good feet.”

We took the road east from the vanished dugout and crossed the Niobrara River, shallow and shrunken but freely flowing still in its meandering channel, to the River Place whose stone marker sits behind a wire fence just above the highwater mark. “When Mari and I were here in ’92, we wondered why Jules left all this for the Sandhills,” Ed remarked. “When we saw the Hill Place, though, we realized that–in this case, anyway–he wasn’t crazy.” (Ed’s being married to a Mari of his own produced uncertainty for either of us only when the name came at the beginning of a sentence, and then only for the space of a couple of seconds or so.)

The foundation was still outlined in the grass, not over twenty feet by twenty, after someone moved the house away, leaving a thin debris field–bits of bottles and china, the brass ends of shotgun shells-like a foundered ship’s. Following the fenceline we came to a couple of forlorn apple trees dying branch by branch, twenty-five yards apart. More then a century old, they were all that remained of Old Jules’s orchard, just enough strength left to bear a few wormy apples hanging haphazardly like forgotten ornaments on an abandoned Christmas tree. Ed and I picked an apple each, polished them on our shirt sleeves, and ate carefully around the worm holes. The flesh was firm and pleasantly chill, a tart communion host bringing us into the presence of a long-dead past. Between the orchard and the river ash and hackberry trees grew, and below them the current bushes from which Old Jules made his wine. Lastly, we climbed Indian Hill and from its small summit looked out over the valley where Jules once presided over a hanging and the corpse of the Sioux Chief Conquering Bear had lain out on its funeral scaffold in 1854. Though I stood on my toes to look over the horizon, I couldn’t see as far as Laramie Peak, either.

The Sand Hills begin on climbout from the eastern rim of the Niobrara canyon. They are not made of the gravelly mixture Wyoming calls sand but real sand, beach sand from an ancient sea formed by moisture and the wind into gray dunes that in time caught the blowing prairie grass seed and sodded themselves. Here and there, blowouts occur in the sod, sandy craters on which human beings lay automobile tires to keep them from expanding until entire hills are lifted and spun away on the winds. Between the hills and ridges, folded over and softly rounded, are many lakes, ponds, and sinkholes, surrounded by dark reed beds and spotted by flocks of waterfowl. In Jules’s time the Sand Hills were home to wolves, coyotes, deer, elk, antelope, and rattlesnakes, as well as birds; today, only the wolves are gone from them, along with the Indians who have been replaced by white ranchers (some descendents of Jules’s settlers, a few of them Sandozes) scattered over the mostly depopulated country. The Sand Hills, like a heaving green sea arrested in motion, are a surreal place: impressionistic, haunting, and mystical, a vague and separate world uplifted from the surrounding plains above which they seem to float, without an earthy contact. In moving from the River to the Hill Place, Old Jules transferred his family some thirty or forty miles eastward by wagon. The entrance to his last home, owned by Mari’s niece Celia Ostrander since her sister Flora Sandoz’s death in 1995, is signaled by an historic marker beside the paved highway. Ed turned his Dodge truck into the dirt track leading away from the road at a right angle, then made another right-angle turn left across a cattleguard. “Oh,” he exclaimed as the truck topped a rise, “it looks different than it did in ’92.”

We were looking into a long valley stretching between a straight ridge on the south side and broken hills making a barrier to the north. The valley was green, with marsh grasses in the bottom of the swale where in spring the shallow lake formed that Jules had put a rowboat on. At the eastern end of the valley, against the hills, two houses stood beneath mature shade trees, facing an apple orchard lying against the ridge. Beyond the valley, an expanse of blue water crinkled the afternoon sunlight. At the western end, opposite where the Dodge stood idling, a fenced plot showed against the steep rising behind it. “Over there’s where she’s buried,” Ed said. He added, “They cut down the orchard between there and the dry lake-just scores and scores of fruit trees.”

A sign pointing to the grave site invited visitors to make themselves at home in the orchard, planted by Flora to Harrelson apple trees. Though the trees did not look well-tended, the apples tasted fine. The single-story, cream-colored house that Jules built had been prettified since his time with windowboxes filled with flowers and other female improvements. We turned the truck around in the yard, drove back down the valley, and parked in the two-track below the grave.

Mari Sandoz lies parallel to the hillside beneath a handsome stone of purple granite surrounded by the wild prairie grasses. The guestbook, placed in a mailbox set on a post, was signed by people from around the United States and the world, the better part of them women. Celia, who tends the grave, signs in every time she pays a visit to the site. We added our names, and took a few pictures. “She’s been here thirty-five years already,” Ed remarked, gently. Jules, who died in Alliance in November 1928, is buried over in the cemetery there, with Mary beside him.

Old Jules was refused by thirteen publishers before being accepted by Hastings House in New York in 1935. According to Helen Winter Stauffer, Mari’s biographer, the manuscript unsettled many editorial readers, in part by the author’s vengeful attitude toward her father in earlier drafts of the book. Now she lies where he should be lying, the rise of the hill behind the grave plot vividly green in the light of the evening sun, tufts of pink Little Bluestem grass tossing on the wind; a living tombstone behind the granite one. Nothing here now but silence and peace-a final reconciliation, achieved by art and eternity, between the violent undefeated pioneer and his firstborn child, the dauntless artist he so strangely sired.