The Code of the West

This is an excerpt from Broncs and Honkytonks, a forthcoming play in the 2022 season of The Bridge. This dialogue is addressed directly to the audience. 

A. Cowboys got rules, just like other folks.

B. There are just some things you don’t do.

A. That’s right.  For example:

B. You cuss around the women folk.

A..  And when you’re introduced to one, you ti your hat.

B.I’ve seen fights start over not showin’ proper respect.

A  Here’s another: when your dancin’ with a lady, you don’t spit tobacco juice over her shoulder,

  B. Then there’s a mess of rules for the round-up.

A. You don’t ride to the chuck wagon with the wind at your back.

B.  You go around the other side.

A. You don’t go between a cowboy and a herd he’s restraining.

B.  You don’t try to rope an animal that another cowboy is chasing.

A. Don’t ride in front of another cowboy unless his horse is bucking and you’re trying to help him.

B. If you want to get to another side of a ride, don’t cross in front of him.

A. slow, and let his horse pass, then cross.

B.  Feed you horse before yourself.


C. What happens if you break the code?

A. A cowboy who breaks the code gets chapped. He gets whipped  with a pair of chaps.

B.  Two cowboys grab his arms and two grab his legs and had him over a bedroll

A. Backside up.B.Then another cowboy takes a pair of chaps and whips his butt with a pair of chaps.

B.  It doesn’t do any permanent damage but it stings like hell.

A.  I’ll give you an example. My friend Clyde had a ranch next to mine. Somehow he met an Englishman, John, who wanted  top work on a ranch. Clyde, being a welcoming sort, gave him a horse to ride and brought him in over to our place for a round-up and branding.

B.  When they got t the pasture where th cows were, each man was given a position. When the boss gives you a position, you stay there.  John didn’t.

A. John was chatty, and he’d ride from one cowboy to another, cutting in front of several.

B. Clyde told him to stop that.

A. Well, once the cattle were corralled and the cook was fixing lunch, the cowboys gathered in a circle with John in the middle. Clyde was acting as judge,   Each cowboy gave testimony as to how John had broken the code of the West by ridding in front of him. John was judged guilty of multiple violations.

B. The cowboys made a rush for him, held him over a bedroll and each cowboy gave John a crack with a pair of chaps.

A. When the chapping was over, Clyde took out his penknife and cut off John’ pig tail.

B. That

A. John said

B. Hurt worse than the chapping.


A. By the way, any cowboy that hangs back and doesn’t participate in a chapping, gets chapping.


Building the Arts, One Brick at a Time

By Karen Christensen

Karen’s story is the latest in the Free River Press series on ideas for building an Agricultural City.   While Karen’s work is not concerned with rural communities, we in rural America have much to learn from what she and her colleagues accomplished in Aurora, Illinois.   Links to past essays in this series will be found at the close of this article.

For the record, I was the City’s Downtown Development Director from 1999 through 2009, and then Neighborhood Redevelopment Manager from 2009 until I retired in 2012. I currently am a member of the board of directors of the Fox Valley Music Foundation, as well as Aurora Downtown.  I serve on the FoxWalk Overlay District Design Review Committee and the Riverwalk Commission. And, of course, I am Aurora’s Poet Laureate!

Since the end of World War II, many social, cultural, political, and economic changes have swept across the United States, at a pace that is often hard to comprehend, except in hindsight.

Returning soldiers, growing families, sprawling housing, migration patterns, affordable automobiles, a desire to break from the past, inventions that made our lives easier – and more complicated – have all had volumes written about their impacts on the United States.

A city like Aurora, Illinois can provide urban planners and economic developers with a case study in how communities might cope with change, and re-invent themselves in a way that keeps them from being bulldozed into just another mass of American homogeneity.

Aurora was established in 1837. It benefited from the desire of immigrants to move westward, and became home to people of all ethnic groups, races, and religions. Though it has some pockets of wealth and poverty, for the most part Aurora is a solidly middle-class community, built on blue collar values.

During various waves of prosperity when local industries and American railroads flourished, many majestic homes were built on the east and west sides of the Fox River, which bisects the community. Development pushed our boundaries east, west, and south; our population now is over 200,000 people, making us the second largest city in Illinois. Two commuter rail stations carry travelers to and from Chicago. Interstate 88 runs through Aurora at its northern end, with easy access from all parts of town.

At the heyday of Midwestern development (early 1920s through the 1950s) many commercial buildings were built in downtown Aurora, designed by prominent architects and standing as a strong representation of civic and commercial pride. Among the gems that still exist are the Paramount Theatre, the Leland Tower, Old Second National Bank, the Keystone, the Terminal, the Hobbs, the Aurora Hotel, the Fire Museum, the G.A.R. Hall, and the Elks Club. Downtown Aurora was a regional hub for retail and professional services and entertainment. Along came shopping centers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and casino gambling in 1993: major catalysts for dramatic changes in downtown Aurora. Other factors precipitated change, too, and not just downtown. Small factories closed, unemployment rose, gang violence reared its head, and new suburban housing developments in close proximity (North Aurora, Plainfield, Oswego, Montgomery, Sugar Grove) drew Aurora residents to seek greener pastures.

City government and the local Chamber of Commerce undertook a number of planning studies, beginning in the early 1970s, to cast various scenarios about how to “save” downtown. The studies recommended a variety of strategies, suggested by a cadre of urban planning and architectural consultants who were advising cities throughout the Midwest. We were told to make our downtown more pedestrian-friendly, to reclaim our riverfront, to preserve our historic buildings, and to use our central business district as an entertainment destination. Later studies (circa the early 2000s) reinforced these concepts, and added the idea that culture and the arts could assist in crafting a unique identity, and in attracting younger residents.

In 2008, city staff convened an ad hoc group to discuss what might be done to support the arts in downtown Aurora. The product of their discussions was a white paper on using the arts as a revitalization tool. Ideas were drawn from other communities that were facing similar challenges.

We were fortunate in many ways. Though the “Great Recession” had hit us hard, the Paramount Theatre had already embarked upon an innovative plan to bring a series of Broadway-quality productions to its stage – and though, at first that seemed risky, that gamble paid off in a huge way. Because our downtown had suffered from disinvestment over the years, much of our significant architectural heritage remained intact. Though many buildings had been neglected, they had not been demolished…so they were “ripe” for discovery once the economy improved. National Register Historic Districts were created along LaSalle Street and Stolp Island in the 1980s. In 1993, the city had wisely instituted architectural guidelines for redevelopment within the FoxWalk Overlay District (downtown), so that as buildings were repurposed, they did not lose their unique architectural integrity, and as new construction came online, those structures fit the scale and character of the existing streetscape.

Probably the most important factor in our revitalization was the fact that we had a strong cohort of believers. Many artists from a wide range of disciplines already made their homes in Aurora. Suddenly, they started talking to each other in ways they hadn’t done before…and a variety of projects began to blossom, including the Aurora ArtWalk, which over time metamorphosed into First Fridays. Though we do not have a movie theatre or book store in Aurora, a group of devoted “cineastes” formed the Aurora Film Society several years ago, and now claim a membership of nearly 100 people who attend monthly screenings of “films you didn’t know you needed to see” in space provided by the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

A volunteer-run, non-profit used book store, Culture Stock, was housed in a city-owned building for about three years. “Lit by the Bridge,” a curated showcase for local authors, found a home in the shop, as did “Music Mondays.” The book store closed when the city found a restaurant tenant for the space. The musicians were able to relocate to a downtown coffee shop. Certainly not all proposals have flourished, but successes have led to an atmosphere of openness to possibilities; new ideas continue to come forward.

Aurora has had a modest cultural infrastructure in place going back many years, with an opera house located downtown in the late 19th century, as well as several music conservatories. Salons and Sunday afternoon performances were hosted in private homes. The Paramount Theatre was constructed in 1931; the Sky Club atop the Leland Hotel opened in the 1930s, with a studio in which Bluebird artists made over 300 records. A local community theatre, Riverfront Playhouse, has been in operation in a city-owned building since the early 1970s. The Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has been a champion of the arts since its formation in the 1990s. Several small museums have existed in downtown Aurora since that time: the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, the G.A.R. Hall, the David L. Pierce Art and History Center, and SciTech. With the exception of the G.A.R., all are located in re-purposed buildings, with rehabilitation funding provided by the City of Aurora. After many years of ignoring one another, a wave of new museum directors emerged in the early 2000s and staff began working together on cooperative promotion and marketing. The Hollywood Casino, which opened in 1993, offers live entertainment, and is a strong financial supporter of the Paramount Arts Centre.

