Category Archives: Literature

The Pioneers by David McCullough

I know enough history and geography to have understood that settling the Midwest could not have been easy. However, reading David McCullough’s book The Pioneers, about the first settlers in Ohio, really brought home not only how hard it was but also how remarkable the people were who were involved in this endeavor. As noted on the book’s cover, it was this period that “brought the American Ideal West.” Even before the U.S. Constitution was finished, the plans for what would become the American Heartland had a document guaranteeing religious liberty and banning slavery.

The book introduces us to people few remember but who played almost unimaginably important roles in not simply expanding westward but in creating what the U.S. would become.

Granted, there were difficulties—not just those of trying to build homes in a dauntingly inhospitable wilderness, but also those of conflicts, from the cultural conflicts with Native Americans to Aaron Burr plotting to split the country. But the triumphs were greater—starting with the plan for the new territory.

The Northwest Territory—so called because it was north of the Ohio River (the only relatively easy way to travel west) and west of the original colonies—was ceded to the U.S. after the Revolution by the British, who had taken it from the French. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was the document that established that the creation of states was intended, but also set forth the three priorities of those who were working toward settlement of the area: freedom of religion, absolutely no slavery, and an emphasis on education for everyone.

The Northwest Ordinance would have a tremendous impact on the nation’s future. McCullough notes that it has been compared in importance to the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

However, it is the individuals who make the story riveting. Heroes from the American Revolution, visionaries, builders, explorers, wives, children, doctors, traitors, troublemakers—a remarkable cast of characters populate this history. The hardships were numerous and included floods, plagues, earthquakes, economic depression, the War of 1812 (when the British thought they could retake “their” colonies), and the fact that the Little Ice Age (which ended in the mid-1800s) made winters snowier and colder than what we experience today.

A description of one of the key people in the successful settlement of what would become Marietta, Ohio, pretty well established what the pioneers were like—and why they succeeded. “Like so many born and raised on a New England farm in the eighteenth century and who served in the Revolutionary War, Rufus Putnam had known hard work and hardships, great sorrow and seemingly insurmountable obstacles most of his life. It was what was to be expected, just as one was expected to measure up.”

I could go on for much longer—so much to love and so much to learn. We are fortunate that most of these people kept diaries or wrote long letters (John and Abigail Adams were not alone in this tradition), leaving so many details. And we are fortunate that Mr. McCullough has gathered the stories into this book. As important as the Founding Fathers were, without a lot of other brave, visionary folks, the American ideal might never have made its way west.

If you have any love of history, I recommend this book to you.

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Indian Mounds

Traveling around the Midwest, one encounters a surprising number of Indian Mounds—ancient earthworks created by people actually identified as Mound Builders. This is not a single group, but rather a cultural trend among early Native American people who, for various reasons, created a wide range of mounds, from the pyramid-like Monks Mound at Cahokia to a range of animal effigy mounds to simple hills to mark events or burial sites.

I had always thought it was really lucky that so many of these mounds still existed in the region. However, I’m currently reading David McCullough’s wonderful book, The Pioneers, and he makes it clear that it was not luck. It, in fact, reflects the remarkable foresight and wide education and interests of those who built the nation, and particularly those who established the first settlements in what would become the Midwest—at the end of the American Revolution, a region then known as the Northwest Territory.

McCullough’s immensely worthwhile book is not about the Mound Builders (they had vanished centuries and even millennia before Europeans ever caught sight of the Americas)—but it does give us insight into why so many mounds remain.

McCullough details the reactions of both those making the first foray into the land so recently won from the British and those back East to whom they reported. The leader of the first party of settlers, Rufus Putnam, made careful maps of what he called the “Ancient Works.” There was much excitement focused on these mounds and earthworks. When Thomas Jefferson heard of them, he expressed his enthusiasm for studying them further. Putnam, after careful study, wrote about how perfect the work was, and he set aside the land on which mounds were found as parks and areas of study, not open to settlement or alteration.

I guess it is not entirely surprising, given the tremendous insight people at the time had of what was worth building and what was worth saving—insight demonstrated in the Declaration of Independence and in new Constitution being developed at the time of this exploration. What a remarkable period of time—and what a blessing that they had the foresight to protect both our freedoms and the antiquities they encountered. Only half way through the book and so looking forward to the rest of it.

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Giants in the Earth

It is probably not going to come as too much of a surprise that I enjoy reading books about the Midwest and its history. There are more such books than some might imagine—some of them true classics. One of the classics is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag. I read this shortly after returning from visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which plays a part in the story—but also has a small park that has preserved buildings associated with the author and the people from whom he learned the stories that are the foundation of the book.

It is difficult to convey how wonderful this book is. Everything–characters, setting, life — is beautifully and lovingly drawn. You feel you really come to know the people and the setting. The stories are fictionalized but are based on the very real experiences, both triumphant and tragic, of Norwegians settling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s–based, in fact, on the recollections of children and grandchildren of the first settlers. The events are both astonishing and ordinary — from locust plagues and record snowstorms (so deep houses were buried) to simple meals and childbearing. The book makes it clear that, even when there weren’t disasters, life in the middle of nowhere was not easy, and harder for some than others.

The book also does an excellent job of reminding us that, in the 1800s, the Old World was very different from what it is today, when sharing a common country didn’t mean you shared anything else, such as dialects, traditions, and livelihoods, but it also shows how life on the frontier caused former strangers to meld together into a new people.

Interestingly, this book was written in Norwegian for Norwegians (though it was translated, happily, while the author was still alive, so he could shepherd the effort, making sure ideas and nuances were saved), so it is in some ways very Norwegian, and yet it is also very American, recounting the daunting task of surviving in the wilderness. (And if you get the version shown above, the intro includes the story of Rolvaag’s coming to the U.S., which is also a remarkable tale.)

The story moves at a leisurely pace. It’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is endlessly fascinating, drawing you in and carrying you along. It is also an important piece of American history, here saved from the excesses and interpretations of TV and movies. Highly recommended.

As an aside, related to the image on the cover: few things seem more representative of the American West than tumbleweeds, and yet these, too, were transplants. They were accidentally introduced by Russians who were settling in South Dakota. The seeds of the tumbleweed had gotten mixed in with the flax seed that they were planting. So while it is iconic today, it, too, is a relative newcomer.

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New Book Coming

While this blog is titled Midwest Maize, after my first book of food history, it will have to do for future food history and Midwest-oriented books, as I can’t quite imagine starting a new blog with every book.

Which is why I’m using it to introduce my next book: Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. The book won’t be out for a couple of months, but it is already on Amazon, with a few reviews and the option of pre-ordering. So in case you thought I might have stopped studying after I wrote about corn, I didn’t.

Pigs were once known as cornfields on legs, because the easiest way to get pigs to market was to feed it to pigs and then let the pigs walk to market. So the connection between pigs and corn in the Midwest dates to the earliest settlement of the region. However, the history of humans and pigs dates back a lot longer than that–current estimate is 12,000 years of association. So there are a lot of tales of pigs through history, from the Celts inventing bacon to the Etruscans leading herds by playing trumpets. But the book isn’t all history. There are visits to farms and interviews with experts ranging from swine technicians to butchers and chefs to waste management specialists. There are some iconic regional recipes. And there are lot of the kinds of fun facts that make food history so enthralling.

On top of entertaining folks, I’m hoping this book will contribute to closing the gap between what people think about food and how it actually gets to us. There are a tremendous number of really good, decent, dedicated people working very hard to make sure you don’t starve. Come and meet a few of them in my books.

You can check it out here: Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs.

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Jonathan Swift on Agriculture

In Gulliver’s Travels, author Jonathan Swift made use of the unusual characters Gulliver met to make comments (often critical) on society as a whole.

After listening in horror to Gulliver’s tales of European conflicts and politics, the prince of Brobdingnag, a land of giants, responds with a statement that reflects Swift’s outlook. Being agricultural in nature, it seems appropriate for this blog.

And he gave it for his opinion, “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

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2017 Eric Hoffer Award

The Eric Hoffer Awards for 2017 were announced yesterday. This is an award designed to recognize exceptional writing from small, academic, or independent publishers that don’t usually get the attention that the big publishing houses get. While Midwest Maize didn’t get the top prize, I was awarded an Honorable Mention, which, given the thousands of books submitted, is still gratifying.

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Ray Bradbury and Carnegie Library

In July of last year, I posted about the remarkable rags-to-riches story of Andrew Carnegie and the thousands of libraries he built with the money he made, as a demonstration of his belief that education was vital to success. Iconic, award-winning American fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury was among the millions who benefited from having a local Carnegie Library.

Born in Waukegan, IL, in 1920, Bradbury had started writing by the time he was eleven. He was an avid reader, and he spent much of his childhood at the Carnegie Library in Waukegan. “Libraries raised me,” Bradbury once said. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Bradbury’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and Bradbury became incredibly famous, with awards ranging from the Pulitzer to an Oscar. His fans are legion.

Today, the Waukegan Carnegie Library is in disrepair, but efforts have begun to restore and renovate it, not just as a library, but as a memorial to Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library, Inc., has as its goal the creation of a “Theater of the mind,” where one can admire the restored library but also have a memorable “Ray Bradbury experience.”

At this stage, the library is not yet available for visitors, but the organization that is doing the renovation is hoping that they can interest both scholars and donors in contributing to their efforts to bring “Bradbury’s library” to life. To donate or to sign up for their email newsletter, visit http://www.bradburycarnegie.org/ (not just for project updates, but also for information on opportunities, such as tours of Bradbury’s Waukegan or presentations on Bradbury’s work). Of course, if you live nearby, if you’re a fan of Bradbury or Carnegie, they’d be glad to have you join the team.

 

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Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys

Life has always changed, but in the last 150 years, the rate of change has steadily increased. Where it once took at least hundreds and often thousands of years for noticeable changes to be witnessed in cultures, societies, or day-to-day life, today, the change seems to be monthly. There are points in time, however, at which there were sudden bursts of change, and the late 1800s represented such a period. In the last decades of the century, we saw the birth of everything from skyscrapers to popcorn poppers to automobiles to department stores. In the U.S., there was also a tremendous surge of people away from farming. Factory jobs offered income not reliant on fickle weather patterns, and big cities offered conveniences not found in the country. These benefits drew people in increasing numbers away from farms. The U.S. changed from a country where most people lived in rural areas and raised crops to a country where city dwellers vastly outnumbered their country cousins. There were also vast numbers who were looking for easy wealth, and they flooded to the world’s gold fields, whether in California, the Yukon Territory, or even in Australia, as noted in the work below. Whatever the draw—reliable income, urban delights, or “easy” wealth—people left the farms in droves during this period.

The following poem was written by a woman named Clara F. Berry during this dynamic period. Published in 1871, it reflects not only these trends but also the sense of loss felt by those who knew that the choices being made were not necessarily better choices, just different.

Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys
Clara F. Berry 1871

Come boys, I have something to tell you,
Come near, I would whisper it low,
You’re thinking of leaving the homestead,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The city has many attractions,
But think of the vices and sins,
When once in the vortex of fashion,
How soon the course downward begins.

You talk of the mines of Australia,
They’re wealthy in gold without doubt,
But sh! There is gold on the farm, boys,
If only you’d shovel it out.
The mercantile trade is a hazard,
The goods are first high and then low,
Best risk the old farm a while longer,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The great busy west has inducements,
And so has the business mart,
But wealth is not made in a day, boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to start.
The bankers and brokers are wealthy,
They take in their thousand or so,
And think of the frauds and deceptions,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The farm is the safest and surest,
The orchards are loaded today,
You’re free as the air of the mountains,
And monarch of all you survey.
Best stay on the farm a while longer,
Though profits come in rather slow,
Remember you’ve nothing to risk boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

 

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Best of 2015

I’m happy to relate that my book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, has been listed as one of the 9 best nonfiction books of 2015 by the Chicago Book Review.

I write to connect with people, as well as to inform, and I am delighted by the realization that the book is connecting with some.

If you’re interested in the list, you can find it here: Chicago Book Review Best of 2015.

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Midwest Maize on Sale on Amazon

I’m not certain why — perhaps we’re nearing the end of the first print run — or maybe it’s because I’ve been getting more newspaper and radio interviews lately, so demand has gone up — who knows — but for some reason, Midwest Maize has been put on sale on Amazon, and the price is so low, if you manage to escape paying shipping, it’s less than what I pay with my author discount.

So if you were thinking about buying the book, this is the time. I have no idea how long the sale will last — maybe just until the 17 books Amazon now says they have on hand are gone. But this would be a good time to get the book if you were thinking about it.

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MIDWEST MAIZE: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland

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