Bertine Pinckney Walker was the second of three children born to newspaperman William H. Walker and Melissa (Phelps) Walker. Known as “Bert” (perhaps with good reason), he was five years old when his father bought the Peabody Gazette and moved the family to Peabody, Kansas. Though he died only three years later, William Walker was a major influence on young Bert, who grew up determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He attended school in Peabody and worked on the Gazette until 1897, when he came to Downs, Kansas.
“A young man will go from this city tomorrow to take charge of the Logan Republican. In the young man who is going to Logan we feel more than a passing interest. He has been in our employ for only about a month, but in this brief time we have leaned to admire his manly qualities, his industrious habits and his proficiency as a printer and a writer. This man is Bert Walker. – Downs News, February 18, 1897.
Bert arrived in Logan, Kansas, with only 25 cents in his pocket. By that October the newspaper was sold and Walker was out of a job. He went to Osborne on a freight train and got work with the Farmer.
In 1901 Bert applied for the position of paragrapher at the Topeka (KS) Capital, beating out 32 other applicants for the job. He also started a widely-read column entitled Kansas Men and Matters. This lasted until 1904, when he went back to Osborne and bought the Farmer for $5,000 dollars from Charles Landis, who was anxious to sell the paper. Working as both editor and publisher, over the next 14 years Walker built the Farmer into a financial success whose views on Republican politics and state affairs began to receive considerable notice in other parts of Kansas.
Bert was a gifted writer of editorial comment. His style was simple, graphic, sometimes whimsical and always dramatic. He received his greatest fame for a column he began when he took over the Farmer. “Musings of the Village Deacon” was soon being reprinted across the state, and by 1942 some newspapers nationally were publishing the weekly antics of such fictitious characters as Old Bill Shiftless and Jasper Tightwad, along with wry observations set down by Bert’s silver-tipped pen. Reprints of the column continued into the 1960s.
On June 17, 1913, Bert married Althea Closon in Kansas City, Missouri. In time the Walkers had enough money that Bert hired Charles E. Mann to be the new editor and the family took a two-year sabbatical on the West Coast, settling down in San Diego, California.
In 1921 Walker was appointed to the office of Kansas State Printer and he moved his family to Topeka. He was elected to five consecutive terms before giving up the post in 1932. Bert also served for a time on the State Board of Irrigation.
Under Walker and Mann the Osborne County Farmer maintained a presence of prestige and influence unequaled by any small-town weekly before or since in Kansas. Walker was further instrumental in preserving and publishing much of the early history of Osborne County that otherwise would have been lost forever. Special editions of the Farmer in 1921, 1926, 1936, and 1941 contained articles and photographs of prominent Osborne County citizens and businesses covering the first 75 years of the county’s history. But all great things must end, and in 1942 Bert sold the Farmer and retired from the newspaper business altogether.
Walker continued to live in Topeka and work in the Scottish Rites of Masonic faith, of which he was a member for over 50 years. The man forever known as “The Village Deacon” died in Topeka on September 11, 1946, and was buried there in the Mount Hope Cemetery.
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(The following article originally ran in the May 14, 1936, issue of the Osborne County Farmer. In it Bert Walker described several of the fictitious characters who had regularly appeared in his Village Deacon column during the previous thirty-one years.)
THE VILLAGE DEACON RECALLS A FEW OLD SETTLERS
Old Bill Shiftless was one of the earliest settlers in Osborne County. He preceded the Pennsylvania Colony by a couple of years. Old Bill didn’t get to going good until some ten or fifteen years had passed. There were few newspapers, inhabitants were scarce and busy and no great state issues had reached out this far on the prairies. As soon as a few stores started up Old Bill began to get busy. In a few months he owed all of them and never paid a cent. He was a prominent figure at the first big religious revival in town. He was converted the third night and posed as the town’s hero. Bill proceeded at once to practice his new found light. He went around to all the places he owed and promised to “take care” of his account in short order. He wound up by asking for more credit. He didn’t get it and. he began to grow suspicious of religion as a salvation for troubles. He finally tackled Deacon Elam Philander, who was connected with a new bank, for a loan. “Bill,” said Philander, “ready cash is too scarce to risk. I can’t do it.” Bill was sore under the collar by this time and blurted out: “The trouble with you, Philander, is that the holy ghost never touched you.” “Maybe not,” replied Philander, “and you ain’t going to touch me either.” Bill backslid as soon as the revival was over. “I was disappointed in religion,” said Old Bill, “It didn’t help me a bit any place.” As the years went by Old Bill’s conversions became traditional.
Another of Old Bill’s rare traits was his loyalty and help in times of distress. One day one of his cronies imbibed more shotgun whisky than he could carry and fell under the load alongside of a livery stable. Old Bill happened along and stopped. The stricken crony said, thickly, “Bill, help me up and get me home.” “No,” replied Bill, “I can’t do that, but I will lay down beside you if there is anything left in your bottle.” Old Bill has the distinction of’ having belonged to every political party that ever existed in Osborne County. He was a perpetual candidate and never got three votes in his whole life. “I got disgusted with politics,” said Bill, “and quit the crooked game long ago.”
Deacon Elam Philander came out with the Pennsylvania Colony. The deacon was shrewd, thrifty and not a bad fellow. He believed in doing good and practiced it religiously. But he took about ninety per cent of his good for himself and distributed the other around the community as he saw fit. He was so practical with his religion and his prayers that he just about ran the church. I recall one time our preacher, a sad faced disciple who believed in prayer for all material things, had called a meeting in the church to raise some money for a stricken community in a distant state. The preacher opened the meeting by saying, “We must look to the Lord for help in this sad hour. I will ask Deacon Philander to offer a prayer.” Philander arose and said very directly, “The best prayer we can offer at this hour and in this case is through the pocketbook. I will give ten dollars and hope there are others here who will pray in the same way.” The preacher was shocked, but the required amount was soon raised. Then the preacher returned thanks for the answer to Philander’s prayer.
Another time the church board was going to meet at my house. I said to Philander, very confidentially, “Brother Philander, you know I always keep a small vial of liquor at home in case of snake bite or hydrophobia. Now the church board will be there tonight. What do you think I had better do about it.” “Well,” replied Philander, with one of his sharp looks into my eyes, “if I were you I would find a new hiding place for the jug in the barn.” I didn’t like Philander’s attitude on the matter any too well, but I followed his advice and came out all right. We had a very successful meeting.
Old Bill Shiftless is always knocking Philander and trying to get the best of him with his cute remarks. One day Old Bill was sitting on the bench beside the old Exchange National Bank with a bunch of statesmen who were trying to save the country. Philander sauntered up and Old Bill shouted, “Deacon, I’ll bet if I ask you to lend me two dollars right before the boys here, you won’t do it.” “You win,” replied Philander, as he wandered on.
Portia Jason, the noted worker for the emancipation of women, was an early settler of Osborne County. Of course, the first few years of the pioneer days didn’t afford her much opportunity for the exercise of her talents. The women were too scarce or generally too busy to organize clubs and the idea of voting like the men never entered their heads. But with the coming of better days and modern improvements Portia Jason came into her own. Her first master stroke was in marrying Henry Jason, a little, inoffensive, dried up sort of a “me too” chap. When they were married Henry weighed 115 pounds and Portia 114. Now Portia has added an even hundred by her method of diet, while Henry has lost five pounds and tips the scales at 110. Henry can now wear his wife’s shoes, but that is about all. The funniest thing the neighbors ever saw was the day Henry was in the back yard hanging out the clothes of the weekly wash wearing a sunbonnet. Portia organized the Advanced Thought Club and was its first president. She has been president ever since, too. One day she dropped into the Farmer office with a club announcement and the results of the election. “I note, Mrs. Jason,” said I, “that you are always named president. Who elects you?” “I always elect myself,” replied Portia. “The members might make a mistake if it were left to them.” Portia is intensely jealous of her husband. There isn’t a woman in town who would give him a pleasant look.
But Portia knew a thing or two. One day a dear soul who was fast approaching the final years of the thirties sought her out for advice. “I am so lonely,” she moaned. “I have no company and people stare at me in pity. What shall I do?” “Simple,” replied Portia. “Practice looking resigned and at the proper time say, ‘Things might have been different if he hadn’t been at Chateau Thierry. He made the supreme sacrifice there. I haven’t cared about anything since.’” The lady brightened up and in six months everybody was talking about how her life had been ruined because her lover fell in the World War. In a year she was married. She didn’t make much of a catch, but it enabled her to put “Mrs “ before her name and refer to “my husband” in company. She is one of Portia Jason’s strongest supporters.
Portia Jason and Mrs. Deacon Philander make quite a bluff at being friends, but below the surface there is a deep enmity between them. On the sly neither loses an opportunity to give the other a deep dig. The real break came quite a good many years ago. Portia and Mrs. Philander always exchanged Christmas presents. But one Yuletime day Mrs. Jason, rushed to death with her emancipation work and club president duties, became careless. Her Christmas gift to Mrs. Philander was the very same present Mrs. Philander had sent to her (Portia) the previous Christmas. The next time Mrs. Philander met Portia she remarked: “My dear Portia, I am crazy about your dear gift to me. I loved it when I sent it to you last year, and now that you have returned it to me I love it more than ever on account of your sacrifice.” For once Portia was put down for the count.
Jasper Tightwad is another pioneer settler who has attained more than passing prominence. No citizen of the country has contributed more to the levity and humor of the passing years than Jasper. Stories of his peculiarities are legion. Jasper’s thrift has been phenomenal. He has attended more “free” entertainments than any other person on the townsite, particularly where there was something to eat or souvenirs to be given away. Jasper went into [Chan] Baldwin’s drug store one day to buy a sheet of sandpaper. The mild mannered Chan waited on him and threw on the counter a stack of sandpaper. Jasper picked up a sheet and looked at it carefully. He turned it this way and that way to get the best view possible. Finally he said, “It kinder looks to me like it’s imitation.” Chan looked at him and said very meekly, “Well, Jasper, if you can tell me of anything that is cheaper than sand you can have the whole pile for nothing.” Jasper said he would think the thing over and come back the next day and report.
During the World War Jasper did all he could in the cause of patriotism. He bought two fifty-cent thrift stamps. He held them until he got a little advance and then sold them. He has confidentially told a number that he hopes some day to get a pension from Uncle Sam for what he did to help out in the dark days. Jasper visited a dentist one day to see about a set of plates for his wife. He wanted to know if a set could not be made so that he could use them, too. “Wife and I have lots of time and we don’t need to both eat at the same time,” he said.
Simeon Sly is another old timer who has made more than a passing record during his sojourn in the valley. Simeon has never been known to refuse any candidate his vote when approached on the subject. His hearty congratulations to the winner are noted among the boys. Always he says, “I sure did all I could for you.”
Sly is a great church goer. He often tells about how he gives one-tenth cause. I once asked Deacon Philander, who is church treasurer, about Sly’s giving. “Yes,” replied Philander, “I know Sly talks about giving one-tenth, but I notice that Sly always selects the dates on which he gives the tenth. He overlooks the days on which he makes money. He just talks about his tenth, that’s all.” But Simeon Sly has gotten along pretty well and is always able to fool a certain class of people.
A review of famous characters who have made history in Osborne would not be complete without reference to Old Man Blowloud, who is one of the real old timers. Blowloud always knew everything, but generally after it happened. He was a great man “back east,” before he came west for his health. He could have anything back in the old home and was personally acquainted with most of the governors and United States senators and other famous men. One day a man from Blowloud’s old home town back east dropped in and some of the boys asked him about Blowloud’s prominence back there and the big positions he had held. “I believe he did hold a job there in the court house,” said the visitor. “I am sure he was a fourth assistant janitor for a few weeks, but he talked so much and worked so little that the commissioners let him out.” But Blowloud’s voice still rings out on every occasion.
Time and space does not permit a very extensive writeup of these famous old settlers. They deserve much more than they are getting. But what is given will get results. Old Bill Shiftless will come around with some advice on the financial situation. Deacon Philander will deliver a wise crack and subscribe for a relative back east. Portia Jason will tell us she is proud of the Farmer and that it always stood for the best. Blowloud will tell us of a few mistakes, while Sim Sly will tap us on the shoulder and say, “You sure hit that fellow right where it hurt.” All are woven into the yarn of the passing years and the town wouldn’t have been the same without them and their peculiar traits.