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Our lives are frequently and significantly affected by food. Because we must eat to survive, many human cultures have developed with food at their very core. The goal of this podcast is to explore the complexity and nuance of food systems, celebrate the progress we have made, and debate the best ways for humans to proceed forward into the future. 

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Jan 14, 2020

The history of agriculture can be viewed from many different perspectives including breeding crops with improved quality and yield characteristics, understanding fertilization requirements, challenges with water and weather patterns, but there are also historic social and political accounts that had profound effect on the landscape of today’s farming communities.  In this podcast,  Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow shares a sobering look at some of the challenging  events uncovered by her research as she dug into changes that occurred in land ownership and farming practices of white settlers, Native Americans and African Americans on the United States great plains.   



Agricultural History in the U.S. Southern Great Plains. One Story on “Who Wins.” with Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow


So we have a number of moments, really big moments in US history in terms of farming that I see echoed today.


Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.


I’m Scott Tanona. I'm a Philosopher of Science. 


And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a Food Scientist.


Hello, everybody and welcome back. We can review the history of agriculture from many different perspectives, including breeding crops with improved quality and yield characteristics, understanding fertilization requirements, challenges with water and weather patterns. But there are also historic social and political accounts that had profound effects on the landscape of today's farming communities. Our guest today is Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Associate Professor of American history and executive director of the Chatman center for rural studies. Bonnie researches and teaches the environmental and agricultural history of North America, with particular emphasis on North American Indians and minorities. In this podcast, we are going to take a sobering look at some of the challenging events uncovered by Dr. Lin Shiro, as her research dug into the changes that occurred in land ownership and farming practices of white settlers, Native Americans and African Americans on the United States, Great Plains. Welcome, Bonnie morning. In the past podcasts, we've had discussions on a lot of technical aspects of agriculture and production and nutrition, and we've talked about the aesthetics of food. But I think this is the first time we've ever taken a dive into the history of the complex food system and what that might teach us on things going forward. So I'm really very excited to learn more about you and the history that you study, and where that fits into the food system today. Okay. All right, welcome. So with that, could we start out Bonnie by you telling us a little bit about yourself?


Sure. My training is in American history, as you mentioned, but I actually all historians have lots of specialties. My specialties are agricultural history, history of food, but they're also very deeply embedded in history of race, and culture. So my first book was about African Americans and North American Indians and their relationship to agriculture, especially in the Midwest, specifically in some counties in Oklahoma, which then I extrapolate into the experience of North American Indians and African Americans and the rest of the country.


So what what got you interested in this I, sometimes people take it all the way back to their childhood, sometimes not. But how did you get started in this area and really find that interest.


