Friday, December 30, 2011

Year's End

So much of 2011 has been spent with Isaac--first, completing the transcription of his journal after eleven months of looking over his shoulder at what he wrote every day from a distance of more than a century; second, reading old newspapers until I sometimes knew more about the people and events of Isaac's place and time than current goings-on in my own world; third, researching Isaac's neighbors until I knew the names of their children and their final resting places; fourth, discovering significant history about my home state and the nation that I had never learned; fifth, feeling that I was finally ready to begin writing Isaac's story; and sixth, introducing Isaac on the internet with my blog as I shared my adventures in researching and writing the book about Isaac B. Werner. [I Love History, 10/17/2011]

Before beginning this post, I went back to Isaac's entries on December 31st for each year of his journal, [Finding Isaac's Journal, 10/23/2011] thinking I would include his words about the closing of the year. In fact, those entries were no different from what he wrote every day of the year--weather, work to be done, his health--just another day. Apparently Isaac would have agreed with NYT journalist and author Hal Borland (1900-1978) who wrote: "Year's end is neither an end or a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us."

Rather than sharing Isaac's words about the closing of the year, I decided to share some of the comments followers of this blog have sent to me. At first, most of the e-mails I received were encouragement or brief expressions of delight with Isaac. "I love this stuff--here's to Isaac and his loquaciousness." M.C. Many of you described how you were connecting with things mentioned in the posts. "You write so well it feels lyrical. I savored every word. I stopped at the word commode--my grandmother used that term, and it came to life..." A.M. [Small Town Museums--Lucille M. Hall Museum, 10/29/2011]

I had no idea so many people loved cottonwood trees until I began receiving messages about that post. Among those who wrote: "I loved your piece on the cottonwoods and on the land. It's sad that once everything is bulldozed and leveled how hollow it all seems, and how much history and how many life stories are lost." J.Y. "How I loved to listen to the leaves when visiting the farm on vacation. I loved the belt lines of trees and was so disappointed to see so many dying when we went to the reunion. Hasn't history shown the need for those tree belts? The trees and their music are so soothing, as well as beautiful." N.H. "When my first husband and I built a home north of Slater, Missouri, I pulled up a cottonwood tree growing on the banks of the Mississippi River and replanted it in the yard so I could hear the clacking of the leaves. I loved it." L.K. I was naturally flattered when someone admired how I described the dying trees: "I enjoyed the cottonwood blog. I especially liked 'Today, many tree rows look like graveyards, the trunks of fallen trees bleaching white in the sun as aging neighbors await their turn to fall.' I know exactly what you are describing, and I cannot think of a better way to have done so." D.B. [Isaac Plants Cottonwood Trees, 12/2/2011]

When I mentioned in the post about Isaac's childhood in Wernersville, PA that his teacher, Francis Trout Hoover, had written a novel with characters and plot loosely based on Isaac's hometown, one of you who lives in that area told me that "Hoover wrote that book so close to the truth, that people in Berks County were angry and embarrassed, and they didn't want their 'history' getting out..." K.R. [Isaac's Birth & Childhood, 11/4/2011]

The tornado post, with a picture that included old boots on fence posts, drew this response: "The story was told that when a cowboy died his boots went up on the fence posts." A.M. [Isaac Sees 1st Tornado, 12/9/2011]

As more of you began to check the boxes at the ends of each post to let me know which ones you found particularly interesting and what you wanted to read more of, I was glad that so many of you enjoyed the political cartoons. Kansas was the center of the Farmers' Alliance and the political party that grew out of grass roots organizations formed by farmers and other laborers. Much of Isaac's Journal includes his political experiences and opinions. It is remarkable how many parallels there are between politics in the 1890s and today. [Politics Hardly Seem to Change, 11/24/2011]

When I mentioned some of my favorite illustrators of children's books in the post about Isaac and L. Frank Baum, I was delighted to receive e-mails from two of those illustrators. Michael Hague wrote, "I think it is important for the kids to value their creativity and imaginations and have people around them who are active in the arts and embrace it as an important part of their lives." Pop-up engineer and artist Robert Sabuda's animated tornado in his Oz book certainly drew excited Ohs and Ahs from the children. Sabuda wrote to me, "I love to see everyone enjoy my books. It makes the hard work worthwhile." [Isaac & the Wizard of Oz, 12/15/2011]

No post generated more enthusiasm among those of you who follow my blog than the one about disappearing traces of the past, and part of that was the impact of the photographs. " poignant and haunting. Those images and emotions speak to me as no other. I've always been that way, finding interest and increased curiosity toward the lonely, the forgotten, the lost." T.K.B. "Of the hundreds of reasons that houses might be left as you portrayed that house, surely one of them is that people live their lives until the end, but they don't 'finish' them as one might finish a skein of knitting." S.S. "I, like you, remember my grandfather farming and how all the homes have disappeared." J.R. "Just finished your latest blog. It makes me sad to confront what I already know about the familiar things we grew up with." A.B.C. "The older I get the more I miss what I had when I was a kid. That is life for most folks, I guess." R.B. [Disappearing Traces of the Past, 12/23/2011]

The encouragement and support that so many people, friends and strangers, have extended to me since I began this blog three months ago matter very much on a personal level, but I am especially pleased that what I am doing touches the feelings of many of you. Writing the blog has made me observe things that in my hurry to tend to business I was overlooking. It has enriched every day for me to practice the habit of seeing and reflecting, and I hope some of that has been transmitted to all of you.

