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Decades-old murder recalls the poison of hate

Mychal Wilmes recalls the impact propaganda and hate had on a neighbor who killed a man who was cleaning ditches.

A close up of heads of wheat in a field of golden, dried wheat.
Mychal Wilmes recalls being angrier than ever before at the events of President Richard Nixon's "wheat for peace" program, which provided false information on which the wheat market moved, devastating farmers and leading to high subsidy payments.
Maggie Malson / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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The pickaxe, a heavy beast that caused sparks when it hit the silo’s staves, reduced a dangerous mountain of frozen silage to rubble during an afternoon that hinted at spring.

A neighbor, who didn’t want to interrupt the work, had stopped by, visited with Mother, and dropped off a book he wanted me to read. I was sorry to have missed him because he liked a good conversation. He said that he’d stop by again after the book had been read.

The subject — that communism had infiltrated all levels of government from the federal to the township — sought to prove the conspiracy. It had been several years since U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin investigated communist infiltration in the government. The senator’s much-publicized effort captured the media’s attention before his career ended in political and personal disgrace.

We never got the chance to talk about the book.

Sharon Township was shaken to its core when news broke that a township worker had been shot several times while cutting brush in a gravel road’s ditch. It happened on March 2, 1981.

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mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

Farmer Harold Jones and helper Casey Vanderlouw were working on the edge of Ted Ulm’s property when Ulm approached with a Browning rifle and fired several shots that hit and killed Jones.

The 71-year-old Ulm had complained about previous work done in the ditch, claiming that workers had trespassed on his property. Court records indicate that after the shooting, he walked back inside his house and waited for Le Sueur County Sheriff Pat Smith.

“Hello, sheriff, I’ve been expecting you," Ulm said. “I suppose you want the gun."

Later, in a failed appeal based on an insanity defense, Ulm said he believed that since the men were trespassing, he had the right to defend his property. He also said that information he’d read from the John Birch Society convinced him that the township was part of a Trilateral Commission’s plot to take over the country.

(It should be noted that the John Birch Society was founded in 1958 to fight what it said was the infiltration of communism in American life. The Trilateral Commission was created in 1973 by private citizens in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan.)

I had previously thought Ulm to be a gentleman and afterward thought his thoughts had been twisted with all-consuming hatred pushed by books like the one he wanted me to read.

Mother, whose philosophy was, “if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing at all," said hatred is nearly as powerful as love. She’d seen me angry many times but never more so than in 1972.

That was when President Richard Nixon launched his “wheat for peace" program. The Soviet Union had consistently been the world’s largest wheat producer in the world for years. However, weather problems caused Soviet wheat production to plummet in 1971-72, forcing the Soviets to enter the market.

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The Nixon administration thought that the Soviets could help negotiate an end to the Vietnam War if the communists were allowed to purchase a large amount of U.S. wheat.

A potential wheat sale was kept top secret, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wheat supply and demand report carried no news about a potential sale. Wheat prices fell in response into summer.

Markets were shocked when in July and August 1972 the United States announced a massive wheat sale to the Soviets to the tune of 440 million bushels valued at $700 million. While exporters benefited from the deal, U.S. taxpayers were on the hook for $300 million in subsidies paid to farmers.

The deal sent wheat prices soaring. Wheat producers who sold before the deal was common knowledge sold at rock-bottom prices.

Reforms were made to prevent future secretive sales.

I never finished reading the book Ted Ulm gave me. I still do not fully understand why he did what he did.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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