Thursday, June 27, 2013

Isaac & the Sunflowers--Part 1

Isaac loved the beauty of wild flowers spreading color across the prairie each spring.  He loved the fragrance of the catalpa blossoms and looked forward to the blooming sand hill plums.  (See blog archives for "Isaac's Catalpa Trees," May 30, 2012, and "Sandhill Plums," March 1, 2012.)  As for sunflowers, however, his feelings were directed toward their tendency to rob soil moisture from his crops, and he devoted his time to hoeing and plowing them rather than admiring their beauty. 
Sunflowers are native to the Americas and were used by many indigenous people long before Europeans arrived.  Not only were the flowers planted in their gardens, along with the traditional corn, beans, and squash, but sunflowers also served as the symbol for their solar deity.  The early Spanish explorers found sunflowers growing in the New World and took the seeds back to Europe.
Among the countless newspaper clippings saved by my mother-in-law (mostly weddings, births, and obituaries) were two news stories from 1977 about Kansas farmers experimenting with commercial fields of sunflowers.  The Kansas Farm Bureau News reported that Pratt County farmer, Verlin Killingsworth had tried his first field, hoping for 3,000 pounds per acre, anticipating 2,500, and actually harvesting between 900 and 950.  The crop suffered hail and head moth, but Killingsworth was "disappointed with the yield but not discouraged."  Under the headline, "Farmers hope state flower will turn into moneymaker," the Hutchinson News reported that farmers were turning to sunflowers because of "low wheat prices and a dry year."  The article quoted Professor Stegmeyer of Fort Hays State University as saying "about 50 percent of the sunflower crop grown in the United States is exported to Europe."  Nearly four decades later, the Kansas State University Research & Extension website reports that there are currently about 250,000 acres of commercial sunflowers grown in Kansas.
Today, commercial sunflowers are grown across the plains, from North Dakota and Minnesota to Texas, but they are also grown in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, according to the Texas A&M University Research & Extension Center.  The seeds are marketed for human snacks and bird seed, and planted by hunters to provide a food plot for wild birds.  A high quality vegetable oil can be extracted, and the resulting meal can be utilized as a protein source in livestock feed.  Even the fibrous stems can be used in paper production.  Many of today's sunflowers are hybrid varieties, and yields on dryland fields range between 1000 to 1400 pounds per acre, increasing about 50% in irrigated fields.
Florets in the head of a Sunflower
By now you may be wondering why I used the mesmerizing graphic at the beginning of this blog.  The answer is that it illustrates the pattern of florets in the head of a sunflower.  What we call the flower is actually a "flower head," also called a "composite flower."  The circular head contains hundreds of the disc florets that mature into seeds, and these florets are always arranged in a spiral pattern.  The mathematical model for this pattern was proposed by H. Vogel in 1979 and the illustration is a computer graphic of his formula.  The spiral pattern can also be clearly seen in the close-up photograph of the sunflower at the left.
Isaac and the Sunflowers--Part 2 to be continued next week...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How Far is Gettysburg?

Monument at Gettysburg Cemetery
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is less than one hundred miles from Isaac's hometown of Wernersville, Pennsylvania, the village founded by William Werner, Isaac's father.  (To read more about Isaac's hometown and childhood, go to the blog archives to read "Visit to Wernersville, Feb. 16, 2012; Isaac's Birth & Childhood, Nov. 4, 2011; Isaac's Childhood Church, Feb. 23, 2012.)  Today the distance can be driven in well under two hours, but at the time of the American Civil War, when Isaac and his twin brother Henry were still in their teens, the trip through rugged country would have taken much longer. 
Pennsylvania was a Union state, and during the Civil War the commonwealth raised over 360,000 soldiers for the Federal armies, more than any other state except New York, although other states sent a larger proportion of their populations.  Thaddeus Stevens, the senator who played such a pivotal role in the recent movie, "Lincoln," was from Pennsylvania, as were several well-known generals.
The map shows the division of states during the Civil War, the Union states indicated in dark blue, the Union states that permitted slavery (so-called 'Border States') in light blue, and the Confederate states in red.  Territories at the time of the War are shown in white.  Yet, lines drawn on a map do not always tell the entire story.  Sympathies of individuals did not always align with those of the states in which they lived, and Pennsylvania was no different from other states in that regard.  In addition, there were many who preferred to avoid military service entirely, if that could be managed.