Well it was actually very, as you say, most people take a very convoluted pathway to where they end up, especially at my age now it's gotten even more convoluted. But I would say that I grew up in southwestern Ontario, which was a heavily agricultural region and I took it for granted, I didn't realize how productive it was, it is the most is the set of most productive counties agriculturally in the entire country of Canada, heavily involved in onions, tomatoes, a number of other what we would consider to be high value crops today. And so I grew up in this bounteous place. And I didn't realize how bounteous it was until I moved to the United States, and ended up in some, you know, pretty much some food deserts and Evanston, Illinois, and places like that, where I could no longer get the fresh summer corn that I wanted to eat on a regular basis. But my research essentially moved from when I was an undergraduate, when I was working in Amherstburg, Ontario, and it was a primary Historic Site. That was my first job. And there were a lot of native people that I had to interpret specifically, names we would recognize, like to come see actually was died and visited the site that I worked out for, you know, during his lifetime. And so when I decided to do a PhD, much, much later on, I immediately wanted to do North American Indian history and My advisor said, Well, you really ought to go to Oklahoma, because there's a wonderful newspaper there, that has been a continuous operation and continuous publication since the beginning of Oklahoma since before since Oklahoma Territory. So I went down there. And I actually talked to the newspaper editor. And what became extremely clear to me is that the story of native people's relationship to agriculture had never been told, it had not been explored in any kind of effective way. And the deeper I got into the project, the more I realized that a number of African Americans, you know, newly freed, slaves had walked all the way to Oklahoma with the promise of agricultural land. And so I'm sort of like wondering, like, my, my goodness, we're in the I'm in the nexus of the United States, I'm in the last best west of the entire country. And we have white settlers, who would be potential settlers, many of them from Kansas, but also up on southerners from Texas who are vying for this last best place. But we also have African Americans who've come out here, hoping to be a part of essentially Westering and in the American tradition, and we have native people who've been here all along, who are trying their best to adapt into an agricultural mode of production. And I thought, My gosh, this is the primary power play of the United States who's going to win. And it was clear to me that the relationship of these four of these cultural entities to each other was just as important as their relationship to the land itself. And then I realized this is a very, very important story. Who wins? How does farming turn into what we what we now realize is a a white dominated agricultural economy. How did that happen when there were these other people who were trying to do the same thing, and that unfolded into an extremely interesting project. I wasn't completely convinced about what I was going to study until I met with Ray doya. Re DOJ as a Kiowa elder, who I was talking to, rather casually and explained to him I was very confused about the way agriculture worked in the region and Central Oklahoma. And he says, Well, I'm confused too. He says, Why is it that Kiowa men Kiowa families farm and farm and farm, and they lose ground every year, they lose ground economically, and socially and culturally. And specifically, they actually lose real ground, they lose parts of their farms, he says, but my white neighbor five, down five miles down the road, he says he's got a new tractor. And he's got a new truck, and he's got a new combine, and he's adding ground, or we just bad people. And that just broke my heart. And I was like, Ray, I can't imagine that your pet people, and I can't imagine that you're bad farmers. And he was, and I was right. They weren't it was an historic structural racism. That prevented Kiowa people from becoming successful farmers. And there were several aspects to that. One of the aspects, of course, was that what everyone takes for granted, in a place like Kansas, especially if you're white, is the is the Experimental Station, which become, you know, part of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Hatch Act, which then provides extension publications to farmers. And then eventually, of course, the entire farm agent system, which provides direct help to farmers. And what I discovered right away, of course, in a place like Oklahoma's the 1890 school, meant that African American farmers could not access the resources of Oklahoma State. They were forced to go to Langdon Langston rather, I'm sorry, the historically black college, just outside of Stillwater. And even worse, the Kiowa farmers were prevented from accessing those resources, and told that they had to work with a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent who would help them to become farmers. And neither of those other support systems got any funding whatsoever. So for example, for every dollar that was spent in Stillwater, Oklahoma State, Langston University got five cents. That's all. So suddenly, the whole picture started to emerge. There were some there were some interesting aspects to this. The chi was story. As a group, they had all Ways worked as in clans. So they created a village. And then they work together. Well, of course, allotment, which most people are not aware of which was the breaking up of reservations into 160 acre parcels per person. They that forced the breakup of a support system of neighbors and friends and relatives that would help you in times of trouble. And suddenly they were isolated from one another, which was not a natural or even actually very helpful system with which to begin learning how to become farmers. And, you know, sort of ruminated on that since then. Especially in Kansas, when you consider that the Mennonite migration to Kansas around Newton that that group came over together and bought 100,000 acres together. Nobody called them socialists. Nobody said, oh, you can't do that. But suddenly, for Native people, though, they weren't allowed to do that. And it didn't occur to me actually, till really recently, how hypocritical the Bureau of Indian Affairs and USDA was regarding native people that way. And then, of course, at the time that they were beginning to take up farms. Kiowa people still had horses, and they were transferring over to cattle, they were natural herders. And quite frankly, if if you look at what Oklahoma people, Oklahoma farmers, landowners are doing now with their property, they're hurting, they're not, they're not trying to graze, you know, multiple, they're not doing all MacDonald down on the farm, south of Oklahoma City, that there's not enough water there, the sand and soil is not conducive to that at all. And this is what Native farmers were being told to do. And they knew better. They were like, no, we want to become pastoral. And so they wanted to raise animals and they ran into a major problem right away, they needed water for those animals. So they had to spread out along watercourses permanent streams and creeks, which put them farther apart from one another, of course, and then they wanted, they needed wood, because there was no other heating fuel. And so they ended up in these patch places these 100 nakey 160 acre places, which would be great for cities, you know, eventually they would be covered in little towns, because of water sources and wood sources weren't so good for for you know, crop row crop production. And they wanted to become pastoral. So they actually pushed against the Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies about how they should use their property, and try to put horses and cattle on their on their land. But there was this little problem with a little five letter word called Texas. And eventually, every time they would put out of this, we're talking the 1880s 1890s, right up until the turn right up until Oklahoma statehood in 1906. Every time they built up a herd, that herd was stolen, literally stolen from them. Texas, Ben DeRose essentially would come up in the middle of the night and cut the fences and take every one of their cattle. If they didn't take them all. They brought up their own cattle and pastured them on Kiowa land, Kai was had 6 million acres of common pasture, which they needed, frankly, given that pasture quality there, which was pretty low. I mean, you needed about 20 acres per steer to to keep them alive, which is pretty much I think, the average size here is about six or six acres per animal. So they would so they would enter in the springtime, they would go in and try to take their cattle into big pasture and they would find it it was already destroyed by Texas cattlemen that had been overwintering there illegally. And of course, the US Army would try to move the Texas band or bandits out and and that would end up in wars. And so essentially, they would simply move the Chi was out of the way. So they just consistently got smaller and smaller and smaller parcels of land to the point where they their fractionation of their land became so dramatic that the only way in which they could make any money at all with which to subsist was to rent their land out to a white farmer, who would have access to capital who could take out a loan. American Indians were not allowed to take out loans, because their land was actually held in trust and the way that we would hold land and trust for a minor child. Their land was held in trust and they could not use their land as collateral for loans, believe it or not. So talk about being put into a box canyon in terms of production and so that was the story that I uncovered am a very similar story unfolded with African American farmers. They came together in walking trains, they literally walked and they set up 25 All black towns in Oklahoma, we had over 20 black towns in Kansas. And they wanted to be a separate economy because their long experience with slavery, let them understand, help them understand that they had to help each other. There was no question that they were not going to get a lot of help from their white neighbors in terms of being successful. And so they attempted to set up these internal economies for themselves. As you can imagine, that did not work out very well, when they got very, very little support from the 1890 College case state was integrated from the beginning. So we all know about the story of George Washington, Owen, who was the first African American graduate from Kansas State University will KSA see at the time, and he became a expert in a number of different agricultural products, but especially agricultural education, and worked at tusky. And he worked with web, WEB DuBois and George Washington Carver, in fact, and many other leading agricultural experts at Tuskegee, who became leaders in African American education. 


