Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Scene from Victoria

In spring 1872, Sir George Grant, a wealthy London silk merchant, toured the Great Plains looking for a place to retire. Toward the end of his journey, he passed by Fort Hays, Kansas, and traveled across Ellis County. He was spellbound by the endless, rolling prairies with their colorful flowers and grazing buffalo.

Instead of buying property for himself, he negotiated with the Kansas Pacific Railroad and bought fifty thousand acres of land in eastern Ellis County to begin a colony for a contingent of his fellow Englishmen. He called it Victoria after Queen Victoria.

On April 1, 1873, the Steamship Alabama sailed down the Clyde from Glasgow, with sons and daughter of many of England’s most noble families. In the coming years, more than two hundred Englishmen, as well as a number of Scottish and Irish immigrants, settled on Grant’s prairie purchase. 

The colonists homesteaded with a distinct finesse. Delicate French satins and fine English tweeds were as common in Victoria as calico and denim were in other areas of the plains. Victoria homes were decorated with fine furniture, oil paintings, and many family heirlooms. The ladies used lace tablecloths, sterling flatware, and bone china. The residents traveled by horse-drawn carriages.

The Englishmen and women not only held on to their luxuries, they also held on to their social customs. In keeping with proper tradition, they dressed in imported English hunting attire and saddled their imported English thoroughbreds with imported hunting saddles. Then they galloped after packs of yelping foxhounds. If they couldn’t find a fox, they hunted cottontail rabbits, coyotes, antelope or buffalo.

Many of the colonists of Victoria regarded their social engagements as more important than household chores and farm work. The men gathered for afternoon games of cricket while their wives visited over tea. In the evenings they often had formal banquets.

Catherine Cavender, a woman familiar with the colony, commented, “The English gave wonderful entertainment. Dinners with long tables, laden with baked buffalo, antelope and quail, mince pies, plum puddings and tipsy cake, and after the dinner a dance that lasted till morning and there were Lords and Lairds to dance with, too!” Sir Grant was a veteran entertainer. His lavish affairs were the highlights of the social season, and he had visitors from the East Coast, as well as England.

Sir Grant was responsible for bringing the first Aberdeen Angus cattle to the United States. The colonists stocked their ranches with the finest breeds of draft horses, English rams and short-horned cattle. But to many of the men and women, pioneer life was hard. The men were often unskilled at farming. The tough sod and arid climate was formidable. Some adapted to a life behind a plow, but others continued to rely on personal wealth. Life was no easier for many of the women who had once relied on maids and butlers. The people, accustomed to luxury, had to lived with no screens, no ice, and in homes that were so unlike their homes in England, they grew homesick.

Within a few years, the Victoria colonists realized how unsuited they were for the open range. Poor crops, drought, grasshoppers, prairie fires, and winter storms weakened their stamina. Little by little, they abandoned Victoria, packed up, and returned to England. By 1876, only a few of the colonists remained. But Sir Grant refused to leave Victoria, a dream he’d worked so hard to build.

He died not long after that in 1878 and with him, Victoria died, as well. Those who remained moved to the nearby town of Hays. Victoria was deserted.

But the town of Victoria was brought back from the dead by an unlikely source. The Germans and Russian had settled west of Victoria in a settlement they called Herzog. As Herzog grew, it encompassed Victoria, and in 1913, the townspeople dropped the name Herzog and officially named the town Victoria.


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