The Catholic Worker
Novice on the Land
Big Springs, Missouri
July-August, 1953, page five
Every once in a while I review all the circumstances that led Frances and me to our present setup. Collectively, they sound like something Horatio Alger dreamt about after a sardine and cake nightcap. First of all, let me say that I've always wanted to be a farmer from paper route on down, but friends and family succeeded in convincing me that a bit citied guy from Green Bay, Wisconsin, shouldn't dream about pitching manure. The idea settled comfortably in the subconscious and waited for future references. I think I almost flunked out of high school. If my Latin teacher hadn't died a month before graduation, I would have. The war came and I confused patriotism with indecision and found myself in the service at a very tender age. These years went fast though, and after it was all over I still had my indecision. College looked appetizing and so did the subjects. Let's see now, believe I started with Electrical Engineering as a major, switched to pre-med the second semester, over to English the third and rounded off my dabble in education by sampling Jesuit psychology. After that, I had nothing left to do but enter the Trappists, which I did , for an alternately stupendous and miserable four months. Everyone was very kind to me there and sometimes the thought that I would ever leave seemed absurd to say the least. I kept hounding the novice master to let me dye my brown shoes black but he wisely forestalled such a move. I think I cooperated with God's grace one afternoon out in the cow barn at Gethsemane, I crawled into a pen with a couple of little newborn calves, let them suck my fingers and wondered why in the heck I couldn't have the simplicity of the monastery, the beauty and quiet, the dedication somewhere outside.
My mother lived in Chicago now, and that's where I headed after leaving. Father Louis (Thomas Merton, the monk was his novice master) had mentioned Friendship House, so I contacted them and started spending three afternoons a week, working in the clothing room and helping out on their soup line. It was there that I met Fred O'Connell, Will Mische and Johnny Cronin and the beginnings of Peter Maurin House in Chicago. We worked together abut a year, trying to take care of ten tor twelve men at two houses and dishing out about twenty gallons of soup down on skid row each night. During this time, we held little meetings each week at some home or rectory or tavern, discussing our progress, our aims. I argued the city was no place for man. I talked of a lay monastery, lay community, a place where these fellows from skid row could live for a while, where they wouldn’t feel the ostracism of the city, where they would be just as much as home as they were on skid row. I felt that, as they were already in a more or less de-materialized state, instead of trying to rekindle the dying flame of safe and sane living by getting them jobs on docks or in hamburger joints, renting them rooms in flea bitten bird cages, we should make their monk-like reforms work for them. Everyone was patient with me and my ideas An idea is one thing, its fulfillment quite another. I needed land for my project and I had no money. I tried to work at different jobs and save what I needed or thought I needed. I”d get a few bucks together and we would suddenly need a new soup pot or the gas bill would have to be paid or the rent, or someone else would need dough to pay their rent. Well, after about a year of working and saving, I wound up with a bank book.
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I wrote to Dorothy thinking she might have some ideas and she suggested I go to some Worker farm and try out and see if I was headed in the right direction. She sent the names of twelve or fifteen and especially suggested Marty's. I wrote him and he told me to come down as soon as I wanted. That was in February of 1951. It was snowing when I arrived, and Marty was working on Ruth Ann Heaney's new home. The first time we met, he reminded me of Burgess Meredith but after knowing him a while, he reminded me of Marty. We worked that spring and all that summer together. I thought about my farm but things didn't look too promising.
One June morning, Marty decided to go into town. He planned on leaving a t seven thirty and as Mass was at seven, I told him I would meet him at a certain crossroad about a mile from church. After Communion, I kept right on walking out of church and down the road in order to catch him. I was making my thanksgiving while walking and didn't notice a truck pull up behind me. A long lean face leaned out of the window and asked me if I could use a lift. I said I was only going a short distance but would accept the ride. We hadn't gone fifty feet before he knew I was interested in buying a farm and I knew he had one to sell. His name was Ben Fischer, a legendary figure in these parts, and he asked me to take a run up to his place some day. This I did and what I saw, I liked. It was a little on the huge side, almost four hundred acres with several nice fields, a good strong barn, deep cistern, three ponds, two big steel granaries and excellent fencing. He wanted ten thousand dollars and I thought surely it must be worth it.
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Toward the end of July, I heard that Agriculture school under the G.I. bill had only a few days to run, at which time there would be no more openings. I had completely forgotten about my remaining schooling under the G.I. bill and I hurried down to the nearest V.A. Headquarter. The area was experiencing one of the worst floods and had you been anywhere near highway nineteen that day, you would have seen a tall lanky guy, holding his shoes over the water and propelling his skinny legs through the whirling muddy Missouri. They told me they were all filled up and as Marty's farm wasn't very large, my chances of getting in anywhere else were slim. I asked where anywhere else was and they told me to go to Montgomery City , about twenty miles away. So back across the muddy Missouri and three rides later, Montgomery City and sixty-give dollars a month for thirty months. That was July 25th, that night was the deadline, but that day I started to hope a little.
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A few weeks passed and then one day my mother came for a visit. She stayed several days and we talked about my future and I asked for suggestions. “Why don't you ask Aunt Clara to help you?” This I did and within a few days I held a check for three thousand dollars in the morning sunlight, payable as soon as my head broke water. It wasn't long before my status changed from looker to buyer in the eyes of the populace. They knew I was thinking of buying the Fischer place and each day someone would tell me what a mistake that would be. I became confused and started looking for an out. I met Ben one afternoon, told him ten thousand was out of the reason. He kicked a stone and asked how much was in reason. I responded quickly, thinking this was that “way out”, and said eight thousand. He accepted.
