Sowing The American Dream

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Some years ago a magazine asked J. Paul Getty to write an article to be entitled “The Secret of My Success.” Getty agreed, and a short time later the manuscript arrived in the mail. It read, in its entirety, “Some people find oil; others don’t.” Earlier, Commodore Vanderbilt is supposed to have explained his own economic success by noting simply that “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Both Vanderbilt and Getty, of course, found opportunities that made them rich almost beyond counting, and as a result, their stories have been told many times and at much greater length than their own one-sentence forays into autobiography. But in this respect economic history is much like military history, for it is usually generals and admirals, not Pfc.’s and able seamen, however brave, who are remembered and memorialized. Likewise, for every Getty and Vanderbilt there have been tens of thousands of others who also saw their opportunities in the American economy and took them.

For these people, the opportunities they seized resulted not in the making of great fortunes but only in good lives well lived and still greater opportunities for their children. And that, not unbounded wealth, is the real essence of the American dream. The stories of these people are often no less stirring, their accomplishments no less real, their legacies no less rich, than the stories of multimillionaires.

Consider an area of New York State, about sixty miles from Times Square by land—and vastly farther in spirit—that is known as the black dirt country.

At the end of the last ice age, ten thousand years ago, a glacier left behind a shallow lake in southern Orange County, drained by the Wallkill River. The Wallkill runs, most unusually for an American river, northward; but it does so only reluctantly, and its sluggish flow often spills out over its banks to this day despite numerous attempts to contain it. The lake, soon choked with reeds, slowly disappeared as the rotting vegetation built up. In time it became a seasonal swamp dotted with the limestone uprises that had once been islands.

The soil created by this lost lake is almost wholly organic matter. Left undisturbed, it would have become a peat bog and eventually a coal seam. At the stage it is in now it is known, technically, as muck soil. Orange County, with a total of twenty-six thousand acres, had more of it in one spot than any place else in the United States except the Florida Everglades.

The early settlers of the region were upland farmers accustomed to welldrained soil. They turned the short, once-wooded hills and small valleys of Orange County into dairy farms and fruit orchards. In dry years they ran cattle in the swamp and cut the white cedar that grew there for firewood. Numerous projects were proposed to drain the so-called drowned lands, but the Wallkill River proved intractable.

In the middle of the nineteenth century some of the farmers drained and cleared a little of the swampland and discovered how extraordinarily rich the deep black soil was. But because they were intimidated by the work involved in making it productive, nothing much came of it. But then a group of Polish and Volga German immigrants who had been living in New York City and working in the area as seasonal help on the farms saw the opportunities presented by the black dirt and took ’em.

Unlike most of Western Europe, many areas of Eastern Europe are lowlying and poorly drained. Once these areas were made fit for agriculture, however, they became extremely productive. The black dirt in Orange County, the newcomers recognized immediately, was much the same.

Because the drowned lands were largely regarded as useless, the impoverished immigrants were able to buy small parcels very cheaply and, with a vast investment of “sweat equity,” begin the backbreaking task of making it economically fruitful. Families with names like Poloniak, Bogdanski, Gurda, and Wierzbicki began to set down roots near the tiny town of Pine Island, located on one of the limestone uprises in the middle of the black dirt. Volga Germans founded the town of Little York on its eastern rim.

The first step to reclaiming the land was drainage. Muck soil is like no other. Behaving like a sponge, it soaks up water and holds it in large quantities. The exposed soil on top dries quickly, but the crust then holds in the moisture below. Jumping up and down on it causes it to tremble for yards around like a gigantic bowl of black JeIl-O. Ditches several feet deep had to be dug by hand in a checkerboard fashion, dividing the land into fields an acre or so in size.

Next, the wild vegetation had to be cleared. The trees could be cut down, and the stumps burned, but this was risky. Once drained, the soil, being nearly pure organic matter, caught fire easily and could burn underground for weeks, creating sinkholes into which people and even horses and wagons could suddenly vanish, sometimes years after the fire was extinguished. Instead, most stumps were laboriously cut free of their roots and then pulled by teams of horses.

Under these conditions, the new landowners could clear only an acre or two of land a year at best. But once it was cleared, what land it was. Because the muck soil is rich, stone-free, and deep (it averages four to twentyfive feet and in spots is rumored to be as much as sixty feet deep), it is ideal for truck farming and, when flood, wind, and insect don’t interfere, immensely productive.