Yesterday as my husband and I drove a road we've traveled hundreds of times, I saw an old house in a grove of dying cottonwood trees, and I had to have a photograph of it to share with all of you who loved the posts about cottonwoods and disappearing traces of the past. My husband, who generously tolerates my affection for another man--Isaac, of course--patiently turned around and went back so I could photograph the old house.

Thanks to all of you who are following my blog and who communicate with your checks in the boxes, clicks on +1, e-mails, and face-to-face encouragement. The comments at the end of posts are wonderful, and if you haven't been opening those, you might enjoy going back to read them, or adding comments of your own. Of all the wonderful responses people have shared with me, this simple statement sums up very well what I am trying to accomplish: "I feel like I knew Isaac!" D.K. I hope you will enjoy the future posts and will spread the word so more people can get to know Isaac too!!

Since Isaac did not provide me with a New Year's message to share, I will pass along the words of Benjamin Franklin: "Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Disappearing Traces of the Past

My best friend from childhood lived in a 2-story, clapboard house not much different from my own. A few years ago, with wiring, plumbing, and water lines deteriorating from age, and few tenants willing to pay even minimal rent for old country homes, her family made the decision to raze the house and barn. It is a pattern many Kansas families have followed as parents who farmed the land retire or die, and their offspring, who have left the farm for careers in the city, lack the ability or desire to take their parents' places on the farm. For a while the empty house is left to await a new occupant, but when no tenant appears, the house begins to sag and vandals break out the windows, hastening its deterioration. At last, the decision to tear the house down is made, and all that remains to tell the tale of a family who once lived there are a few trees clustered around an empty space.

Near my childhood home is a house grayed with age, the roof a skeleton of horizontal lath capped at the peak by a few defiant wood shingles, clinging where they were nailed decades ago. When I was young enough to ride the school bus, a family lived there, and I remember stopping at the edge of the road to await the child who came running out each morning to board the bus. I do not know how long the house has stood empty, but believing it long abandoned, I paused one afternoon to visit a house on the cusp of disappearing forever. I assumed it contained nothing but the debris that had fallen from and through the skeletal roof, but as I peered through a broken window I saw traces of the family who had last occupied the house--clothing and furnishings left behind as if they had only intended a short absence. Soon, I suspect, all of it will be gone, except for what remains in a few memories.

Not only rural homes have disappeared but also entire small towns. My father used to refer to places that were already gone when I was a child. "He lived down around Strickland," Daddy would say, although that meant nothing to me, Strickland having disappeared before I was born. I could not understand why he gave directions using nonexistent places.

Now I find myself doing the same thing. Roads around our farm have been given numbers to facilitate deliveries to country homes and assist 911 responders. I struggle to remember the numbers when I am giving directions, falling back to the names of roads familiar from my childhood--Emerson Road and Antrim Road, references to schools that closed in the 1940s and structures that have been torn down. My father always called the land just north of our home the "Old Dick's Place," or at least I thought that was the name he used. Only while transcribing Isaac's Journal did I learn that it was the "Old Dix's Place." Isaac's friend, "Doc" Dix, claimed the north half of the section as his homestead and timber claim. He was a medical doctor who decided to try his hand at farming. His family home included a store and the community post office, of which he was the postmaster. After living there long enough to mature his claims, he and his family moved into Pratt Center--actually into Saratoga, another disappeared town which in Isaac's day was a bustling commercial community that faded away after losing the battle with Pratt Center for the county seat.

Today, like my father, I refer to land around our farm by the names of farmers who have been dead for decades, even generations--the Dix Place, the Kennedy quarter, the Cotton Place, Southard's Place. My husband, who did not grow up in the community, has learned the names from me, although he has no memories to associate with the names, just as I learned them from my father. Once there were families living on the land to which their names are affixed, with houses and barns and dreams that their hard work was building a legacy for future generations. Today not one of those places is owned by a descendant of the farmer who once lived there, despite those dreams. The buildings are gone and the original trees are old and dying.

Even the land itself has often been transformed by farmers leveling the terrain for irrigation. Isaac wrote about his "pinnacle hill" which he would climb to watch fireworks in distant towns on the 4th of July. I could not identify much of a pinnacle on either his homestead or the timber claim, but recently I spoke with the current owner of the land, who told me there was once an exceptionally high hill on the property. He described the location, which retains a small elevation, and told me that Isaac's pinnacle hill was once at least thirty feet higher before grading.

As our conversation continued, he recalled having to clean up the remains of an old house. I eagerly asked him to describe what he remembered, and he said it was a 2-story, wooden house, fairly large, but in too much decay to describe any details. I asked if it had a cellar, and he confirmed that it had a small one with an exterior entry. He could not tell me whether it also had an interior stair, because of the deterioration of the house. I shared with him Isaac's description of his 2-story, wooden house, and how he added exterior stairs so he no longer needed to carry potatoes through the house when he stored them in the cellar during harvest. As winter approached, he would tramp straw into the exterior stairs for insulation from the cold, using only the interior stairs until spring. The current owner recalled the approximate location of the house, so I learned where to picture Isaac's home although it is long gone.

