BENNINGTON — A voracious reader from childhood, Rod Beemer remembered the day in 1960 when he purchased an entire set of the Encyclopædia Britannica with his own money.
It was a proud moment until his mother, a teacher, found out how much her 18-year-old son had spent on the multi-volume set — nearly $700.
“My mom told me she could have bought the books for half the price,” he said.
Beemer wanted to be a writer, so he considered the encyclopedias to be a good investment.
Now, more than 50 years later, the longtime Bennington resident has used his encyclopedic knowledge to write and publish a number of books, ranging from short story collections to histories of collectible tractors to an epic historical nonfiction look at how extreme weather affected 19th century prairies and pioneers.
His latest book project? General George Armstrong Custer.
“It’ll deal with his entire career after the Civil War on the prairies and Plains,” said Beemer, 69.
To research a chapter in his book, Beemer went to Oklahoma in 2009 and traced the route that Custer and his 7th Cavalry took from Fort Sill west to the Texas Panhandle in 1869 to fight the Southern Cheyenne and ultimately rescue two Kansas women who had been captured by the Indian warriors.
“I tried to follow his route 140 years after he left Fort Sill,” Beemer said. “I wanted to find out about his rescue of those women, who had been taken in 1868 at the Solomon River and at the Republican River.”
Custer was a fighter
Beemer was a guest speaker June 18 at the Little Big Horn Associates annual conference in Oklahoma City. His presentation, “Chasing Custer,” described Custer’s 1869 campaign, which Beemer said was a success despite his troops enduring hardships that included dying horses and depleted rations.
“He was a fighter, and so many of the officers then were timid,” he said. “If they sent him in to fight, he would fight. He had tremendous mental facilities.”
Beemer said his book is nearly finished and has publication interest, although no publishing date has yet been scheduled.
The die was set early
Born and raised south of Abilene and a graduate of Chapman High School, Beemer knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age. After attending Ambassador College near Dallas, Beemer was hired in 1969 by a magazine called Plain Truth and moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote about the police and the highway patrol issues.
After a year in California, Beemer, his wife, Dawn, and their infant son moved first to Springfield, Mo., and then Salina, where in the mid-1970s Beemer started his own custom furniture and custom wood product business, which he ran for 30 years. He and his wife had two more sons.
Fifteen years ago, Beemer moved his family and business to Bennington, where he has lived ever since.
Took a writing workshop
In 1991, Beemer took a fiction-writing workshop through Salina Arts and Humanities given by Leonard Bishop, a New York-based novelist, scriptwriter and creative writing teacher.
Bishop’s class led to the formation of a local writing group, Southwind Writers.
The group was composed of seven of Beemer’s fellow classmates. Together, the group critiqued each others’ works and published three collections of short stories. They since have disbanded.
At the same time, Beemer began to write about collectible tractors, collaborating with photographer Chet Peterson on eight vintage tractor books ranging from Ford to John Deere.
“Collectible tractors was a real phenomenon at one time,” he said.
Mother Nature gets deadly
In 1996, after picking up an historical pamphlet in a St. Louis bookstore that described one of the deadliest tornadoes to touch down on U.S. soil—a tornado that hit St. Louis in 1896 and killed nearly 250 people—Beemer had found the subject for his next book.
“Books had been written about hurricanes or tornadoes, but nobody I know of ever put all of them together before,” he said.
Beemer began researching the history of tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards, prairie fires, droughts, thunderstorms, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters inflicted upon the prairies and Plains of the Midwest and the people who settled there between 1800 and 1900.
His book, The Deadliest Woman in the West: Mother Nature on the Prairies and Plains: 1800–1900, was published by Caxton Press in 2006 to critical acclaim.
Beemer said it was a great learning experience to research and write the book.
“Mother Nature killed more people than the Indians ever did,” he said. “Many people died crossing or fording rivers. Those people lived with death in a way we can’t comprehend today.”
History isn’t taught
Beemer said that more than any other form of writing he’s done, he found he most enjoys researching and writing historical nonfiction.
“They don’t teach much history anymore,” he said. “When we forget who we are and where we came from, we’re in trouble.”
6/24/2011 by GARY DEMUTH, Salina Journal