Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

 Nov. 10, 2001

'The death of the family farm is the longest running melodrama in the nation's repertoire, and its first act begun after the Civil War, when the number of Americans living on farms first fell below the number who didn't.

"Today, fewer than two percent live on farms. In the last decade alone, the number of farmers in Minnesota and Iowa has declined by twenty five percent.

"When the last one goes, why should we care? There's not much chance we'll go hungry and the 'farmer' will endure as an advertising icon, a plaid-shirted geezer who needs a jolt of coffee or a bowl of high fiber cereal before mounting an antique tractor and thundering into the sunset.

"What we will have lost will be to lose the last reminders of who we once were as a nation and sometimes still pretend to be."

In "Letter from Minnesota" by John Hildebrand in the November, 2001 issue of Harpers Magazine.)

I was born on a farm. We lost the farm and had to move to Minnesota so my father could support us by working for the J. F. Anderson Lumber Company in Waverly.

While it may have been the best thing that ever happened to us, my father loved farming and told me one time that all he ever wanted to be was a farmer, like all his family in Ireland had been, and like all his family in South Dakota still were.

Once, when my dad's oldest sister, Aunt Minnie, was visiting us in Waverly, we were coming out of Mass one Sunday when she asked who the man was who had had his cap on in church. My brother Myles replied, "Probably some dumb farmer."

Aunt Minnie whirled around and let him have it. "Young man, I will have you know your grandfather, your great-grandfather, your uncles, and your father himself were all farmers and very proud of being farmers."

Aunt Minnie spoke with an Irish accent and with great passion.

Myles turned red with shame. I never again heard him use the expression, "Dumb farmer."

We had lost the farm to the Depression. My father had bought cows for over $200, and had to sell them for $10 or $15.

Furthermore, my brother John told me that anthrax ­ yes anthrax ­ had carried off some of our cattle.

John said there were burning pits all over Dakota, and you could see and smell the smoke for miles, the same way the British had to burn their herds last year because of hoof and mouth disease.

My brother Henry, who is 87 now, says he can still remember the smell. He said that when he found a dead animal, putrid and bloated, he would haul straw and hay, cover the animal and set it afire.

He never heard of any humans contracting anthrax, but Msgr. Doyle of Sioux Falls, S.D., told me that a mutual friend, Dr. James Delaney of Sioux Falls, remembers treating many farmers at the time for skin anthrax.

The farmers were mostly from around Artesian, S.D., my father's home town, but we farmed in Lyman County.

Besides anthrax, farmers were suffering from failed economic policy. All my uncles on their small farms in South Dakota believed that Roosevelt had saved them, and Hoover and the republicans had let them down.

They had taken to calling cow chips "Hoover" because they had to burn the dried cow dung for fuel.

My uncles all taught me that Roosevelt did not let the big dogs eat first like the republicans always seemed to do.

Here is what Roosevelt said about it in 1933, as quoted in the Waverly Star:

"Some economists are still trying to find out what it was that hit us back in 1929. I am not a professional economist, but I think I know.

"What hit us was a decade of debauch, of group selfishness . . . the sole objective expressed in the thought 'every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.'

"And the result was that about 98 percent of the American population turned out to be 'the hindmost.'"

Sounds like today, doesn't it?

Call me a chauvinist, but I don't believe Waverlyites were guilty of that. Waverly, and Minnesota farmers in general, lived their lives with a rich feeling of community. It was never their philosophy that it was "every man for himself and devil take the hindmost."

The democracy of rural life

"In Minnesota, rural schoolhouses that haven't been torn down or converted to grain bins enjoy a second life as township halls.

"The township is the six-mile square division that served as Thomas Jefferson's blueprint for an agrarian republic, a vision that never quite got off the drawing board, but its vestigial outlines are still visible and run in cardinal directions, spaced exactly a mile apart.

"Although township government survives in the midwest and New England, its political powers were largely absorbed by the county after reapportionment in the 1960s, which based representation on population size.

"Even so, the township remains the most intimate form of government."

From John Hildebrand again, as quoted in "Letter From Minnesota.

An airplane ride over Woodland Township in Wright County is the best way to see those lines of Jefferson's blueprint for an agrarian democracy.

The "school section" is there below you, an entire 640-acre perfect rectangle of prime farm land intended to be set aside to meet the expenses of the free public school, representing a system like no other in the world. A world in which no other nation can boast of a free and universal opportunity for a good education.

One can also see the kind of white clapboard building mentioned by Hildebrand, converted from a schoolhouse to a town meeting hall right there down below in Woodland Township.