Nearly all traces of Isaac's life have disappeared--the trees about which he felt such pride reduced to a few scraggly rows at the edges of fields, his dugouts filled, his house torn down, even his land transformed. Only his words survive.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Isaac & "The Wizard of Oz"

For most readers, especially the children for whom L. Frank Baum wrote, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is as Baum intended, "a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out." In his Introduction for the book, Baum left little doubt about his intentions: "Folklore, legends, myths, and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous, and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations." However, Baum believed, "...the time has come for a series of newer 'wonder tales' in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale." Baum never outgrew his capacity for creative fantasy, and he believed it was important to encourage a child's sense of wonder and imagination.

Yet, as clearly as Baum stated his intention, adults have repeatedly imposed their own interpretations and ideas upon Baum's work. The 1939 movie has several minor changes, ruby rather than silver slippers being one example. The biggest change, however, was to begin the movie with a sepia-colored sequence at Dorothy's prairie home, with actors that were easily recognizable later in the movie as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wicked Witch. The movie, as wonderful as it is, declined to trust children's imaginations to accept that the tornado actually transported Dorothy to a real Land of Oz, suggesting instead that Dorothy's trip to Oz had only been a dream. While L. Frank Baum would surely have loved the movie, as so many generations of children already have, I suspect he would have been disappointed by the movie producers' decision to present Dorothy's visit to Oz as a dream.

So, why am I writing about L. Frank Baum and Oz on Isaac B. Werner's blog? One reason is to share how some scholars have gone even further in pre-empting Baum's fairytale for children. In 1954 a history teacher named Henry M. Littlefield suggested that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz could be interpreted as a parable of the Populist movement, using Baum's characters as stand-ins for people or places connected to The People's Party: the Scarecrow as the farmer; the Tin Woodsman as the industrial laborer; the Emerald City as Washington, D.C.; the Wicked Witch of the East as Eastern millionaires, monopolists, and bankers; and depicting the Populist opposition to the gold standard and belief in a return to bimetallism and renewed coinage of silver represented as the Yellow Brick Road misleading people toward reliance on the gold standard; Dorothy's silver slippers representing the untested power of returning to silver; and the Cowardly Lion as Populist (and Democratic) 1896 Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Littlefield's theories about the allegorical meanings of the book led others to propose their own historical and political interpretations, one of the most interesting being that the name of Oz itself came from the bimetallism ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold, suggesting to one scholar that Baum had used the abbreviation for an ounce as the name of the Emerald City.

Eventually, Michael Patrick Hearn, who is widely recognized as the leading scholar on L. Frank Baum and who authored the Introduction, Notes & Bibliography for The Annotated Wizard of Oz, weighed in on the debate with a letter to the New York Times, stating that he had found "no evidence that Baum's story is in any way a Populist allegory." A few weeks later, Henry M. Littlefield wrote a letter in reply, agreeing that "there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology." All of this makes an interesting connection between Baum and Isaac, and although Isaac died before the book was published, he was active in the Farmers' Alliance and supportive of Populist candidates.

A second reason is historical, since Dorothy's adventure begins on a farm on the Kansas prairie during the hard times Isaac described in his journal. While I agree with Michael Patrick Hearn that Baum intended to write a book for children and not an elaborate allegory about the populist movement and the election of 1896, I think it is natural that Baum was influenced by the events of his time. After the collapse of the Baum family's theatrical business, L. Frank Baum moved his family to Aberdeen, South Dakota to open a general store, but the hard times meant there were too few customers with money to purchase his goods, and the bank foreclosed on his store. He then purchased and ran a newspaper, which certainly made him familiar with the news of the day. It seems inevitable that some of what he saw around him would weave its way into his story.

Except for the fact that Isaac and some of his neighbors had planted trees on their timber claims and homesteads, Baum's fictional description of the Kansas plains on the opening pages of the book is not too different from what farmers in parts of Kansas might have seen during the years of drought in the late 1880s and 1890s. Baum wrote: "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere."

The connection between Isaac's Journal and L. Frank Baum's Oz book was recalled to my attention as we prepared for a special event. The Macksville City Librarian, Jody Suiter, asked my husband and me to share our love of Oz with the K thourgh 5th grade students, and it was decided to use the larger space of the grade school library for the presentations. The picture at the right is of my husband handing out diplomas, signed by Oz and awarding each student a Degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology).

We had a wonderful time preparing for the day--baking cookies, making bookmarks, selecting which parts of the book to read to the students, printing diplomas, and choosing pictures from some of our favorite Oz illustrators to show them--Michael Hague, Charles Santore, W.W. Denslow, Robert Ingpen, Scott Gustafson, Robert Sabuda, and the unusual Lisbeth Zwerger. We decorated a tree with our collection of Oz ornaments, shared our one-of-a-kind Oz chess board with the 4th & 5th graders, told the story of Oz to the kindergarten & 1st graders with the help of hand-crafted Oz dolls, and compared how different illustrators imagined Oz in unique ways with 2nd & 3rd graders. In short, the innocence and enthusiasm of the students provided us with an afternoon of the very magic Baum wished for children when he wrote his stories, and through them, we experienced it too.

So, the movie makers can be forgiven for using artistic license to alter Baum's story for the screen, and the scholars can be humored for twisting Oz into a historical & political allegory, so long as children can still find magic in the Land of Oz as Baum intended.