Aurora Downtown, an association of property owners located within a Special Service Area, underwent a change in leadership and an infusion of young entrepreneurs who were willing to spend their tax dollars and time to program events throughout the year, bringing hundreds of people downtown. The city’s Special Events Division collaborated and cooperated to increase the number of festivals and parades that took place downtown. The Fox Valley Music Foundation, a group of eight friends who had met while volunteering at Blues on the Fox, decided to form a nonprofit organization and were able to open The Venue, a 200-seat state-of-the art performance space in a city-owned building that had been slated for demolition.

The Aurora Public Art Commission enlisted local artists to paint murals and decorate utility boxes in downtown Aurora. The Aurora Public Library constructed a new facility at the western edge of downtown. Waubonsee Community College, which, in the 1980s had rehabbed two vacant department stores (Carson Pirie Scott and Montgomery Ward) for a downtown school, constructed a new campus along the riverfront. The Paramount opened a school of performing arts in the former college buildings.

The city undertook a major environmental cleanup to build RiverEdge Park just north of downtown in 2013 – an expansive open space along the river which can accommodate nearly 10,000 visitors. Downtown Alive! and Blues on the Fox moved to this site. A major bicycle-pedestrian bridge is currently under construction adjacent to RiverEdge Park, which will link the east and west banks of the river, and make access to the Transportation Center much easier. The historic limestone roundhouse adjacent to the Transportation Center (Route 25) was saved from demolition in the 1990s and converted to a restaurant, brewery and event space owned by the Two Brothers Brewing Company. It features live music and art exhibitions. Once the bridge is completed, its patronage will likely expand.

None of this happened overnight. We have managed to hold our own since the “crash” in 2009. The economy has improved. New condominiums have been constructed at the south end of downtown, along the river. The remaining large-scale vacant buildings are attracting residential developers, which means more people living downtown, with disposable income and the desire for entertainment. New restaurants in rehabbed buildings host live entertainment. Galleries have opened. Vintage shopping is becoming a “thing.” The city’s liquor ordinance is being updated to allow more craft brewpubs and bars without full-blown, expensive kitchens.

 Many visitors would say that there are three great things about downtown Aurora: the arts “vibe”, the architecture, and the fact that so many independent entrepreneurs have been able to succeed. We have no “chain” stores or restaurants downtown – but we do have three independent coffee shops, all of which feature art exhibits, live music, and even poetry readings on occasion.

Here are some takeaways from our experience in revitalization:

—Leadership at the top – from the mayor to city council members to the chief of police.

—Economic development staff who will encourage the implementation of appropriate incentives (Tax Increment Financing Districts, Special Service Areas, Historic Tax Credits, rehabilitation grants, etc.)

—Developers who have experience and the wherewithal to execute projects that will be successful, and can weather economic downturns.

—Business people with energy, ideas, and a financial track record.
Artists who are able and willing to collaborate, and avoid the silos of their particular disciplines.

—The ability to “hang on” until the naysayers (often people who have lived in the community for years, and whose families go back multiple generations) become believers.

—The ability to attract visitors from other communities who are looking for a unique experience. Case in point: the Paramount Theatre’s subscription base is primarily people coming from outside Aurora. The same has been true for those who attend performances at the Fox Valley Music Foundation’s Venue.

—Have a plan. Work the plan. Revise the plan. Revise the plan again.

—Proselytize! Don’t give up!
Good luck!

The Agricultural City Project:

External links:

Red Snow

By Roger D. Isaacs

Roger attended the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and graduated from Bard College in 1949 with a major in Language and Literature.  While still at Bard, he joined The Public Relations Board in 1948 where he became Chairman and President from 1975 to 1986.

He is currently on the board of the Chicago Crime Commission; emeritus Member, Community Advisory Council of radio station WBEZ Chicago, Life board member North Shore University Health Care System, Advisory Council and member of the Breasted Society, of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

In addition to his many articles in the public relations field, he is author of the books Talking With God: an Etymological Study of the Bible, The Golden Ark: A Pictorial History and the monograph Puzzling Biblical Laws with his late father, Dr. Raphael Isaacs. Roger lives in Glencoe, Illinois with his wife Joyce and has two daughters, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.

IN 1943 AT AGE SEVENTEEN I graduated high school from the University of Chicago’s Lab School and knew exactly what I wanted to do. Continue education right away, follow in the footsteps of my physician father and grandfather, go into medicine. Clear path.

None of this was to be. World War II changed everything.

I had a chance at it though. The army had a reserve program. If you qualified, were seventeen, you could enlist in The Army Specialized Training Reserve Program, ASTRP. You went to a university to study pre-med or pre-engineering. I qualified and was sent to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Beautiful new dorms alongside a little tree lined lake. It was entirely different from the rather sheltered life I’d lived. Tough courses in physics, chemistry, math, etc., tough teachers. The physics professor, cold as the Arctic, made it clear that if we flunked, we’d be sent to some outfit like the infantry where likely we’d be killed.

At eighteen we became regular army and ASTRP was now just the Army Specialized Training Program, ASTP. We were sent from Madison to Fort Benning, Georgia for Basic Training. The plan was that when Basic ended we’d be sent back to school to finish undergrad work and onward and upward from there!

Before we went to Fort Benning there was a stop at Fort Sheridan just north of Chicago. It was there we were officially sworn into the regular army, got shots while standing in line looking pretty much as we did the day we were born, and where I made the dumbest decision in all my 18 years. In the interview session I was asked if I could type. Well, I could. I’d learned to touch-type one summer in elementary school. “Yes, I can type.” The noncom interviewer strongly suggested that I should take a typing test. If I passed, I could stay at Sheridan, become a clerk, and probably spend the rest of the war doing office duty. Do I take the test or stay loyal to the friends I’d made at Madison who were going with me to Fort Benning? Loyalty (or idiocy) won out, and I declined. It was one of those, “If I’d known then what I know now” things, I’d be telling war tales about how my fingers got sore from typing documents at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.

While at Sheridan I had my first experience at guard duty. It was Christmas weekend, and most of the men got passes. Not me. They got to go into Chicago, or just to visit the bars scattered across the street from Sheridan in Highwood, at the time a dingy little town mostly inhabited by Italian immigrants late from the steel mills of Pittsburgh.

Evidently it was decided that my religious persuasion didn’t make me interested in the Christmas holiday, so I was chosen to guard Fort Sheridan against enemy attack by marching back and forth all night along a fence several thousand miles from Germany and Japan, but thirty five miles from my parents’ apartment in Chicago.

Merry Christmas, and on to Fort Benning!

If Madison was different, Fort Benning was another world. It was staffed by older, hardened regular army men who’d been in service since the Thirties. They made my “tough” physics professor seem like the soul of sweetness.

Now we went from dream dorms to bare barracks: Orders: “All you little $$#@%s getup, it’s 3:00 in the morning! Scrub them floors!” Not good enough. 5:00 a.m. you did it all over again.

Marches for miles in the scorching Georgia heat. Push ups, sit ups, rope climbing up walls, crawl on your belly under live fire, “Get your f—-ing fat faces down!” Firing range with many kinds of weapons. Every muscle in still soft bodies aching. Back to barracks. Scrub them again. Up at 4:00. Repeat the day. Gradually we toughened. We couldn’t wait to get out of this hellhole and back to school!

But near the end of Basic an order came from on high. The ASTP program with its 110,000 students was to be closed due to the need for men overseas. In an instant, instead of going back to school at Madison, we were sent to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina to join the 87th Infantry Division. (Shades of my physics prof!)

Once there we lined up to determine our assignments. Got to the sergeant in charge. “What d’ya want to be?” “Oh! Medical Corps. I want to go into medicine!” “Yer gonna be in the Infantry.” Man behind me—“What d’ya want?” “Don’t care, anything.” “Yer in the Medical Corps!” In one second I was to learn how the army worked.

Fort Jackson. Another new world. We were assigned to the 345th Regiment, Company E of the 87th, a division with a history dating back to World War 1. Our Company was a combination of ASTP kids and, again, grizzled regular army men, mostly from the farms of the south. For the most part it was a pretty agreeable bunch. I began to make some good friends from all over the country. One was Charlie Titone, a good natured, happy-go-lucky kid from Brooklyn with a perpetual smile. Another was my squad leader Bill Tuley from Indiana, an “older” man, meaning he was 28 at the time. (We reconnected fifty years later when he called me, and I recognized his voice without identification. We remained friends until his death just a few years ago.)

I also wasn’t a kid any more. I quickly grasped that you either learned “the army way,” or life could be pretty rough. If you didn’t cross the non-coms who were over you, things went fairly smoothly. You were treated like a man, and if you didn’t act like one woe be to you! The “f” word became an integral part of vocabulary and if not utilized on a regular basis you were immediately suspect. (To this day, when I get really angry those choice wartime words come tumbling out.)

Part of “growing up” was how you deported yourself on off hours. Sometimes evenings and Sundays were free and you got a pass to go into Columbia, a rather pleasant town, capital of the state, with a college on one hand and a lot of bars and “action” on the other. Both options were available, and you’d better spend some time with your buddies in the latter. Other than beer the only alcohol available was rum. (Even now, if I so much as sip the stuff, I get a splitting headache.)

