Some Foley Poetry

Okay, that’s enough politics for a while. Time to bring the blood pressure back down and share a little prairie literature. There’s a fascinating story unfolding in Medora right now. It has to do with the von Hoffman House, ordered up by Medora’s mother, the Baroness von Hoffman of New York, so that she and her husband, the Baron von Hoffman, would have a place to stay when they came to visit their daughter and son-in-law, Medora and the Marquis de Mores. Except, according to researchers, they never came, and so  in 1885 the Marquis hired a fellow named James W. Foley Sr. as a caretaker and moved Foley and his family, including little Jimmy, the son who would go on to become the famous Poet Laureate of North Dakota, into the house, where the family resided for most of the next 60 years.

Now I’ve not been a big fan of James W. Foley Jr.’s (1874-1939) poems, after hearing them too many times when I was a child (except for Billy Peeble’s Christmas, which we used to read on Christmas Eve every year at my house), but I’ve taken a new look at his work the past couple of weeks, and I’m finding some redeeming social value. The guy did get 13 volumes published, so someone liked them and bought them. And recently a company named Bibliolife has discovered the books are in the public domain and is reprinting them by scanning the pages, producing look-alikes to the original editions except for the covers. So there must still be some interest in them. And there is a Medora connection, so that gets him more points in my book. Besides the fact that his father worked for the Marquis, and that Foley family descendants have now surfaced with a good bit of the original furniture that was in the home in the 1880’s, which is leading to the restoration of the von Hoffman House as a museum, there’s also a Theodore Roosevelt connection.

Roosevelt actually wrote the introduction to one of Foley’s books, “Voices of Song,” published in 1916. Here’s part of what he wrote:

“Among the friends I made was the father of the author of this volume. Mr. Foley was one of the comparatively few men of that time and region who was devoted to reading and to books. Now and then, after six or eight weeks on the range with valued friends who were of distinctly non-literary type, I would come in to spend an evening with Mr. Foley for the especial purpose of again listening to speech about books. At that time the present poet was one of the small Foley boys, and seemed far more likely to develop into a cow-puncher than a literary man. At different times he and his brothers worked for me and with me.

“I think it was the author himself, who, on one occasion in my absence, joined with my foreman Sylvane Ferris in improvising , out of my rather large collection of somewhat uncertain-tempered horses, a pair which it was deemed possible to harness to a wagon in order to take a certain Eastern college professor and his wife out to see the Bad Lands. The team, which was driven by “Foley’s boy,” ran away and the unfortunate professor broke his leg. Sylvane Ferris related the incident to me, explaining that he had called on the professor–who was then undergoing convalescence in the very unattractive local hotel–and had told him that in view of the accident he would not charge him anything for the rig. The professor retorted with some acerbity that he was glad some consideration was shown him, for he had begun to believe that the runaway team had been given him on purpose. “By George!” said Sylvane, “It made me hot to call that a runaway team. Why, one of them horses never could have run away before! He had never been druv but twice! As for the other horse, maybe he’d run away a few times; but there were lots of times he hadn’t run away!”  –which last statement Sylvane considered a guarantee of gentleness sufficient to satisfy the most exacting! So I can testify from personal knowledge that Mr. Foley writes his western sketches not out of  books, but out of his own ample experience.”

And so, today, I offer up a pair of Foley’s “western sketches,” for your consideration.

(Read at the opening for traffic of the Red Trail Bridge at Medora July 24, 1916)
Ye are the builders of empire, who bridge all the rivers that flow,
Who tunnel the hills with your pathways as Westward and Westward ye go;
Who ridge all the hillsides with furrows and bring down the grain to your mill,
Who go forth with stout hearts and singing to bend the wild lands to your will.

And this is the empire ye builded and this is the river ye span,
And these are the fields ye made fertile and here rise the dreams that ye plan;
And this is the west where ye planned them–the West that has given to thee
The spirit that thrills in a people grown sturdy and steadfast and free.

And what will ye give of the spirit–give back to the West where it grew?
Will ye give souls for service as steadfast as skies of Dakota are blue?
Will ye stand firm for right and for freedom as these rugged hills have stood long?
Will ye honor the wild lands ye master with purpose that still shall be strong?

For freedom what foes may assail it? Aye these be the dreams that we dream,
To last while these hills shall stand steadfast, and down the long course of the stream
The waters shall flow on unceasing! For this is the empire ye made,
And so shall ye honor it–free men, with strong hearts and souls unafraid.

That cautionary verse may or may not have been inspired by the building of the automobile bridge at Medora, but it surely sets out a challenge to those who build and use them. And then, in this poem, he laments what that bridge–or any bridge–might have meant to the wild lands of Western Dakota he so loved.

They have tamed it with their harrow; they have broken it with plows;
Where the bison used to range it someone’s built himself a house;
They have stuck it full of fenceposts, they have girdled it with wire,
They have shamed it and profaned it with an automobile tire;
They have bridged its gullied rivers; they have peopled it with men;
They have churched it, they have schooled it, they have steepled it–Amen.

They have furrowed it with ridges, they have seeded it with grain,
And the West that was worth knowing, I shall never know again.
They have smothered all its campfires, where the bearded plainsmen slept;
They have driven up their cattle, where the skulking coyote crept;
They have made themselves a pasture where the timid deer would browse,
Where the antelope were feeding, they have dotted o’er with cows;
There’s a yokel’s tuneless whistling down the bison’s winding trail,
Where the redmen’s arrow fluttered there’s a woman with a pail
Driving up the cows for milking; they have cut its wild extent
Into forty acre patches till its glory is all spent.

I remember in the sixties, when as far as I could see,
It was never lord or ruler, but the buffalo and me;
Ere the blight of man was on it, and the endless acres lay
Just as God Almighty left them on the restful Seventh Day.
When no sound rose from its vastness but a murmured hum and dim
Like the echoed void of Silence in an unheard prairie hymn,
And I lay at night and rested in my bed of blankets curled
Much alone as if I was the only man in the world.

But the prairie’s passed or passing, with the passing of the years,
Till there is no west worth knowing, and there are no Pioneers.
They have riddled it with railroads, throbbing on and on and on,
They have ridded it of dangers till the zest of it is gone.
And I’ve saddled up my pony, for I’m dull and lonesome here,
To go westward, westward, westward, till we find a new frontier,
To get back to God’s own wildness and the skies we used to know—
But there is no West; it’s conquered–and I don’t know where to go.

Now, that’s probably not “some of the best poetry ever written about North Dakota” but you get Foley’s message. I’m trying to imagine what he might think if he hopped on that pony and rode around western North Dakota today.

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