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True Grit Movie Embodies Real Pioneer Spirit

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The Oscar H. Will Seed Co. building in Bismarck, North Dakota.
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The Oscar H. Will Seed Co.’s 1920 seed catalog.
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The Oscar H. Will Seed Co.’s 1911 seed catalog.

You won’t find any real cowboys among my close ancestors, but there are plenty of pioneers, and they exhibited true grit of a kind that’s virtually unimaginable today, a grittiness of a different type than that shown in the recently released True Grit movie. Those with the pioneer spirit on my dad’s side showed true grit when they left Germany and Finland with what they could carry – seeking something better. Those with the pioneer spirit on my mom’s side showed true grit when they left Scotland, Ireland and Germany with what they could carry – seeking something better. And those early English colonists among my ancestors showed true grit and a pioneer spirit by taking charge of their lives and telling the Crown to take a hike.

My ancestral milieu includes farmers, nurserymen, steamboat engineers, blacksmiths, railroad engineers, civil war era captains and generals, housekeepers, wood carvers, and ministers with names like Will, Gugin, Bird, Coughlin, Logan, Kangas and Myers. They came to this country and exhibited the pluck and can-do attitudes that define true grit. And yet, before thinking about it recently, amidst the hype surrounding the Coen brothers’ remake of the classic Western movie True Grit, I missed the fact that you don’t have to be a cowboy to possess the virtues associated with grit and the pioneer spirit.

As a youngster on the prairies in North Dakota, I was blissfully unaware of the true grit and determination that made my little life mostly bearable and even fun at times. I also was unfortunately unaware that my own ancestry offered plenty of heroes – expressing pride about one’s family definitely was not a common practice at that time and place. So I looked for my heroes elsewhere, and found them among the gritty men portrayed in Western novels and movies.

Characters like Rooster Cogburn, Josey Wales, Jacob McCandles, Ransom Stoddard and so many others were bigger than life to me, and that they somehow managed to find resolution, if not reconciliation, in a topsy-turvy and often quite violent world was compelling. I rode with all of them across the vast prairies of my mind – chasing cows, living off the land, drinking out of springs, chasing bad guys and taking my lumps. My heroes have always been cowboys … .

When novels turned into movies, John Wayne became a favorite Western hero. He taught me to swagger with my double rig cap guns and taught me a few smart-aleck lines. He made me into the lever-action rifle fan that I am today. Through his characters, Wayne showed me what the pioneer spirit and justice was about – in a naive and grossly idealized kind of way. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name offered an almost believable glimpse of surviving life’s harsh realities at the periphery – a place I sometimes inhabited.

I now wish I had known my grandparents and great-grandparents – every one of them. I might not have learned to swagger or to shoot the bad guys with a two-handed quick draw, but I would have understood much earlier that true grit and genuine pioneer spirit have nothing to do with silver-screen cowboys.

Whether you’re chasing cattle, living off the land or getting by in the big city, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. If you keep a true grit kind of journal and would like to share it through a blog at www.Grit.com, just let me know (hwill@Grit.com).

See you in May.


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.

Published on Feb 10, 2011

Grit Magazine

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