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Thursday, April 29, 2004 07:26 am

History Talk 4-29-04

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Shorty Byerline and Herb Niemeyer harvest wheat on the farm of Justin Taft Sr. on Aug. 26, 1935
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY/HERBERT GEORG COLLECTION

Justin Taft, well-known Sangamon County farmer and former Clerk of the Supreme Court, recently published a semi-autobiographical look back at his 80-plus years in a book entitled As I Saw It -- A Collection of Short Stories on Rochester and the Taft Family.

Taft's stories are of the homespun variety and recall the days before the world had heard of pet superstores, cholesterol counts, and the term "bedroom community," which in Realtor parlance is what Rochester is today. During the times of which he reminisces, Rochester was very much a pastoral agricultural village populated by a parochial citizenry of farmers and merchants for whom the city of Springfield was considerably farther away than it is today. Indeed, Taft says he was the first boy from that community to leave there to attend college.

Taft doesn't look too deeply into the world of which he writes; this is no Spoon River Anthology, although privately he hints that it could have been. It is really a series of folksy vignettes involving the colorful characters he has known and experiences he has had, most of which underscore the modern-day blurring of differences between city life and country life. Some of his tales evoke the boundless freedom and breathless adventure of a Huckleberry Finn-like childhood, while others inspire jaw-dropping disbelief that such medieval thinking lived on in 20th century America. For instance, Taft recounts the time that he stepped on a rusty nail and his mother treated it with a slice of raw bacon. When she finally took him to see the doctor, she was rebuked for using such an ineffectual medication. The wound, the doctor explained, called for bread and sour milk.

Though Taft has spent his whole life in farming and stock raising, he doesn't dwell too long on the great changes that he has seen in agriculture in his lifetime (he does say, but not in the book, that he remembers when soybeans were "cowpeas," and only fed to livestock, not sold.)

As I Saw It is mostly a hodgepodge of entertaining family stories, tales of former residents of Rochester and remembrances of time spent as Clerk of the Supreme Court. One funny story involves two Springfield policemen who, wanting to be elected sheriff and each wanting to be first on the ballot, arrived at the courthouse around midnight the night before they were to file their names for consideration. An argument ensued as to who was first, and former Sheriff Hugh Campbell solved it thusly: He stationed a deputy at the bottom of the stairs, stationed himself at the top of the third floor stairs, and had the policemen fight each other to the top, the first to arrive intact being the victor. Although it may be difficult to believe, they agreed, their ballot positions were declared, and they abided by Campbell's decision.

It's hard to imagine something like that happening today. But Taft swears it's true.

In the book's preface, Taft states that he wrote the book "so future generations will know more of the history of Rochester and one of its citizens who truly enjoyed living in and talking about this community." So it is written as a history, unofficial and amateur, but a history nonetheless. What is history, after all, but a sober look at "then and now"? Taft's stories are lighthearted and entertaining, and by his own admission he didn't attach names to a few of them. He also says that he shied away from any serious discussion of "heavy" social implications of small-town life. It's just not that kind of book.

"Those types of stories might color or flavor what really happened, but they still provide a historically valuable picture," says Jane Ehrenhart, head reference librarian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. "Sometimes just the jobs they had, the food they ate or the clothes they wore . . . provide a jumping-off point for the researcher. Ultimately, it's up to the researcher what to believe and what not to believe, what to use, and what not to use."

Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and an author and presidential historian who is currently writing a biography of Nelson Rockefeller, holds a similar view:

"What is history? It's gossip and statistical analysis, moulding documents and oral traditions, anything and everything that recreates a life, a time, a place, and that enables us in our imagination to inhabit the same. It's a science and art, combining informed surmise and copious footnotes. It has been called argument without end. It is a story, in truth a multitude of stories. It is life, filtered through the lens of time and given immediacy via literary craftsmanship. Whatever it is, it is never dull, for that would render it lifeless."

As I Saw It is available by calling Justin Taft at 498-7315 or by e-mailing him at justinjr@insightbb.com

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