Login or signup
36

On The Road: Johnson County, Iowa;
 

When Dale Burr shot his wife, his banker, and himself, he became a national symbol of the farm crisis. Some of his neighbors see it differently.
Advertisement

NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW THE complete truth about Dale Burr's rampage through this community of rolling hills and family farms in southeastern Iowa last December 9. But the shotgun blasts he fired that day would startle the nation. "Indebted farmer kills 3, then self," the headlines read. America's farm crisis, it seemed, was turning bloody.

The tragedy began around 11 a.m., when the 63-year-old Burr, dressed in overalls and work boots, went down to the basement of the family homestead for his aging Remington 12-gauge pump shotgun. Emily Burr, his wife of 40 years, was his first victim, killed with a blast to the chest while she was baking cookies in the cheerful kitchen of the family's white farmhouse. Then Burr got in his green Chevy pickup and drove down the highway from Lone Tree to the nearby town of Hills, home of Hills Bank & Trust Co., holder of Burr's mortgage. Forty-six-year-old John Hughes, the bank's president, was Burr's second victim, killed by a shotgun blast to the head while he sat at his desk just off the lobby. Burr then drove to the home of 37-year-old Richard Goody, a tenant-farmer with whom he'd been embroiled in a land dispute. Burr shot and killed Goody, then fired at Goody's fleeing wife and six-year-old son before returning to his pickup. Spotted by a sheriff's deputy on the gravel road leading back to his farm, Burr was stopped. But while the deputy waited for backup to help with the arrest, Burr took his own life with two shotgun blasts to the chest.

By early afternoon a swarm of local and national reporters had descended on tiny Hills, population 547. America's farm problems are hardly a breaking story: falling commodity prices and rising debt loads have made pictures of auction foreclosures in the Farmbelt a staple on the nightly news. But Dale Burr's rampage made the story fresh again. Rather than just losing a business or a factory like any other overextended small-business man, a foreclosed farmer loses his home and his way of life, too. Dale Burr seemed a perfect illustration of the human strain of the farm crisis: more than half a million dollars in debt to his bankers, expecting to be driven off the land his family had worked since 1879. It seemed easy to understand the pressures that had driven this hardworking and genial fourth-generation farmer, a pillar of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, to such desperate acts.

A "tragedy waiting to happen," was how the press reported it. From the statehouse in Des Moines, Gov. Terry E. Branstad expressed his "anguish" that "the stressful economic times" had produced such violence. "Inevitable," local farm activists called it. They recited tales of other farmers stopped, loaded shotgun in hand, on the way to the bank, and predicted more terror on the farms unless Washington provided debt relief or price support for the embattled farmer. In Washington, Burr's name was invoked by lobbyists seeking to soften the Administration's farm bill, while one zealot even asserted that President Reagan himself was responsible for the carnage that cold and dreary December day in Iowa.

But the tale, in truth, is far more complicated than a simple story of hard times, harsh bankers, and one poor farmer who suddenly snapped. The farm crisis is real, tragic and pervasive; its scars have changed the face of the heartland. But Johnson County, Iowa, with its rich land and a thriving state university nearby, has been less ravaged than most of the state, thanks in part to banker John Hughes. And as for farmer Dale Burr, evidence now suggests he was something other than a pawn of forces beyond his control. His financial problems were far less severe than those of many of his neighbors, and most of them were created by his own shortcomings as a farm manager.

In the hamlets that dot Johnson County, most folks are still unwilling to talk about Dale Burr. His memory hangs like a pall over the farms around Hills. Burr was one of them, and his problems, in some measure, are the same as theirs. But his story is a nightmare the local families would rather forget. Who, after all, wants to go to sleep at night wondering if someone else is going to pick up a shotgun in the morning? The farmer down the road, perhaps? Or the man who lies sleeping fitfully in the next bed?

Dale Burr himself was never the talkative sort. Like most men who run their own businesses, he kept his finances between himself, his banker, and his God. But he did unburden himself once, just nine days before the shooting, talking with Ruth Forbes, his sister, and Ruth's husband, Keith.