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This was August. Ben told me I'd better put in some wheat. I borrowed a sulky plow from Marty, his town horses and a horse trader down the road made it a trio by giving me a horse and two sets of harness. Plowing was slow but wonderful. At one corner of the field, I could look down into a valley for twenty-five miles. I spent a lot of time there. A few weeks passed and one day Ben held a public auction of all the farm machinery and livestock he had on the place. I had paid two thousand down on the farm and had a thousand dollars left for equipment. I knew one thing. I wanted some Jersey cows and Ben had some on the sale bill. I told him I would rather buy them outright and would give him three hundred dollars apiece. He laughed and said they weren't worth it but he'd take 200. I agreed, and bought six and a heifer and the remaining Jerseys' averaged $140 at the the sale. I felt like a big wheel bidding on sows and cows and plows. At one pen, I bought a registered Shrop ram and then bided my time until they got down into the yearling stuff. I asked a fellow what they were and he said females. I bought thirteen of them and then discovered I had thirteen castrated males. I was too proud to ask for a recount. I had a start though and with Marty's help plowed, disced and planted my twenty-three acres of wheat. One field had clover in it and I'd let Katy my yellow mare, the cows and little lambs graze the part I hadn't plowed up yet. This proved a tragic practice. Thinking two little lambs would skitter away from the oncoming horses, what with my yelling and their snorting, I found that lambs don't skitter and the horses trampled them into the dirt. I don't think I've every felt as miserable as I did then. They didn't let out a whimper. One died an hour or so later and the other hung on for a week. I lost some more from worms and marketed seven out of the thirteen. While discing that field, I had a bit more trouble. I bought a so-called field disc from a neighbor. It proved later to be nothing but a little go-devil used to disc between rows of corn. I had no seat for it so stood over the blades while bouncing over the field. I'd fly over every half a round and one time slipped in between the blades and horses, burying my leg underneath. Between digging down to my leg and keeping three horses pacified and under the maltreatment of horseflies, I managed to lift the thing off of myself. I must have sat there fifteen minutes shaking.
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I had been visiting St. Louis and Msgr. Hellriegel's Holy Cross Parish on the big feasts and it was here that I met Fran. She had just returned from a Poor Clare Monastery, was working in the office of a mirror manufacturer. Either the mirrors were driving her crazy or she had a weak moment, at any rate, we became man and wife not many months after. Fran was born and raised on a farm, but she knew no more about it than I. We found our biggest problem is in organization. I still have the trouble, but not as seriously. There must have been a hundred different things to do on the place but some days Id just stand there scratching my head.
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We try to pray in an organized way too. This has its problems. We say the Office, sing it during the slack seasons and our record is spotty. We have been able to dust ourselves off and try again up to now but the flesh is weak. We want to evolve a rule for married people. We've worked several out and though difficult to maintain, they always bring refreshment. We'd like to have a chapter of faults twice a week, prime on rising, terce and sext before and after breakfast, none before dinner, vespers before chores and compline before bed. Matins and lauds optional, lessons mandatory. We've tried to set aside a certain period each evening for study. Transformation in Christ, Divine Pity, Mysteries of Christianity. I murder the latter. We've tried to study encyclicals, insert a half hour meditation, read the Bible for fifteen minutes but most of the time, we end up unconscious on the bed, with the radio going. We know this, it is possible, but it takes will power and one must supply where the other fails. God has been very patient with us on this score. I hope His patience pays off.
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After purchasing the farm, I heard of a plan whereby the govern refinances farms on a forty-year basis. (This is where Ammon stops reading.) I went and had a talk with the representative. Come back when you've had a year's experience, he said. I filed it and forgot about it. A year passed and once again I paid him a visit. This time he pointed out that my farm was a bad risk, being in red area and having little corn ground. He was sorry, but, I thanked him and didn't bother to file it this time. It must have been about a month later when a car pulled up into our yard. Three men got out, took off in different directions with tripods and things and after a thorough examination of the farm, I was told I could get a loan. They would take over the debt, all chattels, improve multa acres of pasture on a forty-year basis. At this point, they all piled back into the car and took off in a cloud of chalky dust. I felt like I could use a drink.
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Just what God wants of us, we do not know for sure, nor does anyone. We've had men from skid row out here, some for long periods of time but we've seemingly contributed little toward the solving of their problems. Sometimes I get so wound up with problems at hand I get a long distance look in my eye. During these periods, I don't even get my rosary said. Father Louis always emphasized balance and plasticity. As long as we balance our everyday problems with quiet and prayer and as long as we remain plastic to God's wishes, I don't think we need fret over the future. At any rate, if we are fretting, we must be doing it between compline and prime.
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In case anyone would care to visit us, we would be happy to have them. We've plenty of work to do, a pond to swim in, woods to walk in. The farm is ninety miles west of St. Louis, eight miles straight west of a little community called Big Springs, Missouri.
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From the Mail Bag
December 1953, page 4
Dear Dorothy we are getting our first decent, well, our only rain for over six weeks. It started last night and it is still drizzling. I think we have received at least an inch and a half. Everything here seems in good shape.
The farm is doing fine. Our cattle are still in good flesh despite the drought. We've about fifty head now counting calves and plan on wintering all of them. I've enough roughage to get them through the winter and plan on about twenty five acres of pasture wheat next spring. Fran's rabbits are out of production for the moment. The buck we had died from heat or overwork or something. I haven't got around to getting her another one and all the does are ready to breed. A kennel outside St. Louis had a mighty fine young Collie female that had turned ill and they planned on killing it. I asked if I could try to do something with it and they let me have the dog. Fran took care of it for several months, brought it back to good enough shape to breed to one of the kennel’s studs and now we've a flock of good Collie pups running around the farm. She loves dogs and is very good with them. She feels that if a farm is going to have a dog or a cat, they should have good ones so that the offspring can be given away or sold with little or no trouble. Most of the time, when farms have a female dog or cat, and very few will have one, the pups and kittens are usually running around half starved to death or someone has the miserable job of drowning them. I think she'll register these pups and get rid of them through want ads. They're Cattle dogs and really breed up. We bought a new bull too. The price spread between really good registered cattle and ordinary cows is very small at present. I went to a dispersal sale north of here. 165 head of registered polled Hereford cattle and saw bred heifers sold for $129, due to calf in April. We bought a good young bull and from the looks of him, we should have good calves.
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Marty Paul, Dave Dunne, Frank Lakey and I took a run to South Bend to visit Julian Pleasants and a few other people there, Father Ward, Willis Nutting, John Julian Ryan. Everyone was extremely nice to us. We stayed at Julian's house. I could write a little article for you sometime on the trip and my impressions. I think Julian's ideas on Part Time Farming (whoops) are as Ruth Ann put it, a little academic. I wish I knew the exact acreage down there but I didn't get the figure. At any rate, they have three or four families living on this plot. One family had a little dairy project going, about seven cows. In this day and age, that doesn't constitute much of an enterprise. At any rate, he has the equipment and the cows and from the looks of things, he's doing a good job. Julian has a cow and a few chickens and the other family have no livestock, that I could see. At any rate, they are all part time farmers but as far as Julian is concerned, his farming operations are no more extensive than the average suburban dweller that has a few acres and wants to cut down on his monthly food bills. If he lost his job in the city, he'd certainly lose his foothold on the land. This same holds true for all the families down there. From what I could see, they were all very dependent on their respective jobs in South Bend. I like his part time farming though but with the emphasis on the other side. For instance, we could assimilate four or five families here. They could build homes cheaply. Our neighbor built a three room house that can be added on to for $500 and he thought he was spending an awful lot of dough. It seems he had to spend half of it on floors, sills and a few other things he could not grow on his own farm. I didn’t see anything wrong with oak floors and sills though myself. At any rate, the head of the families could get jobs in surrounding communities like Hermann or Montgomery City, or like Fred O'Connel is thinking of doing, open up their own business, in his case, a garage. In this way, the farm would be the backbone of their economy and if at any time, any of them lost their jobs or were laid off, the farm could absorb them without too much trouble. As far as cooperating with the system is concerned. I feel an obligation to grow as much food as I can off this land God gave me in order to feed a lot of people who will never see nor care to see the working of a farm. Wil Nuting mentioned during one of the evenings that he and his wife grow only what they need and if they have any left over,they give it to their neighbors. He said that it was against their principle to sell anything. How can a person buy if it is against their principle to sell?
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I saw Notre Dame. It burned me a little. They've got a big hotel right on the campus. It was donated by some dying millionaire and Dave Dunne was not allowed in the dining room because he didn't have a tie on. They've got a doorman all dressed up in a green uniform who opens and closes the front door for all the weaker students or non-football players I guess. They also had a book rack with a pile of dusty books covers and feature articles on the necessity of Sex. What gets my cork is the fact that they've got all this dough for all these tremendous buildings, non-educational buildings and they haven't got a department on the place devoted to Agriculture. In fact, I know of only one Catholic U. in the country with an Ag department and that somewhere out in the state of Washington. This made me think of Peter and his ideas and our farm once again. If we had a few bucks, I'd build a dormitory and mess hall and give young fellows an opportunity to come out here and work and learn something about farming. We could combine a semi-monastic life with farm, work and classroom study and approximate what the Benedictines tried to do a few hundred years back. I'm trying to be plastic to God's Will in my behalf. This gives me a farm for Alcoholics, a foster farm for children, a part time land and city venture and an agronomic University to work on in the near future. I'll probably end up jerking sodas for Walgreen's.
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Joe Powers, a young fellow from Cleveland, has been helping us for almost four months. He plans on staying here this winter too. He's working very hard and has been a big help to me. I guess Bill McAndrew will be out to Marty's in a few days. Incidentally, Marty bought a baler this summer and baled about 12,000 bales of hay. He does a real good job. The center is still going strong in St. Louis. They need a full time employee though. As it is now, they only stay open in the evening but still have Thursday and Saturday.
Our love and prayers,
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Chicago's Peter Maurin House
By Jack Woltjen
May 10, 1955 will mark the 5th anniversary of Chicago's Peter Maurin House. Five years of apparent growth, from a borrowed bed in the corner of a Legion of Mary clubhouse to an imposing three story structure with chapel and chaplain complete. The house is a solid institution these days, but this was not always so.
I can almost hear Fred and Wil talking up a storm about hospitality. They were Friendship House staffers and itching to get down to Madison Street. I enjoyed sitting in on these wild avowals but thought both of these guys needed a jacket, until Wil cornered me one night and the next thing I knew, I was making the same kind of noises.
We tried renting a store front on skid row but they'd smile and say $500 bucks a week and we wouldn't smile. We finally found a two store front deal on Loomis off Harrison, but they wanted some rent in advance and we were beggars. Wil and I heard about Harry Johns, the Miller High Life heir apparent, who lived in a trailer somewhere in the Wisconsin woods and decided to give him a try. We found the trailer and Harry and after picking our way through four thousand pamphlets on the Liturgy, found a seat in his little house and proceeded to plead our case. HE looked like he'd heard it all someplace before but heard us out, told us to write him in two weeks if we still needed the dough and while tucking fifteen or twenty pamphlets on something or other in our pockets, showed us the door.
In the meantime, the Legion of Mary auxiliary had offered Fred the free use of their clubroom on Harrison (little did they know) and for the present, we were in business. Fred got hold of an old Dodge truck from somewhere, a couple of cartons of old bread from the Little Sisters, and two gallons of grape jelly. The first night down on Madison Street, Fred, Wil and Johnny Cronin brought home a bewhiskered old gent, deposited him in a bed towards the rear of the clubroom and there he resided for almost two weeks, kibitzing the girls on their Tuesday night meetings and generally enjoying the sweet hospitality.
