by Ralph Brauer | 10/16/2007 11:24:00 PM
North Dakota Homesteader

Sources that cause us to reexamine our history sometimes appear in strange places, among them an abandoned grain elevator on the desolate North Dakota plains that now harbors dead and dying towns where the winds sweep down from the north making a peculiar keening sound as they blow through broken glass windows and unhinged doors. The conventional view has seen the history of these towns in terms of the rugged individualism many associate with the American frontier, but what lies in that grain elevator offers an alternative perspective.

A close friend whose genealogical research helped to inspire my book The Strange Death of Liberal America sent me an email the other day telling me what he had found in that Williams County, North Dakota grain elevator where he had been researching a fascinating book about immigrant life on the high plains. What he excitedly wrote me about is that he found evidence that the county's welfare program dates back to the early 1900s.

This confirms what other historians have found in other areas of rural America: that the idea of government coming to the aid of the needy did not begin with the New Deal. Of course, it has been common knowledge that there were limited reforms during the early 1900s. Missouri established the first widow’s pension in 1911, followed by 39 other states. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives, introduced the 1921 Sheppard-Towner bill which provided federal funds to local health departments for maternal and child health. But family aid programs like those in Williams County are a revelation for in implementing what today we term welfare they anticipated the New Deal.

Perhaps the most influential historical work I have read in the last four year is Delivering Aid: Implementing Progressive Era Social Welfare in the American West by Thomas Krainz. He confirms that programs like those in Williams County also existed in Colorado. In an impressive series of accompanying tables, Krainz shows that four Colorado counties provided aid ranging from $4.97 to $30.90 per month to almost 2,000 people. Perhaps the most fascinating table shows the number and percentages of people sent away without aid, with Lincoln County being the highest at 32.91% while the other counties have numbers in the single digits.

According to the meeting minutes Big Meadow Township in North Dakota had a similar program. In his family history my friend observed:

The township board also considered charity cases even before a welfare program was systematically organized at the state level. There was a very limited welfare program, but welfare nevertheless. Lack of funds prevented the township from doing much, but even when they did nothing, they gave the requests serious consideration.

The fascinating question is why are these local efforts finally coming to light? One obvious reason lies in the changing nature of American historical research as a new generation of graduate students and young historians has focused not on the big names and big events, but on the American people themselves. Their resources have included oral histories, material culture and forgotten records such as those Krainz uncovered. He reports rummaging through attics and dank basements to find those records which the counties themselves had all but forgotten. My friend reports the Williams County records reside in that abandoned grain elevator and were rescued only through the efforts of his nephew, a county official who thought the records should be preserved rather than go to the landfill.

I believe that records like these exist across America lying forgotten in forgotten places waiting for someone like Krainz or my friend to bring them back from what literally have become mouldy tombs. Sadly, many such records no longer are in salvageable condition while others have already been destroyed. So if you are reading this article, please for history's sake make sure your local government preserves its records.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. If, as I suspect, counties across the rural Midwest and perhaps elsewhere had programs like those in Colorado and Williams County, they cast an entirely new light on a key period in this nation's past. We know the Progressive Era inspired a host of reforms, but the histories of this period tend to view this largely as a top down activity. The county records suggest it also may have percolated from the bottom up.

Even more important they suggest that those like Karl Rove, who believe the late nineteenth and early twentieth century marked the triumph of laissez-faire government, may be perpetuating a myth. This myth--and Williams County and Colorado show it is a myth--stresses that a great many government officials sided with William Graham Sumner and others who thought that charity was a waste of time. Sumner advocated:

The next time that you are tempted to subscribe a dollar to a charity, I do not tell you not to do it, because after you have fairly considered the matter, you may think it right to do it, but I do ask you to stop and remember the Forgotten Man and understand that if you put your dollar in the savings bank it will go to swell the capital of the country which is available for division amongst those who, while they earn it, will reproduce it with increase.

These records should cause us to rethink the fundamental American myth that the frontier was populated by rugged individualists who wanted nothing to do with "big government." What Krainz and the Williams County experience suggest is that far from disdaining government, these rural homesteaders and pioneers welcomed it as a "safety net" against unforeseen setbacks.

A farmer whose arm disappeared between grinding gears, a widow trying to make a go of it after her husband had succumbed to a fatal ailment, had their lives jerked out from under them through no fault of their own, the way someone clumsily yanks off a table cloth, leaving everything to crash to the floor. No doubt the calculations made by county and township boards sometimes relied on prejudices and local circumstances so that, as Krainz points out, aid amounts and practices varied widely, but that does not diminish the principle behind their actions.

