In “Time’s Shadow,” Arnold J. Bauer has primarily written a memoir about growing up on a family farm in Goshen Township in Clay county, Kansas, during the 1930s and ’40s, but the book captures the profound changes that took place in those decades throughout rural America due to mechanization and technology.
It also reflects from a personal standpoint the dissatisfaction Bauer and his sisters felt once they left the family farm and found the opportunities available in the world away from rural Kansas.
This was an experience common to many who went off to serve in the military during World War II and the Korean War.
Bauer’s own journey led him from the family farm to a year as a lackadaisical student at K-State. Then military duty in Morocco and later to study in Mexico and ultimately to being a professor of history at the University of California in Davis.
His journey has common threads with thousands of others who left rural America during the post-war years.
Consider Bauer’s statement that Goshen Township had a population of 965 or about 27 people per square mile in1880, whereas in 2000 only 92 people lived in the township.
Or how about Green, Kansas, having a population of about 1,000 in 1920, but fewer than 150 today. Even Clay Center has taken a substantial hit having declined from around 8,000 souls in 1950 to about 4,500 today.
This is one of the few errors in the book, as Clay Center did not have a population of 8,000 in 1950. The last time it had that many inhabitant was probably in the 1880s.
This doesn’t negate Bauer’s evidence of a mass migration from rural areas. It merely shows the process may have started even earlier.
As Bauer claims, the changes that brought this about are “deep changes in rural life.”
Many of these changes were tied to changing technology and mechanization. Bauer identifies automobiles, electricity and the television as among the major forces driving the changes along side of advances in farm machinery that made possible much larger farms operated by fewer people.
Bauer points out in the years he was growing up, farm people rarely went to town because “there were only a few things we could buy, or for that matter, needed to buy; farms and towns constituted quite different universes. That’s because farms were pretty much self-sufficient . . .”
While Bauer’s book serves as a kind of microcosm of rural life of a specific time period there is also a personal component both compelling and at times poignant.
His recollection of his father having ripped a thumbnail backwards at a 90-degree angle, pausing and turning white with pain, then pressing the nail back in place, wrapping it with a bandanna and continued working is so vividly written, it hurts to read it.
Bauer’s account of his relationship with Joyce Jevons, a friend in high school and his date for the prom, evokes nostalgia for times past and youth lost.
But there is also something poignant in Bauer’s confession of his “lonely passion” for her.
Bauer says, “Only a few months ago, at a high school reunion, I heard that Joyce had died several years ago in California. Cancer. She’s dead. That Golden Girl is dead. And so is our youth and those soft nights, when, as someone said, many things were so new that they still lacked names.”
Here Bauer captures emotions that transcend the death of a friend or even his own youth. Indeed he mourns the loss of an era.
Elby Adamson is an educator and writer living near Clay Center.