New enlarged edition of ‘Stark County Poems’ released

SCP_NewEdition_reduced

Consisting of over fifty poems, from short lyrics in a variety of forms to lengthy blank verse and free verse narratives, “Stark County Poems” portrays the history of a small rural county in central Illinois, along the upper Spoon River valley.

Chronologically arranged, and incorporating letters, newspaper articles, obituaries, family stories, early county histories and diaries, the poems cover a century of the county’s history, from the 1830s through the 1930s.

Map, illustrations. 59 poems. 225 pages.

BJ Omanson was raised in the Spoon River valley of Stark County, Illinois, where both sides of his family have lived and farmed since the mid-19th century.

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Populism

In the autumn of 1893,
      Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer
and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,
      Illinois, after having traveled
from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County
      by way of Leoti, Kansas.

They arrived in a covered wagon drawn
      by a pair of worn-out mules conveying
a girl and two boys, implements, blankets,
      a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,
tinware pots, some kerosene lamps
      and a Mason jar of seeds interred

in early May and exhumed in August,
      still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.
They almost starved on their journey back.
      In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm
and asked at the house if they might pick a few
      ears of corn to boil for supper.

Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.
      No one else even bothers to ask.
It was hog cholera that had wiped them out
      and sent them westward to make a new start,
and it was drought and the ’93 Panic
      that wiped them out for the second time

and sent them back east to begin again.
      They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—
dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed.
      Their youngest son was born on a night
in January that covered the state
      in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged

to twenty below. He was kept from freezing
      by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove
that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn.
      At three cents a bushel it made more sense
to burn it than sell it and, anyhow,
      the buffalo chips were long since gone.

In later years, when anyone asked,
      old Alpheus never had much to tell
about losing two farms in two different states.
      In an unguarded moment he said aloud,
You can pray to God. You can vote for Bryan.
      In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.

Ancestral families

Where_Once_They_StoodExcerpted from Where Once They Stood: The Colonial and Early Republic Ancestors of Alpheus Appenheimer and America Swango:

“The tracing of a modern person’s lineage back through the centuries to a single remote ancestor in a vanished time and place, is the essence of genealogy.  However painstaking the research, with continual cross-checking and cross-referencing—however thorough and dispassionate the examination of evidence from multiple sources, however ingenious the triangulation of disparate data, and however rational the reliance on DNA testing for verification—the pursuit of a genetic lineage is an endeavor not untinged by the stain of romanticism. Though they might disavow it emphatically and cling to the respectable trappings of the dedicated scholar, there lurks in the shadowy recesses of every genealogist’s soul a secret Galahad, a quester after the Grail, a seeker after a direct link to some storied, half-mythic ancestor who has captivated the imagination, whether prince, or knight, or notorious outlaw.

The emphasis, in other words, is all on the individual—on direct links to particular ancestors—on traceable lineages—on great grandfathers and great grandmothers, as opposed to great uncles, great aunts, or first cousins several times removed.  This emphasis on direct lineages is mirrored in the history and legal system of every nation, and one can hardly gainsay its importance, but it is nevertheless a distortion of a core human reality: that the most basic unit in human society is not the individual but the family.

If this assertion seems less obvious now than in earlier eras, it is only because so much of human culture—through forces originally set into motion by humankind, but now utterly beyond its control—is currently in the process of disintegration. The typical American family in our time is both fractured and fractious, a mere stump of the great spreading tree that it was in its prime.

We speak reverentially of American individualism as a central national tenet, embodied in the figures of the 18th century longhunter or 19th century mountainman, the lone restless wanderer with his powderhorn and longrifle, self-reliant, living off the land, who has broken finally and utterly with the feudal European system of master and vassal: the quintessence of the free and independent man.

And while such individuals did exist—perhaps in greater numbers on the Appalachian frontier than in any other place before or since—their role in the arduous transformation over decades of the wilderness into established settlements was peripheral at most. That prodigious under-taking, for good or ill, and the brutal struggle it entailed against the Shawnee, Cherokee and other indigenous tribes, was the work not of intrepid individuals but of grittily determined pioneer families whose other options—very often—had all but run out.

Not only was it families who turned the tomahawk claims into backwoods farmsteads, who hewed out the first wagon roads and laid out the earliest frontier towns—it was also families (not generals or governors or governments, but families) who, in many instances, raised the militias, built the forts, and patrolled the forests. Consider those self-reliant families in the Watauga valley on the far side of the Alleghenies: cut off from any hope of support against the Cherokee from the governments of either North Carolina or Virginia, they declared their independence, established their own government and petitioned Williamsburg for recognition.

Dependent on no one but themselves for sustenance from the wilderness and protection against the tribes, families on the frontier naturally turned to neighboring families for support. They joined forces against the dangers that threatened them from all sides, and, before long, sealed their bonds by marriage, until families in a given region became, in effect, one great extended family.

For us now, trying to comprehend the lives of our colonial ancestors, it is not enough simply to trace the lineages of direct forebears. They did not exist as isolated individuals, but as members of extended families and close-knit communities who, for generations, had depended on one another for survival.

For this reason, in presenting the story of Alpheus and America Appenheimer’s frontier ancestors, I have included not only fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, but brothers, sisters, cousins and even in-laws as well—for they too were family.  On the frontier, especially, families were closely bound. They emigrated into the wilderness together, endured hardships together, suffered Indian attacks and abductions together, and went to war together. Calamities were family affairs.”


BJ Omanson

Monongahela Books: an independent publishing company

Longbuilding_narrow Monongahela Books is an independent publishing company located in Morgantown, West Virginia. It is situated in a 19th-century storefront overlooking the Monongahela River in a ghostly district of town that vanished a good many years ago. You can still get a glimpse of it, though, on certain turn-of-the-century postcards that turn up now and again in flea-markets and junk shops.

We are easier to find on the Web, at MonongahelaBooks.com. We specialize in books of local history, military history and regional literature. Our titles include books on the 18th century frontier, the Civil War, the First World War and the Great Depression.

Our literary offerings include new titles by Jared Carter, Dana Gioia, Peter Whitfield, BJ Omanson and the only book-length study of the recently rediscovered poet of the First World War, John Allan Wyeth.

Monongahela Books also carries an extensive selection of used books, mostly on American history. You are welcome to peruse our titles at leisure in our Used Book Annex.

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