By BOB MAXWELL
Special to The Hays Daily News
Hays and Ellis County comprise one of the wealthiest storehouses of folk culture in the United States. It all began when the U.S. government created a number of forts following the Civil War to guard the various trails against the possible attacks of marauding American Indians. After Fort Fletcher was flooded out, Fort Hays (1865-1889) was established.
Some years later (1874), the English, under the leadership of George Grant, arrived. These were primarily "remittance men," second sons of wealthy families. Most were, in large part, playboys. They rode to their hounds, cavorted with the G.I.s from the fort and drank a great deal of gin. (The late Ben Brungardt, whose mother as a little girl cleaned house for the Maxwell brothers south of Victoria, related that a ravine close by the house was filled with empty gin bottles at the end of one winter.)
I'm told that the Englishmen would put on Christmas balls, to which all the officers from the fort were invited, and "great times were had by all." The English and the Volga-Germans did not socialize; however, the English landowners provided a number of jobs for the young German men and boys.
The first Volga-German scouts arrived in the states in 1875 and in Ellis County in 1876. This was followed by a mass movement of Catholic colonists. These early settlers built their churches and their schools, hand in hand with their homes and farms. Along with their strong religious ethic came their beautiful customs and folk songs.
Thanks primarily to the untiring efforts of singers and collectors such as Nick Pfannenstiel, Lawrence Weigel, Wendlin Sander and Frank Rupp, to name a few, literally hundreds of German folk songs have been collected. There are folk songs for literally every occasion; they range from religious songs, to songs sung at funerals, enroute to the cemetery, over the open grave. Many are songs to the bride and groom (die Brautlied).
Customs also abounded at German weddings, e.g. selling the bride's shoe or pinning money on her gown, to drinking songs to nonsensical fun songs. Even the orchestra got into the act, as it would play lustily until the dancers stopped "feeding the kitty." As soon as the kitty was fed, in the form of money, the orchestra again resumed playing. A typical old-time orchestra might well consist of a fiddle, dulcimer, an accordian, and a "kuh."
Naturally, food prepared by the ladies, sometimes well in advance of all the actual festivities, was to be had. Among other foods, kalushies, saur soup, kriebel, kuchen topped with schwertzebeeren, all washed down with generous draughts of good homemade beer.
In attempting to put together material regarding Volga-German folklore, one would be sorely amiss were mention of the iron crosses in the Catholic cemeteries omitted. There was, and in, an internal aspect of their lives -- and deaths. Both Sam Sackett, formerly of Fort Hays State University and Lawrence Weigel have recorded well and thoroughly. Weigel suggested that iron crosses become popular as buffers against the wind, while Sackett believed them to be much more durable than wood or stone.
One of the older crosses bears the date 1876 while the newest one Sackett found was erected in 1939. All are well constructed and beautiful in design. The builders were real artisans, and for a time their services invaluable. Some of the better-known iron cross builders include Alois Hauser, John Knoll and Mike Kuhn. Iron crosses can be found in all the Catholic cemeteries in Ellis County as well as in Liebenthal in Rush County. Without question, the German folk contributed a great deal to the folklore of Hays and Ellis County.
Fort Hays has left one of our most beautiful and romantic legends. It's the legend of Elizabeth Polly. Despite efforts of historians to prove that she never really existed at all, her image refuses to go away in that she personified idealized womanhood of the Old West.
When the cholera epidemic of 1867 struck Fort Hays, Elizabeth and her husband were there. We don't know what happened to Ephriam, except he apparently survived cholera, lived until 1905 and died a respected judge in Iowa.
Elizabeth, however, seemed to have found her true calling at the fort infirmary, tending the sick and dying men. It became her custom at the end of the day to retire to a large hill southwest of the fort, and there in solitude, with only the sounds of the meadowlark and the ever-present Kansas wind, she would find the strength to go back to the stench of the sick ward.
At length Elizabeth herself contracted cholera and summarily died. Her last request was to be buried atop "my hill." This request was honored; however, the summit of that hill is bedrock and the gravediggers were ordered to check the base for softer ground, and this was done.
However, the wooden marker has long since rotted away, and Polly is quite alone up there, although no one knows exactly where. Additionally, she was a civilian, and when the military moved the soldiers' graves between 1885 and 1902, there was no reason or rationale to look for her.
It's kind of interesting, I think, that while involved in nursing duties, her uniform was always the same: a long flowing blue gown and a long bonnet, as was the style in those frontier days.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of this whole story is that Polly (or an apparition looking like her) has been seen: once when a police car from the city of Hays ran over her and once when a custom cutter found her sitting in the cab of his combine. The subject need only to be broached and half the hands of a folklore class go up, recounting various meetings or experiences with Ellis County's own ghost.
Bob Maxwell, Hays, is a former professor at Fort Hays State University.