Centennial History

Volume 17

"Country Gentleman " – February 1943 (Part 1)

"Church Builds a Community " by William F. McDermott

Iowa's Reverend Schnucker demonstrates that if a Church helps the farmer tackle his problems, the Farmer will be there for the passing of the plate.

On the plains of Northwest Iowa stands a country church which for eight years has helped tenants to become landowners, kept a flock of kids out of roadhouses, encouraged its members to buy lawn mowers and paint their barns, sent ten times as many boys and girls to college as during the 50 preceding years – and itself has emerged from an ancient structure with leaky roof and falling plaster to a modern $35,000 edifice, with 400 or more in attendance on Sunday.

To the Ramsey Reformed Church, located on the open prairie five miles out of the village of Titonka, Iowa, come all sorts of rural experts, government authorities, U.S. department of Agriculture investigators, bishops and garden-variety preachers – all in wonderment to see how a country schoolteacher turned parson has done it. When they note that tenantry has tobogganed and owner-operated farms have jumped from 33 to 66 per cent, and that 60 renter families in the parish have been enabled to buy 8640 acres and settle on them as farms of their own, they agree that a near-miracle has been achieved.

It's really a one-man revolution that has set rural Iowa on its ear, because it can't be accounted for in any other way than in the common sense and determination of the Rev. Calvin Schnucker, who, rather than run away to an enticing job offer him, determined to fight it out. With country churches closing all about him – 300 in Iowa alone in a few depression years – he chose to demonstrate that if a church would help the farmer tackle his problems, the farmer would be there for the Doxology and the passing of the plate.

Schnucker, whose dad was a parson, set out to be a teacher. He went through college, then took a rural school where he built the fires, swept the floor and expounded the sacred three R's. After a couple of years the tug of the ministry got him. He graduated from seminary and headed West to find a church. One Sunday he supplied the pulpit of the Ramsey Reformed Church in the place of another preacher who turned the job down as unpromising. The people, catching Schnucker on the rebound, proposed to him and he accepted. In July, 1932, the 27-year-old theological neophyte and his young wife moved into the parsonage.

The church was a typical box-shaped, wooden structure, unpainted for 15 years, with window sills rotted out, and almost impossible to heat in winter. The parsonage was in little better condition. The new pastor was also the janitor; his fire-building skill as a rural schoolteacher stood him in good stead when it came to tending the ancient heating plant. Behind the church was a chicken yard where he might try to eke out his salary.

There had been a mortgage on the church since 1894, and it considered as inevitable as the law of gravity. Youth was conspicuous by it absence at services. Faithful old East Friesian far-mers, who had migrated from the border between Holland and Germany and had settled on and improved the Iowa land with relentless tenacity, made up the congregation. With the same spirit they held the church together – and frowned on new ideas. Schnucker wanted to start a choir and suggested a sacred concert on a weeknight to raise money for music. A few old-timers protested they wouldn't have "Their church turned into a theater," but one of the elders slipped Calvin ten dollars on the side and told him to go buy his music anyway.

Two years registered some progress, a lot of discouragements – and a call to a larger, more prosperous field. Schnucker was te "If I can get you good, reliable, hardworking farmers, who are eager to own their land and will sacrifice everything to get a foothold," he said to the insurance-company representatives, "will you go along with a minimum down payment and such installments as the buyers can pay?" mpted; then he decided his Dutch ancestry wouldn't permit his running away from a half-done job, so he turned it down. With that decision came another – to dig deep into the community, find what was wrong and why the church was mostly a Sunday and funeral affair.

That section of Iowa had once been a boggy wilderness. The immigrants had originally bought the land for five dollars an acre. They tilled the higher ground and hunted and fished in the swampy regions. In 1903 the drainage era began. Bull ditches were furrowed by ox-drawn plows, huge affairs with 40 or 50 animals to the plow. Dredges were introduced a few years later – some of them had to operate from flatboats – and vast stretches of wonderfully rich farms, with black dirt several feet deep, were made available for cultivation. But all this cost money as well as labor. The farmers had anywhere from $60 to $100 an acre in money or mortgages tied up in their land.

Then the crash. Eight-cent corn and two-dollar hogs spelt ruin as surely as if fire had burned houses and floods had devastated lands. For scores, all the results of a lifetime of toil and sa-crifice were swept away. Foreclosures spread like an epidemic. Owner-operated farms dropped from the 65 per cent of prosperous days to 28 per cent in county where Ramsey Reformed Church is located.

The young minister sensed that more than property was being lost. A once substantial community was threatened with social disintegration. He determined that something radical must be done to restore the land to the people.

His first step was to make a study of all land ownership, mortgages, tenantry, and the like, with-in a seven-mile range of his church. His chief concern was to discover the ownership of tracts that were operated by tenants. He visited the farms and talked to the residents; he combed out information from county offices; and he went to the offices of insurance companies which, he discovered, held the mortgages and finally came into possession of the land through foreclosure.


Volume 18

"Country Gentleman " – February 1943 (Part 2)

"Church Builds a Community " by William F. McDermott – (cont.)

(Pastor Schnucker asked the Insurance Companies…) "If I can get you good, reliable, hard-working farmers, who are eager to own their land and will sacrifice everything to get a foothold, will you go along with a minimum down payment and such installments as the buyers can pay?"

Turning on the Steam


He got a prompt yes to that question, together with the promise that the price would be bedrock. Insurance companies, which had found that tenant-farming was no sinecure either for them or the renter, were glad of the opportunity to "get out from under."

Schnucker then began to turn on the steam. In the face of the worst depression in history, and with the tide of skepticism regarding any possible farm prosperity running high, with homes broken up all about him and with bitterness rampant, he blossomed out as a full-fledged agricul-tural propagandist.

His sermons glorified the rustic life; his personal interviews emphasized the desirability of the farm for personal satisfaction and for the rearing of children; and his club talks and casual conversations sounded the same note of rural charm. When Calvin talked to a farm owner he always urged "Hold on!" and when he chatted with a tenant he put forth the slogan "Get hold!"

He called the attention of tenants to owner-operated farms. Whenever a tenant bought a farm and set up for himself, the young minister praised and publicized the achievement. Every im-provement in the community, such as the painting of buildings or the modernizing of a house or the building of a lawn—when Schnucker went there, there were three lawn mowers in the community, now 60 percent of the farmers have them—got its own pastoral bulletin. He made progress the talk of the community. He beat the drums of thrift. It was more than a virtue with him—it was an obsession. He saw that disaster had attended the heroic efforts of the East Friesian farmers, yet thrift as a desirable quality had not been destroyed.


Shrewd Advice to Tenants


Schnucker suggested crop variations based on soil tests by the County Planning Board, which he studied in detail, and on his other studies of up-to-minute agriculture. He also urged his people to time their harvests. For instance, when most farmers bred their hogs to have pigs in April or May, he suggested litters for February—two months or more ahead of the heavy run, with consequent better prices. Ramsey parishioners were raising soybeans when skeptics only laughed. When turkeys were scarce, these people raised turkeys. Dairying was expanded, and flocks of 500 to 1000 chickens on a quarter section were not uncommon, with the farmer's cream check frequently running up to $100 a month, and his wife garnering $60 to $80 in the same time for eggs. All of which opened the way for ambitious tenants to get farms for themselves.

Another shrewd thing the young cleric did was to refuse to aid any tenant farmer to buy a place if the latter sought to borrow money for the down payment.

"If you really want a farm, earn and save the initial payment," he would say. "That will discipline you to carry the load afterward. If you borrow the first payment, that means two mortgages to carry and you'll likely lose everything.

He wanted them to get in and sweat, knowing that if they earned their own stake they would have the guts to see the thing through. He sought especially to assist young couples to acquire land. He saw in them the future of agriculture. One person he aided was a young immigrant from Europe, whose first job when he landed in Ramsey parish was to pay back his passage money. He became a farmhand, earning $50 a month in busy season; as little as $10 a month in winter. But he drew only needed funds, leaving the rest with his employer until the end of the year. In 1933 he married. Having saved enough money to stock up on machinery, he became a tenant. He lost a child by death, and his wife had a severe illness involving heavy hospital bills. Yet by 1940 this little family had saved something like $4000, and encouraged by Schnucker they were able to acquire one of the best quarter sections in the entire area. It is good land, the buildings are fine, the family is prospering—and two children are in the Sunday School; the mother is a hard worker in the women's society, and the father is able and willing worker in the church.

Thus the one-man, three-way campaign progressed. Propagandizing rural advantages and thrift; getting mortgage holders to cut their demands and to ease their terms; and stimulating te-nants to save money and guiding them and vouching for them in buying houses and land—all this went steadily forward, without regard to whether the beneficiaries were connected with Ramsey Reformed Church, until the fall of 1942 saw 60 families well installed on owner-operated farms. About 500 men, women and children were thus aided on their way to happy homes.

To date not a single family has been foreclosed on or even threatened, and all payments are up to date – more than that, not one appeared in the county's long delinquent-tax list this summer