The funerals begin Wednesday, grim rites committing four decent people to Iowa's black earth.
The deaths of a respected banker, two farmers and a farmer's wife will be recorded as three murders and a suicide. In a few hours Monday, Dale N. Burr, 63, killed his wife Emily, their neighbor, Richard Goody, and bank president John R. Hughes. As a sheriff's deputy closed in, Burr pointed the murder weapon, a 12-gauge shotgun, at his own chest and fired.
But Burr and his victims will also be counted as victims of the deepest economic crisis in the Farm Belt since the Great Depression. Like countless farmers elsewhere, Burr was in debt beyond his farm's ability to pay -- and several of his payments were due Monday at Hughes' bank.
Born into a prominent farm family that others hereabouts "put on a pedestal," one friend recalled, Burr and his son John tilled about 300 ancestral acres in Lone Tree southeast of Hills. Like most farmers here, he did business with Hughes, a farm-born banker who had built tiny Hills Bank & Trust into the state's 10th largest bank with assets of more than $150 million.
Hughes accomplished it by helping to engineer the annexation of an abandoned railroad right-of-way between rural Hills and booming Iowa City, thus satisfying a state law limiting a bank's expansion to contiguous territory.
But while Hughes flourished, Burr was faltering. Records in the Johnson County clerk's office show that, beginning in March 1984, he and his wife took out mortgages totaling $924,000 against various parcels of land. An additional $51,000 in liens, for goods and services, had been filed against Burr and his son.
Part of Burr's debt apparently was incurred in the purchase of 80 acres farmed by Richard Goody, 38, who lived with his wife and two small children. Goody's family and Iowa newspaper reports said a dispute had arisen over the land, and Sheriff's Department officials said Goody won a $7,000 judgment against the Burrs in connection with land.
"That figured in what happened," deputies said.
Outwardly, Burr was even-tempered, with a ready smile "and a kind word for everyone," said Don Clausen, a grizzled farmer who was cousin to Goody and a friend of Burr's for many years. "But it must have ate at him."
Burr visited Hills Bank & Trust early Monday, for talks, and then disappeared. Law enforcement officials believe that he went home, perhaps argued with his wife over their rising debts, and killed her. Deputies found Mrs. Burr, 64, in the kitchen. They believe that her husband next went to settle scores with his neighbor. Goody's body, shot twice, lay in his farmyard between two hog feeders.
Then Burr appeared at the bank, the shotgun under his coat. There were no security guards -- "We don't have to lock things up around here. It's peaceful." Clausen said -- to prevent Burr from walking into Hughes' office, firing the gun and fleeing. He was in his pickup truck, about a mile from home, when a deputy stopped him. The deputy was waiting for reinforcements when Burr turned the gun on himself.
County sheriff's deputies today disclosed that Burr had left a one-sentence note at home, "indicating he couldn't stand the problems anymore."
Similar problems have driven thousands of farmers from the land in recent years. Law enforcement officials, sociologists, and politicians across the breadbasket have warned repeatedly that the bad times gripping this good land are sure to sow violence.
The shock and the fear engendered by the four deaths have spread far beyond this tiny community of 605 residents.
"We are going to see a lot of problems this winter," warned Randy Campbell, county supervisor for the U.S. Farm and Home Administration in Cedar and Johnson counties. "The money [to finance spring planting] just isn't there. The Burr thing . . .that's the scary part."
Campbell said that some of the nearly 1,000 farms in the two counties are destined for serious trouble.
"There's some that we can put the money out to, but they aren't going to be any better at the end of next year than they were at the end of this year," he said, adding: "If you're basically a grain farmer, all you have to do in winter is sit, and worry, and think."
The Rev. David Hitch, pastor of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church where the Goody family attends services, said that he has tried to reach out to local farmers with special meetings and counseling.
"There's a lot of depression and sadness out there, but they don't come right out and talk about it," the priest said.
Campbell said that financially strapped farmers also find it difficult to look for jobs off the farm.
"They personally don't feel they can go out in the job market and do anything else," Campbell said, "or they've seen tough times in the past, and hope the situation will get better."
But the "debt gets to be staggering after a while," he said. "The tough part gets to be when they don't cover the interest, and they're paying the interest on interest. It gets tougher and tougher each year."
Some Farm Belt states are moving to stem the tide of upheaval and depression. Several months ago, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad declared a foreclosure moratorium that covers some farmers. Two weeks ago, Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich and the state's bankers agreed to a 90-day voluntary debt-counseling proposal.
Meanwhile, the troubles deepen. Iowa's commerce has declined nearly 20 percent since 1979, a recent legislative study group found. The decline has dragged down state tax revenues and prompted Branstad to order a 3.9 percent reduction several months ago in all state spending.
About 7 percent of the nation's 2.3 million farms have debts equal to more than70 percent of their assets, and more than one-third of the nation's family farms are in danger of failing within the next 18 months, federal surveys have found. Last month, Iowa recorded its 11th bank closing of the year. Almost all those banks folded because of bad farm debts.
Even as the winter closes in, with its early snows sealing the fertile soil until the spring, the unremitting pressure of plunging commodity prices, overdue operating bills and a grain glut has the land and the men and women who work it in a vise.
In Hills on Monday, the pressure broke a man.