Had quite a road trip last week. Took a carload of former AAM (American Ag Movement for the youngsters reading this) tractorcade participants down to the 35th reunion of the tractorcade to D.C. in Lubbock, Texas. It was hosted by Texas Tech’s Southwest collection. The intention was to get them together to hear their stories, and record them and their mementos for posterity. It was extremely successful.
The Southwest collections administrator, Andy Wilkinson, is an old friend of mine and I was able to help him a little setting it up and made the contact between himself and the keynote speaker for the event, current administrator of GIPSA Larry Mitchell, another old friend. Larry got his start in D.C. representing AAM many moons ago.
The road trip was startling. I started driving from my home in NE Kansas and it just got drier and drier the further we went. The wind was very strong and gusting. We drove through blowing dust storms from Great Bend to Oklahoma that made seeing the road difficult.
A multi-mile wildfire broke out just west of Dodge City as we were driving south. It was threatening the home of one of my passengers, Linda Hessman from Dodge, son’s home NW of Dodge. They were evacuating the important things from the home and we were going to turn back when the fire fighters got it controlled about 50 yards from the house.
At the meeting we were told that Texas is planting cotton but they don’t really know why. Those irrigating said that they were re-tipping their pivots every 2 weeks to try and maintain an even spray as the quantity of water keeps getting less and less.
Word from the New Mexico/eastern Colorado people was that farmers were starting to chisel ridges in the native prairie to try and hold the soil. We are really blessed here where we live.
Back to the road trip. Rather than shoot down like one normally does through Liberal we went down to Meade and then straight south, made a quick stop at the Meade State Lake and hatchery, a CCC works project, and then headed on south. There is a pipe sticking out of the ground from an artesian well that used to shoot water 30 ft. Now with the drop in the Ogallala Aquifer it is dry.
The aquifer has dropped over 30 feet in that area of Kansas. It used to be a problem for them to clean out the fish ponds because they never dried out, now they have to line the ponds just to try and hold water in them.
We drove south through Canadian, Texas then headed south/southwest. My intention doing this was to show my passengers the rough terrain of the Palo Duro canyon and the breaks on the caprock where one jumps up onto the flat-as-a-skillet high plains.
If one drives down through Liberal and Amarillo one never even sees or is aware of the magnificence of the breaks. We struck paydirt on the highway we traveled and the view from the top of the caprock down into Palo Duro canyon was truly breathtaking. It dropped straight down for hundreds of feet into the most jumbled mess one could imagine.
The reunion was hosted first at the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech. (nrhc.ttu.edu) This is an amazing facility documenting the ranching industry of America.
Then the second part was held at the American Museum of Agriculture in Lubbock. (www.agriculturehistory.org) Great museum. It had a lot of strange stuff that I wasn’t familiar with because of the cotton and peanut influence in that part of the country.
They had a 1915 Titan tractor. I sent the picture to 3 year old grandson, Titan, and he loved it! He was home on the farm this past weekend and he asked me where HIS tractor was so he could drive it. Whoops? Zach thinks I should paint “Titan” on one of my tractors now for him… I might just do that.
Larry started the event out with a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of the AAM and the state tractorcades to where it became a true movement where tractors started heading to D.C in 1977. This was the time before cell phones and other social media that would have made this so much easier but was accomplished with phone trees where one farmer.
One participant said, “we got it done with $600 a month phone bills that we paid for ourselves!”
Afterwards when I was visiting with Linda about this she had to wonder if it would have been successful in today’s social media, because when one farmer called another there was a trust involved that might not have bloomed in today’s social media times. Linda said that the AAM movement had a life of it’s own and that it built
momentum that couldn’t be stopped.
Linda said that the AAM participants came from all avenues and organizations working toward a common goal and that is what made it a movement.
During Larry’s opening remarks he made the comment that he didn’t know why he was asked to be the keynote and that others deserved it more than he. He said it couldn’t have been because of the AAM’ers, he was the one to achieve the highest position in government because it wasn’t true. That honor would have to American Ag Movement 35th reuniongo to current governor of Texas Rick Perry.
