All over the Great Plains the figure of the “old settler” emerged as an object of celebration. Old settler’s picnics were a regular event in hundreds of places and served to cement a community identity based on common experience. The picnic was a day, too, when old settlers could tell their stories and be respected.
Some localities started early, though; they were too impatient to let the old settlers get old; they commenced celebrating their historic experience while the paint was still wet. The sandhills of Nebraska were like that.
Specifically, the common experience to be celebrated was homesteading under the Kinkaid Act of 1904. This law, the brainchild of sixth district congressman Moses P. Kinkaid, allowed a homesteader to claim an entire section of land, rather than the mere quarter-section permitted under the original Homestead Act. The sense was, in the sandhills, they would need more acres and more luck to succeed.
The greatest author to emerge from the sandhills settlement experience was Mari Sandoz, who is well known for her biography of her father, Old Jules. Before that she recounted her homesteading childhood in a magazine article entitled “The Kinkaider Comes and Goes.” From the title you can gather the tenuous nature of homesteading in the sandhills. The childhood Sandoz recalls is rough indeed.
None of that comes out in narratives of the annual Kinkaider’s Picnic, celebrated from 1908 for I don’t know how many years. The locale was the Will Davis grove, a four-year-old tree claim in 1908, near Anselmo, in northern Custer County.
That first your the honored guest of the picknickers was Mr. Kinkaid himself, who sat down to a meal of chicken, sandwiches, pies, cakes, and salads; beamed at the three hearty cheers offered by a crowd exceeding three hundred; and launched into an extended speech. He described the political fight he had waged for the one-section homestead and congratulated the homesteaders on their “splendid showing” and fine crops of potatoes, corn, and garden truck.
Kinkaid was not much of a speaker, but one settler present declared him to be a second Moses who “led us out of the sphere of tenants into homes of our own.” And then they played a game of baseball.
The thing about the Kinkaiders that most captures my heart, though, is recorded in newspaper reports of the 1911 picnic in the grove. Fourteen-year-old Matilda Matthews, from over in Climax, wrote it up for the Atkinson Graphic, reporting, “People came from miles around. We drove twelve miles to get there.”
And then she says, “We composed a song, ‘The Kinkaider’s Song,’ and sang it.” The Kincaiders composed their own ballad! And sang it to the tune of “Maryland, My Maryland,” the same tune as “O Tannenbaum,” a melody often appropriated by prairie settlers for ballads about their home places.
They sang about the prairie chickens; about the corn, melons, and potatoes they were raising; and about their cattle--not rough beef stock, but dairy cows giving “golden cream.”
Surely Mr. Kinkaid blushed as his constituents rendered their final stanza:
Then let us all with hearts sincere
Thank him for what has brought us here
And for the homestead law he made
This noble Moses P. Kinkaid