Jesse Earl Vague, eldest of six children, was born May 21, 1894, in the Twin Creek area of Winfield Township, Osborne County, Kansas, the son of Ida Maude Way, a pioneer school teacher from “back East” and Thomas Veilleaux Vague, a small businessman and farmer. Jesse, or just “Jess,” as he was known, spent his early childhood on the farm adjoining that of the Richard Shepherd family, a full day’s wagon trip from the county seat of Osborne, Kansas. Both the Vague children and the Shepherd children attended a small rural school. Jess helped with the farm chores and was an avid reader. He was but a teenager when his father died, leaving Jess to find work so that he could help feed the several siblings and his mother. He acquired his high school education by correspondence. His sister, Blanche, said they considered him their “angel;” for, without Jess “we’d have starved to death.”
At that time there were still numerous Indians living in the area. Jess recalled the time when his parents left him, then fourteen years old, to do the farm chores while they traveled by wagon to Osborne to purchase groceries, shoes for the children, and windows for their home. Jess had finished his work and was reading a book when he heard voices, looked outside, and saw Indians were in the yard. He was frightened as they approached the house and he quickly placed the heavy iron bar across the doorway, locking it from entry, then hid under the bed.
One Indian brave noticed a big wooden barrel sitting in the corner of the porch. It was a large supply of dried sliced apples; and, as he lifted the lid he was quite taken by the sweet smell within. The Indians sampled them and then proceeded to overeat. This made them very thirsty and they quenched that thirst by helping themselves to a bucket of water nearby. As the apples began to absorb the moisture and swell within the tummy of one particularly glutinous man he began moaning from pain and fell rolling on the ground. Other Indians were bewildered by this behavior and tipped over the barrel of apples, spread the moaning Indian across the barrel, and attempted to roll him on it in an effort to rid him of the evil spirits causing his stomach pains. Then, with a man on each side of him they dragged him away from the farm, never to return again. Jess said it surely didn’t soothe his fright to be there alone.
Both the Vague and the Shepherd families soon moved to other locations. Thomas Vague tried his hand at farming while owning a small store near Harlan and Portis, Kansas. Richard Shepherd moved his family to Manhattan, Kansas, during World War I by team and wagon. Mr. Shepherd learned of the building of Camp Funston and hired on there as a teamster to help build the camp while daughter Ethel Sheperd attended high school. She also worked as a telephone switchboard operator.
After working at several jobs Jess talked his mother into letting him go to Lazear, Colorado, a small fruit farming community. He told me he was then seventeen years old and purchased a round-trip train ticket through Salt Lake City, Utah, so that he could see the big Mormon Temple there. In case summer work didn’t materialize he could get back home on that ticket. He soon found work helping to build a big stone schoolhouse in Lazear, Colorado. He lived with the Lathams (cousins) where he paid board and room out of his pay of twenty-five cents per hour. He had arrived there with $1.20 in his pockets. Now, he considered himself quite wealthy. After ninety days he was back in Osborne, vowing to return to his beloved mountains as soon as he found it possible.
My father told me that when he was drafted into the U.S. Army he was asked if he had any particular talents. He soon found himself a cook for the officer’s mess at a military camp in New York. His food was well liked and one evening he was invited to join a few other servicemen at Irving Berlin’s personal apartment in New York City. Jess thought that over and declined the invitation because he didn’t want to impose on this young man when he hardly knew him. Besides, Jess was not a “drinker” and he thought this well-known musician might have several friends in attendance who were. While in service Jess contracted pneumonia. Thinking his high fever to be from scarlet fever, he was placed in that ward in the infirmary and acquired both diseases. He lost all of his hair, his lungs were forever scarred, and he almost died due to such a fever.
After discharge from the military service Jess returned to Colorado to join a few close friends trapping for animals. The fur pelts were then sold to the Army for making warm mitts and boots for the soldiers. Two years later Jess returned to Osborne. He busily pursued his college degree at Ft. Hays Teacher’s College of Hays, Kansas, mostly through correspondence, so that he was free to earn wages at the same time so as to help his mother. Jesse taught school at Rouner, Happy Hollow, Hilton, and Number One one-room rural schools.
While attending a teacher’s training session a very pretty lady walked by his chair. Jess wasn’t bashful and introduced himself to her and found her to be the ““little” Shepherd girl he had played with when they were but children. Now, both Jess and Ethel were contracted to teach in one-room rural schools several miles apart and Jess had to ride horseback if he wished to court Ethel. Even when the weather was good it meant an all-day trip. He did write letters, as did she, and sometimes Jess did sleep in the Shepherd’s haymow; later he purchased a used Ford.
When Ethel’s mother found out that her daughter was planning to be married she ordered one hundred baby turkeys from Sears and Roebuck and they arrived by train to Osborne. My Grandmother Sheperd raised the turkeys herself in their nearby pastures, often herding them from place to place by horseback. To Grandpa’s amazement she lost only one, sold them in town, and used the money to buy Jess and Ethel a fine wedding gift of silverware. She had twenty-three cents left over. On August 15, 1923, Jess married Ethel Sheperd in the Methodist Church parsonage in Osborne Their child, Nadine, was born June 1, 1924. Then the twins, Cleo and Carol, arrived on December 13, 1927. When the twins came Jess bought a new four-door Ford to keep them warm. He paid six hundred dollars for it, a tidy sum in those days.
Our little red haired sister Edith arrived on May 3, 1933. Edith was a cute baby, but space became crowded in their little home on the north side of town. Mom and Dad enlarged the home, remodeled the main floor, and added an upper-story, known as ‘“the girl’s dorm.” It was a lovely two-story home with a full basement and a nearby garage. As the carpenter planed the wood smooth it left long curls of thin shavings and Mother pinned them into my hair so that “Carol has long curls.” We children had a warm basement to play in, a playhouse out back, a ball field, croquet court, and Dad worked hard to make our home a pretty place with lots of lawn, trees, and flowers. When money was a bit too scarce to afford a Christmas tree he would either trim a few limbs from the big front cedars and pines and nail them to a center post with drilled holes to accommodate them. We once had a beautiful gold tree decorated with red bows and ornaments; but the tree was made of large tumbleweeds piled high, shaped with pruning shears, then sprayed with gold paint before it entered our home. I’m sure we children learned frugality from their clever examples.
Jess became the city school superintendent in Osborne and later spent five terms as Osborne County’s Superintendent of Schools (1925 to 1934). He was very well-known in the community and did many things to help the people recover from the hard times after World War I. As a member of the American Legion he spent many evenings cutting firewood from the old logs hauled into town for the purpose. He built a trailer with drop sides and many shelves to fill with library books which could be pulled behind his car to the rural areas to be distributed to the school children for both knowledge and pleasure–the first bookmobile. Jess was a good cook and for several years he ordered the fish, prepared it, and organized a big community fish fry served annually at the Legion. He organized box suppers held at the country schools for the families nearby, county races for all of the school children, taught Red Cross safety classes, Sunday School classes, and more.
Jess campaigned for Osborne County Treasurer and won. He served the county four years (1935-38) as treasurer before moving his family to Hays to spend two years obtaining his bachelor and masters degrees from Fort Hays Teacher’s College. In addition to his work and his educational studies he became the men’s dormitory supervisor for the Lewis Field dormitories, overseeing several buildings which years before had housed the soldiers at the old Fort Hays and now housed the male students pursuing their college education. He also found garden space to rent and raised enough vegetables to feed the family and to allow us children to sell them to neighbors and faculty wives for ten cents a bunch. We also bought a gallon of pasteurized milk for a quarter, bread at ten cents a loaf, and fresh bakery doughnuts were a quarter a dozen if made that day, or ten cents if they were a day-old.
After completing his education Dad moved us to Norton, Kansas, for a stay of many years where he was the city school superintendent. We then moved to Leoti, Kansas, and Dad was also high school superintendent there. Dad’s last move before retirement was to become city superintendent of schools in Alexander, Kansas. By then the folks were alone with the freedom to head for their dream of again living in Colorado.
Jess and Ethel moved to Hotchkiss, Colorado, to their “Little Grey Home in the West.” Supposedly, Dad intended to retire, but instead spent two years teaching in the elementary grades, riding the school bus into town. He then tutored students unable to attend class because of illness, injury, etc. We joked that “When you have teaching in your blood it is hard to give it up.” Jess was a hard worker both at his profession and at home. I can still see him pulling, donkey style, a large roller filled with water to make our croquet court “the best;” building us a playhouse out of scrap lumber; helping us plan a “Halloween spook house” for school friends; delivering commencement addresses at various high schools; and we often accompanied Dad on a Sunday afternoon “dig” for the shark’s teeth buried in one of the shale hills in Osborne County, a reminder that thousands of years before the state of Kansas had been covered with ocean waters.
Dad organized students and farmers to cut sod from fallowed fields to make a fine sodded football field for the Leoti High School; later the field was dedicated as Vague Field in his honor. He also taught Sunday School classes most of his life and he often played Santa Claus for churches, schools, or neighborhoods. For a time he served as an assistant faculty member at Kansas State University. Dad was active in the local American Legion and the Rotary Club. He was an officer with the Kansas State Teacher’s Association, the president of the Kansas State Horticultural Society, and a charter member of the National Geographic Society. He passed away January 1, 1978, at Hotchkiss, Colorado, and was buried in the Riverside Cemetery.
Mother was also active in community and church life. She was both a teacher and a librarian, taught Sunday School, won many ribbons on her sewing and canning displayed at the county fairs and made most of our clothing, taught herself to play the piano, and spent many hours canning fruits and vegetables for family consumption. Upon her death she was laid to rest beside her beloved Jess. We were truly blessed with such fine parents.
– written by Carol Ilene (Vague) Grabow, daughter, in Fall 1995.