Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Al Acres

Another article, this one combining two favorite categories - farming and comics.

“Al Acres” and the Rush to Industrial Farming by Alan Borer

To use a machine to do the heavy lifting: that has always been part of the human hope, or at least the hope of our own industrial age. Perhaps machines were beyond the dreams of primitive man. But ever since humans learned to make tools that made their work easier, I suspect that we have always been trying to invent a machine or tool that would ease or eliminate the labor that went into making the created world.

This might read like the beginning of a ponderous essay, or another Luddite sermon explaining how we need to get rid of our machines and return to a pre-technological state of grace. So let me state right at the outset: we all need tools, farmers especially. The harness is a tool, after, all. So are the plow, the hoe, the disc, the combine, and the milking machine. The tricky part of the argument comes in the matter of scale. It might be correct to say that you cannot farm without a plow, but should the plow be pulled by a horse or a tractor? If a horse, how many horses, what do they eat, how much space do they take up? If a tractor, should it be steam, gasoline, or electric power? How many horsepower? As we ask in the era of global warming, what is the ‘carbon footprint’ of each decision and every choice?

These are difficult questions, and sages have spent years thinking and calculating before giving an “answer.” In the middle of the twentieth century, the “official” agricultural press, sponsored by machine and chemical companies, drew a rosy picture for farming and farmers. Their magazine stories and even more so their advertising promised utopia to farmers who would buy this or that tractor, spray this chemical, plant these seeds. Their “matter of scale” was bigger, more, better, especially more and bigger machines. Their pictures of smiling farmers, happy farmwives, and cherubic children promise that the lifestyle of the farmer could be the equivalent of the happiness promised to urban dwellers and especially the developing suburbs.

The old advertisements can be found in the musty back issues of farm magazines from all over the country. Everyone looks so happy, as if sadness was not part of the human condition. We have become jaded and suspicious of advertising, so as I leafed through the old farm journals I looked for other evidence of a too-good-to-be-true mentality. I kept seeing the same arguments gently and humorously portrayed in the comics. Particularly an old comic strip that was once popular here in Ohio called, “Activities of Al Acres.”

“Al Acres” was the creation of a cartoonist, not a farmer. Frank R. Leet (1881-1949) hailed from Cleveland, and was drawing and illustrating in the early years of the twentieth century. He drew at least four different, short-lived comic strips between 1907 and 1915. He also wrote several children’s books, including When Santa Was Late (1928), The Animal Caravan (1930), and Purr and Mew : Kitten Stories (1931). But Leet, who died in 1949, is best remembered (if at all) for Activities of Al Acres, which was syndicated and ran from 1916 to 1942. Although I have no idea how many readers Leet and “Al Acres” had, the strip was popular enough to create a 28 page comic book and become a staple of The Ohio Farmer, for almost 30 years. As the Ohio Farmer was the “trade journal” of Ohio agriculturalists, “Al Acres” was seen by many who worked the land.

The main character, Al Acres, farmed with his parents, aided by Slim, an Oliver-Hardy-style fat man who acted as farmhand and stereotypical lazy dullard. Over the years, Al and Slim competed in big-vegetable contests, wooed Miss Sweet, the local schoolteacher, and botched each other’s get-rich-quick schemes and practical jokes. Al loved to tinker and invent various labor saving-devices, which more often than not were unintentionally sabotaged by Slim or went to excessive lengths to plant, harvest, fix, or do or undo Al’s intended results.

The humor, as in many comic strips or the early part of the century, was very modest and usually very gentle, designed to produce a smile rather than a belly laugh. Leet shared some of the prejudices of mainstream, middle class America. The occasional African-American was a dialect-speaking rube, his young women were all frail and beautiful. More importantly to this essay, Leet (and Al Acres, by extension) shared the city dwellers conceit that all farm work was heavy, uncomfortable, and best done by simple drudges like Slim. It was the same misunderstanding that made Al an inventor of labor saving devices, and a champion of the belief that hard work was best avoided.

I have not read the entire run of “Al Acres,” but the perfect example for me of this argument was Leet’s character Tin Henry. Introduced to the strip in the summer of 1923, Tin Henry was Al Acre’s attempt to create the ultimate farm hand. Tin Henry was a gasoline fueled robot with a perpetual grin on his face and a comfortable put-put noise. As robots go, he must be related artistically to Tiktok, a character in the sequels to The Wizard of Oz.

Slim has his doubts about Tin Henry. After all, if Tin Henry was a success, Slim would be out of a job. But while Leet/Al saw Tin Henry as a panacea for hard work, Tin Henry never did quite what was expected. Asked to fill the barn with hay, Tin Henry stuffed it so full that the barn collapsed. Directed to drive posts for a fence, Henry drove them clear into the ground, then extended the fence all the way to the county seat. It was typical robot humor in a farm setting.

To the modern reader, Tin Henry could easily stand for the over-mechanization of farm life, perhaps of all life. The countryside of today looks about like the fulfillment of the prophecy of Tin Henry: machines more important than humans, and so few people living on the farm that even Al Acres would not recognize rural America. And a corollary to this vision is the fact that machines only farm as well as they are told to. It was not Tin Henry’s fault that he overfilled the barn, but his human master had to deal with the results, often unexpected, of what the overuse of technology brought. In 1923 it was an overstuffed barn. Today it may be soil erosion, dead zones in the Mississippi delta, or social dislocation as small towns die, abandoned by their farm folk.

In the 1930s, Frank Leet contracted “a form of encephalitis that left him with a palsy,” and had to turn over the drawing of “Al Acres” to his twelve year old son. Even with less sophisticated drawing and humor, the strip lasted until 1942. I do not claim that “Activities of Al Acres” was poignant, thoughtful, or cutting edge. Comic strips of that era rarely had a “message” to convey. Yet as a gauge of where things are going, even “Al Acres” reflected its time, and the worries of its time. Tin Henry may have been seen as a promising new future; his inability to do what Al Acres intended may actually have been a subtle dig at over-reliance on technology. We’ll never know. But whatever Frank Leet’s intention was, his lesson remains: Technology is great, but you must keep a sharp eye out when it goes haywire!

[Frank R. Leet is poorly remembered today, even by comics fans. A few facts can be found at http://lambiek.net/artists/l/leet_frank-r.htm. There are several good histories of the comic strip, but even older ones such as Stephen D. Becker’s Comic Art in America (1959) do not mention Leet. A single surviving copy of the Al Acres comic book is held by Michigan State University’s Comic Art Collection. The author would like to thank Randall W. Scott of MSU Libraries for the illustration and information.

Illustration courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.]

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