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Lone Tree
A True Story of Murder in America's Heartland
by Bruce Brown
Crown Publishers 1989

DECADES AFTER LONE TREE was first published, it is amusing to recall how unhappy the local burghers were at this portrait of the murdered bank president, John Hughes.

In Iowa City, the local establishment raised enough of a stink so that the excruciatingly embarrassed owner of the Prairie Lights Bookstore backed out of a planned reading for Lone Tree.

The problem was anatomical. Hughes's circle was offended that Lone Tree accurately portrayed the bank president as "big in the torso."

In fact, I had already gone to some trouble to soften the sketch of Hughes. The actual quote concerning Hughes was "big in the butt." As you'll see, I've reverted to the original (Chapter 5).

The deeper irony is that Lone Tree was the first to really give Hughes his due, especially for his audacious scheme to get the town of Hills to annex seven miles of abandoned railroad track so that Hills and Iowa City would be "contiguous" -- and thereby allow Hughes' bank to expand into a larger town seven miles distant.

The local Iowa City daily, a Gannett newspaper, was so bad in those days that Hughes' entire triumph went almost entirely unreported until Lone Tree appeared.

In addition to John Hughes, the farmer who murdered him -- Dale Burr -- and the other victims of this heart-wrenching tragedy, Lone Tree is about deep patterns in time that underlie the history of the United States, and the history of European farmers before them for the last millennia.

Lone Tree coined the term American Enclosures (Chapter 2), and first identified that broad process of free food destruction that has been essential to the world's industrialized economies since the English Enclosure Movement at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

In this sense, Lone Tree is a direct continuation of Mountain in the Clouds's saga of salmon extinction, but Lone Tree takes the free food resource / deep ecology / economy of control drama farther, across continents and centuries, into the heart of the seemingly perpetual farm crisis.

Ever wonder what it would feel like to be crushed under the weight of a huge historical process that you family had been fleeing for centuries? Read on. The following chapter, Chapter 1, sets the stage in the manner of Chekov...

-- Bruce Brown

thumbnail of cover of Lone Tree by Bruce Brown

First hardback
edition from

Pigger and Bruce Brown, Fall 1989

Pigger with Bruce Brown, fall 1989. (Bellingham Herald photo)

cover thumbnail of "Lone Tree" by Bruce Brown

"Lone Tree is one of the most powerful books I have read in a long time." -- John Nichols, author of The Milagro Bean Field War

Lone Tree
by Bruce Brown

Available Editions

Chapter One from...

Lone Tree

by Bruce Brown

THE SOUND OF GUNFIRE was frequently heard on the Dale Burr farm. Every fall for decades, shotguns crackled in ragged bursts through the early-morning hours, becoming as much a part of the local scene as the hog calls that farmers used to summon their animals in the days before self-feeders.

Old-timers say that when they were young, the best pheasant hunting in Johnson County, Iowa, was out near the town of Lone Tree, on the Dale Burr place. Every year in early winter people drove from as far away as Hills, Iowa City, and even Muscatine in the next county to try their luck in Dale Burr's corn.

Some of these sportsmen hunted in off the county spur road to the east, without knowledge of or permission from the man whose fields they walked. Most, however, came to the back door of the Burrs' large white farmhouse first. With shotguns cradled casually in their arms, they would ask if they could hunt the 160 acres behind.

It is customary for hunters to leave the farmer a share of the pheasants they take from his land, and so the Burrs ate a lot of pheasants they did not kill. Actually, birding privileges on the Burrs' place were prized enough that some people would ply Dale with gifts for months before, like the cantaloupes a group of melon farmers down by Coneville brought over every summer.

If Dale was in the house, he would come out and have a few words with the men standing in a half-circle around the back porch. More often, though, the hunters found him working around the hog houses or one of his two barns. A tall man with a hearty laugh and handskake, he let just about everybody he knew hunt the place in those days, and would even suggest where the birds might be at that time of day and year. He'd say they might walk the northeast 40, or perhaps try down through the adjoining pasture and hay fields. Good friends were invited to stay for dinner or at least coffee and some of his wife Emily's pie on their way out, and all received his wish of good luck.

