Thursday, July 26, 2012

Drought on the Prairie

"July was proving to be unusually hot, and rain was sorely needed.  The leaves on Isaac's potato plants were drying, even the ones in his garden patch that he watered daily.  The corn was suffering too,  drying before  ears had formed or silk was out, and leaves turning white.  The ground was too dry and hard most places to stir the wheat stubble, such droughty conditions being exactly what Professor Hicks had predicted.  According to the current almanac, the drought was to set in after June and continue into the 1891 and 1892 seasons.  Isaac could only hope that this time Professor Hicks was wrong."

The above quote is from Chapter 8, 1890, of my manuscript.  Did you think I might be quoting from this week's newspaper?  The passage certainly sounds familiar to many farmers in Isaac's old Kansas community.

In Isaac's time, he turned to almanacs for long range weather predictions.  The almanac pictured at right was published in 1892 by Dr. J. A. McLean to promote his patent medicines, but the "Storm Calendar and Weather Forecasts" were prepared by Rev. Irl R. Hicks, the "Storm Prophet," whose weather predictions Isaac came to respect.

Today's farmers have more sophisticated forecasting methods available to them.  The United States Seasonal Drought Outlook map shown below was issued by the National Weather Service.

 According to the news report accompanying the map, the current drought is the most widespread since 1956, with 56% of pastures and rangelands in poor to very poor conditions and stream flows at or near record low values across much of the Midwest and parts of the Central Plains, West, Southeast, and even parts of New England.  Sixty-four percent of the contiguous U.S. is in some degree of drought, with another 17% abnormally dry.

Working on my manuscript this week, tweaking and deleting to tighten the text in preparation for submitting to publishers, I read the paragraph quoted above.  Like so many issues from the 1880s and 1890s that relate to what we face today, today's farmers can obviously identify with the challenges faced by Isaac during the drought a century and a quarter ago.  Careful weather records like those kept in Isaac's journal are part of our present consideration of whether such climatic events are only cyclical weather patterns or whether today's weather is becoming more extreme and erratic.  Farming since Isaac's time has obviously become more sophisticated, but like Isaac, today's farmers remain subject to the challenges of unfavorable weather.    

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Note to my International followers...

Because I have a great many international followers, I had hoped some of you might leave your comments to this week's post.  Whether you come from countries that were America's allies during W.W. II or you do not, sharing your family memories about W.W. II might allow us to see the ways in which people are more similar than different.  I believe history can help our generation avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and the loss of so many young men in war is sad for every family, regardless of the uniform those soldiers wore.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Living in the Past

History has overtaken the Fenwick household!  After tolerating about two and a half years of my immersion in newspapers from the 1880s and 1890s, my husband has discovered just how interesting reading old newspapers can be.  Last week, while I went through the old photographs available at the Stafford County Historical Museum in search of images that might be used in my book about Isaac, my husband joined me and began his own research from the Macksville Enterprise during the years of World War II.

Nearly every week's newspaper had a center front page section about the young men from Macksville (and occasionally a young woman) who were serving our country.  That generation is disappearing, and more than once since he began his research he has wished he had done it a few years ago when there were more veterans still living.  I am encouraging him to write about the interesting things he has found.  Maybe you will open my blog one week to discover a guest post from him!

So many Macksville men served in W.W. II, but there were also many who were given deferments to stay home and work the farms.  My father was one of those men, and I believe he always felt uncomfortable about not having served in the military.  He was very proud of my husband when Larry entered the Air Force after college. 

While Larry searched the information about the "Macksville boys in uniform," he found this interesting advertisement of the Community War Fund.

Published in the Macksville Enterprise October 26, 1944

The message reads: "Victory begins with the American farmer, working from long before sunset until long after nightfall.  Upon him falls the burden of feeding the fighting forces...the civilian population...and hungry mouths in war-torn countries."  It continues:  "Despite shortages of help and equipment, they have established records.  They have contributed mightily towards winning the war."

