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Bread Upon The Waters
Twice in one generation we kept Russia from starving; the Kremlin plays it down, but the people we fed remember—and history will not forget
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
He found the response most gratifying. Messages to the millers of Minneapolis, where Edgar edited his journal, brought quick pledges of 420,000 pounds of flour, with the name of Charles A. Pillsbury leading all the rest. Governor W. R. Merriam soon took an interest in the cause, appointing a relict commission with Edgar as chairman and issuing a proclamation to the people of Minnesota urging contributions of flour or money. With committees working diligently in every county of the state, the accumulation was rapid. People gave generously, especially in farming areas where they themselves had felt, from time to time, the sting of bad crops and the scourge of such natural afflictions as locust swarms. Nobody at this grass-roots level seemed to be much concerned with the fact that the Czar was a despot: it was the people of Russia they had in mind.
Meanwhile Edgar had really caught the crusader’s spirit, and was wielding his pen with great persuasion in the columns of his maga/ine. “The poorest dog which hangs about the city streets of America,” he told his five thousand subscribers, “can pick up better food than the Russian peasant clamors for. … On the floor of every mill which The Northwestern Miller enters there lies wasting enough flour to lift a starving Russian peasant from misery to joy. … We shudder at the vision we have conjured up from snow-clad Russia, and are prone to dismiss it as a nightmare, unreal and impossible. But it is there. Stretching out its wan hands toward civilization and plenty, it asks for bread.”
By the end of January some three million pounds of flour had been subscribed and were en route to the port of New York. Several governors and metropolitan newspapers had backed the campaign, and gifts flowed eastward from 450 cities and towns in 25 states. The railroads picked up the benevolent contagion, shipping hundreds of carloads without charge; Western Union transmitted over live hundred free telegrams. The farmers of Nebraska offered two trainloads of unground corn: a large mill in Ohio ground and sacked’ it as a contribution to the undertaking, it was not, perhaps, corn meal that would have met General Clay’s southern specifications; nor would he have been likely to approve the directions lor cooking, composed in Chicago and printed in Russian on circulars sewed into each bag; but it was distinctly edible it was distinctly edible.
Despite the cheering success of the famine relief campaign, there were many worrisome problems for Edgar and his commission. Harper’s Weekly printed, in January, an account from a correspondent in St. Petersburg claiming that the Czar’s government was deliberately minimizing the famine; and indeed this had apparently been rellected in certain American papers, which said that the disaster had been greatly exaggerated. This did not help Edgar’s efforts. There were also, of course, the usual clouds of administrative gadflies; Edgar wryly added to a tabulated summary of the commission’s labors the comment: “No statistics have been prepared to show the number of swear words used in pushing the work.” Free Russia , a lofty eastern journal supported by a group including Julia Ward’ Howe, Mark Twain, and William Lloyd Garrison, complained that the millers were not getting their Hour to Russia fast enough to do much good, while The Nation discharged its liberal duty to the cause by observing that when corn meal had been shipped to Ireland to alleviate an earlier lamine, it had given the Irish dysentery.
But the really big problem was still the three thousand miles of cold Atlantic separating the American flour—by February swollen to nearly five million pounds stored in New York warehouses—from its Russian destination. Brushed oil by Congress, Edgar searched hopefully for another patron to supply a ship. During this quest he learned that the citizens of Philadelphia had concurrently conducted a Russian-famine relief campaign of their own, and had been olfered the steamship Indiana , for a voyage at cost, by the International Navigation Company. The Philadelphia group, although more local in its activities than Edgar’s, was sparked by Biddies, Drexels, and Blankenburgs, and had quickly raised enough money to sec the Indiana off to Russia with a cargo of five million pounds of flour on Washington’s Birthday, 1892. While necessarily pleased with this event, Edgar was even more delighted when the Atlantic Transport Line of Baltimore handsomely matched the Philadelphia firm’s gesture by opening the holds of its steamer Missouri to his relief flour absolutely free of charge.
From there on everything went rather well. It seemed that all of New York was anxious to get the ship loaded and out to sea on its errand of mercy. Coal, water, and tugboats were donated; stevedores, shipwrights, and harbor pilots volunteered their services; and in the last days the New York Chamber of Commerce voted $12,000 to round out the cargo with a final purchase of flour. The Missouri sailed on March 16, bound for the Baltic port of Liban with five and a half million pounds of flour and corn; Edgar and E. J. Phelps, a fellow commissioner, followed on the Teutonic the next morning. It was miserable weather for March, with snow flurries blowing gustily in the raw harbor air; but as the culmination of two months of devoted work, the departure must have had its glory for Edgar and his companion.