Yep, Rick Perry drove a tractor in the AAM tractorcade to DC! I knew he used to be a strong Farmers Union member having participated in our Fly-Ins to DC but I did not know about his AAM history. It’s a pretty easy statement to say that the Rick Perry of those days was a far cry from the Rick Perry of today.
After Larry’s presentation the cameras were turned on the crowd and people just started talking, telling the most interesting and amusing stories. One man told that when the southern route of tractors came to a turnpike they were told they were to use just one lane and to have the exact change. The tractor drivers didn’t think much of that so they took all the lanes, hundreds of tractors, and they paid their 35 cent toll in pennies! He said they had to have had the traffic backed up for 200 miles…
Another man told that when they picketed the Chicago Board of Trade there was one very attractive young woman who was a part of their group and that she was from Hooker, Okla. She had on an imitation fur coat and hat; and on the hat she had a button pin on her hat that said “HOOKER” in large letters and then “Oklahoma” in tiny letters beneath it. When she was asked once what the “hooker” pin meant she responded with “you don’t think I was able to buy this fur coat by farming do you?”
Linda Hessman told the story of the Stude’s from Copeland. She said that Howard and Ruth were really active in the AAM and that Howard was in DC all the time and Ruth always stayed home and took care of the farm. However, Ruth and other ladies made quilts to be auctioned off to help bring some income into the AAM to help offset expenses. Linda said that they were so proud when one of Ruth’s quilts was selected by the Smithsonian to be part of the AAM exhibit in the museum of American History on the mall! Linda said that Ruth had never been to DC and Howard was adamant that he was going to take Ruth to DC to see her quilt on exhibit. The day they were to leave for DC Ruth suffered a major stroke! She never saw her quilt there.
Linda said that Howard was active in going over and helping Wayne Cryts remove his grain from the bankrupt elevator. She said that Howard helped change an unjust law because before the Cryts incident if one had stored grain in an elevator that then went bankrupt the grain automatically became assets of the elevator to pay debtors. The AAM got the elevator law changed.
This was the first time I ever heard a discussion about tractors and the gas mileage they got. One told of a Ford diesel tractor that made over 40 miles per gallon. They had planned on fueling up their own tractors and hauled tractor fuel in their support vehicles but they never once filled their tanks from their own supply. Every night when they stopped and camped the local fuel supplier would come out and fuel up their tractors and wouldn’t take a cent for it.
My very good, now deceased, friend Vernon Dienes was part of the tractorcade out of Herrington. He often told me the story that during the blizzard that hit D.C. he was busy blading snow and pulling out stuck motorists (who appreciated his help immensely), when the police came and arrested him and confiscated his 4020 JD tractor. He said they never did give him his tractor back and Farmers Union insurance had to buy him another tractor. He said he bet that tractor is still out there somewhere doing work around D.C.
David Heiens from Abilene rode down with me and he was a young man of 24 at the time of the tractorcade. He said that the real leaders at the protest in D.C. were the WWII veterans who knew how to organize and knew discipline. He said the police told them not to cross a line, the veterans lined everyone up on the line and then an old sergeant bellowed out “one step forward.” They did. Then he bellowed “gas masks on,” those that had them did, they were gassed. When it was over the sergeant bellowed out “gas masks off.”
Can you imagine 3,000 tractors taking over the mall for two months? There were arrests, tear gas, guns, and all kinds of threats. The farmers were peaceful but the press was not kind to the protesters.
I’m glad Andy went to the effort to bring these people who made history together before it was too late. There should be a good record of the history of the AAM and tractorcades now in the Southwest collection.
I had to wonder as I listened what kind of crisis it would take today to get the farmers of America to do what they did then? I don’t think there has been anything like it since the Shays rebellion of 1786 to today.
It was a special movement,