Having acknowledged the necessary role of those men whose military duty was deferred, the appeal for contributions to the War Fund was made.  "Now you are asked to help your fellow-men in another contribute money to give men in the armed forces needed recreation, to give books and sports equipment to prisoners of war, to give nerve-shattered men in the merchant marine a chance to recuperate.  To give unfortunate people abroad and at home a chance to have life, liberty, and happiness."

I don't know whether my father responded to this appeal, although I would hope that he did.  However, I do believe he always felt that others his age gave far more to the war effort than he did, some men he knew having given their lives. 

The first Memorial Day after we had rescued the farm house, we resumed the old tradition of hosting a family Decoration Day Dinner at the farm.  Before the meal we paused to remember those family members who had served in the military.  Three veterans were present, and among the other guests everyone had someone to remember--a husband, brother, son, father, or brother-in-law.  

Many of the original homesteaders in Isaac's community were veterans of the Civil War, and my husband and I can trace family roots back to the American Revolution.  In during the research about Isaac, I verified that some from this community served in the Spanish-American War, and many answered the call for World War I & II, Korea, and Southeast Asia.  Yet there were also those who stayed at home.  In a farming community, I found it very significant to discover that appreciation was shown to the young men who stayed on their farms during W.W. II. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A One-room Schoolhouse Surprise

Isaac Beckley Werner was an accomplished carpenter, and he helped build the wood frame school house that served his prairie community.  He believed in education, not only for children but also for adults to continue reading and studying.  So, this post about a country school house is particularly apt.

Our last stop at the Homestead National Monument was the brick Freeman School.  White curtains waved at the windows as I crossed the boardwalk from the parking area, admiring the neatly painted privy behind the school and the American flag high atop its pole at the front.  This was certainly a handsome school for homesteaders' children to attend.  Later, I learned that the Freeman School did not close until 1967, earning the distinction of being the oldest operating 1-room school in Nebraska.

A park ranger greeted me inside the school.  I looked at the interior, so similar to other 1-room schools I had visited--with pictures of Washington and Lincoln at the front, wooden and iron desks in neat rows, and a stove in the center of the room.  The ranger described the history of the school and ended his talk with these words:  "This is where separation of church and state began."

What a surprise those words were.  As the author of the book, Should the Children Pray?, I had spent a great deal of time researching the historical, legal, and political issues surrounding public school prayer, and now I found myself standing in a school house with its own connection to that issue.  Of course, I knew it was the First Amendment to America's Constitution that established the relationship between our national government and religious beliefs, and it was Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that used the description of "building a wall of separation between Church and State."  However, the ranger explained the role of the Freeman School to the issue. 
Several of the Freeman children attended the school, and when their father learned that the teacher was reading passages from the Bible to the children during the day, he asked that she stop.  When she refused, he took the matter to the school board, who supported the teacher's view that her readings "were for the best interest of the pupils."  Having exhausted his appeals to the school authorities, Freeman filed suit in the Gage County District Court, but the court ruled in favor of the school board.

Daniel Freeman was not a man to be easily dissuaded, and he appealed all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court.  At last, on October 9, 1902, the case of Daniel Freeman v. John Scheve, et al,  was decided in favor of Plaintiff Freeman.  The court relied on the Nebraska Constitution rather than the United States Constitution for its ruling.  Citing Article 8, Section 11 of the state constitution, which provides:  "No sectarian instruction shall be allowed in any school or institution supported in whole or in part by the public funds set apart for education purposes," the opinion of the court was that readings from the Bible and prayer, even if no comments were made by the teacher, were prohibited.  Ironically, the named defendant in the suit, John Scheve, was not only an officer of the school board but also an organizer of the First Trinity Lutheran Church.  The feelings within the community during the long period over which this litigation extended (and probably for some time after) must have been intense.  Whether Daniel Freeman was a courageous defender of religious liberty or a meddlesome troublemaker depends on your point of view.  Unexpectedly, I had discovered another way in which Isaac's times are similar to our own.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Isaac By My Side

