Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

Kansas Tumbleweed along Country Road
Driving toward the farm I spotted a magnificent tumbleweed.  Seeing tumbleweeds caught in fences or trapped along roadsides is common in Kansas this time of year, and I drove past this one quite a ways before putting on the brakes.  Cautiously I looked for other cars--not only because I was concerned that someone might hit me as I began backing up but also because I wanted to spare myself the embarrassment of anyone catching me photographing a common weed.  As I moved around the tumbleweed taking pictures, I saw an approaching pickup in the distance, but it turned at the intersection to the east, and I was saved from explaining my reasons for photographing ditch trash.
Isaac's nemesis was not tumbleweeds but rather sunflowers and sandburrs, which he spent hours hoeing around the base of his young trees.  Yet, surely he too saw tumbleweeds rolling across the prairie.
Bottom showing break from root
Interestingly, a tumbleweed is not a particular plant.  The name can be applied to any number of mature, dried plants that pull away from the root to roll and tumble in the wind.  Scientifically these tumbleweeds are diaspora, whose tumbling and rolling habit disperses seeds as they roll.  As anyone who has seen ditches filled with growing tumbleweeds knows, the seeds take root in a wet location, whether dropped as the dry parent weed tumbled or still attached to a plant caught in the ditch.  Among some of the plants called tumbleweeds are Russian thistles, baby's-breath, and plants in the aster family, the legume family, and the mustard family. 
The brown fields and trees in the distance in the photograph to the left are Isaac's homestead and timber claim.
Tumbleweeds--growing and caught in fence
As I continued driving, I photographed this iconic image of two tumbleweeds--one still attached to its root in the sandy soil and the other caught in a barbed wire pasture fence.  In the background is a thicket of sandhill plums.
For many of us, we can't think of tumbleweeds without the melody of a cowboy song running through our minds.  "See them tumbling down, Pledging their love to the ground; Lonely but free I'll be found, Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds..."
You can hear Marty Robbins sing those words at  or enjoy the singing of the Sons of the Pioneers at in a clip from an old Roy Rogers movie.  If these links do not open, go to and enter Marty Robbins + Tumbling Tumbleweeds to hear Marty, and enter Sons of the Pioneers + Tumbling Tumbleweeds to hear the Roy Rogers movie clip.  I'm sorry the links are not working.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Disappearing "reactions"

A note to followers:  I have been disappointed in the reduced number of checks in the boxes beneath each post recently.  However, I have discovered that for reasons unknown to me, the checks you are leaving disappear.  I will continue trying to resolve this problem with the blog host, but please do continue leaving your reactions.  Sometimes I am able to catch a few before they disappear!  I also know that my reply to a comment disappeared, so I hope disappearing comments does not become a problem as well.  I'll keep trying to fix the problem!  I really do appreciate getting your feedback!  In the meantime, I hope you continue to enjoy the blogs!!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Another Echoing Voice

A 1890s political cartoon from the County Capital 
In her speech at Cooper Union Hall in New York City on 11 August 1896, (referenced in last week's blog post, "Echoing Voices from the Past,") Mary Elizabeth Lease spoke the following:  "Once we made it our boast that this nation was not founded upon any class distinction.  But now we are not only buying diamonds for thier wives and daughters and selling our children to titled debauchees, but we are setting aside our Constitution and establishing a gold standard to help the fortunes of our hereditary foe."  This cartoon is a perfect illustration of Mrs. Lease's accusation!

Titled "Fruits of American Plutocracy," the cartoon shows a wealthy American father bestowing his blessings on his daughter's  marriage to a "Foreign Prince," linking his family with the "Nobility."  The dialogue at the bottom of the image reads:

"American Millionaire:  So, Duke, you want my daughter's hand in marriage?
The Duke:  I would give name and honor through her hand.
American Millionaire:  Have you scrofula?  Are you dissipated?  In other words, have you all the contaminations common to noble blood?
The Duke:  I'm afflicted with scrofula, epilepsy, am dissipated, disreputable, and a scoundrel.
American Millionaire:  Take her, then, and may heaven bless my children." 

Mary Elizabeth Lease declared in her Cooper Union speech that "There are two great enemies of thought and progress, the aristocracy of royalty and the aristocracy of gold..."  It is said that George Washington declined when asked to be made King of the United States, and our Declaration of Independence states that "All men are created equal."  Yet, the fairy tale lure of kings and queens, and the romance of a simple girl marrying a handsome prince has appealed to many Americans.  Magazines with photographs of William and Kate on their covers sell well, and many Americans wept for the death of William's mother, Princess Diana.
Nothing offers greater proof of Americans' fascination with English nobility than the current popularity of the television series, "Downton Abbey."  Consider its plot.  Downton Abbey has fallen into financial distress, so the young male heir, Lord Grantham, marries Cora Levinson, the daughter of a wealthy American, in order to save the estate! 
Obviously, not all of us share the scorn of Mary Elizabeth Lease as we tune in each week during the all-to-brief season to watch the lives of the Crawley family and wistfully long to see what is going to happen to them as we wait for the months to pass until the next season begins.  For those of us who admit to being fans of that show, we shouldn't be too critical of the Plutocrat in the cartoon who wants to be aligned with the nobility through the marriage of his daughter to a Duke!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Echoing Voices from the Past

