John Henry Wilcott:
A Pioneer Twice Over
Part 3: Faith and Hard Times
"Now, dear Sister, you know
times are very bad."
Farmers in Montana had a good period from 1909 through 1916, and 1917 was good for most, because the plains saw ample rainfall and large harvests, and the World War in Europe was stimulating demand for wheat, keeping prices high. Malone and Roeder quote the editor of the Montana Churchman
to convey the air of optimism in the state in 1907: "That time [cowboy days] has gone forever. Already in her westward march Civilization has planted her feet firmly on this territory. Ten years from now 'the West' will be as the womb of the earth, teeming with people, seething with industry, alive with manifold activities -- the center of population and civilization!" While the vision of the editor may have been excessive, the tone was characteristic of the time. When spring of 1917 arrived, the United States entered the World War, and to assure farmers that productivity would not drive prices down and result in farmers scaling back food production, the U.S. Congress set price floors. Wheat could not go below $2.00 per bushel. So farmers were inspired to plow fallow ground and pasture lands.
But, that season, drought began appearing on the High Line, the northernmost strip of prairie Montana. By 1919, high winds were blowing away the loose topsoil produced by Hardy Webster Campbell’s dryland farming methods. Over time through 1920, Europe was back to meeting most of its own food needs and prices for crops dropped. The winter of 1919-20 saw thousands of farm families in Montana without sufficient means to get through the winter. Those with hope or without better prospects hung on, but many left. Governor Sam Stewart called a special session of the legislature to try to provide relief but could only come up with an issuing of bonds for road building to provide some work, and those failed to sell well.
Eleven thousand farms in Montana were vacated, twenty percent of the farms in the state. Twenty thousand mortgages were foreclosed. Half of Montana’s farmers lost their land. Banks, overextended during prosperous days, failed until less than half of them remained. Malone and Roeder tell us that Montana had the highest bankruptcy rate in the United States from 1920 to 1926 and was the only state to lose population during that time. Memories of the promises and boosterism of the railroads inspired a children’s rhyme about Jim Hill, majority owner of the railroads that encouraged and brought the homesteaders to Montana’s plains:
|Twixt Hill and Hell, there’s just one letter; |
Were Hill in Hell, we'd feel much better.
From John Wilcott, this typed letter:
Allah o Abha
Dec. 9, 1919
To the Bahai News:
My dear brother -
We are having very hard times here as we did not get a crop for four years now, and at present we hardly know where to get our next meal. The stores have cut off credit, and the county will not help any more till Spring. I thought perhaps by letting you know how we are here that there maybe some of the friends that could get together and help us out in a box of old clothes and some food. If we can stand this winter, God willing we may get a crop this coming year. It makes me feel bad to see my two little babies wanting for food and my mother just alive waiting for her to pass away, and not food enough to give her, and such cold weather - 40 below today, the coldest winter that Montana ever saw. Mrs. Goodale has sent us $10 and Mrs. Peckman $5, and they are going to send some old clothes. I thought perhaps that some of the friends could get together some clothes and perhaps a little box of food that would help us out. If my heart wasn't broken I wouldn't write this, but I cannot see my dear little ones suffer for both clothes and food. The Bahais should not be beggars, and I do not want to beg, but when there isn't any work to get and the banks take all you have away except your land, and that is mortgaged so deep that you can't get another cent on it, and the winter so cold and no coal to be had, I tell you it makes a man write such a letter as this. Please speak to some of the believers that you think may help us out.
We did not raise even one potato, not one kernel of wheat. I have nothing to feed my horses, but the bank has the mortgage on them and they no doubt will take them. Hoping to hear from you soon,
Your brother in His Cause, John H. Wilcott
From Chicago, this prompt reply:
Chicago, Dec. 15, 1919
Mr. John H. Wilcott,
My dear Bahai brother:-
The Bahai News Service have just turned over your letter of December 9th to me. I have just sent a telegram to Mr. J.W. Latimer, Union Station, Portland, Ore., and asked him to send immediately clothes, food, etc. We will also send some clothing from here. We are sending a check to Mr. Latimer to cover the expense. Please let me know when you receive these things, also would like to hear from you before this regarding your circumstances. We are indeed very sorry that these trials have come upon you, and will do our utmost to come to your assistance. I wish we had known before.
With Bahai love,
Your brother in service,
Ethel Frost draws out some positive memories from this time.
"He received and corresponded regularly with Roy Wilhelm, his spiritual father. Times were hard on the farm when the crops failed etc. so I suppose (I don't know) that Mr. Wilhelm would send him money to help out. I know that he would send boxes of old clothes gathered from the Bahá'ís of the east and my mother would make them over for us children. We girls were the best dressed children in school with silks, satins and chiffon dresses!!!"
In 1924 John Wilcott suffered bankruptcy. Papers show procedures scheduled first in Kendall and then in Lewistown. An irony in the bankruptcy is that in 1924 the rains returned.
Malone and Roeder explain that the period from 1922-29 was one of improving economy nationwide and so a period of improvement for Montana as well. With the end of the drought in 1924 Montana farmers and ranchers that remained showed a more radical and vocal side, much in reaction to the apparent inaction of the government during the catastrophic drought. An active Communist movement even grew amongst farmers in the northeast corner of the state. While this was a minority and was not a meaningful force to most Montana farmers and ranchers, it is a sign of the mood of the times. This period, however, during which much of the worries and burdens of the previous years could be thrown off and energies channeled to growth and development, was only a respite. In 1929 the drought resumed and the Great Depression began.
This was the drought of the infamous Dust Bowl. Farmers literally watched their and others' farms move downwind while they could only stand by, rubbing their neighbors' property out of their eyes. The Red Cross responded to requests by half of Montana’s fifty-six counties for assistance. It was severely challenged to meet the needs. Its average food grant from 1930 through 1932 was ten cents a day. At times, John was getting less than half of that for himself and his family. Prices failed profoundly. Malone and Roeder cite that a quantity of wheat worth $100 in 1920 sold for $19.23 in 1932. Meat, wool, sugar beets, everything raised in Montana suffered the same. They said, "Back in the good years of the later 1920s, the [Daniels County] county seat, Scobey, had once advertised itself as the world’s largest wheat shipping point. By the spring of 1933, after four years of sub-par rainfall, thirty-five hundred of the counties' five thousand people needed relief assistance. After touring the eastern reaches of the state in August 1931, Governor John Erickson could only bury his head in his hands, lamenting, as an associate later recalled, that if only someone could find a solution to the problem, he would gladly embrace it." Many who remained after the earlier drought and depression sought their solution by leaving.
It is clear from his letters that John Wilcott pondered his circumstances heavily during this time. In those letters one can see his staunch commitment to the Faith, his courage, his struggle to do the wise thing, his love of family, his sorrow and his grit. Following are excerpts from some of his letters of 1931 and 1932 that pick up the story here.
November 8, 1931:
My dear Bahai Sister, your letter received and I was very glad to hear from you. Sister, I feel as though I know you well as all Bahais ought to feel; and in that case I shall be very plain to you. It breaks my heart not to be able to give to this beautiful Temple of ours. 25 years ago I knelt many times on the Temple ground and prayed for this Temple. I also gave very freely $50.00 at a time. Sister, for 3 years we haven't got a crop. This year we did not raise even a garden, and now we are getting help from the Red Cross. They allowed us only $6.00 for a month -- $1.25 each. There is 5 of us. Every one here is suffering. I went 20 to 25 miles after my wood for winter and dug my coal 10 miles from home. The children hardly have clothes for winter. My children don't know what 5 cents look like. My Bahai Sister, if we only could help in this great Temple I would be very glad to do so and I feel very sad that I cannot do so.
We are the only Bahai out here and I read all books that Roy Wilhelm sends me so I keep posted on all that is going on.
Mr. Wilhelm got me a job on a Bahai’s farm last spring, but it was impossible to take the job because of no money to go with. At present my rent is free here and we have a few chickens and a few cattle we get on with, and butter. No eggs yet. But there is no feed for the cattle and no sale for them now. We are trusting God and doing the best we can, and there are many others just like us all on the Red Cross. But we are afraid that the Red Cross won't last long as they have more than they can feed.
Sister, my little children send Bahai love to you and wish to thank you for these papers you sent them Last Christmas. I would love to hear from you again.
From your Brother in the Cause. Allah o Abha.
December 10, 1931:
It was a great blessing to me to get such a loving letter from one that we never seen. But a Bahai seem to know each other [sic]. You know, once a Bahai, you are always a Bahai. You letter was very good and kind and it went to the heart. You know I write to very few Bahais. My most great friend is Roy Wilhelm. He has written to me and kept me posted on the Bahai work for 22 years...
Now, dear Sister, you know times are very bad. It is so good of you to want to help us, but I beg of you to go easy as perhaps you may need all yourself, as everyone does. Of course, whatever you send will be a great help to us this winter and the children will so much enjoy it.
This is the hardest year we ever say [sic] and we are both hard workers...
I have prayed every night for the Temple for 22 years, and also for all meetings on Sunday all over the world. There was a time when I knew most all the believers in U.S.A. Miss Martha Root 22 years ago sent me a box of books from Phil[adelphia]. B.M. Jacobson of Kenosha, Wisconsin was my teacher. He did a good job. I was also ready for this message [sic]. When I get time I shall hunt up my work in California as I was one of the first ones to go to California and meet the believers and talk to them. If you are an old believer you will see in the Star of the West my picture, also my experience out here among the cowboys. I have given this message among all my neighbors and in those days I had to walk many miles to do so. My old Mother was with me. She came here to help me give the message. She was a doctor and 50 miles was the nearest doctor. She did well, gave the message to hundreds.
...Mrs. Wilcott sends her love to you, also the children.
December 16, 1931:
...and I am trying to get out of this country if I ever can. What kind of a place is it where you live? Is it out in a farm country or is it in a town? Is there any work out there? I talk to you as if I know you because you are a Bahai. We all send love to all of you...
January 9, 1932:
My dear Bahai Sisters, your most welcome letter came. It was surely a beautiful letter full of the spirit of God. [I]t was news to me that you could take the Bahai lessons in this way. When I left Chicago 22 years ago there was no such thing as giving lessons by writing and I am surely surprised what good believer you are. I do wish I could help you in books. Perhaps I have some that you have not and I can spare them. I have two of some kinds. Have you got a book called Some Answered Questions? by Abdu'l Baha?...How wonderful it is to think of you both way out there trying to learn of this great Cause in the way you are doing it, when here I am giving the message to many and showing them proofs of it and letting them read books on the Cause and yet they will not pay any attention to it. They are all Christian and I am nothing because I go to no church.
Mrs. Wilcott and children enjoyed reading those lessons and how wonderful they are.
We are thinking of going away from this place. I have a few places to go to but it takes money. The Bahai [sic] has a farm in Michigan and they want a Bahai farmer on it. Then Roy Wilhelm in New Jersey offers me a job on his place as a landscape gardner [sic], which is my trade. There is no use staying here for each year gets worse. I came here with 5 thousand and today I haven't got only 15 head of cattle, a wife and 3 children which I am thankful for.
Sisters, we send to you our deepest love and prayers that you will always be steadfast in this great Cause. Remember, once a Bahai, always a Bahai.
From a Bahai Brother not worthy of being called a Bahai.
April 2, 1932:
My dear Bahai Sister, Auntie Victoria,
I have received 2 or 3 letters from you and I haven't answered them yet. I thank you for writing and also for the tea. I drank the tea while I was sick. I had the flu for one week and I was very sick. We are all very well now.
I have been trying to sell out so I could go away from here but it is impossible to do so till fall. Then perhaps I shall go if the place is open [sic].
We received letters from many Bahais who you sent our names to and we were very glad to hear from them. We received a box from a children’s school in Bingham, N.Y. which my children answered. You had given them our name. We will send them one of our pictures which will please them. I am sending you one that I know you will like. It is us, and you will know just who we are. It was taken Feb. 29, 1932 in our yard. No snow at that time, but the next day for a week it snowed and blew, so all roads was impossible to travel. But now we have no snow and we are getting ready to go to work in the fields. But it doesn't look to good to me. Everything is too dry. I lost one horse and another is dieing, and if the government do not get that feed here soon, there will be lots of cattle dead here. Cattle are dieing for the want of feed.
The Red Cross is feeding us, but this is the last month. I have two cows that are fresh and we get our milk and butter but no feed for them. They are shipping in 4 cars of feed. If it ever gets here it will help us. This feed is feed is for cattle.
Well this is all now. I have written, today, 7 letters to Bahais.
I am your Brother in the Great Cause,
John H. Wilcott, Winifred, Montana
April 2, 1932:
...I want to thank you for sending me those writings. Please do not go to that work of writing all that for me.
I gave your last one to a minister here that I have been trying to get him interested in the Bahai for 18 years [sic]. But he is a hard one to do anything with...
I also got a letter from Mrs. A. Duffy, R.F.D.#6, Norwich, Connecticut -- a very fine believer, 75 miles from any Bahai. I also heard from M., Ruth [Ruth Moffet]. Did you receive any books from Roy W.? I tried to get them for you through Roy and he has not said, yet, if he had them or not.I hope and pray that you will have food luck with your work there. Let me hear from you again.
John F. Behrens, R.#5, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho is a fine believer. He is now 65 and I knew him 30 years ago as a Bahá'í will loved to you all.
In His Name, John H. Wilcott and family
December 25, 1932:
...My little sister from Los Angeles is here making us a visit. She is 58 years old and full of life.
I have been very busy this summer. We have a good crop and a very good garden. Mrs. Wilcott is very busy canning garden stuff. I have a boiler of corn on the stove now while they, my wife and sister, are visiting a neighbor. I am in the house because it rained and I cannot cut grain. We are all very happy because it rained. As it was, the garden was drying up. Mrs. Wilcott said what a beautiful family and you are all beautiful, and those roses look so good to us all as we never see a rose here. My sister can't figure out just where you live unless it is near Frisco.
My little girls send their love to your dear boy. They think he’s so sweet...
I am thinking of living in California as I have two farms, one ranch offered me. They are not very large, 10 to 50 acres. Perhaps I cannot get a living on them.
We all thank you for the picture and we do hope that our hard time is over. We send you all our Bahai love, and I do pray for your happiness.
From your Bahai Brother & Sister, John Wilcott.
There was, by the time of this letter, some relief from the drought. That break lasted through 1933. Harsh drought returned for three of the following four years.