Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption, and Racial Harmony

During the Great Depression, “Father Divine” urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking and a shared banquet table.

In American culture, ideals of health and prosperity have long been intertwined with food. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the ability to eat what one wanted and when that defined an American family’s assent into the growing middle class. It was no accident that during the 1930s a man appeared offering salvation through the act of eating.

George Baker, Jr., or “Father Divine”, professed himself to be God incarnate. He urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message successfully crossed racial barriers because he appealed to cultural traditions common to all Americans, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

As historian Jill Watts eloquently put it, he “provided a theology that promised a better life and a brighter future to anyone, regardless of economic status. Father Divine personified the Horatio Alger myth, and his success proved that even for blacks, America was a land of opportunity.”[1] Food, a symbol of prosperity, was the unifying commodity he used to actualize that myth.

The ready availability of food, dolled out by his hands, literally demonstrated that he could give his followers a piece of the American pie. He consciously used the act of sharing food between peoples―a long tradition in American history―to realize his dream of racial harmony. “I have a-plenty to eat, to drink and to wear, and I have plenty of automobiles to ride in; comfort and convenience for you and ME!” was a common boast, and promise, from Father Divine.[2]

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Father Divine: The Man Who Called Himself God

At a time when scarcity affected millions, one eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream.

During the 1930s, a man appeared in America offering salvation through the simple act of eating. “Father Divine”, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture. This eccentric preacher offered Americans, both black and white, rich and poor, hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

Father Divine began life as George Baker, Jr. in the border state of Maryland less than fifteen years after the Civil War. His mother, Nancy, had been born a slave in the 1840s. Two Catholic masters owned her over the course of her life, Lemuel Clemens and Henry B. Waring. Both required that she attend the Catholic churches they had erected on their respective properties.

In 1864, when Maryland outlawed slavery, Nancy went into service as a maid and already had two daughters by unknown persons. She married a man named George Baker in the 1870s and the two moved into a ghetto outside of Rockville, Maryland known as ‘Monkey Run.’ George Baker, Jr. was born shortly after, in May 1879.[1] Nancy and her family attended Rockville’s Jerusalem Methodist Church, a separatist branch, where, according to historian Jill Watts, “inevitably, the intense spirituality and religious dedication of the African-American community left a deep impression on George.”[2]

His mother died when he was a young man. She was five feet tall and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. A coffin had to be built inside their house and could only be removed after the doorway had been hastily expanded. Historian R. Marie Griffith theorized that Nancy’s extreme size, acquired after moving to Monkey Run, was a response to the oppressive conditions of slavery she had experienced as a young woman.

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Ghost Town Graveyards of Prince William Forest

The 16,084 acres of Prince William Forest Park in northern Virginia was once home to at least three small towns, two mines, and dozens of homesteads. During the Great Depression, the Federal Government began buying up this land to form the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area. It purchased 79 properties and condemned 48 others.

Enforcement of the eviction was half-hearted, however, until WW2 when the Office of Strategic Services wanted to turn the land into a training ground. They forcibly removed dozens of residents without compensation. After the war, the National Park Service took over management and renamed it Prince William Forest Park, charging visitors $15 a week to walk around the woods. What a bunch of dicks.

There are approximately 45 family cemeteries dotting the park, reminders of the people who once lived there. It’s estimated over 300 people are interred there. Less than twelve are marked on the official park map.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Cannon-Reed Cemetery is closest to the Visitor’s Center, off Birch Bluff Trail. A small sign misspelling the family name points to the side trail leading to the graveyard. Revolutionary War veteran Luke Cannon is buried here, as is a young man who lost his life working in the local mine.

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The Highwaymen

A buddy cop tale with a historical twist, this nihilistic Netflix drama leans too heavily on worn-out cliches.

The story of the men who took down Bonnie and Clyde is recounted in The Highwaymen (2019), written by John Fusco and directed by John Lee Hancock. This bleak Netflix production aims to de-glamorize the infamous outlaw lovers with a more nuanced perspective, but still can’t help indulging in a few popular myths.

When Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) mastermind a prison farm escape, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) convinces Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to bring ex-Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement. Hamer agrees, and after purchasing a small arsenal of weapons, he reluctantly teams up with Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), another ex-Ranger past his prime.

Despite being “too old for this shit”, Hamer and Gault use experience and gut instinct to show up a team of FBI agents utilizing the latest law enforcement techniques, led by Agent Kendale (Jason Davis). After a string of false leads and narrow misses, the elderly lawmen finally gripe, complain, and manipulate their way into locating the outlaw gang. A young deputy named Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who grew up with Bonnie Parker, is there to provide dark irony and identify the criminals’ bullet-riddled bodies.

Channeling Neo-Westerns like No Country for Old Men (2007) and Wind River (2017), and to some extent the TV series True Detective, The Highwaymen focuses on a life-or-death pursuit through an unforgiving and bleak environment, with characters the modern world has left behind. Unfortunately, and despite its original contribution to the Bonnie and Clyde filmography, it comes across as an unimaginative imitation of these other works.

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Was Bonnie Parker a Cold-Blooded Killer?

The Highwaymen’s portrayal of outlaw Bonnie Parker is more dime novel fantasy than reality.

In Netflix’s new historical film The Highwaymen (2019), Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play ex-Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two men responsible for taking down outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May 1934. The famous outlaw couple don’t get a lot of screen time, but when they do, expect blood and bullets to fly.

In The Highwaymen, 24-year-old Bonnie Parker is portrayed as every bit as dangerous as her male companions, firing a Thompson submachine gun to cover a prison farm escape and coldly finishing off a wounded patrolman. But this portrayal is more in line with the sensational dime novels and films of yesteryear than reality.

Bonnie was born in Rowena, Texas in 1910 and grew up west of Dallas. She dropped out of high school and married a man named Roy Thornton just shy of her 16th birthday. Her husband was frequently in trouble with the law, and she moved back in with her mother and worked as a waitress. That’s when she met Clyde Barrow.

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Did Texas Have a Female Governor in 1934?

Netflix’s new film about the lawmen who took down Bonnie & Clyde has some historic surprises.

It may not be well-known outside the Lone Star State, but Texas was home to the second woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state (the first being Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming, and only by a few days): Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson.

In The Highwaymen (2019), Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play ex-Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two men responsible for taking down outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May 1934. Kathy Bates plays a supporting role as Texas Governor Ma Ferguson, who disbanded the Texas Rangers and is portrayed as reluctantly sanctioning the manhunt.

Surely there wasn’t a female governor in the United States during 1930s, only a decade after women received the right to vote? There was!

Actually, Miriam A. Ferguson was first elected governor in 1924, after her husband, James Edward Ferguson, Jr., himself an ex-governor of Texas, was banned from holding public office after being convicted on corruption charges. “Ma” Ferguson ran as a surrogate for her husband, promising “Two governors for the price of one.”

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse, Part 1

Napowan Scout Camp is located in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan, off 24th Avenue. Each year, thousands of Boy Scouts from around the country enjoy camping, fishing, boating, nature hikes, archery, and much more at one of the most exemplary summer camps in the Midwest. It is owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America, of which I was a part.

Your humble writer/transcriber as a Cub Scout at Camp Napowan

In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based at St. Mary’s School in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions. On one occasion, my dad and I were sharing a tent when we were hit by a torrential downpour. We didn’t realize what a poor choice our campsite was until water started building up several inches deep! We ended up sleeping in the car that night, and I don’t think my dad has gone camping since.

One of the most interesting things about Camp Napowan was the legend they used to tell about its founding. The Boy Scouts of America established the camp in 1946, right after the end of World War 2. Prior to that, the legend goes, it was local farmland. During the Great Depression, the farmer that owned that land got into an altercation with a tribe of gypsies he allowed to temporarily settle on his property. Local townspeople killed the gypsies on a place called “Boot Hill,” but before the last of them died, they put a curse on the land. To this day, every time a black cat with a single white paw appears at Camp Napowan, trouble follows.

Our camping trips culminated with a retelling of this story over a bonfire, and at one point an audio version was even available on CD. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy. The following three part series is as close an approximation of the tale as I’m able to record. I hope there are others out there who read this story and recall fond childhood memories.

The story of Boot Hill begins on October 28, 1929, a day known as Black Monday. On that day, the economy crashed, sending this country into the largest economic depression we’ve ever seen. For most people, making ends meet was a difficult task. Jobs were hard to find because there were so many people in need of them, but not enough of them to go around. In central Wisconsin, the Depression was as bad as it was anywhere.

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Tales of Coles County: In These Shallow Walls

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.

The year was 1934, and the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were ravaging the United States. Illinois had been hit particularly hard, and between 1929 and 1933, 412 banks failed in downstate Illinois. Crops wilted or simply blew away throughout the Great Plains, and communities that relied heavily on farming, like those of central Illinois, suffered immensely.

For those families hardest hit by the Depression, there were only two places to go: the unforgiving streets, or the county poor farm. Poor farms had been set up in the 1800s to support those without homes, the elderly and infirm, or those who couldn’t take care of themselves. The population of the farms declined during the boom years after the turn of the century, but swelled again once the stock market crashed.

The Coles County Poor Farm, located on 260 acres between the towns of Charleston and Ashmore, was no exception, and it opened its doors to the many destitute caused by the Great Depression.

Darby Adar and his daughter Shirley were lucky enough to find their way to the doors of the almshouse on this particular county farm before the superintendent turned others away due to overcrowding. For the first few days after arrival and being assigned a room, Darby wouldn’t let his daughter, almost seven years old, wander the imposing brick building on her own. It was, after all, a new place with new people, and their experience with day-to-day survival on the open road had made him cautious to the point of paranoia.

After about two weeks of living on the farm, however, Shirley made friends with some of the other kids in the building, particularly a girl about the same age named Elva Skinner. Darby had never met any of these other children, but that wasn’t unusual at the time; adults and children inhabited different worlds.

Darby had also developed an interest in a woman named Rose who lived and worked in the building. Her family had died of Influenza when she was a young girl, leaving her in the care of the state for many years. After she became old enough to go out on her own, she chose to stay at the county farm as a nurse’s aide. Darby had lost his wife to childbirth, and the rigors of raising a child on his own had him constantly looking for a new Mrs. Adar. He, like the other able-bodied men and women living there, also helped out around the farm. All of this kept him preoccupied during the day, and so he had less and less time to pay attention to everything his daughter was doing.

At night, Shirley would come back to their room, which they shared with an elderly woman who had been living in the asylum for most of her life. The woman was somewhat feeble minded, but she was very pleasant to be around and could, for the most part, tend to her own needs. Every day, Rose came to their room and administered the old lady’s medication, played cards, or had idle conversation with Darby about where he was from, the weather, or anything else the two thought of.

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