Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

One Thanksgiving morning during the years of drought and low prices for crops, Isaac wrote in his journal that he didn't see many signs of celebration in his community, adding that 'people didn't have much to be thankful for' in those hard times.  As negative as that comment sounds, Isaac never lost his belief that conditions would improve, and he continued to work politically and agriculturally with his neighbors to make things better.  Despite his severe medical problems the last years of his life, by the time of his death he had managed to pay off his debts.  Things had improved for Isaac and his neighbors.
As I type this blog, I am sitting in a house built by one of the neighbors who went through those hard times with Isaac.  My great grandparents, Aaron and Susan Beck, raised their two children in this community.  Susan built this house with her son, Royal, who brought his bride, Lillian Hall, to this house when they married.  Six of their seven children were born in this house, including my father.  (Only their last child was born in a hospital.)  After my grandfather's stroke, my parents returned to spend the rest of their married life together in this house, where my brother and I were raised. 
When I began transcribing Isaac Werner's journal, I had no idea that he had known three sets of my great grandparents.  Because of the renaming of this township, I had mistakenly thought Isaac's claims were located in the present Clear Creek Township to the west of my ancestral home.  My interest in Isaac was strictly historical.  Only later did I learn of the personal links I share with Isaac.  However, I am especially thankful that Isaac has led me to discover so much about the history of my community and the significant role Kansas played in American history during the late 1800s.
It must be obvious to those of you who have followed my blog that I am a great believer in the importance of history and traditions in our culture, teaching each new generation respect for those who came before them and sharing the wisdom gained from the past.  I believe when modern generations are unaware of history and traditions there is not only educational ignorance but also character deficiency.  James Fennimore Cooper said:  "The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity."  Likewise, I would say that a society that ignores its past history and traditions through neglect or arrogance cheats itself of the benefits of its rich heritage.
I am particularly thankful for my roots in this community and for my awareness of people who struggled to build the world into which I was born.  Living in this ancestral house has made me sentimental about not only its history but also the flotsam of everyday things left behind by former residents.  (See "Isaac's Efforts...", 11/14/13; "Susan's Album," 3/21/13; "Disappearing Traces of the Past," 12/23/11).  I must constantly work to clear away, bit-by-bit, some of that memorabilia they have left behind.  This week's images are from a card and program saved by my mother-in-law, Irene.  She would be surprised to know that these images are being passed along for others to enjoy so many years later!
I want to close by thanking those who have followed my blog and who have supported and encouraged me throughout the researching and writing of my manuscript.  I am grateful for your interest and enthusiasm.  May you have a Happy Thanksgiving and a joyous holiday season in the coming weeks!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Prairie Fires

I will never forget the night my husband and I were driving back to my parents' farm from an evening in Macksville when we noticed a strange orange glow on the southern horizon.  My father knew at once what it was.  "Someone's place is on fire," he said, as he headed the car in the direction of the orange glow.  Although he drove as fast as possible on the dirt roads, by the time we arrived, others were there ahead of us.  Some were stretching hoses toward the burning barn of Leroy and Dutch, while others filled every container they could find with water from stock tanks and hydrants, slopping half of it out as they ran toward the blaze to throw what was left on the fire before running back for more.  It was quickly obvious that garden hoses and pails of water could not put out the roaring fire that had summoned everyone with flames reaching into the night sky.  Attention was turned to stopping the spread of the fire to other outbuildings and the house, and neighbors succeeded in doing that.  As I recall, the owners were away from home on vacation, and had neighbors not arrived to fight the fire, far more could have been lost.
Prairie Fire East of Isaac Werner's Land! 
The idea of neighbors joining together to fight a fire on someone else's property is as old as the settlement of the prairie.  Isaac wrote in his journal:  "Green & I helped fight fire on old George Henn's 1/4 section, got it finally subdued.  Some 18 men out and several teams, fire originating somewhere from new school house site, through some carelessness."  On the prairie there was no fire department to call.  Instead, neighbors depended on each other.  "Another reckless fire hot to drift down from N. of creek through Vosburghs pasture & burning over Persis two claims.  We--Harry [Bentley], F. Curtis, W. Goodwin & Gus [Gereke] over there plowing and back firing on W. side of Persis timber strip & finally got things safe."
Burned field in Background 
Isaac seemed to feel that both of those fires were the result of human carelessness.  In the early years, migrating settlers passing through and leaving embers from their campfires were a particular problem.  Occasionally the cause was a household source, as Isaac described of a close neighbor's fire:  "Yesterday [Jesse] Green's stable yard & roof of stable burned up, caught from stove pipe during noon."  Isaac was particularly critical of those who burned off pastures when conditions were too dry, or who thought a single rainfall had soaked dry grass adequately to allow safe burning nearby.  The arrival of railroads on the prairie was another source of fires caused by man, as sparks from the engines often ignited dry grass along the tracks.
Tracks through the Burned Field
However, prairie fires had occurred before the land was settled.  Lightning was the natural cause of those fires, and the population of the plains did not decrease that possibility, especially with so much unbroken prairie sod providing dry grass to ignite.  The reason there were no trees on the prairie when the settlers arrived was not because the land would not support the growth of trees, but rather because of fires that raced across the prairie, burning every sprouting tree whose seed had germinated in the prairie soil.   
Today there are local fire stations in rural communities and small towns to help put out fires, if they arrive in time and if the strong prairie winds aren't driving the flames along too rapidly to control.  Many farmers now burn stubble intentionally, a practice that frightens me just as the prairie fires frightened Isaac.  Most of the time the farmers only burn when the air is calm and equipment is standing by to control the spread of the flames, and the real danger often occurs when the fire appears to be out but hidden embers come alive later as winds pick up speed.  Fields left idle for conservation are also burned to minimize weeds and encourage new growth.
One evening my husband and I were returning home just after sunset, and a controlled burn lit the nearby horizon, a row of trees between us and the flames.  The dark silhouette of the trees in front of the orange and purple flames twisting and dancing skyward became the image for my manuscript's description of the real prairie fire Isaac watched as it traveled just to the west of my great grandfather Aaron Beck's homestead and timber claim

