Saturday, May 29, 2021

Prairie Bachelor: The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement , a book review

Prairie Bachelor: The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement
by Lynda Beck Fenwick.

Isaac Beckley Werner, the prairie bachelor, was born into a well-to-do family in Pennsylvania in 1844. His formal education extended well past the norm for his time, and he never stopped educating himself. He owned a drugstore and then a mill in Illinois before taking up a homestead in Kansas in 1878. As a homesteader he experimented in cropping practices, promoted agricultural education, supported his neighbours, and was an active participant in local politics. After a lengthy illness, which gradually left him entirely incapacitated, he died at the age of 51 in 1895 and his estate was wound up by 1898.

Prairie Bachelor covers the 20 years between 1878 and 1898, known as the Gilded Age, which it was, for the rich, powerful, and politically connected, and for the American Middle Class. However, it was a time of terrible hardship for small southern and western farmers and ranchers, miners and lumber workers, factory and railway labourers, Immigrants, Black Americans, and First Nations, the poor and the destitute. The banding together of these groups, to fight for their rights and very survival, sparked the Populist Movement, and from it, the People’s Party, the most successful third party in American history.

The author with Isaac's journal
Lynda Beck Fenwick’s interest in Isaac began when she obtained his journal from the Stafford County museum. Isaac wrote his autobiography in a massive 480 page ledger-size journal in close script with no waste space. Begun in 1870-71 then lapsed for 13 years, he kept meticulous notes beginning again in 1884 until 1891 when he ran out of space and could not afford another journal.

On a personal note, I will refer to the author as Lyn, since I have followed her blog about writing Prairie Bachelor at for 11 years and we have become what was known in the old days as pen-pals. I will refer to Isaac B Werner as Isaac because as I read, I began to feel I knew him. I could feel his pride, his frustrations, his illness, his loneliness, his defeats, and his successes.

Lyn’s connections to Isaac go back four generations. Two sets of great grandparents were neighbours and friends of Isaac’s. A third set were not close neighbours but knew Isaac. Lyn (with her husband Larry) is the fourth generation of Becks to live in that house from which she could see the site of Isaac’s homestead a mile away.

Lyn spent a year transcribing Isaac’s journal, then went to work to fill in the gaps using her talents as a teacher, lawyer, and writer to research every bit of information she could find about Isaac, his neighbours, Stafford county, the hardships, and the politics of his time. Prairie Bachelor has an incredibly detailed set of footnotes and a lengthy bibliography, which will satisfy both a pleasure reader like me, and any academic historian who wishes to follow up.

Under the Homestead Act of 1862, Isaac could claim, at no cost, 160 acres which he had to prove up over five years by living on the property and by breaking a certain number of acres to get title. He also took a ‘Timber Claim’, another 160 acres on which, if he grew 10 acres of trees over 8 years, he could also get title. Not many homesteaders, including Isaac, had the money to acquire livestock and tools necessary to build a farm. As I read about the hardships the homesteaders endured, I understood why no more than 40% were able to prove up on their claims.

For eight years, Isaac farmed without a horse. He traded his labour for use of horse and plow or horse and wagon but could never get money enough ahead to buy a horse without going into debt. Nor would his brother in Pennsylvania advance him the money. Finally, in 1886, he mortgaged his farm, borrowing enough to buy Dolly, a little grey mare, and some implements to expand production, later borrowing more money to buy a second horse and a wagon. By then it was too late. Other homesteaders across the west were doing the same. Increased production forced prices down and freight prices up. Rains did not come. Isaac was in debt until just before he died, to banks, merchants, friends, and family. He was able to hang on, but many homesteaders lost their farms to foreclosure.

Isaac’s main crops were corn and potatoes, and eventually wheat. Potatoes were his main crop as they grew well in the sandy loam soil and were famous for their quality. He stored them in his home over winter and sold many of them as seed potatoes in the spring. Colorado potato beetles were the bane of his existence. He kept them at bay with Paris Green, a highly toxic mixture of copper acetate and arsenic trioxide.

Isaac never married and, although he had an eye for a pretty girl, he was mainly attracted to strong, well-spoken, independent women. Though he was often lonely, he also enjoyed solitude. He had watched as homestead wives worked themselves into an early grave, died in childbirth or saw their children die or starve and was glad he had no one to worry about, especially as his health deteriorated.

