Thursday, April 26, 2012

Did Your Ancestor Know Isaac?

As much fun as researching Isaac has been, researching his neighbors so that I can bring to life the entire community in which Isaac lived has also been interesting.  Some of the surnames were familiar to me, whether because I had heard someone speak of them or because their descendants remain in the community.  Others were unknown, left for me to identify through research.  This post shares some of the remaining riddles I'd love to solve!

William M. Campbell, born in 1846 in Indiana, served in the Civil War before coming to Kansas, and lived in the southwest quarter of section 27 in Albano Township, about half a mile from Isaac.  A member of the Kansas House of Representatives for three terms, first for the Union Labor Party and then for the People's Party, he was asked to run for State Senator and for Governor.  However, the death of his wife Eliza, and eleven months later the death of his baby daughter Jennie, forced him to decline running for further political office in order to turn his attention to his family.  At the time of Eliza's death, there were three children still living at home, along with the infant Jennie.  A few years later, William married a woman named Orpha, and he served as a commissioner on the Kansas Railroad Commission in Topeka.  He and Isaac were neighbors and friends, especially sharing an interest in Populist politics.  Campbell's articles and legislative reports appeared frequently in the County Capital published in St. John.  However, I have failed to locate a picture of this prominent man or learn much about him later in his life.  Surely there are clues I haven't discovered.

Another mystery I am anxious to solve involves Isaac's house.  After his death, Isaac's homestead was sold by his heirs to Jacob A. Degarmo and his wife Addie.  There is a photo post card of my great aunt, Abbie Hall Boylan, with two other young ladies, standing in a tree grove in front of a 2-story clapboard house.  On the back of the picture is written, "Abbie and the Degarmo girls."  From a photograph in the Gray Studio Collection, I have determined that the girls with Abbie are daughters of Jacob and Addie.  The house in the background is not Abbie's home, but it fits the description of Isaac's house as he described it at various places in his journal, and it seems very likely that it is a picture of the Degarmo house which was first Isaac's home.  All I need is someone who remembers that house or someone with other pictures of the Degarmo house to confirm what I believe.  The abandoned house was still on the land when I was a child, but I simply don't remember it.  However, some of Jacob and Addie's children--Ethel Lee, Clyde Francis, Archie Glenn, Jennie May, George D., Annie Myrtle, Iva, and Roe--remained in the general area and raised their own children nearby.  I continue to hope I can connect with a Degarmo descendant or former neighbor who will help me confirm the identity of this house, or, perhaps, provide a better picture of Isaac's home and tree groves.

Immediately surrounding Isaac's homestead and timber claim were families with names like Henn, Curtis, Frazee, Ross, Vosburgh, Shattuc, Gereke, Clouse, Green and Bentley.  Only a mile or two further were Shoop, Farwell, Bonsall, Mayes, Rowe, Loftiss, Frack, Stimatze, Carnahan, Webber, Doc Dix, Hall and Beck.  Further away were Kachelman, Cornett, Tousley, Toland, Tanner, Garvin, Wilson, Dr. Willcox and Searls.  In nearby Pratt County were Goodwin, Moore, Carr, Blake, Eggleston, Brown, Lattimore, Stringfield and Logan.  In St. John were businessmen, lawyers, and bankers--Swartz, Hilmes, Gloyd, Rohr, Burr, Shale, Dixon, Gillmore and Miss Shira, while in Pratt Center were the Blaine brothers, photographer Logan, and horse dealer Sam Jones.  All of these names, and so many more, appear in Isaac's Journal.  My research has been more successful with some than with others, and I have paid my respects to many of them in local cemeteries.  Quite a few gave up on their Kansas farms in hard times and decided to start fresh in the Oklahoma and Washington Territories, and one family settled in Salt Lake City.  Women are especially hard to trace, as they disappear behind a new married name.