The exhibit that greets visitors as they enter the Gettysburg Museum lists all the states and the numbers of soldiers that fought from each state.  Each state lists both Union and Confederate soldiers, and it surprises most visitors that large numbers of men and boys chose to disregard the state alignments to serve, instead, the side with whom they agreed.
In 1861, when Isaac and his brother Henry were 17-year-old school boys in Wernersville, PA, their teacher was a man named Francis Trout Hoover.  Almost three and a half decades later, their old teacher published a book titled, Enemies in the Rear:  Or, a Golden Circle Squared.  A Story of Southeastern Pennsylvania in the Time of Our Civil War.  This book is a fictionalized account of the division of loyalties among citizens in the fictional village of Haltfest, located in Berks County, PA; however, most believe that Haltfest is a pseudonym for Wernersville.  By the time the book was published, F. T. Hoover lived in Rushville, NY and Isaac was deceased and could not have read his former teacher's book.
Statue at the Gettysburg Visitors' Center
In the Preface, F. T. Hoover began his story about draft dodgers and active Southern sympathizers with these words:  "To square the circle, that is, to determine its exact contents in square measure, has generally been held to be impossible; but, as herein appears, the national government solved the famous problem perfectly, at least so far as it related to the Golden Circle of Knights in southeastern Pennsylvania.  And the solution showed the exact contents of this particular Circle to be an admixture, in about equal parts, of ignorance, hypocrisy and treason." 
As can be deduced from that beginning, F. T. Hoover did not treat his old village and its citizens in a complimentary way in his book.  People still living at the time of the book's publication, who were personally familiar with the events of their community during the Civil War, recognized specific characters, despite their fictitious names.  While they said that some of Hoover's story was pure fiction, they admitted that much of it was true.  So true, in fact, that someone wrote a book identifying the real people masked in the story by pseudonyms.  According to a local historian, copies of that book are rare, most having been destroyed by people who did not want their family names identified!
Canon at Gettysburg Battlefield
F.T. Hoover says in the Preface:  "...during the war the agitation and conflict were not all confined to the army and navy, the capital and the great cities.  Remote districts and obscure country places also felt the great movements and were stirred, though of course in a smaller degree.  And that in such localities many thrilling episodes occurred we can readily believe if we will but remember that in those days there were enrolling officers, drafts, and Knights of the Golden Circle." 
We tend to look back at history and see things in precise terms--the Union and the Confederacy.  Yet, then as now things are rarely so sharply defined.  The opinions and actions of some people fit the extremes of inflexible black and white, but experience shows that the opinions and attitudes of most people fall in shades of gray rather than absolutes.

The pain and suffering of the Civil War were the result of Americans thinking they could not work
together to resolve disagreements.  Enough Americans believed the differences were so great that the nation should be divided, but President Lincoln never believed that the South had the legal right to secede.  The flag of the United States from 1861-1863 retained all its stars throughout the war, adding a new star for the state of West Virginia.  The Union was preserved.

Francis Trout Hoover wrote his book "to deepen the interest of the present generation in the history" so that we would never again fall into the trap of Ignorance, Hypocrisy, and Treason.  I would add a fourth danger, warning us never to succumb to the arrogance of believing our generation is smarter than the Founding Fathers and over 200 years of history.

(If you wish to read Francis Trout Hoover's book, Enemies in the Rear:  Or, a Golden Circle Squared," about this little known slice of history during the Civil War, you can find several publishers of F.T. Hoover's novel in the form of 'books on demand' at 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

