Thursday, February 27, 2020

Fountain Pens & Journals

Antique pen & pencil set
I recently received an advertisement from The Goulet Pen Company, and among their pens was a beautiful fountain pen with a deep green finish that reminded me of my father's pen.  I was never allowed to use his pen, nor was my mother, although she wrote beautifully in cursive.  It was his alone, and no one was allowed to injure the point and spoil his favorite writing instrument.

How many of us today own a fountain pen?  When I was younger, a nice pen and pencil set was still an appropriate graduation gift, and perhaps the sets I received as gifts were for one or more of my graduations.  Perhaps I even bought one of the sets when I graduated from law school, believing it would reflect dignity on a young lawyer to use a fountain pen to sign important documents.

I own my father's pen, a treasured object associated with memories of him at his desk, a Victorian desk first owned by his father and now owned by his lawyer grandson.  Many times I played nearby as he wrote checks for his farm business and for the church he served as secretary-treasurer for many years.  Those days imprinted on my mind the association of using a fountain pen for important documents, just as my mother's beautiful script imprinted the importance of beautiful penmanship.

Sadly, today I write with disposable pens and my cursive penmanship will never match my mother's script.  I remain convinced, however, that cursive writing and even the printing now taught in schools are an important reflection of the person.  Even if letters are rare, cards are still signed, and a personal note is appreciated.  Documents still require signatures.

Page from Isaac's journal 1871
In other blogs I have written about penmanship, and in doing research for those blogs I was shocked to learn that many younger people cannot read cursive writing and are unable to decipher treasured family documents.  That brings me to the subject of this blog, which is the penmanship of Isaac Werner.

When I found Isaac's journal and recognized what a valuable historic document it is, I decided to transcribe it.  That process, which also involved annotating it and researching all of the names mentioned in his journal, took 11 months.  Of course, far deeper research related to the contents of his 480-page journal has since expanded over a decade, but this week's blog is about his penmanship.

The early years reflect the confidence of a younger man, living in a small Illinois town where access to supplies was simple.  His script is strong, and the ink remains dark.  When he resumed his journal as a homesteader on the Kansas prairie, his script was tighter, seeming to hint at a thriftiness required of homesteaders, who wasted nothing.  Recycling was essential in a place where money was scarce and trips to town took all day, even though today they would be ten minutes away.  I suspect that Isaac may have watered his ink when he noticed that his ink well was getting low and he might run out before his next trip to town.

Page from Isaac's journal 1887
The pen set pictured in this blog was among family objects saved after our parents' deaths, and I do not know whose they were.  The two images of Isaac's penmanship show the bold script of his younger years in Illinois and the tiny, tighter script of his later years on the prairie.  The ink from the 1887 page is faint, and my assumption  is that Isaac had diluted it to avoid running out, since pages before and after are not faint and do not indicate a likelihood of a habit of leaving the journal exposed to sunlight that would have faded the ink.

I hope you enjoy this reflection of lost customs, as well as a peak at the interior of Isaac Werner's 480-page journal that I transcribed, which has become the heart of my manuscript about the history of the populist movement in Kansas.

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Meat Market

  I have wanted to use this ad in a blog post since I first copied it from the St. John County Capital newspaper, but I had not found a reason for using it.  Today it occurred to me that maybe it was worth sharing without a particularly good reason!  

I find it interesting to see images of the living animals alongside the images of them after being butchered and offered for sale.  The advertisement includes the farm barn name--Pyles' Barn--, and the Saturday sales each week of their stock--horses, cattle and hogs.

A related entry in Isaac Werner's journal involves his idea of forming a small country town in their community.  He even suggested a business to anchor the new town--a slaughter house!  As he visited neighbors to discuss the potential of a town, many people expressed interest.  Rather, they expressed interest in the town, but not necessarily for the slaughter house.

The idea was encouraging enough that they selected a location, and several men pledged to buy stock in the town company if plans progressed.  An entry in the County Capital reported that investors from Kansas City were planning to proceed with building several businesses, but nothing more was heard about the town--or Isaac's idea for a slaughter house.

Advertisement from the County Capital in St. John, Kansas























Thursday, February 13, 2020

Love is in the Air

Love is in the Air, and Cupid is firing his arrows everywhere!  Happy Valentines!  With Valentine's Day's arrival, it seems appropriate to share its history.

The most common explanation connects the modern celebration of Valentine's Day with the Christian Feast of Saint Valentine, but specific details vary.  Perhaps it is related to the Roman prohibition of soldiers marrying Christian women and the martyrdom of a priest who ignored that prohibition.  

Other explanations refer to the idea that birds mate in early spring, which is considered romantic.  Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in 1382, For this was on seynt Volantynys day When euery bryd comyt there to chese his make, or as translated, "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."

However it may have begun, February 14th is certainly a romantic tradition today.  The history of the exchange of Valentine cards is better known.  As early as the 1700s, special notes and letters were exchanged, but the exchange of printed cards began in the mid-1800s, perhaps first in England but soon adopted in America, particularly after the Civil War.