How does this history intersect with agriculture today?


That's a really, really big question. Historically, I can see threads leading back directly to the first part of the 20th century. Specifically, I see a lot of repetition between the kinds of agricultural resistance that we saw in the 1890s. Interestingly, right up through the 1920s, I see a lot of agricultural resistance. As farmers in general have a reputation and a history of being kind of rabble rousers doing things to get attention when they don't feel the things are fair, they feel very strongly about not being treated fairly. Part of that goes back to I think we talked about this about agricultural fundamentalism, in which farmers believe that their work is more significant and more central to the United States experience than other forms of work that they actually produce things that people require in need, and that they're the center of what keeps the United States going economically now, as their numbers have dropped over time, they have become less politically relevant. But that has not prevented them from feeling that they're still economically relevant. And what I explained to my students, of course, is that the agricultural economy as a sector of the United States, economy has continued to grow almost exponentially at times. And yet the number of people involved in production agriculture has shrunk to almost to the disappearing point. And of course, it has a lot to do with technology has a lot to do with international global markets. And the way in which distribution of food happens and the processing of food happens. But that has not prevented farmers from feeling that they need to have a greater voice and the way in which agriculture is unfolds, especially US policy. So we have a number of moments, really big moments in US history in terms of farming, that I see echoed today. No, one of the course of the populist moment in the 1890s was a big one. And interestingly enough, I love showing the Omaha platform to my students, because almost every single thing on the Omaha platform has become reality for Americans today. William Jennings Bryan's he actually got co opted, of course by the Democrats. But the platform remained very similar. And really, that platform included the direct election of senators, because they felt that state legislatures had absolutely too much control over national agricultural policy. It included increasing the amount of bullion and silver that the US government held as a back for paper dollars. So that would that's what the silver issue is. And many people even today don't understand that the United States government essentially didn't have enough cash and gold in order to produce enough paper money, which caused huge amounts of inflation. So it was extremely difficult for farmers to come up with enough cash to do basic simple things like pay their taxes. And of course with that, and as we all know, farmers only get one paycheck a year. And so holding over for that whole year meant that you generally had to take out what they called a note or a loan. And we call it nicer things now. But, and debtors prison went away in the 1830s who Ray However, people the sheriff could come and confiscate everything you owned and many of the farmers in the 1890s had been through The major economic upset in 1873, they had seen 10s of 1000s of farmers lose everything that they owned. And so they're very sensitive to changes in policy and sensitive to changes in the economy, especially as it affects their one paycheck a year, which is pretty dramatic.


And they found their voice in the Grange. quite loud. Yeah,


yeah, all of our heads and Kelly started the Grange up in Minnesota. But that was more of like, a self help organization, you know, like, we'll hang out together, and we'll help each other. But it was really the farmers alliance that became the political arm and then became the the populist platform for sure. Raise more hail on less. Yes, that was definitely Lisa's phrase, you know, which it's interesting, you know, she was not actually a farmer, her. Her father was a pharmacist. And I believe she was married to a professional man too. So but she had been deeply affected by the changes in agricultural policy. So farmers are well known for getting upset, let's put it that way. And so I see a direct connection between their reaction to big changes in policy between the 1890s again in the 1940s. And then again, in especially in the 1980s, we have tractor, Cade, we have farmers breaking, I would guess I would call it civil disobedience, we've had a number of issues of civil disobedience. And now we currently have a similar thing happening again. So we have farmers, again, who are very upset about the imbalance in trade and the trade war and the tariff war, which, of course, is in a, you know, on proportionate in its effect on them, based on the other people in the United States. And from what I understand, farmers telling me today, and this was just recently, two weeks ago, in in Lawrence is they all understand that right now, the economy, the agricultural economy, is like a big bathtub, and it has a plug in it, which is the payments to the farmers that are losing money because of the trade war. But as soon as that plug gets pulled, it's all going down the drain. So they are very clear that they aren't. This is not a sustainable system whatsoever. So on the one hand, they're hard bitten about the economics of farming. And they understand that they have to take care of themselves and that their individual entrepreneurs in a sense, but on the other hand, they realize that as a class of people, they face very, very similar obstacles. And I know that for many farmers right now, their sense of grievance is growing. And that's their sense of grievance is growing. And that's being reinforced by the number of suicides in agricultural communities, which has increased dramatically in the last in the last two in the last two years. And, and we had, we saw a similar increase in despair in rural communities in the 1980s, especially when we saw farmers who had completely paid off their farms, they were without a mortgage. And then they had because of the agricultural low prices, as a result of Russia essentially re booting its own agricultural economy, and they no longer had Russia as a market. That was the what do you call it that that was the trigger for the fall? That of course that we all remember, or maybe some of us remember how high interest rates were? Oh, yes, my my so so farmers who were taking out loans against their property values, which were at that time, super inflated, when the price of commodities went down, of course, their interest rate didn't change, their loan payment didn't change, and many of them had to remortgage farms that had been paid off for a generation or more. When was this? This was in the 1980s.


