Cyril G. Hopkins.

The Story of the Soil; from the Basis of Absolute Science and Real Life, online

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very little organic matter, although they may contain some combined



PERCY spent three days in Washington.

"If I lived here long," he wrote his mother, "I think I should
become as optimistic as the Secretary of Agriculture, even though
the total produce of the original thirteen states should supply a
still smaller fraction of the necessities of life required by their
population. The Congressional Library is by far the finest structure
I have ever seen. I cannot help feeling proud that I am an American
when I walk through its halls and look upon the portraits of the
great men who helped to make our country truly great.

"As I shook hands with the President of the United States at one of
his public receptions held in the 'East Room' of the White House, I
wondered if there was another country on the earth where the
humblest subject could thus come face to face with the head of a
mighty nation. In the Treasury Building I was permitted to join a
small party of some distinction and shared with each of them the
privilege of holding in my hands for a moment eight million dollars
in government bonds.

"I have visited many of the great buildings, the Capitol, of course,
and Washington's monument, which rises to a height of 555 feet above
the surrounding land, or practically 600 feet above low-water level
in the Potomac. There are many smaller monuments erected in honor of
American heroes in various squares, circles, and parks throughout
the City.

"The zoological garden took a full half-day, and I could have spent
a much longer time there. They told me of a frightful occurrence
that happened only last week. In a pool of water a very large
alligator is kept confined by a low stout iron fence. A negro woman
was leaning over the fence holding her baby in her arms and looking
at the monster who seemed to be asleep; when, without a moment's
warning, he thrust himself half out of the water and snapped the
baby from her arms, swallowing it at one gulp as he settled back
into the water. I fear the report is true enough, for they have made
the fence higher in a very temporary manner, and I heard it
mentioned by a dozen or more.

"I leave Washington by boat at five o'clock this afternoon, and I
expect to land at Leonardtown, St. Mary county, Maryland, about six
o'clock in the morning, when the boat will be ready to leave that
port. It is a freight boat and stops for hours at large towns.

"I am planning for a trip into New England next week. I did not
realize how easy it is to go there until I looked up the train
service. In less than twelve hours' time, one can make the trip from
the Virginia line, through the District of Columbia, Maryland,
Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode
Island, and into Massachusetts, - ten different states, including the
District. The trip from Galena to Cairo can hardly be made in so
short a time, not even on the limited Illinois Central trains."

An hour before leaving the Washington hotel Percy chanced to meet a
Congressman whom he had seen on several occasions at the University
and who had spoken at the alumni banquet at the time of Percy's

"I'm very glad you introduced yourself, Mr. Johnston," said he.
"Want to get a place down here, do you? Very likely I can help you
some. I've helped several friends of mine to get good places. What
are you after ?"

"I am thinking of getting a place of about three hundred acres,"
said Percy, "and I shall certainly appreciate any assistance or
information you can give me."

"Whe-e-ew. What are you up to? Want to sell us a site for the new
Government insane hospital, or going to lay out another addition to
the city?"

"Neither," replied Percy. "I am looking for a piece of cheap land
that I can build up and make into a good farm."

"Oh, ho!" said the Congressman. "That's it, is it? Well, now let me
tell you that you've struck the wrong neck of the woods to find land
that you can make a good farm out of. The land about here is cheap
enough all right - cheaper than the votes of some politicians, but it
can't be built up into good farms. Don't attempt the impossible, my
friend. If you want cheap land for town sites or insane hospitals,
right here's the country to land in; but if you want a good farm,
you stay right in Illinois, or else follow Horace Greeley's advice
and 'go West.'. That's a good suggestion for you, too. Just go West
and get three hundred and twenty acres of the richest soil lying out
of doors."

"There is not much land left in the West where the rainfall is
sufficient for good crops," said Percy.

"Then take irrigated land. The Government is getting under way some
big irrigation projects, and you ought to get in on the ground floor
on one of those tracts. It is a fact that the apples from some of
those irrigated farms sometimes bring more than $500 an acre."

