Friday, June 18, 2010


One of Al Cooper’s garden favorites is a bi-colored heirloom tomato known as “Georgia Streak”, with some specimens reaching nearly two pounds in weight.

Just months before his death in 1972, Baptist Ott presented an unusual gift to his granddaughter Diane Whealy and her husband Kent: three tightly-lidded glass jars containing garden seeds which had come from Bavaria, four generations before. It took a while for Diane and Kent to realize the value of the old-time morning glory, tomato and bean seeds which were the legacy of forbearers now long gone, and for which they now had the sole responsibility of carrying on. At about the same time as they were relocating from Missouri to the farming country of northeastern Iowa for family reasons, the Whealys began their search for other “long-forgotten” family seed gems among friends, relatives and perfect strangers, seeds often discovered slumbering in dusty attics and back rooms around the country. They had no idea they were embarking on a mission that would become their life’s work.
On a 57-acre farm near Decorah, Iowa, the Whealys established “Heritage Farm”, headquarters for the non-profit organization they founded in 1975. With humble beginnings, “Seed Savers Exchange” took on the task of gathering open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds from volunteer donors from across the nation, and eventually, around the world. What they learned from extensive research was that more than eighty percent of garden vegetable varieties once widely available from seed companies in a 1902 inventory, were no longer in existence, and another 25,000 were endangered. With the proliferation of hybridization, and the promise of higher profits, plant breeders were on their way to losing a connection with the very gene pool from which the future of bio-diversity must depend. One need only examine the Irish potato famine of the mid-1800s, and the near-catastrophic corn blight that decimated U.S. feed corn production in the 1970s to be reminded of the dangers implicit in “monoculture”, and the narrowing of highly-hybridized food varieties.
While some types of vegetable seeds have a long storage life (I am germinating tomato and bean seeds which have been in my collection since 1983), most plant seeds need to be sown and reinvigorated every three years to retain their viability. In contrast the 2000-year-old seeds of a Judean date palm sprouted successfully in 2005 !
Each year since its founding, SSE has published a catalogue of seed varieties in the inventory available in their expanding seed bank, the 2010 issue offering a listing of 20,407 different varieties, making the Decorah collection the country’s largest non-governmental repository. Joining hands with similar efforts in Europe, SSE recently contributed a sizeable sampling of their collection to be held in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
Each July, SSE members come to Decorah from far and wide to participate in an event which has become a fabled tradition at Heritage Farm. Visiting and exchanging ideas with one another, they get to have a hands-on relationship with the acres of fruit, vegetables, and even heirloom livestock. There is something very vitalizing about walking between grow-beds overflowing with Mortgage-Lifter, and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes, Moon and Stars watermelons, Pennsylvania-Dutch Crookneck squash, Perfection Drumhead Savoy cabbage, and Scarlet Runner beans dating back to the days of the Revolution. And for me, biting into an Esopus Spitzenberg, a Wolf River, or Cox Orange Pippin apple is enough to bring tears to my eyes !
I can’t help but believe that if Baptist Ott could look back over his shoulder, he would be proud to see what has come from those three jars of cherished seeds he left in the custody of his granddaughter.

Heirloom leaf lettuce plants flourish among rows of venerable pole beans, whose Vertical growing habits have endeared them to space-conscious gardeners.

Nestled in the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa farm country, “Heritage Farm” is home to Seed Savers’ Exchange and acres of a living seed history. “Caged” grow beds protect certain varieties from unintended cross pollination. The red barns in the background display the craftsmanship of local Amish artisans.

America’s love affair with maise corn reaches back into early history. Native Americans of long ago valued varieties of popping corn as much as we do today.

Temperature and humidity-controlled storage facilities house part of the collection of the tens of thousands of vegetable varieties carefully catalogued and kept viable by SSE staff and volunteers at the Decorah repository.


Chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka iyotake), a Hunkpapa Sioux spiritual leader was 45 at the time of the Big Horn battle. In 1890, he would be shot dead by his own people as predicted in a prophecy.