In fact, Kansas State had a hotline. That's correct. Yeah. It had three or four specialists that dealt with there were counselors, there were ag economist, finance folks,


lots of that we had I mean, well, right program at K State got started as a result of the agricultural crisis of the 1980s. And we forget how much just total distress happened in the 1980s. And it was no joke to take to make a decision to drive your tractor and park it on the Washington Mall. I mean, you don't make that lightly. No. And, and so that we the generation farmers we have now of course, is dramatically aging, the number of the average age in Kansas as well over six 60 Now, and the number and what's interesting, according to the demographics that I've learned from one of our own sociologists on campus, Matthew Sanderson, is that there's a slight bump in the number of people who are in their 20s, who are in rural areas. And of course, we continue to see the population of the over 60. Communities however, the people in the middle are missing. So people who are in their 40s and 50s, at the height of their economic power or economic potential, are essentially hollowed out from those communities. And that's a big, big concern for me, too, for maintaining a tax base for many of these communities. And of course, we I think we mentioned earlier that more than half of Kansas counties now fall below, right, the definition of a trend here,


I was listening to a presentation a little earlier today, discussing Kansas counties, where the average population was less than 10 per square mile.


And in some places, it's seven.


So one of the things I mean, you're talking about farmers as a group, you're also talking about sort of how different groups are affected very differently to right. So what kind of similarity you see, today, I mean, in terms of bias on the effects, or how, you know, certain subgroups are seeing things differently. I mean, I was really, I was just gonna say I was really struck some of the some of the history, I knew a lot of it, I don't but but the, the, the challenges that the, that black farmers versus white farmers versus the Native Americans in Oklahoma face was just striking how different that was. Right. So what strains of that do you see sort of going through from?


Well? That's a really good question. I mean, the I think the most striking thing was the Agricultural Adjustment Act in the 1930s, provided relief for land owners. And so anybody who was a tenant farmer, didn't get a thing didn't get $1. And, of course, in the Americans throughout the American South, and in much of Texas, and even Oklahoma, you had a lot of tenant farmers. Even in Kansas, we've always had tenant farmers, people who rent their ground instead of owning it. And the Agricultural Adjustment Act was very, very clear that it didn't provide any money to tenants. And so we saw an enormous exodus of tenant farmers off their properties in as a result of the 1930s, which we consider, you know, a New Deal program, we don't anticipate that that's going to have a racial component. But it did. And really, what we have all throughout American agricultural history is a distinction between owners and workers. And agricultural workers, of course, far outnumber owners now, massively. It's totally disproportionate now, and in fact, almost all of the farmers I know, are also tenants, right? Yes, they don't, they own maybe, you know, 400 acres, but they're renting an additional 1000 from someone else, as farms turnover as a result of, you know, inheritance. And people don't want to come back and work it of course, just like Native Americans had to rent their ground for their grass money. Because they didn't have any ability to rent it to farm it themselves, because they didn't have any capital and all of that litany there. I mean, just it's similar now is that people have left the farm a long time ago, and they don't want to come back. And, and so there's a lot of ground out there that's being rented. But the majority of the people I think, that we see working in, the agricultural sector today aren't even in that situation. I think we see them not as either owners or tenants, but literally as day workers. So there's been a de Skilling and also an A parallel de-munition of their value in agriculture, that they're expendable. And of course, that's a long term and a long time process that we see. So I mean, when, when we think about people who are only here to pick crops seasonally, and that's really what we're talking about in general that began at the beginning of the 20th century, and that continued on through the 1930s and 40s. With the Bracero program in the 1950s Anytime especially this very clearly happens during World War One World War Two when you have a large number of young men and and women actually leaving agricultural areas for work either in factories like Wichita, we saw a lot of small towns completely empty out as a result of of that, especially in Kansas


And four consecutive very good crops. 


Yes, well, absolutely, I've had forgotten all about that, thank you. And so, you end up with a lot of crops in the ground and not enough people to harvest them. And that's that put a lot of pressure on the federal government to create the Brasero program in a legal way. And so you actually have now generations of people who are used to coming to the United States, and working for a season and working seasonal crops moving from one part of the country to another, they might be harvesting grapes in the Central Valley in California, in the Napa, Sonoma, and then moving over to another part of the country to harvest on their schedule. So it's not just like, one time coming up, and then going home, they move from place to place and all the way across the country. When I lived, I lived in Northern California for about four years. And I'll never forget my complete and utter shock, the first time that I came across a tenant community. And I was living in Northern California, and that's well known for Almonds, and apricots, and just you know, 1000s and 1000s of acres of these high value crops, but they're also very, they're also very labor intensive crops. And you have to get up there and pick apricots. You can't vacuum them off the tree I found anyway, they do have some mechanical picking, but not very much, you still have to do a lot of it by hand. And those large fruit and nut farmers had housing, you know, so called housing for their families. But I had never seen anything so dire in my life. I had never seen people living in the late 20th centuries, the 1990s living without running water, and without latrines, you know, outdoor latrines, and places that clearly didn't keep anyone warm, or cool, depending on the time of year. And I was so disappointed to see that there was still a class of agricultural workers being treated that way in the United States of America. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. And so I do think I see that. That's the thread that I see. I see agricultural workers, people who have been expendable within the policies that have privileged land owners, I have seen them consistently devalued and made almost invisible.