Keith Forbes knew that something was wrong that Saturday noon as soon as he saw his brother-in-law through the kitchen window. It wasn't likely, Forbes figured, that Burr was coming over to ask for help getting the last of his crop in. Although almost half his corn and a quarter of his soybeans lay buried under what was left from the Thanksgiving blizzard, Burr was known for harvesting late, and planting late as well, and for always working alone. Nor was it likely that he had come to pay off the $10,000 he owed for fertilizer and pesticides -- he was always slow to pay a bill. And Burr was hardly the visiting type. Their farmhouses were hardly three miles apart, and Forbes would see Burr two or three times a week driving his pickup or his tractor, yet Burr never had the time to sit over a cup of coffee for a talk.

Forbes got his first surprise at the door, when he saw how bad both Dale and his wife, Emily, looked. Dale Burr was a big man, a muscular and strapping six footer; as a child he'd won a prize as "the healthiest boy in Johnson County," and he'd never lost that ruddy youthfulness, until now. This day he looked like an old man, tired and drawn. "He looked like a dog with the pride kicked out of him," Forbes recalls. Emily looked even worse. She had always been the perfect lady, warm if a bit quiet, and meticulous about personal grooming.But when she came into the Forbeses' kitchen that day, her hair was a tangled mess of knots. Forbes had never seen her so "nervous, almost hysterical."

"They have mortgaged my machines, my land, and my livestock," Burr told the Forbeses over coffee, "even my grain in the field. My back is agin the wall.

"I'm throwing her up. I'm just walking out the door."

Forbes was stunned. While deep debt has become a fact of life in farm country, like most of his neighbors Forbes had always considered Burr a wealthy man. Starting with grandfather John P., the Burr family had prospered by farming Johnson County's rich soil, each generation doing a little better than the last. Dale's grandfather had been given the honorary title of president of the bank in Lone Tree. Dale's father, Vernon, had been an honorary vice-president, spreading the family holdings by buying cheap land during the Great Depression.

Dale had started off with a leg up, too, inheriting his two-story farmhouse surrounded by some of the best soil in the state. He'd worked hard, day after day starting his chores well before first light and working till long past dark. Until he was 56 he'd farmed alongside old Vernon, living just one house away with the bride he had met at a county fair, raising their two daughters and one son, helping out at 4-H or Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Now, with son John recently turned 39 and still living at home, Dale was bringing him into the operation, just as his dad had done for him. In 1977 they'd bought a 40-acre parcel to get John started, adding another 40 in 1978 and then another 80 in 1982 -- the land where Richard Goody had been a tenant. Father and son worked as a team, with John tending the hogs while Dale raised crops on as much of the family's 700-plus acres as he could get to.

Now Burr, sitting on a black vinyl chair in the Forbeses' kitchen, was despondent as he sketched out the extent of his debt. First he spread scraps of brown paper across the oval plastic table, notes for the approximately $48,000 he had borrowed from his mother, confined to a nursing home for the past four years. Then there were the mortgages -- just under $425,000 borrowed between March 1984 and March 1985. In addition, the local farm service had liens against Dale for $15,354, and against his son for $36,300. Dale was also overdue in his property-tax payments.

The final straw, he told Forbes, had come over the last corn he had managed to harvest before the first snow. In exchange for a loan of about $20,000, he had sealed 9,000 bushels as collateral deposited with the Johnson County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) -- corn he could repurchase later for commercial resale if the price rose in the spring. Then, to buy a little time, Burr had driven over to Hills to deposit the service's check in his personal account, using the money to pay off his lien and his old property taxes.

His relief would be short lived. The ASCS evidently had made a mistake: its check should have been payable jointly to Burr and the bank. Now, the ASCS wanted its money back, and the bank still had the corn. "They're gettin' real rough over there," Burr complained of his lenders. "If they'd leave me alone I could pay all my interest, but as it is I can't even sell nothing." He said he expected the bank to foreclose within the week. His scheduled appointment would be just a formality.

