Category Archives: Video

Beck’s “Why I Farm” Series

Beck’s Hybrids is a seed company that serves much of the Midwest, plus Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ve seen their signs at the sides of fields as I’ve driven around the Midwest, doing research for various books. But it was on YouTube that I really came to love them. A few years ago, they started a series of videos titled “Why I Farm,” featuring farmers in the region they cover—they actually sent someone out on the road to do interviews and record images—and the videos are wonderful. They are remarkably well made, with beautiful images and heartwarming stories of families who have been on the land for many generations, making sure the rest of us have enough to eat. Thought I’d share a couple here, but then you can just go to YouTube, search for Why I Farm, and see some of the others. I’m grateful to Beck’s for their having made these videos. We need to know farmers and appreciate them. And for what it’s worth, my experience with farmers as I’ve traveled around the region matches what is shown in these videos—solid, hard-working, loving, generous, open, creative, smart, God-fearing people who see themselves as stewards of the land and cherish what they do. Perhaps it is my own experience with farmers that makes these videos resonate. But I’m hoping they’ll appeal to others, as well.

Of the two I picked, the first one is very short, just to get you started—you can pick longer ones if you enjoy these as much as I do. The second one I included because it’s fun—a seventh-generation farm family that also makes great music, in this case, a song they wrote as response to the Why I Farm project. Because farmers can do a lot more than till the soil. Oh—and all the photos they show in the music video are from the family of those who are singing. Because they are real farmers.

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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, History, Midwest, Thoughts, Video

Fred Harvey and the Taming of the West

My first experience of Fred Harvey’s work was as a child, driving with my family across Illinois. Every now and again, the highway is crossed by an oasis, a structure that bridges the highway and offers gasoline, restrooms, and food. Today, the food is an array of fast-food places, but when I was young, the entire dining area was a Harvey House Restaurant. Fred Harvey’s restaurants were nice places, with white tablecloths and good food. In the 1950s, people who weren’t even traveling would go to the oases to eat at Fred Harvey restaurants.

By the time I was experiencing them, the restaurants were run by Harvey’s sons, as Harvey had died in 1901. But Fred Harvey was famous, not only in his day, but long afterwards. He was the man who invented the restaurant chain, but more than that, he was the man who tamed the wild west.

During the Civil War, Harvey, who had experience in the restaurant business, had witnessed the importance of railways but also saw that feeding travelers was a real problem. (This was before trains had dining cars.) He came up with the idea of creating and running restaurants in train depots, starting with the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway, which connected Kansas (Atchison and Topeka) with the rapidly opening West. He brought in fine china and imported linens, as well as good cooks, but the juicy steaks the menu featured were not the key element of his operation. He brought in hundreds of Harvey Girls to serve in the restaurants. Knowing of the serious shortage of females on the frontier (and at this time, Kansas was still the frontier), many single women were eager for the opportunity the restaurants afforded. Uniforms (iconic outfits with black dresses and starched white aprons), accommodations, and transportation were all supplied, as well as a salary. Contracts simply required the girls to work for one year before leaving to accept a marriage proposal. Starting in Topeka in 1876, by 1891, Harvey had 15 locations.

The restaurants and their efficient, well-trained servers became so much a part of Western culture that they became the subject of a 1946 movie titled (not too surprisingly) The Harvey Girls, starring (among others) Judy Garland. The movie’s best-known song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” won an Academy Award.

Here’s a trailer for the movie, just to give you an idea how big Fred Harvey’s idea was.

If you want to know more and happen to be in Kansas, there is a National Fred Harvey Museum in Leavenworth. Alternatively, you could pick up Stephen Fried’s book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time (Bantam; 2010).

But it is a remarkable bit of history.