Most of our days were taken up with the same activities we practiced at Benning, with added duties such as KP (kitchen police), i.e. peeling potatoes, washing dishes, mopping floors, etc. In addition, KP was used as punishment for recalcitrant soldiers. I always felt it was also part of the unarticulated process of slowly wearing away any feeling of importance or individuality. This would continue on a downhill slope throughout my active stay in the army.

One day we were on the firing range for rifle practice. We were alternating between using the mostly employed M1 rifle and its big brother, the lethal ancestor from World War 1, the Browning Automatic Rifle, the BAR. It was a particularly hot day and sweat was pouring down my face over my army issue steel rimmed glasses. I was using the BAR, firing away through the befogged spectacles when the sergeant in charge came up to me and said, “Private, do you know you hit the bullseye every time? You’re going to be our BAR man!” Oh boy! Just great! At the time I was still growing, so let’s say I was 5’8 or 9 of the almost 5’ll I would eventually reach and probably weighed 128 or 129 lbs. Now with a loaded bandolier the BAR came to almost 40 pounds. (The M1, loaded same way, came to about 25 lbs.) If you were marching with the weapon and full field pack, I’m told you were lugging 98.69 pounds.

The basic makeup of a rifle squad was supposed to be 9 to 12 men, a squad leader, grenadiers, riflemen and 2 BAR men. In ours I was the sole BAR man. Because of its weight, the BAR was to be passed down the line every 15 minutes or so on a march to relieve the BAR man. This never happened. I carried it, and once in a while someone would take it for a few minutes.

So we were “married,” the BAR and I, until almost death did us part. I had to know how to break it down and reassemble it in minutes, keep it sparkling clean inside and out, and otherwise just live with it.

We continued the interminable training for almost a year, and finally orders came to prepare to go overseas.

The weekend before we were to leave Jackson we were given passes. But before we could go we had to have inspection. That meant non-coms going through all our belongings to see if we had anything that could hint of division information to the enemy. When the sergeant started going through my footlocker, lo and behold he found an extra division patch I’d forgotten to dispose of. “Pass rescinded! You’re spending the weekend on KP!” Of course I intended to go over his head to the company commander to plead for respite, because I was to meet my parents who were coming from Chicago to Atlanta for a final get-together with me. But the company commander had already left on his pass. By this time in my army life I was no longer a green recruit. I knew, if you wanted something you just had to go get it. If I remember, I went to the regimental commander, or at least someone way up the line and told him my story. “I’ve got my train tickets, my parents are on their way all the way from Chicago to meet me, please let me go!” I must have touched a hidden tender nerve, because he agreed, but when I returned I’d have to go on K.P. “Thank you sir!” I met my folks. We had a fine farewell, and I wasn’t to see them again for a long time. 4K.P. wasn’t all that bad.

We left Fort Jackson and went to a harbor in New York City to board the Queen Elizabeth, largest ocean liner in the world, for our “vacation” to we knew not where!

No longer a luxury liner, the Elizabeth was outfitted to carry a total of 17,000 “passengers” and crew. Most men were assigned to specified quarters on the ship and ordered to stay there. Most men didn’t want to move from their bunks anyway. They were too sick.

Not me! For some unknown reason this little Jewish boy was named chaplain’s assistant and given the run of the ship! Each morning I would report to the chaplain in a replica of the fairy tale gingerbread house, which served as his office. It was originally for the Royal Family’s children. Then I could wander the entire ship “from stem to stern” or just find a private corner and read one of the books from the ship’s library.

The Elizabeth took only 5 days to cross the ocean in a zig zag fashion, so fast, I was told, it didn’t need armed escort ships for protection.

We entered port at Gourock Scotland on October 22, 1944, one day short of my nineteenth birthday. Then on to a little town, Stone, in England. The officers were put up in an old mansion, and we tented on its grounds, which were soaked with rain and covered with mud.

Not all bad. Passes to London to see the sights, which by now were terribly scarred by the results of constant German bombing. Learned to know the sound of the unmanned German V-1 or buzz bombs flying overhead. As long as you heard their weird sound it was ok, but when the sound suddenly stopped, it meant they were ready to drop and do their terrible destruction. The Londoners took it all in stride and, depending on the danger, either made for bomb shelters or went about their daily routines as well as possible.

Time came to cross the English channel for France. There we boarded “Forty and Eights.” These were old boxcars so named because they held either 40 men or eight horses. Chugged slowly along the French countryside with signs of previous battles all the way. We debarked from the train and marched some miles to the area of Metz. It was then I learned to sleep while marching.

Quoting from the 87th Division History “On 5 December the Division began its movement to the combat area in the vicinity of Metz where the 345th Regimental Combat Team was committed to preliminary action …to assist in the reduction of the remaining fortresses surrounding that city.” We were quartered at Fort Driant, the largest of the enormous fortresses surrounding Metz that had finally surrendered after months of fruitless battles by U.S. forces. Here we learned we were now part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army. These forts were massive structures built by the Germans in the early part of the 20th century, constructed of concrete and steel and extending to tunnels deep underground. One of these was Fort Jeanne d’arc. It had not yet been captured and was busy lobbing shells at us in Driant. At night we were sent out on scouting parties to send back reports on anything we might see. One night I was on one led by a very green, young lieutenant. He spotted a cat coming out of the dark and evidently concluded that it represented the entire German army. He completely lost his cool and fired at it. He was successful in killing the “enemy” cat and also bringing down a barrage of fire from the real enemy at Jeanne de arc. We managed to get back to the safety of our fort, but I never knew if there were suggestions from above as to what to do with that courageous cat killer.

Fort Jeanne d’arc was taken, and we moved out from Metz and into the Saar Region, which at the time was held by Germany. By now it was freezing cold and snow and rain were constant. We were outside all the time. Keeping warm was impossible. We kept our socks warm by alternately tucking them in our shirts against our skin and putting them back on for short periods. Foxholes were dug, and we would lie two by two to try to keep warm in the little time there was to try to get some sleep. Rations were short, finally down to chocolate bars, which were so concentrated you could only eat a piece at a time without getting sick. Equipment was also in short supply, so, instead of the more protective combat boots, we were issued lightweight rubber galoshes, causing almost everyone to get trench foot. (Much later, when I finally got back behind the combat zone, I noted the men in Headquarters companies jauntily sporting the combat boots.)

On December 17, 1944 we were moving through a woods, ostensibly to take a town beyond it. We were firing against light counter fire when suddenly “all hell broke loose.” We were facing every kind of weaponry you could imagine. We were being shelled by the pinpoint accuracy of the 88mm guns of the German Tiger tanks, small arms fire and, I later learned, even from our own misaimed artillery from behind our own lines. Hard to believe, but I remember the noise of the exploding shells was so earsplitting it affected the olfactory nerves and you could smell it.

I was moving forward, firing the BAR when all of a sudden a 2 by 4 board hit me as hard as it could, and I went down and out. Well, it felt like a 2 by 4, but was actually a bullet going through my right shoulder. In the chaos someone, maybe a medic, came along and strapped a makeshift tourniquet on my arm to stop the bleeding, helped me up and back toward our lines. The tourniquet worked itself off three times, three times I passed out and three times someone strapped it on and got me going again.

What was happening was the company was in full retreat from the terrific German attack. Adding to the noise from the shelling were the terrible screams of men being killed or wounded.

We didn’t know it at the time, but on December 16, 1944 the Germans launched a huge attack all the way from where we were to Belgium. It was to be known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” It resulted in the largest number of casualties in WWII. Figures vary, but roughly almost 20,000 were killed, 47,000 wounded and 23,000 were captured or missing. It was to last from that day until January 25, 1945. As I was later to understand most of our Company E men were either killed or wounded that first day. This included our Company Commander and First Sergeant, wounded, and my buddy Charlie Titone, killed.

When I was finally taken behind the lines, I was put down along with others who were waiting for ambulances. It was night now, very dark. Several of us were loaded into an ambulance, and we took off in that deep dark. For just a few minutes. Not being able to see (headlights out for safety), the ambulance went off the snow covered road and tilted halfway over. I have no idea how it was righted, but we eventually got under way and on to a minuscule field hospital not far behind the lines. As I remember, it was there a preliminary closing of the wound was done

I do know it was in an area of immediate danger and that I will never forget the incomparable courage of the nurses, risking their lives to tend to the wounded that terrible night.

Next move was to a hospital in the town of Bar le duc, France. There it was determined the bullet had split the artery and vein in my shoulder causing an aneurism, and it had hit the nerves paralyzing my entire right arm and hand. I also had shrapnel in my back. It was obvious to the surgeons that much more had to be done.

It was at the hospital at Bar le duc that PFC Isaacs became a General, or, at least was treated like one. In conversation with the wonderful army nurses there I learned that the entire nursing staff was from Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. That’s where my father was head of the Department of Hematology! He was a revered physician at Reese, particularly loved by the nurses. When I told them I was his son, I was not only treated like a General, but complete reports regarding my wounds, initial treatments, condition, etc. were sent on to Dad.

One annoyance at the Bar le duc was “Bedcheck Charlie.” This was a little single engine German plane that flew over the hospital at night occasionally, always with the possibility that it would drop a bomb. At those times we were all ordered to run for cover. As I remember, that meant getting under our beds. It never happened while I was there.

Because of the injuries to the nerves in my arm I was put in the neurological ward with men who had similar problems. Next bed to me was a soldier with a head wound that somehow caused complete amnesia. Every day he managed to remember a little more of the past, but his attempts to recapture his memory caused him such anxiety that he would lie there and cry. I did try my best to calm him, but doubt I was much help. His problem went on the entire time I was there and gave me great respect for the mysterious workings of the brain.

Leaving Bar le duc we went across the channel to England. On that trip I had the first glass of milk in months. Talk about nectar of the gods! On to a hospital ship, a converted single deck cargo ship, through winter storms to a short stop at a hospital in New York. Finally to Mayo General Army Hospital in Galesburg, Illinois where there were specialists in neurological surgery. Once again I became a “General.”One of the surgeons who did my final operation was also from Michael Reese Hospital, as were the nurses at Bar le duc, so Dad was again able to get detailed information as to my progress from this kind doctor.

It was necessary for me to wait for collateral circulation to replace that in the arteries and veins rendered useless from the bullet. Meanwhile, I had daily rehab to get some strength in the arm. Nine months later (during which I read every book written by Sinclair Lewis plus many more from the hospital library) the final operation was done successfully.

I was released from the hospital and discharged from the army at exactly the right time to enter college in the fall.

It was made abundantly clear from my brilliant, highly educated mother that what I had just experienced was past history, and I was to get on with my education NOW. Today I guess they call that tough love.

I was introduced to a little school in upstate New York, Bard College through the lucky happenstance of having cousins who were attending. This turned out to be a perfect place for a returned veteran to “get on with his education.” A quiet, welcome change from the crowded, Spartan existence of the past years, a world class collection of teachers. Most of my class was made up of veterans, totally different in their level of maturity compared to the few non vet freshmen also entering. I don’t remember any conversations about the war, our experiences, or any residual problems we might have had attendant to it. We were there on the GI Bill, which was paying our tuition, and we were all anxious to get in, get out, and get on with our lives. Money was scarce. We had to earn a living. No excuses!

As a matter of fact, as I progressed through my college, business, professional and married life, I don’t remember lessons learned from army life being applicable to that later life. As I look back now on the events of some 70 years ago I see two seemingly separate, unrelated lives, the first, dim, only occasionally lit by war related anniversaries announced in the media or from friend or family questions, the second a little pride in growing a business, having a supremely happy marriage with terrific kids and grandkids and (a third life?) researching and writing books and articles relating to biblical study. Maybe, thankfully, that’s the way the mind works to protect itself.


For his part in the Battle of the Bulge, my friend Roger was awarded these medals;

87th Infantry Division Purple Heart
French Legion of Honor
Bronze Star 345th Regiment
Combat Infantryman Badge
Victory Medal 
ETO3 battle stars
American Campaign
Army of Occupation Germany
Good Conduct Medal


Roger Isaacs is the author of Talking with

Harry’s Last Ride

By Jim Dale

In a small town named Rudd

At the south edge of a large flat plain of rich glacial deposit in north central Iowa lays a small town named Rudd. Half way between Mason City and Charles City you know you are approaching as you travel highway 18 when you see ascending on the horizon several story tall white grain bens of the local Farmer’s Elevator, capacity 2,462,000 bushels of corn. Town population -364. (Give or take a dog and a cat

With a limited business district the town has only two churches, a small Wesleyan and ours First United Methodist. As pastor I am virtually the town Chaplin.

Now in the winter time when the blustery north winds rage across the prairie, as they always do, there is nothing to stop or slow the wind and snow. So we have developed a technique of response. We bundle up, hunker down, stay inside and wait out the storm.

On a winter day

It’s January 1971.

I go to my office one morning to do some indoors relaxed catch up reading. A winter storm is coming. Unless you have livestock to feed no one in their right senses is going out.

Then my phone rings.

(Goodbye right senses.)

“Jim Dale.”

“Rev. Dale, This is Benny Brown. I just carried Harry Schrader into his house. I saw him fall while shoveling snow from his back steps. I don’t know if he is alive or dead. Can you come help?”

“I’ll be right there.”

Harry is an 80 year old member of my parish. Benny lives next door. I jump in my boots, pull on my parka and run the three blocks to Harry’s house.

He’s lying on the kitchen floor. He isn’t breathing. I search for a pulse — can’t find one. I call the nearest Doctor in another town twelve miles south.

The doctor sighs, “There is no way I can get there. Shine a flashlight in his eyes. If they don’t dilate you don’t want him back.”

I do that. There is no response.

Harry’s wife, Laura, is a small, frail woman, but still quite sharp. I put my arm around her shoulder and pray, “Thank you God for Harry’s long and good life. Grant him your mercy and blessing. And grant us your guiding strength.” (That part is more for me than for them). “Amen.”

Laura looks up at me and asks, “Rev. Jim, Will you get Harry to a funeral home today?”

“Laura, I’ll do all that is possible. I promise.”

But that’s the problem. What is possible?

Keep him cool and don’t let him freeze

I call the only funeral home in the area. It’s in another small town seven miles west. Tuffy Sheckler is the funeral director. I know him well. But against this blizzard even Tuffy isn’t so tough.

“There is no way I can come get him, Jim.” he says, “Bring him in if you can, but in the meantime, keep him cool, but don’t let him freeze.”

“Right! Thanks Tuffy!!” I say with a cynical snarl.

OK, how can I get Harry to Nora Springs? I can’t leave him lying on the kitchen floor.

I call the DOT in Charles City (another small town 15 miles to the east), “Can you come open our road?” They decline.

So, I call Jim Krause, Rudd’s volunteer fire chief and Mayor. Rudd has one grader and one truck with a blade. They will open the road. The firemen come and secure Harry to a stretcher. I ran home to get my small station wagon. Harry is my passenger.

At noon we plow forward to the west. One mile out of town highway 18 makes a small dip across little creek. The blizzard is dropping tons of snow there. The truck driver instructs me to wait while they open the road. So I wait…and wait… At 3:00 p.m. they return in a white out. I roll down my window.

“It’s hopeless,” they shout, “it’s blowing back in faster than we can push it out. We’ve got to go back.”

“Rats!” I spin my car around headed back to Rudd. But my mind is still spinning.

“Now what? How long will it take for this storm to blow out? How long after that will it take them to open this road? How am I going to, ‘Keep him cool but not let him freeze’? What am I going to tell Laura?”

A change of luck

Desperately, I look up my friend, Bob Hoover. Bob owns and operates a local chicken hatchery.

“Bob, I have a problem. Do you have a place where I can park my car and control the temperature?” I tell him my dilemma, “Keep him cool, but don’t let him freeze.”

Yes,” Bob says, “We have an insulated garage with a thermostat. You can park there.”

A rush of adrenaline hits me. “Wow!” My first break of the day. Rudd has no police department to investigate the Hatchery so Harry will be safe. I can walk the six blocks home.

As I leave the hatchery I cross the street to “Stile’s Deep Rock”, the town’s only gas station. Surprisingly it’s full of young men. They’re refueling their snowmobiles.

A voice speaks in my head, “If you can’t go through the snow, go over it.”

I ask one of them, “Do snowmobiles have passenger trailers?”

“Sure,” he answers.

I follow up my question with another, “What would be the possibility of giving Harry a ride to Nora Springs?”

Now rural young men are neither trained nor inclined to show feelings. Being tough is their genre. But here is a challenging, daring adventure – an opportunity they can’t pass up. So, with a certain nonchalant bravado they say, “Yeah, we can do that.”

 A thrilling ride

At 6:00 p.m. We meet at Hoover’s hatchery – eight young men, five snowmobiles, one trailer, and Harry and me. We bundle Harry really good. (“Don’t let him freeze”) In fact, Harry might be the warmest of us all.

I am the rider on the last snowmobile. I’ll tell you a secret, “I have never ridden a snowmobile before in my life.” Fortunately, as a rider I can hide behind my pilot who must watch the road and face the wind. Full bearded he soon looks like old man winter himself, with whiskers extending in all directions like a porcupine sculptured in ice.

Off we go, single file, leaning into the dark howling wind and blowing snow, over snow drifts, around abandoned cars and hidden objects, on the highway, into ditches. It is more thrilling than a ride at Adventureland. But our operating staff is absolutely superb.