"What will the neighbors say?" a worried Emily asked. "We won't even have the money to buy groceries."

At the time, Forbes had thought the Burrs were both overreacting. With more than 600 acres, and another 120 he would inherit when his mother died, Burr still had a positive net worth. Although he held debts of well over $500,000, land like his was still fetching almost $2,000 an acre, and he could walk away from it all a wealthy man by Johnson County standards, with more than half a million dollars in his pocket. Or if he chose to stay on the land, Burr's problem seemed to present nothing more than a simple business challenge, with a simple business solution.

Still, Forbes couldn't help but wonder just where all the money had gone. "Dale had borrowed more than a half million in a short period of time, and there was nothing to show." He and Emily didn't spend much money on clothes, and they hadn't had a new car in years. Clearly, he hadn't put it into the property. Although their white house was meticulously kept up, the 120-foot live-stock barn had caved in about three years ago, and the outbuildings looked like they hadn't seen paint or nail since old Vernon Burr passed on. Women or drugs? Gambling or hard drink? Each possibility seemed more implausible than the last. The Burrs' only relaxation was the monthly game of bid-euchre they played with a group of other couples to pass the time between harvest and planting

"We talked for about four hours," Forbes recalls. Burr seemed receptive to his suggestion of filing for protection from his creditors under Chapter 11. And as a customer of the Hills bank himself, Forbes assured Burr that president John Hughes was "a swell fella," almost always willing to pull a farmer through. "I thought everything was worked out. When he left, gosh, he was almost elated. 'Maybe I can work this out,' he said. 'God, if I can get my crop in I can work out of it."

Emily, however, was still distraught. "When she left she asked my wife, 'Ruth, come see me, please.' She kept telling us, 'They're going to put Dale in jail.' I only thought she meant he couldn't pay his bills. But now I wonder what she knew. Was she trying to tell us something?"

There is not much to see on the main street of Hills, Iowa, on a winter's day. A sign welcomes you to "Where Town and Country Meet," but there is precious little town left. A few neat houses, three of the first eight with faded For Sale signs. Two taverns, Max's Lounge and Hills Tap, and an Amoco gas station, a small convenience store, a galvanized-metal grain dealer, a tanning salon, and the bank. "Save the Farmer," a pickup's dusty bumper sticker reads, "Export Reagan."

Mostly a visitor notices the smell, the rich scent of hogs hanging in the air like a ripe cloud. It is the smell of an industry in trouble, the worst farm recession, some say, since the Great Depression. Nationally, about 25% of America's 650,000 farmers are in danger of default, with debt-to-asset ratios of more than 70%.

In Johnson County, by contrast, less than 10% of the family farming operations are in danger of going belly-up next year. Farmers here were spared the worst of the 1983 drought, and, thanks to the university at the county seat up in Iowa City just seven miles away, there are part-time jobs a farmer can find, emptying trash barrels, perhaps, or driving a bus.

But "no one is talking about any profit farm farming, that's for sure," one area farmer admits. "Our cost of production is way more than we can take in.Even without any debt, we're just hanging on."

"Heck," his neighbor agrees, "it's getting so you can barely call yourself a farmer anymore if you aren't looking hard at Chapter 7 or Chapter 11."

It is one of the most widespread industry shakeouts in American history. "A whole generation of farmers is being pushed out of business," explains Stan Johnson, director of the Center for Agriculture & Rural Development at Iowa State University. "Anyone who started farming or was expandingt between 1977 and 1983 is in severe financial trouble. It doesn't matter if he is a good manager or not."

The 1970s had been a heady time for agriculture, an era comparable to the booms that followed each world war. Costs were rising with inflation, but profits were rising even faster. International drought, overseas crop failures, and the hunger of the Third World pushed the prices for American farm products to historic heights. Feed the world, America's farmers were told. Modernize. Mechanize. Expand.

The watchword was leverage: with the average price of an acre of Iowa ground shooting up 345% between 1972 and 1981, the real interest rate on money borrowed to buy land fell as low as -1.6%. Rather than lending to a farmer based on the production value, bankers were lending on sale value, considering land as a growth asset more than an income producer. What was a little debt if it could bring you so much equity? Hang the cash flow -- go for the capital gain.

After the Reagan inauguration, however, the farm boom went bust, just as each boom had gone bust in the past. Costs kept rising, especially the cost of credit, as the Federal Reserve Board tightened the money supply. But everything else collapsed. Exports fell by a third, as heavy international harvests, followed by a worldwide recession and then a strengthening dollar, eroded newly won overseas markets. Harvests were heavy at home, too, cutting prices even further. The price of corn fell more than 30%, while the cost of production was rising 45%. Farmers' return on equity fell from a high of 13.5% during the boom to a low of -15.7%.

Inevitably, the bubble in land prices -- which William R. Bernau, superintendent of banking in Iowa, compares to "the old tulip bulb deal that Holland had in the seventeenth century" -- collapsed as well. The average acre of Iowa ground had sold for $2,539 in 1981. By 1985 it would fetch only $1,275. Instead of the -1.6% during the boom, real interest rates soared to highs of 6% to 8%. Farmers who had thought themselves rich -- and then borrowed against the asset value of their land -- suddenly saw their borrowing power disappear and the value of their assets drop almost 50%.

"People may wonder why I made the decision to expand," oine farmer explains, "but I'd just had a son, and given the information I was given it seemed the right thing to do. The land-grant colleges were telling us we'd have $10,000 land by the 1990s, so use your leverage. What a joke. Now my boy tells me he wouldn't be caught dead farming -- he doesn't want to end up 'a loser' like his dad."

Melissa Farley, an Iowa City psychotherapist who counsels rural families under stress, sees a predictable cycle in Johnson County farmers. Denial gives way to anger, then to depression and self-doubt. "When I talk to farm women, they all say they understand how Burr felt," Farley says. "There is a progressive sense of being pushed up against the wall. They've been independent all their lives, then they lose control of everything. The bank controls every bit of cash that comes through their hands. There is a terrible lack of dignity. People are scared. They last out. There are more temper out-bursts, more substance abuse, and more domestic violence -- a lot of women getting hit these days."

In the past, families in Johnson County have always come together in crisis, with barn raisings and potluck suppers to bind the community close. But the current hard times are driving people apart. No one wants to face failure in front of his neighbors; the guilt and self-criticism is already too searing. There is help available -- a suicide hot-line and crisis-intervention centers -- but few farmers can admit to their own despair. Farm activist groups like Prairiefire Rural Action organize regular "survival meetings," two or three hours at night in a church basement. It's a chance to share the hardship and explore the economics and politics of the crisis, but more farmers are too ashamed to come. When Jo Anne Neuzil, a Johnson County farm wife who had become a self-trained bankruptcy adviser, wanted to move her practice from the living room of her home to an office in town, the farmers who were working with her balked. They couldn't come to see her in town, they explained. Someone might spot them there, or recognize their pickup. Then people would talk.

Neuzil saw Dale Burr on a rainy day right before the killings, when he pumped gas for her at the self-serve just outside of Hills. "I knew he wanted to talk, but he just waved at me," she remembers. "He looked like the sorriest guy that ever walked."

I'm sorry," he said in the note left back at the house. "I can't take the problems anymore."

If Dale Burr had killed only himself, he would have been nothing more than a statistic, one more frarm suicide to add to the growing list. It was his murder of banker John Hughes that led the television cameras and city reporters to invade the quiet main street of Hills and made Burr a national symbol of the farm crisis. But Hughes was no more the average Iowa banker than Dale Burr was the average Iowa farmer.

It seemed everyone in Johnson County knew the president of Hills Bank & Trust Co. Hughes was a local boy who came back home after college, a farmer's son born and bred in Johnson County, a former 4-H member who went on to turn a small-town bank into the fifteenth largest lending institution in the state.