"I don't doubt that," said Percy. "An illustration or example can
usually be found to prove almost anything. I know that the Perrine
Brothers, who conduct a fruit farm down in 'Egypt,' actually
received $800 per acre for the apples grown on thirteen acres one
year; and there is plenty of such land in Egypt that can be bought
for less than $40 an acre, and near to the great markets. I am told,
however, that there are from a dozen to a hundred applicants for
every farm opened to settlement in the West in these years, and it
is estimated that all of the arid lands that can ever be put under
irrigation in the United States will provide homes for no more than
our regular increase in population in five years, and that the only
other remaining rich lands - the swamp areas - will be occupied by the
increase of ten years in our population. It has seemed to me that it
is high time we came back to these partially worn-out Eastern lands
and begin to build them up. Here the rainfall is abundant, the
climate is fine, and the markets are the best, and there are
millions of acres of these Eastern lands that lie as nicely for
farming as the Western prairies. Why should they not be built up
into good farms?"

"Now, let me give you a little fatherly advice," said the
Congressman, laying his hand on Percy's shoulder. "I tell you this
land never was any good. If the East and South hadn't been settled
first, they never would have been settled. Poor land remains poor
land, and good land remains good land; and if you want to farm good
land, you better stay right in the corn belt. You can't grow
anything on these Eastern lands without fertilizer and the more you
fertilize the more you must, and still the land remains as poor as
ever. Just leave off the fertilizer one year and your crop is not
worth harvesting. These lands never were any good and they never
will be."

"But that is hardly in accord with what the people now living on
these old Eastern farms report for the conditions of agriculture in
the times of their ancestors."

"Oh, yes, I know people are always talking about their ancestors,
and especially Virginians; but, Caesar! I wonder what their
ancestors would think of them! You can't afford to take any stock in
the ancestry of these old Virginians."

"I call to mind that the historical records give much information
along this line," said Percy. "It is recorded that mills for
grinding corn and wheat were common, that the flour of Mount Vernon
was packed under the eye of Washington, and we are told that barrels
of flour bearing his brand passed in the export markets without
inspection. History records that the plantations of Virginia usually
passed from father to son, according to the law of entail, and that
the heads of families lived like lords, keeping their stables of
blooded horses and rolling to church or town in their coach and six,
with outriders on horseback. Their spacious mansions were sometimes
built of imported brick; and, within, the grand staircases, the
mantles, and the wainscot reaching from floor to ceiling, were of
solid mahogany, elaborately carved and paneled. The sideboards shone
with gold and silver plate, and the tables were loaded with the
luxuries from both the New and the Old World, and plenty of these
old mansions still exist in dilapidated condition."

"That all sounds good for history," said the Congressman, "but the
historian probably got his information from some of these old
Virginians whose only religion is ancestral worship. If the lands
were ever any good they'd be good now. Good lands stay good. As an
Illinois man, you ought to know that. My father settled in Illinois
and I tell you his land is better to-day than it was the day he took
it from the Government."

"My grandfather also took land from the Government," said Percy,
"but the land that he first put under cultivation is not producing
as good crops now as it used to, even though - "

"Then it must be you don't farm it right. Of course you don't want
to corn your land to death. I lived on the farm long enough to learn
that; but if you'll only grow two or three crops of corn and then
change to a crop of oats, you'll find your land ready for corn
again; and, if you'll sow clover with the oats and plow the clover
under the next spring, you'll find the land will grow more corn than
ever your grandfather grew on it."

"But how can we maintain the supply of plant food in the soil by
merely substituting oats for corn once in three or four years and
turning under perhaps a ton of clover as green manure. That amount
of clover would contain no more nitrogen than 40 bushels of corn
would remove from the soil, and of course the clover has no power to
add any phosphorus or other mineral elements."

"Oh, yes. I've heard all about that sort of talk. You know I'm a U.
of I. man myself. I studied chemistry in the University under a man
who knew more in a minute than all the 'tommy rot' you've been
filled up with. I also lived on an Illinois farm, and I speak from
practical experience. I know what I am talking about, and I don't
care a rap for all the theories that can be stacked up by your
modern college professor, who wouldn't know a pumpkin if he met one
rolling down hill. I tell you God Almighty never made the black corn
belt land to be worn out, and he doesn't create people on this earth
to let 'em starve to death. Don't you understand that?"

