The Spirit of Kansan: Can’t Never Could Do Anything

On Kansas’ 160th anniversary of statehood, we wanted to share a Kansas Day essay written by Executive Director Carolyn Dunn for the 150th anniversary.

Last summer, my boys then age 6 and 4, decided they wanted to build a tree house from scrap lumber.  My initial reaction to them was, “Building a tree house is harder than you might think” to which my oldest son gave me a level look and retorted “We can do it if we want to.”  Well, I was put in my place; far be it for me to define what is and isn’t possible.  As a 6th generation Kansan, a dose of grit and determination must be in his blood.  Over the past 150 years, that sense of determination has directed many a Kansan to not give up so easily.

When I was young and my dad thought I wasn’t giving something the proper effort, he used to tell me “Can’t never could do anything,” a phrase his mother used on him when he was a kid.   Colloquial grammar aside, I got the point:  you can’t succeed if you don’t try.  So don’t give up.  In Bob Dole’s memoirs, I read that his mom used the exact same phrase with him as a kid, and that they were words he drew upon in the trying days following his debilitating WWII injuries and his subsequent rise to the highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate.

On January 29, nearly every grade school classroom conducts a review of the famous Kansans who exhibited the pioneering spirit.  Along with Bob Dole, there’s Dwight Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, and Carrie Nation.  And anyone who’s walked the halls of the state capitol can’t forget the larger-than-life mural of angry John Brown.   I think it’s safe to say HE wasn’t ready to give up.

But there are plenty of not-so-famous Kansans who carried that banner as well.   My first Kansas ancestor was my great-great-grandfather Isaac Farris.   A member of the Iowa regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War, he made his way to Kansas after being wounded in the battle of Gettysburg and being discharged.   His health reportedly was never very good following the war injuries, but he did succeed in establishing a farm and having a family.  He used his Civil War pension to buy land that was part of the farm where I grew up.  I can remember one time as a child my dad showing me the deed that Isaac signed when he purchased the land.  It was signed with an X by the Chief of the Chippewa Indian tribe.

Around 1904, my great-grandmother Charlotte May Williams Farris journeyed by herself and her two young sons to homestead in Morton County in far southwest Kansas while her husband and oldest son maintained the farm at home in Franklin County in eastern Kansas.   The three of them lived in a sod house at a time when there was little other settlement besides the Santa Fe railroad.  During their stay there, my grandfather and his brother were reprimanded on at least one occasion for “borrowing” the railroad’s hand cart – the ones that pumped like a teeter-totter – to ride to town a couple of miles away.  Secretly, the adults were a little amazed that the boys had enough “lead in their britches” to power the cart.  Two years later and land deed in hand, Great-Grandma and her sons returned to Franklin County.  The businessperson of her generation, she later sold the land to make improvements to the home farm.  I’ve listened to my dad’s generation describe Grandma as hell on wheels, while mild-mannered Grandpa was along for the ride.  What a perfect combination to pass along those core Kansas traits:  salt of the earth peppered with a spirit of adventure, persistence, and risk-taking.

Good thing, too, because that spirit was needed in following generations as persistence was put to the test:  keeping the farming business afloat wasn’t easy in the 1930s, nor the 1980s, but the descendants of Kansas pioneers were determined, and they succeeded.

When I came of age my idea of adventure was to venture to the big city, and for a time I lived in Washington, D.C.  Still rooted in my Kansas values to help a neighbor, I volunteered to teach remedial math and English classes to adults seeking their GED.  The classes were held in a basement of a church in a rough part of the inner-city, but I wasn’t daunted.  One night I came out of the building with my guard down, and a young punk grabbed my purse and took off.  My reaction was indignant, and I started to chase him.  A bystander started running with me, and emboldened by the assistance of someone who knew the neighborhood, I continued to chase up the street, down an alley, and to a building where the purse-snatcher entered.  The door was glass, and I could see that he had simply dropped the purse when he got inside.  Cautiously, I opened the door and retrieved the purse, all contents intact, and the neighborhood watchman escorted me to my car.

I know full well how easily that story could have had a very different outcome, which leads me to reflect on how my experience ties together with the Kansans of my heritage:  whether on a Civil War battlefield, homesteading the desolate prairie, farming through drought, or an inner-city mugging, we survive by the hand of God.   But a good bit of personal persistence doesn’t hurt, either.

My sons did build their version of a tree house last summer.   It is three boards of uneven length, nailed to two branches to create a very uneven platform.   During the summer, leaves concealed it and for the boys it was the perfect hiding spot to sit and eat snacks.  As fall came and the leaves fell, the unsightly boards were exposed.  Objectively speaking it’s an eyesore, but I’ve not had the heart to take it down.  When I see it, I see a real-life example of the spirit “Can’t never could do anything.”