A much-loved New Hampshire General of the American Revolution named John Stark had described his motivation to fight the British with the famous words “Live Free or Die”, a quote which is presently emblazoned on license plates from that state. I can think of no more succinct explanation of how and why Native Americans of seven disparate tribes and as many bands were willing to overcome their ancient differences and outright enmities, to gather together under a single leader to do battle with the mighty U.S. Army, in June of 1876 on Montana’s Little Big Horn River. With the buffalo herds on which they depended intentionally decimated, their promised lands seized, and reservation life a virtual enslavement, they felt they had nowhere else to go.
Together with families, that gathering numbered nearly eight thousand, supported by perhaps twenty thousand horses. The first of the many mistakes which Custer made that 25th day of June, was to ignore the warnings of his Crow scouts that the village they were approaching was much larger than he had bargained on. The second - and most unforgivable for the commander of such a small force – was to divide his command. He broke off a13l- man battalion under Major Reno, a second of 113 men under Captain Benteen to make circling movements from his own 215 man attacking group (which he then further divided in half for the assault). Another group of 131 troopers and packers he left to protect the pack train, which carried all the supplies, including much of the ammunition and scarce water which now would be separated from the fighting men who would need it !
Custer kept with him his younger brothers, Tom and Boston, his favorite cousin “Autie”, a newspaper correspondent (Custer was ever-attentive to his ongoing PR campaign), and his trusted four Crow scouts. Reno and Benteen shared 35 Indian scouts, mostly Arikara, whose devotion to duty by the way is worthy of special note. (The Indian scouts who served the U.S. soldiers at Big Horn were the most emotionally-affected and heart-stricken of all the survivors. They wept openly for their comrades in blue, and at least one became a suicide. A side story almost never told !)
Nearly half the men of the 7th Cavalry were foreign-born, German and Irish immigrants predominating,, part of a mix from 14 European countries. Many had enlisted because regular jobs in a depressed economy were hard to find. Some spoke and understood little “American/English”, and most had only recently learned to ride a horse – and not very well at that. They were equipped with the standard U.S. Army rifle: a single-shot Springfield carbine. (The U.S. military has long been guilty of arming its troops with weapons left over from the previous war.) In this case, senior commanders wished to conserve on ammunition, arguing that a “good soldier” could still manage to reload and fire 17 times a minute. In actual fact, the Springfield used metallic casings made from copper which swelled in an overheated barrel resulting in a jam which could only be freed with a knife blade.
As a result of battlefield archeology only recently documented, we know that among a mix of weaponry, many Indian warriors carried Winchester and Henry repeaters, firing ammunition with brass casings and capable of rapid and accurate fire, even from horseback. And here there was another telling dichotomy: Cavalry soldiers fought dismounted, forming first into skirmish lines, requiring that one of every four troopers acted as a “horse-holder” and was virtually unable to join the fighting ! Warriors fought individually and often from the saddle. Ironically, even the bow-and-arrow turned out to be a not-so-secret but very effective battlefield weapon, capable of flying through a parabolic trajectory to take casualties among troopers seemingly protected by earthen berms and barriers. As many as 10,000 arrows may have littered the two scenes of battle in the immediate aftermath.
Reno and Benteen were quickly isolated from the “valley fight”, coming together to hold off 2000 warriors for almost two days with their 400 embattled and exhausted troopers on a hilltop now known as “Reno Hill”, while a mile away, and out of sight, Custer and his battalion were losing their fight in an ever-collapsing circle on “Last Stand Hill”. In the end, Custer’s 7th Cavalry were not only outnumbered, but outgunned.
With all the contrary criticism given ample weight, there remains much evidence and compelling testimony to the acts of personal courage and bravery exhibited on the battlegrounds of the Little Big Horn. Fifteen Medals of Honor were won that day, and Captain Frederick Benteen, with all his many faults and a legion of detractors ended up providing the motivating leadership that kept the defenders of “Reno Hill” from joining the list of fatalities marking the battle of June25th and 26th, 1876. Altogether, the U.S. 7th Cavalry lost 268 killed and 62 wounded.
2nd Lieutenant Henry Harrington, CO of Custer’s C Company won the respect of the warriors on the other side who observed his selfless efforts to save his trapped companions not once but twice before falling himself.
Moving Robe Woman, a Lakota mother, was one of several Indian women who joined the field of battle to defend their warrior sons and husbands, while Hunkpapa boys as young as 12 rode into battle.
Several Courts of Inquiry looked at evidence of drunkenness, cowardice and dereliction of duty in the months following the Big Horn disaster and several reputations were tarnished within the military. One may wonder though why much of what was discovered was never made public, and why history books were pretty much written in support of the “Custer Myth”; a story which today is unveiled by new research and technology. The answer probably comes down to a desire to protect the families of the lost troopers, and especially Libby Custer, the widow who devoted the remainder of her long life to guarding and polishing the reputation of the man she loved.
NOTE: The last survivor ot the Little Big Horn was Private (later Sgt’) Charles Windolph, an immigrant from Germany, who died in 1950 at the age of 97.
The Custer disaster was not the most costly U.S. Army defeat of the Indian Wars, but an event during the Wabash campaign in Ohio in 1791, in which 700 troops died and 300 were wounded. It was a great embarrassment for President George Washington.

