EDITOR’S NOTE – Mary Ann "Mother" Bickerdyke’s heroic efforts as a nurse on the Civil War battlefield earned her great affection. Later, Bickerdyke (1817-1901) was a veterans’ pensioner and advocate and helped many veterans settle in Kansas. A one-time Great Bend resident, she is one of the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 24 finalists for the 8 Wonders of Kansas People. The public will have until Oct. 22 to vote to determine the top eight. On the website (8wonders.org), Marci Penner has more information and list places where a person can go to learn more about these people. Voting rules and ballots are also available at the site.
The second time Mother Bickerdyke came to Kansas to live was in 1874. Her son’s James and Hiram had homesteaded in Barton County. Having settled they wanted Mother, now at 57 years, to come home to live with them and to rest from her labors. The two homesteads were located on the west half of the southeast quarter of section 18, township 19, south of range 13 west. James recorded his 80 acres, at the courthouse in Great Bend on June 13, 1879 . James lived on the farm from 1874 to 1879 to stake his claim. Hiram never recorded his claim as he preferred to trade the soil for four sorrel horses. Hiram left Kansas in the gold rush to the Black Hills, and lived in Montana where he worked as a mail contractor, until his death in 1909.
She had also resided in Ellsworth and Russell at various times.
In 1874 Mother went to live with the two boys on the Great Bend acreage. Soon after her arrival the grasshoppers invaded the state and stripped the settlers/veterans croplands bare. Grasshoppers were reported to have covered the ground to a depth of four inches; tree lines were snapped under the weight; everything green in sight was eaten; onion skins were all that was left below the ground. Women who covered their gardens with quilts found the guilt was eaten too. Everything in sight was gone within days. After the grasshoppers had devoured the visible path of corn fields and vegetables gardens, they invaded the homes and barns. Wood handles of the hoes, rakes, and plows were chewed as the grasshoppers craved the sweaty salt on the handles; leather harness, and horse reins. The cattle were covered with grasshoppers. Men tied their pant legs shut; children were screaming as the hoppers jumped in their hair and down their shirts. Trains could not start or stop on the tracks slick from crushed hoppers. Along the fence lines hoppers were a foot or more deep and looking like moving struggling masses of green. Everything reeked of the odor and taste of insects. The water, ponds and streams were brown with excreta unfit for livestock or humans consumption. The chickens, turkeys and hogs became bloated from eating the hoppers and their meat tasted so strongly it was inedible.
To make matters worse the grasshoppers laid eggs in the soil and in the Spring hoards more hatched to plague the area. Some say it was the "day the earth crawled" Devastation was all about for the settlers.
Mother Bickerdyke arrived in Kansas just in time to solicit assistance from Washington and her friends in the eastern states. She begged for food and clothing, seed, and supplies to bring relief to the community. In her appeal for help she made ten trips to Illinois for aid. Over 200 train car loads were distributed, by her, from the Barton County Courthouse. A few of the county names mentioned for distribution of goods were Stafford, McPherson, Rice, Reno and Barton.
At the Barton County Courthouse one can look at the micro film records of the 1874-1875 "Books of the Poor" and see Mother Bickerdyke’s name signed to the pages of distributions for flour, meat, beans, coffee, sugar, clothing, coal, and seed. Over 200 train car loads were dispensed by her from storage in the courthouse. The original books of the poor are stored in the Hutchinson Salt mine vaults.
From a special edition of the Great Bend Tribune in an article written on August 12, 1936, stating the following about the grasshopper raids in Barton County. "Those whose names appeared in the record book of the poor were compelled to list the name of the persons in their family and list there property. Entries tell their own story in many cases as one finds these words in the old books: eight in family received 50 pounds of flour; 6 in family a few potatoes and provisions for two weeks, value of all property $25. And then a writing of a Samuel Snell of Lakin township who wrote "doesn’t want aid". Orders which were signed are also on file. Generally the orders read for "pair shoes or "overcoat and shoes" or "child’s coat". There were no orders written for underwear for any age."
Also recorded on one page the following: Received from Iowa: 288 bushels of corn; 2,400 to flour, 290 to meal, 120 to shorts, and 1,000 to bran.
One can only speculate as to the poverty/need of the people receiving the goods.
Meanwhile Mother Bickerdyke had become a legally admitted pension attorney and secured pensions for more than 300 army nurses, and hundreds of civil war veterans.
After life settled into a normal pattern for the Barton County residents ,Mother Bickerdyke left Kansas and traveled from 1876-1877 in Yellowstone ; then later in California visiting old soldiers homes. From 1879 to 1885 she worked in San Francisco at the U.S. Mint in the laundry, keeping contact with the veterans and assisting with pension requests.
J. B. Bickerdyke, James, Mary’s eldest son is listed as one of the charter members of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Great Bend, Kansas organized on August 10 of 1872. James stayed in the area and taught school.