(To see more pictures and information about our sessions with the children, visit Jody Suiter's wonderful website at

Friday, December 9, 2011

Isaac Sees First Tornado

When our careers took my husband and me away from Kansas, we quickly learned what many people's impression of our home state was. When they learned we had been born and raised in Kansas, they were likely to ask, "Have you ever seen a tornado?" Today, sport's fans might be more inclined to comment on Kansas University basketball or Kansas State University football, but the Wizard of Oz has definitely left the impression with many people that Kansas is the land of tornadoes.

In fact, I have never seen a tornado, and I hope I never do. Kansas is not even in the top three states with the most reported tornadoes, those being Oklahoma, Texas and Florida. Every state has a reported tornado on record, although for a few states, tornadoes are extremely rare. The Great Plains is frequently called 'Tornado Alley,' and the states in the Mid-West with the greatest number of tornadoes are Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. During 2011 severe tornadoes struck states where that seemed an unexpected weather phenomena.

Isaac came to Kansas to stake his claim in 1878, yet it was a decade before he saw his first tornado. On May 9, 1888, he wrote in his journal,"Clouds gathering over S. of us and a 'Twister' down S.E., the first I seen, a tapering white sock hanging down, slanting from clouds and in a mere streak connecting down to ground raising the dust at time[s] then raising & vanishing & moving on down again & renewing the dark dust funnel." The tornado disappeared before coming near Isaac's homestead and timber claim, but the power and potential for destruction left a lingering impression with Isaac, for he later wrote,"One looks for 'Twisters' now at any cloud raising."

If Isaac had been living on his homestead in May of 2007, he would surely have seen the nest of tornadoes that hung from the clouds over three nights of destruction in his community. Homes were destroyed, lives were lost, and the small city of Greensburg about twenty-five miles to the southwest was nearly obliterated. Although Greensburg dominated the news reports, the rural area around my childhood home also suffered two deaths and severe property damage.

Tornadoes are certainly frightening, but they are also quirky in their destruction. Recently I took this photograph of two tree rows on opposite sides of a road. The edge of the 2007 tornado can be seen from the destruction of the tree belt on the east side of the road, while the tree belt on the west side was practically untouched. Devastation or survival may be the result of a distance of only a few feet. Many groves and rows of trees in our community are little more than mutilated remants of once stately shelter belts.

About a mile to the south of the tree rows, the home of our friends was destroyed, along with the farm equipment and the metal grain bins of their farming operation. Metal from those grain bins, and from the bins and metal buildings of other farms, was carried by the tornadoes for miles, driven into tree trunks and buried in fields to ruin tractor tires, unless sharp-eyed farmers spot the protruding metal. Perhaps the piece of heavy metal wrapped around the guywire of this pole to create a piece of nature's art from tragedy came from our friends' farm several miles to the south. The force of the whirling tornado bent the metal around the guywire like a sheet blowing on a clothes line.

The pasture posts topped with old boots extend in both directions for a quarter of a mile or so--just a bit of rural whimsy for passersby to enjoy.

May of 2008 also brought serious injuries and loss of property from tornadoes in our community. Although winter is the likely time for tornadoes in the South, it is spring when Kansans make sure the NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's weather alert) is plugged into an outlet and the storm shelter has been sprayed to get rid of spiders and is stocked with candles, matches, flashlights, blankets, and maybe a gallon of water and some packaged peanut butter crackers--just in case. It was May when Isaac saw his first tornado, and luckily for him, he never saw another.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Isaac Plants Cottonwood Trees

Cowboy poet Larry McWhorter had a business building pipe and cable fencing in Texas, and his business card read "Fiddlestrings." He prided himself on building sturdy and beautiful fences with taut cable--like a well-tuned fiddle. Because he took such pride in his work, he took his time about it. That also allowed him to write poems in his head as he worked, and he didn't mind a bit of conversation when I stopped by. One hot day he noticed a little volunteer cottonwood tree growing on our property, and he walked over to remove a few leaves and slip them around the inner hatband of his cowboy hat. He laughed at my perplexed expression, saying, "That's an old cowboy trick to help keep a fella' cool when he's workin' in the sun."

I don't know if Isaac knew that trick or not, but he definitely knew how to grow cottonwood trees from cuttings. He explained the procedure he had perfected, writing on April 22, 1885: "...cottonwoods quite leaved [sic] out too much so to make reliable cuttings...I lately making my cuttings 15 inches long, 3 to stick out & 12 in ground, to better withstand droughty spells, and surer to grow." Isaac arrived to stake a homestead and a timber claim in 1878, when there were no trees on the prairie. On March 1, 1885, he wrote in his journal: "During middle of day counted the trees on my homestead alive & thrifty...on Homestead & Timber 3400 growing trees."

Among the trees on the prairie, the cottonwood towers above most of the others. The spade- or heart-shaped leaves have a smooth, shiny texture, and when the trees are stirred by a breeze, the leaves make a rustling noise like a lady's taffeta petticoats or that gentle sound of light rainfall on the roof. The shiny surfaces catch the light and reflect the movement of each leaf, a shimmering gold when the leaves turn in the autumn.

Cottonwood trees are fast growing--seven feet or more per year, and long-living--up to one hundred years, and they tolerate drought better than most trees. Naturally, they were a popular tree with the early settlers. During the dust bowl years in the "dirty thirties" cottonwood trees were usually included among the other varieties of trees planted in rows as windbreaks to help control soil erosion. These strong, healthy giants are the trees of my childhood memories, their cottony seeds drifting down in late spring, their sturdy limbs great for climbing and building tree houses in summer, and their bright yellow leaves for raking into piles, jumping into, and raking again in autumn.

