I’m pretty sure God has a sense of humor. I make my living as a professional historian, which means lots of time working with old documents and old buildings. For fun, I like to chase ringneck pheasants and sharptail grouse across the prairies. Naturally, then, the Guy in Charge figured it would be funny if I had arthritis and violent allergies to house dust.
Which meant that a recent week spent in the national archives of New Zealand, in the lovely city of Wellington, was a mixed blessing. Beginning when I opened the first box of musty records, I spent the next two days in a sneezy fog. Really good drugs and fresh sea air helped, and so when my head cleared up, some things came into focus.
We’ve spent quite a few years now studying the history of a little piece of high country grassland in New Zealand, a region known as the Lindis. My Suzzanne and I both were rummaging through boxes of records of the national government having to do with local developments in the Lindis. I know, this sounds pretty strange, but we go deep into the history of a locality nine thousand miles away from home partly because it brings things back home, on our North American prairies, into better focus.
Just from curiosity, I ordered up a sheaf of records having to do with the construction of the “Tarras War Memorial” in the mid-1950s. They called it a war memorial, but really it was a community hall for the Lindis region. Set alongside the athletic fields, the hall would serve as meeting place, performance venue, movie theater, and social center, as well as dressing room for rugby players.
Being familiar with the hall where in stands in Tarras, I was intrigued to go through correspondence about its construction and examine the architectural plans. There were quite a few letters from a local personage named Hector Bell, who was the chief advocate for a government grant to build the hall. Meanwhile, Suzzanne was going through the records of the Tarras chapter of the Young Farmers Association, which met in the hall. That’s how we came to an understanding of something much bigger than our locality of study.
What was going on in this little country town during the 1950s was nothing less than nation-building. New Zealand was investing heavily in agriculture at the time—supporting irrigation projects, exterminating pests like the European gray rabbit, subsidizing land development—all in order to ramp up production and exports. Along with the hardware of production, the country also invested in the software—the human capital of agriculture, meaning its young farmers, and the community institutions, such as the community hall. There was a recognition that people and communities were essential to productivity.
By the same time in the US, we were trying to figure out how to move people out of agriculture and dismantle rural institutions. (I believe the one-room country school I attended closed in 1960.) That process of dismantlement continues into the 21st century, witness the closing of country-town post offices and the impending end of the farm program dating back to the 1930s.
On the prairies we treasure our stories of self-reliance and individualism, but in fact, from the Homestead Act on, we operated with the sustenance of government. (Personally, I have never returned a check to the US Department of Agriculture, have you?) It is the present generation that will have to practice self-reliance. This may not be a bad thing.