Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Isaac as Photographer

Isaac's interest in photography is mentioned in his journal several times during 1871, and when he sold his drug store business, he considered becoming a photographer--if not a professional then at least an amateur.  With the changes occurring as towns sprung up on the prairie and railroad tracks slashed through the landscape, Isaac dreamed of preserving images of the unspoiled country before it was "ruined" by civilization. 

He believed there would be a particular market for stereoscope views, photographing not only the landscape but also public occasions and seasonal images to be enjoyed at other times of the year.  Stereoscope views consist of a pair of images taken by cameras a few feet apart, with the finished photographs mounted side-by-side on a rectangular cardboard.  Inserted in the adjustable rack of the stereoscope, when the pair of images are viewed through the lenses of the stereoscope, the two photographs merge into a 3-dimensional image.  In a world before television, movies and computers, stereoscopes provided both entertainment and the opportunity to view distant places.

Isaac studied the various types of cameras available, of which there were several, and just as today, the prices varied widely.  Although these cameras were expensive, in comparison to the amounts Isaac had spent on his library, a camera seemed affordable.  However, having sold his business, he may no longer have been in the position to purchase such luxuries, and it is uncertain whether Isaac bought his own camera.

A journal entry during the summer of 1890, two decades after the first entries about photography, it became obvious that Isaac's interest had not disappeared, for he wrote:  "...very anxious to have a series of Negatives taken of my home from several points of view."  The following day he added, "I walked over place with small mirror selecting point of views to photo, some time, making some 30 different interesting views I would like to have taken."

As if fate had heard Isaac's wishes, only four days later at a political rally in Pratt Center, Isaac met Seth Blake, a farmer with an amateur photo outfit.  Blake lived only 7 miles south of Isaac, and they struck up a friendship.  In the following months, Isaac accompanied Blake to several political rallies to photograph the events, and Blake began coming to Isaac's farm to photograph his neighbors, using  Isaac's picturesque farm setting as a back drop.

Among the neighbors Isaac recorded as having been photographed at his farm were the William Campbell family, Fracks, Frank Curtis team and women, William Blanch family, Graff and Penrose in buggy, Carr team and wagon, Sadie and children, Mrs. Henn and family, Miss Anna Carr and Miss Balser, Mrs. Ross, McHenry team, and numerous other photographs of boys on horses and groups that were not specifically identified.  The hard times had reduced the farms of many neighbors to abject poverty, and I suspect there are many photographs in family albums with Isaac's prosperous farm and beautiful tree groves in the background, assumed by descendants to be their ancestors' farms.  I have yet to locate any photographs of such family groups, nor the historically valuable images of political rallies and parades that Blake and Isaac took.  Neither have I found the photographs of Isaac's farm, his 3-horse cultivator, nor the co-operative potato patch, all of which are mentioned in his journal.

The cameras of that time were cumbersome and heavy; yet, Isaac describes in his journal the day he climbed into the top of his big cottonwood tree with one of Blake's cameras in an attempt to photograph an elevated view of his farm.  Imagine Isaac, at the age of forty-five, perched high in a cottonwood tree!  He concluded that the wind in the tree caused too much swaying to get a good image, and he climbed down without getting his photograph.

I remain hopeful that some of these photographs still exist for me to find.  Seth Blake did not develop his own dry plate negatives, which were developed by a studio in Pratt (probably Logan's) and by Miss Shira in St. John, so some of Isaac and Blake's photographs may appear on mounting cardboard bearing the logo or address of these or other studios.

I also know that Isaac sat for two different studio portraits of himself in 1890 and 1891, taken at Logan and Shira's studios.  He recorded having sent studio portraits to his siblings, as well as some photographs of his farm, but if they still exist, I have not located them.

I have made the most surprising discoveries in doing research for the book, so I continue to hope that I may yet find one of Isaac's photographs!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Isaac's Farm Implements

Our visit to the Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska, allowed me to see some of the implements Isaac may have used, particularly those he used in the early years after his arrival in 1878 before he had a horse.  A walking cultivator is displayed at the Palmer-Epard Cabin which was moved from a nearby homestead.  The homes in Stafford County, Kansas, were not so grand, for there were no trees for wood and little adequate clay for bricks or chinking between timbers, so they made their early homes from sod.

Because the original settler had cleared the land for crops, when the National Park Service acquired the land on which the first homestead had been claimed under the Homestead Act, they had to recreate the vegetation of the original prairie.  Isaac probably did not find the same grasses on his prairie homestead in Kansas, the tall grasses less prevalent further south.  Even so, imagine trying to break the sod without a horse or oxen to help.  To maintain the healthy prairie environment, the Rangers burn one-third of the park acreage each year, emulating Nature's prairie fires.

Among the implements on exhibit is a hand cultivator with a plow blade, rather than the forked tongs in the picture at the top of this post.  When Isaac traded his own labor in order to have a neighbor break sod for him with their horses, mules or oxen pulling the plow, even the turned sod with ancient roots imbedded in the soil would have been extremely difficult for Isaac to cultivate by hand.  Yet, hand tools were all that Isaac and many settlers had available to use without horses of their own. 

Once the ground was prepared for planting, these farmers who were dependent on their own manual labor, like Isaac, used hand planters, the one pictured being a hand corn planter.  Isaac's journal is filled with detailed records of his experiments regarding how many kernels to plant in each hill, the best date for planting, how far apart to make the hills, the spacing for rows, and the importance of making straight rows to facilitate cultivation of the growing corn.

Not all of the corn was planted in plowed soil.  In the early years, Isaac and many others planted "sod corn," planting hills in the midst of the prairie grasses.  The yield was not particularly good, but they managed to raise enough to supply their own needs.  Today's combines not only cut the stalks but also separate the ears from the stalks and the kernals from the cobs.  Isaac did that by hand, making use of the stalks for fodder or using the dried stalks for fuel in his stove, along with twisted husks and the cobs, once the corn was removed.