Hills Bank & Trust, too, had a history: founded in 1904, not long after the town's first tavern, it had prospered even through the Depression, conservative in its lending, but somewhat limited in its growth by an Iowa law that prevented expansion except to contiguous towns. Unsuccessful in changing the law once he became president of Hills Bank in 1975, Hughes found a way around it, arranging for the town to annex the railroad right-of-way that ran like a thread from Main Street in Hills up to Iowa City, the county seat. Thanks largely to that clever bit of urban expansion, deposits at Hills climbed from $35 million to $193 million in 10 years, allowing the bank to diversify its portfolio and reduce agricultural lending to less than one-quarter of its portfolio. Thus, while 11 Iowa banks had failed in 1985, the bank in Hills was booming.

The bank was a reflection of Hughes's personality. A former president of the Iowa Chamber of Commerce, active in charities, Hughes made friends easily, and turned customer service into a professional creed. He worked farmer's hours, 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night, and expected his colleagues to do the same. Most days you could find him away from his desk, out in the lobby of the new bank he had built in Hills, visiting with customers. He knew most of their names, knew the names of their children and grandchildren, knew how their hogs were doing, knew whether they followed his beloved Chicago Cubs. When a faculty appointment was announced at the university, he would call the professor personally to put the Hills Bank at his or her disposal. If someone celebrated a fiftieth wedding anniversary, customer or not, he would send a card with a note. At the customer-appreciation picnic last year, Hughes was on his feet most of the afternoon, helping serve barbecue to about 9,000 people.

There was no security guard on duty when Dale Burr walked into the bank, shotgun concealed inside his overalls. But even if there had been, it is unlikely he would have questioned the farmer's presence. Burr, after all, was a customer, encouraged to drop by whenever he came to town. Hughes was sitting at his desk just off the lobby when he was killed.

Fifteen hundred people turned up at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City to hear Hughes eulogized two days after the killings. "It's ironic," said Neil Milner, executive vice-president of the Iowa Bankers Association. "Of all the lenders in the state, he was the one who was trying to help people the most."

"He'd let everybody go the limit on loans -- you'd have to be down to where you didn't have a dime before he'd foreclose," a customer told the press. "That's why this is so hard to understand."

If people in Hills didn't see John Hughes as the stereotype ofr the uncaring banker, they hardly saw Dale Burr as the symbol of America's embattled farmer. Because he had been born to relative privilege, he'd never had to learn to live with hard times. "Hell," one neighbor said, "he had 600 acres given to him, and he couldn't hang on to them. I had to work for the land I'm about to lose."

You could see the problem just driving by the Burr family spread. It wasn't just the unharvested corn under the snow or the ramshackle barn; signs of sloppy operation were everywhere. The yard by the shed, for example, is carpeted in corn, spillage left on the ground after hauling. "I could make a living on what he lost," one neighbor marveled.

"The truth of it is he wasn't much of a manager," another explained. "He was always two months behind, and he always lost half his crop. His work was excellent, when he got to it. When he set out to put in a four-acre farm, he worked it until it was a garden; it had to be perfect. But if he'd been a little more roughshod, he could have saved weeks throughout the year.

"He was a great one for work, but he didn't have the time to get everything done, and he would not hire a man. He didn't want to spend the money. All he would have had to do was set down with a pencil and figure out the cost of the labor to see he could have saved in the long run. But he was never much with a pencil."

It was the same story with John Burr's hogs. Although an investment in a mechanical feeder would have paid out in saved costs within a year, feeding was still done by hand. The Burrs would also hold their livestock too long, selling at full weight rather than half-growth, earning more cash but a far lower profit.

The problems, Keith Forbes explains, really began with the death of Vernon Burr seven years ago. "After that, things went downhill fast. Dad was Dale's manager -- if there was a decision, Dad made it. And when Dad couldn't make the decisions anymore, Dale was lost."

