Thursday, October 30, 2014

What's Old is Always New Again

Charles Darwin
After enduring years of debt and struggle, Isaac Werner finally had put that behind.  Unfortunately his financial achievements were eclipsed by his failing health, and he never fully enjoyed the successful farm he had created.  His struggles during the Gilded Age bear much in common with today.  In his time, the disparity between the post-Civil War wealthy men like Jay Rockefeller in comparison to factory laborers, miners, and farmers like Isaac was a new social disparity for Americans, our early history having been primarily a population of working people of similar means producing materials sent to England for manufacture.  It was during the Civil War that the steel mills, factories, railroads, and manufacturing began to change the social landscape of Americans markedly.

Ward McAllister
Charles Darwin's Evolution of the Species was distorted by some to justify a social view never intended by Darwin.  John D. Rockefeller's words reveal this attitude:  "The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest.  The American beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.  This is not an evil tendency in business.  It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God..."  Like-minded men of the Gilded Age had little pity for the squalor of immigrant families enticed to America for cheap labor in factories, miners facing daily danger, and farmers struggling to raise crops for which railroads charged unregulated shipping fees to get the farmers' produce to markets.
Jacob Riis

During this time, journalist Ward McAllister wrote about the extravagant lifestyles of wealthy families, describing the centerpiece for one obscenely opulent dinner in the ballroom of Delmonico's at 14th Street in New York City in 1890 as a:  "...long extended oval table, and every inch of it was covered with flowers, excepting a space in the center, left for a lake...thirty feet in length, enclosed by a delicate golden wire network reaching from table to ceiling, making the whole one grand cage; four superb swans, brought from Prospect Park, swam in it, surrounded by high bands of flowers of every species and variety...[and] above the entire table, hung little golden cages with fine songsters..."  The only thing Isaac had in common with the wealthy guests at this dinner was their mutual pleasure in the music of songbirds!
Political cartoon from 1890s

At the same time McAllister was writing about the wealthy, journalist Jacob Riis was exposing the misery, starvation, crowding, graft and political corruption of NYC's tenement district.  His book, How the Other Half Lives, was published in 1891, including photographs of the desperate conditions of working class families.

Then, as now, the wealthy used their riches not just for mansions and extravagant lifestyles but also to influence politics, and the People's Party, of which Isaac Werner was a member, included laborers, miners, and farmers in a political movement to confront the wealthy at the ballot box.

An interesting article, "Who Rules America:  Wealth, Income, and Power," which can be read at, defines wealth as what is owned minus what is owed, and points to the advantage of great wealth with financial resources available to spend on more than is needed for a comfortable life--those additional resources giving them power.  The article describes the United States as a "Power Pyramid," with the " 10% having 85 to 90% of the nation's stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity...It's tough for the bottom 80%--maybe even the bottom 90% to get organized and exercise much power."

Political cartoon from 1890s
The article supports this relationship between wealth and power with four examples.  First, they are in a better position to make "...donations to political parties, payment to lobbyists, and grants to experts who are employed to think up new policies beneficial to the wealthy."  Second, "...stock ownership can be used to control corporations, which of course have a major impact on how the society functions."  Third, that power can also lead to more wealth through political influence at local, state, and national levels.  And, fourth, the opportunity to do the things that money can buy--whether access to better health, safer jobs, more travel and leisure, among other privileges--becomes a power indicator in itself. 

Both major political parties in America today reflect the influence of power by the wealthy.  Yet, the recent effort by the Senate to act legislatively to change the decision of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case shows a definite split between the parties.  That case, which allows massive spending and influence by corporations and unions through Political Action Committees, has magnified the need for campaign finance reform, something about which most Americans agree, regardless of political affiliation.  The Senate vote attempting to overturn the effect of Citizens United received a majority vote but failed to reach the 2/3rds majority needed when not one single Republican voted in support, despite strong support for overturning Citizens United among Republican voters.

Political cartoon from the 1890s
The impact of Citizens United is nowhere more apparent than in Kansas, Isaac's old political grounds.  According to an article published in The Huffington Post on October 25, 2014, since Senator Pat Roberts's failure to break a 50% majority in the Kansas primary, "Spending by super PACs and dark money nonprofits has exploded by at least 560 percent since then, fueling what will end up being the most expensive Senate race in Kansas history.

Aggravated by the bombardment of political ads on television, I became curious about who was funding them, and my informal observation was consistent with the Huffington Post reporting.  "The biggest spender in the race is Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC founded by the Koch brothers, which has paid out nearly $2 million attacking Orman.  Koch Industries, the private company owned by the brothers, is based in Wichita, Kansas, and has long backed Roberts.  Its employees and political action committee are the leading funders of the senator's political career."  A review of Sen. Roberts's voting record shows that he has been a "forceful opponent of campaign finance reform" and a leading opponent of disclosure of donors contributing to nonprofits.

When I began reading Isaac Werner's journal, I was naturally interested in what he wrote about farming and the social life of early settlers on the prairie.  However, what intrigued me were the many political similarities of his time with our own.  (See "Isaac and the Plutocrats," blog archives April 5, 2012.)  Isaac and other farmers and laborers came together to confront the wealth and power of Wall Street and corporations (which had become even more powerful then through trusts and monopolies).  It seems that the impact of wealth and power vs. the one-man-one-vote ideal of the American democracy is an ongoing political issue! 

Remember, to enlarge the cartoons to enable reading the labels and captions, click on the images.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Solid Foundation

Isaac Werner's Dream Home
Glued inside the cover of Isaac B. Werner's 480-page, leather-bound journal was the picture of an elaborate Victorian house, the image at right.  When he came to the Kansas prairie in 1878, his first two homes were earthen dugouts.  Most early settlers lived in dugouts, cave-like homes tunneled into the ground or the side of a hill; sod homes built of blocks of tough prairie sod stacked like stone or bricks; or shanties, crude structures built of wood.

By the time Isaac's journal began in 1884 he was living in a house built of wood.  He referred to both a basement and a cellar, although it isn't clear whether those references were to a single thing or two different parts of his home.  He also referred to an upstairs, indicating a 2-story home.  However, none of his references indicate anything so grand as the home pictured in the clipping he had glued inside the cover of his journal. 

House and Barn about 1903
Renovating my ancestral home has taught me about early construction methods.  The barn, (top picture at left), built around 1903, had a concrete foundation.  The house, however, was begin earlier.  The bottom photograph at left shows the original house, the part built in the late 1890s.  Typical of many early prairie homes, it consisted of two rooms on the main level, with two rooms above, and a kitchen left unpainted on a simple, open foundation.  Kitchen fires were common, so kitchens were often separated from the rest of the house and built on a simple foundation to facilitate dragging it away from the rest of the house to save the main residence if there were a kitchen fire.  I first learned about this construction practice when we lived in the South, something fairly common there.

I had always understood that the 1890s house had a stone foundation, but I had no idea of the type of stone used.  A recent small addition that uncovered a partial section of the foundation revealed the stone, and  I was surprised to see limestone blocks carefully laid to support the original house.  Perhaps that limestone block foundation explains why the original part of the structure has experienced less settling than the later 1907 construction with a foundation made of the softer concrete of that time.

Stone foundation with a later concrete buttress
An interesting website sponsored by the Bluestem Quarry and Stoneworks near Lucas, Kansas (with information from "Land of the Post Rock" by Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, published by University Press of Kansas, 1975) describes how stone was quarried in North Central Kansas by early settlers.  The rock bed there is near the surface at a fairly uniform thickness of 8 to 12 inches, and when freshly quarried it was soft enough to shape.  As it was exposed to the air it hardened and became more difficult to shape. A typical 5 to 6 foot block, such as those used as fence posts in that region of Kansas where trees were scarce, weighed 350 to 400 lbs.  I do not know where my grandfather and his mother purchased the stone for the house foundation, nor how the stone was transported to the farm, but I was quite impressed to see the old foundation that had been covered by the gradual accretion of soil, hidden from view for a century!

As the fourth generation to live in my ancestral home, I was moved by this quote from John Ruskin (1819-1900), an English writer from the Victorian period whose interests included art, geology, and architecture, and who is currently respected for his ideas concerning environmentalism, sustainability, and craft.  He wrote:  When we build let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight nor present use alone.  Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See!  This our father did for us.'  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Politics Hardly Seem to Change, the Sequel

Political cartoon from late 1800s, "How Foolish Men Vote"
With the inundation of political commercials on television, few Americans could be unaware of the approaching elections.  On November 24, 2011, soon after I began this blog, I compared the political issues of Isaac Werner's times in the late 1800s with current issues, posting several political cartoons from that era. People continue to visit that blog, making it one of my most popular posts.  I thought it might be worthwhile to take a fresh look at whether conditions have changed.

The political cartoon at right is also from the newpaper to which Isaac Werner subscribed.  Its subtitle reads:  "The Farmer, Mechanic or Workman Who Votes for Either of the Old Parties is Voting Bread, Meat, Clothes and Money Out of Reach of His Wife and Children."  Many of the political cartoons posted in my earlier blog also address the issue of political influence exerted by wealthy and powerful men, at the expense of other Americans.  Obviously, that issue continues to play a significant role in politics today.  (You can enlarge by clicking in the image.)

I recently saw a chart (See below left) posted on face book, comparing the ratio of CEO pay to regular workers' pay.  Not only is the 354 to 1 ratio between CEO and Worker pay in the U.S. noteworthy, but also the U.S. ratio to what exists in other countries stands out.  While it is true that we are living in a global economy today, the ratio is  uniquely extreme in the U.S.  (The sources used by Maclean's appear at the bottom of the chart.) 

Of course, what struck me, just as it did in my earlier blog, is the similarity of economic disparity during the Gilded Age of Isaac Werner's time with today.  A recent news article about a house under construction in Hillsboro Beach, Florida described its 60,000 square feet built on 4 acres along 465'  of beachfront (with a 492' private dock for a yacht), having 11 bedrooms, 17 baths, a private IMAX theater with seating for 18, a putting green, a 30-car underground garage, and a 139-million-dollar price tag!  Even the millionares' mansions along 5th Avenue in NYC during the Gilded Age and the Summer Homes in Newport are eclipsed by this extreme display of wealth.

Compiled by Maclean's from various source statistics
An article posted on titled "America's 10 richest people" reported that entry into the Forbes 400 List of wealthiest Americans in 2013 required $1.3 billion to be included.  This year's list required $1.55 billion, and 113 billionaires were excluded from the list.

Within days of reading that article I read that because of the wages paid by Wal-Mart, nearly half of the children of that company's 'associates,' qualify for Medicare Benefits or go uninsured, their family situation being cited as an example of America's working poor.

A recent vote in the U.S. Senate intended to take action against the Citizens United case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court failed, cited by many as an example of money and power defeating the voice of individual Americans.  The barrage of political ads on television right now nearly all have a tiny caption at the bottom disclosing some political action group that paid for the advertising.  The power of money exerted a huge influence in American politics in Isaac Werner's times, and it still does.

Perhaps these kinds of news reports explain why my 2011 blog about similarities our own age shares with the Gilded Age explain why that blog continues to attract visitors.  Many of the Progressive ideas from the People's Party were implemented in the early years of the past century and contributed to the growth of America's Middle Class.  Today's shrinking Middle Class and the economic disparity between America's richest and poorest citizens may have more in common with the Gilded Age than the post-W.W. II years many Americans remember proudly.

I hope you visit "Politics Hardly Seem to Change" in the archives at Nov. 24, 2011.  I think you will find the cartoons and the political comparisons thought provoking, regardless of your own political positions.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Prickly Poppies

Prickly Poppy
Isaac Werner loved the wild flowers that covered the prairie with color every spring.  As for the prickly poppy, which blooms from June through September, he made no mention of it in his journal.

The delicate, ruffled petals of the prickly poppy, and the silvery green of their prickly leaves are rather pretty, but having them in a pasture is a nuisance.  Cattle will not eat them, and they will crowd out other desirable plants.

The plants can grow from 1 to 5 feet tall and are a common plant on the prairie, growing most abundantly in sandy soil.  The presence of these poppies in pastures is often indicative of overgrazing.  They may also be found in flood plains and in locations where the soil has been disturbed.

My father hated prickly poppies.  In the summers, when I was not in school, he would find jobs for me to do around the farm.  To show just how much he wanted to rid the pastures and field edges of these plants, one summer he proposed paying me twenty-five cents for every prickly poppy I pulled, a more generous payment than I received for other tasks.  However, to collect my bounty I had to show the roots dangling from the plant in order to prove that I had pulled the entire poppy so that it would not grow back from roots left in the soil.  That was difficult and uncomfortable work, and I don't remember collecting much money that summer.  

Two undesirable pasture plants
My father nearly eradicated the plants, for he would pause to pull them up by the roots whenever his path crossed one of the poppies.

Native Americans, however, valued the bright yellow sap as a dye for arrow shafts and as a wart removal.  They crushed the seeds to treat burns, cuts, and sores, and they also boiled the plant and used the liquid to treat sunburn.

To learn more about Kansas Wildflowers & Grasses, you may visit the Kansas State University Library at maintained by Mike Haddock, who is credited for some of the information in this blog.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

My Steadfast Tin Soldier, a Sequel

Two Family Relics found during construction
As promised at the close of last week's blog (See "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," 9-25-2014), the discovery of a W.W. I toy soldier opened my mind to the significance of that period of history to my family.  The photograph at right shows the toy soldier beside a glass vase also discovered in the soil as Smiley Concrete crew did their work at our homesite.  (The bouquet is a road-side arrangement I gathered a few steps from the house.)

By chance, I had just begun reading a book titled The Secret Rooms, A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret, which I had purchased because it dealt with Belvoir Castle.  The small village of Branston was part of the Belvoir Estate in Leicestershire, and my grandmother, Lillian Hall, had been born in one of the cottages belonging to the Duke of Rutland in that village.  Generations of the Hall family had lived on the Duke's Estate before my great-grandfather George Hall immigrated to America with his family in 1882, and he continued to correspond and visit with family in England.

Belvoir Castle photographed by LBF during visit to Branston
It was coincidence that the discovery of the little W.W. I soldier at the farm occurred just as I had begun to read the book by Catherine Bailey about the impact of that war on the 9th Duke of Rutland and the tenants of the Belvoir Estate.  The toy soldier had awakened my appreciation for how the war must have impacted my great-grandparents and my grandmother, so imagine my response to this passage in the book:  "...John's [the 9th Duke] regiment had incurred appalling casualties.  On 13 October 1915--the day the North Midlands had lost a quarter of their strength--the Leicestershires had suffered 820 casualties:  the equivalent, almost, of an entire battalion.  Twenty of John's fellow officers had been killed or wounded.  ...  A significant proportion of the regiment's casualties had come from villages on the Belvoir estate.  They were the sons of the butcher, the blacksmith, the postmaster--and the sons of gamekeepers, farmers, estate workers and tenants.  John's father, Henry, the 8th Duke of Rutland, had been Honorary Colonel of two of the regiment's battalions; he had personally recruited a large number of the soldiers."  My great-great grandfather William Hall had been a gardner at the duke's castle!

In July 1915, according to author Catherine Bailey, "...the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade--recruited from the Duke's Leicestershire estates--had lost seventy-five men after a mine exploded under their trenches."  My personal genealogy records of my Hall family do not reflect any names connected with these tragic dates; however, my ancestors must have known several of the soldiers killed or wounded during the battles during W.W. I.

British W.W. I Recruiting Poster
It was not just soldiers who suffered during the war, however. The first Zeppelin raids on England occurred in January of 1915, and the first raid against London occurred on the 31st of May that year.  The psychological effect had more impact than any military advantage.  The raids continued in 1916, and they were reaching into the Midlands beyond London to the north and northeast.  There were only four Zeppelin raids in 1918, and all were against targets in the Midlands and the north.

During a visit to Branston with our mothers, my husband and I had paused in Coventry along the way.  In 1918 Coventry was one of the bombing sites struck by the Zeppelin raids, targeted by mistake in the belief that it was Birmingham.  Obviously, there was reason for fear not only in London but also in villages like those of my own ancestors.

The mention of recruitment of soldiers from the Belvoir Estate by the 8th Duke of Rutland is an example of how volunteers were drawn from local populations.  These recruits then trained together and were assigned to the same units, creating so-called "Pals battalions."  The obvious result was that when one of these battalions suffered huge casualties, entire villages, neighborhoods, and towns suffered disproportionately.  Beginning in January of 1916 with conscription, Pals battalions were no longer raised as before.

Soldiers in KS being treated for the Influenza Pandemic 
 For three years, the United States remained officially neutral, but on April 17, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson committed the US to the war.  By the time W.W. I ended, more than 4-million "Doughboys" had served, with half of them participating overseas.  Government records indicate that "over 25% of the entire male population of the country between the ages of 18 and 31 were in military service."  My little toy soldier was created to depict the service of those men.

The photograph at right was taken of soldiers from Fort Riley, KS being treated for Influenza at the hospital ward at Camp Funston.  This pandemic, often called the Spanish flu, came in 3 waves--Spring 1918, Autumn 1918, and Winter 1919.)  It is called the Spanish Flu not because it originated there but rather because wartime censors minimized reports of the devastating flu to protect morale.  Spain was not engaged in the fighting and their press was free to describe the epidemic's grave impact, giving the false impression that it originated there or was worse in that country.  The result was the pandemic being commonly referred to as the Spanish flu.

1st Edition Cover of Porter's book
It is not certain where the flu originated, but in the US it was first noticed in Haskell County, KS.  It is also theorized that Chinese laborers brought to work behind the British and French lines were the source.  The crowded conditions, malnourishment, and other wartime factors did cause it to spread among soldiers rapidly.  Ironically, death was more likely to occur among healthy young adults for this reason:  their stronger immune systems  attacked the virus and destroyed their own bodies, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and adults of middle age and older did less fatal harm while battling the virus, allowing them to recover.  Of course, this did not bode well for young soldiers.

It is estimated that between 50 and 100 million deaths occurred in 1918 and 1919 as a result of the flu, and the deaths were world wide, perhaps as many as 1 of every 18 people.  An interesting website created by titled "The 'Spanish' Influenza pandemic and its relation to World War I," has a computer model of the pandemic that allows the selection of variables, such as 'American troop movements' and 'Armistice celebrations' to be changed to see how various conditions may have impacted the spread of the disease.  At any rate, the pandemic paid no regard to national boundaries nor military allegiances in its deadly spread.

It is amazing to me that history that defined an era is so quickly forgotten by future generations.  Yet, I confess that I was not aware of the Spanish Flu Pandemic until after the Millennium when I launched my Great Books Reading Project.  Pale Horse, Pale Rider was one of the books I included on my list of must-read books, and that is where I first learned of the pandemic during W.W. I.  I recommend a feature titled "Why Libraries Should Stock 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider," at which captures my feelings about the importance of Katherine Anne Porter's book.  The novella involves a romance between a young woman in love with a young man who returns her great affection but feels duty-bound to become a soldier.  While she fears his death on the battlefield, it is influenza that defeats him.  Author and university professor Alice McDermott concludes her above-cited essay with these words:  "Porter herself wrote that the arts 'are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.'  We discard voices such as hers [Porter's] at our peril."  As I did the research for this blog, Porter's book, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, sprang to mind, and I wanted to share its significance and recommend it to those who read my blog.

What an amazing journey the little steadfast soldier who waited in the dark earth for nearly a century to be discovered has inspired me to take.  I hope you have enjoyed coming along with me in experiencing those dangerous times in the world's history during the Great War meant to end all wars.  It may also help you to understand the worry and sacrifices your own ancestors endured during that time.  Sharing this story seems particularly relevant in our own war-weary world now facing its own pandemic.