In less than an hour we skid into Nora, (zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom zoom). We bank right to Sheckler’s Funeral Home and slide to a stop at Tuffy’s back door.

I jump from my saddle and run to ring the doorbell. I look back. I see eight living snowmen, gently lifting Harry from his royal carriage, hoisting him to their shoulders, carrying him up the ramp into Tuffy’s workroom. Ever been to a funeral with eight snowmen as pall bears? It’s a glorious sight.

No storm lasts forever

Tuffy is thrilled. Now, he can make Harry look really good. The Snowmen stand dripping and proudly grinning. They have beaten the blizzard with a good deed.Laura, will be relieved and appreciative. Now Harry will look good at his final “viewing”. But she won’t see this body lying before her when it happens. This is only Harry’s left-behind empty shell.

She will see the dashing young man who 60 years ago stole her heart, swept her off her feet and carried her over a threshold. She will see the man who laughed with her and cried with her as they grew together over those years. She will see the man who only a few days earlier put on his hat and coat to go out and shovel snow off their back steps, …. as he always did.

Now, I know something else, “No storm lasts forever.” In a few days the wind dies, the clouds vanish, the sun comes out against a bright blue sky and casts its rays on spectacularly, breathtakingly, beautiful winter wonderland robed in sparkling pure white. And on that day all Harry’s friends come to give him honor.

But as for Harry, I think I can discern a slight smile on his face, (but perhaps that’s just my own projection.) The word that best describes him is “serene”.

He has laid down his burdens, cast off his troubles and bidden this old world farewell.

Now I see him sitting up in another breathlessly beautiful place. He looks around and asks, “Am I still in Iowa?” I hear a voice say, “Well, yes, sort of. This is Heaven.”

Ah, but what about you and me, as we still travel through a sometimes cold, cruel world? Well, try this small town suggestion: “Keep cool and….don’t freeze up!”

Hubs of Hope

NOTE: Brian DeVore has a degree in agricultural journalism and wildlife biology from Iowa State University. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in Cass County in southwestern Iowa and, while serving in the Peace Corps, managed a dairy cooperative in Lesotho. He was a contributor to the 2002 book, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, and for the past 25 years has worked as an editor at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota.

The following excerpt from Brian’s recent recent book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, is taken from chapter 10 “Hubs of Hope.”

The danger of telling the stories of innovative farmers such as those highlighted in this book is that they can be seen as too much of an anomaly to be replicated. When Gabe Brown says, “There are people all over doing this. They just don’t have the mouth I have,” what he’s trying to convey is that his only outstanding attribute is his willingness to go public with his hits and misses. Indeed, for every Gabe Brown who’s on the speaking circuit, hosting international visitors or starring in online videos, there are dozens of ecological agrarians who are more quietly blending the wild and the tame.

But there’s not enough of those kinds of farmers. The bulk of U.S. agriculture is as far removed from natural processes as a factory making circuit boards. And we’re paying the price in terms of dirtier water, sickened soil, out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions, decimated wildlife populations, and shuttered Main Streets. I will admit to a bias here: I believe there need to be more farmers on the land, not fewer. After spending so much time on agricultural operations of all kinds, I’m more convinced of that belief than ever. Wildly successful farming requires more eyes (and ears) observing, reacting, adjusting—and that monitoring needs to take place over a lengthy period of time. The short-term decision-making that characterizes industrial agriculture just doesn’t leave much room for natural processes. What works one year may not work again for several years down the road—if ever.

One huge advantage wildly successful farmers have over their more conventional brethren is a willingness to share information. That may sound strange, given rural America’s reputation for working as a collective; for example, consider the farmers’ co-op movement that revolutionized the grain trade. As I’ve written about in chapter 6, it was the willingness of innovators and early adopters to share their experiences with their neighbors that led to the rapid spread of hybrid seed corn.

But in the early 1990s, when I was working for a mainstream farm magazine that had as its readership some of the largest farmers in the country, I began running into a troubling trend. Some of these farmers were unwilling to be interviewed for stories about a particular innovative production or marketing technique they were using. “What’s in it for me?” was a version of the response I would get over the telephone. They expressed concern that sharing their “trade secrets” would put them at a competitive disadvantage with their neighbors—who they now saw as rivals—for land, market share, and profits. For someone who grew up in an era when farmers still got together to shell corn or bale hay communally, this was a real eye opener.

An increasing number of farmers were raising an increasingly undifferentiated product: corn and soybeans for the international grain trade, for example. When one was in a position to take advantage of a market opportunity that paid a little bit more—high-oil soybeans or extra-lean hogs, for example—the last thing they wanted was other farmers horning in on their financial success. And who could blame them? The agricultural economic crash of the 1980s put a large number of farmers off the land in a very short time. The path to profits became paved with raising more bushels on more acres (or more pounds of meat and milk per square foot of barn space). To survive, you had to be a hard-nosed business owner willing to expand constantly, often at your neighbor’s expense. The trouble is, that get-big-or-get-out attitude didn’t do those tough-talking farmers any good either. There was always someone bigger and more powerful to take market share. And that competitor wasn’t necessarily in the next township or county—the Cargills of the world don’t care if they buy their soybeans in Iowa or Brazil, as long as the commodity is as cheap as possible. Thus, farming has become what University of Missouri economist John Ikerd calls “a race to the bottom”—a race fueled by exploitation of land and people.

On the bright side, I’ve witnessed in the past decade or so somewhat of a return of the farmers-helping-farmers culture. Actually, I suspect it never completely left, but just got overshadowed by the economic storms raging over rural America. Every week I run across examples of farmers sharing information and ideas openly. Partly it’s because when someone is doing something truly innovative—utilizing cover crops to cut fertilizer use and suppress weeds or using mob grazing to double a pasture’s ability to produce livestock, for example—they’re excited about it. It’s human nature to share such breakthroughs and get feedback on how to make them even better. I’m seeing even “conventional” farmers more willing to share with their neighbors these days. That’s particularly true when it comes to the current revolution in building soil health. As the corn and soybean farmers in Indiana are learning, injecting just a bit of the “wild” into their otherwise domesticated row crop fields can produce tremendously positive results. That’s exciting, and fun to share.

The internet and social media have made the trading of this information simpler than ever, creating communities across thousands of miles. Log into any e-mail listserv where people share innovative ideas about farming closer to nature, and you’re likely to feel pretty positive about the future of agriculture.

It’s not just the thrill of discovery that motivates farmers to swap ideas. Many agrarians I’ve interviewed in recent years are also adherents to the philosophy of writer/farmer Wendell Berry, who would rather have a neighbor than have his neighbor’s land. Dan Jenniges sees a direct connection between more grass on the land and more beginning farmers in his community. Marge and Jack Warthesen host beginning farmer trainings and have mentored newbies. Having the most wildly successful farm in the county means little if the rest of the community is basically abandoned. As writer Michael Pollan puts it when describing the “remade” state of Iowa: “The only thing missing from the man-made landscape is . . . man.”

Perhaps the most positive trend I’ve witnessed in recent years is how beginners with little background in farming (or rural living) have been welcomed into agricultural communities by lifelong residents. Southwestern Wisconsin farmer Peter Allen expresses genuine surprise at how much he and his family are supported by their neighbors, even though he’s a refugee from the big city of Madison, Wisconsin, and that up until the time he stepped onto those hilly acres in the Kickapoo Valley, he had spent the majority of his adult life as an academic. “I think they’re just happy to see some young person out trying to farm, because none of their kids are doing it,” he told me. He’s right: the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture shows the age of the average farmer is fifty-eight years old, up from fifty-one in 1982. Of principal farm operators, only 6 percent are under thirty-five.

Allen’s warm reception isn’t unusual. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural communities and talked to older farmers who are extremely happy to see young, energetic people participating in a kind of reverse brain drain. Sure, they may have some weird ideas about “organics” and “sustainability,” but they also share with those older farmers a love of the land. Even better, no matter what kind of farming these greenhorns are undertaking, they require information on local soils, climate, and sources of inputs—details they can’t glean from a textbook or YouTube. It’s a basic instinct to be needed, and the generational knowledge these veteran farmers have is needed now, more than ever.

Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic

Note: Brian DeVore has a degree in agricultural journalism and wildlife biology from Iowa State University. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in Cass County in southwestern Iowa and, while serving in the Peace Corps, managed a dairy cooperative in Lesotho. He was a contributor to the 2002 book,The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, and for the past 25 years has worked as an editor at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota. His recent book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic was published in 2018 by University of Wisconsin Press. (

The following essay is an excerpt from Wildly Successful Farming.