And back East the term would have been the hired man who would have worked for 25-30 years, and was doing a little bit of everything. The farmer didn't you get out to other parts of the country? And it really has it recreated for quite a while sharecropping.


Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. And sharecropping was one of the reasons that African American farmers left American. So yeah, and of course, we have the whole story of the furnishing merchant. The furnishing merchant was somebody who bought your crops and gave you the loan to put the next crop in the ground. And low and behold, oddly, you know, what you owed was always more than what you sold. And I, you know, one of my one of my favorite things to do is to tell students stories about how especially black farmers, but any kind of farmer that was not in a privileged position. How they got around those things, and no, so fun little story. So one, one family, this is in the 1880s. They grew cotton. I'm pretty sure that I'm thinking about Alabama here. And he realized that when he took his cotton, you know, this gigantic, you know, 600 pound bales, they obviously don't check all the cotton in the bale, you know, it's wrapped up in and so they, they stick a long fork in there, like a long, it almost looks like a crochet needle. And they they pull out some and then they check the quality that way. And what this African American tenant farmer discovered was at any time, he went to have his bale sold, and they pulled out the cotton, it was always grade B or C, but his neighbor who he was working right next to itself was always grade A. And his neighbor was white. So he convinced him to take his bales for him. And so the two had a pack that they made a little arrangement between themselves. And I found the same story in in Oklahoma, with African American farmers, finding interestingly new immigrant farmers, which I think is so fascinating. Farmers from Russia or Germany. We're brand new, and didn't have that history of racial tension or discrimination. And as far as that German farmer was concerned, like I have a bit wagon, you have a horse together, we can get a lot more done. They would work together pretty closely. And often African American farmers are smart enough to get that white farmer to sell their crops for them and get a little bit ahead. I always love those stories.


Changing gears, one of your titles is executive director of the Chapman center. Yes. Can you tell us a little bit about the center?


Absolutely. No, yeah. Chapman Center has been around for 14 years this year. And it started when Mark Chapman who's an alumn of case k state history alumn, his family, homesteaded in a little area called Broten, Kansas. And Broten is just a little bit to the east and south of Clay Center, Kansas. And it was condemned for flood control in 19 in the 1960s, to create Milford Lake, Milford reservoir, not really like it's really a reservoir. And it's not actually underwater, not the way Randolph was underwater for Tuttle Creek, but it was within the floodplain so that if the water ever did top, its banks that this this is where the water would go and kind of like our spillway, so it's kind of in the spillway, and so they condemned everyone in this in the town, everyone. There's some wonderful stories about Broten. That way the postmistress refused to leave Broten. And the same the day that the bulldozers arrived to literally knock every single building down in the town, she was sitting in the post office, the bulldozer was sitting outside the door. And she shut the when she closed the curtains and closed up the post office box, and walked outside and locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and walked away. And then the bulldozer knocked the building down. defiant, to the end, she was great. So that's a really great story. But Mr. Chapman had an idyllic childhood. Growing up in Broten of fishing in the written the creeks and rivers and chasing animals and raising, you know, wild animals. You know, everybody seems to me everyone in a small town before 1950 had a pet raccoon, I could be wrong, but it sure seems that way. Everybody had a pet raccoon at some time. And if you if you thought, you know, Tom Sawyer was a good life than a boy, I'll tell you being raised in those small towns in the 40s and 50s. Must have been pretty fun. But he felt bad because his parents Leo and Irene Chapman moved to Clay Center as most of the residents of Brighton did they move they even physically moved the church five miles away, and saved it. But his parents were in their 90s. And he was worried that the story of the town was going to be lost. And so he approached the history department, myself and a couple of other historians and asked if we could do some work on that town. And Dr. MJ Morgan, who was an adjunct professor in history department, she thought this sounded like a fun project. And she really took it on and started to train students in how to do that kind of research. And so Mr. Chapman was so pleased with the work that MJ and the students did I was kind of hands off at that point that he essentially paid to have a center created to continue to do that work. He said, if I learned so much about my town, through the work of these students, what about all these other towns and he didn't even realize at the time, how many towns there were. We know now? How many towns there were, but that's because of the work of a wonderful man in Rossville, Kansas named Melvin Brenzel, who was the state audiologist from like 1950 to the 1990s. 


I didn’t even know such such thing existed.