Three Custer scouts, Little Brave, Bobtail Bull and Bloody Knife, are honored near “Custer Hill” with epitaphs which note that they “died in defense of the Arikara way of life.


Major General (brevet) George Armstrong Custer in 1865 – The U.S. Army’s “Boy General”

No chapter in American history has been so thoroughly written about yet more subject to myth and misunderstanding than the event we all know as “The Battle of The Little Big Horn”, or “Custer’s Last Stand”, (the “Battle of Greasy Grass Creek” to the Indians). It was unquestionably the most humiliating defeat for an army of The United States since Bull Run in the Civil War, but in the long term it came to represent a much larger loss for the future of the Plains Indians in their fight for ownership and sovereignty over their ancestral lands. It was in fact a prime example of a people who won a great battle, and as a consequence lost the larger war.
For military historians, this unusual battle between the warriors of two very different cultures, the politics of the era in which they fought, the battlefield tactics employed, and the commanding personalities of the opposing leaders has been a topic of controversy to this very day. Was the massacre of most of his command an inevitable consequence of Custer’s over-reaching arrogance and personal ambition, or was he simply surprised by the unexpected size and competence of the massed combination of forces he met near the bend of that western river on June 25th, 1876 ? Is it true that his two battalion commanders, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen were somehow guilty of dereliction of duty in failing to come to his aid in time, or was the whole unfortunate affair simply evidence of the fact that Custer’s well-known “luck” finally ran out? Did the Indians really have better rifles as some proclaim, and would it have made a difference if the 7th Cavalry had brought along the Gatling guns available to them?
At the center of all the questions sits the larger-than-life personage of George Armstrong Custer himself, known throughout the country as the Union Army’s “Boy General” who had cut a huge figure in the American Civil War, from First Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg, to The Wilderness, Petersburg, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He became the youngest Brigadier General in history at the age of 23, and by war’s end he wore the two stars of a Major General (brevet). The son of an Ohio blacksmith, he would have been an unlikely candidate, in 1858, for admittance to The U.S. Military Academy at West Point but for the intervention of a congressman. Even with that, he barely escaped dismissal on behavior demerits several times, only to graduate at the bottom of his class just in time to join the ranks of the Civil War Union Army.
As a cavalry commander, Custer built a reputation for his aggressive – even audacious – use of mounted troopers in close combat, matching skills with J.E.B. Stuart, his Confederate counterpart . Along with an apparent disdain of danger, he was driven by ambition and a need to be noticed. As another officer once noted, Custer “always needs to do too much and go too far”.
Somehow, despite his relentless drive to place himself at the head of nearly every assault, Custer failed to win the Medal of Honor he so coveted. Ironically, it was his beloved younger brother Thomas Custer, who garnered not one but two of the country’s highest awards, within days of each other. A number of Custer historians believe that in his ill-conceived attack on the Indian village at Little Big Horn ten years later, he was still trying.
At the end of the Civil War, the Union Army went into a rapid down-sizing mode, and those officers who were invited to continue in service had their brevet ranks reduced to the lower or “permanent” grade level. Thus, Major General George Armstrong Custer became Lt. Colonel Custer, though he was typically honored with the term “General” by those serving with him. Controversy continued to plague Custer in the post-war years, and relations with his Commander-In-Chief, President Ulysses M. Grant were prickly at best. In fact just before being given field command of the U.S. 7th Cavalry in time for the Cheyenne campaign in the west, he had been serving out a one-year disciplinary removal from duty. Already a veteran of Indian warfare, he carried with him the baggage of prior run-ins with fellow officers, including Major Marcus Reno who would now be his second-in-command. In fact, Reno nurtured a hard-to-hide hatred for Custer, whom he had accused of abandoning wounded at the battle of Washita. On top of all that, Custer and his regiment were under the command of General Alfred Terry, a somewhat timid and conveniently “distant” overseer in the upcoming campaign in a flawed and largely failed national policy designed to drive the remaining plains Indians into reservation life.
As the country prepared to celebrate its proud Centennial birthday on July 4th, 1876, Custer and his 750-man regiment set out on what would be their date with destiny on a hill overlooking the Little Big Horn River. Waiting for them would be an unprecedented amalgamation of more than 2000 Indian warriors from seven nations under the determined leadership of a Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man by the name of Tatanka iyotake, or Sitting Bull.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Since the founding days of our republic, Americans have been a “holiday-keeping” people. We have long established and honored days of celebration, days for feasting, and days for remembering. Although I often lament the crass commercialism which seems to have misplaced the original meaning behind these traditional demarcations on our calendars, I appreciate the national sense of respect for the unique history which makes us who we are which is still implicit in the practice.
Of the two dozen or so of those special days, only four are of sufficient solemnity to officially require the flying of the national flag at half staff. The most neglected of these occurs on May the 15th when we observe (or ought to observe) Peace Officers’ Memorial Day.
On April 29, 1853 Salt Lake County Deputy Rodney Badger drowned in the Weber river while attempting to rescue an immigrant family stranded in a wagon in mid-stream. He had already successfully rescued four of the children and their mother. While swimming to shore with the last two children, he was swept under the water. His body and those of the children were recovered more than a year later a mile and a half downstream.
Deputy Badger was the first of 118 Utah Peace Officers who would give their lives in the line of duty, the most recent being Utah County Detective Kevin Orr, who died in the crash of a helicopter searching for a missing woman, Millard County Deputy Josie Fox, shot during a vehicle stop, and Sevier County Deputy, Sergeant Franco Aguilar, who was pushed off an icy bridge while aiding an accident victim.
When Provo City Police Officer William Strong was shot to death by a transient in 1899, he had been serving his community for 30 years, while Juab County Deputy Floyd L. Rose was killed by a jail escapee in 1922 only hours after being sworn in. Ogden Patrolman Albert G. Smalley was only 19 when he suffered accident injuries which would take his life months later. At the other end of the age spectrum, Carbon County Sheriff S. Marion Bliss was 70 when shot to death by “friendly fire” in a shoot-out with a murder suspect who also died.
Every time a police officer dies in the line of duty, the chain of those who are affected by the death is a long one. 91% are married with an average 3.6 children, and a medial age of 40. 57% of Utah’s fallen were murdered, the remaining 43% died in accidents, many of which involved inattentive, distracted or impaired drivers who crashed into them.
Until the line-of-duty death of Navajo Dept. of Public Safety Officer Esther Todecheene in 1998 while attempting to come to the aid of another officer, Utah’s fallen police officers had all been male. Officer Todecheene however, was the fourth Native-American to pay the price.
Since the beginning of record keeping, 19,160 American law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty, an average of seven per month (32 so far in the current year.)
When you see one of those tall white crosses with the famous beehive symbol here and there beside Utah highways, take a moment to consider the dangers faced daily and routinely by members of the Utah Highway Patrol. Since the death of the first of their number in May, 1931 a total of 14 Troopers have died in the line of duty, a third of those by gunfire.
Every time a police officer answers a house call, knocks on a door or stops to cite an offender or assist a motorist, he places his or her life on the line in ways which might never have seemed likely at the beginning of shift. And those who wait at home for the safe return of that loved one will appreciate every thoughtfulness those of us who travel Utah roads extend to those who serve to keep us safe.
Each May 15th as I lower my flag to half staff, I pause to consider the sacrifice of Deputy Badger all those years ago, and the long line of those who have followed in his footsteps, and I hope that all patriotic and observant Utahans will take a moment to do the same on Peace Officers Memorial Day.