Some of the cards were quite elaborate, with hidden gifts such as jewelry inside.  Other valentines were given the name of "Puzzle Purses," which consisted of a series of love letters which collectively could be arranged to make a beautiful design or convey a message.  

Of course, the gift of chocolates remains a popular valentine gift, and I remember the elaborate chocolate boxes that were so beautiful and well built that they became treasured keepsake boxes once the chocolates were gone. 

Another gift from clever young men who want to be sure they always remember their engagement date is giving yjeir beloveds an engagement ring on Valentine's Day, the typical stone given today being a diamond.  The first documented example of a diamond engagement ring dates back to 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, a diamond ring.  Upper class couples copied the tradition, and in 1866 when diamonds were first found in South Africa, that discovery eventually lead to diamonds that were more affordable for less affluent young men to give their sweethearts. 

In the United States, after W.W. I and especially during the Great Depression, diamonds declined in popularity.  Gradually the popularity of diamond engagement rings has returned, as most of us know, and in most cases what follows is marriage.  The image at the top of this blog page is of a wedding dress advertised in 1892.  I thought it would be fun to go online to find examples of what a bride might chose for her wedding in 2020.  Traditional gowns remain popular, but I thought you might enjoy seeing some less traditional choices!  Happy Valentine's Day.









Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Art is for Everyone!

Isaac Werner's Invention
At noon on Friday, February 7, 2020, I will be sharing some of my art at the Filley Art Museum in Pratt, Kansas.  The Museum has initiated a series of noon time programs on the first Friday of the month called Lunch & Learn, featuring artists from the region who speak and share some of their work.  It is especially nice for working people who can bring their sack lunch and enjoy the program during their lunch break, but everyone is welcome, with or without a snack, and admission is free.

My theme on Friday will emphasize that whether you are an artist, someone who wants to learn more about art, or someone who loves to visit art museums and support the arts, Art is for Emeryone.

It certainly had an important place in Isaac Werner's life.  Isaac was creative, and the sketch, shown at left, of his invention to wash bottles when he was a young druggist in Rossville, IL appears in the margin of his 488 page journal.  Most of his margin drawings relate to ideas for inventions or furniture, but some are like his tiny illustration of a local church.  There was also a large drawing of his invention for a thatching machine folded inside the journal, as well as his design for a chicken house.  Among Isaac's many talents was art!

However, his appreciation for art was not simply his own practical drawings.  There was his stereoscope, probably similar to the one at right which belonged to my Beck ancestors.  Isaac mentions in his journal sharing his stereoscope cards with my great grandparents.  

His library included such wonderful books as Classical Antiquities  written by a professor at Amherst College and containing elaborate illustrations such as full page  engravings of the Pantheon and the Ruins of Athens, the Pyramids, and Greek sculptures.  In order to understand the sort of books Isaac collected, I found an  edition of Antiquities online published at the time Isaac lived, as well as other titles from his collection.  One of the many books in his library was Cuba with Pen and Pencil, published in 1871.  I bought a beautiful facsimile edition published in 1989 containing all the lovely drawings of Cuban scenes and people.

Antique and facsimile titles in Isaac's library
The books in the photograph are some of the titles from Isaac's library that I acquired in editions near years Isaac's was collecting.  The book with a black cover and a red rectangle with the title in gold is the book about Cuba and to the right is the Antiquities book.

Another example of how people of the late 1800s valued the arts is how quickly they built opera houses in their small towns.  Some served multiple purposes, with level floors also used as skating rinks.  That was true in St. John, and is true in Red Cloud, NE where the lovely opera house has been restored and is the heart of the Willa Cather Foundation.  The dual use as skating rinks should not mislead your image of the elaborate structures.  Other early opera houses, however, had fixed seats on sloped floors, and were designed strictly for performances.  Once these communities could be reached by trains, performers and stage sets arrived to entertain. 
St. John, KS Rink & Opera House

When I drive the main streets of Kansas towns  that date back to the late 1800s, I ignore the current store fronts and look up at the second floors and roofs that escaped the 'modernizing' of the 1950s and 1960s.  I admire the intricate brickwork and carved stone figures and designs.  Many of them proudly display the carved date of their construction.  The beauty of these details reveal the refined aesthetics of the day, even if there were still people living in dugouts on country farms.

Second St. John, KS Courthouse from the late 1800s

This respect for beauty was shown in the public buildings as well.  The first courthouse in St. John was a simple building in the square, today's city park but then a dusty square.  But citizens wanted a fine courthouse to represent their community, so funds were raised to build the elaborate brick building at left.  Unfortunately, it had to be replaced, probably for a combination of reasons, including these two:  first, the bricks were soft and gradually eroded, and second, the robbery attempts involving dynamite exploding in the County Clerk's office, in an attempt to access the safe, weakened the structural stability of the building.

St. John, KS School House
The St. John School House of that era also reveals the esthetic taste of their citizens.  I cannot help but marvel at the ability to build such structures at that time, lacking the powerful equipment we have available today.  County schools of that time may have been sod or wood, and by the turn of the century brick, but the respect for education was just as strong in those crude structures.

