From Hand to Hand
Joseph McKinley could not have purchased a farm in Nebraska at a worse time in American history. As if the Great Depression wasn’t enough to stress a struggling farmer, the 1,200 acres McKinley purchased in 1924 would soon lose its topsoil to ceaseless winds and years of drought.
When the winds stopped, and the rains returned, the Dust Bowl had claimed 1,640 farms; McKinley’s included.
Joseph McKinley died in 1937, having never realized his dream of a family farm. Before he died, he penned a song about the devastation of the Dust Bowl that became a standard of folk music.
His second death may never come as long as there are acoustic guitars and people who sing about suffering and oppression.
To the banker’s manicured hands
The U.S. officially entered World War II in December 1941. America had come out of the Depression hungry, and protracted war on two fronts simultaneously would require an immense amount of food production.
Richard E. Damon III was counting on this when his bank foreclosed on the McKinley farm in 1932. He knew an opportunity when he saw it.
War increased demands on both industry and agriculture, and his bank would capitalize on the cheap farmland. The age of chemical fertilizers and large-scale farming was on the horizon, and he was about to make a fortune.
The abandoned and decaying McKinley farmhouse had stood empty for more than 10 years. Damon would soon have the structure razed to make way for the industrial-scale barns that would occupy the old home site.
Arriving at the old farmhouse one day, Damon thought he should see if there was anything of value inside. He found a rare flintlock rifle in one of the many farmhouses that the bank had foreclosed on the previous month.
“That little find garnered a pretty penny over in Omaha,” he would often say to his colleagues.
He also helped himself to an extensive collection of ornate Victorian picture frames left by another family forced onto the road in search of work. He callously stripped the family photographs and charcoal portraits from the frames and scattered them on the floor.
He smiles when he thinks of the tidy sums he had made from the victims of the Dust Bowl.
“No need to waste something that they couldn’t take with them,” he told himself.
Damon did not qualify for the draft due to severe kyphosis. At 48-years-old, he was already bent over like a man 30 years his senior.
If seen through the windows from the outside of the farmhouse, he would have appeared much like a vulture as he moved from room to room, looking for anything of value.
In one sense, he was very much a vulture. Like many other bankers of the day, he picked over the carcasses of those who were forced off their farms in the Great Plains states.
Finding nothing of value inside the house, he started to leave but then walked back to the house and tugged at the outside cellar door. With considerable effort, the door finally broke free. Lifting the door, he looked down the steep concrete steps that led to the pitch-black darkness of the cellar.
After returning from his car with a flashlight, Damon descended down to the dank storage area under the house. He stood at the bottom of the steps, pointing his light around the room, not wishing to proceed any farther than necessary.
There was shelf after shelf of dusty Mason jars filled with all manner of vaguely recognizable vegetables and fruit. Some of the shelves had collapsed through the years, spilling the contents of the glass jars on the floor.
Animals and insects had removed everything edible, leaving the jagged shards of glass scattered about. The odor of spoiled food, animal feces, and mold was overpowering, so Damon decided to abandon his exploration.
As he turned to go back up the steps, the flashlight beam landed on a dusty wooden box sitting on a small table immediately to his left.
Damon cautiously retrieved the box and hurried up the steps, into the bright daylight. Sitting on the top step, he used a handkerchief to clean the dust from the box. Seeing that it was a jewelry box of some weight, he smiled in anticipation.
He laid the box on the edge of the porch and put on his bifocals. With hopes of a forgotten box full of shimmering jewelry, he slowly lifted the lid, allowing the first light in nearly a decade to enter the box.
Damon’s greedy heart sunk at what he saw, and he lashed out at the sky overhead, “Just like a dirt farmer to fill a jewelry box with a bunch of damn rocks.”
And with that, he flung the contents of the box across the overgrown yard. He had no interest in Joseph McKinley’s collection of flint artifacts he’d found inside.
The real treasure in the box landed point up against a fallen cottonwood limb. The jasper crystal flashed once in the bright sunlight. Blinded by greed and disappointment, Damon never noticed it.
Damon became one of the wealthiest men in the country. But, he could never live down his reputation as a modern-day carpetbagger and opportunist. This, during one of the most catastrophic times in American history.
It is said that the 1958 movie, “Vultures of the Dust Bowl,” was based on Damon and his ilk.
Except for a faithful caretaker, Richard E. Damon III died alone in his 48-room mansion. His second death will not come until the history and lessons of the Great Depression are no longer a part of our collective memory.
To the mechanic’s hand
John Littletree had the only service station between the reservation and Omaha. The White Eagle gas station provided a decent living for John and his wife, Marjorie, but he took on as much additional work as possible with their first baby due any day.
He had recently started repairing tractor and semi-trailer tires, in addition to the usual oil changes, tune-ups and lube jobs.
A man in a construction company truck stopped by Littletree’s service station one morning. He asked him if he could head out to the old McKinley farm to repair a tractor tire.
The farm was only eight miles down the old North Platte Pike. So, Littletree put the “out for lunch” sign on the door, loaded up his jack and compressor, and headed to the McKinley farm, or, more accurately, what was left of it.
As he drove up the long driveway, he could see that a large cabbed tractor was stalled. It had been in the process of pulling down the house with cables and chains. The scowling operator sat under a cottonwood tree, rolling a cigarette.
As Littletree got out of his truck, the operator, pointing his cigarette at the tractor, complained loudly without so much as a howdy-do to Littletree.
“The damn tire went flat, just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
“These newfangled rubber tires won’t be around long. Mark my word, they’ll go back to the good old metal lugged wheels before you know it,” he added.
Littletree hoped the cynical prophet was wrong – he needed the business.
An hour later, the tire was off the split-rim and lying on the ground. Littletree ran his right hand along the inside of the tire, searching for the cause of the puncture. He wasn’t prepared for what he found.
His gloved hand grasped the sharp object and a solid tug released it from its rubber grip. Littletree was half Sac and half Pawnee. He had seen many of his tribes’ artifact collections, but nothing quite like this fluted green point.
Turning it over in his hands, Littletree saw the glint of the small red crystal. He would keep this point and give it to his firstborn child.
What Littletree didn’t know was, at that very moment, his child was in the process of being born. He and Marjorie would soon experience the joy of having a little girl in his home.
One that they would appropriately name Jasper.
Is this singular Clovis point on a journey that we humans cannot quite fathom? Will it find its way into the very hands that will complete its convoluted travel through time and history?
And, if so, for what purpose?
Find out next week in The Pocahontas Times.