One of the most despicable aspects of the current Republican Counterrevolution lies in its attempt to rewrite American history. In my previous essay on Ronald Reagan, Nonpartisan quite eloquently suggested Reagan was a "history assassin." The same could be said about the Counterrevolution which began with his presidency. In their zeal to roll back the reforms of the New Deal and the Progressive Era, these modern disciples of Sumner have preached a "survival of the fittest" individualism that would have made George W. Bush's fellow Skull and Bones member proud. The GOP preaches that government programs do not work, that the New Deal was a fraud and only World War II brought the nation out of the Great Depression.

The latest entry in this attempt to denigrate the fundamental belief of Liberal America--and American Democracy--comes from Amity Schlaes who attempts to turn Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Forgotten Man" speech upside down saying the true victims of the New Deal were the likes of Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh plutocrat who was a Sumner disciple. It was Mellon who said:

Give tax breaks to large corporations, so that money can trickle down to the general public, in the form of extra jobs.

The unfortunate consequence of the Counterrevolution is that many Americans have bought its assertion that "government is the problem." They think the idea of government helping people in need is some crackpot idea FDR hatched with the aid of pipe-smoking professors. They believe that Main Street had little use for what is now derisively referred to as welfare.

But welfare existed on the high plains long before the WPA, hatched not by college professors but by plain folks, many of them new immigrants or children of immigrants who had come from places where you literally starved to death or found yourself in indentured slavery if you had a run of bad luck. These people believed that this nation like the hardscrabble land they homesteaded was a blank slate upon which anyone could write new rules for government. One idea they wrote onto that slate was that government could help people in need.

Thomas Krainz details how on October 23, 1912:

Mary Yoder appeared before the Lincoln County commissioners. Recently widowed with three children, “she asked the county commissioners for help. For the next two years and eight months, commissioners provided Yoder and her children with assistance in the form of supplies, coal and medicine.”

I believe historians like my friend and Krainz literally are rewriting the American past. Much as feminist historians and people of color have destroyed old myths about the passivity of slave culture and the domesticity of American women, these historians of rural America have uncovered a different vision of what Main Street believed and acted upon. America is not a place that disdains welfare, rather it embraced it in counties across the high plains. It was not rugged individualism but collaboration that enabled those homesteaders to survive.

These historians are painting a radically different vision of America, a vision that is not Sumner's but that of Williams County. Just as the GOP Counterrevolution seems on the verge of convincing the nation that government is--in Ronald Reagan's words--the "problem," while the Democrats triangulate and bottle Republican Lite, we are discovering the true soul of America in the people of Williams County who believed government had a moral as well as civic obligation to keep the playing field level.

None of the candidates in this election seem aware of this history and none of them embrace it on the moral grounds that moved those on the high plains. Maybe that stems from not having to grow up in a place that for all practical purposes was still a medieval civilization. Maybe that stems from never having experienced being quarantined on Ellis Island where they were poked and prodded in the most intimate places by callous officials who sorted them like cattle and then gave them new names because they could not pronounce the old ones or misspelled them. Maybe it stems from never knowing what it was like to leave Ellis Island with barely enough money to book a train to the promised land, something relatives frequently helped with (another distortion of the current debate about immigration). Then came the brutal work that our generation cannot really grasp, as the new Americans lived in dugouts, sod houses, and tents until they could hand dig a well and begin the hard life of a rural farmer.

During the years Willams County and those counties in Colorado were instituting their welfare policies, the one presidential candidate who understood them was William Jennings Bryan, who today is regarded as a fundamentalist crackpot just one step removed from insanity. The denigration of Bryan and the forgotten records of the Williams Counties of America go hand in hand, for to denigrate Bryan is to denigrate his people and to denigrate his people is to denigrate Bryan.

All this causes me to wonder if another selective memory is not at work today. For example, little attention has been paid to the grassroots efforts of people of color that are growing day by day into a new Civil Rights Movement and the efforts of women and union workers who insist that government can do something to help level what has become a tilted playing field.

Contemporary historians and grassroots organizers may be carving out yet another major turn in the American experience. Like those in the Revolutionary generation they cannot quite articulate it, but rest assured it will have as its moral foundation the idea that government exists to keep the playing field level. I may not live to see that day, but my son will because he is one of those working on it.

So when you have dark nights as we all do and wonder whether this election will truly mean anything, then comfort yourself with the thought that history is on your side. Yes, eventually good people can win--it sometimes just takes awhile. While the Republicans view the American people with skepticism if not fear, most people do have an innate goodness and sense of justice.

Those people on the high plains did harbor an explosive idea whose power comes from helping their neighbors instead of pursuing "survival or the fittest" competition. If more grain elevators, attics and cellars harbor similar revelations it promises to create a chain reaction that will redefine the most sacred myth of the American past.

This view of the American people echoes what Ma Joad said in her memorable speech at the end of John Ford's Grapes of Wrath:

Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’l go on forever, Pa.

We’re the people.



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Anonymous Mark Gordon on 2/17/2009 6:10 PM:

thanks for the great read Ralph. I really enjoyed it. I'm not from Williams county. I am from another poor county in ND, Hettinger county.