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East of Liberal – A Memoir


I’m Raylene Hinz-Penner to talk about a memoir I published last December 2022, titled EAST OF LIBERAL: NOTES ON THE LAND, the story of the sandy land I grew up on three miles east of Liberal. My post-WWII parents found their opportunity to reclaim a Dust Bowl-eroded half section of sandy land where they farmed and ran a dairy for 25 years before my father’s premature death. They came in 1950, the same year as the Seward County Soil Conservation. I grew up hearing the story of how they had moved to a tiny house, walls were patched with coyote skins, with only a ten dollar bill and me, a one-year-old. They returned the farm to productivity after it had been decimated both by a tornado and the Dust Bowl winds.

I became interested in the sand my parents had to learn to farm and did a deep dive into research all the way back to the Inland Sea that once covered this area. I learned about the Plains Village farmers fifteen miles south along the Beaver River who grew corn, squash and beans 800 years ago and lived in slab houses, the remains of which are still there. I soon realized that Coronado came across our area, perhaps even crossed our land as he followed the Cimarron River searching for Quivira. The book became my own land acknowledgement of the peoples who had preceded us on the land, for example, the Comanche Empire which lasted 80 years and whose northern tip includes the Liberal area. I learned of the greed and malpractice of 1920’s farming which caused the Dust Bowl, wet years when carpet bag farmers were tearing up the prairie land as fast as they could to plant wheat and make a quick buck. Then came the dry years and the land blew away.

I come from 500 years of farming people, Mennonites who began in Holland and kept moving to new areas of Europe to farm-- Moravia, Prussia, Russia for a century, and then to the U.S., arriving on this continent in 1874. When they got to Topeka by railroad, they were shown land around Council Grove where only the year before the Kanza people for whom our state is named had been moved off their reservation there to Oklahoma after a terrible 27 years trying to survive along the Santa Fe Trail. It dawned on me that my people were the settlers who were brought in to farm the homelands of Native peoples who had been forcibly removed.

I loved my childhood on the land, the slow meditative pace of life, sitting on the alfalfa stack watching the sky, the joys of the changing seasons, the farm paths which guided us over the land in our early years, working on a family farm where every one of us was needed, playing in the sand and sailing, tumbleweeds in our hands in the wind. My seven years at Brown’s Corner, a one-room country school only two miles away, my country church in the pasture in the Oklahoma panhandle, even the long bus ride to Kismet where our country school was eventually consolidated.

I divide the book by the seasonal celebrations which people on the land seem to share across cultures and countries: the Blessing of the Seeds, the Solstices and Equinoxes, May Day, All Hallows Eve. The last chapter of the book details the experience my sister and I had coming back to the farm during the pandemic in 2020 to remove the invasive cedars from the land, now in the CRP government conservation program. We dug our fingers into the sand. We felt free; we were home.

Raylene Hinz-Penner for High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club’s Summer Reading List.

Raylene Hinz-Penner
Raylene Hinz-Penner

Raylene Hinz-Penner is retired from teaching English and writing at Washburn University and Bethel College. She has written both poetry and essays about place, specifically exploring time, geography, migrations and the land. She attended Bethel College and holds advanced degrees from the University of Kansas and Wichita State University. East of Liberal is her second book. Raylene and her husband Doug Penner spent their married lives in higher education in teaching and administration. They recently retired to North Newton, Kansas.

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