Chapter One from...
by Bruce Brown
|Bob Berry, a cousin of Dale's, remembers the world seemed new-made that morning. He, Dale, Vernon, and several other cousins found the sloughs along the Mississippi thick with ducks, which circled continuously in the steaming water. The men were almost distracted from their aim for pheasant when they found the Chinas thick too. The sudden deep snow made the birds uncommonly easy to track. One bird flushed nearby, and then flew directly over them. They all had a good shot at the bird, but it flew on, apparently unscathed. The Burrs were just marveling out loud at the bird's amazing flight when it suddenly plummeted straight down dead. Others were easier. The six men in the party all got their three-bird limit by mid-morning, for a total of eighteen birds killed in the space of a few hours.
What Dale Burr liked about pheasant hunting was the fellowship, the break from the work of the farm, and the edge of excitement in seeing what fortune might bring. Guns were not a big thing with him, nor was killing, although he was a good shot and liked bringing home game. As much as anything, he just enjoyed having the birds around, and so after World War 11 he gladly assisted a neighborhood effort to establish pheasants around Lone Tree. The first step came when a neighbor, Eugene Weise, raised some pheasant chicks and released them on his place to the north. That winter Dale left a good-size patch of corn standing to carry the birds through until spring. Within a few years, the pheasant population had mushroomed. Dale's son, John, recalls that when he started hunting in the late 1950s it was not unusual to startle up two hundred pheasants at once from behind a haystack on the Burr place.
National farm policy at the time also contributed to the increase in southeast Iowa pheasants, albeit inadvertently. During the Eisenhower Administration, then-record farm surpluses prompted Congress to create a raft of federal programs designed to increase conservation and decrease production. Primary among these was the Soil Bank (which paid Iowa farmers $54 million to fallow more than one million acres in 1956, the first year of the program's existence), but the government was also aiding and abetting the birds in many smaller, less obvious, and less expensive ways. One that Johnson County farmers took advantage of was the program that gave rosebushes to farmers who wanted to hedgerow their fence lines. The idea was to create windbreaks for soil conservation, but in the process pheasants received excellent year-round cover.
The reason the birds especially favored the Burr place was the corn. Dale Burr routinely had the last standing corn for forty miles around. Pheasants gathered here for food and shelter when the blizzards howled. While many farmers, especially the more devoted hunters, might appreciate this, very few would do it themselves because leaving corn in the field meant forgoing income from land they would have already invested money in plowing, seeding, cultivating, and fertilizing. And so by late November every year, Dale Burr generally was the only big farmer in the vicinity with unharvested corn. "This gave him what you might call his own hunting preserve," recounted a friend, who added that a favorite neighborhood hunting tactic was to "chase the birds out of Dale's corn into the surrounding fields, and shoot them there."
In those days, Dale mostly hunted with Bob Berry, Keith Forbes, Vernon Burr, and other relatives. Even in old age, Dale's father, Vernon, was avid enough about pheasants to carry a shotgun with him on the tractor so as not to miss a shot at a prize cock. Then, on the weekends, most of the men in the Burr family would go pheasant hunting in earnest. Keith Forbes recalls that "Dale probably went less than some of us, but that wasn't because he wasn't a good hunter or didn't enjoy hunting. He just worked more Saturdays. So I guess you'd say it was a little special when he came along. We'd generally get going in mid-morning after chores, and always have our limit by noon. Afterward, we'd all get together at Dale's place for one of Emily's dinners. "
Although no one else in the family left corn standing through the winter, Dale's practice was very much what people in Johnson County call "a Burr thing to do." Without having come from a family that has spent several generations in this Iowa community, as the Burrs have, it is probably impossible to fully savor the meaning of this expression, but generally it refers to a quiet, underlying sense of values evident in the family's tendency to do the right thing as they saw it, even if it cost money. Vernon and his wife, Hilda, were strict Presbyterians and expected a lot of their kids, Dale and Ruth. "Understand," another old friend said of the family, "these were very moral people."
A cousin recalled that when he and Dale were around ten years old, their favorite game was to trap English sparrows in one of the hog sheds by closing the door behind them once the sparrows had flown inside. Then, seizing corncobs from the floor, they would attempt to hit the birds in flight. More than once, their errant pegs were punctuated by the tinkle of falling windowpanes, which they hoped Vernon would not notice. He did notice, of course, but he was not the one who eventually put an end to the game. One summer day, Dale stopped his cousins from killing a desperate bird with the comment that startled them so much that one remembered it over a half-century later. "God," young Dale admonished his friends sternly, "sees every sparrow that falls."
