September 28, 1906
The last week has been very cold. Me and Buck have been lucky so far to find a roof in a few barns. My spirits are good though because of thinking of you. I have made several sales in the last few days and my cut should be pretty good. I was in Chicago three days ago and they were showing off a flying machine. It was two big kites with boards between them. They had pictures of other flying machines as well and people were saying that they were building them all over the place. Maybe I will be able to use one someday to fly home and see you. You are always in my thoughts.
In the fall of 1906, Frank Cloyd was a traveling salesman for a long-dead dairy farm implement company. As part of this job, he travelled throughout the upper Midwest on horseback, visiting farms in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, convincing hard working dairy farmers to buy the latest machinery to aid them in milking their cows and storing the milk.
Frank had left his home in southern Wisconsin just the year before. He was the youngest of seven children, all the rest of whom still lived at home, working the family dairy farm and the associated cheese making business. Frank wasn't much for the daily routine of turn of the century farm life, and so he took advantage of his ability to charm others and the fact that he was the only one of the children who received enough schooling to be able to read and write and thus became a traveling salesman.
But he left part of his heart behind. Scarcely two miles from the Cloyd family farm was another small family dairy farm, and on that farm was a rather bright young woman named Flossie Arthur. Frank wrote about a hundred letters to Flossie throughout 1906 and 1907, and in November 1907, the two of them were married and Frank was able to buy a small dairy farm of his own from the commissions he saved while being a salesman along with some help from both families. By 1920, Frank and Flossie were the parents of six children, the second oldest of which was named Kenneth. My great grandfather.
October 14, 1906
I have been snowed in a barn near Dixon for the last two days. The family here has allowed me to eat at their table for every meal and I have done some work to make up for it. The weather is mighty cold today. I long to see you again.
I was about eight years old when my great grandmother gave me a box of old letters addressed to a woman named Flossie from a man named Frank. Both of them had shed their mortal coils in the late 1960s and thus I never had the opportunity to meet them, and their son had also passed on in 1980, a man I have only the very faintest recollections of.
My great grandmother, though, she was a different story entirely, a terrifically vivid part of my childhood. I'd usually spend a week with her each summer during my early childhood years, and we'd do all sort of things. She taught me that cooking from a recipe takes all the fun out of it, and that a good day is a day when you really need a shower at the end of it. She enjoyed watching ice hockey and she was a big fan of MTV back in the days when all it showed were music videos.
She lived a long and rather interesting life, stretching from growing up on a dairy farm to at various points being a secretary, an auto mechanic, and a barkeep. Along the way she had seven children and managed to keep track of my great grandfather, who was apparently one of the great eccentrics of his time. Because of that, she spent a good chunk of the 1980s and early 1990s writing a rather fascinating biography of herself, one that she really had no interest in publishing. She just wanted to write it all down before she began to forget about it.
I'd come up during the summers and, being the reading fanatic that I was, I'd read through her latest drafts, tales of cows and cars and restaurants, stories of towns long since dried up, a legend that was somehow real and embodied in this amazing woman. She told me stories of the first time she saw an automobile at age eleven and how she voted for the first time in 1932 for FDR in order to "get that bastard Hoover out of office." She told stories of astounding, incredible poverty, even to my own burgeoning penny pinching sensibilities, and yet she could follow them with tales of her children and grandchildren and you'd almost believe she was one of the richest women in the world.
It was a nice evening after a long day of playing, and my grandmother had made a pitcher of limeade. The two of us sat there on the front porch and drank limeade and watched the sun set and I told her one of the most fundamental truths of my life, something I had managed to already figure out when I was eight. I truly wished that I lived about a hundred years ago, in a much different world than we know now.
November 11, 1906
In Chicago. I stopped in the office to leave my papers and they had a new telephone. It made a tremendous buzz when someone would call and the men around the office would drop what they were doing to answer it. It seems more trouble than it's worth. I will be home for Christmas and I plan to see you.
My grandmother kept the letters that Frank sent to Flossie in an old hat box, and one wonderful evening on the front porch, over glasses of limeade, we went through the letters.
They were all as short as the ones here; Frank wasn't a long-winded man by any stretch of the imagination. Some of them included newspaper clippings from the papers in whatever town he was in, usually telling of something related to dairy farming or a report on a local fair.
They painted a picture of a man with a great deal of freedom and it brought him immense joy. He was able to wander around, see so many things he'd never seen before, put some money in his pocket, and still feel as though he could rely on others if he were in a pinch. He often would get a meal and a clothes washing at a farm in exchange for a few chores and some of them would buy a piece of equipment or two from him. And then he was free to wander in whatever direction he wanted to go, all throughout the upper Midwest on horseback.
I was mesmerized by Frank Cloyd. I couldn't imagine a life so beautiful and free, even at that age; I saw the financial burden my parents were under and I knew that my future would likely contain many of the same burdens.
In one of the letters, I found an old photograph of himself that he had sent to Flossie. He was wearing a hat and a rather ill-fitting suit and was standing next to a horse that I must assume was Buck. The horse had a saddle and a pair of saddlebags on it and Frank's hand rested on the horse's back. He stood there, somewhat leaning on the horse, with a half smile on his face, without a care in the world.
December 18, 1906
I may be home before you receive this letter. I have gifts for the little ones and a few things for the farm. The weather has been nice lately and Buck is feeling well again. I look forward to a piece of your mother's apple pie.
I long for some kind of America that isn't there anymore. I want to go back to a land where an individual with a sharp mind could really make a difference without the backing of a large organization. I wish for a time when the focus of most Americans was their own family, not rushing to the top of some economic mountain.
Where did we go wrong? In those days, if someone stopped by your home on horseback and offered to do some chores in exchange for a meal, you would be welcomed into their house. Today, we would lock the door and peer out the curtains at them until they left.
I would give anything to go back a hundred years, get on the back of a good horse, and travel from town to town with my great great grandfather. I look at that sepia-toned photograph and I wonder what his life was like, what worried him, what he thought about. I can't imagine the freedom he must have felt, knowing that if he wanted to start over again, it was as easy as picking up a few belongings and heading down the road. He didn't have loans or a credit history looming over him, and he also had the fundamental belief in the goodness of other men, that in most cases they would treat you as you treated them.
What of fifty years before that, when I could set out on my own, place a flag on a piece of land, and have it be mine. An open forty acres, completely empty and entirely up to me what to make of it: a home, a farm, a trading post. I dream of the Oregon Trail and the immense sense of possibility that laid out before those people.
It's that sense of freedom that I really long for, that sense of promise and potential, that you could make of your life what you wanted without having to pay Uncle Sam a portion of every dollar you made. That was the American dream, one where you were given the chance to make your own life as you saw fit, without regulations and rules and society bearing down upon you with every step.
It's an America I never knew and never will know.