Next month it will be one hundred years since the start of what became known as World War I, a misnomer that blinds many people to the far ranging conflicts practiced by men in earlier ages. And even though that particular war ended so long ago, each year in France and Belgium tons of unexploded ordinance from the First World War are exhumed from land where the battles were fought. Historian Alan Taylor recently published a sobering photo-history of the war in The Atlantic in which he shows the ravaged land, slowly being reclaimed by forests, where once villages stood until they were cratered out of existence. Sheep graze in unredeemed minefields; farmers plow up hand grenades and cannon shells.
Early in the war, governments of the British Commonwealth began planning for the return of their soldiers. Aware that the deluge of war-touched young men could not be ignored at the risk of destabilizing society, politicians began designing a program to reintegrate the soldiers through agriculture. In 1915 the prime minister of Australia called for consideration of a scheme to create soldier settlements where veterans would be provided with a small farm, low-cost loans and agricultural training for the inexperienced. Thousands of Anzac veterans responded to the government offer.
The concept of settling soldiers on agricultural land was nothing new. Romans did it, and Cromwell uprooted the native Catholic population of Northern Ireland in order to provide his Scottish Protestants with farms. The scheme seemed to be a timely approach to solving several looming problems. There would be a global shortage of food following the war, and the new farmers could contribute to feeding the hungry. A farmer’s care would contribute to the regeneration of neglected soils. Directing veterans towards the country would help stem the remarkable growth of contemporary cities. And it was assumed that men who had lived in trenches had, for some reason, more of a taste for outdoor living. If nothing else, the Australian government hoped that the need to care for a farm would keep veterans out of the Socialist fold.
The Americans studied the development of these soldier settlements in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and other British Commonwealth nations. As the end of the war approached, Frederick K. Lane, Secretary of the Department of Interior, described the amount of land the American west could provide for an American scheme of soldier settlements. He noted potentially irrigable lands, lands that had been logged and which were unimproved, and that which was swamp land, especially along the Mississippi. In 1918 Lane asked Congress to appropriate a million dollars to survey these lands. Congress responded with only $200,000. To head up his survey, Lane appointed Dr. Elwood Mead, an expert on the Australian scheme and on the program of ready-made farms for new settlers that had been operating in California.
Country Gentleman magazine, a popular men’s news and culture publication, printed a story entitled A Million Farms for Soldiers in July, 1918. The concept’s popularity flared. There were 196,000 enquiries for farms built on Reclamation lands alone. The Veterans of Foreign Wars was tapped to operate the soldier settlement schemes, and their organization took the reins with zeal. The Washington State committee recommended establishing soldier settlements in Benton County, near the towns of White Bluffs and Hanford. Fred M. Weil, director of the state Department of Conservation and Development cranked out a twelve-page booklet extolling the Hanford/ White Bluffs settlement scheme. As a resident of the area, he was familiar with its attributes, and probably somewhat taken with the real estate potential of an influx of veterans.
Some of what follows is extrapolation from the public record. I am not familiar with the Paroz family or with Martin Paroz’s life history beyond what appears in published documents I have found in my research. If anybody who knows the family wishes to elaborate, I invite their comments.
Amongst the returning veterans who read Weil’s booklet was a 30-something Swiss immigrant named Martin Paroz (although the original family name was Parosf). His father, Leon, brought his family of eleven children in 1911. According to his gravestone, Martin served with the 123rd Engineers in World War I. If so, he was serving with British troops, or I have overlooked some American regiment somewhere. The names of Leon and Martin appear in a 1911 Manitoba census, which might indicate that the family originally settled in Canada. That might help explain Martin’s service with the Royal Engineers.
Martin applied for a soldier’s farm under the VFW scheme. If the scheme worked the way it was described in a 1933 review of the failure of the soldier settlement project, Martin received the following support:
- A 20-acre tract of land, approved by Washington State College’s soil experts as agricultural quality, for the price of $30 per acre, or a flat $600 payment
- A well, averaging a depth of 36 feet
- Option to have the state provide anything on the following list:
- A 3-room plastered and painted cottage on a concrete foundation with a 9 by 9 foot concrete walled cellar, wired with electric lights, and a small modern poultry house at a cost of $1,500
- An irrigation distribution system for $1, 625
- Clearing, leveling and seeding in rye or alfalfa five acres of the tract for $200
- Fencing materials for outside areas for $200
- Three years of electrical power for $525
To qualify, Martin had to be a citizen, a veteran, physically fit, financially sound (but not worth more than $15,000), and he had to agree to move onto the farm within six months of purchase. He had to live there at least eight months of the year in each of the succeeding five years, and he agreed not to reassign the property without the board’s approval. He had to make annual payments at 4% interest over the next 20 years to pay off the property and he was required to pay 10% of the cost of the land as cash down. He was also required to pay 40% of the cost of his pump and 10% of any other improvements he had the state provide.
If Martin elected to have the state provide all the improvements on the above list, he would have had to come up with $612.50 for his cash payments on the land, pump motor and other improvements. The cost was steep in those postwar years. Recognizing that some veterans might not be able to make such a payment, the state authorized a deferment for the first three years, requiring a payment of one dollar and the 4% interest on the loan on January 1 each year. The amount remaining would be paid off in annual installments in 20 years at 4% interest.