These photographs offer some understanding of the hard, physical labor required to create farms on unbroken land, the stubborn grass roots resisting the plow.  Only 40% of the settlers staking their claims endured the hardships and labor required to prove up their land and receive a patent from the government.  It is easy to understand why so many did not survive the difficult task, some giving up their lives in trying, others just giving up.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Plum Harvest

Today's post is about harvesting things long awaited.  First, after more than two years of research and more than a year of writing and re-writing, I am polishing my manuscript in preparation to begin marketing.  Seeing the pages in a neat stack feels like quite a harvest to me!

Second, I have posted about canning plum jelly and have shared photographs of the blooming plum bushes, but for those of you who have never seen a sand hill plum, I have supplied only my verbal description of the plums.  Every year, like Isaac, I await the sand hill plums, hoping that there were no late spring frosts to harm the blossoms and that rains came at the right times so that the bushes will be loaded with plums in summer.  Those of you who follow my blog know that a late frost and too little rain left the plum bushes nearly empty last summer.  You also know that I have hoarded one last jar of the 2010 jelly, refusing to be completely without.  Now I can open that jar.

Hurray!  The 2012 plum crop is here, and the bushes are loaded.  Most are still too green to pick, but this morning I went out with my pail and my camera to pick and photograph the early ripened plums.  I will gather more in coming days before I set aside a day for making jelly, but the first day of harvesting the plums is deserving of celebration.

I believe they are early this year, and I know they are earlier than Isaac picked his plums.  I found one incredible thicket on which the plums are remarkably large.  Perhaps there were plums like these in Isaac's day that gave him so much pleasure eating them right off the bush, but I don't remember ever seeing plums so large.

Although my manuscript is nearly complete after many drafts and much editing, I will continue to post stories about Isaac and his community on my blog.  For those of you on facebook, you may visit my Lynda Beck Fenwick page to follow my progress in seeing Isaac's story published.  Just enter Lynda Beck Fenwick in the search window at the top of your facebook page to visit.

Things long awaited are especially enjoyed, and although finishing the manuscript is only a milestone and not the final goal, thank you for supporting me along the way so far.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Are you one of 93 million descendants?

Isaac B. Werner had no descendants, but many homesteaders raised families.  Today it is estimated that 93 million people are descendants of homesteaders.  I am among that number, and perhaps many of you following my blog are too. 

This past weekend my husband and I attended the 57th Annual Willa Cather Spring Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and I will be sharing that great American Writer and her hometown with you in future posts.  However, I mention our trip to Nebraska to share some side trips we took after the Conference.

The Homestead National Monument operated by the National Park Service is located near Beatrice, Nebraska, northeast of Red Cloud.  We enjoyed the drive through some of Nebraska's beautiful rural landscape and realized only when we arrived at the national park that it is the 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862. 

Those of us who know the Great Plains region tend to think of homesteading as having occurred on the plains, overlooking the extent of America opened for settlement by homesteaders.  Upon arrival at the park site, visitors are immediately presented with the question:  "Do you live near a Homestead?"  A map shows that there were 30 homesteading states, although in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, not all of the territory had yet achieved statehood.  According to the park ranger who greeted us, Montana is the state with the largest homestead acreage, and Nebraska is the state with the largest percentage of its land having been homestead.  Kansas, where Isaac homesteaded, also has a great homesteading heritage.

As visitors approach the Heritage Center, the sidewalk parallels a wall showing the 30 homesteading states, with a box cut from each state's silhouette representing the proportion of that state's total area that was available for homesteading.  The photograph taken looking down a portion of the wall shows Nebraska at the far left, with Kansas next in the line of state silhouettes on the wall.

After an informative conversation with the ranger, we viewed the film and walked out just in time to see a Junior Ranger being sworn in.  It was great seeing how seriously the young man took the responsibilities he was assuming with his oath to learn about the prairie and help care for it and teach others to respect the land.  Notice particularly the tall Plexiglas tube on the left side of the photograph.  A bunch of prairie grass has been carefully extracted from the soil to show the blades of grass above the surface (above the top band on the tube) but also the length of the roots extending deeply into the soil.  Grass such as this formed the sod that homesteaders plowed to clear the land for cultivation of crops.  I will never again think that the common garden weeds that I pull have deep roots!

Isaac staked his claim in 1878, and it was not until 1886 that he finally bought a horse, having avoided the indebtedness necessary to purchase a horse until that year.  During his early years of farming, he traded his own labor in exchange for help from neighbors with horses and machinery to break the sod. This exchange of labor allowed him to break so little sod that much of his time was spent raising trees rather than planting fields.  Even when the sod was broken, he had to use hand tools for farming the ground.

The implements displayed near the homesteader's cabin on the grounds of the Heritage Center are those pulled by horses, mules, or oxen; however, at the Education Center the exhibit included man-powered implements like Isaac initially used.  When we arrived there, I spotted the sign directing visitors to that exhibit.  "Oh, look!" I exclaimed.  "This is where the farm implements are!"  I noticed two rangers exchanging perplexed expressions, and I said, "I suppose that is not something you usually hear from the women visiting your exhibits."  They laughed and nodded.  They had no idea that it was my time spent with Isaac that had caused my enthusiastic response to the opportunity to see the implements he used on his homestead.  In a future post I will share pictures of some of the implements I photographed.

Not only the Homestead National Monument has wonderful events planned throughout the summer commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862 but also the Nebraska Humanities Council is celebrating their state's homesteading legacy.  It is a great year to visit Nebraska, and when you do, be sure to include the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie and Willa's hometown of Red Cloud in your planning.;; and