One day Fred received his bonus check from Penna and Loomis street was ours. In but a very few days we were set up as well as we ever got set up. Fred put a large sign in the window telling the neighbors that if they saw anything in the place that they could use, they could in and take it, the beginning of a long and futile feud between a great lover of stability and the greatest giver that ever lived. They came, they saw, they took and what they didn't see, they asked for. In a matter of days, we had a two hundred plus soup line and about sixty loyal comrades bunked on and under table, stoves, etc. Every time I'd wake up at night I’d hear any empty hit the floor and during the day, you had to watch where you sat because someone always had one stashed under any flimsy camouflage. I remember one time, Wil walked up behind six guys seated around a fifth. He tapped the guy in possession on the shoulder, had the bottle passed back to him and he hand remained poised in mid-air for the round trip while Wil poured the damn stuff down the sink.
And rats, oh man the rats. One night Jack W. woke up with one sitting on his chest and I could see its ear silhouetted against the street lamp outside. A whoop, lots of lights and a new found determination that something had to be done. It was St. Francis Mische decided that the best way to keep the rats in the basement was to feed them down there, which he did, about ten pounds of stale bread a day and they stayed down there, tails wagging. This was a rough neighborhood and we felt it but weren't quite sure until the first night we heard tires squeal and glass shatter. They fired five salvos through the front window, hitting three guys sleeping on some tables in the front, busting an arm off a sacred heart statue in one window and lopping Mary's head off in another. We did something about that pronto. The next night, nobody slept in on the tables. Soon the local Pastor had us over for tea, expressed that we were surely doing good work but that we would be very dead in a very short time if we didn't pack up and git. Being very plastic individuals, we started searching for greener pastures.
One day Bob Bosshart dropped in on us, said he had heard about a five room apartment on Hubbard Street for ten bucks a month. Would we be interested? We were paying eighty at the time. I jumped into our trusty Dodge and sped over there. Man, God gives it to you slowly in degrees. Loomis Street was a little hellish but this place! A I hole in one wall, no windows, nor doors, nor plumbing, nor gas but plenty of dirt and not too far from Madison Street. This clinched the deal. I received the short straw and had to clean up the joint. I remember the first bucket of water I threw on the kitchen floor. It rolled a few feet and then just disappeared. In time we cleaned it though and painted it , put in a portable shower and seven hopeful guys, Johnny, Stan, Earl, George, Dan, Francis and Charlie.
The first night there, somebody donated seven pounds of hamburger for Sunday dinner. Dan finished off six bottles of wine and four and one-half pounds of our Sunday dinner by six in the morning. And then Johnny, poor Johnny. First time he decided to taste the stuff again, he forgot to put his teeth under his pillow when he called it quits. Trouble, our dog, found them sometime in the morning and when I found her, she had crunched them into about forty odd pieces. When John woke up, he felt frantically under his mattress for ten full minutes before I could screw up enough courage to tell him. And Stanley, the best mechanic in Chicago excepting the fact that he'd pawn a hydraulic jack for a drink. Stan wanted so much to have someone dependent upon him. One time he jerked all the distributor wires so that we would have to call him on order to get the soup rolling.
And that soup, man what soup,. As long as it was plenty salty and had plenty of onions, the guys didn't care what it tasted like. We'd beg vegetables down at South Water market and sometimes we'd have to take twenty bushels of rotten cabbage to get ten pounds of good carrots. One time we walked into a wholesale slot, asked the guy for a donation and he laughed loud and long, told us to get the hell out that we were leaches and a disgrace to our manhood. Another guy standing near, well dressed, natty looking, took issue with the owner. “give da kid some carrots”, “Da hell wid da kid”, “Give da kid some carrots”,” Da hell wid da kid”. “I said give da kid some carrots” and with that he walks over, grabs a fifty-pound sack throws them at us and says, “Take da carrots”. When we left, they were making like roosters.
We would make out as long as we hit the market on days that the little sisters weren't there. With their sweet little faces and innocent air, they'd walk off with the works and we'd end up digging spoiled cabbage out of a trash can. One time we were given about two hundred pounds of turnips. We put them in the soup a couple of times and they brought howls. Not wanting to throw them away, Fred suggested the south side and a poor family he knew. Off we went and about two months later, we had ditto with cabbage. Fred had the same brainstorm and we rolled south. I knocked on the door and a little girl answered. “Would your mother like some cabbage this time honey”, “No Sir” with a furrowed brow, “We’re still eatin turnips”.
Soon we realized Hubbard Street wasn't filling the bill so we hunted for another place to work in conjunction. We found one on Green Street and Fred lost his heart. If a guy didn't drink before his installation at Green Street, he was a cinch to drink after. Because we were gone most of the time, we had to have the men supervise themselves during most of the day. Sometimes we would put one of them in charge and at Green Street, a good hearted old railroad man was just put at the helm. A tremendous change must have come over Joe. Unbeknownst to us, for in our absence, he ruled with an iron hand. When the menu consisted of mashed potatoes, Joe would ladle each man out one handful and Joe's hands weren't exactly generous as he had three fingers missing..
Father Cantwell, then moderator at Friendship House and a good friend of ours, started sitting in on a few of our so called meetings. We would get together at some bistro, talk over the weeks events, what to do for this guy and about that guy. Father would sit there like a sphinx. Once in a while we'd say “Well, what do you think Father:”” and he'd smile, render a tiny judgment and resume his Egyptian demeanor. I'm pretty sure he was interested in what we were doing but he hadn't ascertained we were on the fringe. In time, Father became a real strength for us. He would always come through when we needed him, to get us out of a jam, help us through a trying time. We were always being stopped by cops for something or other, a fender falling off, or no license plates. The thing to do was reach in your pocket for your wallet, entwining your rosary around it while doing so, leaf through your holy pictures while trying to find your driver's license, and if the guy was Irish, you had it made.
This third floor deal at Hubbard Street made a Saint out of Mrs. Egan, the lady that lived downstairs. Sometimes we'd have a chow line right down her front stairs and then the Winter night fiasco when the thermometer hit twenty below and the sink froze, sending the water from a running faucet, over the sink, across the floor down the walls, flooding her apartment. Never a gripe did we hear though.
Our turnover was slow at times. Fellows would stay on two, three, four months, sometimes they would leave and then hit the soup line again one night and come home with us. Our batting average was pretty low as far as straightening anyone out. At times were were a little nonplussed as to what our direction was in this regard. As long as the men stayed with us, they wouldn’t drink but as soon as we would bid them adieu for another try, they would stumble and fall flat. Here we were, trying to put these guys back on their feet, fitting them out with some decent clothes, a few bucks and maybe a job somewhere in some flophouse, hamburger joint, railroad dock or warehouse. From there they would probably get a small room in some bird cage plaza and after a few hours of staring at a wall and waiting for the morrow, thud, back on the row. We were prescribing a medicant that would kill us if we took it ourselves. What then? They say Father Flanagan started with skid row, gave up in frustration and decided to get at the problem before it reached this stage, but these men weren't the juvenile delinquents of fifteen or twenty ears ago. They were probably happy guys at that stage of the game. Now though, they were miserably unhappy. Some people look at skid row with dreadful scorn. Do they think man enjoys this grave? Does a man like frozen feet in the winter after he's sold his shoes for a pint? Does a man like sleeping under a Chicago Tribune or selling his life's blood or huddling and shuddering alone at night in some alley? On the row, they can share their misery, they can dissolve in a sea of misery. In Society, they are great huge, sore thumbs, here they are anonymous, here there is a peace, a life without pretense, a fitting in. They've fallen off the double barrelled express we call progressive living and here we were grabbing them by the hand and trying to help them straddle this buzz saw again. Why not take advantage of the positive aspects of their situation. They were demateraizlized, well, keep them that way. They had forgotten words like comfort, security, they didn't think in terms of bank accounts., new cars, position. They had most of the natural gifts in the proper perspective. Why not develop this? In a way they were not unlike monastics, except for the one difference. This emptying out created a vacuum, a void that the monk filled with God.
As I said earlier, Peter Maurin House is now a fast stepping outfit with a three story building and half a hundred success stories. They have a chaplain, Father Cantwell and a beautiful chapel on the third floor where the Blessed sacrament resides and the chapel was for the most part, designed and built by the men. Two Alumni from Green Street are in charge, Barney and Jack and the soup still rolls every night and has for almost five years now. Today, Fred can be found on his back under some car at a North Side garage making a few bucks to support his sweet wife and child and another due this Christmas and Wil is up in St. Cloud working on his own farm, from what I heard, and John Cronin is taking art down at the Institute in Chicago and doing really well at it. I've still got my farm in Missouri, trying to initiate a little action in regard to that lay monasticism, I alluded to earlier, and married, and about to be a father for the second time.
(The present address of Peter Maurin house is 1146 N. Franklin, St., Chicago, Illinois).
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June 1955, page Seven
Wednesday morning and believe it, we are dry again. We had a fast starting spring but things stopped so abruptly, I almost went through the windshield. We are in good health and spirits here though and have had one of the best and earliest calf crops to date. We have 26 on the ground and 9 more to come in a few weeks. Katie had her colt, a filly. She was bred to a palomino stallion and is now bred back to a Stonewall Jackson.
Our baby is growing fast and is very sweet and pretty. She can roll over and talks to use quite often now. Her eyes take on a very serious mien when talking. We thought she might be reciting psalms by this time, but I guess they just don't at 3 months,. Judy has been sweet and happy for a long, long time now.
News form the Holy Family Farm, Rhineland, Mo. Little Ann Heaney is back from the hospital. She can only be up for an hour or so each day. Ruth Anne has had signs of pleurisy. Marty Paul has been making a few bucks selling oak barrel stave bolts for whiskey barrels. I believe he has sold 5 truckloads at $80 per load. Frank Lakey is still going strong in St. Louis and Joe Cuellar writes that he is coming out.
Dorothy, could you supply me with the names of C.W. Farms or friend throughout the country? I ran across an old Catholic Worker May, 1953 with letters from Bill Gauchat, Avon, Ohio, Dorak, Al Cook etc. I 'd like to write all of them, discuss mutual aims and progress. And perhaps work up an article on it.
Jack Woltjen and family.
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September 1953, Page Six
Monday and a holy day. I thought I would write to you and talk about the atom test trouble and the impressions I picked up along the way. I've talked to a few people about it and found that most of them had no real understanding as to the why of the thing. They read your article but said in effect, why all the fuss. A few thought you had made a mistake. Others felt the government had no right to interfere with you but they too didn't seem to think it made much difference either way. Ruth Ann felt this was anarchism to an extreme and that all the government wanted to do was prevent future loss of life. Some intimated that you were an opportunist and that you provided a splendid opportunity to get a point across.