"I am afraid that I do not," replied Percy. "I have received no such
direct communication; but I saw a letter written from China by a
missionary describing the famine-stricken districts in which he was
located. He wrote the letter in February and said that at that time
the only practical thing to do in that district was to let four
hundred thousand people starve and try to get seed grain for the
remainder to plant the spring crops. I have a "Handbook of Indian
Agriculture" written by a professor of agriculture and agricultural
chemistry at one of the colleges in India. I got it from one of the
Hindu students who attended the University when I was there. This
book states that famine, local or general, has been the order of the
day in India, and particularly within recent years. It also states
that in one of the worst famines in India ten million people died of
starvation within nine months. The average wage of the laboring man
in India, according to the Governmental statistics, is fifty cents a
month, and in famine years the price of wheat has risen to as high
as $3.60 a bushel. This writer states that the most recent of all
famines; namely, that prevailing in most parts of India from 1897 to
1900, was severer than the famine of 1874 to 1878. No, Sir, I am not
sure that I understand just what God's intentions are concerning the
corn belt, but it is recorded that the Lord helps him who helps
himself, and that man should earn his bread by the sweat of his
brow. If God made the common soil in America with a limited amount
of phosphorus in it, He also stored great deposits of natural rock
phosphate in the mines of several States, and perhaps intended that
man should earn his bread by grinding that rock and applying it to
the soil. Possibly the Almighty intended - "

"Now, I'm very sorry, Mr. Johnston, but I have an engagement which I
must keep, and you'll have to excuse me just now. I'm mighty glad to
have met you and I'd like to talk with you for an hour more along
this line; but you take my advice and stick to the corn belt land.
Above all, don't begin to use phosphates or any sort of commercial
fertilizer; they'll ruin any land in a few years; that's my opinion.
But then, every man has a right to his own opinion. and perhaps you
have a different notion. Eh?"

"I think no man has a right to an opinion which is contrary to
fact," Percy replied. "This whole question is one of facts and not
of opinions. One fact is worth more than a wagonload of incorrect
opinions. But I must not detain you longer. I am very glad to have
met you here. In large measure the statesmen of America must bear
the responsibility for the future condition of agriculture and the
other great industries of the United States, all of which depend
upon agriculture for their support and prosperity. Good bye."

"I'll agree with you there all right; the farmer feeds them all.
Good bye."



PERCY found Leonardtown almost in the center of St. Mary county,
situated on Breton bay, an arm of the lower Potomac.

From the data recorded on the back of his map of Maryland, Percy
noted that a population of four hundred and fifty-four found support
in this old county seat, according to the census of I 900. After
spending the day in the country, he found himself wondering how even
that number of people could be supported, and then remembered that
there is one industry of some importance in the United States which
exists independent of agriculture, an industry which preceded
agriculture, and which evidently has also succeeded agriculture to a
very considerable extent in some places; namely, fishing.

"Clams, oysters and fish, and in this order," he said to himself,
"apparently constitute the means of support for some of these

And yet the country was not depopulated, although very much of the
arable land was abandoned for agricultural purposes. A farm of a
hundred acres might have ten acres under cultivation, this being as
much as the farmer could "keep up," as was commonly stated. This
meant that all of the farm manure and other refuse that could be
secured from the entire farm or hauled from the village, together
with what commercial fertilizer the farmer was able to buy, would
not enable him to keep more than ten acres of land in a state of
productiveness that justified its cultivation. Tobacco, corn, wheat
and cowpeas were the principal crops. Corn was the principal article
of food, with wheat bread more or less common. The cowpeas and corn
fodder usually kept one or more cows through the winter when they
could not secure a living in the brush. Tobacco, the principal "money
crop," was depended on to buy clothing, and "groceries," which
included more or less fish and pork, although some farmers "raised
their own meat," in part by fattening hogs on the acorns that fell
in the autumn from the scrub oak trees.

One farm of one hundred and ninety acres owned by an old lady, who
lived in the nearby country village was rented for $100 a year,
which amounted to about fifty-two and one-half cents an acres as the
gross income to the landowner. After the taxes were paid, about
thirty cents an acre remained for repairs on buildings and fences
and interest on the investment.

Percy spent some time on a five hundred acre farm belonging to an
old gentleman who still gave his name as F. Allerton Jones, a man
whose father had been prominent in the community. According to the
county soil map which had been presented to Percy by the Bureau of
Soils, the soil of this farm was all Leonardtown loam, except about
forty acres which occupied the sides of a narrow valley a bend of
which cut the farm on the south side.

"My father had this whole farm under cultivation," said Mr. Jones,
"except the hillsides. But what's the use? We get along with a good
deal less work, and I've found it better to cultivate less ground
during the forty odd years I've had to meet the bills. But I've kept
up more of my land than most of my neighbors. I reckon I've got
about eighty acres of good cleared land yet on this farm, and the
leaves and pine needles we rake up where the trees grow on the old
fields make a good fertilizer for the land we aim to cultivate, and
I get a good many loads of manure from friends who live in the
village and keep a cow or a horse.

"The last crop I raised on that east field, where you see those
scrub pines, was in 1881. I finished cultivating corn there the day
I heard about President Garfield being shot; and it was a mighty hot
July day too. My neighbor, Seth Whitmore, who died about ten years
ago, came along from the village and waited for me to come to the
end of the row down by the road and he told me that Garfield was
shot. We both allowed the corn would be a pretty fair crop and when
I gathered the fodder that fall there was a right smart of a corn
crop. Yes, Sir, it's pretty good land, but we don't need much corn,
no how, and we can make more money out of tobacco. Of course it
takes lots of manure and fertilizer to grow a good patch of tobacco,
but good tobacco always brings good money."

"About how much money do you get for an acre of tobacco?" asked

"That varies a lot with the quality and price - sometimes
$100 - sometimes $300, when the trust don't hold the price down on
us. We can raise good tobacco and good tobacco brings us good money.
We can always manure an acre or two for tobacco and get our
groceries and some clothes now and then, and that's about all
anybody gets in this world, I reckon. But taxes are mighty high, I
tell you. About $75 to $80 I have to pay. Are taxes high out West?"

"We pay about forty to fifty cents an acre in the corn belt," Percy
replied; "but, in a course I took in economics, I learned that the
taxes do not vary in proportion to land values. Poor lands, if
inhabited, must always pay heavy taxes; whereas, large areas of good
land carry lighter taxes compared with their earning capacity. You
must provide your regular expenses for county officers, county
courthouse, jail, and poorhouse, about the same as we do. Your roads
and bridges cost as much as ours; and the schools in the South must
cost more than ours, for a complete double system of schools is
usually provided.

"But did you say that you paid fifty cents an acre in taxes?" asked
Mr. Jones.

"Yes, about that, in the corn belt," replied Percy, "but not so much
in Southern Illinois where the land is poor. I think the farmers in
that section pay taxes as low as yours. Perhaps twenty cents an

"Do you mean to say that you have poor land in Illinois?"

"Yes, the common prairie land of Southern Illinois must be called
poor as compared with the corn belt land. There is a good deal of
land in Southern Illinois that was put under cultivation before
1820, and eighty crops must have made a heavy draft upon the store
of plant food originally contained in those soils."

"Only since 1820? Why, we began to till the soil right here, Young
Man, in St. Mary County, in 1634 and don't you know, Sir, that we
had a rebellion here as early as 1645? Yes, Sir, that was one
hundred and seventy-five years before 1820. So you've raised only
eighty crops and the land is already getting poor, and we've raised
two hundred and fifty crops - well, maybe, not quite so many, for
we've been giving our land a good deal of rest for the last fifty or
sixty years; but my grandfather used to raise twenty-five bushels of
wheat to the acre with the help of a hundred pounds of land-plaster,
and I've no doubt I could do it again today if I cared to raise
wheat, but one acre of tobacco is worth ten of wheat, so why should
I bother with wheat?"

"Twenty-five bushels of wheat per acre," repeated Percy, half to
himself. "The total supply of phosphorus still remaining in the
plowed soil would be sufficient for only twenty more crops like
that. Two hundred years of such crops would require 1600 pounds of
phosphorus, making nearly 1800 pounds at the beginning, if it all
came from the plowed soil. That is one and a half times as much as
is now contained in our common corn belt prairie land."

"More stuff in our land than in yours, did you say?" questioned the
old man. "I told you we had pretty good soil here, but I've always
allowed your soil was better, but maybe not. I tell you manure lasts
on this land. You can see where you put it for nigh twenty years.
Then we rest our land some and that helps a sight, and if the price
stays up we make good money on tobacco. I'm sorry your land is
getting so poor out West, especially if you can't raise tobacco.
Ever tried tobacco, Young Man? - gosh, but you remind me of one of
them Government fellows who came driving along here once when Bob
and his brothers were plowing corn right here about three years ago.
Bob's my tenant's nigger, and he ain't no fool either, even if he is
colored; but then, to tell the truth, he ain't much colored. Well, I
was sitting under a tree right here smoking and keeping an eye on
the niggers unbeknownst to them when one of them Government fellows
stopped his horse as Bob was turning the end, and says he to Bob:

"'Your corn seems to be looking mighty yellow?'

"'Yes, suh,' says Bob. 'Yes, suh, we done planted yellow corn.'

"'Well, I mean it looks as though you won't get more than half a
crop,' says he.

"'I reckon not,' says Bob. 'The landlord, he done gets the other

"With that the fellow says to Bob:

"'It seems to me you're mighty near a fool.'

"'Yes, suh,' says Bob, 'and I'm mighty feared I'll catch it if I
don't get a goin'.'

"The fellow just gave his horse a cut and drove on, but I liked to
died. He'd been here two or three times pestering me with questions
about raising tobacco. Say, you ain't one of them Government
fellows, are you? They were travelling all around over this county
three years ago, learning how we raised tobacco and all kinds of
crops. They had augers and said they were investigating soils, but I
never heard nothing of 'em since. Have you got an auger to
investigate soils with?"

Percy was compelled to admit that he had an auger and that he was
trying to learn all he could about the soil.

He had driven to Mr. Jones' farm because his land happened to be
situated in a large area of Leonardtown loam, and he felt free to
stop and talk with him because he had found him leaning against the
fence, smoking a cob pipe, apparently trying to decide what to do
with some small shocks of corn scattered over a field of about
fifteen acres.

Percy stepped to the buggy and drew out his soil auger, then
returned to the corn field and begun to bore a hole near where Mr.
Jones was standing.

"That's the thing," said he, "the same kind of an auger them
fellows had three years ago. Still boring holes, are you? Want to
bore around over my farm again, do you?"

Percy replied that he would be glad to make borings in several
places in order that he might see about what the soil and subsoil
were like in that kind of land.

"That's all right, Young Man. Just bore as many holes as you please.
I suppose you'd rather do that than work; but you'll have to excuse
me. I've got a lot to do today, and it's already getting late. I
can't take time again to tell you fellows how to raise tobacco. Good



THE old man had stuck his cob pipe in a pocket and filled his mouth
with a chew of tobacco.

He walked by Percy's buggy with the tobacco juice drizzling from the
corners of his mouth, and turned down the road toward the house.

Percy finished boring the hole and then returned to the buggy.

"Christ, that old man eats tobacco like a beast!" exclaimed the
driver as Percy approached.

"Are you speaking to me?" asked Percy.

"Why, certainly."

"That is not my name, please," admonished Percy, "but I can tell
you that I know Him well and that He is my best friend."

"What, old Al Jones?"

"No, - Christ," replied Percy, with a grieved expression plainly

"Oh," said the driver.

They drove past the Jones residence and out into the field beyond.
The house one might have thought deserted except for the well-beaten
paths and the presence of chickens in the yard. It was a large
structure with two and a half stories. The cornice and window

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Online LibraryCyril G. HopkinsThe Story of the Soil; from the Basis of Absolute Science and Real Life, → online text (page 11 of 23)