How William Haenke Saved the World

Nay, the very design of God in giving you this light was, that it might shine.

—Matthew 5:15.

If you were a subscriber to The Eveleth News or the Virginia Daily Enterprise in St. Louis County, Minnesota, some time during the first decades of the twentieth century, you were probably reading by candlelight or gaslight, because electricity didn’t come to much of the rural United States until the 1930s. While reading, you might be struck by the repeated mentions of the doings of a local resident named William Haenke. Over and over again, the newspapers proclaim William an “Expert Farmer,” as The Eveleth News did in Sept. of 1910, or that William’s “Haenke Farm Is Model One,” as the Virginia Daily Enterprise did in Feb. of 1915. The Eveleth News reported in Sept. of 1907 that William would be visited that week by a “party of Duluth real estate men who want to see a St. Louis county farm where the owner is making a living from his farm alone and not from any other source.” Each of these notices seems innocuous in itself, as simply stories of “local color” of a genre familiar to anyone who’s ever read a small town newspaper. But that last one is a bit more odd: Who are these Duluth men, and why should it be so strange to make a living from a farm alone—strange enough that it requires a trip to verify reality? The reason why is surprising: it turns out that explaining just why what William Haenke was doing that St. Louis County found so newsworthy also explains why the United States is the most powerful and richest nation on earth.

Getting to those heights however requires knowing something about William Haenke. He was the son of a sausage-maker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, descendant (so the stories say) of a Prussian officer who escaped a duel by fleeing for America. William came to the North Country—as Bob Dylan, the poet of Hibbing, Minnesota, called it—in 1891, to take a job at a sausage-maker’s there. He had, in other words, no special experience as a farmer; he came from an urban, not a rural, life. But in 1894, a year of economic depression following the Panic of 1893, William took advantage of a federal program originally passed by Abraham Lincoln’s party: the Homestead Act. By pledging to improve some uninhabited and unclaimed land in the far north, William was granted several hundred acres of unprepossessing Minnesota tundra by President Grover Cleveland. With the assistance of the federal government, William set out to make his fortune.

He did.

In September of 1910, The Eveleth News reported that Haenke “easily distanced all competitors at the county fair at Hibbing.” In total, William won twenty first-place ribbons in that year’s competition. The reason the newspaper gave for William’s success might be considered odd for a man who did not grow up as a farmer: “Credit,” the paper said, “in the main is due to Mr. Haenke’s methods of farming.” A clue to the mystery might be found in December of the same year, when the same paper reported that William “believes in up to-date methods and farms with the best and most modern tools.” Yet in another sense that merely deepens the problem, for how could William know the most innovative methods and obtain the best tools when he lived, for all intents and purposes, at the ends of the earth? After all, the land he obtained through the Homestead Act could only be gotten because of its distance from the modern world.

To see how that was possible—and how, through explaining William’s success, we can also chart the rise of a new world power—requires that we too turn from the far northern periphery to the urban center, or in this case from the productions of the printshops of the Iron Range a century ago to productions made with a different readership than small-town farmers in mind: that magazine supposedly written only for the cosmopolitan elite, the New Yorker. The article that makes sense of William Haenke is an article about health care, but in order to investigate health care, the writer (Atul Gawande) treats an earlier episode in American history when an “indispensable but unmanageably costly sector was strangling the country.” That “sector” was, it so happens, farming. “In 1900,” Gawande writes, “more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food,” while simultaneously “farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American workforce.” The United States, “partly as a result, [was] still a poor nation.” A century later, however, about eight percent of the average family’s income goes to food, while about two percent of the workforce is involved in agriculture. The United States is no longer poor.

It should be noticeable to William Haenke’s many descendants that almost none (that I’m aware) of those same descendants are involved in farming. Most of us ascribe that fact to vague notions like “better schooling” or maybe just how much easier it is to leave the Iron Range than it was in William’s day—though that bit in the article about how the Duluth businessmen were traveling to see William, by train, a mode of transport that probably hasn’t been in service in the Range since the 1960s at the latest puts a bit of a wobble on that idea. But in fact none of those things are the reason why Haenkes, like most other Americans, don’t have to spend their days digging out weeds or milking cows for a living.

A hint that explains both William’s success on the small-scale (that is, his ability to farm successfully without himself being raised as a farmer) and the United States’ success on the big-scale (that is, the nation’s rise from poor nation to wealthy one) can be found in The Eveleth News description of William “as one who studies his business closely and is in constant communication with the officials of the state agricultural department.” This is a sentence that reveals worlds, because it just so happens that at about the same time that William Haenke was becoming a successful farmer the United States government was getting involved in agriculture in a big way—a way that some people at the time denounced as “socialism.”

“In February, 1903,” Gawande tells us, “Seaman Knapp arrived in the East Texas town of Terrell to talk to the local farmers.” Knapp was an agent of the United States Department of Agriculture, which was originally founded by the 37th Congress of the United States—the one whose House members were elected in 1860, with Lincoln, and whose membership changed radically the following spring, when the Southern representatives and senators left suddenly. That event then allowed the Northern Republicans who were still left to pass legislation like the bill founding the Department of Agriculture and also such things as transcontinental railroads and land-grant colleges, both of which proved useful later to Knapp because the one educated him in agriculture technique and the other allowed not only him to get to Terrell, but anything Terrell produced to go further than the next town. Anyway, when Knapp got to Terrell he talked to the local powers to find him a local farmer willing to try some of the innovations the USDA had been working on. The town of Terrell provided Knapp with Walter C. Porter, a farmer who agreed to devote a portion of his eight hundred acres to “scientific” farming.

At the end of the season, Porter had cleared a seven-hundred dollar profit on his “scientific” parcel—during the worst growing season in the South in twenty-five years. Porter said he would devote all of his land to “scientific farming” the next year, as did many other farmers around Terrell. Knapp himself set up thirty-three more “extension agents,” like himself, to set up demonstration farms like Walter Porter’s in Texas and Louisiana the next year.

In 1914, over heavy opposition, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which established agents like Seaman Knapp in virtually every county in America. By 1930 there were over 7,000 of those agents, and 750,000 demonstration farms like Walter Porter’s. The Agriculture Department began the first professional weather forecasting service in the US to tie those agents together, and a statistics service that provided accurate crop forecasts—so accurate, in fact, that Wall Street and the Chicago Board of Trade begged them to make the crop forecast private, so as to better the chances of speculative bubbles in commodities, which the government did until the farmers yelled hard enough to make them make it public again. “By 1930,” as well, “food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty percent of the workforce.” It was a massive achievement.

Such success, however, wasn’t merely due to the extension agents or other programs for diffusing knowledge, in a way that equally intersects with William Haenke’s story because, as it happens, he was not reading The Eveleth News by candlelight during the early twentieth century because he was wealthy enough to afford his own electrical generator for his farm. He installed it in the first decade of the twentieth century, at a time when many of his neighbors were not so lucky, as in fact most Americans were not. “Only 10 percent of rural homes had electricity in 1930,” observes one recent historian, Glenn Fleishman, put it in a piece entitled “The Killer App of 1900”; fifteen years later, nearly half did. The story of how that happened is also, in large measure, due to the efforts of the same United States Department of Agriculture.

The Rural Electrification Administration, part of the USDA, was created on 11 May 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt. FDR argued “that the quality of life—and clearly the economic output—of rural Americans would suffer without electricity,” one reason why the effort to electrify the countryside was brought under the aegis of the USDA: as William Haenke recognized a generation before, electricity increased production by leaps and bounds. But that argument had long been distrusted: as a lawyer named Henry Anderson argued in October of 1905, on behalf of two clients who did not want to pay a tax for a municipal electrical utility,

Unless we adopt the principles of socialism, it can hardly be contended that it is the province of government, either state or municipal, to undertake the manufacture or supply of the ordinary subjects of trade and commerce, or to impose burdens upon the whole community for the supposed benefit of a few …

Electricity, it was argued by many, was a luxury, only for those few successes like William Haenke. Luckily, however, FDR did not listen to such arguments—because the output of American farms would become crucial in a way that few could have imagined very soon after the REA began to bring light to rural America.

Because of increasing knowledge, and increased technology, American farms were by the 1940s the most productive and efficient farms in the world. That proved to be handy, since at the same time there was a sudden call for labor beyond the borders of the United States: what we call the Second World War. As a matter of world history, it could be argued, the actions of people like William Haenke ultimately weighed more than, say, the efforts of the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project: without farmers like William Haenke, in other words, no VE-Day. American farms, technologically-advanced enough to function without vast amounts of labor, and far removed from the frontlines and the reach of long-range bombers, could outproduce those of any other nation. Seaman Knapp of course could not have been thinking about Hirohito the day he arrived in Terrell, just as William Haenke was not preparing for the Normandy landings when he arrived in northern Minnesota sometime during the late 19th century. It’s too much to say that what these men did are what won the world wars of the twentieth century, or the long cold war that followed. But without what they did, none of what happened afterwards would have been possible. And without a little help, Knapp and Haenke could not have done what they did.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the future, and large organizations can cast scary big shadows in uncertain light—especially, you know, if you are reading by a candle. Nevertheless, the story of William Haenke might help to guide us today like a lighthouse on a rocky shore. Today it is often argued, for instance, that health-care for everyone is “socialism,” or that, for instance, Internet access should be limited to those who can pay for it. Such topics are, of course, tremendously complicated, just as farming and electricity are difficult subjects. But by making farm techniques and electrical power freely available, the United States unleashed the potential of its own people, making possible an explosion of productive force that, by 1945, allowed the descendants of people like William Haenke to leave the farm and make new lives for themselves. Perhaps as a byproduct that production, it just so happens, on battlefields from Murmansk to Iwo Jima, saved the world. Whether you think that matters, one can only suppose, depends on what you think the odds are of lightning striking twice—or whether you think, as the verse of Matthew says, that “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone.” It’s worth noting, to Americans, that this verse comes directly after the one that mentions the “city on a hill.”


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