The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement
Lynda Beck Fenwick
The People’s Party, the most successful third party in America’s history, emerged from the Populist Movement of the late 1800s. And of the People’s Party, there was perhaps no more exemplary proponent than homesteader Isaac Beckley Werner of Stafford County, Kansas. Very much a man of his community, Werner contributed columns to the County Capital and other Kansas newspapers, spoke at the county seat, regularly attended Populist lectures, and—most fortunately for posterity—from 1884 until a few years before his death in 1895, kept a journal reporting on the world around him and noting the advice of Henry Ward Beecher. With this journal as a starting point, Isaac Beckley Werner, prairie bachelor, becomes an eloquent guide to the practical, social, and political realities of rural life in late nineteenth-century Kansas. In this portrait Lynda Beck Fenwick finds the Populist thinking that would eventually take hold in numerous ways, big and small, in American life—and would make a mark the imprint of which can be seen in the nation’s political culture to this day.
Expanding her search to local cemeteries, courthouses, museums, and fields where homesteaders once staked their claims, Fenwick reveals a farming community much denser than today’s, where Prohibition, women’s rights, and income inequality were shared concerns, and where enduring problems, like substance abuse, immigration, and racial bias, made an early appearance. The Populist Movement both arose from and focused upon these issues, as Werner’s journal demonstrates; and in his world of farmers, small-town businessmen, engaged women, and working people, Fenwick’s Prairie Bachelor shows us the provenance and lived reality of a rural populism that would forever alter the American political scene.
“Prairie Bachelor is a welcome contribution to the chronicles of challenges faced by Kansas homesteaders at the end of the nineteenth century and the resulting emergence of Populist politics as a serious challenge to the two-party system. Fenwick vividly transports the reader to the plains of central Kansas and describes the foundation of a pioneer spirit defined by industriousness and care for neighbor and community that exists to the present day.”
—US senator Jerry Moran, Kansas
“Fenwick has done a noble thing: rescued a person—and his time—from oblivion. Prairie Bachelor gives us a peek into the rich and complicated life of a thoughtful man who gave back to his community, and the book is filled with fascinating details of the day-to-day experience of late nineteenth-century Kansas. Unassuming Isaac Werner is both a striking individual and a symbol of all the people whose daily labor and political engagement made the Great Plains we know today.”
—Andrew Jewell, coeditor The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
“Populism in the United States and in Kansas has always been a difficult concept to grasp for readers of history. Fenwick has unraveled the story of populism by introducing us to one of its home-grown adherents in Isaac B. Werner. In so doing, she has written a wonderful and engaging story of a farmer’s struggle on the Plains and how that daily, arduous life thrust him into the arms of a growing People’s Party movement.”
—Kenneth Spurgeon, assistant professor of history, Friends University, and author of A Kansas Soldier at War: The Civil War Letters of Christian & Elise Dubach Isely
“After his death in 1895, the bottom-line of Isaac Werner’s farm’s balance sheet came to a mere $58, but what emerges from Fenwick’s well-researched biography is the rich and noteworthy life of a gentle Kansas farmer who proves to be innovative, accomplished, and civic-minded. Historians will find much to admire in how this biography treats populist politics (both on the state and national levels), agrarian history and Werner’s efforts to professionalize farming, and the struggles of woman suffrage in the Sunflower State. But all readers will find the elements of an engaging story, a narrative surprisingly full of suspense (including betrayal, robbery, and murder), a whisper of thwarted love against a backdrop of loneliness, and the moving portrayal of a man of character.”
—Evelyn I. Funda, professorand associate dean of graduate studies, director of the Mountain West Center, Utah State UniversitySee fewer reviews...