Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

the old high school auditorium, Elmdale


When he began having trouble with his vision, my Great Uncle Ira Spencer gave up teaching and coaching at Elmdale High School and moved his family to a farm near Fayetteville, Ark. There, he raised crops, cattle and chickens.

The Spencers moved to Arkansas in 1937. And if I got the story right, they bounced back to Kansas for awhile, later returned to Arkansas, and then Ira and Anna spent their final years in Chase County.

Ila Mae Spencer Whitlock and my mother and I enjoyed chicken-fried steak dinners last week at the Emma Chase Café in Cottonwood Falls. Ila Mae and my mom are first cousins, and as we ate they talked about moves their families had made when they were young.

My mom’s father, George, and Ila Mae’s mother, Anna, were two of six siblings. Four of those native-Kansan siblings spent part of their adult lives in the Fayetteville area.

Ila Mae found her own way back to Kansas after graduating high school. She chased after her brother’s friend, Merle Whitlock, and she caught him. That marriage in 1942 put her back in Elmdale where she has remained.

Every time I hear family stories, I pull out my notebook and pen. Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve scribbled down bits of my mom’s family history into a couple dozen pocket notebooks.

I may never be able to find all of those fragments of information or do anything with them, but I feel a desire, and an obligation, to at least spend some time contemplating the people whose existence preceded mine.

Somewhere in the conversation, Ila Mae mentioned that it was her late mother’s birthday, and I suggested that we drop by the Stoehr Cemetery near Elmdale to pay a visit to family members who have moved above and beyond the Kansas prairie.

After leaving the Emma Chase Cafe, we took the lake road toward Elmdale. I swung the car into the Chase County State Fishing Lake entrance to see what was going on there. The water was still, the day as perfect as fall gets.

Several Monday fishermen were on lawn chairs on the jetties with lines in the water, a few pickups and campers set up along the shore. Hills on the far side of the lake provided an autumn backdrop.

Because Ila Mae had mentioned earlier that her mother had loved sunflowers, we stopped to pick a handful of them from the ditch. The stalks were woody and the sap was sticky on my hands.

As we drove on, the conversation continued and Ila Mae, the Chase Countian among us, told stories as we passed landmarks. Ila Mae told about the evening she and Merle had gone to the top of Osage Hill to see the Aurora Borealis, but that sky feature failed to show. The Northern Lights wasn’t the only thing to disappoint. Ready to leave, their truck wouldn’t start, but they were able to get the truck rolling downhill and they coasted into Elmdale.

When friends and family members share their stories with us, those stories become a part of our lives too. The next time I drive past Osage Hill, I’ll think of Ila Mae and Merle and picture them coasting down the hill. The sharing of stories is not just a way of filling time and space, but it’s a way to connect in a meaningful way.

At the cemetery, Ila Mae, with the plucked sunflowers in hand, glanced to her husband’s stone which was just beyond her parents’ graves. “Merle didn’t like sunflowers,” she smiled, and she placed all of the flowers in front of her mother’s name.

Both of the headstones were engraved with their respective wedding dates. “You and Merle shared the same anniversary as your parents,” I noted.

“Yes, and that was fun,” Ila Mae said. “Until Daddy died and then I just quit mentioning the anniversaries to my mother.”

Tales of the past hung in the September air. I listened to stories about a grass fire that threatened their home, my grandfather’s furnace explosion, and heartbreaking losses: a stillborn infant, a sister. Each story widened the scope of family.

Autumn had landed beautifully. We stood in the sunshine on the cemetery grass for quite a while, connecting as a family, sharing stories, sharing moments.

Copyright 2011 ~ Cheryl Unruh


  1. Everybody has a story….if we would just listen. I remember my dad telling about the times, when he was a kid, that the family would sit out in the yard in the evening and his grandfather would talk about the “old days” when there were Indians up on the hill. Dad lamented that he should have written them down or at least, paid more attention. How good of you, Cheryl, to remind us to write these stories/remembrances to reach the future generations!

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