A Day on the Farm, a Night on the River

The idea for writing a book about farmers who refuse to separate the “ecological” and the “agronomic” was sparked by time I spent with the late Dan Specht. Before his tragic death in 2013 as a result of a haying accident, Dan had spent decades raising crops and livestock on a ridgetop farm overlooking the Mississippi River near McGregor in the Driftless Area of northeastern Iowa. That farm also “produced” ecological health, which was evidenced by the prodigious presence of grassland songbirds, pollinators, healthy soil, and clean water, among other things. He was recognized nationally as a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, and had even testified before a Congressional committee on why regenerative farming was a public good worth being supported by public policy.

On a summer day in 1999, I visited his farm in an attempt to put a human face on a highly complex story: how nutrient runoff from Midwestern crop fields was creating a hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to write an article about the role farmers like Dan Specht could play in mitigating the problem. Dan agreed to spend the day showing me some of the innovative farming methods he was using to tighten up his nutrient cycle—managed rotational grazing of cattle, cover cropping, diverse rotations—as long as I agreed to go fishing with him and Jeff Klinge, another farmer from the area, that evening.

While trolling the backwaters and talking with Dan and Jeff about everything from agricultural policy to water chemistry to geology, it became clear there was a direct connection between what took place up on the nearby hilltops and the results down on the bottomlands, all the way downstream to the Gulf. This excursion was part and parcel of the personal seminar Dan was giving me on farming, fishing, and fertilizer.

Dan and others like him are what I call “ecological agrarians”—farmers who understand Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology: “Everything is connected to everything else.”

Below is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of my book. I attempt to describe here how difficult it is, especially in the Midwest, to arrive at a worldview that a productive agriculture and a healthy ecosystem are not mutually exclusive.

The Land Ethic
Growing up on a 240-acre farm in southwestern Iowa during the 1970s, I considered farming and the natural world to be two very different animals. You raised corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle up on the DeVore hill, and wildlife thrived in those hidden, and somewhat mysterious, hollows down in the bottomland where a scrappy little stream called the 7-Mile cut a gash through our neighborhood. That belief was reinforced by the fact that the 1970s was witness to a “fencerow-to-fencerow” grain production explosion, when farmers were encouraged to farm every last acre in the name of “feeding the world.” Wildlife habitat was a luxury on “real” working farms. My home place succumbed to this thinking, but not nearly to the extent of other farms. My dad removed plenty of trees and a few brushy fencerows—more out of a need to see things neat and tidy than any desire to “feed the world.” He had hunted, fished, and trapped back in the day, but now he was a farmer, and his interaction with the land began and ended with how to wrest a living from it.

I had always preferred spending more time in the untamed bottoms of the 7-Mile than the domesticated tops of our farm, so when I went to college I studied fish and wildlife biology and journalism, thinking I was going to be the next Mark Trail, the outdoor writer of newspaper comic strip fame. My belief that farming and the natural world did not mix was reinforced early by a professor who was a big believer in the role wildlife refuges, parks, and other publicly owned natural areas could play in preserving remnants of nature. During a field course called “The Ecology of the Missouri Ozarks,” we drove by section after section of farmland so we could visit federal and state wildlife refuges, waterways that had been protected via the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and national forests.

At one point, we visited a Missouri lake that was inundated with boaters and swimmers on an early spring day. It was a cacophony of activity, and quite frankly, did not show American outdoor recreationists at their best. It was particularly jarring after spending several days in the more “natural” parts of the Ozarks.

“We need areas like this,” my professor explained as he slowly guided our college van through the crowds. “It’s like a safety valve that keeps people away from real nature.” By extension, farming the hell out of the best soils kept farmers away from those “natural areas” as well, I assumed. This would mark a common belief I ran into in subsequent years: it wasn’t just farmers who thought agriculture and the natural world did not mix, so did many ecologists and government natural resource professionals.

And during my college years in the early 1980s, farming and nature seemed more alienated from each other than ever. I wrote articles about studies showing that agrichemical contamination of Iowa’s drinking water wells was ubiquitous, while wildlife habitat was shrinking to all-time lows. I’m reminded of the first magazine story I tried to write as a student journalist. It was supposed to be about how farming could actually help wildlife. My first interview was with a well-known bird expert at Iowa State University. When I presented him with my thesis for the story, he said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Farming does more harm than good to wildlife.” He then went on to talk about how harvesting corn with combines left the fields so denuded of grain that there wasn’t even anything left over for the wildlife to glean. I ended up doing the story anyway, but it was pretty lame—something about farmers planting wildlife-friendly windbreaks along fence lines sticks out in my head. To be sure, this was 1983 or so, and we had just come through the 1970s and its decimating fencerow-to- fencerow planting fever. That ornithologist was right to be pessimistic.

It turns out there was a very important human element to all this bad news that I missed at the time: as farms became less numerous and larger, environmental degradation increased. There were simply fewer people on the land to care if a pasture was plowed or a brushy fence line bulldozed. It turns out the fate of the family farmer isn’t just tied to the price of corn—there is a real connection to the health of the land as well.

Somewhere along the line, my view of agriculture’s relationship with nature changed. I’m sure it was a combination of things, but one experience stands out. One of the farmers who farmed on the bottomlands of the 7-Mile had hunted, fished, and trapped with my dad back when they were young. But this guy, perhaps because of his nearness to the creek, had never quite lost his interest in woods and streams. One day he told me about a book he had just read. “You might be interested in it,” he said nonchalantly. “It’s about this guy who kind of takes you through the seasons and describes our relationship with the land, things like that.”

That book was A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. Even though it had been written almost half a century before I picked it up, it set my brain on fire. I loved the descriptions of nature, and Leopold’s ability to observe one small aspect of the land and extrapolate it into a larger way of thinking. But what really drew me in was his idea of the “land ethic”—the idea that we have a moral responsibility to the land and its wild flora and fauna, that not every “cog and wheel” in nature must justify itself economically in order for us to give it permission to exist. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

When I first read those words, I didn’t know enough about “biotas” or “ecosystems” to judge what land practices were preserving “integrity and stability.” All I knew was I didn’t like the cold feeling I got in my gut when I saw a stand of hardwoods bulldozed and burned, a creek straightened or a pasture plowed up and planted to corn. To be honest, when I was younger my opposition to such “land improvements” was rooted in self-interest. I remember when a neighboring farmer ripped out a brushy fencerow soon after he bought property in our neighborhood. My first thought was, “Well, I’ll have to find another place to hunt rabbits.”

But Leopold helped me begin observing the workings of the land less as a consumer of outdoor diversions and more as a member of a community, one that was much more interesting than I could have imagined. When we stop viewing land as mere property, the possibilities, for us as well as that land, are opened wide. Ironically, some of those possibilities are actually based in economics. For example, farmers in recent years are discovering that by ignoring all that “useless” soil biota and focusing exclusively on adding to their fields’ financial value with high-priced, artificial inputs like petroleum-based fertilizer, they are sacrificing the long-term viability of their land. That would not have surprised Leopold, who called it a false assumption that “the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.”

And I liked what Leopold said about how an all-encompassing ethic should apply not only to pristine wilderness areas but to where we live and work every day. When one considers such an ethic in terms of agriculture, the health of the land in rural areas is best served when food production and wild areas exist side-by-side, rather than as separate entities performing seemingly unrelated tasks. Such a way of looking at the world was highly appealing to a wildlife-loving farm kid who was living nowhere near a national park, wildlife refuge, or nature preserve. If I was to have any interaction with nature, it had to be in the pastures, crop fields and ditches that made up my agrarian world. Seeing my family’s 240 acres through Leopold’s eyes suddenly made that farm seem much larger and layered.

In his essay “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” Leopold eloquently described how woodlands, meadows, sloughs, and wetlands, those odd corners where ecological services quietly go about their business, can coexist with corn production, pasturing, and other farming enterprises. Wilderness areas, national forests, and wildlife refuges are important. But as Dana and Laura Jackson point out in a book I contributed to in 2002, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, too often people see their presence as an excuse to sacrifice a functioning ecosystem on good farmland: “Farm the best and preserve the rest.”

The result of this segregation on a landscape scale is pristine preserves such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on one end of the spectrum and ecological sacrifice zones such as the Corn Belt on the other end. On an individual farm scale, it often means gradual elimination of residual habitat fragments on the assumption that displaced wildlife can simply take up residence on public land somewhere else. The whole concept of wetland mitigation fits this mindset—in a state like Minnesota, highways, housing developments, and other such projects are allowed to displace a natural wetland as long as developers provide the means for a replacement marsh to be established elsewhere. It’s a nice idea, but ignores the concept that perhaps there was an important ecological reason that wetland was located in its original spot.