Many of those who loaded their guns and fanned out across his fields must have privately wished for a little of Dale Burr's luck, for his farm was in every respect a fine one. The eye was first attracted to the classic two-story frame farmhouse set back in the trees, the dark bulk of the barns, stables, farrowing houses, and assorted outbuildings, the prize-winning cattle and sheep, the well-tended equipment. But those who went out and got their boots muddy could see that the land itself was the best part of the Dale Burr place. A portion of that great swath of silty loam that undulates across southwest Iowa, Lincoln Township land like Dale Burr's is among the nation's most productive.

One hundred fifty years ago, this land nourished the tall grass prairie, that shimmering sea of bluestem reaching so high it could hide a horse and rider. Lone Tree, Iowa, the nearest town, located a couple miles south of the Burrs on the county blacktop, takes its name from a giant elm that was once the only tree on the trail between the Mississippi and Iowa rivers. In those days, the Sac and Fox Indians claimed this land, and Totokonock, the prophet who predicted victory for Black Hawk in the ill-fated war that bears the great chiefs name, lived nearby. Part of Dale Burr's farm was included in the so-called Black Hawk Purchase of 1832, which took the land from the Indians after Black Hawk's defeat at the Battle of the Bad Axe.

As the virgin prairie was laboriously turned under, Iowa pioneers discovered that the soil beneath was rich beyond their wildest expectations. Many exotic crops-including Pacific salmon from California-were planted by nineteenthcentury Iowa pioneers, but in the long run the most reliable crops proved to be ones that resembled important portions of the vanishing prairie. Corn, or Indian maize, which is itself a giant member of the grass family, replaced the bluestem as the dominant ground cover. Similarly, the American bison was superseded by domestic cattle, and the prairie chicken, which was once the reigning fowl of the region, was replaced by an unrelated but similar gallinaceous bird from the plains of Asia, the China pheasant.

First introduced to North America in the nineteenth century, these dramatic coppery birds with elegant red and green accents took to the country quickly. The classic Midwestern mixture of pasture and grain gave them the grassy nesting areas they need for summer reproduction, as well as winter cover and a rich and abundant supply of food. Because of their beauty, size, and excellent eating, pheasants quickly developed a fervent following among Midwestern hunters, who take them any way possible.

Kids will drive old pickups out into the fields in dry weather to pursue the birds at high speed down the corn stubble rows. And during freezing rainstorms, some farmers have been known to go ice skating down gravel roads with clubs to harvest pheasants huddling helpless and temporarily blinded in roadside ditches.

Pheasant hunting on the Dale Burr place during the late 1950s and early 1960s was more refined than this, though. It was the classic Midwestern pheasant quest, with the men and boys walking alone, or strung out in a loose line. Their weapons were shotguns, mostly 12-gauge, with an occasional lighter 16- or 20-gauge, and most were pumps. Dogs sometimes assisted in flushing and retrieving birds, but there was no getting drunk and spraying mud around. Some of the people who carried guns across Dale's fields did not really seem to care if they got a bird or not. Dale Burr's was a place you could go to simply appreciate the aching beauty of the landscape as winter tightened its grip.

Hunting there was honest sport too, since the birds could easily elude their pursuers, especially in the shadowy, whispering world of the ripe standing corn. Like outrageously plumed chickens, the pheasants strutted up and down the rows playing peek-a-boo with the hunters. It was a rare marksman who could bag a pheasant in the corn, even if he saw it first, for the birds simply were too fast. In fact, the only way to hunt pheasants with some degree of certainty is to drive them from cover in front of a hunter who is at the ready, with his gun up and a round in the chamber. Even then, if the angle of the birds' rise into the air or its shearing descent to the next field is off even a little, the hunter will miss.

Dale Burr himself had hunted pheasant since he was a teenager, but in those days there were no birds to speak of in Johnson County, or anywhere else in southeast Iowa. During the late 1930s, Dale and his father, Vernon, did much of their hunting in northeast Iowa. It was here, near the town of Winthrop, that the Burr clan went pheasant hunting the morning after the famous Armistice Day 1940 storm. Seventeen men died along the Mississippi as an early blizzard swept in on the night of November 10. Most were duck hunters who had gone out to spend the night in blinds along the river. The survivors burned cedar duck decoys, many of them quite expensive, to stay warm until morning.

