Author traces back ancestor that brought populism to Cottage Grove in new book

May 26 - Julie Carr is an American poet and professor at the University of Colorado, who wrote her latest book, Mud, Blood & Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics and Spiritualism in the American West, published by the University of Nebraska Press. Her book follows the history of her great grandfather, Omer Madison Kem (1855-1942), and his journey in the populist movement from its origins in the Great Plains states dating all the way in the 1880s, to the rise of strong political ideologies today.

In the twenty-first century, populism became popular again in American politics, it included politicians with widely varying ideologies like Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and US president Donald Trump.

Carr traces her family's history to reveal the roots of populism’s connections to racism. The author drew connections between U.S. agrarian populism, spiritualism, and eugenics to help readers understand populism’s tendency toward racism and exclusion and makes clear why so many of these topics are still an issue in the present, ultimately asking whether we can embrace the Populists' profound hopes for a just economy while rejecting the barriers they set up around who was considered fully human enough to be part of this dreamed society.

The author's inspiration for the book came from her curiosity about the homestead act and the populist movement. So, the story that I'm telling is about the movement from populism, which is a kind of egalitarian vision. A vision of equal rights for all, and special privileges for none, which was their slogan. To become somebody that's supported and advocated aggressively for eugenic thinking.” says Carr.

Omer Madison Kem was a spiritualist and one of the founding members of the Populist Party who represented Nebraska for three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1891-1897 and was a eugenicist, which is a belief that was very popular through the 1930s. Kem then moved to Montrose, Colorado, to grow fruit and raise cattle. He got back into politics by being elected as a member of the Colorado House of Representatives in 1907.

In 1908, Omer Kem finally settled in the small town of Cottage Grove, Ore., and opened a power company, Cottage Grove Electric Co. with his son-n-law Charles Shinn, who later sold to Mountain States Power, which merged into PacifiCorp today. The early electric utility company in Cottage Grove was powered by burning wood chips and sawdust from the lumber industry to create energy for the city.

Kem’s obituary stated that he was a colorful figure and continued to be a prominent personality in Lane County politics as a proponent of the county's division to help create Nesmith County. He was a forceful speaker and a strong campaigner, espousing the cause of Populism.

Kem had eight children, including Claude J. Kem who helped add to Cottage Grove’s historic 
skyline by rebuilding the property on the corner of 6th and Main, where Delight now stands. Claude was a druggist by trade, first in Lebanon, Ore. and later in Cottage Grove, when he took charge of The Modern Pharmacy in 1910, and in 1923, rebuilt the corner into the Omer Apartments, named after his father, which also served as a home to The Cottage Grove Sentinel, The Grey Goose Tea Room, and Kem’s for Drugs, among other shops.

Carr is scheduled to speak about her book on Sept. 25 at the McMenamins Kennedy Theater in Portland. The event is co-sponsored by the Oregon Historical Society. She has a virtual event coming up June 9. The writer has received several praises from various authors.

“Julie Carr brings alive the disquieting and kaleidoscope history of her great-grandfather, a radical Populist who homesteaded in the U.S. West at the turn of the century. She unflinchingly shows how his struggle for survival was characterized by an unruly combination of hardscrabble determination, spiritual longings, eugenic beliefs, and white supremacy. As she poignantly reconstructs an intensely personal past, Carr grapples with the ghosts of violence, silence, and memory in the politically volatile present.” says Alexandra Minna Stern, author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America.

Carr is a unique author who has established a voice that draws attention to the experiences of her great-grandfather. Her use of language and tone captures the complex nature of human relationships and pushes the boundaries of conventional literature. The book spans through 356 pages of detailed history and features 26 photographs.

Through her work, Carr speaks about struggles, hopes, and aspirations. Carr's contributions to the literary world have not gone unnoticed and have established her as an accomplished author, winning the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry in 2011. It is clear that her writing will continue to inspire readers and reflect the complexities of the world around us.

To purchase a hardcover, paperback copy or e-edition of Mud, Blood, and Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics, and Spiritualism in the American West, please visit the University of Nebraska Press Website at: