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.