Today, many tree rows look like graveyards, the trunks of fallen trees bleaching white in the sun as aging neighbors await their turn to fall. Many old shelterbelts have been bulldozed to make more room for farming; others have been destroyed by tornadoes and ice storms; and even more are succumbing to old age, as few of today's farmers plant trees as Isaac and his neighbors did.

The actress Kim Novak wrote: "...when you touch these trees, you have such a sense of the passage of time, of history. It's like you're touching the essence, the very substance of life." I understand her feelings of connection with ancient trees, knowing that ancestors enjoyed standing in their shade. Perhaps that is why I find it so sad to watch the gradual disappearance of the prairie cottonwoods.

While their numbers may be declining and their vigor nearing an end, those that remain lift their golden crowns into the clear blue of the autumn sky with the same regal beauty that Isaac must have admired over a century ago.

(Please continue to let me know what you enjoy with your comments, clicking on +1, and checking boxes.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Politics Hardly Seem to Change

It is disappointing how unaware most of us are of the past, and although I consider myself a history buff, Isaac's Journal led me to more discoveries about the history of my own community, state, and nation than I can count. One of the intriguing discoveries involves the political history of our country in the later quarter of the 1800s, for there are so many similarities to today. As examples: there was a grassroots movement challenging the two established parties, and willing to work within one of the major parties to defeat the other; there were women who became political celebrities, known for their ability to generate great enthusiasm for candidates and issues through their impassioned speeches; and, there was popular opposition among the laboring classes against the power and greed of Wall Street, corporations, and the wealthy.

Isaac's personal experiences as a homesteader on the Kansas prairie first made me want to tell his story, but as I read further in his journal, I realized he had experienced and described a significant period in history that is nearly forgotten. As he struggled to create a successful and beautiful farm, coped with falling prices and rising interest, and raised crops that now barely covered taxes and interest on his loans, he personified the economic crisis of other farmers and laborers in America at that time. When he joined the Farmers' Alliance, he was only one of many farmers, factory workers, and other laborers who saw themselves as the producers of wealth that was going into the pockets of bankers, speculators, monopolists, and corporate and Wall Street tycoons while many of the working classes were literally starving. The wealth of the nation was being disproportionately distributed, and technology was displacing workers in ways they struggled to combat, giving rise to public demonstrations and political activity. When newspapers owned or influenced by the wealthy published biased "news," laborers established newspapers of their own. Does any of this sound familiar to what we see on television, the newspapers, and on the internet today? I certainly thought so.

These two political cartoons appeared in Isaac's local newspaper, the County Capital in the 1890s, and both address issues still being argued in media today. Carl Sagan believed, "You have to know the past to understand the present." I agree with Sagan. It is essential that history is taught in our schools, and remembered and referenced accurately by adults, if we are to progress. Yet, George Bernard Shaw reminded us: "If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience." Forgotten history, or history intentionally distorted, cannot pass the wisdom learned by one generation to generations in the future. Instead, we are condemned to repeat the inevitable struggles without the benefits of knowing history's lessons.

I hope that by telling Isaac's story, I can bring alive the times in which he lived, and in that way offer a context for history's lessons that will make them relevant today. As David McCullough has said, "No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read."

(If you enjoy this post, please remember to add your comments and click on +1 so that I will know what posts you would enjoy more of in the future.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Isaac's Land from the Air Today

Movies and western songs have left the romantic impression of wide open spaces on the lonesome prairie. That description is more accurate today than it was during Isaac's life, when settlers hurried to claim homesteads on quarter-sections of 160 acre parcels of land. Because the homesteader was required to live on the property he or she claimed, it was possible for each square mile of land to have four different homesteaders living there, in some cases even more if the homesteaders claimed smaller parcels of land. A timber claim did not require that the claimant live on the property, so not every quarter of land contained a dwelling. The best land was claimed first, so poor, sandy acreage was available a while longer, but many settlers in Stafford County arrived in 1878, when Isaac staked his claim.

Isaac did not own a horse for several years following his arrival. He had to break the prairie sod with "man-power" or trade his labor in exchange for the use of a neighbor's horse and plow, and during that time he devoted most of his effort to cultivating trees. Understandably, a quarter-section homestead provided more than enough for one man to farm. During the early 1880s, when prices for crops were good and hopes for the future were high, Isaac and most other farmers acquired horses, mules, or oxen, and machinery for the animals to pull. Although this allowed one man to farm more land, it often meant the farmer had mortgaged his property to secure the money for his purchases. Within a few years, drought, mortgages, and falling prices for their crops caused many settlers to abandon their claims, and the population density declined. As even better machinery was invented, the number of farmers was further reduced.

Today, huge equipment allows a farmer to cover more ground in a few hours than Isaac could have covered in many days. In addition, the massive expenses of equipment, land, and such things as fuel, herbicides, and fertilizers have forced the remaining family farms to become large business operations, one family farming thousands of acres, with only a few exceptions. The use of irrigation has also contributed to the change. Isaac was an agriculturalist who advocated modern farming techniques and personally conducted experiments with different farming methods and seed varieties, as well as inventing and modifying equipment to improve what was available for farmers to buy. As forward thinking as Isaac was, he would probably be amazed by today's farms.