 Oh, yeah, I don't remember getting your hearing tested when you know the beep test. He administered the beep test. So he did that for the whole state, going from school to school. So he was he was I witness to the number of schools are closed because of the school closings in the 1960s the consolidations and also how small towns were just curling up and dying all across the state and he was so concerned about the stories being lost. Talk about a goldmine of information that he created. So He will, when he retired, he spent 11 years, get that, 11 years researching and recording the location and basic information of every single place name in the state of Kansas. We had oh my oh my word, oh my word. And we didn't know this. We had no idea. One of our one of my students was at a sale barn. And she saw this ad on the wall. And it was called, you know, place names in Kansas lost, found, interesting things like that. She's with a little phone number. And she goes, my goodness, I wonder what that is. And she pulled it off the sale barn bulletin board and brought it to me. And I read it. I was like, Oh, my gosh, and I immediately called him, it turned out he's not very far away. He came right over. And he had an index get this of over 9000 place names. Oh, my gosh. 9000. My favorite one, everyone asked him, What's your favorite place? That doesn't exist anymore? And I'll tell you what it is. It's magic cans. 


Magic! Name was a little tiny school. It is now on the Fort Riley reservation. And that's what happened to it. And how do we know it's not still there? Oh, yes, it could be there. Speedy Kansas. Oh, my gosh, there's so many great names we. So he had it all beautifully laid out of all these 9000 place names. If you look, if you look at a roadmap today, you won't find even 700 places on that map. So that's 84-8300 places that we essentially can't drive too easily and existed at one time or another.


So are some of these still being used. But it's just like a small, smaller community that, you know, still calling themselves this, it's just not on the map.


I would like I would say the majority of them are just gone. They're like magic doesn't exist in any way, shape, or form. What does exist in many of these towns, and I don't have a proportional, we haven't done that kind of that would be really hard to work through what doesn't go away or the cemeteries. So interestingly, what we'd like to talk about is even though most towns are gone, and the people don't live there anymore, they still want to go home. At the end of their lives, they still go home. Think about that. That's interesting, isn't it? This cemetery,


Just participated in one of those funerals two weeks ago.


Daniel Boston said way back when you wrote the American, yeah, that Kansas had the largest number of dead postoffs. Oh, yeah, of any other state. And he put it down. If I remember correctly, to people moving west, they will just pick up the towns and Northwest. It's much more complicated.


Much, much more complicated than that. Yeah. And I think people like to want to hear some simple answers. Why did the town die? Oh, because of the railroad, but didn't go through or something like that. But what I tell people is, there's really only a very few reasons to make it down. But there's literally limitless numbers of ways in which the town died. That the main focus of the channel, it has been for the past 13 years, we have our other big focus has been in providing undergraduates research experience in which they get professional training and how to do the research that professional historians do. Um, if you think about it on our campus, students who are chemistry majors or other kinds of bench scientists, majors, or even archeologists, in anthropology majors can get field experience, or bench experience and doing what their professors do. Well, how do history students get that kind of experience, so they're not going to stand behind me and watch me write a book. So this is a very boring, you know, I'm not going to sit there with a dictionary and say, Okay, you look up these words. So that's not a good way to organize an undergraduate research experience, but researching these small towns is, is within their grasp. So what we did is we created a format, a series of, I call our bag of tricks, where we unlock the secrets of how you learn about these towns like these are this is this is hard earned information that we have databases, we subscribe to a number of online databases as well as collect material in which essentially is unpublished that students can use and, and then we tell and then we but the greatest part of it is we bring in those the nearest community members to help us. Yes. So if you think about it, if we wanted to learn about Leo and Irene sprouting, and we went and talked to them, they were they were in their 90s. And we went and interviewed them. So suddenly, we have students that are talking to people in their 80s and 90s. And they form these fantastic bonds, and suddenly our students are like, wow, they're, they get so excited. They're like I want to go find out about this for, for funeral prefer Martha who who's in the nursing home and wanting to know more, and she has pictures for me and I'm going to go meet her at her house and, and suddenly we had students all over rural Kansas, doing these things, and it made them excited, it got the community's excited, and led to a number of really fantastic interactions. And then I won an, I was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities, digital digital history or digital humanities award in which I basically use that money to create a digital online database. And all of our students work, the best work is published. So not only do they get the research experience, they get this interaction with engagement, they also get a publication before they leave. And so it's been very popular.


Again, changing directions. You and your husband, Jim are both historians. And locally, you've also had a sideline of restoring historic homes.


Well, we restored five, and one of them was in partnership. We restored the Damon Runyon birthplace, fourth and Osage that was very important to us to do. And the very first house interestingly, we purchased on the corner of sixth and pierce Street, it's 529. Pierce Street, was our very first house. And we had no idea at the time. But the President of Kansas State Agricultural College, Thomas Will lived in that house for the two years that he was president of the university. And that was because he was a populist president and he didn't believe in being treated differently than other people on campus. He didn't want to be he wanted himself to be considered a first among equals. So he was actually president of the Bicycle Club, which is amazing, because remember, bicycles then were the giant wheels with the tiny one in the behind. So I love to think about Thomas wheel, and all of these high wheel bicycles all around my house. That's a fantastic view. So that was the very first house that we did. And the reason that we did it, the reason we did all of those, those things was had to do with believe it or not the Walmart, this kind of corporate behavior, which pushes commercial activity to the edge of cities, is what's killing the downtown's of towns. And as historians, we knew the trajectory of those kinds of things in towns and we said we ought to become urban homesteaders will become urban homesteaders. And we'll go back into areas that have been blighted, and will reestablish. And so that's how we came to buy 529. And we restored it, and we loved it. And then we had to buy the house next door in order to protect our house. And then we bought the Damon Runyan house with some help from Telestrator. And then we restored a house behind that one. And then our last house was a house it was owned by Oh, what was his first name is his last name is Daughter's Curtis daughters. And he was a board member of the Board of Regents and he built the house, he bought the house from someone else right after it was built, and where the Municipal Court is now, that was supposed to be the courthouse and for the holes for the city that was Courthouse Square. But then someone in town donated the land that the courthouse sits on today on points Avenue, with the caveat that they put the courthouse there and so in most small towns, you will notice that the courthouse and the jail are together in a square in this in the center. Clay Center is a perfect example. But are separated the jail was in one place in the in the courthouse in another place. And that was the reason and so so Charles Curtis, that's his name. He built he you know, he moved into this house so he would have easy access to the courthouse and he moved into that in like 1899 and then the courthouse got built downtown in 1904. So I'm sure he was quite disappointed. But he lived there till the 1930s. And by the time we got it, it had been abandoned and not lived in for over 20 years.


Any ones that got away that you wanted to?


Oh there's unfortunately there's been many of those. Yeah, but I I don't think people today remember Burn Forster? 


They do. 


Oh, I'm glad you guys do. Burn Forster was one of the original framers or writers of the 1966 Act National Park Service Act have created the National Historic Register for the United States. And he was a member of the National first National Trust for Historic Preservation. And he was the dean of the College of Architecture here at K State and when we were first thinking about moving downtown, etc, and I wanted to learn more about historic preservation. I could called Burn. And the first thing he said to me is like, well, who are you? And why should I talk to you? Eventually, he became one of our closest friends he and his wife Enel, and he was extremely inspirational. And, and he said to me, he says, not, not everything old should be torn down, he says, But not everything new should be built. And it was such a fine. Oh, such a good way to look at things because people just assume that if it's new, it's better. And he said, That's not true. And he says, But not everything old was very good at the time, either. So he said, you know, be discerning about historic preservation, I've always taken that to heart.


So, I mean, we can't change history, right? And in some ways, we don't want to go back to, you know, many of the ways things are right.


I never want to back! Yeah, no, I think about tuberculosis. And I never want to go back.


It's really easy to get nostalgic for certain things, right? Or a certain way of farming are all these loss towns and right, but so. So what's your perspective on like, the way we live today into towns and the way we do agriculture, like all this, that you kind of, you do look back on the past and sort of say, oh, but that's a piece that I would love for us to, like, recreate or regenerate or do something like that? Yeah, that's still Yeah.


You've stunned me now. I do believe that. People knew their neighbors better. I do believe the connection between people was stronger. My dear, dear friend, Pat sobble, just died on December 7, and he was 98 and a half. And I just finished putting together all of his ranch stories in a book, we just published it. And talking to him for three years. This is what most strongly struck me as what's missing from our lives today in rural United States. He was a rancher in Chase County, and the stories that he could tell the intimate stories he could tell of his neighbors, and of things where, where men and women got together and families got together, I feel strongly that were missing a lot of that he knew everyone around him in a way that we don't know each other today. I mean, I'm not the first one to make this observation. But it really came home to me. He had some wonderful stories about his father putting him in a wagon or on or just both of them on horseback and just visiting just going around to the neighbors to see who was up and who was doing this and that and just sitting around not doing much of anything. And he had some great funny stories about the first time he saw an indoor flush toilet and, and his father actually put him on horseback and took him to see the neighbor who had one, you know, so they could all have a look at it. And it's that kind of thing. Ray Joya actually. The a Kiowa, oh man that I mentioned at the beginning, he told me something very similar. And it didn't occur to me until much later that how similar it was he said, he used to be able to stand on the back of his farm porch. And look out at the valley and see the lights in the dark. And each of the lights represented a little farmstead. And he knew the name of every one of those lights. He says now goes, no one knows the names of those lights. And so I think that's what I'm nostalgic for, I guess. But I don't think that that's impossible to recreate, I actually think it would be quite good and quite possible. That's the distances now between farmsteads that makes that more difficult. It's also the fact that so many agricultural families have to have off farm jobs. So you don't have people at home very often. And so I don't have any solutions for that. I'm a big advocate of getting broadband and greater Internet access to agricultural and rural areas so that people don't feel so disconnected. Not just from the world at large, but from one another.


One of the thing I wanted to bring up, because I thought it was really very cool. You and Jim, I don't remember exactly how this worked. But we were invited to Barack Obama's inauguration. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


It was a shock. We don't know Barack Obama. But there's a there was an historian. His name is Fergus Fordwich. And he works for the Smithsonian. He's written many, many books. And he came out from he lived in Washington, DC, and he came to Manhattan, Kansas. He actually sort of came out on his own, and he was looking for information related to the very first home homestead in the United States which there's a museum Homestead, Nebraska where you can actually go and see the first patented homestead and talk about it. But he wanted to know about the first land grant school as well. And so someone said, Well, you know, you need to go and talk to Jim and Bonnie and he was who and they were like we said, we'll meet you for dinner. So we took him out for dinner. We didn't know him at all. And I remember very clearly Jim saying to me, Do we have time for this? And I said, we should be hospitable. Because we want when we go to other places, and we do research, we want other historians to be hospitable to us. And it's like, oh, yeah, you're totally right. And so we took Fergus out for dinner. And at the end of the meal, we had convinced him that K State was the first operational land grant school in the nation which we had researched, and we knew. Absolutely, without question. Michigan State Michigan claims it, I will claims that they all have a different reason for claiming it. Michigan's is to me the most disingenuous, they said that they had a research farm back before Michigan, was a school Michigan State was a school, and that that farmer was running experiments on it with a little group of students or something. And so that counts is the first land grant. Yeah. And I'm like, no, no. Yeah, I'm really I'm like, I'm thinking I was running around with his beat with his beans, too. I mean, that doesn't get so. So But anyway, he became convinced and so forth. Fergus went on to write his thing about homesteads and land grant colleges, and that was all great. And then suddenly out of the blue, and that was like, 2005, and then suddenly out of the blue. No, no, it was 2010. And so out of the blue is, we get this call from an office in Washington, DC, and it's from Chuck Schumer's office. I don't know Chuck Schumer either. And I'm not in his district. So but what it was, they were putting together a portfolio, and it was going to go to the members of Congress and other dignitaries and invited guests to the second inauguration luncheon. So right after you see the president inaugurated, there's a social event, and it's limited to 200 people. So not even every member of Congress gets to go. You have to own a small country, I think, if you're on the guest list, and they give them a special gift, each time that this has happened, and I don't know a lot how far back that tradition goes. But apparently about a century, it goes back. And everyone gets a gift. So this gift in 2012, was going to be a series of essays, written by historians about the 1862 presidential administration, which, of course, was Abraham Lincoln's, and boy, 1862 was a busy, busy year. I mean, we got the Railroad Act, we got the Banking Act, we got the moral Land Grant Act. We got the Homestead Act, The Congressional Dome was completed. During this all in the middle of a war. In addition to that, I mean, it was just incredible the number of things and so historians were asked from across the country who were experts in those particular things. And we were extremely honored to be included as one of those historians. And we co authored the essay about the land grant school system. And so we started with a celebration here in Manhattan, of a group of people who got together to have a wonderful party, at the same time that people are dying in the Battle of the Bull Run back East. In Virginia. It was like this, I think it was the second day of the battle. And it was not going well. But here in Manhattan, people were celebrating about the fact that they had created a college and looking forward to the future in the middle of one of the darkest moments of US history. So we wrote that essay. And then we each have we got a copy back from the Government Printing Office, which is all on vellum and everything but then it got better with Oh, great. Isn't that nice? We get to put that in our library. And then we got another call and say well, aren't you coming? Are like excuses what what they said, Well, you're invited we have tickets for you. I said, Well, that would have been good to know six months ago. Yeah, that would have been good to know earlier and they let us know like the end of November and you know, the inauguration in January and I'm like, Oh, we're never gonna get a ticket to DC of it at the airlines are just jammed. And then we're never going to get a place to stay. But somehow, it all came together. The tickets were available. They were not expensive. A friend of ours said hey, you can stay with my mom in DC and we were like We're going. And it was the most amazing experience. It was. I can't explain to people enough how different Washington DC and I've been to DC more times than I can count probably 30-40 times at least. And I have never been to DC at a moment in which I saw people so joyous in my life. Getting onto the train onto the just to get downtown, people were pouring into your free that day, everybody was pouring in wearing little flags and carrying babies. Women were singing kids were jumping up and down. And, when we got out of the subway, walking up to the security, I'll never forget this. There was just all this wonderful feeling of camaraderie. And just sort of like we're all in this together. And when we went through the security, I remember I had a lipstick. And that was the only thing I had with me was a lipstick. And the security man he looked at and he goes, Hey, goes all bet this looks beautiful on you. Could you put some on for me? And I did. And he said You are beautiful. And wow. Not what you expect from you know, Customs and Border Patrol today. And we were seated with people from all over the country to that was wonderful. There was Native Americans near us. We were sitting next to the granddaughter of Medgar Evers. We had people behind us. We had a lovely couple behind us that sobbed through the entire event. And it just and then at the end, this is wonderful. We were walking through and a big loudspeaker came on and said, we're looking for the Tuskegee Airmen. And there was a number of Tuskegee Airmen that had been invited that were sitting in our section and, and these were very tiny little people. I mean, these men were in their late 80s, early 90s. By then, and, and one of them was standing beside me and I. I said, Sir, I believe they're calling for you. He goes, Oh, my gosh. And I said, Hey, we the Tuskegee Airmen here. And so everyone just parted so that he could walk through and they put him in a limousine to take him to a special reception. Yeah. It was a wonderful experience. I'm really glad that I wish all Americans could have that. But for me, it was it'll always stay with me.


Bonnie, this was such an interesting discussion. Are there any other questions?


Many, many, but we should. I enjoyed it.


Do you have any questions for us?


No, no, no, I'm just, I'm just really excited about global food systems. And I'm really excited about the podcasting. I think you're making a really big difference on campus. I am seeing the profile the Global Food Systems is really going up and I'm looking forward to working with you guys more.


If you have any questions or comments you would like to share check out our website at and drop us an email.

Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.