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Isaac's Efforts to Extend a Helping Hand

Political Cartoon from the County Capital


The hardships of the late 1800s in agricultural regions are difficult for today's Americans to imagine.  Farmers were grinding up the grain they had put aside for the next planting season's seed, mixing it with water to feed their starving children.  Isaac Werner wrote to the presidents of the surrounding Farmers' Alliances, urging that funds be collected from members to provide assistance to their most desperate neighbors, but nearly everyone was struggling just to care for their own families and to survive long enough to raise the next year's crops.  There were few places to turn for help, although counties did have limited funds for the most desperate.  (Click on cartoon to enlarge.)
Groups of these desperate men organized marches, headed for Washington, D.C. to ask for help, but many of these marches failed because the participants were too weak to walk the distance and too lacking in funds to provide food for the walkers.  A wealthy man named Jacob Coxey subsidized a march, which he called the Army of the Commonweal in Christ but which newspapers generally referred to as Coxey's Army.  Because of his financial ability to provide food and organization, Coxey and a portion of his men reached the nation's capital to ask for jobs.  They were desperately poor, not lazy beggars asking for a handout.  However, they were barred from entering the capital and Coxey and another man were arrested for walking on the grass, their pleas for work essentially ignored.
Shovel handle
Today, most Americans take for granted the social safety nets funded by the government.  We cannot imagine a time when a young married couple would have committed suicide as she was in labor with their first child, slashing their own throats because they were starving and felt they had no place to turn.  Yet, this story was reported in the County Capital to which Isaac subscribed.  Many of our current social programs now offering the assistance this young couple did not have are rooted in the political goals of the People's Party of the 1890s.
During another economic period of unemployment and widespread hardship in America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an order which led to the creation of the Works Progress Administration, later called the Works Projects Administration.  He entrusted its specific shaping to his close adviser, Harry Hopkins, and it is considered the most ambitious undertaking of the New Deal.
Old WPA shovel
Recently my husband and I were cleaning out our garage, and I took the responsibility of going through my father's old tools, cleaning them and oiling the dry wooden handles and rusty metal blades.  As I applied oil to one especially dry shovel handle, I noticed something carved into the wood.  My father often marked his tools, so as not to get them mixed up when he was working with  neighbors.  I assumed that the initials were his, until I realized that the letters were actually WPA.  When I finished with the handle and began working on the metal part of the shovel, I discovered WPA engraved into the corner of the blade. 
Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA provided employment for millions, paying wages consistent with the region in which the jobs were offered.  Hours were limited, and workers did not get rich--but they survived.  In addition, things like roads, government buildings, conservation projects, and public health projects benefitted citizens.  In the arts, musicians, actors, artists, and writers found work through the WPA.
Bottom right corner of blade see WPA
It was the approach of W.W. II and the need for employees in the war effort that diminished the need for the WPA, and Congress ended the Administration in 1943.  While it helped many Americans, it was subjected to some of the same criticisms heard today regarding our present forms of government assistance.  False and exaggerated reports were circulated about the excessive waste, and one congressman called the WPA a "seedbed for communists."  Complaints were made about politics having more to do with the distribution of projects and funding allotments than the needs of citizens in those regions.  And, just as today, needy workers were often viewed as being in their situation because they were lazy.  Even Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird reflects that sort of criticism when a local loafer is described as "the only person fired from the WPA for laziness."
Close-up of engraved WPA
I do not know how the WPA shovel came to be among my father's tools.  In 1935 my father would have been twenty years old, and I do know that tree belts to control wind erosion of the loose sandy loam soil were planted in our area, including one just north of my family's hereditary home.  Could that have been a WPA project?  Whether my father or anyone else in his family worked for the WPA or whether the shovel I discovered ended up in his possession in some other way, I do not know.
What I do know is that farmers of Isaac's time who couldn't feed their families wanted work, not handouts, and the political goals of the People's Party included government work programs in their political platforms.  Many progressive programs that have been implemented over the years have their inceptions in these People's Party ideas.  Recently, jobs to improve America's aging infrastructure were suggested to help climb out of the recession at the close of the Bush administration and to improve the current economy.  What I also know is that most living Americans cannot imagine the degree of desperation that past generations suffered, without any place to turn for help.
Holding that old WPA shovel in my hands reminded me of all of that!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Songs for Farmers' Gatherings