Empty corn cribs near Dale Burr's farm outside Lone Tree, Iowa.

Lone Tree

Lone Tree by Bruce Brown
Astonisher.com is pleased to present these free excerpts from Lone Tree: A True Story of Murder in America's Heartland by Bruce Brown.

Here is the Table of Contents for the book, which is linked to all of chapters 1, 2 and 5.

Lone Tree
A True Story of Murder in America's Heartland
by Bruce Brown
Part One
Ch. 1 Ch. 2 Ch. 3
Part Two
Ch. 4 Ch. 5 Ch. 6
Part Three
Ch. 7 Ch. 8 Ch. 9
Part Four
Ch. 10 Ch. 11 Ch. 12

About the Author: Bruce Brown is the author of 11 books, including Mountain in the Clouds, an environmental classic which launched the wild salmon mobement and inspired the removal of the two dams on the Elwha River in 2011, the largest dam revoval project in history.
He has done investigative reporting for the New York Times (the Karen Silkwood story), foreign correspondence for Atlantic Monthly (baseball in Cuba), and book reviews for the Washington Post Book World, as well as script-writing for PBS-TV (The Miracle Planet).
He is also a successful businessman and CEO, having created BugNet and built it into the world’s largest supplier of PC bug fixes before it was acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.
He is presently the Director of the Museum of the Salish at Temixwten.net.

Praise for
Lone Tree

"Lone Tree is one of the most powerful books I have read in a long time... Once you begin this book, it is impoosible to put it down. It is the sort of book that demands to be completed in a single sitting. Brown has gone into the American Heartland and produced a work every bit as timely and powerful as In Cold Blood, The Trip To Bountiful or Tender Mercies."
-- John Nichols, author of The Milagro Bean Field War

"At once riveting and thought-provoking as a finely wroght novel, Lone Tree's comprehensive overview of farming and its history makes this book essential to our knowledge of where we have come from, who we are, and where we stand now as a nation."
-- Douglas Unger, author of Leaving the Land

Bob Berry, a cousin of Dale's, remembers the world seemed new-made that morning. He, Dale, Vernon, and several other cousins found the sloughs along the Mississippi thick with ducks, which circled continuously in the steaming water. The men were almost distracted from their aim for pheasant when they found the Chinas thick too. The sudden deep snow made the birds uncommonly easy to track. One bird flushed nearby, and then flew directly over them. They all had a good shot at the bird, but it flew on, apparently unscathed. The Burrs were just marveling out loud at the bird's amazing flight when it suddenly plummeted straight down dead. Others were easier. The six men in the party all got their three-bird limit by mid-morning, for a total of eighteen birds killed in the space of a few hours.

What Dale Burr liked about pheasant hunting was the fellowship, the break from the work of the farm, and the edge of excitement in seeing what fortune might bring. Guns were not a big thing with him, nor was killing, although he was a good shot and liked bringing home game. As much as anything, he just enjoyed having the birds around, and so after World War 11 he gladly assisted a neighborhood effort to establish pheasants around Lone Tree. The first step came when a neighbor, Eugene Weise, raised some pheasant chicks and released them on his place to the north. That winter Dale left a good-size patch of corn standing to carry the birds through until spring. Within a few years, the pheasant population had mushroomed. Dale's son, John, recalls that when he started hunting in the late 1950s it was not unusual to startle up two hundred pheasants at once from behind a haystack on the Burr place.

National farm policy at the time also contributed to the increase in southeast Iowa pheasants, albeit inadvertently. During the Eisenhower Administration, then-record farm surpluses prompted Congress to create a raft of federal programs designed to increase conservation and decrease production. Primary among these was the Soil Bank (which paid Iowa farmers $54 million to fallow more than one million acres in 1956, the first year of the program's existence), but the government was also aiding and abetting the birds in many smaller, less obvious, and less expensive ways. One that Johnson County farmers took advantage of was the program that gave rosebushes to farmers who wanted to hedgerow their fence lines. The idea was to create windbreaks for soil conservation, but in the process pheasants received excellent year-round cover.