I have found names on grave stones, census and courthouse records, and newspaper pages, and I have searched through the Gray Studio Collection, occasionally finding pictures of the young farmers Isaac knew, photographed a decade or two later as distinguished looking elders.  I know there must be old photo albums and scrap books with mementoes pressed between the pages long ago, and as I write the book about Isaac it is hard for me to be satisfied with what I have found, trying to bring each person alive again for just a moment on paper.  American writer, Harlan Ellison, wrote:  "Like the wind crying endlessly through the universe, time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike."  That may be so, but Isaac and the people in his life, struggling to build something on the open prairie where they settled, deserve to be remembered a while longer.

If you recognize names among those Isaac mentioned in his journal or have ancestors who lived in that area during the late 1800s, please click on the "comment" box below this post and tell me about them. 

If you have never left a comment, you may visit my post of Feb. 8, 2012 to learn how it is done.  A hint about deciphering the letters to permit you to share your comments--focus slowly on one letter at a time and do not try to make a word of the letters.  Most are only letters that do not make a word, and if you focus on each letter, the black & white shapes within the letter are less confusing.  Good luck!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Isaac Learns to Farm on the Prairie

To survive as a prairie farmer, Isaac had a great deal to learn, and he approached his education enthusiastically. His journal became his record of weather, planting dates, specific farming methods such as depth of planting, width of rows, and spacing between seeds for each variety of seed sown. He recorded yields of his crops, evaluating which of his experiments succeeded and how he might improve. From 1884 to 1891, Isaac's daily entries in his journal document the challenges faced by homesteaders carving farms out of the prairie sod and learning how to raise enough to survive.

The Morrill Act of 1862 established federal land-grant colleges by giving states federally controlled lands for the colleges, with curriculum focused on agriculture, science, and engineering. Kansas State Agricultural College, now Kansas State University, became the first of these federal land-grant colleges, although there are other colleges and universities established earlier as state land-grant colleges. Isaac was eager to learn from the research being conducted at Kansas State, and he developed an ongoing correspondence with Professor E. M. Shelton, who in 1874 became the Farm Superintendent at the college. Prof. Shelton recommended mixed farming of crops and livestock, but he was also well known for experimentation with wheat. In about 1889 Prof. Shelton left Kansas State for Brisbane, Queensland, Australia to work under the Minister of the Interior, promoting agricultural interests in the colony. Prior to Shelton's departure, however, Isaac sought the professor's advice and shared his own farming ideas.

Isaac believed in the importance of identifying soil types, describing in his journal what was needed: "[S]ome competent man to go through the country and inspect each quarter section of land, its surface soil and its sub-soil, and classify them by number or letters according to the predominating elements of soil." By mapping the soils in every county, it was Isaac's opinion that better implements could be manufactured to suit the soils found in Kansas. As for himself, he never stopped modifying his implements in various ways to improve their functions, and he shared these modifications with the farming publications to which he subscribed.

In February of 1888, Isaac wrote in his journal: "I for my part getting disgusted to look on such faded styles of farming for this droughty country. If no better methods be resorted to, bankruptcy will continue to stare into the face of everyone trying to continue such farming." While Isaac studied new farming techniques, other farmers continued to struggle with farming methods they had used on European and Eastern U.S. farms. Isaac believed that everyone would benefit from a County Agricultural Society where farmers could meet to share successes and failures and learn methods better suited for their locale.

Not one to keep his ideas to himself, Isaac set about forming such an organization, beginning with an article published in the local newspaper at the end of March. He wrote: "The farmers of Stafford county are requested to meet in the court house at 2 p.m. in the city of St. John, Wednesday April 4th for the purpose of discussing agriculture in Stafford county. It is a well known fact that many farmers are not sufficiently familiar with climate and soil of Stafford county, to make a success at farming. The opinion of the farmers who have been in Stafford county for years, and have made a success of farming, is of great value, therefore every farmer in the county who has a bit of valuable experience that would be of benefit to his neighbor is earnestly requested to be present...[together with] every mechanic, business and professional man..."