In an era lacking radio, television, CDs and internet, people still enjoyed music.  Many towns formed bands  (See "Music on the Prairie, 1/24/13), and apparently the St. John Town Band was regarded as one of the best in the area.  At least two of Isaac Werner's neighbors gave singing lessons during the winter when people were not busy in their fields.  Isaac described in his journal how much he enjoyed evenings spent with friends who played musical instruments or gatherings that included singing.
It was only natural that when farmers came together in organizations like the Farmers' Alliance, which Isaac joined as an active member, music was a part of their meetings.  Recently I discovered a song book from one of these organizations, specifically "The Farmers' Union Hymnal, A Collection of Songs for Farmers' Union Gatherings, Picnics, Social Entertainments, Etc., Etc." with songs written by a man from Sunset, Texas, with publishers in Dalton, Georgia and Dallas, Texas.  The "Union Hymn" opens the book, declaring "In council there is wisdom, In union there is strength..." and the second verse describes the conditions that have given rise to the need for farmers to unite.  "Now this is our condition, Tho' shameful tale to tell; The speculator prices the things we have to sell, And when we want to purchase, our purchases come high, For speculation prices the things we have to buy."
Many farmers, like Isaac Werner, had borrowed money to buy implements for working their claims and horses, mules, or oxen to pull the implements.  When the prices for the crops they had counted on to repay the loans fell, they were barely able to make payments of interest, without reducing the principle, month after month--even year after year.  It is not surprising that the second song in the book includes the farmer's hope to "make enough to pay the mortgage off," looking forward to the day "whey that mortgage all is paid" and he can dress his wife "like a queen."
These farmers' organizations were formed to improve farming methods, confront the power of speculators and monopolists, and help each other through hard times.  As tough as times were, farmers still joined in singing "I like to live upon the farm, and breathe the country air; Far from the city's dust and harm, life seems more sweet and fair.  Around me shines the glowing sun, the rains come down in time, and every day there's something done to earn an honest dime."  (Lyrics from "Farm Life")  Unfortunately, in addition to the hardship of debts, farmers also faced drought, when rains did not come down in time. 
In the late 1800s there were many different farmers' organizations that came together to form the People's Party.  The two predecessors in Isaac's community were the Farmers' Alliance and Union Labor, but in the South a similar organization had been called the Wheel.  Perhaps this had been in the composer's and lyricist's mind when he wrote "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel."
Many of the farmers' rallies were held out of doors.  In Isaac's community, Neelands Grove was a popular place, and families would arrive with blankets to spread on the ground for picnic lunches, where speakers would deliver inspirational, instructive, or political speeches.  Often there were foot races, wooden dance floors, and sometimes amusement rides of that period--primarily swings.  And usually there was singing, with lyrics of encouragement.  "It is well to work and 'tis well to play when our round of toil is done; then with strength renewed we to tasks return, and life's pleasures are won."  (Lyrics from "Picnic Song")
These farmers were confident that their strength lay in their superior numbers, especially when their organizations became politically active.  They could barely feed their families and were lucky if they could avoid foreclosure on their land, produce, livestock, and equipment.  They certainly lacked the financial resources to confront the wealth and power of men of the Gilded Age.  On the other hand, they greatly outnumbered these steel and railroad tycoons, Wall Street speculators, and monopolists.  Farmers, miners, and laborers believed they could succeed through their votes, if only they worked together.  The lyrics from "Help!" in the image below represent a summary of the abuses they perceived and their method for overcoming them.  (You can click on the image to enlarge for reading.) 
Their plan could only succeed if great numbers of men joined their movement, and the songs often reflect their effort to recruit members.  "The horny handed sons of toil their greeting would extend; We welcome you, dear friends, today, in song our voices blend...Let the music ring!  We, the Farmer's Union, bid you welcome here..."  (Lyrics from "Welcome")  Their optimistic conviction that their movement would prevail is expressed in the final song in the book.  "On the records of our country there shall shine a glowing page; It will be the Farmers' Union of this grand, progressive age.  Come and join the Farmers' Union and its many merits plead; Come and join the Farmers' Union, Union gives the strength we need."  (Lyrics from "Join the Union")
The People's Party had some political success in the 1890s, and members were pulled from both the major political parties, although primarily from the Democrats in Isaac's community.  Although the People's Party faded, many of their progressive goals were gradually adopted by the mainstream politicians and remain entrenched in present-day laws.