The disputed 1982 land purchase that led to the death of Richard Goody was the most dramatic of Burr's mistakes. The 80-acre parcel was considered prime farmland, rich and flat. But the purchase price of $3,750 an acre was the highest in the history of the county, adding $300,000 to the Burr debt. Over the next three years the value of the land would fall drastically, chopping an estimated $150,000 from the Burr net worth. But, more important, the property could never have produced a positive cash flow.Retired loan officer and farmer Melvin Schneider estimates that the annual debt service alone on the land was $312 an acre, at a time when an average corn and bean mix harvest could fetch only $300 an acre.

But Burr had managed to make a bad situation even worse. Goody was a tenant on the land, having farmed it since 1969. His father had farmed it for a decade before that. According to Iowa law, if a tenant is not given legal notice of the termination or expiration of his lease before September 1, his tenancy is assumed for another full year. Burr, who had bought the property in July, hadn't taken appropriate steps to inform the Goodys of his plans to use the land himself. Under standard tenancy agreements, Burr would still have been entitled to half the crop produced by his tenant (or its value) in that final year. But young John Burr, angry at Goody's refusal to leave the land, decided to get his revenge by chisel-plowing the fields, leaving a regular pattern of holes that made it impossible for anyone either to furrow-plow for crops or put out livestock. Goody sued, and was awarded $5,829.60 in damages, plus legal costs.

For Dale Burr it was simply one more bill to pay, one more costly mistake. "Dale was not sharp financially," Forbes says, "and it all just got to him.

"He had always just figured he had plenty of money. It used to be he could walk down the street and buy anything, and all of a sudden he found himself with nothing. People had always looked up to him, and he was too proud to admit he'd have to sell land to get out of trouble. He had a lot of pride that his dad and his granddad were all successful, and he could see that he would be hurting the Burr name bad."

But while his pride may have been hurt, it was unlikely that Burr stood on the brink of financial ruin, as he feared. After the killing, officials at Hills Bank & Trust insisted that no foreclosure "was or is" planned for the Burr property. Indeed, according to senior vice-president Jim Gordon, the bank was expecting to finance Burr's operational needs for the 1986 crop year.

And as for the fateful meeting that loomed so large in Burr's mind, bank officials say that, as far as they know, no appointment had been scheduled.

By the middle of January, things seemed back to normal in Hills. Another Farmbelt murder/suicide, this time in South Dakota, pushed Dale Burr off the front pages, and now only an occasional reporter wanders down Main Street, looking for clues. The sight of a locked bank door makes Iowans nervous these days, so Hills Bank & Trust reopened the day after the shooting -- but this time there is a security guard standing in the lobby.

One evening in December, four white crosses appeared on the lawn leading up to St. Joseph's Catholic Church, the lone church in Hills. Father David Hitch scheduled a candlelight prayer service there, hoping it would be "a time to share concern with the community," but the turnout was thin, and no one has mentioned the crosses since.

But Father Hitch tried again. Late in January, the church organized a benefit breakfast for Marilyn Goody and her two children. Eighteen hundred people turned out at $3 a head for eggs and juice, pancakes and whole hog sausage. But no one wanted to talk about Dale Burr, and no one lingered much. There were chores to attend to, work that had to be done.

Most of them knew there would be a long season of cold ahead. One in every 15 Iowa farmers would be denied credit for this spring's crop, and federal price supports, already pegged below production cost, are likely to be cut even further under the era of Gramm-Rudman. Folks in Hills can't imagine how things could get worse, but they see no reason to hope things will get better.

Out at the Burr family farm, son John has taken the nameplate off the mailbox to discourage the curious. He keeps to himself mostly, spending hour after hour with his hogs. But he does talk regularly with his uncle.

"John told me, 'I'm gonna hold her all," Keith Forbes remembers. "He said, 'I'm gonna fight my damndest." That would not be enough, however. On February 13, John frofeited the contract for the purchase of the Goody land. But even without that obligation, Forbes thinks the odds John Burr can make it are "zero."

It's the same old story. "John is one hell of a chore man; he'll chore till midnight," Forbes says. "But he's never been much with a pencil."

Last updated: May 1, 1986




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Comment and share features
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: