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Nebraska History

While reading Hard Times (1970) by Studs Terkel, I came across the following, in an interview with the journalist George Murray:

He recounts his experiences with Dr. Townsend, the country doctor out of Nebraska. “He was so slender, so thin, never weighed more than 120 pounds, had a good thatch of white hair.”

“In 1933, at sixty-seven, he was Health Commissioner in Long Beach, California, and selling a little real estate on the side. He was dealing with old people. He was aware of their lack of money and of anybody’s interest in them. He wrote a three-hundred word letter to the editor of the Long Beach Telegram. His idea: a gross income tax of two percent on everybody in the country, no exceptions. Proceeds to be divided among all people over sixty, the blind and disabled, and mothers of dependent children. They had to spend it within thirty days. He wasn’t a great economist, but he had something figured out in his mind.

It caught on so quickly, he didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t a movement at first. But then ten thousand letters came in a month. People from Long Beach sent this clipping all over the country. Other papers picked it up. He turned his real estate office into headquarters. From then on, it was part of the American scene.”

I couldn’t find anything on the Internet about where Dr. Francis Townsend was from, exactly.  Where in Nebraska? I had to check out his autobiography, New Horizons (1943).

So, for anyone else who may be interested in the exact Midwestern geography of Townsend’s life, here is the run-down:

Townsend was born 1867, in north-central Illinois, Livingston County, outside Fairbury, Illinois.  He lived on the family farm there until 1884, when the family decided to sell the farm and move to southern Nebraska.

They settled in Franklin, Nebraska, a small town near where my dad grew up.  According to Townsend, they chose Franklin “because there was an academy there–a Congregational church school that gave a college preparatory course.”  Townsend left after two years (without graduating).  His father invested in a hardware store in Franklin.  They did not enjoy Nebraska much at all — two years of drought and hot winds.

Francis and his brother decided to decamp to California. He worked baling hay and working as a ranch hand in California (70 miles north of Los Angeles), til the economy busted there, too.  In late 1889 he went north to Spokane and worked various jobs.

Times were tough all over, so he ended up going back to his parents’ in Franklin in 1890.  He went back to Franklin Academy and graduated with his high school diploma in the spring of 1893, at the age of 26.  “But Nebraska was still, after the several years I had been away, the dry, windswept, unprosperous place it had been when I left.”

He headed down to northwestern Kansas, to homestead in the area where his sister now lived. He built a sod house and worked as a school teacher. He stayed there til late 1898, then boxcarred his way up to Colorado, where he worked various rough jobs in small mining towns. After winter set in, and the mining towns shut down, he wandered back to central Kansas, and hooked up with a big Irishman selling cook stoves.  Townsend credits this unnamed Irishman with teaching him everything he knew about salesmanship.

After earning some money through the summer of 1899 selling stoves, he went to Omaha to enroll in the Omaha Medical College.  He worked his way through college.  One of his jobs was as a 31-year-old paperboy for the Omaha World-Herald.

After graduation, he got a gig as a general doctor up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in a town called Belle Fourche.  It was a rough and tumble place, but he enjoyed his life with the cowboys.  After marrying a nurse, he bought some land in nearby Nisland, SD, and moved there in 1914.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917, for WWI.  He was stationed in Vermillion, SD, to be the doctor at an officer’s training camp.  (Reference point for Nebraskans: this is not too far from Lewis and Clark Lake.) After the war he stayed in Vermillion as a doctor for a while.

He own health was failing, so they decided to move to Long Beach, California in 1919, which was to be his home for the rest of his life.

* * *

So, I don’t really think it’s correct for Terkel to refer to Dr. Townsend as a Nebraskan, I think he identified more as an Illinoisan or South Dakotan. But it is fun to find out that anyone famous came out of Franklin.

Townsend was a great Midwestern type — he came up with a common-sense idea to eradicate poverty, increase employment, and stimulate spending, and he pursued it tirelessly.  Though he had thousands of followers, he was always honest, and didn’t use his power for financial gain.  The popularity of “the Townsend Plan” prompted U.S. lawmakers to establish Social Security.  After this partial victory, Dr. Townsend and his clubs continued to organize and lobby Congress to pass the entire plan to end poverty in the U.S.

The front matter of his autobiography reads “POVERTY BREEDS WAR. This book is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created with certain inherent rights among which is the right to live above the status of poverty and the evils that poverty entails. Poverty breeds war.”