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The Family Farm

As a young boy I spent many summers on my grandparents' farm in Ford County, Illinois. The farm is still there, but the life my grandparents led and the kind of farming they practiced have vanished.

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Hay was the season's first harvest on my grandparents' farm. By the end of June or early July, the hay field of red clover, timothy, and other grasses was ready for cutting; the oats were still green and the corn only waist high on my child's body.

Grandpa still used horses for his haying. The reliable team of Sam and Andy pulled the mower at a steady walk. The long blade maintained a continuous soft clicking noise as the oscillating teeth snipped off the stems. The mower left the hay scattered over the field ready for raking.

The hay rake was an elegant piece of late-19th-century ironwork: two wheels bracketing a long row of curving tines, a seat mounted above the tines at the center, a long wooden tongue extending forward. I used to ride Sam, the older horse of the pair, when Grandpa did the raking. Sam was fast approaching 20 and nearing the end of his career. He was a beautiful animal, not large but well formed, snowy white with a lush mane of coarse hair that I gripped tightly as I rode. I can still feel that prickly hair, as reassuringly scratchy as a coarse wool sweater on a cold day.

Andy was a big gray horse only a third Sam's age. If you looked really carefully at the two of them in harness, you could see that Andy did most of the work. Sam held back ever so slightly; his harness was never quite as taut. Old age and treachery, as they say, will win over youth and enthusiasm every time.

The rake gathered the hay into tidy heaps ready for transport to the barn. Grandpa's brother Jim and Jim's son John helped out with this phase of the operation. Grandpa would return the favor by helping with their haying.

They needed less help, because they had gone completely mechanical. They had a baler, a noisy machine like a trash compactor, which squeezed the hay into identical blocks that could be secured by wire and stacked up into pyramids.

Grandpa gathered his hay on a hayrack, a big flatbed wagon with high trellislike supports at the front and rear. The horses pulled the hayrack slowly through the field, stopping at each pile to allow Grandpa, Jim, and John to fork the hay onto the wooden bed.

They transferred the hay from rack to barn through a big trapdoor just under the peak of the roof. A set of hooks mounted on a pulley at the top of the door grabbed a load of hay, hauled it up and inside, and dumped it in the haymow.

My cousins Jim and Jack, John's sons, always came along for the haying. They were about my age, and the three of us spent most of the day jumping from the highest places we could get to in the barn into the deepening piles of hay, landing barefoot on the scratchy stems.

The ultimate jump was from the bottom of the big door--reachable by a ladder nailed to the wall--into the haymow. We dreamed of jumping the other direction, from the door into a full hayrack outside the barn, but we never tried that. We knew the adults would have broken our necks if we had.

I was too young to crawl when Mom and Dad first took me to the farm in Ford County, Illinois, where my mother's parents lived. My first stay without my parents came when I was two and my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my sister. My stays got longer and more frequent after that, and from age 6 to age 11 I spent most of every summer on the farm.

Grandma always said I was no trouble to take care of, and she wasn't just being polite. How could I be any trouble? I had a whole farm to play with and the undivided attention of two people who absolutely doted on me. I had made it to heaven without dying. Even now, with my perceptions shaped by a literary education that has taught me to mistrust unalloyed happiness, to look for dark, hidden currents under the placid surface, I cannot recall a moment of unhappiness or boredom from my days with my grandparents.

The farm was a connection to the pioneer past I was reading about in school, a dose of history for a child growing up in a place where there was no history. In our suburban development, I was not only older than the buildings, but older than the trees as well.

The farm taught me to milk a cow, harness a horse, and husk an ear of corn. It saved me from the laughable ignorance of the city slicker and helped me impress my suburban buddies with the breadth of my experience. I could explain things in western movies. If John Wayne called the new schoolmarm a pretty little heifer, I knew what he meant. I even knew what a whiffletree was, although I have since forgotten.

I caught the farm in a moment of transition, a time when old ways and new existed side by side. The Rural Electrification Administration didn't get to our part of Ford County until 1948, when I was nine. My evening memories from before that are bathed in the soft glow of kerosene lamps. Grandpa owned a big red Farmall tractor, which he allowed me to drive sometimes, but he still kept Sam and Andy for planting and haying.