An integration of the tamed and the wild not only makes economic sense by saving soil and protecting water quality, for example, but it provides a certain “wholeness” that is so critical to the overall success of a farm. Wrote Leopold: “No one censures a man who loses his leg in an accident, or who was born with only four fingers, but we should look askance at a man who amputated a natural part on the grounds that some other part is more profitable.”
In the seven decades since Leopold wrote those words, it has become clear he was right in more ways than one. The sustainable agriculture movement is based on the idea that all aspects of a successful farm—from its soil, croplands, and pastures to its woodlands and sloughs—are part of a healthy whole. Farmers and scientists are realizing that an agricultural operation too far removed from its biological roots is more vulnerable to disease, pests, and uncooperative weather—in other words, it’s less resilient.

Leopold was writing in a different era, when industrial agriculture and agroecological thinking were both in their infancy. But recent research and real-farm experience have proven him right. Environmentalists are now aware that creating islands of natural areas is not sustainable in the long term. To be sure, waterfowl benefit from state and federal wildlife refuges, but when migrating they rely on the food and shelter present in the potholes and sloughs found on farms across the Midwest. A protected waterway may be safe from having factory waste dumped straight into it, but what about the non-point runoff from all the farms present in the surrounding watershed? It can be ecological death by a thousand hidden, and not so hidden, cuts.
In places like the Midwest, working lands conservation (of course, it could be argued that all lands “work” in terms of ecosystem services) is more than a nice concept—it’s a necessity in a region where vast tracts of publicly owned acres are few and far between. Pore over a map where shades of green indicate the percentage of land devoted to agricultural production, and you’ll see the midsection of America resembles the dominant clothing choice for a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In Iowa, almost 89 percent of the land area is farmed. Even in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, with their timberlands and lakes, 54 percent and 45 percent of the landscape, respectively, is in agriculture. Nationally, privately owned croplands, pastures, and rangeland make up about 40 percent of the terrestrial surface area, and are managed by just 2 percent of the population.

And a tiny subset of that 2 percent makes support of a functioning ecosystem a priority when producing food. But when one gets an opportunity to see such a philosophy in action, the psychological impacts can have an outsized effect. Soon after I went to work for the Land Stewardship Project in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to encounter numerous farmers, such as Dan Specht, who blended the natural world and their farming systems almost seamlessly. As I wrote in The Farm as Natural Habitat, some of these farmers were prompted to make major changes in their operations by health concerns (a well contaminated with agrichemicals), while others were triggered by economics (seeking a premium price in the organic market, for example).
I’ve always been fascinated by what prompts a farmer to make changes that are likely to invite the derision of others in the community, particularly other farmers. But the stories I find particularly intriguing are those of farmers who I call “ecological agrarians”—people who never really separated the natural world from food production. Sometimes they seemed to be born with this inability to disconnect the two. Other times, early life experiences forged this connection.

Wildly Successful Farming
No matter what the avenue or the timing, the result is, as Art “Tex” Hawkins refers to it, “wildly successful farms.” Hawkins is a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service watershed biologist who went on to start a sustainability initiative at Winona State University in Minnesota, and his late father, Art Sr., was one of Leopold’s first graduate students. The
younger Hawkins has worked closely with many of these farms that are blending nature and agriculture, helping them, for example, monitor the health of the ecosystem via bird identification. He sees them as the living embodiment of what good can come from refusing to separate the ecological from the agronomic.

I like the term “wildly successful,” partly because it’s a play on the title of a well-known farm magazine, Successful Farming. Just as a pop musician pines to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s long been acknowledged in the agricultural world that to have your farm featured in a magazine like Successful Farming is a sign that you’ve arrived. Farm magazines like this offer up lots of practical advice, but like their glossy counterparts in the suburbs and cities, they also have an aspirational component to them. “You too can be a successful farmer!” is the message their profiles and photographs convey.
Such success is measured by how many bushels are being produced on how many acres utilizing what kind of technology and inputs. However, there have always been groups of farmers who measure success based on how well their production systems interact with the land’s natural functions. When done right, these farms are able to succeed not only ecologically but financially and from a quality of life point of view. These are the wildly successful farms I refer to in the title of this book.

And we’re not just talking about farms that are homes to ducks and deer. “Wildness,” in this case, extends beneath the surface as well: healthy soil is perhaps the most diverse ecosystem on earth and maintaining its diversity to the point where natural systems can function has repercussions all the way up the food chain, to us. So, this book isn’t just about marshes and prairies—it’s about farms that give a variety of natural forces the opportunity to interact with human-driven forces in a positive way, literally from the ground up. Some of those interactions happen through a hands-off approach; others are more directed. Either way, thought and conscious decision-making must go into the process for it to be successful. This is, after all, for all intents and purposes the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by the actions of human beings.
This book tells the stories of farmers across the Midwest who are balancing agricultural productivity with a passion for all things wild. These farmers are utilizing a wide range of techniques and strategies, but they are united by a single philosophy, which is to approach working lands conservation as, to quote Leopold, “a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution.”

Whenever people read or hear about a farmer who is doing innovative things to balance food production with a healthy, functioning ecosystem, a natural response is, “Nice story, but what does it mean in the bigger picture?” In other words, are these examples fated to be feel good tales that have no real relevance when it comes to making our overall food and farming system more sustainable? I don’t think so. This book also describes how wildly successful farmers can have impacts beyond their field borders—all the way to research test plots and our supper tables. That said, I don’t want to mislead readers into thinking that this book is reporting on some sort of regenerative farming revolution that’s sweeping the U.S. Corn Belt. These stories are about farmers who are returning resiliency to their particular piece of the landscape. Given the catastrophic environmental threats our entire region faces, it can be difficult to accept the fact that wildly successful farming is an outlier.
But for now, it is—we will need to seek our optimism in the isolated, but powerful, examples profiled here. I’ve chosen to focus on the Midwest in this book because in many ways its landscape has been thoroughly reshaped by production agriculture to a greater extent than any other region in the country. If wildly successful farming can get a foothold in an area where, in some counties, 95 percent or more of the landscape is blanketed in either corn or soybeans during the growing season, then there’s hope for other places dominated by a version of the “Corn, Bean, Feedlot Machine,” as Montana rancher Becky Weed calls it. To use an agronomic metaphor, wildly successful farms are seeds and it remains to be seen whether society provides fertile soil—both in the marketplace and the public policy realm—for them to sprout the kind of growth that spreads widely.

`This is no shop manual on what that seedbed should look like, but I’ve included in these pages what I see as some of the common traits shared by farming operations that have in some way become wildly successful. Teamwork, cutting-edge science, curiosity, a willingness to ignore the conventional wisdom adhered to by peers, the ability to foresee (or at least weather) unintended consequences, and, of course, personal passion all play key roles. That’s a complex formula, one that makes creating a standard template for being wildly successful pretty much impossible. But when’s the last time something truly transformational came out of a neatly organized toolkit?

Community Economic Utilities: A Tool for Building Agricultural Cities

By John Ikerd

Note: John Ikerd is professor emeritus at University of Missouri, Columbia whose teaching, lectures, and writings on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics have made him a frequent speaker at conferences here and abroad. His idea for Community Economic Utilities would create economic justice, not only in rural but in urban America.

In his book, Building the Agricultural City, Robert Wolf makes a compelling case for rethinking economic development in rural America. He explains the multiple ways in which industrial economic development has systematically depleted the productivity of natural and human resources by exploiting rural people and places. The industrialization of agriculture has been a key part of this process. Rural economic development is destroying the resources upon which its productivity and economic viability ultimately depend. This cannot continue indefinitely; it quite simply is not sustainable. (

Wolf proposes a “bioregional” approach to economic development as a sustainable alternative to industrial development., John Thackara, in How to Thrive in the Next Economy, defines a bioregion as “a ’life place’ that allows the regeneration of soils, watersheds and biodiversity .  . .  that is definable by natural rather than political or economic boundaries. A bioregion reimagines the man-made world as one element among a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food production, information.” Bioregionalism is not about returning regions to some pristine natural state that existed before human intervention. Instead it seeks to create thriving human communities and economies that function in harmony with the natural ecosystems upon which they are ultimately dependent. Bioregional economies allow the “regeneration of soils, watersheds, and biodiversity” essential for sustaining positive personal relationships and progressive human cultures.

The “agricultural city” is the central concept of Wolf’s bioregional approach to development. An agricultural city is a bioregion that includes farms, rural residences, and small towns as well as a significant population centers. He writes, “Rural America must become more self-reliant and self-sufficient if it hopes to avoid the trauma of another national Depression.” Thus, a bioregional agricultural city must be large enough to include significant sectors of agricultural production, processing, distribution, and consumption—as well as supporting public services. He continues, “I believe that it is imperative that we in rural America build self-reliant regional economies, and that this can only be done at the grassroots level.” He writes, “A sustainable, self-reliant economy developed at the grassroots level need not wait for the collapse of the current systems.”