A few years later at the Johnson County Fair in Iowa City, some "city toughs" were harassing the country boys by throwing handfuls of straw off the floor into the buckets of water they were carrying to their livestock. Rather than feed their pampered animals dirty water, farm boy after farm boy turned aside, threw his water away, and went back for more. The pattern was repeated with increasing mirth among the perpetrators until one of them threw a handful of filth in the bucket of water Dale Burr was carrying to his calf. Dale looked at the water for an instant, as if entranced, and then threw it all over the snickering city slick. Howling with rage, the older boy came at Dale in a flash, but the other farm boys rallied to Dale's defense, and the troublemakers were forced to take a soggy walk.
Members of the Burr family recall this incident as a rarity. They always said Dale took after his uncle George Nelson. Hilda's brother was famous around Lone Tree for his calm disposition. Once when a bearing went out on his tractor (an expensive, time-consuming breakdown), he was heard to exclaim, "Oh, fiddle, it just doesn't give a fellow a chance." Ruth Forbes said of her brother, Dale, "He was a very calm sort of person, and not one to speak his opinions openly." Again and again, in the face of the countless difficulties that are endemic to farming, Dale Burr showed uncommon equanimity. He was never known to raise his voice in anger at anyone, and there were more than a few times when his warm laughter cheered a relative or neighbor.
Yet others heard what they took to be the ring of arrogance in his laughter. One time a fellow came out and offered Dale Burr $10,000 for a mare he had raised. Dale leaned forward on the corral. "If that horse is worth ten thousand to you," he said with a chuckle, "she's worth twice that to me." An old horse associate characterized this quip as "typical Dale." So too was the eventual outcome, for Dale did, in fact, refuse to sell the horse. It seemed sometimes as if the Burrs not only followed their own law; they were above those that applied to everyone else. While most Johnson County farmers were early risers, the Burrs worked late into the night. Similarly, since farming knows no eight-hour days or weekends, a neighbor was struck when Dale told him once that he would die before he'd work on Sunday.
Although he stood an honest six feet tall, people remember Dale Burr as a larger man. This was probably due to his solid presence and the obvious power of his well-muscled physique, especially his hands. Farmers' hands are often like books, and Dale's were two volumes of Tolstoy. Large, broad, and deeply weathered, they were equally capable of cinching down a flailing animal or performing minute adjustments on sophisticated machinery. His eyes were blue, and his features clean and boyish. Work had stiffened his movements somewhat over the years, but his carriage remained upright. In fact, the most obvious mark of age on Dale was the disappearance of his wavy black head of hair. Otherwise, his features were still those of the boy staring out of a snapshot taken more than a half-century ago.
This picture shows Dale sitting in a field with a group of chums. The bill of his baseball cap is turned up like an "Our Gang" character's, and he is grinning the unrestrained, perfect-toothed smile of a boy who has just spent a few cherished hours playing baseball. It isn't hard to see why Dale Burr was named the "Healthiest Boy" in Johnson County after a school sports meet. He played baseball, basketball, and football at Lone Tree High School during the Depression, and was elected president of his class senior year. The thing that people remember most about Dale, though, was his ability to work. Even in a community where grueling physical labor was common coinage, Dale Burr stood out. His father, Vernon, used to say, "My son has carried more corn on his shoulders than any man in Iowa."
As a young man, he married Emily Wacker, daughter of a prominent banker in the neighboring town of Wilton. Vernon Burr gave the couple a 160-acre farm with a fine white farmhouse, and Emily filled it with truckloads of antiques from her family's big house in Wilton. In time she bore three talented children whom Dale loved deeply and openly. The kind of father who not only encouraged his kids in worthwhile activity but actually took the lead in making it possible, Dale Burr was the driving force behind the formation of the 4-H chapter called the Prairie Masters.
A low-keyed but rock-ribbed Republican and longtime Farm Bureau member, Dale expanded until the 160 acres his father originally staked him to had swelled to more than 500 acres, not including the 200-plus acres owned by his son, John, and his mother, Hilda, which were farmed in a loose unit with his own holdings. Taken together with his close cousins among the Burrs, Stocks, Berrys, and Mussers, Dale's family controlled thousands of acres of Johnson County farmland.
Although he favored unpretentious work clothes and rarely bought a new car, Dale himself was one of the wealthiest farmers around Lone Tree. In December 1983, the Hills Bank and Trust Company, one of the three area banks with which he did business, estimated Dale Burr's worth at $1.76 million.
One of the few things anyone heard Dale complain about then was the pheasants. Ever since the 1970s, the birds had been in decline. To get an idea of how much things had changed, John Burr said that when he was a teenager they used to kill a half-dozen nesting hen pheasants mowing a twenty-acre hay field. In 1984, the Burrs' mowers did not hit any.
Dale became more and more restrictive about whom he would allow to hunt, and finally closed the place to hunting altogether. He still left the corn standing in the field late, and refused to fall plow. In addition, he invested thousands of dollars in erosion-control projects such as check dams and contouring. Still the number of birds dwindled. Because the pheasant families wandered about without respect to property lines, it was impossible to separate Dale's place from its neighbors. They were all bound together.
Like the prior Johnson County pheasant boom, the birds' disappearance was due to many factors, most of them related to agricultural practices and national farm policy. Farmers were using more pesticides and herbicides, planting more of their land in row crops, and removing trees and windbreaks. All were symptoms of large-scale industrial agriculture pushing the land for maximum production (regardless of the immediate cost in dollars or the ultimate loss of soil), and all were then being encouraged by the government. In Johnson County, Iowa, farmers were even subsidized to remove the rosebushes they had been given to plant two decades before.
Unlike his Republican predecessor, President Richard Nixon was not interested in limiting food production. He saw agricultural surpluses as a tool of American diplomacy and a weapon in realpolitik. Consequently, conservation programs were downplayed. In one of his better-known pronouncements, Nixon's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, urged farmers to plant "from fencerow to fencerow." Butz also pushed large-scale farming, which he saw as more cost-efficient and scientific. Spurred by this overt pressure from Washington, as well as a host of covert encouragements (such as the fact that virtually all federal agricultural research is directed toward the problems of large agribusinesstype operations), many of Iowa's best, forward-looking young farmers went deeply into debt to buy larger spreads and more equipment.
With their land as collateral, they borrowed large amounts of money, sometimes more than their farming fathers had made in a lifetime, and reinvested it in farming. The 1970s saw a tremendous modernizing, upgrading, and expanding of America's agricultural plant. The Burr farm was only one of many that collected an impressive array of shiny new farm machinery. By the late 1970s, land sales began to develop a feeding-frenzy quality. Amid popular drum beating on the dangers of overpopulation and famine, the price of good Johnson County farmland soared from $1,200 to $2,200 to $3,200 an acre, with no apparent end in sight. Americans began to think with pride of agriculture as the nation's "answer to OPEC," and many urbanites were pleased to learn that the United States was still the world's largest exporter of virtually every basic food, from corn to wheat to soybeans to rice.
Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter imposed an embargo on American grain sales to the Soviet Union in retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan. While Nixon had intoned on the power of agricultural diplomacy, Carter learned that there was also great vulnerability in America's highly leveraged, export-dependent agriculture, for his Soviet embargo marked the beginning of a world trend away from American agricultural produce. Not only did the Soviets find other more congenial suppliers, but many American allies did likewise as world food production increased in every hemisphere. Farmers reacted with rage toward Carter, but his successor only made things worse. Under President Ronald Reagan, American's domination of world agriculture eroded further, and the chronic American agricultural distress erupted into a full-blown agricultural crisis.
With most basic food crops being produced at or near new records (American farmers grew an all-time high 2.1 billion bushels of wheat in 1982, for instance) and export markets drying up, the government began to acquire surpluses, which themselves soon reached record highs. Commodity prices fell, land values fell, loans were called or could not be met when they came due, and thousands of acres were foreclosed. Hardest hit of all were the nation's family farmers, for whom Iowa is a stronghold. By the winter of 1984, an estimated one in three were in financial trouble. The chill reality of foreclosure was as close for them as the snow on the window ledge, and it cast a pall that was particularly apparent during the holidays.
By comparison, Christmas 1984 seemed a typically festive occasion in the Dale Burr household. Emily made her famous holiday candy and cookies, including the fudge that was a favorite of Dale and John's. "She'd start baking it in late November to get a head start on the season," recalled John. "Dad and I would get into it and eat as much as half the batch. When she caught us, we'd say, `This was good, but not quite perfect. Maybe we could make some more.' Yeah, Dad and I had that one worked out pretty well," he laughed. Just before Christmas, the Burrs' two grown daughters, Sheila and Julia, came home from out of state.
It was traditional in the Dale Burr household to open presents on Christmas morning, but actually the process went on for weeks. In a title transfer registered December 24, 1984, for instance, Dale and Emily gave John a fractional interest in the home place worth thousands of dollars "in consideration of the sum of one dollar, Love and Affection." John Burr also received more than $30,000 cash from his father in December and January.
Although they suggested prosperity, these gifts were really a sign that things were not entirely right at the Burrs'. Even if one knew this, though, who would have suspected that Christmas 1984 would be Emily and Dale Burr's last, or that the next time Dale picked up his shotgun it would be to hunt people he knew and loved well?
Who would have thought that in less than a year, Dale Burr would directly affect American agricultural policy, be discussed from Singapore to Schenectady, and ultimately trace the mark of agricultural history since the reign of Henry VIII in the good Iowa dirt?
"Lone Tree" © Copyright 1989 Bruce Brown