Down below, you see also the rich loam of Minnesota, "Landscape, plotted and pieced . . . fold, fallow and plow." (Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty.")

But take a really good look, because although "this land is your land; this land is my land, from California to the New York Islands," as Woody Guthrie says it is, it is going and going fast, if not into urban sprawl, then into the hands of corporations.

I don't think it's by accident that our founding farmers were mostly farmers ­ George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, to name but a few.

In a fascinating book I am reading, "John Adams" by David McCullough, here is a description of John Adams' feelings about farmers and community:

"The freeholder farmers of our countryside believe in hard work, virtue, liberty, and sharing with our neighbours, all that is righteous and good about our country."

Like Harry Truman, John Adams, our second president, was a farmer who worked very hard at it.

When he left the presidency, he went back to the farm and worked his land again, just in order to make a living.

Jefferson, although a farmer, had the help of slaves as his farmhands.

He was a Virginia gentleman farmer, and Adams was a Massachusetts freeholder.

Adams, the hardworking farmer's son, despised slavery.

He also resisted the warmongers he faced in Congress who called him a coward because he refused to declare war on France and Spain in 1798.

"Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war," he wrote. If only he were here now!

I am not advocating going to the trouble of replacing the likeness of Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore with the likeness of John Adams, but I do believe John Adams was more like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt than was Thomas Jefferson.

Well, George Washington was also a slave owner for that matter. His slave quarters, which I saw one time behind Mount Vernon, were little better than dog houses.

Back to the subject of farming, John Adams did the work himself, just like Harry Truman almost 200 years later. It was the work of "digging up stumps, carting manure, plowing, planting corn, and potatoes," says David McCullough.

I don't think it was a coincidence that McCullough wrote about Truman and Adams. They were very much alike.

John Adams and Harry Truman were among the few American presidents who were universally trusted. Along with Abraham Lincoln, the rail splitter, also born on a farm, they worked at hard manual labor "by the sweat of their brow."

Because they were farmers, they won the universal respect of the American people, even without their great achievements as our nation's leaders.

On the other side of it, the reason John Adams believed that Americans deserved the very best from their leaders was because they had earned it from "the severe labors of clearing their grounds, raising their provisions, enduring severe cold and always amidst dangers from wild beasts and savage men . . . "

In other words . . . farming.

Near the end of his life, in his 85th year, John Adams wrote, "My crops are more abundant than I expected. I have the most beautiful corn field that I ever saw. It is drawn up like an army in array, in a long line before my house."

Early in his life, John Adams had written that the three things he loved most were "my family, my farm, and my goose quill."

McCullough tells us, "He never tired of the farm. He loved every wall and field, loved its order and productiveness, the very look of it."

McCullough's description of John Adams' farm is a description of our real heritage more than anything else. More than Wall Street, Hollywood, NASA, or anything else I can think of. Unless it's a baseball park.

John Adams and his one time friend, Thomas Jefferson, died on the same day, The fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

They had corresponded until the very end, despite their political and religious differences

Musical notes

A high school choir was singing, with high emotions and strained voices, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," by Stephen A. Foster.

A lady in the audience began to weep. The person next to her said tenderly, "Are you a Virginian?"

"No," said the lady. "I'm a musician."

Dan Vaughan sent me this one:

"My Dad bought my Mom a piano for her birthday. A few weeks later, I asked how she was doing with it. 'Oh,' said my Dad. 'I persuaded her to switch to a clarinet.' 'How come,' I asked. 'Well,' he answered, 'because with a clarinet, she can't sing.'"

A cousin of mine told about his mother who used to play the piano and sing "Whispering Hope." That set the dogs for miles around all to howling.

I won't say which cousin or which aunt this was. There are still hard feelings about the music critics among the O'Learys. This is always a touchy subject.

Do you not all remember how our hero, Harry Truman, called the music critic of the sacred New York Times an SOB for remarking that his daughter, Margaret Truman, in her stage debut as a contralto, sounded "a little breathy?" Harry called him an SOB in public, and to this day has never apologized.

Quotes for the week

Sometimes when we sing,

we hear Your voice

Sometimes, when we scan the room, and ourselves, for You, we see You seeing us.

Sometimes, when we hold each other, we feel You enfolding us.

Sometimes, when we sing, we hear Your voice.

Sometimes, only sometimes, when we speak, we hear Your Word.

Sometimes, when we cry, we taste Your tears.

Please, God . . . always, not just sometimes, walk with us.

­ A prayer by Martha Barr as published in "The Baptist Peacemaker."

Thank you, one and all, for bearing with me. These are trying times ,but so was 1933.


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