Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween in the Southern Colonies

The American tradition of Halloween did not arrive in New England with the Puritans, whose more rigid religious beliefs rejected the Celtic customs.  It is believed that the origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain as practiced in Ireland and Northern France.  Pronounced "sow-in," the festival was intended to frighten away the ghosts of the dead who returned on the night of October 31st to damage crops and cause trouble.  The Celts wore costumes and built huge bonfires, using embers from the sacred bonfire to relight their extinguished hearth fires, a ritual intended to protect them during the coming winter.
The tradition of Halloween in America's earliest years was first practiced in Maryland and other Southern Colonies, where customs of different European ethnic groups merged with Native Americans' customs to create what has become Halloween in the United States.

Birthplace of Woodrow Wilson in Stauton, VA
On Saturday, October 27th, we were in Staunton, Virginia, to visit the birthplace and museum of Woodrow Wilson.  As we reached his birthplace and prepared to buy our tickets, we were invited to join a tour of the lovely town by historical society members Jane and Richard Hicks.  Jane's personal focus on her tours is architecture, although other guides may select their own emphasis, but architecture interested us, and off we went.

So, what does our visit to Woodrow Wilson's birthplace and an architectural tour of  Staunton have to do with Halloween?  Every year the merchants of Staunton, Virginia, carry on the traditions of early southern colonists, perhaps modified for modern times but with their origins in colonial time all the same, and costumed children fill the town's streets going from shop to shop to trick or treat.

I confess, Jane's tour was excellent, but the costumed children were a delightful distraction for me, and I paused many times to photograph the adorable kids in their wonderful costumes!  The name Halloween comes from the Christian holy day of All Saints' Day, which is also known as All Hallows.  Two Christian customs may have also contributed to present-day Halloween traditions.

The custom of baking and sharing soul cakes on All Saints' Day may have evolved into the tradition of trick or treat.  In countries from which colonists immigrated, soul cakes were often given to poor children who went door to door asking for them.  Rather than asking for cake, this darling little elf has her eye on a window filled with tiny candy ducks in a confectioner's window.  

Because it was believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints' Day, it came to be believed that All Saints' Eve was the last opportunity for the wandering dead to take revenge on their enemies.  To avoid the vengeance of enemies that had died during the previous year, people wore masks or costumes to disguise their identities.  That custom provides a possible explanation for Halloween costuming.  This young boy's transformation into a tractor is quite an effective disguise!
Isaac Werner had no children, and he does not mention whether the Kansas community where he homesteaded celebrated Halloween.  Neither do I know whether little Tommy Wilson (as Thomas Woodrow Wilson was known in childhood) costumed for Halloween, and perhaps his father, a Presbyterian minister, might not have encouraged that tradition.  However, the present citizens of Wilson's birthplace have a wonderful tradition for the children of Staunton!  Thank you to all the costumed children and their mothers who have allowed me to share their wonderful celebration with my blog visitors.  We fell in love with their beautiful city, set in the Appalachian foothills, with a charming and vital downtown, beautiful architecture, and the birthplace, museum, and gift shop of Woodrow Wilson.
It will surprise none of you that the souvenirs I selected in the gift shop were books.  We passed much of the time during our continuing journey reading about the 28th President of the United States, who knew when he was quite young that he had "a very earnest political creed and very pronounced political ambitions" and who vowed with a college friend to "drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion but especially in oratory...that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes."  (Quoted from a letter written by the young Woodrow Wilson)  His path to the Presidency was unusual, achieved not through a succession of political offices but rather through teaching, writing, and becoming the president of Princeton, from which he was recruited to become governor of New Jersey, and then was nominated and elected to two terms as President of the United States.  He served from 1913 to 1921, including throughout the years of our involvement in World War I. 
Woodrow Wilson retired from the presidency to a home in Washington, D.C., but I suspect had I been in his place, I might have returned to the beautiful Virginia hometown of his birth.  


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Isaac and the Political Press

The Plutocrat and His Toy (the press)
From the time John Hilmes established the County Capital newspaper in St. John in 1888, the paper took a progressive stance on political matters.  The St. John News was the Republican paper.  Isaac not only subscribed to the County Capital but also had his articles published in that paper regularly.  Neither of these St. John newspapers made any pretense of objectivity with regard to political bias.  That was typical of newspapers of that era.

The question today is whether media bias is any less so.  Television and the internet have more influence than newspapers in today's media market, and with the speed of information now minute-by-minute rather than being published in a morning and an evening edition, policing the accuracy of what is published is nearly impossible.  The ability to manipulate voter opinions is as great as it ever has been.

Freedom of speech is one of our most cherished freedoms, and each of us can exercise that right.  However, the dissemination of each individual's speech is vastly unequal.  Several hundred people will visit my blog each week, but several hundred thousand may see a single political advertisement on television.  Facebook is a place where people can express their opinions to their friends, and many people use that opportunity to express political views.  I assume it will not offend my facebook friends to share that some asked me on facebook to commit my vote to the Republican presidential candidate months before a candidate was ever nominated.  My Democratic friends had more fun posting videos of every gaff Romney made, and they were especially fond of sharing Jon Steward and Stephen Colbert's clips.  Frankly, none of those facebook postings was particularly informative in shaping my political views, although I preferred the ones that made me laugh versus the hateful ones.
The founding fathers knew that accurate and relevant information is critical to the democratic process, and citizens can exercise their right to vote wisely only if that information is available, a significant purpose for insuring freedom of speech and a free press.  Unfortunately, the quality of what we hear and read is not always deserving of the precious protection it is given, yet consorship is worse.
The dilemma raised by the level of misinformation and outright lies during political campaigns led Time Magazine to feature "The Fact Wars" as their cover story of the October 3, 2012 issue.  The sad conclusion of their article was that although fact checking is being increasingly done, it seems to be making little difference.  As Neil Newhouse, Romney's pollster infamously said, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."  Researchers have found that voters tend to choose media that support opinions they already hold, and if, by chance, they learn of a misrepresentation by their candidate, they are likely to excuse it.  The article quotes pollster Frank Luntz who said about Americans, "We don't collect news to inform us.  We collect news to affirm us."
The Time article also reported on research that identified "belief echoes," information that sticks in our brains even after a falsehood is corrected.  For that reason, I particularly dislike one political commentator who uses the excuse that he is an entertainer to disclaim any responsibility for the falsehoods he presents as factual during his rants.  His lie, lodged in a listener's brain, may remain longer than the memory of the source, leaving an erroneous "belief echo" planted by a bigoted blowhard.
Michael Scherer's article in Time is a thought-provoking examination of an important issue, and I recommend it.  Another interesting problem was examined at NPR's digital blog concerning whether TV stations should refuse to air political ads that contain verifiable lies.  To protect against censorship, federal law requires candidate ads to be broadcast, so the TV stations have little choice.  However, third-party and super PAC ads are not protected under that law.  Yet, these ads containing verifiable falsehoods blanket viewers.  The comments following this NPR blog are also interesting as people argue the importance of quality information for voters vs. the dangers of censorship.
One of my pet peeves is the pretense of balance by network programing when they put a pair of talking heads side-by-side on the television screen to discuss a topic.  One of the talking heads is well-informed, experienced, and shares a point of view generally held by other individuals in that field of expertise.  The other talking head is a crackpot, ill-informed, with no experience and spouting opinions based on nonsense.  However, the program host is careful to give both talking heads equal time and proper respect, misleading viewers to think that the opinions of both deserve serious consideration.  There are times when reasonable and intelligent people can hold opposing views, but there are also times when two talking heads are one too many!
I like to read all the opinions on the editorial page.  I like to share discussions with people of differing views.  But I also adhere to the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."  Following that adage, there are networks I do not watch and commentators I will run the length of the house to turn off before they plant a false "belief echo" in my brain.
The 1890 political cartoon at the beginning of this post is one of my favorites.  Most of us realize the bias of our favorite newspapers and television shows, and we know that journalistic ethics have changed since Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings delivered the nightly news.  Campaign strategists have now made a profession of fooling the public with statistics from "independent" studies that are no such thing.  Polls and focus groups allow these strategists to know exactly what version of their "facts" will be most persuasive.  And, to be honest, facts seem less and less capable of simple black and white truth or lie, colored into varying shades of grey by complications and contradicting evidence.  Yet, we voters must not be tricked by the wink of the eye and the strategist manipulating the news like a toy monkey.  Elections influenced by sound bites, ads paid for by wealthy special interest groups, and other such tainted information will elect exactly the kind of failed candidates we deserve if we fall for them.  What was true in Isaac's time is true today.  That will never change.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Politics and Wealth in Isaac's Day

What That "Wave of Prosperity" Is Doing

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."  Louis D. Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice (b. 1856 - d. 1941)

Ask most people about the Gilded Age and they will perhaps mention the mansions along 5th Avenue in NYC or the elaborate summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island, or they may recall names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Gould.  What they are unlikely to mention are the factory workers, miners, steel workers, and farmers struggling to survive during an era better known for its extravagant displays of wealth.  This is the era during which Isaac Werner wrote in his journal about farmers who signed mortgages when rain did seem to follow the plow and prices for crops were high, only to face foreclosure and starvation when drought, low prices, and higher interest rates defeated hope and hard work. 
Early America, when industry meant local craftsmen--like blacksmiths, barrel makers, tanners, tinsmiths, and millers, or crafts such as candle making, spinning, weaving, and butchering done at home--changed around the time of the Civil War to a nation of steel mills, factories, and corporations.  The United States male population described by Alexis de Toqueville in 1835 as having "...greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world..." had been replaced in only a few decades by a nation of great economic inequality among men.  Vast wealth brought disproportionate power and political influence.
The Gilded Age was the time during which the populist movement was born.  Farmers like Isaac joined laborers to confront the political influence of the wealthy few with the greater voting strength of the many.  Disproportionate wealth distribution during the Gilded Age is similar to current economic statistics referred to as the 1% vs. the 99%.  However, in Isaac's time government social programs to assist the aged, the disabled, and the unemployed were not available, and people literally starved.  Although the People's Party of Isaac's time failed in its attempt to establish itself as an enduring third party, many of the issues championed by the People's Party were subsequently implemented, including social programs and government regulations upon which Americans now rely. 
If you can afford to buy an election you can afford to pay higher taxes!
Today, the political debate about the disappearing middle class and economic inequity sounds very similar to issues debated during the Gilded Age.  The money pouring in to political ads since the Citizens United case was decided by the US Supreme Court has only made the significance of one citizen's vote more doubtful for some Americans, regardless of party affiliation.  (The  sidewalk graffiti posted on facebook garnered "likes" from friends of all political attitudes.)
One presidential candidate has declared that "Corporations are people too," although the definition in Black's Legal Dictionary states that a corporation is "an artificial person or legal entity created by or under the authority of the laws of a state or nation."  Since the creation of people still requires egg and sperm, an artificial person created under the authority of laws doesn't really have what it takes to be a person!  When our nation was founded the distrust of corporations in England was brought to the new land, and early laws reflected that distrust.  Gradually the laws changed, but current distrust of wealth and corporate influence shares much in common with early attitudes, making many voters feel insignificant within the political process, just as the working classes felt after the Civil War when corporations, trusts and monopolies gained power.
In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt wrote:  "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.  To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day."  In Isaac's time the enemies of the working classes were Monopolists, Trusts, Wall Street, and Speculators, who were resented not only because of their disproportionate wealth but also because they used their wealth politically to gain advantages.
Letting the Little Fellow Think He's Driving--When He Isn't
Maintaining the economic balance to keep the United States a land of opportunity for all of its citizens has been a challenge since its inception, and particularly so after manufacturing and industry expanded beyond small, local producers.  The global marketplace is not new either, although it has certainly changed.  Franklin Roosevelt left a definition for what he believed necessary to a strong and healthy political and economic system:  Equality of opportunity for youth and others; Jobs for those who can work; Security for those who need it; The ending of the special privileges for the few; The preservation of civil liberties for all; and The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living."  FDR was a Democrat, but the goals he enumerated would seem to meet with the approval of most Americans. 
Isaac's generation confronted how to accomplish those goals during the Gilded Age; the often-described Greatest Generation confronted meeting those goals while fighting a world war during the Depression and World War II; and the present generation confronts those same goals today.  The two political cartoons from 1890 seem especially applicable as election day 2012 nears.  Is the "Wave of Prosperity" lifting only some of America's citizens while drowning others, and are some Americans being hoodwinked by the wealthy and powerful to believe they are driving political decisions when they are not?  Are these questions as relevant today as they were in Isaac's time? 

Reading Isaac's journal and researching the era about which he was writing intrigued me with political similiarities to our own.  Then as now, each person's vote mattered.  Political views continue to differ, but everyone still has the same precious right to cast a ballot!
Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.    

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Isaac Builds a School House

Emerson School House, Dist. 33, Stafford County, Kansas

The earliest school in Isaac's community was a soddy, but on New Year's Eve at the close of 1884, neighbors met prior to the bond election to discuss the style and dimensions of a new wooden school house.  On January 3, 1885, Isaac recorded in his journal:  "Great election day voting $500. Bonds district 33 Stafford Co., Kansas for School bonds."  Although women would not have the vote in general elections for many years to come, the Kansas state constitution had given women the right to vote in school elections, and apparently they exercised that right enthusiastically in support of the new Emerson school.
The school board retained contractor David Carnahan to construct the building, and he hired Will Goodwin and Isaac Werner to help him, but it was not until October 13th that Isaac wrote:  "...came round by new school house, Carnahan foundation nearly bricked up, & few loads of lumber on ground, soon all to be got this week & house to go up next week."  During the following days, Isaac recorded his labor at the school house, and on the last day of October, he wrote:  "[E]ve up with wagon to school house got tool chest...," taking some of the leftover building materials in partial payment from Carnahan.  Two weeks later he wrote, "...settled with Carnahan being very near square," and on December 6, 1885, he wrote with satisfaction:  "Yesterday school house building accepted by directors of Carnahan pleased with the job etc.  school to commence to-morrow."  During the remaining years of Isaac's life he attended many community meetings in that building, and he often went there alone to make needed repairs, or as he said, keep it "tidy."  The above picture of the school house Isaac helped build was taken in the early 1900s several years after Isaac's death, showing a neglect of repairs to the siding of which Isaac would have surely disapproved!
The stucco-finished Emerson School House, Dist. 33, Stafford, Co. 

A few years after that picture was taken, the wooden structure that Isaac helped build was replaced by a larger, stucco-finished school with a basement.  My father's older siblings may have attended the wooden school, but my father began school in the newer building.  He is the little boy sitting next to the steps with his chin resting on his hands.  The girl sitting next to him is his cousin, Lucille M. Hall, who bequeathed Isaac's journal to the museum bearing her name, and both she and my father are descendants of George Hall, Isaac's friend.  (My father and Lucille were born only a few days apart, and they were great buddies during childhood and remained close as adults.)
Public school education was a high priority for early settlers, and when farmers began to organize during the hard years of the 1880s and 1890s, education remained a core issue of the populist movement.  One of the books Isaac read during this time was written by Ignatius L. Donnally, a U.S. Congressman from Minnesota and a leader in the populist movement.  Caesar's Column is a novel set in the future, which depicts class warfare between the extremely wealthy and the workers they have reduced to inhuman conditions.  Donnally's book imagines what could happen if the trends of the Gilded Age, with a growing economic gap between the wealthy capitalists, bankers, and industralists and the factory workers, miners, and farmers of the working classes, were allowed to continue. 
In his book, Donnelly depicts the disadvantages of educating the nation's children in separate schools, with children of the wealthy, professional, and managerial classes abandoning public schools.  In the novel, a group of educated survivors escape the cataclysmic class war and establish a utopian community dedicated to avoiding the old world's mistakes.  One of the fictional founders of that utopia describes their education system with these words:
"We abolish all private schools, except the higher institutions and colleges.  We believe it to be essential to the peace and safety of the commonwealth that the children of all the people, rich and poor, should, during the period of growth, associate together.  In this way, race, sectarian and caste prejudices are obliterated, and the whole community grow up together as brethren.  Otherwise, in a generation or two, we shall have the people split up into hostile factions, fenced in by doctrinal bigotries, suspicious of one another, and antogonizing one another in politics, business and everything else." 
Caesar's Column was published in 1890.
Ralph center front right, Lucille behind, & Arthur Beck behind her

 Although Isaac was a bachelor without children of his own, be believed in the importance of supporting education.  Even after the school was built, if Isaac noticed something in need of repair, he fixed it.  For Isaac, public school tax dollars were an investment in our nation's future, unrelated to having children in school.  His efforts built a school for many children who attended Emerson District 33 School, including my own father and the ancestors of countless others.  He did not expect reimbursement for his volunteer repair jobs or the books from his own collection that he donated.  He acted from the belief that communities are better served by educated citizens, and he supported the school with his taxes, his private acts of repair, and his donated books.

Remember:  You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Writer of the Prairie

Red Cloud, Nebraska
"Black Hawk, the new world to which we had come to live, was a clean, well-planned little prairie town, with white fences and good green yards, about the dwellings, wide dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing along the wooden sidewalks.  In the centre of the town there were two rows of new brick 'store' buildings, a brick school-house, the court-house, and four white churches.  Our own house looked down over the town, and from our upstairs windows we could see the winding line of the river bluffs, two miles south of us."  Taken from "My Antonia" 
For Willa Cather fans like me, a visit to Red Cloud, Nebraska, is like a literary Disneyland.  Cather's fictional town of Black Hawk is a stand-in for Red Cloud, for Cather's novels often involve the use of her hometown and the people she knew there.
Red Cloud Opera House
Many of you may remember reading My Antonia in high school.  If you haven't read it, perhaps you should.  If you have, you might consider reading it again.  Just as I often tell Kansas children that they should read L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I believe those of us who love the prairie should read Willa Cather, and My Antonia is a good place to start.
If you live close enough, you may want to include a visit to Red Cloud as part of your Cather experience.  There you can see on the west side of the main street, which is Webster Street, the "new brick store buildings" described by Cather in the paragraph that opened this blog.  In the middle of the row is the Red Cloud Opera House, circa 1885, where Cather attended performances.  The Cather Foundation offices, gallery, bookstore, and auditorium now occupy this wonderful space, with exciting plans underway to expand the facilities.
Silas Garber's bank
During your visit you could go inside the Harling (Miner) House, circa 1878, to see the tiny room where the "hired girl" after whom Cather fashioned the character of Antonia slept.  You could drive out into the country to visit the Pavelka Farm where the "real Antonia" lived with her husband and where they raised the family of children described by the fictional Jim Burden when he visited Antonia as an adult.
You could also see the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank built by Silas Garber, which houses a museum with other memorabilia connected to Antonia.  Garber was the founder of Red Cloud and the 4th governor of Nebraska.  What is significant to Cather fans like me, however, is that Silas and his wife were the prototypes for Captain and Mrs. Forrester in another Cather novel, The Lost Lady.  When I visit Red Cloud, fiction always trumps reality!
Red Cloud Train Depot
My favorite of Cather's novels is O Pioneers! about a woman who takes over the family farm after her father's death.  Cather writes often about the immigrants who claimed homesteads on the Nebraska high prairie, and many of them arrived by train.  Alexandra Bergson is the Swedish heroine of O Pioneers! with whose love for the family farm I identify.  "She had never known before how much the country meant to her.  The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music.  She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun." Many Swedish immigrants, as well as those from other countries, arrived by train, and when she was a child, Cather enjoyed being at the depot.  During your visit to Red Cloud, you could see the original 2-story building that existed in Cather's day.
Willa Cather's childhood home
When young Jim Burden describes the view from the upstairs window in the above quote, Willa Cather was surely thinking of the view from her rented childhood home.  Visitors can now tour her old home, furnished as it would have been when Cather lived there.  The Cather Foundation has recently acquired the home Cather's parents bought in 1903, where Cather spent summers when she came to stay with her family.  It is now possible to stay in the home her parents bought when you visit Red Cloud.
There are many other Cather sights to see in Red Cloud and the surrounding countryside.  We visited the grave of her cousin, upon whom her Pulitzer-winning novel, One of Ours, is based.  Cather was the first woman to receive that award.
If tackling one of her novels seems a little intimidating, I highly recommend her short stories.  Among my favorites are "The Sculptor's Funeral," "Old Mrs. Harris," "A Wagner Matinee," and "Coming, Aphrodite!"  Cather's writing shares in common with another favorite of mine, Harper Lee, the richness of writing about people and places they knew.  What both women write will stay with you, because when you finish their books you feel like you have come to know their characters and have been present in the places described in their books.  Theirs are book to slow down and savor.
Consider going to the library to check out a Cather book, or going online where many of her novels and short stories can be downloaded.  If you find a favorite, or already have one, please leave a comment recommending your favorites to other visitors to this blog.  I hope that at least some of you will join Cather's many fans, including international readers, and soon you will be among those who love to debate which book or short story is her best!
For more information, visit www.willacather.org