More Orphan Train Stories

An Orphan Train
A little girl stood on a train platform with a group of other children, managing to position herself close to two younger boys.  Adults milled around the children, resembling nothing more than shoppers selecting merchandise.  In a way, they actually were shopping, for the children had just disembarked from an orphan train and the adults were prospective guardians, deciding which children they wished to select.  Because farm families often had in mind gaining help on their farms, boys were often selected first, and the two little boys standing near that girl were quickly chosen.  The adults who had come to look the children over were beginning to wander away, and the chaperones were directing the children who had not been chosen back to the train, preparing to resume the journey to other towns where potential foster parents might be waiting.
Robert Morgan & Lyn with portrait of the Reed children
Suddenly the little girl burst out of the group of children being urged back on the train.  She grabbed the hands of the two little boys near whom she had positioned herself and refused to let them go.  Although she was only eight years old, she felt responsible for her little brothers, for the rest of their family had drowned in Lake Ontario when their wagon broke through the ice on which they were crossing the frozen lake.  She refused to release her brothers' hands, insisting that the three of them were not going to be separated by distance, even if they were selected by different families in the same town.  If no one in the town were willing to take her, then all three of them were getting back on the train.
Display at Orphan Train Museum
The family who had chosen her youngest brother, Howard, who was only three, finally committed to take her, not for themselves but rather to be responsible for finding a family for her.  It was through the determination of this 8-year-old girl that the three Reed siblings remained in close enough proximity that they did not lose touch with one another, as so many other siblings did when they were separated while riding the orphan trains.
Morgan-Dowell Research Center
This story was told to me by Robert Morgan, the son of little Clara Reed, who kept her family together the best that she could.  The three-year-old brother was adopted by the Dowell family, and the generosity of descendants of these three children resulted in the building of the Morgan-Dowell Research Center adjacent to the Orphan Train Museum. 
My husband and I traveled to Concordia for the 2013 Orphan Train & Depot Days Celebration.  After registering, we had a delicious lunch at Jitters Coffee House and visited a music store and an antique shop before returning to the Orphan Train Complex to hear Friday afternoon's speaker, Doug Brush, author of "Northern KS Div'n MO Pacific Lines, Originally Cent. Branch Union Pacific RR."  Later, we visited the museum before enjoying Heavy's BBQ prior to attending a concert in the park by NCK Jazz Band, a pleasant ending to our day.
Speakers' panel at 2013 Orphan Train Celebration  
Saturday morning I was honored to be asked to join the speakers' panel which included, from left:  descendant Shirley Andrews, writer & early keeper of orphan train history Evelyn Trickel, descendant Robert Morgan, descendant Margaret Webb, myself, and moderator Holly Andrews.  I shared Shirley Jorns Fast's story contributed as a comment to my blog of 1/31/2013 about the Orphan Trains, and the audience appreciated it very much.  Thank you, Shirley!  (You may also visit my blog of 2/2/2013 for more orphan stories shared by followers of my blog.)
Descendants of Howard & Nora Reed Dowell
Last year was the first year that no riders attended the celebration.  Most of the riders are now deceased or have reached the age when travel is challenging.  However, many descendants of riders were in attendance.  At Saturday's luncheon I met the descendants of  Howard Reed Dowell, the little brother of Clara and James Reed.  Those descendants graciously posed for a family photograph:  the orphan rider's son, Harold Reed Dowell, 2nd from left; grandson, Donald Reed Dowell, far right; great grandchildren, Nicholas & Kim,  far left and holding little Nora.  Howard took the surname of his adoptive parents, but he retained his original surname of Reed as his middle name, and the men in the family have continued the use of Reed as their middle names.  Nora carries on the name of Howard's wife, her great-great grandmother.  (Another great-great-grandchild, Nicholas' son Easton Reed Dowell, was not present.)
Sculptures outside museum donated by Mr. & Mrs. R. Morgan
Board President Susan Sutton, other members of the Board, Curator Amanda Wahlmeier, staff, volunteers, descendants and their families, and people of Concordia that we met made us feel very welcome.  Thank you to everyone.  I urge anyone who reads this to consider a visit to Concordia, especially on a Tuesday-Saturday when the Orphan Train Museum  is open. 

Whether Isaac ever met someone who came West on an Orphan Train I do not know.  I do know that many children were brought to IL and KS, states where he lived, so it is possible that he knew a family that adopted a child from an orphan train.  If you know stories about orphan train riders, please share them with me.  I would especially love to know if any children came to Stafford County, Kansas!

