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.)