The reason the birds especially favored the Burr place was the corn. Dale Burr routinely had the last standing corn for forty miles around. Pheasants gathered here for food and shelter when the blizzards howled. While many farmers, especially the more devoted hunters, might appreciate this, very few would do it themselves because leaving corn in the field meant forgoing income from land they would have already invested money in plowing, seeding, cultivating, and fertilizing. And so by late November every year, Dale Burr generally was the only big farmer in the vicinity with unharvested corn. "This gave him what you might call his own hunting preserve," recounted a friend, who added that a favorite neighborhood hunting tactic was to "chase the birds out of Dale's corn into the surrounding fields, and shoot them there."

In those days, Dale mostly hunted with Bob Berry, Keith Forbes, Vernon Burr, and other relatives. Even in old age, Dale's father, Vernon, was avid enough about pheasants to carry a shotgun with him on the tractor so as not to miss a shot at a prize cock. Then, on the weekends, most of the men in the Burr family would go pheasant hunting in earnest. Keith Forbes recalls that "Dale probably went less than some of us, but that wasn't because he wasn't a good hunter or didn't enjoy hunting. He just worked more Saturdays. So I guess you'd say it was a little special when he came along. We'd generally get going in mid-morning after chores, and always have our limit by noon. Afterward, we'd all get together at Dale's place for one of Emily's dinners. "

Although no one else in the family left corn standing through the winter, Dale's practice was very much what people in Johnson County call "a Burr thing to do." Without having come from a family that has spent several generations in this Iowa community, as the Burrs have, it is probably impossible to fully savor the meaning of this expression, but generally it refers to a quiet, underlying sense of values evident in the family's tendency to do the right thing as they saw it, even if it cost money. Vernon and his wife, Hilda, were strict Presbyterians and expected a lot of their kids, Dale and Ruth. "Understand," another old friend said of the family, "these were very moral people."

A cousin recalled that when he and Dale were around ten years old, their favorite game was to trap English sparrows in one of the hog sheds by closing the door behind them once the sparrows had flown inside. Then, seizing corncobs from the floor, they would attempt to hit the birds in flight. More than once, their errant pegs were punctuated by the tinkle of falling windowpanes, which they hoped Vernon would not notice. He did notice, of course, but he was not the one who eventually put an end to the game. One summer day, Dale stopped his cousins from killing a desperate bird with the comment that startled them so much that one remembered it over a half-century later. "God," young Dale admonished his friends sternly, "sees every sparrow that falls."

A few years later at the Johnson County Fair in Iowa City, some "city toughs" were harassing the country boys by throwing handfuls of straw off the floor into the buckets of water they were carrying to their livestock. Rather than feed their pampered animals dirty water, farm boy after farm boy turned aside, threw his water away, and went back for more. The pattern was repeated with increasing mirth among the perpetrators until one of them threw a handful of filth in the bucket of water Dale Burr was carrying to his calf. Dale looked at the water for an instant, as if entranced, and then threw it all over the snickering city slick. Howling with rage, the older boy came at Dale in a flash, but the other farm boys rallied to Dale's defense, and the troublemakers were forced to take a soggy walk.

Members of the Burr family recall this incident as a rarity. They always said Dale took after his uncle George Nelson. Hilda's brother was famous around Lone Tree for his calm disposition. Once when a bearing went out on his tractor (an expensive, time-consuming breakdown), he was heard to exclaim, "Oh, fiddle, it just doesn't give a fellow a chance." Ruth Forbes said of her brother, Dale, "He was a very calm sort of person, and not one to speak his opinions openly." Again and again, in the face of the countless difficulties that are endemic to farming, Dale Burr showed uncommon equanimity. He was never known to raise his voice in anger at anyone, and there were more than a few times when his warm laughter cheered a relative or neighbor.

Yet others heard what they took to be the ring of arrogance in his laughter. One time a fellow came out and offered Dale Burr $10,000 for a mare he had raised. Dale leaned forward on the corral. "If that horse is worth ten thousand to you," he said with a chuckle, "she's worth twice that to me." An old horse associate characterized this quip as "typical Dale." So too was the eventual outcome, for Dale did, in fact, refuse to sell the horse. It seemed sometimes as if the Burrs not only followed their own law; they were above those that applied to everyone else. While most Johnson County farmers were early risers, the Burrs worked late into the night. Similarly, since farming knows no eight-hour days or weekends, a neighbor was struck when Dale told him once that he would die before he'd work on Sunday.

Although he stood an honest six feet tall, people remember Dale Burr as a larger man. This was probably due to his solid presence and the obvious power of his well-muscled physique, especially his hands. Farmers' hands are often like books, and Dale's were two volumes of Tolstoy. Large, broad, and deeply weathered, they were equally capable of cinching down a flailing animal or performing minute adjustments on sophisticated machinery. His eyes were blue, and his features clean and boyish. Work had stiffened his movements somewhat over the years, but his carriage remained upright. In fact, the most obvious mark of age on Dale was the disappearance of his wavy black head of hair. Otherwise, his features were still those of the boy staring out of a snapshot taken more than a half-century ago.

This picture shows Dale sitting in a field with a group of chums. The bill of his baseball cap is turned up like an "Our Gang" character's, and he is grinning the unrestrained, perfect-toothed smile of a boy who has just spent a few cherished hours playing baseball. It isn't hard to see why Dale Burr was named the "Healthiest Boy" in Johnson County after a school sports meet. He played baseball, basketball, and football at Lone Tree High School during the Depression, and was elected president of his class senior year. The thing that people remember most about Dale, though, was his ability to work. Even in a community where grueling physical labor was common coinage, Dale Burr stood out. His father, Vernon, used to say, "My son has carried more corn on his shoulders than any man in Iowa."

As a young man, he married Emily Wacker, daughter of a prominent banker in the neighboring town of Wilton. Vernon Burr gave the couple a 160-acre farm with a fine white farmhouse, and Emily filled it with truckloads of antiques from her family's big house in Wilton. In time she bore three talented children whom Dale loved deeply and openly. The kind of father who not only encouraged his kids in worthwhile activity but actually took the lead in making it possible, Dale Burr was the driving force behind the formation of the 4-H chapter called the Prairie Masters.

A low-keyed but rock-ribbed Republican and longtime Farm Bureau member, Dale expanded until the 160 acres his father originally staked him to had swelled to more than 500 acres, not including the 200-plus acres owned by his son, John, and his mother, Hilda, which were farmed in a loose unit with his own holdings. Taken together with his close cousins among the Burrs, Stocks, Berrys, and Mussers, Dale's family controlled thousands of acres of Johnson County farmland.

Although he favored unpretentious work clothes and rarely bought a new car, Dale himself was one of the wealthiest farmers around Lone Tree. In December 1983, the Hills Bank and Trust Company, one of the three area banks with which he did business, estimated Dale Burr's worth at $1.76 million.

One of the few things anyone heard Dale complain about then was the pheasants. Ever since the 1970s, the birds had been in decline. To get an idea of how much things had changed, John Burr said that when he was a teenager they used to kill a half-dozen nesting hen pheasants mowing a twenty-acre hay field. In 1984, the Burrs' mowers did not hit any.

Dale became more and more restrictive about whom he would allow to hunt, and finally closed the place to hunting altogether. He still left the corn standing in the field late, and refused to fall plow. In addition, he invested thousands of dollars in erosion-control projects such as check dams and contouring. Still the number of birds dwindled. Because the pheasant families wandered about without respect to property lines, it was impossible to separate Dale's place from its neighbors. They were all bound together.

Like the prior Johnson County pheasant boom, the birds' disappearance was due to many factors, most of them related to agricultural practices and national farm policy. Farmers were using more pesticides and herbicides, planting more of their land in row crops, and removing trees and windbreaks. All were symptoms of large-scale industrial agriculture pushing the land for maximum production (regardless of the immediate cost in dollars or the ultimate loss of soil), and all were then being encouraged by the government. In Johnson County, Iowa, farmers were even subsidized to remove the rosebushes they had been given to plant two decades before.

Unlike his Republican predecessor, President Richard Nixon was not interested in limiting food production. He saw agricultural surpluses as a tool of American diplomacy and a weapon in realpolitik. Consequently, conservation programs were downplayed. In one of his better-known pronouncements, Nixon's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, urged farmers to plant "from fencerow to fencerow." Butz also pushed large-scale farming, which he saw as more cost-efficient and scientific. Spurred by this overt pressure from Washington, as well as a host of covert encouragements (such as the fact that virtually all federal agricultural research is directed toward the problems of large agribusinesstype operations), many of Iowa's best, forward-looking young farmers went deeply into debt to buy larger spreads and more equipment.

With their land as collateral, they borrowed large amounts of money, sometimes more than their farming fathers had made in a lifetime, and reinvested it in farming. The 1970s saw a tremendous modernizing, upgrading, and expanding of America's agricultural plant. The Burr farm was only one of many that collected an impressive array of shiny new farm machinery. By the late 1970s, land sales began to develop a feeding-frenzy quality. Amid popular drum beating on the dangers of overpopulation and famine, the price of good Johnson County farmland soared from $1,200 to $2,200 to $3,200 an acre, with no apparent end in sight. Americans began to think with pride of agriculture as the nation's "answer to OPEC," and many urbanites were pleased to learn that the United States was still the world's largest exporter of virtually every basic food, from corn to wheat to soybeans to rice.

Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter imposed an embargo on American grain sales to the Soviet Union in retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan. While Nixon had intoned on the power of agricultural diplomacy, Carter learned that there was also great vulnerability in America's highly leveraged, export-dependent agriculture, for his Soviet embargo marked the beginning of a world trend away from American agricultural produce. Not only did the Soviets find other more congenial suppliers, but many American allies did likewise as world food production increased in every hemisphere. Farmers reacted with rage toward Carter, but his successor only made things worse. Under President Ronald Reagan, American's domination of world agriculture eroded further, and the chronic American agricultural distress erupted into a full-blown agricultural crisis.

With most basic food crops being produced at or near new records (American farmers grew an all-time high 2.1 billion bushels of wheat in 1982, for instance) and export markets drying up, the government began to acquire surpluses, which themselves soon reached record highs. Commodity prices fell, land values fell, loans were called or could not be met when they came due, and thousands of acres were foreclosed. Hardest hit of all were the nation's family farmers, for whom Iowa is a stronghold. By the winter of 1984, an estimated one in three were in financial trouble. The chill reality of foreclosure was as close for them as the snow on the window ledge, and it cast a pall that was particularly apparent during the holidays.

By comparison, Christmas 1984 seemed a typically festive occasion in the Dale Burr household. Emily made her famous holiday candy and cookies, including the fudge that was a favorite of Dale and John's. "She'd start baking it in late November to get a head start on the season," recalled John. "Dad and I would get into it and eat as much as half the batch. When she caught us, we'd say, `This was good, but not quite perfect. Maybe we could make some more.' Yeah, Dad and I had that one worked out pretty well," he laughed. Just before Christmas, the Burrs' two grown daughters, Sheila and Julia, came home from out of state.

It was traditional in the Dale Burr household to open presents on Christmas morning, but actually the process went on for weeks. In a title transfer registered December 24, 1984, for instance, Dale and Emily gave John a fractional interest in the home place worth thousands of dollars "in consideration of the sum of one dollar, Love and Affection." John Burr also received more than $30,000 cash from his father in December and January.

Although they suggested prosperity, these gifts were really a sign that things were not entirely right at the Burrs'. Even if one knew this, though, who would have suspected that Christmas 1984 would be Emily and Dale Burr's last, or that the next time Dale picked up his shotgun it would be to hunt people he knew and loved well?

Who would have thought that in less than a year, Dale Burr would directly affect American agricultural policy, be discussed from Singapore to Schenectady, and ultimately trace the mark of agricultural history since the reign of Henry VIII in the good Iowa dirt?

Next chapter...

"Lone Tree" © Copyright 1989 Bruce Brown

Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #3

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