Political cartoon from the 1890s
"They say this question is so deep that the common people are not fit to decide it.  They say 'leave it to the financiers.'  We have left it to them too long, and while we have been sinking into bankruptcy our financiers have been growing millionaires."  Mary Elizabeth Lease from her speech of 11 August 1896 to a mass meeting at Cooper Union Hall, New York City
When I began my blog, the first post was titled:  I Love History.  I wrote, "It gives us such a road map of achievements to emulate and mistakes to avoid.  When I am discouraged by things happening in the world in which I live, I am heartened by reading history.  If they made such a mess of things--and they often did--and their world survived, then perhaps our own mixed-up world can survive the problems we have created."  (You may read that blog in the archives at 3 January 2012.)
One of the reasons I decided to write a book about Isaac B. Werner, his community, and the People's Party movement of the late 1800s was that I saw so many similarities with our own times.  In particular, they were going through a time of great disparity between average working people and the wealthy corporate tycoons, railroad magnates, and Wall Street speculators.  When you began reading the words quoted at the beginning of this blog, did you initially realize they were spoken over a century ago?
This past week I read through the Forbes list of America's 100 most highly compensated CEOs of 2012, and it reminded me of the complaints made by laborers during the late 1800s, who called themselves "Wage Slaves." Today's wage earners might share some of the same feelings when they compare CEO compensation with their hourly wages.  Forbes reported that the most highly compensated CEO in 2012 was John H. Hammergren, who received 131.19 million dollars, (including salary, bonus,"other" and stock gains)!  Some of the names on the list might be more familiar to you:  Ralph Lauren, who received 66.65 million dollars, and Howard D. Schultz of Starbucks, who received 41.47 million dollars.  (To read the full list of CEO Compensation for 2012 visit
A political cartoon from the 1890s
Contrast those CEO compensation numbers with the current minimum wage standards in the U.S.  An employee earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would make $15,000 a year, which would put him $7,000 below the federally defined poverty line.  The minimum wage for employees who derive part of their income from tips is only $2.13.
A little bit of math will offer the following comparison between Mr. Hammergren's earnings and those of a minimum wage worker.  At $7.25 an hour the weekly wage for a 40 hour work week is $290, but Mr. Hammergren makes $2,522,884.61 a week, although I don't really know how many hours he works.  Assuming a 40 hour work week for Mr. Hammergren, he makes $60,572.11 an hour--more or less.  Of course, Mr. Hammergren's compensation is extraordinary, even among his corporate peers.

In the USA Today article published March 28, 2013, "Back in the high (pay) life again," the authors' observed, "[B]ig raises continue even as many companies are laying off employees."  Even CEO Eleanor Bloxham is quoted as admitting, "The continual disconnect between CEO and worker pay is just creating more of a gulf."  ("Special Report:  CEO Compensation," Matt Krantz and Barbara Hansen, B1-2)  Several news sources published reports on this topic, and rankings of the highest paid executives varied, perhaps because compensation often includes such a variety of "other" benefits, such as use of corporate jets and other "perks", as well as stock options and bonuses.  
In her 1896 speech at Cooper Union Hall, Mrs. Lease deplored such extremes of compensation in a nation which was formed to avoid an aristocracy among its citizens.  She said, "But here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth.  Far more dangerous to the race is it than the aristocracy of royalty.  It is the aristocracy of gold that disintegrates society, destroys individuals and has ruined the proudest nations."
A political cartoon from the 1890s
The political cartoons published in the County Capital to which Isaac subscribed and whose editor was a friend illustrate the themes of Mrs. Lease's speech.  The "Golden Empire" stresses the greed of capitalists growing fat by reducing wages to allow workers barely enough to purchase clothing, food, and lodging, often making those purchases at company stores so that their wages were little more than "tickets."  The cartoon with Columbia, as a symbol of the nation, attempting to awaken feelings for the suffering of a poor family in a man clutching his bags of money is an obvious illustration of the disparity in wealth and the difficulty in bridging mutual understanding across the chasm that separates their very different lives and opportunities.  The cartoon showing a group of wealthy Wall Street men sitting on their money is especially reminescent of recent criticism of banks to whom taxpayer money was given in 2007 to avoid a national financial collapse who chose to sit on the loaned assets from taxpayers rather than putting it in circulation to speed the recovery.  The political cartoons I have posted have been particularly popular with visitors in the past, and these three seem to me good examples that we have much in common with the concerns of our ancestors. 
The United States has always been a nation that admires success and that believes in the possibility for anyone to work hard and build a better life for him- or herself.  We do not condemn the successful for the money they have earned through their hard work and clever ideas.  Yet, as these cartoons show, our nation has long struggled with the difficulties of preserving the American dream for everyone without allowing a disparity between the fortunate and the unfortunate to mock the idea of this country as a land of opportunity for all its citizens.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Isaac's Neighbors Leave their Homestead

Early leaders & structures of Trinidad, Colorado
I love the comment left last week by a regular visitor to my blog.  He wrote:  "Threads from Isaac's life can lead you anywhere."  Recently, following one of Isaac's threads led me to Las Animas County, Colorado!

Harry Bentley and his family moved into the quarter section just to the east of Isaac's homestead, and they became friends.  Financial difficulties caused the Bentleys to leave their claim, and they settled in Bent County, not far from Las Animas County.  It was not a happy move for them, apparently the result of co-signing a loan for someone else who defaulted on the debt.  On April 25, 1888, Isaac recorded in his journal, "Mrs. Bentley talking of staying on her place and trying to get her team back."  While the Bentley's did not lose their land, some of their personal property was seized, including the team.  Two days later Isaac wrote, "Mrs. Bentley about to rent her place..." and on May 11, 1888 he documented, "Mrs. Bentley started to St. John with 2 loads of goods for Las Animas, Colorado."

Memorial to Coal Miners
Although Isaac and Harry had worked together when they were neighbors, after the family moved it was Mrs. Bentley with whom Isaac corresponded, keeping an eye on the tenant to whom the Bentleys had rented their house and communicating with her about the Bentley's share of the crops raised on their land.

Naturally I was curious about the region to which they moved.  They chose the town of Las Animas in Bent County, not far from the town of Trinidad in Las Animas County. It is the largest county in Colorado, 4,798 square miles in size, which makes it nearly as large as the state of Connecticut.  Its present population is about 15,000, leaving a great deal of empty land in the county.  It is easy to confuse the location with the town called Las Animas, the county seat of Bent County, Colorado, located in the same region of southeast Colorado.  It is the only town in Bent County,  current population 2,410.)

Memorial to Coal Miners
At the time the Bentleys arrived in the region, Trinidad was a prosperous county seat, the economy fueled not by farming and ranching but rather by coal mining.  The semi-arid land in southeast Colorado had initially attracted open range ranchers, but as homesteaders staked claims and built fences, agriculture increased and grazing of the open range receded.  Just as the Kansas farmers suffered from drought, lack of rainfall caused farms to fail in southeast Colorado.  It seemed that the Bentleys had moved from the frying pan into the fire when they left Stafford County, Kansas for southeast Colorado.

Trinity History Museum with Baca Mansion upper right
The region has an interesting history, with familiar Western names like Kit Carson and William Bent, but the settlement that became Trinidad has its roots in a group of 12 families who followed Felipe and Dolores Baca to Purgatoire Valley.  In 1870 John Hough established the mercantile firm of Prowers & Hough, and using Hispanic adobe construction techniques he had workers build a home of English design for his wife Mary, and their two daughters.  Three years later he sold the house to Felipe and Dolores Baca, and it is now the Baca House of the Trinidad History Museum.

Bloom Mansion to left of Museum
The town also prospered because it was the gateway over Raton Pass, and Trinidad was officially incorporated in 1876, a few months before Colorado became a state.  The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1878 and completed the rail line to Santa Fe in 1880.  In 1882 a merchant, banker, and cattle baron named Frank Bloom built a Victorian mansion with his wife Sarah, and Bat Masterson was the town marshall.

By the time the Bentleys arrived in the region in 1888, Trinidad was a beautiful Victorian town, and my husband and I strolled the streets in search of buildings that would have existed at that time.  

The Opera House
In 1890 the Bentleys left southeast Colorado, as Isaac recorded in his journal:  "Eve[ning] got letter from Mrs. Bentley now living in Salt Lake City, answered same."

Photo of KS farm displayed in Trinidad, CO

As my husband and I looked into historical displays in Victorian store fronts along the old main street of Trinidad, thinking of the Bentleys and their pilgrimage from Stafford County to Colorado, we were in for another surprise.  Looking at an old photograph in one window's display I was shocked to read the caption:  "Summer time wheat harvest at the Bert Aultman farm outside Macksville, Kansas in 1911."  How did that photograph end up in Trinidad, Colorado?!  Did other Stafford County residents from the 1880s and 1890s migrate to Las Animas County?  Can anyone solve this mystery for me by identifying Bert Aultman or sharing the names of others from the town a few miles from Isaac's homestead who might have gone to Trinidad or who might have known someone there with whom they shared the photograph?  (On the NE corner of Main & Commercial is the Aultman Photography Studio where a father and son recorded Trinidad life, but the link to Bert Aultman in Kansas, assuming there is a link, is currently unknown.)  Please leave a comment, send an e-mail to me at, or go to my Lynda Beck Fenwick facebook page to help me solve this mystery.

Children's Museum
The building in the center of this photograph is Trinidad's 1st City Building, which housed city hall, the firehouse, and the jail.  It is now a children's museum.  Although Trinidad is no longer enjoying the hey days of the late 1800s, it is regarded as among the best examples of Victorian commercial buildings to be seen, and it is easy to imagine what it must have been like if the Bentleys strolled the streets.

(Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.  To read more about the early days of Trinidad, Colorado go to )