There were 103 tracts of land offered to soldiers in the area, in two units scattered over about 14 miles. The first unit contained 55 tracts in the Hanford and White Bluffs vicinity. A further 48 tracts were distributed west and north of White Bluffs. Fifty-eight of the 20-acre tracts were ready for occupation by 1923. By May of 1925 only 69 tracts had been sold on contract and all the other tracts were unoccupied. It was a considerable amount of financial burden to the state, which had invested close to $4,000 on each unoccupied tract.
Some of the veterans were able to make a go of the farms. Rhubarb, onions, pears, apples, peaches, plums, grapes, alfalfa, corn and soybeans were all successfully produced on some of the tracts. On most of the tracts, though, it was as if the ground soaked up water and spat out dust.
The Ellensburg Daily Record reported in November of 1925 that the Director of the state’s Department of Conservation and Development had told the Legislature that it appeared that most of the soldier-farmers were finding it impossible to keep up with their contracts. He suggested that the state renegotiate the contracts on an individual basis, with consideration of the actual value of each of the tracts.
Martin Paroz was one of nine veteran farmers from the tracts who appeared before the legislative hearing. As one, the men charged that Fred Weil had misrepresented the potential of the tracts, and that the Veterans of Foreign Wars as an organization had lost their respect. In the opinion of the nine, the VFW no longer had the right to represent them on the project. There had been “political machinations” on the part of some VFW officials.
A small committee of local businessmen was also heard, and these men rejected the farmers’ claims. The manager of the telephone exchange at Hanford, a banker and the head of the Consumers’ Ditch Company of Hanford insisted that the land could produce as well as any in the area if it were farmed correctly. The business men agreed that contracts should be renegotiated, but they pointed out that “older settlers in the district did not require as much water to mature crops as the soldier farmers seemed to think necessary.”
To be fair, however, when the state Department of Efficiency reviewed the project they found that “The soil, when cleared, powdered and blew freely unless planted to cover crops; one settler planted alfalfa seed eight times on one field and failed to secure a catch; there was insufficient water to irrigate the land, and the cost for power to pump the water was prohibitive; profitable farming was found to be next to impossible, and the State was accused of misrepresenting facts to prospective settlers.” It should also be noted that similar schemes were failing all around the world. We have few examples of successful soldier settlements.
By 1926 the state was ready to quit. An audit determined that more than $319,000 had been spent to benefit only 50 veterans over the preceding five years. With outstanding debts from the insolvent farmers, the state reckoned it had an investment of $513,137 in the project. In negotiations that followed the legislative hearing, the state ceded quitclaim deeds for one dollar each to all but six of the farmers, amounting to a loss to the state of $347,724.09. Three of the settlers took cash payments for their properties, ranging from $650 to $1250. Two other settlers rejected the new contracts and kept their original contracts with the state. A hasty evaluation of the unoccupied tracts was completed before they were put up for auction on June 1, 1926. The sale of the properties yielded $48,210.00 for the state, which was more than $13,000 more than expected.
I don’t have the resources right now to follow up on Martin’s story in detail. He next turns up living in Hartford, Washington, a crossroads east of Marysville. It was 1934, and he was marrying Earlein Frizzerd at her home in Seattle. It is unclear whether Martin had moved to Hartford, or if he was doing seasonal work there. At any rate, when the other shoe dropped, Martin still owned land near Hanford.
He had two properties a short distance apart from each other, and each fronting on the Columbia River. One, at slightly more than 20 acres, might have been the relic of his soldier’s farm. In 1943 Martin received the same earth-shattering letter as his neighbors. They were all given 30 days to pack up and be gone. The government was taking their homes, farms and communities under the policy of eminent domain. Although they were promised fair market value for their lands, the claim is often advanced that the government undervalued the land and that crops that were to be harvested that year were never paid for. According to one testimony, the land was reimbursed as if it were unimproved although the owner had a home, outbuildings, an irrigation system and a well. The government, he said, paid for none of it.
I find a bit of irony in the story of the soldiers settlement around Hanford. Even in 1918 the Country Gentleman article was quick to delineate factors that contributed to the failure of some of the Australian settlements. One wonders whether Dr. Mead was aware of what the journalist John R. McMahon knew. McMahon’s article points out that individual allotments, like Martin’s, tended to fail:
An isolated settler gets tired. If he uses up-to-date methods his old-fashioned neighbors sneer at him, and if he succeeds with his new ideas they are jealous. A group settlement of soldiers means congenial surroundings for the colonists, better work done by the members through generous rivalry, and finally the great advantage of administration and of scientific supervision, on which last factor the success of the entire enterprise largely depends. Most of the settlers need to be taught, and they might as well be taught the most efficient scientific methods.
When my father and my uncle established their farms on Danielson Road, they shared observations, lodging, materials, labor and equipment with each other. Such mutual support by nearby veterans might have saved the soldier settlement if all the tracts had been kept close together. But the real irony is that any of the soldier farmers who did succeed eventually had their land and their profits taken away from them again by the very government that had depended upon their service in World War I.
Martin Paroz lost his land to the government in 1943, but in 1957 he retired from the job he held at General Electric, comfortably well off. Presumably he worked at the Atomic Energy works, which would be some consolation for the loss of his land. He and his second wife immediately headed off to Europe to visit his family and to tour the continent. In December Pauline delivered a talk about their journey at a Richland social gathering. I wonder if Martin returned to the fields he knew in battle when he traveled through France.