Fridley pages 31-32

[Farm Journal and Farmer’s Wife, January (1941)]


NOPE. Options aren’t back yet. Maybe Monday.” C. C. Cotton sighed and banged the receiver. It was after breakfast, December 5. The sun shot silver spears across the frozen Mississippi up the hilly streets of Burlington, Iowa. Along the halls of the old Postoffice Building Army officers and their chauffeurs sat waiting. Surveyors in khaki breeches lolling along the street below stared moodily at their new transits. Trench diggers and pile drivers stood like shrouded ghosts on the banks of the Skunk River, four miles west. Across 20,000 acres of grain land, forest and pasture 189 farm families sat waiting. “Options aren’t back yet. Mebbe Monday.”
            “Mighty queer way to be a pioneer.” County Agent Cotton smiled. “Nobody can do anything. Just sit and wait.”
            But 1,100 miles away in Washington, D. C. executives of the agricultural division of the National Defense Commission knew that C. C. Cotton and the 35 members of the Des Moines County Agricultural Planning Committee are pioneers. Before March, 1941, the Federal government will take over 1,500,000 acres of farm land as sites for National Defense factories and training grounds. The score of human problems involving the 7,000 families to be uprooted from this land was a task beyond the scope of War Department officers or engineers. C. C. Cotton and the Des Moines County Committee are supplying a pattern that can be used nationally.
            The Des Moines County Farm Bureau held its annual picnic last October 5. The fried chickens weren’t out of their baskets before word passed along the benches that National Defense was planning to build a $50,000,000 ammunition loading plant somewhere in the county. There the issue hung, while Burlington seethed with rumor and counter-rumor, until the morning after election day. Colonel R. D. Valiant, chief of the real estate division of the Quartermaster Corps, rode into Burlington on election afternoon and, according to report, sat in his room until returns were in. Next morning he walked over to Mr. Cotton’s office, announced that the new plant would be built on a quadrangle seven miles wide and five miles deep along the Skunk River.
“Per Acre” Values
            Of the 20,300 acres involved, 11,000 is Grade A land, the rest is pasture and woodlot. War Department prices would be based on a “per acre value” irrespective of buildings, locational value, business developments, home features, machinery, crops on hand. Farmers were to pay a 5% commission to local real estate agents handling the options plus another 1½% for title certificates and abstracts.

“Where do we go? When do we go?” Seven thousand families turn their homes and farms over to Defense

            C. C. Cotton called in local officials of the AAA, FSA and the various relief units. While realtors scoured the quadrangle in an effort to snap up options, county officials and business men called a hurried meeting of the Agricultural Planning Committee, re-organized it to meet the tasks ahead. First offers of the War Department realtors were hard-boiled. Some of the small landowners were rushed into settlements of $100 an acre or less. The remainder formed a committee headed by Fred Sater and sent a delegation over to Wilmington, Illinois to talk with farmers there who had already been put through the situation. From conversations there and with L. W. Braham, county agent at Joliet, they came back with ideas and fighting spunk. Congressman Tom Martin came to their defense, addressed a mass meeting of landowners. Another delegation was sent to Washington to talk things over with Defense chiefs. War Department realtors saw that they might be faced with individual lawsuits for each piece of land. They came back with new offers, which 150 of the 189 families signed.
            Under the new terms, prices averaging $240 an acre will be given for the 11,000 acres of Grade A land. Other prices range from $100 an acre up. The Des Moines County Home, containing about 400 acres of land and modernized buildings, was signed away for a net of $365,000.
            Meanwhile, the County Agricultural Committee sat down to work. One subcommittee arranged for lease of the 189 families livestock on a feeder basis as well as low storage rates for machinery and household goods. Another group collected a list of 1,500 farms up for sale in Iowa, western Illinois and northern Missouri.
Damages to Tenants
            The Committee pointed out that under Iowa law, tenant farmers who weren’t given notice to move before November 1 could stay on the land for another year without formal contract. War officials put another clause in their contracts stating that tenant damages were to be figured in each sale.
            On November 12, 150 of the options were signed, sealed and mailed off to Washington. Again, the silence spread down across the 20,000 acres and on December 5 the only thing that broke the silence was the Army officers and contractors fuming to get at the construction work that they are under orders to finish by September, 1941.
            Meanwhile, Chester Davis, Agriculture’s representative on the National Defense Commission, has called secret meetings of a new national committee to work out a general plan for rehabilitation for other farm families who will be ousted from the 1,500,000 acres in 15 or 20 states that Defense is expected to take over before next March 1. J. B. Hutson, Mr. Davis’ assistant and temporary chairman of the Committee, admitted to Farm Journal editors that the national pattern will follow the one worked out by Mr. Cotton and the Des Moines County Agricultural Planning Committee.
            Payment checks, when received, will be turned over to the real estate agents who deduct their own commissions, fix damages to tenants, title fees and other incidentals before the land owner sees any cash.
            For the 189 families, upheaval and change are hard to face. There is Anthony Dornhoffer. Almost blind, partially deaf, Dornhoffer lives with two sisters on a 95-acre place near Augusta. Slowly, painfully through the years he has learned to feel his way across this land of his. A new home to him means that now, forever, he must give up walking alone, can smell land and flowers and feel loam and horseflesh only when leaning on the arm of a guide. Yet this isn’t what Tony Dornhoffer was peeved about as he stood in the doorway of his home. “They’ve waited too long on Defense now,” he said. “They’d better get going.”