Verna and Vera Keck, graduates of Spring Valley High School.  These young ladies are sisters of Howard Keck, and Verna married Bonnie Steffens, a cousin of the writer of this column. Note the photo was taken at Washburn Studios.
Verna and Vera Keck, graduates of Spring Valley High School. These young ladies are sisters of Howard Keck, and Verna married Bonnie Steffens, a cousin of the writer of this column. Note the photo was taken at Washburn Studios.
Recently two packets of family history have been placed in my hands, causing much reflection on life and its unexpected turns. The first concerns Howard Keck who graduated from Spring Valley High School in 1912. There were several Kecks from the Sumner Center/Hamilton area: Roy graduated in 1896, Ora in 1904, Verna in 1908, Vera in 1913, and Everett, also in 1912. The latter went on to become a doctor in the U.S. Navy, and whose portrait as Admiral Keck hangs in the History Hall military exhibit at the Washburn-Zittleman museum complex on West Courtland St.

The subject of this column is Howard Keck. His sister, Verna, married my cousin, Bonnie Steffens, longtime Racine residents. We know little about Howard Keck except for the packet of fascinating letters and newspapers from 1927-28-29 saved by his sister, Verna. Beginning in April 1927, Howard is living near Baghdad, Iraq, employed by the Turkish Petroleum Co. Ltd. His first letter to "Father" tells he has received no mail, which takes about 40 days to reach him, and to please write and send reading materials. He is at "camp" where the Hindu cook serves mutton every day, but he is learning to like it, and eggs are cheap, half a cent apiece. His friend bought a beautiful Arabian horse and saddle for 85 rupees, about $30, and they use only Indian money - rupees and annas - the only kind they see. The King of Iraq visited the site "to turn over the project" but is not well-liked, so there were armed guards everywhere.

A month later, Howard had still received no mail and was pleading for the Cosmopolitan magazine and other newspapers. He described life around the camp, and that the men could fish in a nearby river which he liked. On the barren plains were large fields of barley, all cut by hand, piled up, and hauled away by camels or donkeys. Locusts (large grasshoppers) were thick and the government was trying to poison them. The area was once "a garden spot" but according to history, the Mongols destroyed the extensive irrigation system, and he thought that due to wars and famine, the farmers lost heart. He noted the best workers where the oil wells were being dug were from Persia, India, and the occasional Kurd. A second well was being drilled.

The company hired Arab riflemen to guard the wells, and he said the tribes had fought over this oil for centuries. The area was known in Bible times as the tar pits and Valley of Everlasting Fires. There was no wood to burn for cooking, camel chips were at a premium, and the seeping oil could be used for cooking. Baghdad was 120 miles away and the train which traveled only 10 miles per hour took 12 hours to get there.

In May he wrote to Verna saying he was seeing what travelers paid thousands to see: he had been to the pyramids, Cairo and its museums where he saw King Tut's relics. Tut was buried in four different caskets covered with beaten gold, and his death mask of gold was of remarkable workmanship. Howard felt the Nile Valley was surely the Garden Spot of the World as they could raise three crops a year, but still used farming methods of a thousand years ago. Heat registered 117° "in the shade" but no trees for 300 miles. There were servants to do "all the work." At his rig, they had struck oil at 1,300' and he might get a $100 raise. He reminded Verna to check her Bible history - the ruins near Baghdad were just south of their camp and they were near the Valley of Everlasting Fire, but if the oil and gas were tapped, the fire might go out! There were 15 different languages spoken around him - Arabic, Kurd and many more. Howard had come to this "Hell hole" to earn money to pay off debts. However, coolies did all the hard work; they survived on chipaties, a whole-wheat pancake, mutton and tea. He claimed the coolies could carry as much as 650 pounds on their backs. The sun was awful - 120° one day, and men had to wear sun helmets and a spine pad and be very careful. Please send stories to read, and yes, he'd enjoy the Stewartville Star newspaper.

Howard wrote to his niece, Margaret Steffens, to remind her how lucky she was to live in America. In Iraq, women were kept in total seclusion, forced to work like animals, hide their faces, and live in dirt hovels like dogs. On the oil rig, he reported Turk and Kurd sentries, and two Kurd firemen. It was common to see herds of 150 camels going by daily, with baby camels trotting beside their mothers who were laden with goods. He sent greetings to family and neighbors and wished her well.

We'll continue Howard's life at the oil wells in Iraq in two subsequent columns. In the meantime, spring is coming?