A Vision of the Homeland

How Oliver C. Perry's prize-winning play encouraged rural education

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Click to read Foreword.

Read Mr. Perry's entire play by clicking the red title-block above. Its purpose was explained in the foreword.

Click for Act I excerpt.

The problem is established in Act I: the coarseness of rural life.

Act I excerpt.

By the end of Act I the rural resistance to education and modernism is established.

Act II: The Vision

In Act II we get the "Vision" promised by the title. We also get further complications involving sick hogs.

Act III: Success.

By Act III the vision is realized, and the conflict all but resolved. Civilization wins and the hogs are saved.

Act III: Resolution

By the end of Act III, the conflicting parties are unified for progress.

Lincoln Review

This review of the play appeared in the Lincoln Daily Star on February 25, 1917.

Plattsburg Consolidated Presentation

The Plattsburg, Missouri paper noted a presentation of Perry's play in May, 1917.

Stevens Point Normal School

The Stevens Point Normal School in Wisconson presented A Vision of the Homeland in May of 1917.

Nebraska Teacher Handbook, 1920

The Handbook for Nebraska Teachers, from 1920, mentions a production of the play, perhaps by local actors.

Oliver Perry's Will

Oliver Perry died of tuberculosis in 1937. Just before his death he recorded this will, which mentions his daughter, Margaret Mae Perry. Among other things, the will confirms that Louise Sublette is the sister of Florence Sublette, of Kirksville, Missouri. He died just under four months after signing the will. We wish we knew more about this engimatic man, but the records are sparse.

Zerva F. Cauby Coleman

Other members of the cast had writing aspirations. Zerva Cauby became Zerva Coleman, and prompted this notice from the Chillicothe Tribune, September 24, 1940.

Public education has not always been an unquestioned benefit. Its acceptance in America came during the century from the civil war to World War II, along with the population shift from farms to cities. Education and urbanization were mutually reinforcing social changes, and rural America was a reluctant participant.

Agriculture grew in volume and productivity during this time, and the family farm became a social heirloom. The industrial revolution drew its labor force of factory workers, retailers, entrepreneurs and engineers from rural America, and rural education was the catalyst. It was a massive enterprise, but there was no massive central direction. The rural education that eased the transition from plowboy to cityboy was a grassroots initiative, inspired by hundreds of visionaries, guided by thousands of local leaders, and implemented by scores of thousands of teachers. All followed a common vision that gripped hard around the social consciouisness, apparently nourished by the collective will.

As late as 1916, just before the Great War to end all wars, the resistance to rural education was still strong enough to draw a concerted counter-effort from education leaders. States had set up their "Normal" schools, following the trend started in Europe to standardize or teach the "norms" of basic subjects to prospective teachers. The Normal School in Kirksville, Missouri, by that time had a total enrollment of about 4350 students. In addition to the standard departments of science, liberal arts, and education, there was a department of Rural Education. There was also a Rural Demonstration School, for teaching the finer points of running a rural school, as well as a Janitor's Club to teach the value of work.

Among the student organizations there was a Rural Sociology Club, established by the college president in 1911. The Sociology Club notes, in the 1917 Yearbook, "During the winter quarter, the club arranged for a the Dramatic Club to give another production of the rural life play, 'A Vision of the Homeland,' in order that all of the students might see it." And, just like that, we've discovered one of those scores of thousands who inspired rural education.

Oliver C. Perry was a 29-year-old sophomore at the Kirksville Normal School when he wrote "A Vision of the Homeland, A Play of the Open Country." It was a class project, an annual competition, administered by the head of the English Depatment. The play itself is available to us through the miracle of the Internet. It tells, thick with dialect, about a struggle between local farmers who don't see the benefit of all that "book larnin'," and the enlightened educators waging thier grim fight for the future. In the end the rustic impulses are modified, and school is affirmed.

The play was performed thirteen times by the Kirksville Dramatic Club during the 1916-1917 term. They used "Twin Ford" automobiles, an innovation for 1916, and visited nine other Missouri towns, and even ventured as far as Lincoln, Nebraska. Over the next few years various handbooks on education urged local schools to consider staging the play for their own locale, and some did. Its message was simple, "education is a good thing," and the thesis was still just controversial enough to make it entertaining, but not insulting. The thick dialect probably went a long way in convincing the audiences that the play's villains, ignorant local farmers who eventually see the light, were based on "those other people," not them.

Who was this Oliver C. Perry? Did he go on to a literary life? Did he become a successful educator? He became momentarily famous in 1916, in a small Missouri district. How did fame sit on his shoulders? Alas, Mr. Perry is one of those whom Yeats saluted with his famous line, "Who've learned to troop with those the world's forgot, and copy their proud steady gaze."

The North Missouri Normal School in Kirksville, Missouri, joined a long tradition of world-wide teacher-education in 1867. Joseph Baldwin founded it as a private institution, and since 1870 it has been supported by the state as an educator of educators. Baldwin went on to Texas as the President of the Huntsville Normal School, eventually retiring from the University of Texas in Austin. The Kirksville school, now known as Truman State, has had several name changes, but has retained its focus on teacher education.

The Ecole Normale, in Reims, France, founded in 1685, was the world's first normal school, intended to bolster the norms of accepted social values. Normal schools in Europe arose as a way of providing adequately educated citizens to a rapidly industrializing society. The notion reached America in 1823 with the founding of the Concord, Vermont Normal School, and grew over the next decades to include most states. Kirksville was not the first Missouri Normal school. That honor goes to Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis, the first normal school west of the Mississippi.

By the 1916-1917 academic year the Kirksville school was a strong social force, producing the cream of the teaching cadres in north Missouri, including, crucially, the many rural schools. They assumed the job of normalizing the social skills of the region's rural citizens. Reading and writing were the means, but elevated consciousness was the seldom-stated end. "A Vision of the Homeland," is unique for its forthright assertion that education leads to both a better life, and better living.

The temporal and social context of Mr. Perry's play is difficult to visualize through the lens of twentieth century change. He wrote it in 1916, rooted in the intellectual ecosystem of Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain. It was before America's awareness of the Great War, before the Jazz Age, before the Great Depression, before the Holocaust, before the Cold War, before Vietnam, before the instant connectedness of the Internet. Outhouses and clotheslines were as common as our iPhones. Model-Ts and Airplanes were the leading edge of progress. The college yearbook of 1917 gives us a full page photograph of a room full of typewriters. Think of it. What would be comparable today? No, not computers. No yearbook has ever featured a photograph of empty computers. Those typewriters were a wonder, on a par with the Sphinx.

A kind of understated wit was the essence of chic deportment among college people at the time. It formed an editorial standard for college yearbooks, then and for subsequent decades. We have access to the Truman State yearbooks, through the wonder of the Internet. Click on the link, and transport yourself back to Perry's time; peruse the college yearbooks of the Kirksville Normal school for the years, 1916-1918. You will find a very different college experience than that of post WW II generations. Notice the freshness of expression; the irreverent attitude replaced in later decades by deliberate coarseness. These were people living on the muddy edge of civilization, for whom coarseness was boring, not titillating.

Read the apothegms and epigrams, or whatever they are, that accompany each picture. Note the scattering of witticisms and jabs throughout the volume, as well as the verse that slides across several pages at unexpected, and improbable moments. These books are literary undertakings by people indulging themselves in a new art, consciously and deliberately speaking to posterity. The barbs are sharp, and playfully direct, but they differ from similar attempts in subsequent generations in eschewing the crude and vulgar. These generations were in the age before the popular parlor was sullied with pig droppings.

The Kirksville Normal School, probably like all normal schools, was lit by the same spark that illuminated Mr. Perry's play. It was a place apart from rural Missouri, a place separate from the barnyard, and the chicken house, and the milk barn, and hayloft. It existed in the same geography with rural Missouri, but on a different plane, in a separate room, where the linens were washed, and the floors swept, and people spoke English from the dictionary, and didn't spit on the floor. It trained young people to train other young people to enter a society that had not yet been built. It was a grand undertaking, this progress stuff, and the students were the evangelists of a new society. That was Mr. Perry's vision, and it was the sometimes desperate vision of rural educators.

We know far less of Mr. Perry himself than of the school he attended and the America he envisioned. There were, and are still, many Oliver C. Perrys, but the young man who wrote "A Vision of the Homeland," was probably born February 8, 1888, in Garfield, Arkansas. That information appears on his draft registration card, completed in Kirksville on June 5, 1917. How he came to attend school in Kirksville, we don't know. He and his sister appear in the 1900 census living in Arkansas with their mother, Nancy, and her new husband, William Good. After registering for the draft in 1917, he reappears in public records in 1923, in Kirksville, marrying Eleanor Louise Sublette. His residence is listed as Swannanoa, North Carolina.

Louise Sublette was the daughter of a Kirksville family, and her siblings show up in the Normal School yearbooks. The 1930 census has the couple living in Swannanoa, along with Bessie Zieber, a friend from Kirksville. Perry is unemployed, but his wife and Bessie are public school teachers. Oliver Perry died of tuberculosis November 1, 1937, in Swannanoa. His death certificate confirms his date and place of birth, and Louise is listed as the informant. We know the military ran a tuberculosis clinic in Swannanoa during WW I, and we are left to speculate that perhaps Perry contracted the disease during the war and was transferred to the hospital in North Carolina. He hasn't been found in hospital records, but that means little.

We find Mr. Perry's Will, and it indicates he had a daughter, Margaret, born in 1921, two years before he married Louise. We find a marriage record for Margaret, listing her as Margaret Mae Perry (Dubois), indicating she married Herbert Pearce on July 8, 1953, in Ohio. That record lists her mother as Louise Sublette, and her father as Arthur E. Dubois, whom Louise married after Oliver's death. There is also a death record for Margaret from Social Security, May 11, 1997, indicating Oliver and Louise as her parents.

We find no records of Mr. Perry's literary efforts after college. "A Vision of the Homeland," appears to have been his sole contribution to the world's literature. Louise Sublette Perry is a different story. She became an American playwright. She wrote plays for the production of student groups, and many were produced in high schools around the country during the 1930s and '40s, and perhaps beyond. She graduated the University of North Carolina in 1931, and earned a Master's degree at Louisiana State University, where her thesis was titled "Toward a Speech Clinic." She joined the faculty of Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1943. By that time what may have been her 1930s boarder, Mrs. Marguerite Zeigel Hedburg, was already on the faculty, as was an Elizabeth Ziegel. There is undoubtedly more to that story.

At the last, we are left with a brief literary flame, obscured by decades of social amnesia. It was a moment in America's history, like all other moments, when things could have gone this way or that, or any other which way. Oliver C. Perry touched the steering wheel from a remote rural district, for the shortest of intervals, and helped guide us to this time.


On the road.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1916-1917, Mr. Perry's play toured rural towns in Missouri, and ranged as far west as Lincoln, Nebraska. (click the image for an enlarged view)

The schedule.

The yearbook featured a remembrance of the play, with a record of its schedule.

Pattosnburg, Missouri.

The play was not staged in Pattonsburg, Missouri, a tiny town northeast of St. Joseph, largely wiped out in a 1993 flood. Perhaps this picture was taken enroute to Lincoln, Nebraska, or some other scheduled venue. It is typical of Yearbook whimsy..

Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln, Nebraska was a long trek for 1916. The Lincoln Highway was mostly notional at the time, and perhaps, as suggested in the previous picture, they traveled by train. A review of the performance has survived.

Oliver C Perry-1917

Oliver C Perry is a mysterious figure, perhaps born in Arkansas in 1888. He attended the Northeast Missouri State University (later the Kirksville Normal School) in 1917 as a sophomore, but was not there in 1916. He gained prominence by winning a student playwriting competition.

The Cast

The original cast included both students and faculty.

The Road Show

The play was performed 3 times in Kirksville and in 10 small towns nearby. Roads and motorcars were primitive in 1916-1917, making this an ambitious winter adventure. They also went to Lincoln, Nebraska, 270 miles away over the fledgling Lincoln Highway.

Yearbook Collection

You may peruse the yearbooks from Kirksville Normal School, going all the way back to 1901. The era seems almost foreign to our perceptions. Have a look at 1917, Oliver Perry's year, just before the War to End All Wars.(Hint: see an image of any page by scrolling in the table of contents window)

John Kirk, President

The president of Kirksville Normal School provided this message to the 1917 yearbook, reciting a few facts and aspirations about the school. He asserts his school is the oldest Normal School in Missouri. The Internet dissents, but let's concentrate on his stated mission: Mr. Perry's vision.

Louise Sublette Perry

By 1944 Louise Sublette Perry was on the faculty of Delta State University in Cleveland Mississippi. Her daughter, Margaret Mae Perry, had a daughter, Barbara Louise Pearce, who achieved prominence in the legal and real estate worlds. Oliver Perry's legacy shines well beyond his Kirksville days.

Books by Louise Sublette Perry

Louise Sublette Perry wrote several plays and other books over her career. Those available, though not in print, can be seen at left. Her play, "One Fine Day," was the first ever performed by the Olympia Little Theater, in Olympia, Washington, 1939.

Career of Zerva Fern Cauby Coleman Glasscock

Other members of the cast have shown up in public records. Zerva Cauby married a man named Coleman, and later one named Glasscock, and enlisted in the Women's Army Corps during WW II, where she attained the rank of Sergeant.

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