The arts were important then and remain essential today, but I wonder if we prioritize them as highly today as our ancestors did.  Certainly leather bound books and the universal passion for reading seems less important.  The efficiencies of our buildings seem more important today than the elegance of the past.  Many schools place the teaching of art at the bottom of the budget, if it remains a part of the curriculum at all.

How fortunate our region is to have so many resources that preserve history and the arts.   Pratt is particularly fortunate to have schools that value the arts, museums that preserve our past and respect the plants and animals of our region, a  newly remodeled library and a state-of-the art museum like the Filley.  I am honored to have been asked to speak at the Filley at noon on Friday, February 7, 2020, and I look forward to seeing some of you who read my blog at the Filley!  

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

America's Unique President

Oil painting by Anders Leonard Zorn
Americans may debate which president was the most intelligent, which was the most admired, which was the most wise, and which was the most popular--among other characteristics for which our presidents might contend.  But,  only one President can claim the unique experience of serving two non-consecutive terms.  Grover Cleveland was elected the 22nd President of the United States in 1885, was defeated in the next Presidential election, and was elected the 24th President in 1893.

Because Isaac Werner's journal resumed in 1884, and I follow his story until his estate was settled in 1898, the presidential years of Grover Cleveland have been part of my research.  The son of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland was known as a man of integrity, who fought political corruption and patronage.  His campaign slogan in 1884 was "A public office is a public trust."

The President (front center) and his 2nd Cabinet

However, his intervention in the Pullman Strike of 1894, backing the Railroad rather than the striking workers, and his support of the Gold Standard rather than Free Silver, put him in opposition to populists like Isaac Werner.  The picture at right shows Richard Olney, a former railroad attorney, and the one acting for the president in the Pullman Strike, (on the left of Cleveland in the photo, hands clutched in his lap).   Other decisions that were contrary to the needs of workers and veterans were his veto of hundreds of private pension bills for American Civil War veterans and his veto of the Congressional Seed Bill, which had appropriated funds to purchase seed grain for farmers whose crops had been completely destroyed by a drought, leaving them nothing to plant for the next season.  He justified his veto, saying:  "...the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people."

One position taken by Cleveland would have pleased populists, when he stood up against the railroads by ordering an investigation of the western lands granted to the railroads by the government, resulting in the forfeiture of some 81,000,000 acres because the promised rail lines for which the lands had been granted had never been built.  

During his first term in the White House, at the age of 49 he married the beautiful 21-year-old Frances Folsom.  When Cleveland was defeated in 1889, his wife was reported to have told a White House staff member, "I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again."  Her confidence proved warranted when they returned to the White House in 1893!  No other president has returned to the White House after failing to be reelected following his first term.

The tradition of serving only two terms was established by George Washington, although there was, at first, no prohibition against running again.  Franklin Roosevelt ignored that tradition, having won the presidency four times, 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, although he died less than a year into his fourth term.

In response to FDR's dominance of the office for so long, congressional Republicans proposed the 22nd Amendment, which is now law:  "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once."  You will notice the limit of 6 years for any one person to serve in the office of president.

President Ronald Reagan expressed disapproval of that limitation to a reporter, saying the inability to run for a third term, whether or not the president actually chose to do so, inhibits a lame-duck president from accomplishing important matters because everyone knows his power will end at the close of his second 4-year term.

The Constitution states that in the case of impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate, there are two penalties imposed on the guilty president:  removal from office and disqualification "to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States."  Since such a conviction has never occurred, the manner in which removal and disqualification occur has never been employed.

Recently a man, known for spreading conspiracies, tweeted that although President Trump has been impeached, were the Senate to fail to convict it would nullify the president's first term and allow him to run for office two more times.  That tweet is inconsistent with the 22nd Amendment stating "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice..."  While President Trump might run for President a second time, to attempt a third term would violate the 22nd Amendment.

In the case of President Cleveland, he did seek the nomination for a fourth run for the presidency but failed to be nominated by his party.

(As an aside, looking back to last week's summary of presidential firsts in communication, Cleveland was the 1st president to be photographed by a motion picture camera when, in his final hours in office, he was photographed at William McKinley's inauguration on March 4, 1897.)


Thursday, January 23, 2020

How Our Presidents have Communicated

At the peak of the Populist Movement of which Isaac Werner and many of our ancestors were a part, the People's Party had succeeded in electing not only local candidates but also state and federal officials.  The People's Party was challenging the Republicans and Democrats for the votes of primarily working people, but also some professionals.  

In 1896, however, they took a strategic risk.  They decided to nominate as the People's Party presidential candidate the same man as the Democratic nominee--Wm Jennings Bryan, a 36 year old man from Nebraska.

Their strategy failed, and it split the People's Party.  But, during his campaign, Bryan used the trains to reach more potential voters than a presidential candidate ever had, traveling 18,000 miles between September 11th and November 1 to give 600 speeches to an estimated 5,000,000 people.

The American constitution stipulates that the president "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."  We are now familiar with seeing the sitting president deliver the annual State of the Union Address on our televisions, but George Washington delivered his message to congress in the provincial capital of New York City on January 8, 1790, and his 'recommended measures judged necessary and expedient' were left to be conveyed to the public in newspapers and broadsheets..  

How communication has changed over the years!  Rutherford B. Hays was the first president to speak by telephone from the White House in 1877, but it was Abraham Lincoln who installed a line for his use in the War Department, used to communicate with state governors and generals.

Although Warren G. Harding was the first president to make a speech by radio, on June 14, 1922, his voice was first transmitted by telephone to a broadcasting station and from there broadcast over the radio.  Of course, the president we think of as a master of radio is Franklin Roosevelt, who reached out to Americans so effectively in a conversational manner during his regular "fireside chats."

The first televised address was given by Harry Truman on October 5, 1947, but Dwight Eisenhower was the first to use television regularly, particularly his use of television commercials in his 1952 campaign.

What Richard Nixon called "the most historic phone call ever made from the White House" on July 20, 1969, occurred when he spoke to the Apollo astronauts on the moon.  The call was set up in advance over a microwave link between Washington and Houston, then out via microwave link to the Deep Space Network, then over DSN stations with the moon in view via S-band.

Bill Clinton was the first president to use email, initially more of a test to show the president how emails were done.  President Clinton himself regards the first e-mail he sent as president to be the one he sent to astronaut John Glenn soon after he boarded the International Space Station.  About a year later, Clinton became the first president to participate in a Webchat hosted by Democratic Leadership Council and an internet company.

While Obama's 2008 presidential campaign used social media very effectively, the first tweet by President Barack Obama was on January 18, 2010 when he hit the "send" button for a tweet composed by an employee hosting the president and first lady on a tour of the Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

Great technological changes in communication have occurred over those decades.  Today, the faces
The Home of our Presidents
and voices of our presidents are familiar from their many appearances on television.

Donald Trump, our current president, is not the first president to tweet, but he is certainly the one to have made tweeting his trademark.  According to Bustle, an online magazine for American women, Trump tweeted 2,568 times during his first year as president.  An article in the New York Times documented the most tweets sent by Trump in one day, in mid-December of 2019, as 123 tweets.

I do not tweet and I have no account, but many people around the world do.  If fact, it was estimated as of September of 2019 that there were about 350 million global monthly active twitter users, with 100 million active daily, 20.5% of those being in the United States.

I cannot predict the methods future presidents may use to communicate to America's citizens.  I can only hope that the future of communication bears no likeness to the telescreens in George Orwell's classic novel, 1984.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Nature's Voice

In past blogs I have shared Isaac's Werner's connection with nature and ways our parents and grand parents and great grandparents predicted the weather by signs that became sayings.  In last week's blog I shared a book that urges the importance of children's exploration of nature.  To my surprise, it touched the emotions of many followers of this blog.  This week I will share some of the comments I received from readers, and some quotes that may surprise you.  The photographs I share in this blog are taken at our farm, beauty captured as I roamed the places I explored as a child.

Cottonwoods in the Pasture, Credit Lyn Fenwick 
Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you. --Frank Lloyd Wright, (1867-1959) American Architect, interior designer, writer & educator


A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by fathers, but borrowed from his children.  --John James Audubon, (1785-1851)American ornithologist & painter

Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.  --
Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941) polymath, musician, poet & artist

Cottonwood seeds on the Lawn, Credit Lyn Fenwick
To me, a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.  --Helen Keller, (1880-1968) American author, political activist & lecturer


And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.  --Khalil Gibran, (1883-1931) Writer, poet, and visual artist  


I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.  --Walt Whitman, (1819-1892) American poet, essayist & journalist


Stranger in the Driveway, Credit Lyn Fenwick
All my life through, the new sights of Nature made me rejoice like a child.  --Marie Curie, (18867-1934) Physicist & Chemist

Nature teaches more than she preaches.  There are no sermons in stones.  It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral.  --John Burroughs, (1837-1921) American naturalist & nature essayist

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.  --Albert Einstein, (1879-1955) Theroetical physicist

I'm about halfway through [Last Child in the Woods] but am ...taking my time to soak it all in...to pass those foundations down to [my daughter.]  C.L. blog reader, KS

Hedgeapple Shadows, Credit Lyn Fenwick
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.  --Rachel Carson, (1907-1964) American biologist, author, and conservationist

There is an outdoor classroom and an edible schoolyard at our daughter's childcare center, and I'm so grateful.  Simply no substitute for outdoor play and exploration.  A. O., blog reader in NE

The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.  --Claude Monet, (1840-1926) French impressionist painter

Nature's Travelers, Credit Lyn Fenwick
Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions.  --Antoinette Brown Blackwell, (1825-1921) First woman to be ordained as a mainstream Protestant minister

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks.  Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.  Linda Hogan, (1959-    )  Television personality

Teaching children about the natural world should be seen as one of the most important events in their lives.  Thomas Berry, (1914-2009) Religious scholar & student of man's role in Earth history & evolution

We grew up in years & a place that this type of learning was a part of our normal childhood.  R.V.H, blog reader, NM

 The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.  Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be. ...And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.  Anne Frank, (1929-1945) Diarist
Prairie Gold, Credit Larry Fenwick

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.  There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.    Rachel Carson

As the saying goes, with my own edits, 'Why does the Lord give us trees, mountains and dirt?  So we can learn to climb...and have a place to land when we fall.'  NONE of us, ESPECIALLY the young, are climbing and falling enough.  R.G., Blog Reader in Texas

I must close this post sometime, so I will end the blog with two more e-mails I received from readers.

My dad always thought of a pasture or a grove of trees as a perfectly appropriate playground for us, and boy was I surprised to learn that other parents weren't letting their children experiment on plants or arming them with field guides and turning them loose to identify birds.  T.T. in NE

And the last...

Your recollections made me smile and think of the time we lived in St. John (from 3rd grade thru the 7th).  ...I've surely told you stories of living on the north west edge of town, a farmstead across the street with all the farm animals farms had in those days.  A mile and 1/2 catty corner NW across wheat fields was a grove of trees for day trips with a buddy or alone.  On the edge of the tree grove was the Rattle Snake Creek.  It had water in it in those days and nice holes deep enough to skinny dip in.  Good memories.  A. H. in KS

Thank you to everyone who shared their memories and experiences.

Remember, you can click on images to enlarge them.








Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Kids and Nature, (first titled Confessions of a Slow Reader)

I just finished a wonderful book titled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.  In fact, I loved it so much that I bought several copies of the book to gift to friends who have young children.  I recommend it very highly.

The Last Child in the Woods is about the importance of providing childhood experiences with nature.  Louv is not opposed to watching nature programs on television nor walks in parks with carefully mowed lawns, tidy flower beds, and playground equipment designed for safety.  However, he advocates for children's need to experience the untamed woods and prairies that fuel  and develop an unsanitized, curiosity-motivating, imagination-inspiring, unsupervised, relationship-developing opportunity for children to experience the natural world that is rapidly disappearing.  He advocates our responsibility to provide that opportunity. 

Louv argues in his 2006 book that in our desire to keep children safe, we have cocooned them from opportunities to experience the wonders of nature which are needed to create healthy children.  He points to such issues as childhood obesity, depression, and attention disorders as side effects from restricting exposure to interactions with nature.

Photo credit:  Shealah Craighead
Paul Harvey (1918-2009), a well-known radio pundit in the late 1900s, appeared in the city where we lived when we were fresh out of college, and I have never forgotten an analogy he used in his speech.  He said, 'you can't sweep the floor with a broom and expect not to have to sweep it again.'  Problems may be resolved, but they will not stay that way without ongoing efforts.  (Harvey received the Medal of Freedom in 2005, and the photograph at right shows that ceremony.)

Using Harvey's analogy, we can compare our efforts to build safe playgrounds and to protect children from the dangers of strangers and unsupervised explorations beyond the boundaries of home to aggressively sweeping away not only the bad but also the good things of childhood.  Richard Louv would suggest that we should learn to sweep more thoughtfully--realizing that our aggressive sweeping has also swept away the very things that fuel imagination, inventiveness, problem solving skills, working with others, unstructured active play, and other things important to children's healthy growth.

It is the nature of life that there will always be issues to resolve, misdeeds to confront, and lessons to learn, and we should never expect a perfect world.  But, if we discover that we may have swept the floor too clean, perhaps we should try a different broom.

Our own histories can often guide us in raising the next generation.  I, for one, certainly remember hours spent in the sand hill plum thickets, creating imaginary rooms in areas cleared of thickets by cattle or other animals.  I'm sure the sharp thorns in the thicket drew my blood many times, and my mother may have worried about the dangers of a thorn damaging an eye, or perhaps she worried about snakes, badgers, and ants sharing my playground. But, she didn't stop my fun, and I survived.  I wandered for miles bare foot on our sandy roads, and I disappeared into the fields and tree rows for hours without telling anyone where I was headed when I left the house--primarily because I had no idea where I was going.  I wandered and experienced the joy unanticipated discoveries.  Of course, the world has changed, and the dangers parents fear for their children today are real, but children still need the freedom to explore and imagine.  Louv reminds his readers of that.

Without the courage and curiosity of our ancestors, they would not have crossed oceans.  Without the imaginations and initiative of homesteaders like Isaac Werner to confront the unknown dangers of the prairie, the lives of their descendants would certainly have been different--assuming that those descendants would even have been born.

Richard Louv worries that if a generation of children mature without the unplanned discoveries of nature's beauties and wonders, not only will it be a great loss to those children but also a huge loss to nature itself when a generation without the childhood experiences of nature become decision-making adults.  Those of us in farming communities may not understand how nature-starved urban children can be, with buildings instead of trees casting shade, paved playgrounds and sidewalks offering no opportunity for making mud pies or feeling sand between their toes, with the beauty of stars bleached by constant lights and the explosion of colors as the sun sets blocked by a profile of roof tops.