The day of the advertised meeting, Isaac got to town early to promote attendance, and the lack of interest nearly caused him to give up on the idea. "I had to busy myself most the afternoon running about St. John what could be done towards making a start to organize our County Agricultural Society. The general indifference show[n] by town and country people really astonished me...Another 5 minutes more procrastinating and I would have made up my mind to drop all efforts on my part for good for all time to come, but concentrate my efforts to make the best of all my experience hereafter in a selfish way..." At the last moment, a small group of men arrived for the preliminary meeting, at which Isaac was chosen chairman.

The permanent organization was formed in the following weeks, but participation continued to be disappointing. In addition to writing letters to individual farmers that he knew, Isaac wrote the following appeal for publication in the newspaper: "After a ten years settlement of Stafford county, the fact begins to dawn on the minds of many of our progressive farmers, that many of the difficulties presenting themselves in our new soil and climate, for successful tilling, can be only overcome by a united effort on the part of the farmers themselves. The object of this association, the greater part of the soil of said county, is composed of what is generally called blow-sand, and handling this light soil successfully, (productive as it is) is no small matter when brought under cultivation, its liability to blow has to be avoided, and how this had better be done, is still a vexed question, but generally, in the counsel of many there is wisdom."

Eventually, others saw the importance of the organization, and the County Agricultural Society Isaac had envisioned began to serve its purpose. Representatives were selected from each township in the county, and although some townships had more active members than others, the Society offered the opportunity for farmers and merchants to come together and begin sharing information that helped make Stafford County a more productive farming area. A county agricultural society was not unique to Stafford County, but without the vision and promotional efforts of Isaac, it seems less likely that anyone else would have stepped forward to organize the local group.

As Isaac prophesied, bankruptcy did continue to stare some farmers in the face after that, and more than a few of them lost the staring match, but others, like Isaac, learned better ways to farm the sandy prairie soil beneath the stubborn sod, and descendants of a few of those families still carry on the farming tradition in Stafford County today.

The old photographs are of my grandfather Royal D. Beck's harvesting crew sometime after the turn of the century and are from the Beck family's personal collection. Remember, images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Isaac and the 200 Year Club

In 1870 Isaac Beckley Werner was a twenty-six year old druggist in the Illinois prairie town of Rossville. He took great pride in his business, recording word for word in his journal the praise of a drug salesman from Lafayette, Indiana, with the firm of Tinney & Moore Druggist: "Your name, I.B. Werner, I wrote many a time before this, quite familiar to me, although this is the first time we get to see each other," Moore had commented. "You keep the neatest Drug store I met in a good while. In traveling about the country selling goods one comes often into regular Holes--mean, dirty groceries and saloons. But, indeed you have everything well arranged and keep it in good order." Obviously, Isaac had some rudimentary knowledge of medical remedies and certainly respected the need for maintaining a clean establishment.

The times in which he lived, however, were inundated with all sorts of quack medicines. Isaac never mentions buying or using any patent medicines, nor does he regard the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes favorably. He did occasionally visit dentists, and tooth brushes were among the personal items sold at his estate sale. As for visits to a doctor, that was rare. Once, when he developed severe stiffness and swelling of the fingers of his left hand, he treated it with a poultice he made for himself from linseed oil, and by the time he finally went to town on business and at the close of his day visited a doctor, his hand was nearly healed. He did continue during the following days applying a poultice of linseed oil and the ointment the doctor had given him, and his hand slowly improved but remained stiff.

Overall, his health seemed good until his late 40s when he began to experience headaches, dizziness, and bilious spells. It was around this time that he sent off for membership in the Ralston 200 Year Club. The Ralstonism movement was the creation of Webster Edgerly, a graduate of the Boston University School of Law. Edgerly did practice law, but he also wrote many books, using the penname of Edmund Shaftesbury. He expressed little respect for doctors, suggesting that the common sense of most men and women exceeded the methods of doctors, whose cures often caused more harm to the patient than the ailment for which medical advice was sought. Several comments in Isaac's Journal reflect that he shared a similar negative opinion of invasive medical treatments of that era.