Let me use a recent aerial photograph of the land that was once Isaac's homestead and timber claim to illustrate some of the differences in today's farms. To orient yourself, imagine that you are sitting in the airplane looking out toward the northwest horizon. In the middle of the picture are two circular fields with green, growing crops. The circle that is only about half green-covered was Isaac's homestead; the nearly full circle of green to the north was Isaac's timber claim. The remnants of Isaac's tree rows are along the east side of both quarters of ground and a partial row still exists between them. The road that runs along the south side of Isaac's homestead is the county line between Stafford County to the north (where Isaac's land is located) and Pratt County to the south. Notice how the land is laid out in a grid pattern of square mile sections. The circles are created by irrigation systems that pivot in the center of a quarter-section field to water the crop growing within the circle of its path. The corners of the square field are often planted in a dry-land crop that doesn't require as much water. What was once Isaac's land occupies the west half of that section. The two quarters on the east half of the section appear gray in this photograph. Together, those four quarters form a square-mile section of land. When Isaac lived there, only his timber claim did not have a residence.

If you look closely at the land receding in the distance to the west in the photograph, you can identify another square-mile section. The SE/4 has a circle irrigation system, the SW/4 has a tree row between it and the NW/4, and the NE/4 is an empty gray square. There are no longer any homes in that section, although there were in Isaac's time. Continue looking to the west and you will see a small cluster of trees along the edge of the SE/4 in the next section. That is where my childhood home is located, with only a square mile section separating Isaac's old home and mine.

Isaac wrote in his Journal that in 1890 sixty-six registered voters appeared to cast their ballots in Albano Township, which at that time would have meant sixty-six men. Women did not have the vote, although there were female heads of households living in the thirty-six square miles of the township. Currently there are twenty-nine registered voters in Albano Township, which includes both men and women. The "wide open spaces" between homes are definitely greater and the prairie more lonesome today than in Isaac's time.

I hope this gives those of you who are not familiar with farms on the Kansas plains an idea of how they look today, as well as a sense of how different it would have looked in Isaac's day, with three or four families living on each square mile of land, farming irregularly shaped fields, and carefully tending tree groves, treasured for their shade in an age before air conditioning and their purpose as a wind break to slow erosion caused by winds racing unimpeded across the prairie.

In a future blog, I will return to this photograph to identify where some of Isaac's neighbors lived. I enjoy receiving your comments, clicks, and checks at the end of every posting, to discover which blogs you particularly like. My followers now include people from many states, both urban and rural, which makes your input even more appreciated as I include a variety of topics in the blog. Let me hear from all of you!

Friday, November 11, 2011

I can see Isaac's farm from my house

When I began transcribing Isaac's Journal, I did not know where his homestead and timber claim were located. Eventually, he included the legal description, identifying his land as being in Clear Creek Township. Since that is the township to the west of my childhood home, I was pleased to discover he had lived so near. Later, I learned that his home was even nearer, for the original Clear Creek Township had been divided in half, the west half retaining the name but the east half being given the new name of Albano Township. Isaac lived one mile straight east of my childhood home!

Standing at my front door, I can see the trees that are currently on what were Isaac's homestead and timber claim. While these trees may not be old cottonwoods that he planted, they are quite likely to have grown from seeds dropped by trees Isaac started from cuttings on the treeless prairie that existed when he arrived. The sunrise photograph, taken from my front yard, shows Isaac's trees to the right of the rising sun, bathed in a purple morning haze at the edge of the horizon. The mid-day photograph, also taken from my front yard, shows the same row of trees, located on the east edge of Isaac's old timber claim.

In 1878 when Isaac arrived, there were no trees on the prairie. A "timber claim" did not designate land covered with trees but rather land that could be claimed by planting ten acres of prairie in trees and keeping them alive for eight years in order to claim the title. If drought did not kill them, weeds did not choke them, pests did not destroy them, and prairie fires did not burn them during the required eight years, the settler could acquire 160 acres. As Willa Cather wrote about the hardy trees that managed to survive on the prairie, "I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do." In addition to acquiring land as a timber claim, 160 acres could also be claimed as a homestead by building some sort of dwelling, living in it for five years, and improving the land by gradually breaking the thick prairie sod and planting crops or grazing livestock on the prairie grass.

The land was divided into square mile sections which contained 640 acres. These squares were then divided into four smaller squares, each containing 160 acres and being one-fourth of a square-mile section, or a quarter-section of land. These were identified by the compass direction they occupied in the full section. Isaac's homestead was in the southwest quarter of the section; his timber claim was in the northwest quarter of the section. Other homesteaders claimed the quarters in the eastern half of that section.

Today there are roads around most square-mile sections, and fences or changes in the crop from one farmer's field to another's usually make it apparent where one quarter section of ground ends and another begins. In Isaac's day, there were not so many roads, although farmers did mow along the edges of their property for two reasons: to make travel easier and to create fire guards to slow prairie fires.

If you could have viewed Isaac's farm from the air in 1888, you would have seen neat tree rows around 30 and 40 acre fields and carefully maintained fire guards mowed or plowed around his property line. The view from the air is very different today, and I will share it with you in next week's blog.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

2011 Victorian Tea

Thank you to the Lucille M. Hall Museum volunteers who supported my efforts in sharing Isaac's Journal by recognizing me at the Victorian Tea this past Sunday and by encouraging people to visit my blog. I attended with Sandra, Courtney, & Bailey again this year, and we plan to make it an annual event.