Most writers will tell you that their characters, fictional or real, will begin to inhabit their waking lives, even when they are not writing.  Sometimes the characters will invade their dreams.  For the past few days, Isaac has joined me in the Kansas summer heat as I dig goat head stickers!
From 1878 when Isaac arrived on the Kansas plains to claim his homestead until 1886 Isaac was without a horse.  His journal is filled with references to his ongoing battle with sun flowers and sand burrs, and most of the time his only weapon was a hoe.  To get the benefit of better tools, he had to trade his own labor to borrow a neighbor's horse and plow.  In August of 1885 he wrote, "...up to Stimatze about getting final 1 horse plowing in 6 acre timber's [timber claim's] sandburrs in exchange for work."  Apparently Isaac was not able to barter his labor with Stimatze, for the next day he wrote, "...about done with tall sun flowers and sand burrs...(each tree is hoed).

I'm not certain whether Isaac was battling what local people call Mexican sand burrs--a small round burr covered with countless stickers--or what we call goat head stickers--a hard seed shaped vaguely like a goat's head with a single, long sharp sticker.  What I am currently battling are the goat head stickers.  That is work enough, so I am presently ignoring the grassy clumps of burrs growing in the same area. 

The challenge for me is digging the entire plant and carefully lifting it into the trash can without knocking any of the stickers off to hide in the dirt and repopulate the area I just dug.  When the trash can is filled, I take the contents to be safely burned.  Otherwise, the plants will dry up but the tough sticker seeds will drop off and germinate wherever they were dumped.

It's hot, dry and windy in Kansas right now, so I was outside this morning before sunrise, an empty trash can beside me and a garden fork in my hands.  The birds were serenading me, and the flies were biting as if I were the morning smorgasbord.  Sandy loam soil can look like a child's sand box, but in dry weather it can also take on the hardness of plaster of Paris, so the previous evening my husband had watered the area where I planned to dig, and it was just right for jabbing the garden fork underneath the central portion of the plant and lifting the root section.

The objective is to reach down below the stems to the actual root and pull the entire plant out of the soil, leaving nothing left to regrow.  Sometimes I find an old mother plant, nothing much left of her but the dry skeleton of her branches radiating like spokes of a wheel in a 3' or 4' span.  Her dry carcass must still be dug and lifted with special care to avoid dropping the dried seeds clinging to the stems.  My spiteful pleasure comes in digging all of her progeny clustered around the span of her reach, destroying everything she spent her life creating.  The truth remains that dig as I will, I know that the soil contains more seeds waiting to germinate as soon as my back is turned.

The plants are actually rather pretty, with delicate, almost fern-like leaves and tiny yellow flowers.  The circular pattern of the stems is highlighted with a peachy-orange color, the plant spreading discretely close to the ground where the mower blade will pass over without harm.  Trying to rid yourself of them by plowing, as Isaac seems to have done, only turns the seeds into the soil, unless the plowing is done before the seeds set.

As the sun climbs on the horizon and the temperature rises, I am glad to take Isaac with me to my computer as I write this post.  Tomorrow morning I will be back outside doing battle with the goat head stickers, and for many mornings to come, I fear.  I know I can defeat them, for our lawn is finally free of them--although I must be vigilant for those that we have planted by tracking the stickers into the grass on the bottoms of our shoes.  The work I am facing now is the result of my own negligence for having ignored that area of the farmyard the past two years while I researched and wrote about Isaac.  It's only fair that I take him with me outside every morning to face the digging and bending and pricks of my fingers and sweat and bites of the flies.  The monotony of the chore is abated by Isaac's company as I reflect on his life on the prairie and all the work he too did by hand.  He used a hoe for his digging, but I think he would have had better success with a garden fork!