Once upon a time, an immigrant tenant farmer named John Van De Stroet worked some land not all that far from here. Wasn’t good land either, at least not by his neighbor’s reckoning. The soil was light and thin, and bluffs, lots of them, shouldered a river that all too often flooded the valley beneath.
Van De Stroet rented that land from a gruff, bearded man named Keen, who determined that most of what he’d made during his life would be given, upon his death, to a Methodist hospital not far away.
Along came the Depression, the complication of the story on this yellowed sheet of newsprint. Keen mortgaged his land to keep from losing it; but when he died mid-Depression, that Methodist hospital became the Van De Stroet’s landlord.
To say times were tough seems an embarrassing understatement. In Van De Stroet’s obscure corner of Sioux County, Iowa, it was smarter to shoot cattle than feed them, if you had cattle at all. When things grew desperate, the Van De Stroets went to the hospital board and asked for grace—1,000 dollars’ worth of rent simply couldn’t be had and consequently couldn’t be paid. The hospital graciously nodded their consent.
Those hills nobody else wanted? They ended up at the heart of the Van De Stroet family’s survival. When drought left no feed to be grown or purchased, John let his sheep graze the bluffs, where they ate the buck brush. When things got even bleaker, he shooed his hogs up there too, where they could munch acorns from the burr oak that run like an unruly moustache over those hills. When other farmers were dumping livestock, those bluffs saved the Van De Stroet operation, and by the time the Second World War came around, the family farm got on its feet.
This old newspaper clipping is from 1976, 44 years after the Methodist Hospital Board shook their collective heads and let that $1,000 land payment ride.
In the picture with the newspaper story is an old guy with his shirt buttoned up tight beneath his chin. To his left is his wife, in a hair net and a print jacket, what’s likely her finest mother-of-pearl brooch right there perfectly centered on her chest. The old guy—you might have guessed, he’s John Van De Stroet—is handing a small piece of paper to a big guy with an open collar. It’s a check for a thousand dollars. All three of them are smiling. Forty-four years later.
Like I said, I got the paper to prove it. If you don’t believe me, I’ll send you a copy. But I’m saving this one, because it’s a story that probably didn't create much stir but still needs to be remembered, a little story on a shard of old newsprint, an otherwise long-forgotten story for our time and all time, a story about a human being in whom there was no guile.