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Kansas and African Americans

To a greater extent than possibly any other Midwestern state, African Americans were a key element of early Kansas history. Prior to the Civil War, the people settling Kansas wanted to create a free state, where African Americans could be safe. Neighboring slave state, Missouri, was just as determined in their efforts to spread slavery to the new state. This led to armed conflict even before the Civil War, and the state became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

But Kansas was a safe, or at least safer, place for African Americans, both those escaping slavery and those already free, and after the Civil War, there was a major influx. A number of all-African American towns were created, of which Nicodemus is the only one remaining. The famous Buffalo Soldiers were brought together at Fort Leavenworth, KS, to form the 9th and 10th Cavalry. It was the Native Americans who called the African American cavalry troops Buffalo Soldiers, though the reason is not certain. Some say it is because of the similarity of their hair to the curly coats of the American buffalo (aka bison), some say it was because of the buffalo robes they wore in the winter, and others that it was because they fought as fiercely as a wounded buffalo. Whatever the real reason for the name, the Buffalo soldiers established a reputation as being among the best troops in the West.

Knowing this history of Kansas and African Americans, I had arranged to visit The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM) while in Wichita. This museum is a relatively recent project, but the building that houses it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1917, the Calvary Baptist Church became a cornerstone of the city’s African American community. When it ceased to operate as a church, it was seen as the ideal location for commemorating the history of African Americans in Kansas and across the U.S.

Because I was doing some actual research in town (working on a new book—so stay tuned), I had been offered a guide. I had the great good fortune to spend my time at the museum with Dr. Lona Reeves, who was delightful, knowledgeable, and happy to share from her vast store of insights and experience.

We started on the ground floor, which is mostly reserved for events. However, the walls are hung with artwork by contemporary African American artist, and at the back of the room, there are displays of objects—mostly wooden carvings—from Africa. Then we headed to the second floor, where photographs and biographies are hung all the way around the perimeter, recounting people and events of significance, largely but not only from Kansas.

Because of the move of so many African Americans to Kansas, among those biographies there was a remarkable range of famous people who were born in or moved to or lived in Kansas at some point. Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African American to win an Oscar, was born in Wichita. George Washington Carver moved to Kansas at age 13. Photographer and first African American Hollywood director Gordon Parks was born in Kansas, as was Charlie “Bird” Parker. Famously associated with Harlem, Langston Hughes lived in Lawrence, KS, for many years. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, KS. It was lovely seeing so many “firsts” and remarkable accomplishments memorialized.

There were a fair number of things that were new to me. I learned that Ronald Waters helped stage the first successful sit-in—which was done in Wichita well before the more famous one that occurred in North Carolina. (The down side of remoteness is that heroic actions may not get noticed by major media.) Buffalo soldier Ruben Waller was born into slavery, gained his freedom, had a successful military career, and lived to 105. Oscar Micheaux, the first African American movie maker, produced a movie in answer to the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” One of my favorite surprises (being primarily a food historian) was Junius Groves, who was an agricultural scientist and entrepreneur who was once known as “the potato king of the world,” and who became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the U.S.

At one spot, Lona Reeves pointed to a photo and told me the man pictured was a relative. It was Bass Reeves. I was happy to be able to tell her that I knew who Bass Reeves was, thanks to The History Guy on YouTube. Dr. Reeves was delighted to learn that there was a video recounting this history. Here’s the video I had seen—relating the tale of this real-life Lone Ranger. (And also making it clear that a lot of cowboys were African American.)

After my tour, I met with Ted Ayres, who told me about the Kansas African American History Trail project that he coordinates. Hoping to get more people, including African Americans, interested in this history, museums and historic sites on the “trail” issue “passports,” which get stamped each time you visit a new location. Like so many people who want to reach a larger audience, they have turned to the Internet, and here is a video (the first of two) to introduce people to the idea of the History Trail.

Vastly more could be shared—but I figure I need to leave something for you to discover on your own. But now I have my History Trail passport with the first stamp on it.

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Getting A Wichita History Overview

One afternoon was well spent in the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, which used to be the Wichita City Hall. (And reflecting this, not only has “Mayor’s Office” been stenciled in gold on one of the windows, but inside, the original office has been reproduced as it was in the late 1800s.) The imposing building, opened in 1892, makes it clear that the city’s founders had a great sense of Wichita’s potential importance—which was not unreasonable, given that Wichita in 1890 was the fastest-growing city in the U.S., and it is today the largest city in Kansas.

This museum is the perfect place to get a sense of the trajectory of Wichita’s history. There were many new things to learn, but even when the displays were of people, places, or events I’d seen or read about previously, I found it tremendously worthwhile, as it pulls everything together, as well as expanding on the already familiar.

The city’s founding followed the Civil War, so the displays, like the town, start in 1865. Photos of the earliest years included buildings I’d seen at Old Cowtown Museum, reaffirming their authenticity. (Photography had become fairly widespread during the Civil War, so Wichita’s history was well documented from the start.) Presentations flowed from explorers and early founders well into the 20th century. I learned that William Mathewson had earned the name “Buffalo Bill” well before William Cody gained that title. Mathewson was an explorer, hunter, and Indian scout who, later in life, once he’d settled in Wichita, was able to host Cody’s Wild West Show on his land.

Wyatt Earp (who preferred words to guns), grasshopper plagues (“darkened the sky like a storm”), and Billy the Kid transitioned into the Victorian era (and there is an entire, splendidly furnished Victorian cottage reproduced on one floor) and then moved into aviation, the Jones car company, the soda fountain, and, in 1932 in Wichita, the first public performance on an electric guitar (Gage Brewer playing the first Rickenbacker).

There are a handful of videos among the displays, reflecting the changes and accomplishments in Wichita and the county. Happily, thanks to the museum’s having a YouTube channel, the trailer for an early movie about Wichita is available online, and not just in the museum. Wichita was a happening place in the 1940s.

I had many pages of notes by the time I left. So much history—but history familiar because of books and TV, and even my grandparents’ and parents’ lives and stories—so a history to which I felt really connected. One more place that one should definitely see in Wichita.

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“Smarter Every Day” Looks at Grain Bins

I have long enjoyed the video channel “Smarter Every Day.” It offers insights into how a lot of things work. However, host Destin has now truly endeared himself to me by focusing on farmers — and pointing out just how much farmers need to know to make things work. I already knew about the bins (I cover the invention of corn bins and drying equipment in my book <em>Midwest Maize), and I knew farmers were smart (and most of the farmers I know have multiple degrees, in subjects ranging from monogastric nutrition to economics to agricultural communication), but it’s lovely to see someone else enthusiastic about everything that goes into keeping a farm going — and us fed. What you see here goes on all over the country, with bins filled with corn, beans, wheat, lentils, peas, garbanzos, barley, and more.

Oh — and that “danger” element Destin mentions — farming is considered second only to coal mining, as far as danger. So no one is farming because it’s easy. It can be hard to make a profit, but most of the farmers I know love the land–and love knowing that they are feeding people.

Here’s Destin’s video.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Video

Making Bacon

Being wildly busy these day, I’ve been relying on great videos to keep this blog interesting, rather than writing essays to post about places I’ve traveled in the Midwest (though more of that will be coming). I won’t apologize for this, because these are all really worthwhile videos that I want to share anyway.

I have posted a fair number of videos by or about farmers—because that is where our food comes from. But today, I’m posting a video by a science-oriented chef who talks about how bacon is made, why you might want to try making bacon, how to cook bacon—and why bacon is so tasty. With a book out on pigs, I simply couldn’t resist. Enjoy.

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Filed under Culture, Food, pigs, pork, Video

Fair Oaks Farms

In both Midwest Maize and Pigs, Pork and Heartland Hogs, I wrote about Fair Oaks Farms. This is a remarkable operation where the owners not only focus on safe, sustainable food with a low carbon footprint, but also want to educate the public about where food comes from. While my books look at farms of many different sizes, this is among the largest–and yet, they are so forward thinking that their carbon footprint is half that of smaller farms.

In addition to being splendidly effective farmers, they are also exceptional educators.  If you happen to live anywhere near northern Indiana, or if a driving trip will take you through the area, you definitely want to stop here. And know that if you like cheese or ice cream, you can see both being made –and can purchase an abundance of both (though other food is available, as well–but seriously, if you like cheese, this place is amazing).

Here’s a video I found in which the founders talk about their vision for the farm and why they developed it the way they did. Hope you enjoy it. And hope you get to visit.

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Filed under Agriculture, Farming, Food, Heartland Hogs, Midwest, Midwest Maize, pigs, Travel, Video