After talking with a group of children, Louv asked them to describe their favorite place to play.  One little boy said, "in the house."  When Louv asked him why, the boy said, "because that's where all of the electric receptacles are."

It is certainly something to think about.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Look at the Stars

A fairy ring in our yard
Some time ago our nephew, who lives in a city, visited our farm with his family.  They had come for the day and had meant to get  home before dark, but they stepped out our door just at that magical time when the sky is a deep velvet blue but not completely dark.  The stars truly were like diamonds in that deep blue sky.  Yet, it was simply that time of evening when, if we bother to look up and the night isn't cloudy, anyone who lives in the country can see such a sky.

In a voice filled with awe, our nephew said, "Look at the stars."

A garden spider's web
The rest of his family looked up, and someone may have said, "Yes, pretty" as they hurried toward their car, anxious to be on their way.

I have never forgotten the wonder in his voice as he saw stars usually obliterated by the city lights where he lived.  He was young enough that those stars seemed like a miracle.  

Living in the country, after spending our adult lives in urban environments, we appreciate the magnificent sunsets and sunrises we see most days.  Recently we experienced the most incredible double rainbow that reached nearly to the ground at both ends.  It cast a spell on both of us that made us unable to walk away from something so very beautiful.

Cicada exuviae on an iris leaf
Imagine what our ancestors must have seen as settlers on the open prairie.  Isaac writes in his journal about watching an eclipse from a rooftop he was shingling.  He describes, almost poetically, the first tornado he watched, dipping down from the clouds and raising a cloud of dirt before pulling back into the cloud from which it had dropped.  He admits his dislike of walking at night during a lightning display, although in fair weather he walked under moonlight and starlight regularly.  

After living in large cities, we bought acreage when we moved to Texas, and we built a home miles from the city, but we could not enjoy the blue-velvet sky we now see at our farm.  Even in the deep of night the lights from the city and the businesses along the interstate had bleached the sky over our Texas country home, to say nothing of the constant rumbling of the trucks on the interstate several miles away.  One night I set the alarm to awaken in the middle of the night to watch the spectacular meteor shower predicted for our location.  I lay in our driveway and looked to the northeast where the meteors were said to be most prevalent, and I saw a few faint drifting dots during the half-hour or so I watched, but the urban lights faded nature's meteor display and, disappointed, I returned to bed.

A wing more delicate than leaded glass
The first entry every day that Isaac made in his journal was weather.  Most of his day was spent out-of-doors, and even indoors weather intruded with the cold winds of winter and the blistering heat of summer.  Yet, Isaac's journal contains few complaints about the weather, except for truly extreme temperatures.  Rather, he writes more about the pleasures of crooking frogs at evening and the return of song birds in spring.

For many of us, weather is something to hurry through on our way between an air-conditioned car and an air-conditioned building, or its opposite, rushing through winter's chill between our centrally heated houses and seat-warmed cars.  Like our nephew, suddenly seeing the stars that are always over his head but are obscured by city lights, all of us are guilty of ignoging the beauty nature offers us constantly, and we obliterate her offerings with lights, earphones, and indoor comforts and entertainments.  

Living at the farm has reawakened my notice of the small everyday things I have included in this blog--things that Isaac Werner cherished in his daily life--and I feel very lucky. 

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yes, it is Special!

Christmas Day?
Last week I posted what I called "a special Christmas" blog, but one reader inquired on face book why I thought it was a special blog post for Christmas.  Here's my answer, and I consider it such an important Christmas reminder that I am keeping this week's post short to encourage readers to scroll down and read last week's post!

Christmas is a time when families often come together, young and old.  Because my father had inherited the family home built by his grandmother and his father, our home was the family gathering place, and I have wonderful memories of aunts, uncles, and cousins filling our home for the holidays.

How I wish that my memory contained all the family history shared during those holiday gatherings!  Last week's blog, which I hope you will scroll down to read if you missed it earlier, shares the importance of teaching young people their history--family and American.  I am fortunate that my mother chose a genealogy book with blank spaces to fill in family history as a shower gift for me when my husband and I married, and because of her unusual gift, I asked questions in order to fill in the spaces in that book.  (By the way, that was a wonderful gift for a young couple merging two families by their marriage.)  Yet, I wish my memory still contained all the family stories shared over the many holiday gatherings of my youth.

I suspect the picture above was taken on Christmas day when I was the little girl on the left and my cousin Anne was the taller girl with the hooded jacket.  The picture was taken in front of our farm house on an obviously cold day.  Anne's doll might have been a Christmas gift.  (The doll still had both shoes--and it seemed like doll shoes were often lost quickly.)  I appear to be holding something small that I cannot identify, and my guess is that we were told to select a favorite Christmas gift and to go outside to pose together.  Unfortunately, that is one of those family memories that I no longer remember. 

I hope all of you are having a wonderful winter holiday season, reminiscing and creating new memories!


Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Awareness of Our Past

Lest We Forget
Last week's post examined "What Makes America Great?" with the focus on our Constitution and the unique form of government our founding fathers created.  This week's post emphasizes the importance of the continuing need for Americans to know our history.  I have written in this blog just how difficult it is to interest young people in the importance of history, given their tendency to think that anything that happened a few years before they were born is ancient history and probably not worth knowing.

I just read a wonderful collection of speeches given at several universities by David McCullough in a book titled The American Spirit, Who We Are and What We Stand For.   One of those speeches, titled "Knowing Who We Are" given in 2005 speaks directly to the importance of knowing our past history.  McCullough writes:  "And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.  History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at almost any point...  Actions have consequences.  These observations all sound self-evident.  But they're not--and particularly to a young person trying to understand life."

Visiting Historic Sites
McCullough offers several suggestions for making history more accessible to students, starting with doing a better job of making sure our teachers know history so that they can tell the stories of history in a more exciting way than by sticking closely to the dullness of textbooks.  His further suggestions for improved teaching of history include improving textbooks so that they are not so dreary, avoiding content that reads as if done by committee, and expanding the teaching of history to young children when they have a particularly facile ability to learn.  Beyond the classroom, encouraging parents to take children to historic sites, and to share with their children history and biography books they particularly enjoyed.  McCullough also urges parents to talk with their children "about what it was like when they were growing up in the olden days.  Children, particularly young children, love this." 

The last suggestion I referenced above had a particular resonance with me.  Recently, my husband and I were having a wonderful dinner with friends.  The father began sharing an interesting memory about his grandmother's brave immigration to America just in time to escape the Russian Revolution.  His story was filled with details that held the interest of everyone at the table.

Sharing ancestral history, in this case, my father's grade school
When he had finished, my husband spoke directly to the man's college-age children, urging them to find a way to record these family conversations, and urging them not to  delay too long.  Holidays are a perfect time to spend an evening with family, listening to and recording these wonderful  stories.  My husband asked if they had heard the stories their father had just shared, and when they replied that they had not, he emphasized that if these family stories were neglected, once their father was gone, the stories would be lost forever.  "If you wait too late," he warned them, "you would no longer be able to ask your dad to repeat them, would you?"

"No," both young people admitted, but the man's son added, "But, I could look the Russian Revolution up on my phone," pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Learning how choices make a difference
I confess.  These are good friends, and we are fond of their kids, but his flippant reply annoyed me, and I blurted out, "That sounds exactly like the smart-aleck reply a young man would make."  I probably should not have been so outspoken, and while I tried to make it a bit of a joke, I meant it.

Fortunately, our friendship is close enough that my comment did not end the discussion with hurt feelings, and everyone recognized the difference between imagining an ancestor in a historical moment and reading online a summary about immigrants leaving Russia for America.  It also sunk home with the young man that had his great-grandmother waited too late to leave, his ancestral line would have been interrupted and he would almost certainly not have been born.  That was a real opportunity for our young friend to recognize, as McCullough said, "that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened" in history.

To emphasize how stories can bring history alive, McCullough references E. M. Forster's definition:  "If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story.  That's human.  That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story."  Historian Barbara Tuchman understood that the secret to teaching history is simple:  "Tell stories."

Sharing my own  stories with high school graduates
American history is filled with compelling stories--exciting, tragic, triumphant--but we tend to teach them sequentially, like marking off years on an empty calendar, with the stories reduced to dates.  The more that family history is shared in stories the better their children will place themselves within historic events, and the more that teachers bring history to life with stories and biographies the more interesting and memorable history can be.

Our own lives, like the life of my young friend whose great-grandmother fled Russia, were shaped by our family history.  Collectively, our nation's past shaped the America in which we now live. How can we truly understand and appreciate what those generations before us did to shape this nation and give us the freedoms we enjoy if we are ignorant of our past? And, how can we recognize our own responsibilities if we ignore that inheritance from them?  As McCullough says:  "...we should never take for granted...all the work of others who went before us.  And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude.  And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

Happy Holidays to all of you who have supported this blog.  Perhaps, if you gather with family during the holidays, you may find time to share family stories and create an awareness for the youngsters listening of their family's personal history and how the events and choices made by their ancestors brought them into existence.  As McCullough reminds us, nothing had to happen just the way it did.


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What makes America Great?

Some of you who follow this blog may not realize that I am a published author of two books, one published by a university press and the other published by a respected New York publisher.  This means that both books faced the scrutiny of scholars or other knowledgeable reviewers to examine my research and reasoning.  For one of my books I was recognized as the Georgia Author of the Year for Nonfiction during the time we lived in Atlanta.  Both books dealt with history and the American Constitution.

I mention this to explain my motivation to devote nearly a decade to researching and writing a book about the late 1800s from the perspective of a community in southcentral Kansas.  The community in which I grew up was part of a movement strong and successful enough to have created a third party that challenged the two old political parties.  The People's Party of the late 1800s, created largely by farmers, laborers, and small businessmen, was one of the most, if not the most, successful third party in America's history.  Many people living today have never heard of the People's Party, although their ancestors may have been a part of the Populist Movement. 