So, as Isaac's health began to fail, instead of consulting a doctor, he wrote for a membership in the 200 Year Club. Edgerly was a savvy marketer. Part 4 of his book emphasized that members were to accept the idea that "...the acquisition of perfect health is by far the most important thing in life," and having accepted that idea it was their duty to spread the Ralston doctrines through forming and attending local clubs--obviously bringing more customers for Edgerly's books.

While Edgerly included remedies for specific ailments in his book, his actual approach to good health was through the practice of preventive medicine, in short, prescribing a regime of healthful living to avoid sickness, of which exercise was an important part. Part 1 of the book set out "The Nine Great Laws of Nature," itemizing elements of healthful diet, exercise, and lifestyle. The objective, once these nine laws were understood and implemented, was to change the member's Nature. Edgerly explained that Man's 2nd Nature was to be controlled by the circumstances of his life, but the goal was to overcome this tendency by cultivating Man's 1st Nature, which would allow him to shape the circumstances himself.

The first step in accomplishing this process was to stop allowing circumstances which "disturb, annoy, embarrass or affect you." Instead of responding negatively, you should take life as it comes, without worry or irritation; present an open face through calmness, sweetness, and purity; and observe the Nine Great Laws of Nature. Using these techniques, those who practiced Edgerly's advice could change their Nature.

Edgerly proposed that irritability was the greatest disease breeder of all. He wrote: "Some people go through life one train late. The common successes keep just ahead of them. They may move with rapidity, but they do not start soon enough. Such persons curse themselves, their creator, and mankind." Many of Edgerly's ideas were almost comical, but others are accepted even today. For example, he said, "We do not drink water enough," and "...four or more light meals per day are better than two or three heavy meals." As for exercise, four of his nine great laws of nature dealt with staying active, specifically: "Gravity causes us to sit too much, to lie around in lazy positions, to half lounge when at home, and to avoid walking and standing. These lead to inactivity and ill health." Motion is necessary. "Too much sleep, and too much inactivity produce disease...Nature intends to make us active...Repose is decay...Ennui is a disease." "Energy is both refreshing and recuperative..." And, finally, "Speed, combined with energy...impells the blood throughout the body in even circulation, and scatters the blood that stagnates in the brain."

Unfortunately, while Isaac tried to implement Edgerly's ideas, especially with regard to improving his diet, he did not live to be 200 years old but only about a fourth of that. One of the things the Ralston Health Club advocated was including whole grains in the diet, and a recipe for cereal included in the book was very similar to a cereal being produced by the Purina Milling Company. They asked Edgerly to endorse their product, which he did, and that eventually led to the name, the Ralston Purina Company. Edgerly and his health Club are largely forgotten, but the name his cereal gave to Ralston Purina remains familiar.

What Edgerly was doing with his 200 Year Club was telling people how they could improve their lives for themselves. Self-help books are nothing new, although they seem to have exploded in today's market, expanding beyond the printed page onto electronic screens, the internet, health club membership, lectures, seminars, and DVDs. Enter "self-help" as a search topic on Amazon and you will get 254,913 results! However, you can also look backward and find self-help advice from classical antiquity. As a young man, Isaac sought self-improvement through acquiring a personal library, believing he could educate himself with the wisdom contained in those books. It was natural for him to turn to the advice contained in Edgerly's book for improving his failing health.

Turning to membership in the 200 Year Club may now seem foolish, but in comparison to the extravagant claims of the patent medicine ads, such as those found in the County Capital newspaper to which Isaac subscribed (from which all of the advertisements pictured in this post were taken), Edgerly's advice about diet, exercise, and positive thinking seems quite reasonable. What is always interesting is not the differences we find in history but the similarities, the common issues each generation faces and the similar ways we confront those problems. Isaac may not have had a treadmill nor a grocery store with aisles of food labeled "fat free" and "whole grain," but it is surprising how little his generation's goals for better health differ from our own.

