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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: A different sort of 'let them eat cake' years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Pioneer settler William Henry Roberts sports what appears to be an ascot cravat — a forerunner of the modern necktie — in this undated portrait.

One of Marion’s oldest settlers, William Henry “Hank” Roberts, might have had every reason to despise the town he moved to in 1863.

But he instead went on to become one of its most genial and beloved citizens and a highly successful farmer and stockman.

Arriving from Ohio at age 17, he and his parents moved to Marion to join his uncle, George Griffith, one of three patriarchs who had founded Marion Centre three years earlier.

Young Hank’s first experience was tragedy. His father, Daniel Strawhecker, died just weeks after the family relocated here.

Hank’s mother, the former Margaret Griffith, eventually remarried 1861 settler Calvin Robinson Roberts, a devout Episcopalian who adopted Methodist Hank, who eventually became a member of the Christian Church.

But Hank’s life still was filled with privation.

Two years after the Strawhecker family’s arrival, a huge celebration was planned for the entire community.

A double wedding on Feb. 8, 1865, was to be a party involving the settlement’s entire population.

Two of Hank’s cousins from the Griffith family were marrying children of other pioneering Marion families.

John S. “Jack” Griffith was marrying Sarah Elizabeth “Libbie” Shreve, daughter of another of the three original patriarchs, William P. Shreve.

Roddy Coruthers Coble was marrying Mary Ann “Molly” Griffith.

Plans called for a wedding cake to be served to all in attendance, but no eggs could be found.

Determined that his cousins should have their wedding cake, Hank jumped on a horse and rode north into Dickinson County, a perilous trip of several hours through Indian land in brisk February weather, to obtain the necessary ingredients — only to find upon his return that the settlers also had run out of flour.

Necessity being the mother of invention, the cake was made nonetheless, using wheat “shorts” — bran-heavy leftovers of the normal milling process.

Despite the substitution, those attending said afterward that what essentially was a bran cake turned out to be quite good.

Hank, who three years later married the former Sarah J. Patterson, combined the homesteads of his birth father and his adoptive father into an impressive bottomland operation stretching west from Marion along the Cottonwood River.

City residents frequently went to a grove near his lavish farm home, on land now owned by Bruce and Belinda Skiles, for boating, swimming, and fishing.

The site was described in an 1899 Marion Record article as “a bully place to go,” and was a favorite for picnics by church and school groups and others.

Hank was struck by tragedy multiple other times. Four of his six children died in childhood. His mother died relatively young of cancer at age 64 in 1880, and his wife — “smitten with a terrible disease that settled like a pall over her young life,” as the Record put it, died at age 49 in 1898, while one of the couple’s two surviving children, Mary, later to wed Charles DuVall, still was at home.

Eventually moving to town, Hank died of complications related to a wheat stubble fire on his farm in 1917.

Five years after becoming one of the initial officers of the first Old Settlers Day picnic association, Hank had attempted to stamp out the fire with his feet.

A diabetic, he unknowingly suffered such extensive injuries that his right leg had to be amputated above the knee.

“Cheerful to the last, as was characteristic,” the Marion Review wrote at the time, “he joked with those about him as he was leaving home to go to the hospital.”

The amputation proved too little, too late. He died two weeks later.

Described as a “rugged type” who “endured much of hardships but always with courage and fortitude,” he was reported to be vitally interested in affairs of the community and “always solicitous about the suffering and the needy, without ostentation.”

“Many could tell the story of his helpfulness,” the Review wrote in his obituary. “The name of Hank Roberts will go down in the history of Marion as one of the number of pioneers to whom we own an inestimable debt of gratitude.”

Among the pallbearers at his funeral was Record editor E.W. Hoch, who at the time was Kansas governor.

He and nearly all of his pioneer relatives are buried in Marion Cemetery.

Last modified Aug. 29, 2019

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