Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Traditional Memorial Day Post

Speaker Larry Fenwick, 5-30-2020
I believe I have posted a Memorial Day blog each year since beginning this blog.  If you are interested in reading earlier blogs, go to the listing of years to the right of this blog and click on the year you would like to visit.  When that year comes up, click on May and then select the week with the last Monday in May.   Since 1968 the last Monday in May has been the date for celebrating Memorial Day.  

In the past, Memorial Day was generally celebrated on May 30th, whatever day of the week that fell. Some places, however, had different days on which they honored the fallen heroes of our military.  Historians have found at least 25 different claimants for originating Memorial Day, also called Decoration Day, but the fact is that many cultures throughout history have had a tradition of decorating graves.

For most of us, our tradition includes placing flowers at the graves of loved ones, whether family or friends.  However, Memorial Day is especially a day for honoring members of the military.  This year, in the midst of efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, traditional observances were curtailed.  

Yet, as I sat in our vehicle this past Monday, I watched as men of the Vietnam era and later arrived in their VFW uniforms on a rainy day, prepared to show their respect for their fellow veterans while respecting the social distancing and limitation on crowds. Monday's rain did not pause, and although no ceremony was conducted, people in their cars and pickups drove through the cemetery, each vehicle undoubtedly carrying those with their own memories and reasons for having come.

As I waited in our vehicle, I looked out across the cemetery at all of the flags marking the graves of soldiers from The Civil War (after which many Union Soldiers came to our local community to claim homesteads), the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  If you look closely at the photograph above you can see the American flags marking soldiers' graves into the distance.  (You can click on the photographs to enlarge.)

Because this year the last W.W. II veteran who participated in the local Memorial Day ceremony had passed away, and in addition, the 75th Anniversary of the end of W.W. II is this year, there were particular reasons for the observance of the occasion. 

The veterans who had gathered on Monday decided, because it was a particularly significant year for remembrances, to return on Saturday to honor those men and women who served their country over the decades.

On May 30th, the date that was in the past the day set aside for the day of remembrance, the VFW veterans returned at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning, to conduct the services they had intended.  Larry Fenwick delivered an address to recognize all of the 212 veterans buried in Farmington Cemetery, but particularly the 92 who served in W.W. II.  Of those, 11 young men gave their lives for their country, and Fenwick remembered each of them with specific tributes.

Many relatives of the veterans being remembered were present among those attending the service.  A special tribute was provided by Steve and Brenda Gross, flying their T-6 Texan, the last trainer a young pilot would have flown at the conclusion of his flight training in W.W. II.  Today the plane is used by Gross Flying Services, but it provided an emotional and thrilling tribute as it made its two passes over the cemetery and ended its last pass with the Missing Man symbolic departure.
(Updated 5-30-2020)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Celebration for Isaac!

Happy Birthday, Isaac Werner!  Born on May 23rd 177 years ago, Isaac is not forgotten.  I don't know what a birthday cake in the 1800s might have looked like, and Isaac wasn't a baker so a neighbor lady would have had to bake it for him, but here is a cake for Isaac, with a great big slice already cut in celebration of the birth of Isaac Beckley Werner, along with the birth of his twin brother Henry, born May 23, 1844!

But, I have an even better birthday present for Isaac.  The University Press of Kansas is publishing my book, Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement.  I will begin to keep you advised of the progress of publication in the months ahead, but as of today the copyeditor has received my manuscript and the responsibility forward is in the hands of the publisher.  Unfortunately, the release date is several months away, but I will keep you advised.  Thank you to all of you who have supported me in this decade-long process of finding and transcribing the 480 page journal, doing years of research, and writing and rewriting the manuscript!  Some of you who read this blog have shared images that will be in the book. Many of you who work in Museums, Libraries, and Courthouses have taken time from your regular responsibilities to help me.  Others who are descendants of people Isaac knew have shared stories and family history with me.  So many of you have encouraged me during the years I've labored to tell Isaac's story.  Thank you so much everyone!

In coming months I will continue to share history from the Populist era and progress on getting Isaac's story on book store shelves.  But this week's blog will celebrate Isaac's birthday by sharing some history of what was happening in 1844 when Isaac and his twin brother were born.  

Starting on a tragic note, the year of Isaac's birth was the year the Great Auk became extinct.  It was not related to the birds we know as penguins today, but it was in the genus Pinguinus.  It was 30 to 33 inches tall and weighed about 11 lbs, and with such short wings--less than six inches--it was flightless.  It bred on isolated islands in the North Atlantic but the rest of the year could be found along coastlines from Northern Spain to Canada, Greenland, and Great Britain.  Perhaps popularity of its soft down was the final cause of its extinction, although scientists had recognized the danger and had tried to protect the remaining Great Auks with early environmental laws.

An early connection with a movement that expanded during Isaac's life was the founding of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Lancashire, England in 1844.  The Industrial Revolution was forcing skilled workers into poverty, and a group of mostly weavers opened their own cooperative store in order to buy necessities, especially food, without the markups in commercial stores.  During the populist era of Isaac's time cooperatives were also tried, especially as a way to market their own crops.

USS Princeton, Nathaniel Currier
This Lithograph by Currier depicts a United States Navy screw steam warship, launched the autumn before Isaac's birth but better known for a disaster on February 28, 1844.  A pleasure cruise on the Potomac River was arranged for dignitaries, including President John Tyler.  Tragically, one of the warship's guns exploded, killing more top U.S. government officials than any other tragedy in American history.  Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer were among them, but the President was below decks at the time of the explosion and was not harmed.  The Princeton was meant to be the pride of the Navy and the powerful gun that exploded was named "Peacemaker."  After the tragedy, the USS Princeton never recovered its reputation and she was broken up in the autumn of 1849.

James K. Polk
1844 was also an election year, and President Tyler had jeopardized his re-election by threatening war with Mexico in his urging of the annexation of Texas.  Two former presidents--Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson--were possible candidates, but it was the former Governor of Tennessee and U.S. House Speaker, James K. Polk who became the nominee against the popular Whig Henry Clay.  The election itself was an exciting time, with several prominent men vying for office.  However, Polk was elected and the USS Princeton disaster is linked to that American President.

Polk and Secretary of Navy Gilmer were friends, and Polk knew Gilmer's young daughter well.  Polk had lost his wife in 1842, and the two friends had discussed the idea of a marriage between Polk and Gilmer's daughter, Julia.  With 30 years separating their ages, the first proposal to Julia was rejected, but later she consented to wed Polk but set no date.  She was present when the gun on the Princeton exploded and killed her father, as was Polk, both below deck and unharmed.  She is quoted as saying, "After I lost my father I felt differently toward the President.  He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be."  They married on June 26, 1844, just months after her father's death, in a very small, private ceremony.  Tyler died in 1862, and Julia never remarried, raising their seven children as a widow.

As for Isaac and his brother Henry, they lived in the stone house their father had built for his own younger wife, were christened in the Hains Church, and would in time be joined by three sisters.  Isaac grew up and began keeping journals, the 480 page journal I found having been labeled by Isaac as Vol. 5th.  Happy Birthday May 23, 1844, Isaac!

To read more about the book visit

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Isaac's Embarrassment

In order to acquire title to a homestead, it was necessary for the homesteader, after staking a claim, living on the land, and making the required improvements, to go before a judge and swear that he or she had lived on the claim and fulfilled the requirements for the mandated period of time.  In addition, he or she had to swear that their intention was to remain on their claim.  The objective of offering free land was to populate the vast open territory in the West, and the requirements were intended to prohibit speculators from claiming land they never intended to occupy, and discouraging those who only claimed a homestead in order to sell it.  Not only were the homesteaders themselves required to swear to these requirements but also they were to bring witnesses.

Isaac Werner was asked by several neighbors to go with them to appear before the judge, under oath, and swear that he had knowledge that the homesteader had fulfilled the requirements.  One of the neighbors for whom Isaac appeared had met all of the requirements of living on and improving his claim for the required time, but he had also made a deal to dispose of the land in a horse swap before having proved up his claim.  Isaac knew nothing about the horse deal when he agreed to appear as a witness for his friend.  When a U.S. Marshal arrested Isaac's friend for lying under oath about having not sold the land before proving it up, Isaac felt, rightfully so, that he had been taken advantage of by a friend.

Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick
American laws and traditions place great emphasis on the importance of oaths.  In the case of Isaac and his friend, both men raised their hands and swore to tell the truth and the whole truth.  One lied and the other supported that lie because his oath was based on his honest belief that his friend had met the homestead requirements.  Isaac did not know about the horse deal, and he swore to the truth as he knew it.

I confess.  I have very little patience with or respect for a liar.  Yet, nailing down the "truth" is sometimes not quite a simple thing.  The best simple definition I found for truth is 'that which is in accordance with fact or reality.' 

However, a more serious search for a definition leads to Philosophers' definitions and Religious definitions, as well as many specific theories.  Correspondence theories emphasize truth as corresponding to the actual state of affairs.  Coherence theories require fitting the elements within a whole system.  Pragmatic theory holds that truth is verified and confirmed by the results of putting concepts into practice.  Consensus relies on a definition of truth as that which is agreed upon by a group.

As those who follow this blog already know, I often turn to Mark Twain for common sense definitions, and he seems to have addressed lies more frequently than truth, but here are two of his tongue-in-cheek observations.  Truth is the most valuable thing we have.  Let us economize it, Twain suggested.  Elaborating a bit on that theme, he wrote, Familiarity breeds contempt.  How accurate that is.  The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.  Sometimes his humor takes a second to catch his point! 

Recent news has involved the decision by the Justice Department to drop the criminal case against Michael Flynn despite his having admitted twice in court that he had lied under oath.  When an interviewer asked Attorney General Barr, who signed off on the decision to drop the criminal case, "When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?" Barr replied, "Well, history is written by the winner.  So, it largely depends on whose writing the history..."

Credit:  Portrait Artist Susan B. Durkee
I have written before in this blog about that particular saying, and it is certainly true that those in authority do present history to a present audience in a way favorable to them.  The fact that future authorities may present history in a light favorable to them does not determine how those in the present should evaluate truth vs. lies.

Again, I turn to Mark Twain for guidance, and he has clearly addressed the point. Anybody can tell lies: there is no merit in a mere lie, it must possess art, it must exhibit a splendid & plausible & convincing probability; that is to say, it must be powerfully calculated to deceive.  

Isaac Werner lived in a time when everyone knew their neighbors, yet he managed to be embarrassed by a friend, who put him in the position to support that friend's proof of claim by concealing from Isaac the horse trade.  Today we have so many more resources to evaluate truth; yet, we seem to find it more and more difficult for everyone to agree what truth is.  In closing, I will suggest that sometimes we make things too complicated when the truth is as simple as the definition with which I began--"that which is in accordance with fact or reality."  

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

When Spam has Nothing to do with the Internet

Look what Larry brought home!
This week my husband saw a news story about how Spam is flying off grocery store shelves during the coronavirus restrictions.  He commented, "Maybe you can make a blog out of this."  My reply was that Spam had nothing to do with Isaac Werner.  The meats he mentioned in his journal were chicken and pork, and Spam was not yet a grocery store product.

Yet, those of you who have followed this blog for so many postings know that sometimes I wander quite a ways from Isaac with my topics, and I decided that I would share my own story about Spam.  As I often do, I made a quick check of the internet to see what was to be found on the topic of Spam, and what came up was mostly about the internet kind of Spam.  Isaac Werner certainly had nothing to do with that kind of Spam.

My story goes back to my teenage years growing up on the family farm in Kansas.  We always had a large garden in the summer, and Mother did a lot of canning.  I became the family cook during the summer.  Most of our meals were centered around the beef we raised.  Our freezer was always filled with steaks, roasts, and hamburger.  Even with our own beef available, Mother nearly always had a can of Spam in the cupboard, and one evening I decided to fix it with peas.  Mother had taught me how to put the "loaf" of Spam in the center of a Pyrex dish, pour a can of peas around the Spam, and put it in the oven to heat.

That evening I must have been in some kind of teen-age-daydream, because I put the Spam and peas in the oven and turned on the gas but forgot to light the oven.  Lighting the gas was not automatic.  There was a small hole in the floor of the oven, toward the front, and you had to stick a lighted match into that hole to light the oven.  When I soon realized that I had forgotten to light the gas, I immediately turned the gas off and opened the oven door to release the gas, waving a towel in front of the door to get rid of it more quickly.

My father and brother were cleaning up after a day in the field, and I knew they would soon be in the kitchen, hungry for supper.  I decided that all my towel waving had surely made it safe to light the oven, so I turned the gas back on and stuck a lighted match into the hole.  There was a boom, and the next thing I knew I as sitting on the floor against the opposite wall from the oven where the blast had blown me.

My father was shaving in the bathroom on the opposite side of the wall where the oven sat, and the wall heater in the bathroom was on that wall.  The blast blew it off.  My father came running out, one side of his face shaved and the other side of his face still lathered.  My brother, taking a shower in another part of the house, heard the blast and thought the bathroom heater might somehow have exploded, and he grabbed his jeans and got only one leg in before reaching the doorway leading to both the bathroom and the kitchen--just as my Mother came from some other room in the house.

They found me sitting on the floor, laughing.  My father, seeing me laughing, became as angry as I ever saw him, and as he headed toward me, Mother shouted, "She's hysterical, Ralph!" and I guess I was.

My brother got both legs into his jeans, my father managed to get the stove back together and the wall heater in the bathroom back into the wall, and my mother must have doctored my burns, although I don't really remember.  For some lucky reason, in the heat of summer I had been wearing jeans rather than my usual shorts, so my only burns were on the top of my bare feet and a bit of my lower ankles.  Everything was safe, and the story of my cooking explosion became a family tale, told over and over.

That is my Spam Story, now told once again.  Too all of you who read my blog, stay safe and healthy.

P.S.  Without knowing the subject of my blog, guess what my husband surprised me with this evening?  A twin package of Spam!