Golden Dreams and Dusty Nightmares
For many, Kansas was the vessel through which they could achieve freedom, prosperity, and the American Dream. A vast expanse of prairie, unmarred by human interference, was ripe for staking a claim and putting down roots. Wheat, bright and golden, was a staple crop and covered acres upon acres of farmland across the state.
The Collins family did not live within a city limit. Much like most of the farming community across the land, they lived on their own land with neighboring property bordering their acreage. Gladys writes often of her father and brother going to several towns near their home on a regular basis. She never refers to Ulysses as her hometown but confirms a familiarity with the establishment by oftentimes referring to it as simply ‘town.’
Ulysses in the 1920’s was a popular place to be. In 1930, there were approx. 1,140 residents according to the U.S. Census. The area had a hotel, auto garage, schools, several saloons (despite Kansas being a ‘dry state’) and mercantile shops. It was a lively and close knit community built upon the foundation of farming and hard work.
Gladys mentions many of her neighbors and family friends throughout her first 5 years of journaling. Most of the adults mentioned in her writing are friends of her father or neighbors who come by to lend a hand with something. A common theme throughout the diary is one of community. Whenever someone needed a hand, her father or brother were there to assist. Likewise, when things went awry for the Collins’, someone in the community would step forward to help. Though homesteads were spread out with acres separating them, there was a string linking them all together and pulling them close when hardships were upon them. The desire to help each other succeed and thrive was a prevalent recurrence in Ulysses and the surrounding areas.
The stock market crash and subsequent Depression took a nearly lethal toll on the town of Ulysses. Unemployment was rampant and those whose livelihoods had been lost to the banks generally moved further West in search of work in California. The catastrophic dust storms that gave the Midwest the nickname ‘The Dust Bowl’ ravaged farms all across Kansas. A devastating drought had a stranglehold on the prairie states and took fertile crop fields and turned them into dried, skeletal husks. Top soil would blow off the crops, exposing their roots and ripping them out of the ground. The once beautiful golden fields of wheat were replaced with barren expanses of struggling crops and scattered dirt. Wheat prices plummeted. Cattle and other livestock starved. Unable to produce a crop to sell, many farmers could not afford to pay the mortgage for their land and saw their homes repossessed by the bank. Those lucky enough to have viable land for farming or to have had the financial security to continue to pay their mortgage were left standing by as their neighbors and friends saw their dreams crumble in the dust.
By 1940, the U. S. Census records show the population of Ulysses decreased dramatically down to only 824. The Collins family had left their homestead prior to that and had taken up residence in the town of Lakin. Many other families who were once productive farmers moved out of Kansas entirely while others chose to stay and challenged themselves to become innovative in order to survive.
“Kansas in known as the state of ideals and pests…”
-Sister Mary, 1938, A SURVEY OF KANSAS POETRY. www.Washburn.edu/ksquotes.
Gladys Collins married in 1938 and moved away from her beloved Kansas. Her departure certainly changed the dynamics of the remaining household but to what extent we will never know. Their stories, those of her father, mother, brother, and sister, were not written by Gladys in her journals and likely died with them. We do know that Gladys’ immediate family remained in Kansas for the rest of their days and are buried in Lakin Cemetery under the loving gaze of the Kansas sun.