Early Kansas City-Crossroads or Heartland Bioregion


Our bioregion is on Turtle Island (North America) where the prairie dances with the deciduous eastern forests on rolling hills near the confluence of the Kaw and Missouri Rivers. To understand the ecology of our area we take an historical look through the eyes of an early resident of Kansas City.


How the Forests Fed Our Fathers

From Reminiscences of Pioneer Days by Nelly McCoy Harris, started in 1891 and Published in the Kansas City Star, about 1912.

Mrs. Emmelin Heiskell, a niece of Dr. Johnston Lykins, the first mayor of Kansas City, who has spent the winter in Kansas City, and who came here first in 1852, said in an interview recently it was a mistaken idea that pioneers hereabouts were entitled to any sympathy. They had an abundance of Nature’s food supply and kind neighbors and were content and happy. At the hazard of being called a Nature faker by those unfamiliar with primitive conditions and the bounteous supply of wild foods that the woods and prairies yielded I will review the edible products pioneers found in this favored corner of the world.

Actually we would not have suffered nor felt greatly inconvenienced in earliest times if we could not have had a dust of flour or a pound of store sugar.

In our list of indigenous food were walnuts in superabundance, a few butternuts, hazelnuts in plenty, hickory nuts--the mammoth variety and the plump little shellbarks--to say nothing of chinquapin and other acorns. These last were abundant and nourishing enough to fatten our hogs until the hardening of the flesh necessary before “killing time” when some corn was given them. Wagon loads of all these native nuts were to be had for the mere gathering.


Wild fruits were quite as plenteous as the nuts. Almost anywhere, but more especially along the edge of the timber around prairies, the wild goose plums, yellow and red, large, juicy and sweet, we gathered by bushes. No “dinkey” little baskets were carried to bring them home. Tubs were taken in wagons and carriages and quickly filled. Progress--the insatiate iconoclast--long since destroyed these numerous plum thickets. Housewives had barrels in cellars filled with plumbs, rainwater poured in to fill the interstices, and they made pies from the supply throughout the winter. By the following fall the water remaining in the barrel was the finest kind of vinegar. You remember what Thomas Benton said in his report of his visit to Kansas City and vicinity about 1853.

In driving over the flower bedecked prairies the horses’ hoofs were crimson--dyed with the juice of wild strawberries, which almost covered the surface of the ground beneath the varied blossoms alone.

Blackberries were in such profusion that half were not gathered by us or the birds and the same can be said of wild gooseberries. Raspberries were not so abundant, but plentiful in some localities. A few service berries black and red haws, sweet and succulent--not the dry, tasteless variety we find here now. Groves and clumps of wild crabapple trees, those pretty pink blossoms filled the air with sweet odors for rods around, furnished an excellent fruit for making jelly. Slough grapes--the sweet, almost seedless fruit--whose vines festooned every bush and tree in the island off the coast bottoms and along the Kaw and Missouri River lowlands were used fresh and preserved in syrup for pies--and powerful good ones they made. The “winter grapes” so abundant, so sour before frost, it was said the pigs squealed in merely passing beneath the vines, yet so fine after being slightly frozen, were not only mighty good for food but considered a specific for chills and fever, so prevalent in newly opened sections.

What was called the summer grape (why, I know not, for neither was it good until after frost) was a most delicious variety, almost as large as Concords and a lot superior. These grew in abundance hereabouts, especially on higher land. Occasionally we would find trailing along a rail fence, vines of the fox grape, the fruit nearly as large as partridge eggs, somewhat pleasant to eat, but as we had such an abundance of better, we rarely robbed the foxes of their favorite food. Persimmons enough and more for ’possums and people we had here. A fine grove of unusually large persimmon trees, which bore an abundance of fine fruit, grew near (now) Thirty-third and Harrison streets. One large tree that stood alone near (now) Thirty-fifth and Locust streets, bore incomparable persimmons, so large, so finely flavored, were they. If eaten at the proper stage, persimmons are as delicious as any prepared conserve. Mushrooms were abundant in rich timbered land and along the bluff sides. And pawpaws--Missouri bananas, they are sometimes sacrilegiously called--this juicy sweet scented, abundant fruit of the forests, could be eaten all day by their admirers, without producing a sensation of surfeit, so digestible and wholesome are they. But, like persimmons, these must be eaten at the proper stage of ripeness.


Then meat eats! What didn’t we have in abundance, and the choicest? Buffalo, to begin with, because it was our biggest game. We hung hindquarters of the young buffalo, in the cool smoke house or other protected places--we scorned the other portions--and cut from them while they lasted the sweetest, juicy steaks and roasts. We also prepared or bought a goodly supply of “jerked” (dried) buffalo meat, which we shavers carried in our lunch baskets to school and in pockets, and a group of youngsters in “playtime” and surreptitiously in study hours gnawing away on the delicious, handy, edible accessory resembled the gum chewing friends of later years.

Deer, though not often seen in our immediate neighborhood, were numerous nearby, and the finest venison hams could be bought for five cents a pound; sometimes less. Wild turkeys trotted in the timber, and we had about all we cared for of this superior fowl. Wild ducks, geese and prairie chickens were almost as numerous as blackbirds. We only used the young, tender squirrels and rabbits, as the ample supply permitted picking and choosing. “Possum and sweet tater,” prime and cooked to a turn, could be had any time during the winter. And groundhog--why, even this varmint of ill omen is edible, but a little goes a long way. Quail--no partridge--we called, and still call, that perfection of game birds. It seemed almost blasphemy to designate this piece de resistance by so suggestive an epithet as quail--were so numerous that we actually tired of them at times. I remember when one could buy all he wanted for twenty-five cents a dozen.

Our turbid old Missouri River furnished oodles of fish--the best in the world we then thought. An old time lady said when salmon, lake trout and other varieties were brought to her: “I wouldn’t give a good steak from a young hen catfish for all these pale, sickly looking things brought from the lakes and elsewhere.” I have not quite finished the list of native foods found here by pioneers.


Few know that there was a grove of sugar maples about (now) Cleveland Avenue and Ninth Street to Twelfth Street and eastward on the Daniel Stone plantation. From these Judge Carey’s family procured sufficient syrup and sugar for family use. There were other sugar trees scattered about this section, but too “in sunders” (Joe in Great Expectations) to pay for sapping. Then I wonder how many know that the common hickory tree contains saccharine sap--not so sweet as the sugar maple, but abundant and deliciously flavored. When the big logs of this wood were burning in our wide fireplaces we children gathered in spoons the sweet sap which oozed from the cut end of the logs.

The Rev. J. T. Peery, a grand and honored old-timer, whose home was at (now) St. John Avenue and Spruce Street, one evening laid a huge green hickory log on the broad stone hearth to dry out for the morning fire, when he arose and went to place the log on the hod of live coals he found beneath each end a little cake of sugar. The heat had started the flow of sap, and the same influence caused evaporation and left the pure sugar on the stone. The good preacher told this himself, so we know it is gospel truth.

I trust I have not been so unmindful or ungrateful for our blessings to omit any item--I know I have not exaggerated. Mrs. Heiskell will doubtless bear me out in my statements as I can bear her out in hers touching our need of sympathy or commiseration in pioneer times. Happily we were not forced to subsist altogether on the food supply furnished by Mother Nature, but we could have done so if there had been need. -- N.M.H.

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