They believed ordinary Americans mattered, and they believed in our Constitution.  What they also believed was that education is essential if America is to work as the founding fathers intended.  They knew what the Constitution said and how it was meant to work.  Although the People's Party faded into history, their movement left behind many of their goals, assimilated by the two old parties and adopted into laws we accept today without recognizing their roots in the forgotten People's Party.

Antonin Scalia
In a past post, I shared the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) from a speech he gave in 2011.  Although he acknowledged that most Americans consider the Bill of Rights  the source of America's greatness, he disagreed.  "The real key to the distinctiveness of America is the structure of our government," he insisted.  In other words, the separation of powers--a President, a House of Representatives, and a Senate, each operating as a check on the others is the source of our greatness.  As Scalia said, we Americans should "Learn to love the separation of powers..."

The founding fathers did not want our government to be a smoothly operating machine where there was no debate, no conflicting perspectives.  The House of Representatives has members elected by voters from various districts within their states, a mix of urban, rural, conservative, liberal, multiracial, of different faiths, educations, and income levels.  The Senate has two members from each state and must consider the entire population of the states each represents.  While these Representatives and Senators serve the people who elected them, they are not compelled to ignore their own knowledge nor conscience, and they are entitled to benefit from their own experience and judgment in deciding matters that come before them.  What amazing wisdom the founding fathers showed in creating America's unique system, with the checks and balances necessary to represent such a diverse citizenry.

James Madison
James Madison said it well:  "The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department of the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachment of the others.  ...It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  ...In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

So long as the men and women we send to Washington remember their responsibilities under the constitution, America will be great, but when they forget their personal responsibility to serve as the check and balance on our system of government, the very foundation of the Constitution begins to crack.

In Isaac Werner's time, the common man had begun to believe that those they sent to Washington and their state capitals were answering only to the wealthy, and they formed a third party to remind their elected leadership of the corruption of power and the danger of serving only one segment of the population, or of forgetting the importance of each of the three parts of our system checking and balancing the other two.  Every generation needs to be aware of what truly makes America great and every generation needs to remind those they elect of the danger of forgetting that the abuse of power can eventually be cast back on them when they are no longer the ones in control.

The Populist Movement had its roots in Texas, but at the peak of the movement, Kansas was at its center.  Finding the Journal of Isaac Werner was an exciting discovery, and it was his Journal that enticed me to learn more about the Populist Movement.  My Civil War veteran great grandfather did not join the movement, but two other great grandfathers that lived in the community did participate.  Perhaps some of you who follow the blog also had family in Kansas during the late 1800s that may have been part of the Populist Movement.  I hope my blog acquaints you with a historic political movement that swept our state and in which your ancestor might have been a part.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Getting to Know Willa


Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
Last Monday evening was an Art Walk in Pratt, Kansas, and although it is primarily for artists, photographers, and crafts persons with things to sell, I was invited to share some of my work.  While I paint and draw for my personal enjoyment, and occasionally to do portraits for friends, I had a good reason to attend.

The centennial celebration of Willa Cather's My Antonia was last year, and for a special edition of the Willa Cather Review, Vol. 61, No.2 I did a series of six portraits of the main characters.  The original pastel portraits and a copy of the Journal are on the table in the photograph.

I am a stickler for illustrations that respect the text of the author.  If L. Frank Baum says that Dorothy wore a blue and white checked dress, that is what I expect the illustrators of the Wizard of Oz series of books to depict. 

So, naturally, before selecting which characters from My Antonia I wanted to portray, I read passages written by Willa Cather to learn how she had described them.  The portraits displayed on the table included cards with descriptive passages taken from Cather's novel that I used in deciding how to portray each of the six characters.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
I didn't have any art to sell, but instead, I sold Willa!  I shared how she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, how she grew up just a few miles from the Kansas border, what a wonderful place to visit Red Cloud, NE is with so many recognizable sites from Cather's novels and short stories, and how much in common her stories have with Kansas during that era.  

I recommended my favorites, in addition to My Antonia--O Pioneers! and One of Ours, as well as a favorite short story set in Kansas, The Sculptor's Funeral.  I had checked the Pratt Library shelves with the librarian, and I told visitors that there are several of Cather's books available at the library.  One young couple that stopped by were intrigued by what I shared, and he took a photo on his phone to help him remember Cather's name, while his wife pondered which of Cather's books to recommend for her book club.



Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
We are very fortunate in our region to have several local libraries that are wonderful, in addition to the recently remodeled Pratt Library.  Among those I visit are the libraries in Macksville, St. John, Stafford, Kinsley, and others a bit further from our home.

When I participate in the Art Walk and Plein Aire at the state fair, I always enjoy the children.  Because the Art Walk was in the evening, only a few children visited, but they were curious about the portraits.  One little boy was particularly proud of himself when he recognized that I was the woman in the drawing on the stand.

Thank you to the Library and other sites for hosting us, to those who organized the evening, and to those who came out on a calm but chilly winter's evening to support the Arts.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them,