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  • November 10th, 2013

Memories for Sale

By Joel M. Vance

The family farm is an American legend, like the imaginary Paul Bunyan or the sanitized Babe Ruth.  It exists in memory and in those few eddies of life’s mainstream where Wal-Mart hasn’t taken root.

Aside from the fact that families anywhere all too often are a fiction, the family farm is dying from a combination of ills: rising costs (and no commensurate rise of income), competition from sleek modern farmers and, most important, migration of farm kids to the cities.

This is no sociology treatise.  I saw it happen.  They sold a piece of me at public auction on a bitterly cold October day.  The northwest wind nipped leaves off the old maples in the front yard and threw them on the ground for winter to digest.

They sold the old home place.  My father and his brother bought the farm in 1933 to give their father and mother a piece of land on which to anchor the rest of their lives.

Grandpa Vance and me at the home place

Grandpa Vance and me at the home place

I spent summers on the gullied hill farm when I was a little kid.  It’s where I first fell in love, learned about fleas and how horses mate, learned to ride a bicycle and play a guitar.  I shot my first quail there and listened to Aunt Sade’s screeching voice as she told of hearing the guns during the war.

She was more than 90, deaf and loudly boring and the war she remembered was the Civil War.

My first girl friend lived a quarter mile south, down a bumpy gravel road.  My buddy Maurice Young lived where he still does, a quarter mile north.

Maurice, his bristly mustache gone gray, tried to buy the place on that cold day, bidding against a stranger in a cowboy hat.  Maurice wanted the farm for his son.  Maurice is related to me somehow.  There are Youngs ‘way back in the Vance family and almost everyone in those old hills is related somehow.

“Your folks used to come up to my place and borrow my cradle when you was a baby,” said an elderly man, one of the Meyers, as we wiped at our drizzling noses.  “You’d sleep there when you was visitin’.”  I didn’t remember.

We watched like spectators at a tennis match as Maurice and the cowboy lobbed bids back and forth.  At the end, even though Maurice had deeper roots in the thin hill soil, the stranger had deeper pockets.

Maurice is family.  The guy in the cowboy hat?  Who the hell knows.  Just a cowboy with mean eyes and enough money to buy someone else’s life.

Couldn’t be helped.  “We’re all getting old, Joel!” said one cousin.  She was 80.  The youngest was nearly 70.  None of their kids wanted the place, at least not enough to plunk down $104,000 for sentiment.  But no one in the family really wanted it sold either.  They were raised there.  They saw each other get courted, get married, go off to war.  The cousins were bent not so much by the years as by the weight of what they were doing.           It didn’t take long to erase 60 years of family history.  A few minutes and the place went to the stranger in the cowboy hat.

The L-shaped house is ramshackle, probably fated for destruction.  People I loved lived and died there.

My grandfather was a carpenter named Joseph, but when I knew him, his woodworking was limited to making exquisite and illegal fish traps.  In his seventies and eighties he was a fulltime hunter and angler.  He often left for the distant CharitonRiver early in the morning, always by himself, to tend his traps.  He wasn’t fishing for commerce, just helping feed the family.

He was a deadly shot with a .22 and any squirrel incautious enough to give him a target was stew meat.

“One time some men came to the farm to quail hunt,” Maurice says.  “They asked your Grandpa Joe to go with them.  He got out an old long-barreled single-shot shotgun.  Probably had to knock the mud daubers out of it.  They felt sorry for him.  He only had one eye and that ratty old gun.  So they told him he’d get the first shot when the quail got up.

“Well, he not only got the first shot; he got the last one, too.” Maurice says.  “Covey got up and, boom! he powdered one, reloaded and shot another one before they got out of range.  They’d never seen anyone shoot quail like that.”

When he wasn’t hunting or fishing, my grandfather read books and magazines (by the yellow light of a kerosene lantern for years, then by low-wattage electricity after the Rural Electrification Association discovered southern CharitonCounty.

Grandpa Joe had only one eye after a billet of firewood he was splitting jumped up and hit him in the face, but he worked his remaining eye overtime.  That eye was as strong as the rest of him.  It never failed until he failed, victim of a stroke in his eighties.

I remember my grandfather as a tall, spare man with a frieze of white hair (he went bald, then in his old age began to grow his hair back) and a full, white mustache.  He looked, in retrospect, like a long-retired Western sheriff.

My uncle Roy Finnell added a chunk of land to the home place and moved his big family there.  His children are the cousins who were selling the home place.  Uncle Finney bought my dad and uncle out back in the 1950s.  Otherwise, I would be huddled in the doorway with them, watching my life be juggled by strangers.

My father once took me to Guilford’s Ford, which wasn’t a ford at all, but the location of a spindly bridge across the old CharitonRiver.  The river was channelized in the 1950s and the old channel doesn’t exist anymore.

There was a hardware store where my father bought me a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun which became my constant companion.  Once, I pinned Maurice in the family outhouse.  I rattled BBs off the boards while he yelled for help.  Sometimes, I’d shoot through the knotholes.

“Lord, I heard those pellets ricocheting around in there and I was hollering for Mom,” Maurice recalls.  “Finally she came out and took the gun away from you.”

I’d conveniently forgotten the incident.  “You always were an ornery one,” said my cousin Doris Sue.  Memories of orneriness resurface and I had to agree.  I did have a talent for creating disorder where none had existed.  Once I brought fleas from the barn to the house and woke my Aunt Sis in the middle of the night to complain that I was itching and didn’t know why.            She lit a lamp and saw the black specks jumping on the bed.  She’d raised a covey of kids without raising her voice, but she lost it with her dumb city nephew that night.  My butt glows in retrospect.

The auctioneer prattled the terms of the sale, trying to generate interest in people who mostly were cold.  The wind chill was below 20 degrees.  I scuffled through the swirling leaves beneath two huge old maples.  They’d been huge and old when I was a kid; they still were.

My Aunt Sis’s garden had gone to spouts and weeds.  One of the cousins had dug some peonies from the yard.  With any luck they’d grow for another 60 years, patiently sprouting and hanging in there.

The big old tobacco barn didn’t seem as big now.  It showed its age with sagging doors and missing boards.  Maurice, sharecropping the place, had hung sticks of tobacco in the center section.  The broad leaves still were damp and green in spots.

Tobacco was the farm crop when I was a kid.  Lucky Strike Green had gone to war, so we raised tobacco for the Boys Over There.  It was downright patriotic. What was a soldier without his smoke?            Uncle Finney sprayed his home grown with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide long since superseded by supposedly safer chemicals, chewed the cured leaves…and died of stomach cancer.

Anything else grown on that farm was environmentally sound.  No additives to the chicken or pig food.  The pigs ate slops from the kitchen and the chickens ate what they could find in the yard.

It was a quintessential family farm.

We mourn the loss of the family farm as if it were a bucolic Camelot.  Politicians with country constituencies do it routinely, meanwhile getting elected with agribusiness support.  There is no room in today’s world for a subsistence farm where pigs feed on slop and you make your soap from their rendered lard.  No one wants to live that way anyway.  Only poor people use home-made soap and raw milk is dangerous.

We, in our comfortable ignorance, sigh for what was often was a thin, mean life.  People, especially kids, died of diseases that are only historical curiosities today: diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever.

The Finnells and Vances were poor people.  They didn’t think of themselves that way, but they lived ‘way below the poverty line as we define it today.  They worked from, as a friend says, “can’t see to can’t see.”  That’s all they did–work.  They raised pigs to eat and there was no freezer for storage.  They smoked the hams and bacon.  The smell from the smokehouse on a cold winter day was mouth-watering.  Chickens were free to roam until my aunt’s culinary eye settled on a luckless victim and then she planted a substantial foot on its neck and jerked upward on its feet and it was history.

Food was plentiful.  No one ever went hungry, but they made-do with old clothing. New shoes were as rare as an eclipse.  A night out was a pie supper at the nearby AsburyChurch once or twice a year.

The romance of the family farm?  There was nothing romantic in a midnight trek to the outhouse in December because something had caused a digestive Mt.St. Helens.  In summer, they shared the outhouse with ill-tempered stinging insects: wasps, yellowjackets and the occasional sociopathic bumblebee.

My kinfolk spent much of the summer cutting firewood by hand–there were no chain saws then–and the house, insulated about one-fourth as well as today’s houses, lost heat as soon as the fire in the stove burned low.  It wouldn’t get warm until someone got up well before dawn and built a fire.

Stereo-in-cab tractors may be overkill, but they beat a team of indifferent horses and a walking plow.  Even a riding mower was no picnic.  The iron wheels felt as if they were square.  No one had a sunshade.  You endured heat and bugs and dust and sweat.  There were no balers for hay.  You pitched it with a fork atop a horse drawn wagon.  It smelled good, but stuck to your sweaty body.

Some opted to leave for the city, as my father and his brother did in the 1920s.  They didn’t know if Chicago would be easier than CharitonCounty, but they figured it couldn’t be tougher.

My Uncle Sam once was asleep in his Chicago apartment when a bullet came through the window and lodged in the wall just above his head.  Bullets often flew in Chicago’s streets, but they did back on the farm, too.  Uncle Sam accidentally shot my father in the lip with a .22 caliber rifle when they were kids.  My father carried the bullet all his life.  Sis and Finney’s kids also chose different paths.  None farmed or ever wanted to.  Roy Joe, the only son and heir apparent, parachuted into Normandy on June 6, 1944, broke his back on landing and fought for five days behind enemy lines.  He married an English war bride and became an urbanite.

Fifty years later, he was stooped and gray-haired, more than 70, a kindly person, bitten by the harsh wind.  He had become an Episcopal priest, remarried after his war bride died, and would die himself at 85.  In one of life’s tiny ironies, Roy Joe’s war bride is buried at AsburyChurch, a half-mile from his home, but he’s buried 200 miles away.

The guy in the green athletic jacket and the cowboy hat wanted the place.  He topped Maurice’s bids without hesitation.  Maurice chewed on his bids like tough meat, being coerced into yet another $500 raise by the impatient auctioneer (who had another farm to sell as soon as he settled this one).

Finally the auctioneer knocked the place down to the cowboy and Maurice shrugged his shoulders philosophically in the cold wind and said, “I gotta spend this afternoon on a tractor and I’m not looking forward to it.”

I looked at the cowboy who glowered at the crowd as if afraid they’d deny him his hard-won prize.

“Come see us,” said the cousins.  “If you’re ever in town, come see us.”

And I promised I would and maybe I will, but I only know one thing for certain.  I never again will stand beneath the maples, knowing that my tap roots grow deep on this old ridge.


The old house is gone, replaced by a new cabin

The old house is gone, replaced by a new cabin

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1 Comment

  1. Karl Miller

    November 22nd, 2013 at 8:28 am


    Excellent piece Joel. Evoked some poignant memories.

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