A major challenge of bioregionalism is effective governance. Bioregions are not defined by political boundaries but instead by ecological boundaries. Cultural values also must be considered in defining boundaries as human culture affects the functioning of “developed” bioregions. Governments are notoriously territorial and typically have difficulties working across political boundaries. Furthermore, today’s economy shows no respect for either ecological or political boundaries. The economy is an equal opportunity extractor and exploit within all political jurisdictions and bioregions, including some supposedly protected by law.

As Wolf points out, “regions as viable economic and cultural entities will not be a product of any government.” Governments cannot create sustainable bioregions. However, government is the only means of protecting bioregions from economic exploitation and thus the only means of creating agricultural cities as “viable economic and cultural entities.” Obviously, agricultural cities will require some creative thinking to meet this challenge. One possible approach to solving the problem of bioregional governance would be to create bioregional alliances of public utilities. Public utilities are commonly used to provide essential public services such as electricity, water, sewers, and telecommunications. Public utilities could be organized under current laws that authorize and regulate other existing public utilities and thus would require no legislative action. Most important, public utilities essentially create local or regional monopolies that are protected from the exploitative pressures of economic competition.

The creation of “Community Economic Utilities” (CEUs) as independently-operated, publicly-regulated entities, within political and across political jurisdictions, would minimize government involvement. Beyond giving legal approval to establishing and operating CEUs, the only essential role of government would be public oversight. Voluntary participation or membership in any particular CEU would minimize local political or community resistance to the CEU as an imposition of government.

Some might question using public utilities to create agricultural cities because utilities typically are used in cases that economists refer to as “natural monopolies.” For example, it’s logical to utilize only one electrical system, water system, or sewer system in a city or county because of the high cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure for these systems. The existence of only one service provider would constitute a monopoly, with monopoly power to exploit its customers. Thus the justification for government intervention. However, public utilities are equally appropriate in any case of “market failure.” Natural monopolies are but one example of market failure. The ecological, social, and economic exploitation of rural America under the guise of rural economic development is clearly a “market failure.”

In general, public utilities are legitimate means of providing any essential public service that competitive market economies will not provide. For example, in the early 1950s many residences in rural areas were still without electricity. Those without “power” typically lived on farms that would have required extension of existing “power lines” for several miles to service a few customers who initially would use very little electricity. It didn’t make economic sense to extend the existing power lines. This was not a natural monopoly because there was no economic benefit to be monopolized. It was nonetheless a “market failure.” The Rural Electrification Association (REA), a public utility, was established to provide electricity to those remaining without power, regardless of the economic costs and benefits of doing so. The REA even paid electricians to install electrical wiring in old farmhouses—which was a costly undertaking. Access to electricity had become an “essential public service,” rather than a market privilege.

Some local businesses may contend that a CEU would represent unfair competition with existing providers. However, public utilities are often used to provide essential public services when private services exist but are inadequate to meet the needs of all, as in the case of rural electrification. Another example is public transportation, including buses, light rails, and even taxi cabs, which are either provided by municipalities or regulated as public utilities. Public transportation obviously competes with private transportation providers. Public utilities also are currently being used to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas. This public alternative clearly competes with existing services provided via satellite. Such cases nonetheless address legitimate market failures.

In addition, since membership in CEUs would be voluntary, a CEU would have no monopoly power because private providers would still be able to compete for members. However, CEUs would still allow people in rural communities to establish economic boundaries within which they can provide specific public services by means that are “insulates,” even if not isolated, from exploitative economic competition. CEUs eventually would need to blanket the bioregion if they are to protect the bioregion as a whole from economic exploitation. This might be a challenge but would not be a particular problem, as a self-sufficient, sustainable agricultural city eventually must function with the “consent of the people” in the bioregion, regardless of how it begins.

The justification for utilizing CEUs to create agricultural cities would need to be premised on the claim of “market failure”—specifically the failure of today’s market economy to meet the basic economic needs of people in rural America. The existence of a variety of government funded social welfare programs provides strong evidence of such a claim of market failure. Supplemental Nutritional Assistance programs (SNAP or food stamps), free and reduced price school lunches, Medicaid, low-income housing assistance, public transportation, and temporary income assistance for needy families (TANF), are examples of the current piecemeal approach to meeting the basic human needs of the least fortunate Americans. Such programs mitigate the market failure but obviously have failed to ensure that the basic human needs of many, if not most, people in rural America are met. CEUs would provide a local government-sanctioned, voluntary alternative means of meeting the basic economic needs of all.

A further argument could be made that the basic needs of future generations are being threatened by the degradation and depletion of rural natural and human resources upon which those of the future must depend for their food, clothing, housing, and overall economic well-being. Everything of use to humans, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from nature by way of society. Current government funded programs for soil and water conservation, sustainable forestry, environmental protection, renewable energy, organic and sustainable farming, reflect a piecemeal approach to protecting and maintaining the productivity of natural resources for the benefit of future generations. Public education, subsidized college loans, job training, civil rights laws, and public defenders are examples of government programs that invest in human resources for the future and protect the civility and integrity of society upon which future economic development ultimately depends.

CEUs could be established to administer all existing government benefits that members of the utility are eligible to receive. Separate utilities could be established for food, housing, energy, health care, transportation, soil and water conservation, education, civil liberties, etc.—either within or across political jurisdictions within bioregions. Regardless, all CEUs within the bioregion would need to conform to a common set of guiding principles. An umbrella CEU for the bioregion as a whole could ensure the social and ecological integrity of all CEUs in the bioregion. The mission of the alliance of bioregional CEU as a whole would be to build self-reliant regional economies by empowering people at the grassroots. As Robert Wolf wrote, “A sustainable, self-reliant economy developed at the grassroots level need not wait for the collapse of the current systems.”

Umbrella bioregional CEUs could ensure that the individual public utilities were organized and operated by means that help restore and sustain the ecological, social, and economic integrity of the bioregion. The bioregional CEUs could also help those creating individual CEUs within the region to make the case with local government officials to allocate local tax dollars, to the extent necessary, to compensate the utilities for the economic costs of resource conservation, environmental protection, social integration, and cultural preservation. Those who choose to join CEUs would be expected to bear some of these costs as an expression of their personal values and commitments—particularly to the extent that costs of operating CEUs exceed existing government funding. However, local tax payers in general also must be willing to allocate local tax funds to local CEUs that provide essential public services not currently provided by government.

Since CEU membership would be voluntary, agricultural cities would incrementally emerge and gradually grow within the existing political jurisdictions of bioregions covered by umbrella CEUs. The emergence of Wolf’s vision of agricultural cities would depend on increasing the numbers of CEU members within bioregions until members eventually represent a bio-community consensus mandating local governments to protect their bioregions for economic extraction and exploitation.

No blueprint or recipe for development of a bioregional alliance of CFUs is possible. Creating new agricultural cities would require that each bioregion develop its own umbrella organization and set of basic principle that would increase self-reliance and sustainability. The principles must reflect the culture and ecology of the particular bioregion as essential principles of sustainable economic development. The day-to-day operation of individual CEUs also must accommodate the social and economic culture of the communities within which they are organized and function. Some communities are more altruistic and might be willing to ensure basic benefits to all in need, regardless of the willingness or ability of recipients to provide anything in return. Other communities are more utilitarian and require that people earn or be willing to work for whatever they receive beyond current government benefits.

Over time, the ability of CEUs to locally source food, shelter, energy, health care, education, and other basic needs would be expected to expand beyond the needs of those eligible for existing government programs to include everyone in the bioregion. At that point, benefits could be made available for purchase by anyone in the community covered by a CEU. The cost of membership to those not eligible for government programs should be sufficient to cover the CEU’s full cost of operation, in order to avoid unfair competition with other local service providers.

When shopping in a CEU supermarket, eating in the CEU restaurant, receiving CEU health care, or participating in a CEU educational program, community member who paid full cost of membership would be indistinguishable from those who paid less than full cost, worked for their added CEU benefits, or were unable to contribute anything of economic value. Relationships formed by patronizing and participating in CEUs would perhaps be the most important community building aspect of using CEUs to build agricultural cities.
Relationships within agricultural cities would not be impersonal economic or political relationships but relationships based on shared commitments to the fundamental principles of self-reliance and sustainability. The shared commitment would be to the people’s right to meet their basic economic needs through means that are ecologically sound and socially responsible and their right to protect themselves and their communities from economic exploitation. As the concept of agricultural cities spreads across and beyond rural America; cities, state, national, and global economies would begin to move toward a more just and sustainable future for humanity.

  1. Wolf, R. (2016). Building the Agricultural City: A Handbook for Rural Renewal. Decorah, Iowa, Ruskin Press.
  2. Thackara, J. How to Thrive in the New Economy. London, Thames & Hudson.
  3. Thackara, p 29.
  4. Wolf, p 13.
  5. Wolf,  Agricultural Cities, p 12
  6. Wolf, p 40.
  7. Wolf, Agricultural Cities, p 12.
  8. See John Ikerd’s website: