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Lone Tree

by Bruce Brown

BEFORE DECEMBER 9, 1985, the best-known landmark around Lone Tree, Iowa, was probably the neon sign at the intersection of highways 22 and X-14 on the outskirts of town. Over a dozen feet high and shaped like a stylized Grant Wood tree, it proclaimed the name Lone Tree in two-foothigh red letters.

The sign had originally been part of the Lone Tree Motel in Des Moines, but when that estimable establishment was forced to close, the owner contacted the town of Lone Tree to see if it wanted to acquire the sign. The answer was yes, and so the neon tree was trucked more than one hundred miles from the state capital to its new home out past the Lone Tree Cemetery.

It was about this time that the original lone tree-the one that gave the town its name-died. Located out on the southeast side of town in an old farmyard, it succumbed to disease and was cut down. A few old-timers felt a pang at its passing, but most people in town were not aware of any great loss. As if to belie its name, almost every street in Lone Tree had been planted with gracious shade trees. By the 1970s, Lone Tree might have been more accurately called Many Trees.

Some of the nicest specimens are in the town park, around the tennis courts, horseshoe pits, commodious barbecue facilities, and the World War 11 vintage tank that aims its spiked gun across the street at the American Legion hall. Centrally located between the park and the cemetery, the American Legion provides the social nexus of the community in many ways. In fact, it says much about Lone Tree that the largest, most impressive building in town does not belong to the bank or the implement dealer. It belongs to the American Legion post.

Endowed with a sizable bequest from a farmer who had no heirs, the Legion is in a position to set standards in the community. More than a few people commented, for instance, when the Legion paved its entire parking lot and entry drive, covering a couple of acres with concrete. The Legion contributes generously to local causes and charities every year, and its modern building-which boasts a dramatic central skylight-is in heavy demand from people as far away as Hills for all manner of community affairs and activities.

It was here in the Lone Tree American Legion that Dale Burr made a speech that many people around town still remember. The occasion was Dale's forty-year high-school class reunion in 1981. Without any warning that his friends and relatives saw, Dale stood up and gave a speech about what farming meant to him. There was a lot of talk and laughter in the room when Dale began, but it quickly subsided as the middle-aged former football stars and cheer-leaders tugged on each others' sleeves and gestured with their drinks.

What got their attention was not so much Dale's actual words, but the realization that what he was saying was an expression of the heart, and an unusual insight into a man whom they had known all their lives, but few could say they really knew. Dale talked of the generations of Burrs who had farmed around Lone Tree, and of his own love of the land. At the end, when he had all of their attention, he said he "hoped to die with my boots on," which made the audience laugh, since they assumed he meant his famous manure-covered barn boots.

At the same time, the class of 1941 reunion crowd was touched by the personal nature of Dale's statement. They knew he was not exaggerating his family's deep ties to the land. His father was a farmer, as was his father before him, and his father before him. In fact, the Burrs had been farmers as far back as the family could trace its ancestorsbefore they ever saw Iowa, or even America. Although their specific identities have been lost, it appears that the Burrs were descended from English or lowland Scots yeomen whose history offers a revealing parallel to the more recent experience of the Burrs in America.

Freer than the common European serf, the yeomen were known as particularly diligent and dependable workers, qualities that modern dictionaries still associate with the word. Contemporaries recognized the yeoman as a special characteristic of English culture, as well as a source of the national strength. One reflection of this can be seen in William Langland's fourteenth-century allegorical poem "The Vision of Piers the Plowman," where the yeoman is identified with the highest forms of human attainment. Another, more prosaic, indication of the yeoman's importance to England emerged in the Hundred Years' War. The rough longbow archers who slaughtered the flower of French chivalry at Crecy in 1346 were yeomen all.

The cornerstone of the yeoman economy was the commons, that great body of public land that was traditionally available during the Middle Ages to the various classes of yeoman: the bond holder, the script holder, and the tenant. Much of the commons was forested (indeed, the yeoman in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was a forester), but a goodly portion of it was also grazed as common pasture or tilled in the common field system of small holdings packed together in winding wormlike slips along the river bottoms. Neither the milk he got from his cow, nor the salmon he netted in the river, nor the wood he gathered from the forest, nor the part-time wages he earned laboring for the lord were enough to sustain the yeoman alone, but through their combination he fashioned a life for himself and his family.

The destruction of this economy, and with it the free yeomanry, began in the mid-thirteenth century with the passage of the first English statutes sanctioning enclosure. The term enclosure referred to large private landowners' enclosing what had been public commons with fences, ditches, and hedges. The intent of the original statutes seems to have been to promote the reclamation of wasteland, but with the rise of the Flemish wool trade, the laws were made to serve another purpose. After the fourteenth century, the lords of England used enclosure extensively to evict yeomen from their traditional homes and transform common fields to sheep pasture.

Saint Thomas More was referring to the enclosures when he observed in Utopia, "Your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so small eaters, now ... become so great devourers and so wylde that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves." The prospects for yeomen who lost their fields or homes to the wool industry were not good, for as More observed: "The husbandman be thrust owte of their owne, or else either by coveyne and fraude, or by violent oppression are put beside it.... And when they have wandered abrode tyll that be spent, and can they else do but steale and then justly pardy be hanged, or else go about begging."

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

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

The king of England hardly saw this as cause for grieving, though. In 1535, shortly after he had Thomas More executed, Henry VIII ordered monasteries in England to stop providing charity to the dispossessed yeomen, thereby cutting off their main source of relief. As a result, English yeomen by the thousands were driven out of the country into the burgeoning cities. There they slaved in the wool trade for the profit of the very enterprises that played so large a part in evicting them. In the process, they also helped fill the tax coffers of the English crown. Like many since, the Tudor "prosperity" was fueled by a vast transfer of wealth from the many to the few.

All across England, the number of small farms declined steadily as the average size of the surviving farms increased. The rural population declined steadily too, but agricultural production actually increased, thanks to the growing use after 1688 of more sophisticated Dutch agricultural techniques that eliminated the fallow year in the traditional crop rotation, and utilized roots as winter livestock feed. The ability to carry more livestock through the winter soon enabled the English farmer to dramatically improve the breeding of his animals. At the same time, farm machinery, like Jethro Tull's revolutionary seed drill, came into use for the first time, making it possible for one man to do the work of many.

As food prices rose, the direction of the enclosures reversed so that most of the land was being converted from pasture to food crops. The concentration of farm ownership continued to increase, however, as did the size of farms. By the eighteenth century, farms under one hundred acres were dwindling, while those over three hundred acres were multiplying. Nearly 3,500 separate bills of enclosure were passed by Parliament between 1717 and 1820, and between 1740 and 1788 alone the number of farms declined by forty thousand. Many refused to leave the homes of their forefathers, and so it was increasingly necessary to pull down the houses of the evicted, as is described at the outset of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The English ruling class dismissed the resulting distress as inconsequential, and loudly applauded the process that increased its own power as social progress. Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, thought the spectacle of enclosure one of the most reassuring evidences of happiness and advancement to be seen in the realm. Much talk of improving the morals of the poor can be found in the lordly discussion of enclosures during the early nineteenth century, but the driving motive remained baldly economic. Large English interests not only benefited directly from the initial enclosure and addition to their lands, but they also profited from the resulting drop in wages and increased demand for manufactured goods of all types.

Needless to say, the majority of the yeomen viewed things much differently than those who sat on soft chairs in London or Manchester. For them, the enclosures were a mortal threat and a moral outrage. They saw ancient customs being shattered to strip them of the richest portion of their livelihood, and force them to fall back on wage labor as the sole means of support at a time when wages were falling and prices rising. Yeoman resistance was evident for five hundred years, with particularly virulent outbreaks occurring in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and Ket's Insurrection of 1549.

In Germany, where small farmers struggled against a more rigidly feudal aristocracy, the rising wave of insurrections culminated in the Great Peasant War. Repeatedly rebuffed in their effort to win recognition of simple freedoms -including restoration of enclosed lands-the peasants went to war in 1524. Their armies commanded much of Franconia, Swabia, and Thuringia, but the aristocratic forces were much better equipped. After Martin Luther condemned the insurrection in Against the Murderous and Thieving Peasant Hordes, these forces inflicted terrible retribution on the peasants. An estimated 100,000 peasants were killed, and those who remained lost all political rights.

In England, the issue was not finally resolved until 1830, when a killing sheep epidemic struck England, and thousands of Englishmen were forced to subsist on sorrel and roots. In many cases, the farm laborer nee yeoman was worse fed and clothed than prisoners in the jail. Finally, anger over "The Thing," as Political Register editor William Cobbett called the conspiracy of the rich against the poor, sparked the Kent Uprising of August 1830. It began when threshing machines were put into operation in that part of southeast England for the first time, thus eliminating one of the last remaining rural hand industries that paid decently.

The insurrection exploded across most of southern and eastern England in the glow of midnight arson, but once again, hungry, ill-equipped farmers proved no match for professional soldiers. By winter, the rebellion had been brutally suppressed. It was clear that neither the enclosures nor the power that wielded them could be resisted. "The small farmer either emigrated to America or to an industrial town, or became a day laborer," observed J. L. and Barbara Hammond in their classic study of the later enclosures, The Village Labourer, 1760-1832. Dale Burr's great-greatgrandfather was apparently one of these, for the Burrs materialized in Massachusetts a short time later.

Nelson Burr, Dale's great-grandfather, lived near the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, during the 1840s with his wife, Lydia Percival, and their infant son, Levi. A born and bred farmer, Nelson soon grew frustrated with western Massachusetts. The area was rocky, and had an air of the old country in both its names and history. Great Barrington, barely a dozen miles down the Housatonic Valley from Lenox, was the site of an infamous debtors jail that helped spur Shays's Rebellion. A half-century had passed since Daniel Shays was defeated, but there was still a trace of the residual bitterness that remains wherever government troops have been used to enforce bankers' mortgages on small farmers.

Nelson Burr registered for the 1850 census in Lenox, but a short time later he moved his family to Rock Island County, Illinois. There Dale's grandfather, John Percival Burr, was born in 1860. Levi, who was fourteen years older than John P., spent a couple of weeks in the Union Army at the very end of the Civil War, and then hightailed it farther west. Nelson continued to farm land near Edington, Illinois, until John was nearly grown, but he had not given up his hope of something better, or his urge to keep westering. In the summer of 1879, when he was nearly sixty years old, he moved the family again, this time to settle on 160 acres near Lone Tree, Iowa.

Their glowing reports about Lone Tree soon brought Levi from Nebraska, and gave Nelson the satisfaction of having both his sons farming at his side. Nor was this his sole satisfaction in old age, for he lived to see the ruin of the large English farmers who had swallowed up his ancestors. In the five decades since the Burrs emigrated, the surviving large English farmers had gone deeply in debt to buy new machinery, expand drainage, and otherwise increase productivity. Ironically, their often dramatic successes only hastened their downfall, for the enclosures created a popular majority whose interests were diametrically opposed to their own.

The urban workers wanted cheap food, as did their employers, who were eager to maintain their competitive edge in world markets. The primacy of urban interests was evident as early as 1846, when Parliament under Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, which had protected English agriculture from foreign competition. Before the century was out, this change destroyed thousands of English farmers, for like the American farm crisis of the 1980s, the late nineteenth century was a period of mammoth food surpluses and falling food prices.

During the 1870s, North American grain coming off the Great Plains drove the world price of wheat down to levels unknown since before 1700. During the 1880s, the cost of a loaf of bread fell by half. We tend to think today of Denmark and Switzerland as always having been dairying nations, but actually each grew its own wheat until American competition made this impossible and their farmers were forced to establish specialty niches. The English tried to do the same, but found that the Americans could sell cheese for two pence a pound less than any English cheese maker.

There followed a great milk glut, which decimated prices in the commodity that many English farmers were betting would take them through the crisis. Thousands of the supposedly smartest and most progressive farmers in England lost everything, and were forced off the farm as land ownership contracted still further. Between 1870 and the beginning of the twentieth century, seven hundred thousand more English farmers and farm workers emigrated to the corners of the globe.

Nelson Burr, who with his sons helped heap the killing American agricultural overproduction a little higher around the necks of his English counterparts, probably felt a certain sad satisfaction in the workings of fate. But then he was an old man. His American-born sons were not concerned with the ancient grievances that came over, like oddly styled clothes, from the old country. They thought they had put all that behind them.

During the early years of this century, John P. Burr commissioned a photographer to record the material grandeur he had attained during a lifetime of farming near Lone Tree. The resulting picture, which Burr paid to have published in Leading Events in Johnson County History, contains no people, no livestock, and somewhat surprisingly, no farm buildings.

Instead, it is a view across at least a half-acre of neatly mowed lawn to a white, two-story Iowa farmhouse with black shutters and a gracious shade tree bending over one eave. The bay window on the ground floor and the glass balls on the lightning rods above the roof indicate that this is a house of substance.

Behind it, and partly visible at one side, is the house that Nelson built when the Burrs first moved to Iowa three decades before. Low, dark, and utterly plain, except for print curtains hanging in the windows, the old place stands as a reminder of the heroic past, and a measure of the progress of the most recent generation of Burrs.

The most telling thing about the photo, however, is on the front porch under the bright new house's Victorian filigree. Here one rocking chair sits a little forlornly on the wide porch. The inadequacy of this convenience in a household of eight, plus hired men, shows John P.'s hand clearly. Not only was the reigning Burr patriarch a yeoman worker, but he liked to keep the rest of the family busy too. There were not too many evenings spent loafing around the porch complaining about the gnats at the Burr house.

Despite the fact that he was a wealthy man and prominent citizen, John P. expected his kids to develop an early understanding of the necessity of honest toil. He wouldn't stint on giving them a good foundation and good materials to work with, but work they must. And so Vernon Burr, John P.'s second son and Dale's father, was, sent to high school in Iowa City rather than the oneroom schoolhouse in the county. An enterprising lad, he earned the money for his train rides back and forth to school by shooting rabbits and selling them in town for twenty-five cents each.

Vernon had a spirited streak too. He owned the highwheeled old bicycle that hung for many years in the Burr barn, as well as a loud string of big raw-boned motorcycles. He even had a cut-out on the exhaust of his Buick, which Dale used to beg him to kick in when they were out riding without Hilda. At the same time, Vernon followed closely in his nineteenth-century father's footsteps. Like his father, he inherited a good Iowa farm, and like his father, he expanded the size of the family holdings substantially; like his father, he attained that pinnacle of rural American respectability, a directorship at the local bank, and like his father, he thought of himself as "first, last, and always, a farmer. "

A squat, bald barrel of a man, with massive forearms and a quick rolling gait, Vernon liked to say, "I got a good start, but I made it anyway." As common in manner as he was in appearance, he would sometimes hitchhike into town for a spare part instead of driving one of his several vehicles. He justified this in terms of meeting people and picking up news, but the family was not entirely convinced. His daughter, Ruth, teased him about his unwillingness to spend a dime for a copy of the Sunday newspaper until it became something of a family joke. Oh, Dad, she would say.

Neighbors testify that Vernon and his wife, Hilda, were not much for casual socializing. The family was the social focus of their lives, and virtually all-encompassing. "We were never let out of Mom and Dad's sight," Ruth recently recalled of her and Dale's upbringing. "When they went somewhere at night, we'd go with them. There wasn't such a thing as a `baby-sitter' in those days," she added with a laugh. Like their own parents, Hilda and Vernon were strict no-nonsense disciplinarians who demanded a lot of their two children. "It wasn't the kind of family where there was a lot of physical touching," Ruth said, "but you knew you were loved. "

A favorite family outing when Ruth and Dale were young was the annual trip to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, which in those days of dirt roads and balloon tires assumed the proportions of an epic journey. Generally, the 250-mile round-trip required spending one night on the road each way, with a tarp strung over the car and everybody bedded down around the sides of the vehicle. Dale loved the coveredwagon-like romance of the trip, but the best part was the fair itself. The encamped farmers always awoke to the pre-dawn cry of "Oh, Joe, where's your mule?" with which pranksters perpetuated the memory of a long-lost mule. And in the evening, boys like Dale would drift off to sleep to the sound of music wafting over from luridly lit latenight scenes along the carny.

It was here that Dale probably first heard the thundering hooves of racehorses, and felt the rising mix of expectation and dread that pulls the racetrack crowd to its feet. There were dances and concerts and, even more intriguing for an adolescent male, the frankly self-improving (as well as sometimes equally frankly bogus) curios on display for a dime. Cousin Bob Berry recalls how one year Dale was the only kid in the family who got to see what purported to be a pickled whale in a tank. All of the other Burr cousins had already failed to get their fathers to take them to see this amazing spectacle when Vernon decided to indulge his boy's curiosity. Later, the other boys hung with rapturous revulsion on Dale's description of the creature's embryolike appendages and ashy, convoluted hide.

That baby gray whale made an especially big impression on Dale because apart from the county and state fairs and a few hunting and fishing trips, his world was pretty much circumscribed by the land and people of Lone Tree. As a young boy, he rode his white pony to Lincoln Township School #7, the one-room schoolhouse down the lane from where he lived. The teachers-generally a succession of young, unmarried women-changed over the years, but the students remained the same. It was common for a group of children to stay together all the way through school. This promoted a familial feeling that was reenforced by the children's traditional chore of lighting the school's potbellied stove every morning.

Later Dale attended high school in town, but when most of his contemporaries went off to war or the munitions factories after Pearl Harbor, he stayed behind on the farm with an exemption for crucial war-related work. Dale was no more crucial to the war effort than the dozens of Johnson County farm boys from his class who were drafted, of course. The difference, as more than a few people noted, was that he was Vernon Burr's son. Popular sentiment was hostile to individuals who avoided the military, and more than a few farm boys who stayed home found their barns painted yellow while they slept. This never happened to Dale, but there were people around Lone Tree who would not talk to him for decades after because he did not serve during World War II.

In truth, Dale Burr was a great service to both his country and family during the war. With virtually every ablebodied man away overseas, it got to the point where Dale almost seemed to live in the fields. Although farmers were not in any mortal danger, the work was physically punishing. They hayed for nearly three months straight in those days, and even though Dale always took the position of the stacker, which was the most grueling, they all found their bodies giving out. Vernon developed an aggravated collection of chronic injuries, and his hands callused into horny hooks that cracked painfully. The Burrs' one hired man, John Johnson, began to slather his hands with Watkins Salve every night. Then he would have Hilda Burr pull white cotton gloves on each hand, and tie them at the wrists with string.

It was also during the war years that Dale's relationship with his father took the form it was to maintain throughout the remainder of Vernon's long life. Although he joked that he wanted to be "tall like my Uncle Bob," Dale had always idolized his father. Now, under the pressure of war production, Vernon made Dale field boss of the family's amalgamated holdings. While other Iowa farm boys were dropping bombs on Japan, Dale Burr was learning to farm bigger and leaner than most people around Lone Tree had thought of yet. By the end of World War II, Dale was probably the best field farmer in Lincoln Township.

Vernon, for his part, was as financially shrewd and well connected a farmer as you were likely to find in Johnson County. A director of the Lone Tree Bank, like his father before him, he had access to money and inside information on the financial situation of many of his fellow farmers in the county. Together, Vernon and Dale proved a productive powerhouse. The two worked very comfortably in harness, but there was never any doubt about who was leading. Keith Forbes, Dale's brother-in-law, recalled how Dale and Vernon farmed: "Dale'd go up there [to Vernon's home place] in the morning, and he and Vernon would go over what needed doing that day, and then Dale'd do it."

In those days, the Burrs ran a classic diversified farming operation. They grew corn and grain, selling some, and feeding some to their numerous and varied animals, which included cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry. Vernon and Dale had experience with large-scale growing for the government during World War II, but their enterprise remained based on a variety of activities, privately transacted. Even though their operation had grown large, they still followed the ancient principle of the diversified yeoman economy: Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

The Burrs made so much money during World War II that Vernon was actually a little at a loss as to what to do with it. Finally he decided he would buy some more land. His idea was not to increase the holdings he and Dale worked, but to lease the land to another operator, thus establishing a steady, long-term source of cash income for the future. And so in the late 1940s, Vernon paid cash for over a square mile of Iowa farmland, 660 acres, about thirty miles south of Lone Tree, outside the town of Columbus junction, near the verdant banks of the Iowa River.

The purchase of this expansive, rolling farm put Vernon in very elite company. Most farmers could not even afford to dream of owning that much land-let alone pay cash for it. The fact that someone like Vernon Burr could amass a thousand acres of prime Iowa farmland showed what hard work and a level head could accomplish. In this sense, the Burrs' success was a reflection of the best in America.

But the Burrs' success was also built on the destruction of other farmers. Vernon Burr's Columbus junction purchase was an example of the increasing concentration of American farm ownership that was forcing hundreds of thousands of small farmers off the land every year, just as had occurred previously in England.

For generations, the Burrs' competence and drive had kept them among the winners, but the shakeout was far from over. In fact, the pace of the American enclosures was accelerating.

"Lone Tree" © Copyright 1989 Bruce Brown

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

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