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Letter From A Farmer
I guess it's about that time. For what its worth, I thought I'd bring you and yours up to date where we are concerned. It's been almost 5 years now and 4 of them have been rather parched to say the least. But not this year. We are floating as of two weeks ago. My oats, my cash crop oats, are slowly disappearing beneath a sea of grass. A 4 inch rain put them down; succeeding rains have made combining them impossible. But our most important crop, pasture, has exceeded anything we've ever seen. We've pasture for twice the number of cattle whereas in other years we were wishing we had only half as many. I almost forgot what it looked like to see a cow lying down. They spent every waking hour staving off starvation and usually had all of the brush and saplings cleaned up as high as they could reach. This summer this place has looked like a lush garden spot. I've sixty acres I haven't even turned in on yet. We've still thirty cows and an extra good bull. I had a polled bull last year but got a hold of a horned whiteface and he's by far the best male we've had so far. Our cattle are young now too. We've been fortunate enough to keep back 15 heifers in three years and each time I put one in the herd, I would sell an old one and right now we've only seven cows with any age on them. We've some sheep too. Six western ewes and they had some nice lambs during Holy week. I sheared them myself with a hand shears. I averaged about two hours per sheep and sold the wool for twenty-five bucks. I'd like to get about ten more and we probably will next spring. Katy's colt is almost her size now and she's bred again. Horses, especially riding horses, are getting scarce and worth some money. We plan on keeping one more filly colt and raising some colts every year. I broke the tree in my saddle and have been riding Kate bareback the past few months and I'm getting so I like it better than with a saddle.
We had a pretty good wheat crop this year and the best garden we've ever had. Someone gave us twin billy kids for the taking and we enjoyed them until one night when they slipped into our garden and finished off our pea crop, then the next day one found the orchard to his liking and cleaned all the leaves off of our young apple trees. At this point I decided our menu needed a little goat meat lift. They tasted very good, just like spring lamb.
Our financial situation has made no great strides in either direction. We have been able to pay the government quite a bit each year but not as much as they would like and as a consequence, we are termed delinquent. I guess most of the other FHA farmers are in about the same fix so they haven't been rough about it. In fact, they have been down right nice and encouraging. Our quota is $2000 this year and it looks like we'll be able to make it.
To keep a few bucks coming in all the time, I've had to take on some outside jobs. A neighbor and myself purchased a saw mill and we were fortunate in getting a four hundred acre tract of timber about five miles from here. We set the mill up right on the woods and have been knocking out railroad ties as fast as we can. We get about $1.75 per tie, have to pay the owner twenty five cents and we split the rest. We've two trucks, a couple of chain saws and two tractors and we can knock something out in a day. Right now we are working on stave bolts. Today we cut down, cut up and split 112 bolts. They bring about a dollar a piece and the stave company makes up whiskey barrels out of the finished lumber. Of course, this keep me away from the farm and things get a little raggity around here. The fencing doesn't look good but the cattle and calves do and as long as they aren't getting out on Mosly's Alfalfa, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. I owe about six hundred bucks in non-secured debts, feed bills, grocery bills, gas and oil, etc, and with any kind of luck, I'll be out from under by Christmas.
Our family is due for an addition in a few days. That will make five of us and we've high hopes for a big family.
We haven't had the visitors this year that we have had in the past. Sometimes we get a bit spooky out here and start kicking the TV idea around but I don't think we will ever rationalize it into our setup. We still aren't the spiritual house afires we always wanted to be but we get our licks in every now and then. We finally found out that we can actually get through a rosary if we say it while doing the supper dishes. Prime and Compline are the backbone of our prayer life. Every time Maria (1 ½) hears “Glory be to the Father” around her, she automatically goes into a pronounced bow. She also like to kiss a statue of Mary holding Jesus but lately she has taken a fancy to biting the head of the baby Jesus instead of kissing it. She also genuflects thirteen times on the way up the aisle for Sunday Mass.
Getting back to those visitors, we haven't had anyone from Madison Street here for almost six months. We've set up now too, with a bunk house that sleep s three, cooking facilities and wired electrically. I don't go out and get headlocks on them anymore. We are content to let nature take its course.
We are only slightly interested in politics and have not as yet succumbed to Ike's “hearty” smile. When we feel downright mean and cynical, we always talk about Nixon. We tried to find a good news mag. Finally decided on “Newsweek” in preference to that horrible example of soul selling, “Time,” but found “Newsweek” was just about the same. We like Stevenson, Truman and the Post-Dispatch which makes us the local oddballs.
We still think about community but can find no takers. I don't blame them in a way. We don't own our farm as yet and to build a house on a deal like we've got would be taking a considerable risk. Perhaps when we get the thing paid for and can give title to house building land, we'll have better luck.
I know a few guys who would be willing to give it a try but their wives aren't for it and this automatically nixes a proposition like that. We could furnish all the lumbar needed for a house out here though with very little expense attached now that I've got a saw mill. There aren't a lot of jobs in this area but I keep myself busy and I'm sure anyone else in the same boat could too. At any rate, we are convinced that this will be our home until we die and we're going to love every minute of it. I love my work and am always near my family. I can be with my kids and they in turn can be closer to me. My time is my own and though I have to work hard, I'm doing so because I want to, not because some guy is telling me to. We've fish in the pond, rabbits on the ground and squirrels in the trees and I don't suffer from claustrophobia.
We hope you can visit us soon Dorothy. That bunk house is a nugget of privacy and you could escape those three men in your life for a week or so if you would let yourself. Please remember us in your prayers and give my regards to Jack Kelly if you see him.
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News From the Land
A few lines to say hi and sort of keep you abreast. We are all very fine here. Just meandered through a four month dry spell that just about coked everything to the crunch-under-foot point. We had a dandy rain two days ago though and we're living again. Our cisterns never did run out but each day looked like it would be their last. Whole towns around here were without water and our big pond had every kind of animal track imaginable around it. I did manage to get fifteen acres of wheat sowed in the dust and my cattle are living it up over at a friend's farm. He had about one hundred acres of corn ground post-cornpicker and about twenty-five acres of barley and not enough cattle to clean it up. Last year I was entering my third month of feeding at this time but this year I feed only about three bales of hay per day to a few cows with new calves and a few heifers that I still have on the place, plus our two horses, bull and twelve sheep.
Our sheep did pretty well for us this year. After shearing them last spring, one got away on me into a big woods pasture and just disappeared. I looked and looked for about a week and finally gave her up. Four months later about five in the morning she comes sauntering into the yard, fat and sassy. I leaped out of bed, raced to the gate to close it before she got away, slipped and slid about ten feet on the wet grass and rocks but did manage to beat her only to watch her jump through a low spot in the woven wire and disappear again into the same woods. I decided to turn the others out there thinking she would rejoin them and I could get the whole bunch back because she was like a wild animal. I found to my chagrin that the others liked life in the raw too, and and they also disappeared for about a month. I finally rent out and purchased a buck, penned him up in full view and after about a week, they came trotting back eagerly. We have six lambs from five ewed and five of them are ewe lambs so we're going to keep them and this will give us eleven.
We are having a little trouble with our younger cattle. Evidently the drought has set them back for they have been breeding late in the summer instead of April and May when they are supposed to Those that have had real late calves this year, I am not breeding until next Spring so it will cut their production about six months but it will get them back on schedule so to speak. Katy is due to have another colt this Spring and if it is a filly we will keep it and that will give us three dams to raise colts from. I think there is money in it if the colts are gentled and trained. Fran and I love horses and it would be a lot of fun for the two of us.
I'm still working away from home in someone else's woods. If I had to rely on what I make from the farm after paying the government, we would be so far in debt, we'd never get out. I don't know how long I'm going to have to do this but I'm prepared to do it for an indefinite period of time if I have to. Of course, the farm goes to pot this way, fences fall down and the animals don't get the attention they normally would and the pastures gets all full of brush but as long as my cattle aren't chewing heck of the next guys pasture, I'll let things ride as they are.
Marty is having his farm sale this Tuesday. He's selling all of his cattle and machinery. He bought a house in St. Charles and they are pretty well set up now. It's a large brick house that will suit their needs pretty well after a little repair. He's got a good car now and they are just a block or so from the church and school.
Jack Woltjen, Bluffton, MO.
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Missouri and Pennsylvania Farms Write
Its been quite some time now since I last wrote about the farm. For all concerned, we're still here and the stability agrees with us. This year has been easier than most for I've a job now and we don't have the financial pressures we had for so long. I work from 4 till midnight at a mental hospital 25 miles from the farm. This gives me half a day each day on the farm and enables me to keep up with the work. Judy and I put up our hay this summer together and although we aren't quite finished, we hoisted 1750 bales in the barn loft already. I used Marty's baler and rake and except for a little engine trouble, it has been working fine.
We haven't had many visitors this summer. We don't seem capable of convincing any of the young people that visit us that we are happy with our life and thrilled with the growing good prospects that the farm end all will someday be ours. Many seem genuinely incredulous that we could possibly be happy living as we do with very few of the ingredients they feel so necessary. It's beyond the ken of some why two normally intelligent, ambitious people would buy themselves a rock in the wilderness where peace and freedom and health and silence about in such vast quantity. At any rate, pumps, outhouses, dust, disappointment notwithstanding, we thank God each day for treating us so kindly and giving us so much.
As of now, we still owe the government about $4000 on our machinery and livestock. This hospital job has enabled us to live independently from the farm income and as a result we are in a position where we can give them quite a hunk this year. We have 24 nice big calves, plan on selling several old cows and quite a few sheep. Roughly this will give us about $2500 which we are going to give Uncle Sam. That should really take the starch out of that loan. I believe that I will have to work at the hospital two years or until the above debt is paid and once it is, we feel the farm income will be enough to support us.
Our family grows each year. Fran expects our fourth child in September. The little frame house we live in will need the sides kicked out of it one of these days. The children are all healthy and so far uncomplicated. Tommy is a born ball player and daddy's frustrated ambitions re going to be visited upon him. Maria is 2 ½ and very pretty. She helps Daddy milk and feed and even helps put up hay in her own way.
Our pond kept us in fish this summer and we've plenty of rabbits and squirrel. This winter we will butcher a beef and a few hogs.
We still say the Office but fall down when visitors show. I guess we lack that eastern trait of letting nothing interfere with prayer. We are still community minded but no takers. I used to ask God to give me an inkling as to why He dragged me off to this rock but now I really don't care why, I'm just happy He did. We ask for your prayers and send our love and prayers.
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I hope you haven't given up on us. We are still battling the elements on top of our wind weary hill and at times feeling very isolated and a bit guideless. We are probably in better shape all the way around than at any time in our eight year tenure but our life isn't exactly idyllic what with my traipsing off thirty-three miles each afternoon to the mental hospital to my off the farm bread and butter job. The family are all fine and healthy. Our newest addition, Kristin, was born Christmas day and a fine smiling baby girl. We are seven now, Judy, Maria, Tommy, Mike, Kristin, Mom and Dad.
Last year we were able to pay the government more money than any year previous. This year they want an equal amount and next year, the worst will be over. We don't exactly know what to do with the added income. Whether to build a new house for our present one is bulging, or buy more land which would enable me to quit my present job and devote all my time to our farm. In either case, it will mean going back into debt but will smilingly.
My job at the hospital consists of running all the afternoon and night recreational facilities. I worked with disturbed children for about a year and a half and enjoyed the work very much. They have a juvenile clinic at the hospital, the only one in the state Catholic or secular, and the kids get psychological help as well as much therapeutic help. The whole program is very sterile though, completely ignoring any moral or religious attitudes and the end result is an attempt to resurrect these kids on a completely unnatural level. Most psychologists have no idea what normal psychology is and it seems that they end up preparing these kids for nothing. The children live in a regular hospital ward, are lumped together as to age and problems, those with behavior problems, etc. and the whole thing seems to be a matter of observation rather than help.
