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Catholic Worker letters by my Dad to Dorothy Day, 1950s

My father had a farm in Missouri from 1950 or so to 1961. He tried to use it partly as a Catholic Worker farm. I found some letters he wrote to Dorothy Day that were printed in the Catholic Worker.

It might be interesting to someone. Here is his first letter and a link to the other letters at the end.

Here is a link to an article on the Catholic Worker Farms too.


Novice on the Land

Big Springs, Missouri

July-August, 1953 page five

Dear Editors:
Every once in a while I review all the circumstances that led Frances and me to our present setup. Collectively, they sound like something Horatio Alger dreamt about after a sardine and cake nightcap. First of all, let me say that I've always wanted to be a farmer from paper route on down, but friends and family succeeded in convincing me that a bit citied guy from Green Bay, Wisconsin, shouldn't dream about pitching manure. The idea settled comfortably in the subconscious and waited for future references. I think I almost flunked out of high school. If my Latin teacher hadn't died a month before graduation, I would have. The war came and I confused patriotism with indecision and found myself in the service at a very tender age. These years went fast though, and after it was all over I still had my indecision. College looked appetizing and so did the subjects. Let's see now, believe I started with Electrical Engineering as a major, switched to pre-med the second semester, over to English the third and rounded off my dabble in education by sampling Jesuit psychology. After that, I had nothing left to do but enter the Trappists, which I did , for an alternately stupendous and miserable four months. Everyone was very kind to me there and sometimes the thought that I would ever leave seemed absurd to say the least. I kept hounding the novice master to let me dye my brown shoes black but he wisely forestalled such a move. I think I cooperated with God's grace one afternoon out in the cow barn at Gethsemane, I crawled into a pen with a couple of little newborn calves, let them suck my fingers and wondered why in the heck I couldn't have the simplicity of the monastery, the beauty and quiet, the dedication somewhere outside.

My mother lived in Chicago now, and that's where I headed after leaving. Father Louis (Thomas Merton, the monk was his novice master) had mentioned Friendship House, so I contacted them and started spending three afternoons a week, working in the clothing room and helping out on their soup line. It was there that I met Fred O'Connell, Will Mische and Johnny Cronin and the beginnings of Peter Maurin House in Chicago. We worked together abut a year, trying to take care of ten tor twelve men at two houses and dishing out about twenty gallons of soup down on skid row each night. During this time, we held little meetings each week at some home or rectory or tavern, discussing our progress, our aims. I argued the city was no place for man. I talked of a lay monastery, lay community, a place where these fellows from skid row could live for a while, where they wouldn’t feel the ostracism of the city, where they would be just as much as home as they were on skid row. I felt that, as they were already in a more or less de-materialized state, instead of trying to rekindle the dying flame of safe and sane living by getting them jobs on docks or in hamburger joints, renting them rooms in flea bitten bird cages, we should make their monk-like reforms work for them. Everyone was patient with me and my ideas An idea is one thing, its fulfillment quite another. I needed land for my project and I had no money. I tried to work at different jobs and save what I needed or thought I needed. I”d get a few bucks together and we would suddenly need a new soup pot or the gas bill would have to be paid or the rent, or someone else would need dough to pay their rent. Well, after about a year of working and saving, I wound up with a bank book.

I wrote to Dorothy thinking she might have some ideas and she suggested I go to some Worker farm and try out and see if I was headed in the right direction. She sent the names of twelve or fifteen and especially suggested Marty's. I wrote him and he told me to come down as soon as I wanted. That was in February of 1951. It was snowing when I arrived, and Marty was working on Ruth Ann Heaney's new home. The first time we met, he reminded me of Burgess Meredith but after knowing him a while, he reminded me of Marty. We worked that spring and all that summer together. I thought about my farm but things didn't look too promising.

One June morning, Marty decided to go into town. He planned on leaving a t seven thirty and as Mass was at seven, I told him I would meet him at a certain crossroad about a mile from church. After Communion, I kept right on walking out of church and down the road in order to catch him. I was making my thanksgiving while walking and didn't notice a truck pull up behind me. A long lean face leaned out of the window and asked me if I could use a lift. I said I was only going a short distance but would accept the ride. We hadn't gone fifty feet before he knew I was interested in buying a farm and I knew he had one to sell. His name was Ben Fischer, a legendary figure in these parts, and he asked me to take a run up to his place some day. This I did and what I saw, I liked. It was a little on the huge side, almost four hundred acres with several nice fields, a good strong barn, deep cistern, three ponds, two big steel granaries and excellent fencing. He wanted ten thousand dollars and I thought surely it must be worth it.


Toward the end of July, I heard that Agriculture school under the G.I. bill had only a few days to run, at which time there would be no more openings. I had completely forgotten about my remaining schooling under the G.I. bill and I hurried down to the nearest V.A. Headquarter. The area was experiencing one of the worst floods and had you been anywhere near highway nineteen that day, you would have seen a tall lanky guy, holding his shoes over the water and propelling his skinny legs through the whirling muddy Missouri. They told me they were all filled up and as Marty's farm wasn't very large, my chances of getting in anywhere else were slim. I asked where anywhere else was and they told me to go to Montgomery City , about twenty miles away. So back across the muddy Missouri and three rides later, Montgomery City and sixty-give dollars a month for thirty months. That was July 25th, that night was the deadline, but that day I started to hope a little.


A few weeks passed and then one day my mother came for a visit. She stayed several days and we talked about my future and I asked for suggestions. “Why don't you ask Aunt Clara to help you?” This I did and within a few days I held a check for three thousand dollars in the morning sunlight, payable as soon as my head broke water. It wasn't long before my status changed from looker to buyer in the eyes of the populace. They knew I was thinking of buying the Fischer place and each day someone would tell me what a mistake that would be. I became confused and started looking for an out. I met Ben one afternoon, told him ten thousand was out of the reason. He kicked a stone and asked how much was in reason. I responded quickly, thinking this was that “way out”, and said eight thousand. He accepted.

This was August. Ben told me I'd better put in some wheat. I borrowed a sulky plow from Marty, his town horses and a horse trader down the road made it a trio by giving me a horse and two sets of harness. Plowing was slow but wonderful. At one corner of the field, I could look down into a valley for twenty-five miles. I spent a lot of time there. A few weeks passed and one day Ben held a public auction of all the farm machinery and livestock he had on the place. I had paid two thousand down on the farm and had a thousand dollars left for equipment. I knew one thing. I wanted some Jersey cows and Ben had some on the sale bill. I told him I would rather buy them outright and would give him three hundred dollars apiece. He laughed and said they weren't worth it but he'd take 200. I agreed, and bought six and a heifer and the remaining Jerseys' averaged $140 at the the sale. I felt like a big wheel bidding on sows and cows and plows. At one pen, I bought a registered Shrop ram and then bided my time until they got down into the yearling stuff. I asked a fellow what they were and he said females. I bought thirteen of them and then discovered I had thirteen castrated males. I was too proud to ask for a recount. I had a start though and with Marty's help plowed, disced and planted my twenty-three acres of wheat. One field had clover in it and I'd let Katy my yellow mare, the cows and little lambs graze the part I hadn't plowed up yet. This proved a tragic practice. Thinking two little lambs would skitter away from the oncoming horses, what with my yelling and their snorting, I found that lambs don't skitter and the horses trampled them into the dirt. I don't think I've every felt as miserable as I did then. They didn't let out a whimper. One died an hour or so later and the other hung on for a week. I lost some more from worms and marketed seven out of the thirteen. While discing that field, I had a bit more trouble. I bought a so-called field disc from a neighbor. It proved later to be nothing but a little go-devil used to disc between rows of corn. I had no seat for it so stood over the blades while bouncing over the field. I'd fly over every half a round and one time slipped in between the blades and horses, burying my leg underneath. Between digging down to my leg and keeping three horses pacified and under the maltreatment of horseflies, I managed to lift the thing off of myself. I must have sat there fifteen minutes shaking.


I had been visiting St. Louis and Msgr. Hellriegel's Holy Cross Parish on the big feasts and it was here that I met Fran. She had just returned from a Poor Clare Monastery, was working in the office of a mirror manufacturer. Either the mirrors were driving her crazy or she had a weak moment, at any rate, we became man and wife not many months after. Fran was born and raised on a farm, but she knew no more about it than I. We found our biggest problem is in organization. I still have the trouble, but not as seriously. There must have been a hundred different things to do on the place but some days Id just stand there scratching my head.


We try to pray in an organized way too. This has its problems. We say the Office, sing it during the slack seasons and our record is spotty. We have been able to dust ourselves off and try again up to now but the flesh is weak. We want to evolve a rule for married people. We've worked several out and though difficult to maintain, they always bring refreshment. We'd like to have a chapter of faults twice a week, prime on rising, terce and sext before and after breakfast, none before dinner, vespers before chores and compline before bed. Matins and lauds optional, lessons mandatory. We've tried to set aside a certain period each evening for study. Transformation in Christ, Divine Pity, Mysteries of Christianity. I murder the latter. We've tried to study encyclicals, insert a half hour meditation, read the Bible for fifteen minutes but most of the time, we end up unconscious on the bed, with the radio going. We know this, it is possible, but it takes will power and one must supply where the other fails. God has been very patient with us on this score. I hope His patience pays off.

After purchasing the farm, I heard of a plan whereby the govern refinances farms on a forty-year basis. (This is where Ammon stops reading.) I went and had a talk with the representative. Come back when you've had a year's experience, he said. I filed it and forgot about it. A year passed and once again I paid him a visit. This time he pointed out that my farm was a bad risk, being in red area and having little corn ground. He was sorry, but, I thanked him and didn't bother to file it this time. It must have been about a month later when a car pulled up into our yard. Three men got out, took off in different directions with tripods and things and after a thorough examination of the farm, I was told I could get a loan. They would take over the debt, all chattels, improve multa acres of pasture on a forty-year basis. At this point, they all piled back into the car and took off in a cloud of chalky dust. I felt like I could use a drink.


Just what God wants of us, we do not know for sure, nor does anyone. We've had men from skid row out here, some for long periods of time but we've seemingly contributed little toward the solving of their problems. Sometimes I get so wound up with problems at hand I get a long distance look in my eye. During these periods, I don't even get my rosary said. Father Louis always emphasized balance and plasticity. As long as we balance our everyday problems with quiet and prayer and as long as we remain plastic to God's wishes, I don't think we need fret over the future. At any rate, if we are fretting, we must be doing it between compline and prime.


In case anyone would care to visit us, we would be happy to have them. We've plenty of work to do, a pond to swim in, woods to walk in. The farm is ninety miles west of St. Louis, eight miles straight west of a little community called Big Springs, Missouri.

Jack Woltjen


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