Isaac cared about people, as humanity and as individuals. If he saw a need, he was there, whether sitting with a sick child, taking extra fuel to a neighbour in a cold winter, fixing the local school, or organizing relief for families with little or no food. He returned borrowed tools and implements in better condition that he received them and cared for his farm the same way.

Isaac had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Beginning in Illinois, he built up a sizable library of significant titles. In Kansas, he continued to buy books he felt were beneficial to improving farming practices, even when he was short of money. He continually trying different varieties, row spacings, depth of planting etc., all faithfully recorded in his journal. Isaac was in constant touch with Professor E. M. Shelton, who in 1874 became the Farm Superintendent at the Kansas State Agricultural College.

He succeeded in forming the Stafford County Agricultural Society with township chapters, including his own Albano township, to meet and discuss better farming methods based on their soil type and overall environment. He created a library of his farm practices books at the local school where the Agricultural Society met. At his estate sale, his books were the big draw.

He was greatly frustrated by farmers who did not want to learn, who just came to the meetings to visit or did not bother to come at all. Isaac did not understand that he was one of a small percentage of farmers, an innovator, constantly experimenting. His best friend, Will Campbell, good farmer, pillar of the community, respected politician, along with a very few of Isaac’s other friends, were part of a somewhat larger group, anxious to quickly adopt new technologies that appeared to work.  The majority of farmers might come to the meetings and eventually pick up on better farming methods, while some never changed their ways. It would not be until 19 years after Isaac’s death, that the Smith Lever Act would create the Cooperative Extension Service and its County Agents, building on all the Agricultural Clubs and Societies over the decades from the early 1800s, including Isaac’s.

Isaac’s world was not all farming and farm politics. There were several incidents which involved people Isaac knew well: a cold blooded murder, a gunfight, a train robbery, livestock theft rings, and bank embezzlements. There were even a couple of “Old West” bank robberies. In 1884, the bank in Medicine Lodge, two counties south of Isaac, was held up by four men, including two peace officers. In 1892, the Dalton Gang was shot to ribbons in Coffeyville, several counties east of Isaac.

Today’s America has a great deal in common with the Gilded Age of Isaac’s time, with some events almost parallel. The Republicans were no longer the party of Lincoln but were owned by the “Robber Barons”. The [Southern] Democrats, having survived Reconstruction, were busy disenfranchising Black Americans with Jim Crow laws and the KKK, and opposed public spending on the grounds that it was taking money from hard working [white] Americans and giving it to lazy, ignorant [Black] loafers who just wanted free stuff. They called this Socialism. Both parties did not hesitate to use the military to put down strikes

Dr. Heather Cox Richardson in West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War and How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America describes how the Northern Democrats, the Middle Class of the industrialized North, was more than happy to apply the label Socialist to immigrants, union workers, any labourers who dared to organize against their bosses or any group that organized for better treatment from the government. Grover Cleveland, Democratic President from 1884 to 1888 and again from 1892-1896, vetoed any and all pension bills for Veterans, for example, on the grounds that “the people should support the government, the government should not support the people”.

The Populist Movement began as people began to organize, fighting back against the railways, banks, and industrialists. Prairie Bachelor details the convoluted path that led from the Farmers Alliance in Texas to the formation of the Peoples Party as a national third party in 1892. Several other parties were started and dropped in favour of a larger vision. Kansas was at the forefront of several of them and Isaac was an active participant. His friend, Will Campbell, was elected to the Kansas legislature twice under two different parties, the last being the People’s Party, which took the Kansas Governorship and the State Senate in 1892. The Republicans, not willing to lose everything, fraudulently claimed to have won enough seats to control the House and refused to accept the findings of a neutral commission. An armed mob attacked the Legislature and smashed down the doors with hammers. The state militia refused to disperse them.

The People’s Party, with its progressive platform, polled over a million votes for their presidential candidate in the 1892 election, and several members were elected to the Senate and House, mainly from the south and west. However, in 1896, the People’s Party decided to also nominate the Democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan and run a campaign solely on bi-metalism, insisting that using both silver and gold as the basis for money was superior to gold alone. Choosing to ignore the progressive planks in the platform split the party and the Republicans swept the field.

