|Caroline and Will Henderson, Eva, Oklahoma|
She and her husband went to the revival because the church was their church too, sort of. She and her husband hadn't been shy about telling their neighbors that they liked the United Brethren fellowship but weren't all that hot on the doctrine, all that thrilled, for instance, about hell.
"Hell, What it is. Where it is. Who Goes There." Maybe they should have known not to go in the door that last night.
Here's the way she described what happened.
Even if I could write every word, I could scarcely suggest the unloving tone and manner of presentation, the vulgarity and crude materialism of the whole thing. The geological location, the names of people now there, the vile denunciation of others, the stickiness of melted brimstone, the red flames of burning sulphur--it was all but intolerable.
Then, the test. In "a large, challenging voice," the preacher asked "whether there was anyone before them who did not believe in hell."
Caroline Boa Henderson, who with her husband, Will, worked a plot of grassland that would nearly blow away in the Dust Bowl a few years later, did not believe in hell and weren't particularly shaken by some fire-breathing evangelist flinging brimstone all over the church.
Caroline Henderson raised her hand. Those around her were not shocked, but surprised.
The pastor marched right up the aisle, took a match from his vest, told Caroline to hold out her hand, lit the match, held it beneath her skin. "You don't think your body can burn?" he asked, holding that match there.
Caroline said it wasn't fire she doubted, it was the place he delighted to call hell.
Her hand blistered, or so she told her readers when she described the revival; but what really burned her up was how the fire-breather told her neighbors it was unbelievers such as they'd just seen who were going to burn in hell.
That was it. The Hendersons never darkened the church door again, the only congregation within miles of the windswept grassland where they lived, the land so many abandoned when it dried up into powder that swept into the lungs of man and beast. The Hendersons grew more and more alone.
People in Eva, Oklahoma, thought of prickly Caroline Henderson as hard to get along with. True believers sometimes are, and Caroline Boa Henderson certainly was. She may not have believed in some other world of fire, but she was champion of faith in this one.
Caroline Henderson believed a man or woman who had a love for the land he or she worked created a harvest of virtue, plenitude, and grace. If you loved, truly, the ground you worked, she believed you would be blessed.
Today, the idea sounds cockamamie, even here in Siouxland, where the abundance of our good land keeps us here. But Mrs. Henderson's faith had roots in Thomas Jefferson, who liked to believe--and did--that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." That's what she believed.
But she lived in No Man's Land on the Oklahoma Panhandle, where between 1933 and 1938 she and Will suffered through 301 dust storms, many of which lasted for as long as four days. Think John Steinbeck or a buggy-like truck with dining-room chairs spilling off of a pile of junk sputtering along anywhere west.
Not Caroline. She and Will weren't about to give up the faith that had taken root in her soul. They didn't turn their backs on Thomas Jefferson, even when blinding dust drifted endlessly into the house her husband, an ex-cowboy, had built with his own hands. She never stopped writing, never stopped singing.
"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." Where did that faith come from? Carrie Boa was born in Wisconsin in 1877, but moved here, with her family, to Plymouth County, to a Union township farm between Remsen and Kingsley, a farm her father managed and ran successfully, working northwest Iowa ground, the kind of place Jefferson claimed made promises to those who did.
She left Siouxland for Mt. Holyoke College in 1897, at a time when very few farm girls even went to high school, much less a college out east. She must not have been shy about her dreams because the 1901 Mt. Holyoke class prophecy boldly declares that Carrie Boa, class of 1901, will soon be living "somewhere on a western ranch."
In her commencement gown and mortarboard, her soft cheeks make her look girlish, her seriousness something of a sham. There's innocence in her endearing eyes, but no fear. It's a face that will win by grace, by sweetness you might well expect of an Iowa farm girl in 1901.
Soon enough, she would know hard times. She moved to Eva, Oklahoma, because she wanted to be a pioneer, as her parents had been, part of the epic western movement.
But life was no bowl of cherries. Sometimes the three of them--they had a daughter--lived hand-to-mouth, years when there were no cattle in the gates, no fruit on the vine, nothing.
She may well have given up on hell because she'd seen enough on earth. But she never stopped believing in the land, even though it neither promised nor delivered rose gardens.
Caroline Henderson wrote about her life in No Man's Land in a series of letters and essays in the Atlantic Monthly, depictions that do as fine a job as there is of documenting life in the epicenter of most significant agricultural disaster of the century. Letters from the Dust Bowl tells her story. And part of ours too.
It wasn't easy. Often enough, she and Will were alone, as they were when they walked out of that revival. But unlike others, Caroline Boa Henderson, who grew up just down the road, never stopped believing in the land she loved.