Remember that you can click on an image to enlarge it, especially to read the text accompanying these advertisements from the 1890s.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Isaac & the Plutocrats

America has not always been a nation with great disparity between the wealth of its richest and poorest citizens. In his famous book, Democracy in America published in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville opened with this observation: "Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions," a statement that obviously ignored American slaves who certainly did not share in such "general equality."

As for the rest of the American population, most were farmers. Writing in 1781, Thomas Jefferson said: "While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe." To assure that America continued to have land for the agrarian republic he regarded as the ideal, Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory in 1803, providing room for further expansion.

By 1850, farmers still represented 64% of the labor force, although Jefferson's idea of leaving "the general operations of manufacture" in Europe had begun to change. At the beginning of the Civil War there were only a few hundred American millionaires.* By 1890 the number had risen to about 4,000, among them such familiar names as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Jay Gould. The number of farmers, however, had dropped to 42% of the labor force. During the time these incredibly wealthy men were creating their fortunes in railroads, steel, and oil, farmers were confronting higher interest rates and foreclosures, lower prices for their crops, and drought, blizzards, and other hardships caused by Mother Nature. It is no wonder that the great disparity in wealth between farmers and laborers, in comparison to the wealthy and politically powerful men of the Gilded Age, created resentment and distrust.

As Isaac Werner wrote in his journal in 1889, "...disgraceful low ruling prices ruining near everybody but 'skimmers' with money. Things getting daily into worse shape and more discontent among the producing class causing oceans of thinking among the commonest people." In a speech delivered in 1890 by Mary Elizabeth Lease, a leading Populist speaker, she said, "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master. The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East. Money rules..."

It is startling how the language of the Populist activists of Isaac's time and the Occupy Wall Street protesters of today is so similar, and the political cartoons of the late 1800s are almost capable of appearing today without modification. Compare some of the goals expressed by the 99ers today with the concerns of Isaac's time--jobs, more equal distribution of income, and a reduction of the influence of corporations on politics. Both then and now, activists sought economic justice and directed much of their anger toward corporate abuses. In their 1880s newspaper The Nonconformist, the Vincent brothers of Winfield, Kansas blamed "corporate greed, that breeds anarchism and everything else that is hideous, in the proportion that it deepens its grip upon the industrial masses."

In Isaac's time the wealth of the few soared during and after the Civil War. Recent statistics from the Congressional Budget Office show that between 1979 and 2007, the incomes of the top 1% of Americans grew by an average of 275%. As for the country's total wealth, in 2007 the richest 1% of Americans owned 34.6% and the next 19% of Americans owned 50.5%. By combining these numbers, it can be seen that the top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country's wealth, leaving 15% of the wealth in the hands of the bottom 80% of the population.

In the 1800s there were no federal social programs like those we have today to help the aged and the poor. Therefore, the economic extremes between the needy laborers and the very rich were especially severe. When the steel workers in the Carnegie Homestead Steel Mill attempted to negotiate a wage increase because the price of steel had increased during the three years since their prior union contract had been negotiated, they were told that management would instead reduce their wages in the new contract by 22%. When farmers were losing their farms to foreclosure and feeding their children a mixture of ground wheat and water to keep them from starving, the wealthy were building mansions fit for royalty.

The agrarian society upon which Thomas Jefferson placed his faith, believing that farmers possessed a "peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue...[which] keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth" is a mere sliver of the American population today. In the century and a quarter since Isaac joined with other farmers and laborers to form the People's Party to confront the political power of Wall Street, corporations, and trusts, the American population has changed. Data from the 2010 census shows the total U.S. population as 308,745,538, with only 613,000 farmers, with those farmers representing about 2.5% of the nation's working force and only about 0.5% of all employed Americans. As for the present workers in manufacturing and industry, many of them have seen their jobs given to foreign laborers. Yes, America's work force has changed; yet, the issues of economic inequality are being debated as vigorously today as they were in Isaac's time.

*A million dollars in 1890 would be equivalent to about $24,400,250 in 2011.
Plutocracy is defined as government by the wealthy; also, a controlling class of rich men.