By 1898, the economy was looking better. The discovery of gold in the Yukon eased the monetary supply. Republicans and Democrats adopted some of the ideas of the Populists. One of the ideas eventually found its way, in one form or another, into Farm Support Programs beginning under FDR’s New Deal. Proposed in 1890 by Texas Agricultural Economist, Charles Macune, the Sub-Treasury Plan called for the establishment of a network of government warehouses for the storage of agricultural commodities, Farmers making use of the facilities could then draw low-interest loans of up to 80% of the value of their goods held in storage, payable in U.S. Treasury notes. This would release farmers from being forced to sell their grain in the fall at low prices to pay debts. Being free to pick the time of marketing would put more money in their pockets. The People’s Party having disintegrated, disappeared

Writing a review of Prairie Bachelor has been a challenge. What I knew about Kansas, I learned mainly from histories of the cattle industry and from western novels. And I knew nothing about the Populist Movement whatsoever. So, it took a good bit of digging to get my head around it. I give the book 5 stars. It was highly readable, it made me work and taught me things I did not know before.

Because Isaac B Werner was extremely sick the last two years of his short life and out of the public eye, he did not get the obituary he deserved for his farming accomplishments or his community service. Prairie Bachelor, published 125 years after his death, is both obituary and eulogy to an incredible individual.


Monday, May 24, 2021

Our Backyard and Kitchen Garden

 Yesterday, Sunday May 23rd, we BBQd shashlik in the back yard so I took a few pictures. The backyard is mainly grass with trees interspersed and the odd flowerbed here and there. We do not have a lawnmower and the ground may be too rough for one to be effective anyway. A few years ago we bought a gas powered weed whip. I have not used it for four years and we hire our neighbourhood handyman to cut it for us. Saturday was the first cut and the grass was tall. 

There are several pines growing along the divider to the kitchen garden

Japanese Peonies, (I think)

Tanya has several white ones too and wants to get some yellow ones

Our Quince tree in the last stages of blossoming

This young spruce is growing quite well.

Tanya planted shrubs and bushes between her flower garden and the back yard

These two spruce were planted in 2009 when we went to Truskavets

Blank looking places are corn, cucs and other vines. Very slow so far

Carrots thinned once

Beets thinned once

Monday, May 17, 2021

Remembering the Farm: Water, Wells and Dugouts

 Potable water in adequate amounts was a problem on many Saskatchewan farms. Bored or hand dug wells 3' in diameter could only go down so far. If there was water, it was usually Ok for drinking but amounts would vary from place to place and year to year. Surface water could be collected in dams or dugouts but spring runoff was undependable and if the level got too low, quality was terrible.  Drilled deep wells were not a thing until I was a kid. You could always hit water if you drilled deep enough but for example south of Kindersley towards the river, you hit Bearpaw Shale and the water was so hard you had to cut if off the tap with an axe.

The availability of water and one's willingness to pump it by hand were initial determinants of how many livestock were kept on the farm. Some farmers bought a pumpjack and used a gas engine to pump water. My father pumped by hand prior to getting electricity in spring of 1953. I do not know how many cows or horses we had when I was very small but I remember him filling the trough in winter and letting the animals out of the old barn to drink. 

Diagram of a hand operated piston pump
Our well was about 100 feet from the house and down hill from the barn however runoff was not an issue, thank goodness. It was about 30' deep and had a wooden cribbing that extended above the ground. The pump was a cylinder type as shown. The cylinder could be any distance from the pump that you cared to lift water but could not be more than 15' from the water surface as it required atmospheric pressure to lift the water to fill the vacuum created by the piston. If the check valve at the bottom of the cylinder leaked, you would have to prime the pump to make it work.

The farm well, long retired 
We kids carried water from the well to the house in 3 gallon pails. While we were milking cows (up to 1960) the well also served to cool and store cream which was in long 5 gallon cans lowered almost to the water surface on chains. 

Dad bought a pumpjack finally and ran it with an electric motor. That made life a lot easier for all of us. The barn yard used to come down to where the fence is now and a trough was located just inside the fence. We would carry water to animals that could not come to the trough, eg pigs, chickens, or cattle in the other barn. 

Dad wanted a pressurized watering system that he could trench to the house and other parts of the farm. So in the early 60's he had a well drilled about 50' SE of the old well. It went down 200'. He sent a sample to be tested and the results came back not fit for human or animal consumption. It was high in Magnesium Sulfate, Calcium Sulfate, Iron and what else. Too late. Advice ignored. It was duly trenched to the corrals and barn and eventually to the house.

Using an air compressor to pump water
We used an air compressor to pump water with for the longest time. That is the simplest cheapest trick I ever saw. Half inch pipe going down, inch and a quarter coming up. The deeper the well the better it worked. It would take a while to build up enough pressure but then the water would come in spurts. Before we had the water trenched to the corrals and barn, we just had a plastic hose coming out of the well. When you were done pumping in winter, you had to drain the hose thoroughly or it would freeze up. Pressure would build up until the pop valve on the air compressor would let go. Then you went to the house and got a kettle of boiling water which you poured into the end of the plastic hose and lifted it so the water would run to melt the ice. 

One day I looked into the end of the pipe, just as it let go. Chunks of ice hit me in the forehead at 100 psi. Missed my eye by so much but I had a great gash. Hauled into Wilkie Hospital. "How did you do that?" "I bit myself."  "How can you bite yourself on the forehead?" "I stood on a chair." Sometimes you wait your whole life for someone to feed you straight lines like that. They almost left me to bleed to death but it would have been worth it.

The water was not fit to drink. How it affected the animals that were forced to drink it, I can't say but I am sure it reduced their productivity considerably. The worst was the iron content and iron bacteria. It ate metal faster than it could be replaced. It stained everything yellow rusty. Two iron filters wouldn't even touch it. Mom could not use it to cook or wash clothes. It was used for dishes, bathing, and flushing toilets. They hauled drinking water from Landis 7 km away. They did laundry in Wilkie. Mom used it to water her garden but I don't think it was very good for that either.

We had 240 acres of pasture north of us. Cattle depended on sloughs for water but it wasn't always there. there was an old well about a quarter of a mile north of us in a low spot surrounded by a slough that dad hand pumped to water the cattle in summer on occasion. It wasn't the best well but it was there. PFRA was paying a major portion of the cost for farmers to build dugouts so in the mid 50s, Dad had one dug in the same location as the old well. It served us well for many years. When it was new the water was clean and soft so we hauled it for mom to wash.

It didn't stay clean for long. The cattle drank from the ends of the dugout in summer and tramped mud down into it. Starting in 1960, Dad wintered the cattle in the bush not far from the dugout. We hauled feed to them and cut ice on the dugout for them to drink. After many years of this the dugout got very fouled with manure and if the spring runoff was low, the water was so thick, you could almost shovel it.

Eventually it needed cleaning out. I'm not sure of the year but it was after Mom and Dad died that a backhoe came in and dredged it out so the water would be clean and the holding volume of the dugout restored. Dugouts should be fenced and the water pumped out to the cattle. Improved productivity of healthier cattle pays for it and then some. However...

Dugout prior to cleaning.

Dredging out the muck

Good spring runoff

Exceptional spring runoff


Monday, May 10, 2021

Tanya's Flowers May 10, 2021

 Tanya, Lina and I took pictures of Tanya's flowers yesterday and today. Some of Tanya's are on FB. Ours is just one yard in the neighbourhood filled with flowers from snow melt to snow fly. Our neighbour Lucia's yard is also filled with flowers. The fronts of many yards along the streets where Lucky and I walk are filled with flowers. Flowers require work but little or no money. Lawns require money to keep them looking good. As well, the surrounding country side has fruit trees in blossom everywhere, too. Click pictures to enlarge.

One of our apple trees

Apple blossoms

Sour cherry trees

My rhubarb plant. Maybe pies next year?

Tanya's 65 petunia plants will fill in gaps

These three Lace Peonies have bloomed in this spot for 30 years

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Animal Mothers and Babies

 A few of the hundreds of pictures of animals I have collected from the internet. I do not own these pictures and if anyone does, I will cheerfully delete them. Click to enlarge.