Lying at the northern tip of a narrow peninsula on Willapa Bay, it is a destination one doesn’t discover by accident.

Long before white man arrived on the scene, the grass-covered tongue of land that reached out into the Pacific in what is today the very south-western tip of Washington state, had a name: to the Chinook Indian people who knew it well, the place was called tsako-te-hahsh-eetl, or “place of the red-topped grass”. When Chief Nahcatl paddled up fog-shrouded Willapa Bay on April 20th, 1854, he prepared to meet with two new-comers, R.H. Espy and I.A. Clark, and to share with them a “secret”. In the tidelands verging the attractive site he introduced the visitors to ancient oyster beds which had been providing food and sustenance to the native peoples for generations. To Espy and Clark who knew all about the oystermania afflicting the seafood-hungry populations of San Francisco, this was like discovering an untapped gold field.
California’s tidewater oyster beds had succumbed to over-harvesting and contamination at the very time when the love for the succulent bivalves had reached a zenith among well-to-do San Franciscans. By the mid 1850s a plateful of oysters – whether raw on-the-shell or in a flavorful stew – commanded as much as two twenty-dollar gold pieces at favorite dining spots. Soon Espy and Clark presided over the birthing of a vibrant industry, and the town of Oysterville, Washington Territory, was on the map.
With 500 residents, a city hall, school, library, newspaper, college and all the trappings of an important settlement, Oysterville quickly became the proud seat of Pacific County government. A thriving oyster processing plant employed 200-300 workers, and oyster schooners arrived and departed daily. Gold flowed into the pockets of community residents and night life of several competing complexions flourished side by side. In 1873, Mr. Espy donated a building lot to the Baptists, and a church was built, at a cost of $1,500.00.
Records show that during the 1850s and 1860s, sale of Washington oysters to San Francisco averaged $45,000. per year, allowing village residents access to high quality building materials as northbound vessels sought ballast for otherwise empty hulls. The residences that filled the large and accommodating lots along Front Street and Territory Road reflected the relative affluence of a community that soon aroused a level of jealousy in other peninsula towns as well as on the “mainland” across the bay.
With the approach of 1890, lights began to dim for the future of Oysterville. First, the long-awaited railroad pushing its way up the peninsula stopped at Nahcotta, a devastating four miles short of the hopeful village; it might just as well have been a one hundred mile deficit. On top of that blow, the oyster beds began to run out from years of heavy harvesting. Still, there was the importance of local government, as Oysterville’s dwindling population still carried on as the county seat. Then, the final blow fell on a night in 1893 when a gang of “raiders” from across the bay came ashore under the cover of darkness and “stole” the county records, with which they declared South Bend to be the new seat of Pacific County government! After that, the old pioneer community became a virtual “ghost town” with a beautiful view.
Not everyone was willing to abandon a place filled with so much history and natural beauty, and in 1976 Pioneer Oysterville was placed on the register of “National Historic Districts”. The “Oysterville Restoration Foundation” was formed, and a new life came into being for the town that refused to die. Today, dozens of proud owners have combined to rebuild, beautify and maintain the integrity of the once-remote community.

Known as “The Red Cottage”, the home built by Captain J.W. Munson in 1863 is today the oldest surviving structure in Oysterville. Even the pink rose clinging to the picket fence is an 1870s variety.

Arriving on a ship from Sweden, Charles Nelson built this home in 1873. Seven children grew up in its modest rooms.

A whimsical hand-carved hitching post greets visitors to a home built by Ned Osborne in 1873 for his wife-to-be. When she died before the wedding, Ned lived alone in the downstairs as a life-long bachelor.

The Oysterville church operating today as an interdenominational chapel treats visitors to a musical vesper service each noontime.