Afterward, we walked over to the park, which has been decorated for Christmas early for the particular pleasure of those attending the Tea. When St. John was founded, the St. John Town Company had one square block surveyed as a town square. In 1882 the land was deeded to the Stafford County Board of Commissioners, and after some disagreement over whether the space should be used as a park or the site of the courthouse, the courthouse was located on the southeast corner across from the open square and the center of town became the park. Real beautification began after the turn of the century, and on October 17, 1913, the fountain was dedicated in memory of Tom Mosely, the man who had played such a significant role in creating the beautiful space it remains today.

Isaac would not have seen the landscaping as it exists today, but as I posed by the fountain in my Victorian costume after the Tea, I certainly felt transported to Isaac's era. Thank you to everyone who expressed their interest in Isaac and my book, and I hope you visit my blog regularly to read my progress and add your comments.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Isaac's Birth & Childhood

On the 23rd of May, 1844, twin boys were born to William and Rebecca Werner, the couple's first children. Just over two months later, on August 4th, the baby boys were baptized at St. John's (Hain's) Reformed Church in Lower Heidelberg, Berks County, Pennsylvania. One of the boys was named Henry Beckley Werner; the other boy was named Isaac Beckley Werner, both boys having been given their mother's maiden name as their middle name. The church in which the babies were baptized was the center of their community, built on a hill said to be the highest point in Lebanon Valley.

The boys' parents had married in November of 1842, when William was forty-one years old and Rebecca twenty-five. The year the twins were born, William built a two-story limestone house for his family on the fifty-two acre farm he owned. In 1855, with two surviving daughters added to the family (one daughter having died as an infant), William hired a surveyor to plat a town on twenty-two acres of his farm. He used family names for the streets--William, Werner, Rebecca, Beckley, and Reber, his mother's maiden name. It is believed that part of the consideration for granting the Lebanon Valley Railroad passage through the platted town was requiring that the depot built by the railroad be called Wernersville.

Isaac and his siblings grew up in a community with many aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby. Schooling for children had been provided by the Hain's Church in earlier years, but when Isaac and his brother were five years old, Lower Heidelberg erected its first public school building. In 1861, Isaac and Henry were seventeen years old and still attending school, offering some indication of the importance their parents placed on giving their children a good education. The teacher, Francis Trout Hoover, taught seventy-two students, the youngest age 4 and the oldest age 17. Over three decades later, Isaac's old teacher published a book titled, Enemies in the Rear, or a Golden Circle Squared, about a community modeled after Wernersville. The plot of Hoover's novel involved a secret society of draft resisters during the Civil War, and locals said of the book that it was probably based on two-thirds fact and one-third fiction. Historians agree that there was organized draft resistance in that region of Pennsylvania. Neither young Isaac nor Henry served during the Civil War, but Werner cousins did fight to preserve the Union.

Isaac's father William died on June 13, 1865, and Isaac left soon after with an older cousin who had been a Union soldier during the Civil War. Eventually both cousins ended up in Rossville, Illinois. By 1878 Isaac was homesteading in Kansas. No record was found to indicate that Isaac ever returned to his home of Wernersville after leaving in about 1865.

Richard Bach wrote: "The simplist questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing? Think about these once in a while and watch your answers change." Isaac Werner knew where he was born. At different times during his life he changed locations and occupations, and sometimes imagined moving on, even after he seemed to have settled on the Kansas plains, so his answers to the last two questions Bach suggested would definitely have changed. What I cannot know is how he would have answered the second question--Where was Isaac's home? Was it back in Pennsylvania where he was born and raised, or was it in Rossville where he kept for many years the lots he had bought, or was his heart on the Kansas prairie where he had staked his claim and built a beautiful farm of which he was deservedly proud?

What I do know is that Isaac was an intriguing man. He read widely about history, the Bible, the arts, philosophy, engineering, law and business; when he could not find equipment to do the job for which it was purchased he modified it or invented something better; when he learned of the illness of a neighbor boy, he intervened and probably saved the boy's life; when he observed the world around him he recognized its changing nature and photographed the present to preserve it.

It is always beneficial to start at the beginning, so I have included this post of Isaac's beginnings to help you appreciate the posts about him which will follow.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Small Town Museums--Lucille M. Hall Museum

Barbara Tuchman wrote:  "Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library."  I certainly empathize with her feelings, but I would also add "...or the closed door of a community museum."  Doing the research for Isaac's book has made me appreciate small town museums kept functioning by dedicated volunteers, generous donors, and poorly paid administrators.  I want to use my blog to recognize some of the people and places where I have done and continue to do my research.

I'll begin in the town of St. John, Kansas, home of the Lucille M. Hall Museum where Isaac's Journal was found and the county seat where Isaac banked, shopped, proved up his claim, and attended farmers' meetings.  The heart of the town is a beautiful, shaded park with the sidewalks from four sides meeting at a fountain in the center.  Lucille deeded a landmark 1910 building on the west side of the square, known as the Tudor Building, for the museum.  It can be seen in the distance, just to the left of the fountain in the picture above.  In his journal, Isaac mentioned settling up his grocery account with Tudor & Ring, but that was twenty years before the 1910 Tudor building was constructed.

The Museum Board has added improvements, such as rest rooms, an elevator, and an impressive kitchen, so that the building can be used not only to showcase the collections but also to serve as a place for community events, such as wedding receptions, birthday parties, and meetings.  The annual Victorian Tea held at the museum the first Sunday of November celebrates the gracious era of the Tudor Building's construction.  All of the volunteers and many of the guests appear in Victorian attire to enjoy a time of lace and linen table cloths, delicate tea cups, and tea party manners.  Pictured below are Courtney, Lyn, and Sandra at the Tea in 2010.

Lucille Hall was a teacher, and each summer she travelled.  Her delight was to collect objects from her foreign travels to bring home to share with her students, along with the many photographs she took.  Rather than expensive objects, she wanted toys, carvings, textiles, tools, and things the children could handle, and her museum is designed to continue that tradition.  Of course, there are also things for adults to see, many of which recall their own childhoods--antique furnishings, clothing, tools, and things that do not lend themselves to easy classification, like the collection of early bathroom commodes.  In that exhibit is a pre-plumbing porcelain commode that is very similar in appearance to modern commodes, except that instead of flushing, there is a removable porcelain bucket that can be lifted out for disposal.  The antique toilet was discovered by one of the board members where it had apparently been discarded in a pasture many years ago.  When she dug it out of the sand, it was in nearly mint condition, except for the deterioration of the wooden, ring-style seat.  Now it is exhibited as an unusual and rather fancy convenience for its time.

The museum also displays objects from the town's history.  One day while I was there, the old gymnasium basketball scoreboard was being installed for display, some of the men working to hang it having been schoolboys whose baskets were tallied on that very scoreboard decades before.

It is the eclectic and personal nature of small town museums that makes them so deserving of preservation.  The hodgepodge of items from daily lives sometimes reveal more history than carefully footnoted books, and a trip to the local museum allows a special peek backward into the lives of the community.  Without the preservation of Isaac's Journal by a woman who understood the importance of saving things from the past, the journal of an old bachelor, with his remaining family living far away, might have disappeared forever.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Finding Isaac's Journal

When I learned that my deceased cousin had owned a homesteader's journal, I began asking questions, starting at the museum to which Cousin Lucille had bequeathed many of her possessions.  Unfortunately, no one seemed to know anything about the journal, but I was invited to look through the unsorted boxes of my cousin's possessions stored in the basement of the museum.  Like many small town museums, the Lucille M. Hall Museum depends on volunteers, and I felt selfish searching for the journal when it was obvious that they needed help sorting.  I made a compromise with my conscience.  As I began opening boxes, I sorted contents and identified pictures that I recognized, but I chose boxes that looked like they might contain the missing journal.  When the last two volunteers came down into the basement where I was sorting to let me know they were leaving for the day, they told me I was welcome to stay and continue looking.  I wasn't too keen on staying alone in the basement of an old building whose creaking and dripping sounds were not familiar to me.  I left with them.

The next day, a volunteer had gone into the storeroom where I had been working and had opened the box next to the one I was sorting.  It was the last box on the shelf, and inside was Isaac's Journal.  If I had stayed to work only a few minutes longer, I would have found it.  The important thing, however, was that the journal had been found--and what a discovery it was!


Each day from August of 1884 to June of 1891, Isaac wrote in this large, leather-bound journal, two inches thick, pages ten inches wide by fifteen and a half inches tall, containing 480 pages--the kind of legal journal in which records at the court house are kept.  In the front pages of the journal are entries from 1870 and 1871, when Isaac was a young druggist in Rossville, Illinois.  With no explanation for a 13 year interruption, the journal resumes during Isaac's years as a homesteader in Stafford County, Kansas.  Knowing that I wanted to use the journal for research, the museum board allowed me to take it home to do the work.                                                                                                                             

In order to organize and index all of the information the journal contained, I quickly realized I needed to transcribe it.  Isaac's penmanship is actually quite good, but he filled the pages from edge to edge in a fairly small script, and at my best, I was able to type only about one page every forty-five minutes.  I wasn't sure I could complete such a project.  After two weeks, I called one of the board members and told her what I was trying to do.  She said not to worry about how long it was taking, since without my inquiry, the journal might have gone undiscovered for months or even years.  The task of transcribing took me eleven months, involving one crashed laptop and a trip to my optometrist!                               

Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad:  "At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at his work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest."  Twain goes on to say that such enthusiasm only lasts about twenty-one days; however, Isaac's commitment lasted far longer, and it is a historical treasure.  The front page identifies the Journal as "Vol. 5th."  Sadly, the whereabouts of volumes 1-4 are unknown.

The writing done in 1870-1871 is that of a young man--full of ideas, opinions, and personal feelings.  When the journal writing resumes in 1884, the entries are of a more practical nature--the weather, his crops, labor done and done for him by others, economic matters, community events, and political activities.  Isaac seems to have been influenced in his changed style by a newspaper column authored by Henry Ward Beecher, which Isaac clipped and glued in the journal.  Beecher disapproved of confessional journal keeping, offering instead the following advice: "One may trace from day to day the mere facts of personal history, the proceedings of the farm, or the books read, visits made or received, the events in society, the conversations with men of mark, the facts of the weather, the seasons, the aspects of nature, and, in short, a journal for knowledge, in distinction from feeling, might be kept with great profit."  Isaac adhered to this advice for six years, preserving a record of prairie life and social struggles.

Isaac lived in an exciting time, but he kept his Journal for himself, written in sentence fragments and containing names familiar to him but a mystery to today's reader.  I decided to bring this historical place and time, with Isaac at its center, alive for readers!  Even while I was transcribing and indexing the Journal, further research began.

[Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.]