Imagine parting at the depot to start a new life in a strange place with strangers

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Keeping a Journal

Title page from Isaac's journal
The spring of 2010 I found Isaac's journal and began the experience that has formed the basis of this blog.  One of my earliest posts described that discovery.  (See "Finding Isaac's Journal" in the blog archives, October 23, 2011.)  Isaac began the journal that forms the core of my manuscript in 1870, as a young druggist in his mid-20s living in Rossville, IL, but journaling was apparently something he had done most of his life, for that journal is labeled Vol. 5th.  Following an interruption in 1871, Isaac resumed his journal writing in 1884 and continued filling 480 pages of closely written daily entries until 1891.

Working with Isaac's journal--reading, transcribing, annotating, and eventually writing my manuscript about him, his community, and the period about which he wrote, I came to see Isaac as someone I knew very well.  However, most journals are meant to be private, and probably Isaac could never have imagined someone like me devoting months and years to his journal as I have.

People keep diaries and journals for different reasons.  Computer journals are now quite popular.  In my October 23, 2011 blog I describe the influence of Henry Ward Beecher on Isaac's method of journaling, an influence that changed Isaac from his youthful style of expressing his opinions and judgments of others to the more restrained style of his middle age.

Why do people keep journals?  In her book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion examines that question in an essay, "On Keeping a Notebook."  She writes:  "The impulse to write things down is a compulsive one, inexplainable to those who do not share it.  ... Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant, rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."

Since I have intermittently kept journals during my life, I read her words with a personal interest.  Am I lonely, an anxious malcontent, a rearranger of things?  I think not.  The diary I kept in high school would have satisfied Rev. Beecher's suggestion that I should describe what I did each day, people I saw, and events in the community, although I don't believe I included the weather, as Beecher suggested, and I'm quite sure my teenaged activities would have bored anyone but me.

Joan Didion offers the best reason for consistently keeping a journal:  "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not."  If I had the courage to confront my teenaged self, it might be interesting to see who I was so long ago.  I hope I would like that young girl, but I doubt that I would recognize her as myself!

Isaac's Journal
Was Isaac Werner lonely and resistant?  Yes, I believe he was.  Was he an anxious malcontent?  Well, he was often impatient of those he found unwilling to learn, lazy about their work, and neglectful of their commitments, but after venting his annoyance in his journal he was more likely to launch a campaign of educating, lecturing, or organizing than he was to indulge in anxious discontent. The 1800s were an era when many people kept journals, so perhaps their motives were different from Didion's assessment of modern journal keepers. 

I have a friend who writes letters to those who have angered or hurt her, expressing her feelings without restraint.  It helps calm her own emotions, although the person to whom the letter is addressed never knows how my friend felt, for once the letter is complete, my friend destroys it.  Sometimes, I believe that was what Isaac accomplished with his journal entries, although he did not destroy what he had written when he finished.

My journaling is the way I reflect on matters that concern or interest me.  I keep a review of every book I read.  It is very structured, opening with a section in which I identify Setting, Plot, Characters, and Theme.  That is followed with a section in which I analyze the writing itself under headings titled Literary Techniques and Structure & Style.  Next comes a section titled My Comments, concluding with the final section, Favorite Quotes.  I have often finished books still wondering why a particular book is considered a classic or was praised by reviewers.  By forcing myself to write the review and complete all the sections, I reflect more thoroughly on what I read and discover themes and symbols and richness in the writing that the original reading of the book had missed.

I have also taken issues that concern me and spent weeks or months researching, studying, and journaling to reach an informed personal judgment about the topic.  In other words, I tend to journal as a way of thinking deeply about a subject.  I think Isaac also used his journal to think through ideas he was considering, although he generally left the emotions out of what he wrote after falling under the influence of Rev. Beecher. (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," Dec. 7, 2012, in my blog archives.)

While reflecting on Isaac's journal and why he wrote daily for so many years, I encountered a quote written by Virginia Woolf in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Woolf wrote:  "Since the only test of truth is length of life, and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.  Buildings fall; even the earth perishes.  What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow.  But words, if properly used, seem able to live forever."  (I found this quote in a wonderful website at

Isaac's house and the school house he helped to build are gone.  Nearly all of the trees he tended with such devotion have died or been bulldozed to make way for crops.  Even the pinnacle hill he climbed to watch fireworks in distant towns has been carved away until it is now no higher than many other hills nearby.  What remains are Isaac's words--those published in newspapers and those written in his journal.  But for the words he wrote, Isaac and his deeds would be forgotten.  They are his truth.