The church in this state needs to set up a program for disturbed children. Each Catholic grade school I'm sure has two or three kids that need to get help but because there is no agency, just end up getting progressively worse while throwing the whole school curriculum for a loss. I think these kids need a complete change from their home atmosphere. They need a well rounded program of psychotherapy, work and recreation as well as enough schooling while they are there to keep their hand in. I wish I had some extra dough, some outside help. Our four hundred acre farm out in the rocky wilderness would be ideal for such as program. There is work galore here to do, real constructive work and recreational facilities at every turn. We would have to build a bunkhouse, kitchen and chapel and we would be in business. I'm really serious about this, Dorothy. God brought us out to this wilderness for some reason and I believe it's about time for the pieces to fall into place.
Our cattle are in real good shape and we have had calves coming regularly for quite a while. I butchered two hogs a couple of weeks ago and ended up skinning them because our hot water bath sprang a leak. We've got a good garden started and having purchased a deep freeze, plan on freezing everything that looks edible. We had breakfast at Ruth Ann's Sunday morning and met her brother Richard. I haven't heard from Marty for quite a while but the last news I had, he was doing very well and looking very good. Frank and Clare Lakey have a wonderful baby girl named Maria and expect their second child in a few months. Chuck and Briggs Ellerman have four boys now and Bob and Pat Rudolph welcomed a son into their household and named him Damian Thomas.
I'll close for now. We all remember you each night in our prayers Dorothy and wish you could stop and see us.
All of our love and prayers.
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May, 1960, Page Three
On the Land
Bluffton, Mo. Mach. 1960
We are having the worst snow storm of the winter. It is impossible to work outside, so for the first time in many months, I find I can in good conscience, sit at a typewriter in the middle of the morning. For the past several months, I have been working in the woods, mostly by myself until just recently. I cut logs and stave bolts for sale to local mills. Stave bolts are thirty nine inch knotless cuts from a sizeable white oak tree, split into halves, third or quarters as the size of the white oak tree decrees. It is heavy work as some bolts weight over one hundred and fifty pounds and a good truckload consists of about 125 of them. When the staves are gone, I'll start cutting tie logs. For this I must use a saw mill to cut the four bark sides and a few feet of lumber off of each log. This kind of work requires two guys because the finished product, a green railway tie, can weigh nearly three hundred pounds at times. So last Sunday after Mass, a fellow walked up to me and asked if I would like to work with him in the woods. He needed some help with his staves and ries. His name is Bill Krampe, a back to the lander with eight kids and another on the way. We didn't waste any time and are now working together. Two guys in the woods can get three times as much done as one. I'm very happy with the setup and the future looks bright.
We've been here eight years now,going on nine. Progress has been slow but still we are getting ahead. Next fall we will make our last payment on our livestock and machinery and this will mean that in the future, income from our herd will cut loose for our use. Our family is growing. Once I lived on this rock alone, now Fran and I are expecting our sixth child. Our three room house sort of rings and groans at times causing us to consider the problem of a new home or enlarging the one we now live in. The government said they would extend us the needed credit if we decided on either course. As for the government, they have been very patient and very good to us. We had bad years when were able to pay them almost nothing and with every reason in the world to sell us out, they carried us.
In order to stay on the land today, a farmer has to do only those things that make a buck. A young farmer that is without too much security, if he stops to keep his fences in the tip top shape or cut two years supply of firewood ahead or keep his pastures brush free, he's going to find his mail box a dun hole to say the least. I've got to scratch all the time and when I stop, we feel it. This won't last forever for someday I won't have to dump two thousand bucks into Uncle Sam's lap and someday I'll feed calve to market instead of selling them at sometimes underpar weights. You have to want the life very badly to say on the land these days. Privations are sometimes ludicrous when compared to our city brethren. To sit in an outhouse on a cold winter night can shake determination. Stumbling around a muddy barnyard in the dark, piling a half full of snowy wet wood or spending a half hour grinding to the axle in mud and gravel in order to traverse a half mile of muddy lane, muddy tractors, frozen chains, busted oil pans, broken tired and a thousand and one jobs made ten times as hard because of poor faciltiies or substandard equipment. Every time I take a load of bolts to a mill with my old Ford truck, I sit there transfixed in terror waiting for a front tire to blow, a rod to greet me or a state cop to stop me. Coming in from Springfield this winter with a full load, I blew a piston about 150 miles from home and with multitudinous explosions and fourteen quarts of oil, I pulled into our barnyard at nine o'clock feeling post meat grinder, but like I said, if you want the life badly enough, these things just seem to settle you in your purpose, because compared with the plus side of the ledger they pale.
We are free, we have room to roam and grow, we have space, privacy. Our wash can be tattle tale grey without jarring the sensibilities of those around us. Crab grass is fine when you keep it clipped. No one stares into our picture window, no one casually drops in each day for a three hour cup of gossip. We suffer in the winter, rejoice in the spring. Farming is a wonderful natural work. God made Adam a farmer in order to restore him. Farming requires the whole man. You must use every bit of your ingenuity and and strength if you are too succeed and in doing so, you find it helps you strike a delicate balance that man needs to walk that narrow path. It is not a life for everyone. It is a vocation that must be explored by those who feel drawn to it. It helps foster a mutual dependence between God and the family for He needs us to create a new soul and we need Him to create new crops. To be succinct, we are slowing being welded to our life until we feel we are one.
I receive letters from many people and try to answer them although I am a miserable letter writer. Larry Evers corresponds regularly in regard to the establishment of some sort of on the land program for unwanted children of all ages. I personally think this four hundred acre wilderness would be just the thing for such work but it takes the interest of people with dough to get the thing moving and people with dough like million dollar High School memorials.
We hope this finds all of our friends in good health and spirits. Please write us when you have time and we shall answer as promptly as we can. I'm not going to edit this for when I do or Fran does, nothing seems to survive. The winter has been long and Spring can't come too soon for us. We wish you could visit us Dorothy. We will watch carefully and snag you when you come through. I'll write to Ammon and see if I can get him off that Greyhound at the junction.
Our love and prayers,
Inventing the Catholic worker family.