Jan 25, 2012

Sun, Jan 18, 1942: sorrell colt

“Vernon Peterson and Jay Peterson have started to defense school at Wichita, it kinda leaves Lloyd without a man now, I don't know who is doing the chores for him.
“I sold Mickie and Minnie to Geo. Dennett at Rose Hill yesterday, got $200 for them.  Will have to break that sorrell colt and use Bessie....
“Expect I had better close and get in on the Popcorn or Stanley and Mother will have it all ate up.”
-- Letter from my grandfather on the farm in Bloomington, Kans., to my father, a freshman at Southwestern College, Winfield, Kans., Sunday, January 18, 1942.
The transition from horses to tractors for farmwork was very gradual on my grandparents’ farm as in the country at large.  The number of farm horses in Butler County, Kansas, peaked around 1910 at 22,752, roughly the number of people in the county (23,059).  If you add in the town horses, there were likely more horses than people in the county then.  The number of farm horses gradually declined to 8,479 in 1940 and to 4,666 by 1950, while the human population grew slightly and the acres of farmland stayed about the same.  My grandfather gave up horses in fits and starts.  He acquired a Fordson tractor, probably during the 1920s, but tired of its gas consumption and unreliability and returned to using horses in the early 1930s.  He got a new Farmall F-20 tractor in 1937, yet continued to use horses for some tasks.  The sale of Mickie and Minnie may have been part of reducing his reliance on horses. By the 1960s, he had only one horse, for his grandchildren to ride or to pull them in a buggy.  He sold off his last horse, Sugar, around the late 1970s.  (Sources: U.S. Census, 1900-1950; Sidney DeVere Brown, Kansas Farmboy: A Memoir of Boyhood and Youth [2008], 103, 105)

Jan 18, 2012

Sun, Jan 18, 1942: "kafir corn"

“Things have been going on as usual here at home, the weather was good last week and got quite a lot done.  I bought some kafir corn and hauled it and some Kafir butts and cane in the in the [sic] field and got four loads of it hauled, have to mow and rake it, there are three or four loads yet.  Jay Causey has been helping me."
          -- Letter from my grandfather, Leonard Reeves Brown, age 47, Bloomington, Kans., to my father, Sidney DeVere Brown, 16, Southwestern College, Winfield, Kans., Sunday, January 18, 1942.
My grandfather grew what he called “Kafir corn” as feed for cattle, hogs, and chickens.  During this week, he may have been using it as an organic fertilizer.  Butler County, Kansas, where my grandparents lived, was the country's leading producer of this South African variety of sorghum and its county seat, El Dorado, hosted a “Kafir Corn Carnival” intermittently from 1911 to 1929.  It seems likely that my grandfather, a 17-year-old in 1911, attended some of these wildly popular carnivals, although I have no evidence that he did.  The grain’s popularity was already declining by 1930s, in part because other sorghums (such as milo) were better suited to cultivation with tractors rather than horses and to mechanized processing.
          Collins English Dictionary
defines "kaffir corn" as "an old-fashioned and now taboo name for a Southern African variety of sorghum, cultivated in dry regions for its grain and as fodder."  The phrase comes from “kaffir,” an Afrikaans word for black Africans, originally from the Arabic word for infidels.  Collins says of the word: “In South Africa the use of this word is nowadays completely taboo, and is indeed actionable in the courts. It is also advisable not to use the word in any of the compounds to which it gave rise.”  Butler County’s almost entirely white population (99.1% in 1940) clearly did not find the word troublesome.  African Americans may not have found it particularly offensive either, since black newspapers like The Chicago Defender regularly used the term to refer to black South Africans.  I've used the term, "kaffir corn," for most of my life and only recently learned how offensive it is.  More acceptable terms are South African sorghum or m'bele.
          Butler county residents were certainly aware of the African origins of the crop. The "Kafir Corn Carnival" primarily featured storefronts and booths decorated with sorghum stalks along with standard county fair activities (agricultural displays, hog and chicken calling contests, band concerts, baby parades, fiddler's contests, etc.).  But carnival organizers emphasized sorghum's African origins in their meetings and made
stereotypes of black Africans and fantasies about Africa part of the carnival as well.  One Butler County resident's link to Rhodesia may have lain behind all these images.
          The Knights of Mapira, the secret society made up primarily of El Dorado businessmen who sponsored the carnival, based its name on Mapira, an African word for sorghum, and had initiation rites where members symbolically visited sites in Rhodesia supposedly associated with the variety's origin. 
In the first Kafir Corn Carnival in 1911, as one journalist reported, “A local newspaper engendered pangs of jealousy among rival exhibitors by showing on its float a Kafir hut sufficiently guarded by a real native Kafir boy, fresh from Rhodesia and armed with a nervous-looking collection of spears and other weapons possessing unpronounceable names.”  The young man was Ned Mendoll, the servant of William I. Joseph, a Butler County resident who had bought 25,000 acres of land in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and recently returned to Butler County bringing Mendoll along.  Joseph's role in planning the carnival is unclear, although it was likely no coincidence that the carnival with rituals focused on Rhodesia and described as "patterned after the ancient crop dances of Africa" began soon after his return from Rhodesia.
       Sources: Joyce Thierer, "The Queen of Kansas Prairies: Butler County's Kafir Corn Carnivals", Kansas History 18 (1995): 70-85.  “Kafir Corn,” in Kansapedia; “Kafir” and “Kafir Corn” at Dictionary.com; Charles W. Wright, "Kafir Corn and a Kafir Carnival," Northwestern Miller, Jan. 31, 1912; "Kafir corn finding increased favor," Milling and Grain News , (1913): 100; “William I. Joseph,” in Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history,1912; Jennie Small Owen, The Annals of Kansas, 1886-1925 (Kansas State Historical Society, 1956), 2:16; Heidemarie Vos, Passion of a Foodie: An International Kitchen Companion (Durham, Conn.: Strategic Book Group, 2011) p. 331. U.S. Census, 1940; "The Onlooker," Chicago Defender, March 25, 1922; "Lily-whites win control in S. Africa," Chicago Defender, July 13, 1929.

Jan 11, 2012

Sun, Jan 11, 1942: defense school

"How is school since vacation?  We surely had a cold spell didn’t we?  But it is warmer to-day.  Mildred started to defense school at Wichita yesterday morning.  She is taking riveting and will probably get a job at one of the defense plants as soon as she is capable." 
-- Postcard from my grandmother, Jessie Maybelle (Berger) Brown, age 44, in Bloomington, Kans., to my father, Sidney DeVere Brown, 16, at Southwestern College, Winfield, Kans., Sunday, January 11, 1942.
-- Mildred King, 21, was my dad’s cousin.  The United States had entered World War II about a month before this postcard was written. During World War II, 6 million women entered the workforce.  By 1944, 40% of workers in the aircraft industry were women, with Wichita as one of the nation's major centers of aircraft manufacturing. (Sources: George Brown Tindall and David Shi, America: A Narrative History (1992), vol. 2, p. 1182; "Wichita, Kansas" in Wikipedia.)

Jan 7, 2012


I have about a thousand letters my Dad wrote and received when he was at Southwestern College, Winfield, Kans. (1941-43, 1946-47), when he was in the U.S. Navy serving stateside (1943-46), and especially when he and my mother were engaged to marry but living in separate towns in Kansas (June 1947-January 1948). I am reading these letters exactly seventy years after they were written and posting interesting quotes from them once a week or so.