Monday, August 27, 2012

Carroll Engelhardt Interview: Part 1

After years of teaching about other people’s histories, what caused you to write your own coming-of-age history?

I can’t pinpoint a definite cause. The seeds were planted early. As a child I frequently studied the histories and readers that my parents used when they attended country school. These textbooks later became sources for my doctoral dissertation about citizenship training in Iowa. During my graduate studies, I read about the agrarian myth and McCarthyism, which gave me a sense of how my family entered into history. Mother and Father still believed that farmers—even though declining in numbers—were the backbone of the American Republic. A neighbor often talked about communists in our small town, and I remember watching the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. After hearing stories about my childhood, my daughters urged me to write them down. By way of encouragement, the younger one gave me This House of Sky by Montana novelist Ivan Doig. His memoir about growing up as a ranch hand’s son revealed how ordinary lives could be made interesting for readers. Retirement finally gave me leisure to write about my rural boyhood.

To set the world of your childhood in northeast Iowa in context, you blend hometown details with national and world history in an intriguing and informative way. How did you achieve this?

By researching several sources. The Clayton County Register and county histories helped me connect family stories and my memories with Elkader and Clayton County events. Histories of Iowa, American agriculture, small towns, the Second World War, popular culture, and American society in the forties and fifties enabled me to tie our lives to national and international trends. Setting lives and events in larger contexts is what historians are trained to do. It is hard to learn; I don’t think I did it successfully until my forties when I published several historical articles. Putting any topic in context is also hard to teach undergraduates, I painfully discovered.  

Yours was a fourth-generation Iowa farm family; your parents grew up in homes without electricity on farms without tractors and began farming in the same way. Then telephones, radios, automobiles, electricity, and tractors came along to revolutionize their lives and those of their children. How did such affluence affect your community?

Tractors, mechanization, and electricity increased productivity and made possible larger farms, fewer farmers, and a reduced number of small-town businessmen. The small-scale diversified farming that my parents practiced eventually disappeared. Automobiles and hard-surfaced roads expanded shopping opportunities for families. Movies, radio, and television tied farm and small-town folk to a national consumer culture. Radio newscasts brought world events into our homes. Television privatized leisure, which diminished large rural neighborhood card parties and socializing during Saturday nights in town. While rural and-small town residents lamented these changes, they also embraced the more comfortable and interesting life styles made possible by modern technologies.

As a boy in 1940s and 1950s Iowa, you rode a horse on the hayfork, hired out to other farmers to load bales in the field, and worked in the haymow. Needless to say, this does not sound easy. Tell us more about the kinds of work you did.

My experiences were typical. I’m sure I worked less than some of my classmates who had more acres and more livestock to care for. For example, neither my brother nor I was kept home from school to help with the corn harvest, fall plowing, or spring planting. The economic success of small farms depended on shared labor. All worked so all could eat. It was an important life lesson that most parents imparted to their offspring from an early age, expecting them to help with whatever needed doing. The care and feeding of livestock dictated morning and evening chores. Planting and harvesting crops had to be completed during optimal weather conditions. Fixing fence, repairing machinery, cleaning barns, hauling manure, sawing wood, and roofing buildings are some other tasks I recall. Writing about Harvard colleagues who said he worked too hard, Professor of Economics John Kenneth Galbraith comments, “Their main problem was they weren’t raised on farms!”

No comments:

Post a Comment