Despite the horses and the kerosene lamps, the farm was a modern operation, a highly productive enterprise that in the years of my childhood--through the war and immediately afterward--was making my grandparents a good deal of money.

Our suburban development, the place without a history, has survived. The trees are huge now, the houses well-kept examples of styles no longer current, the inhabitants two or three generations removed from the people I knew as a child; but otherwise life is pretty much the same as it was when I was in the fourth grade.

But the life my grandparents led and the kind of farm they kept have vanished as completely as the tall-grass prairie that created the rich sod that gave them their living. The Ford County of my childhood was a land of small farms, most of them a quarter section--160 acres. Each farm had its house and outbuildings, the home of the owner or tenants. The land was divided into precise rectangular fields, each enclosed by a fence. My grandfather judged the industry of farmers by the state of their fences. Upright posts and taut strands of barbed wire were signs of a good farmer. These days you can drive for miles through Ford County and never see a fence; the fences contained animals, and animals have almost disappeared from the farms of Ford County. Corn and soybeans dominate the land, and corn and soybeans never wander.

I have discovered that what vanished was not some ancient way of life but a brief moment in history, a sort of cycle that began with the breaking of the prairie and ended with the ten-row combine and a style of farming that needs almost no people. My grandfather, who was born in 1881 and died in 1969, lived through almost all of this cycle.

The kitchen was the center of life on my grandparents' farm. We ate all our meals there and spent our evenings there. Grandma did most of her work there. In winter, it was the only room kept comfortably warm. The big furnace in the basement that heated the rest of the house was only stoked for special occasions.

A cast-iron coal-burning stove filled one end of the kitchen. Keeping the fire burning at the right intensity was part of Grandma's art as a cook. A hatch at one end of the broad, flat top of the stove covered a tank, our one source of hot water for washing.

The sink and wooden icebox stood at the opposite end of the room, with the door to the back porch between them. A hand pump on the sink brought up washing water from a cistern in the basement fed by pipes that collected rain. We carried our drinking water in pails from the well, a haul of about 75 yards.

The one big window in the kitchen looked north. I loved looking through that window. It was set quite low in the wall, low enough so that even a very small boy could rest his arms on the sill and watch the world outside. A big sour-cherry tree grew just outside the window, and just beyond the tree was Grandma's garden. A fence separated the garden from the bare dirt of the chicken yard and the low, white chicken coop. Beyond the chicken coop was a big fenced-in area where the cattle and horses often spent the night. The well with its tall windmill and its galvanized stock tank stood in this fenced-in area. The stock tank became my swimming pool when the weather got hot.

Beyond the well, the land rose gradually across two fenced fields to the gravel road that marked the northern boundary of the farm. The rise was no more than 15 feet, but in Ford County, a 15-foot rise is a major topographical feature. The northern road intersected another gravel road that marked our eastern boundary. The farmstead of the McMahon sisters, our nearest neighbors, occupied the southeast corner of that intersection.

Our house faced the eastern road, although nobody ever came in through the front door. Visitors drove up the gravel lane that led from the road to the vast barnyard at the back of the house. They entered the house through the kitchen door, passing an ancient cottonwood with a trunk as thick as a kettledrum. The cottonwood was slowly dying through the years of my childhood, its crown shrinking as Grandpa cut away the dead limbs. The rest of the outbuildings--the big red barn, the corncrib, the toolshed, the garage--were scattered around the perimeter of the barnyard. Behind the barn was another small building that had once been a shelter for hogs. Grandpa no longer kept hogs. He said he didn't want to keep any animals that were smarter than him.

Sitting on the back steps, I could look west past the barn and watch the summer weather come. Tall black thunderheads with lightning flashing around their crowns rose in the west and sailed across the flat land. The heavy drops rattled the tin roof of the corncrib first, then splashed across the dust of the barnyard. I would retreat to the house when they began to hit the concrete porch steps.

Grandpa and Grandma were already in their 60s when I stayed with them, but they ran the whole 160-acre farm themselves, doing more work than most 40-year-olds could handle. Grandpa was tall for his time, a lean six-footer with a broad Irish face crowned by hair gone almost pure white. Age had stooped him slightly, but the muscles on his forearms were as thick and hard and distinct as bridge cables. His pale skin was burned bronze on his hands and neck and on his face about halfway up his forehead, the point where his hat brim began to shield him.

Grandma was a tiny woman--at 11, I was as tall as her--with once-reddish hair now faded to a pale brown. She wore rimless glasses of a style I adopted around 1967.

Grandpa planted five different crops on his 160 acres. He grew corn, soybeans, and oats for sale. One field of hay kept his cattle and horses through the winter, and one pasture fed them in summer. He rotated his crops every year, recharging the soil under hay, pasture-grass, and nitrogen-fixing soybeans; depleting it under corn and oats.

He usually kept about a dozen cattle. His one bull, too mean to run loose, was confined to a pen in the barn and only released when a cow needed servicing. Male calves were raised to butchering age; females became milk cows.

Shorthorns were his preferred breed, good for both milk and meat. They are an old breed in Illinois, brought in as early as the 1830s to replace the half-wild stock that roamed the prairies when much of the state was still open range and, as a contemporary writer put it, the local beef tasted like "vitalized rawhide."

One of my jobs on the farm was to walk out to the pasture late every afternoon to collect the cows and bring them in for milking. The rest of the herd usually followed us home. I ran barefoot on the farm, and the soles of my feet were toughened to the point that I could run on sharp-edged gravel in perfect comfort. With the perversity of boyhood, I particularly enjoyed stomping through cow manure just old enough to feel cool as it squished between my toes. For me, the smell of cow manure is still as evocative as a Proustian pastry.

Grandpa milked by hand. Sitting on a low stool, leaning in so close he had to rest the side of his head against the cow's flank, he would methodically work each teat. When I helped, he always checked on the thoroughness of my work, pulling each teat to be sure the milk was all out.

We carried the milk in pails to the house and ran it through a handcranked separator that divided the milk from the cream. When I was very young, I couldn't turn the handle on the separator. I was very proud when I got strong enough, and I would turn the crank until my arms ached.

Some of the milk went to the calves; some of it we drank. The rest was picked up each morning by a truck that took it to the railroad for transport to a dairy somewhere. Some of the cream went to town too. The rest we kept for coffee and butter and ice cream. I loved it when Grandma gave me coffee. She served it in tiny china cups. It was mostly sugar and cream with just enough coffee to turn the mixture beige. The cream was so heavy that when you poured it into the coffee it sank without a trace. You had to stir to bring it back to the surface.

Grandma made her butter in a mixing bowl, churning it with a wooden spoon. I helped her with that job and in return got to drink the wonderfully sweet residue, buttermilk.

The chickens were Grandma's responsibility. My grandparents didn't have a heated coop, so for them, chickens were a seasonal business. Early in the spring, they drove into the little town of Kempton to collect the downy chicks the railroad had just delivered. The hens in the shipment became layers; the cocks became fried chicken. With the approach of winter the hens were sold, and the farm was chickenless until the following spring.

When I was very small, chickens scared the hell out of me. They are surly creatures with sharp little beaks. Pushing one off a nest to collect her eggs took all the courage I had.

After we gathered the eggs, we had to sort them. White eggs in one box; brown eggs in the other. Farmers always got a chuckle out of the ignorance of city people who would pay more for a white egg than they would for a brown one. They knew that a flock of chickens kept in the same chicken yard and fed the same food would produce both white eggs and brown eggs. My uncle Mike, one of my dad's brothers, used to keep a little buffing wheel on his front porch so he could buff his brown eggs to snowy white. I doubt if the extra few cents a dozen repaid him for his time. I don't think he cared. He just enjoyed the joke. My grandmother would have gotten an even bigger laugh out of the recent fashion for brown eggs.

My grandparents' farm depended on the railroads. Thanks to trains, the milk and eggs they collected in the morning could be in Chicago, 100 miles away, by afternoon. The railroads also made Ford County possible--with some help from the field tile used to drain prairie marshes. The county didn't become a political unit until 1859. It is the youngest county in Illinois, formed from land ceded by surrounding counties because they didn't want it.

The first wave of settlement in Illinois proceeded from oak grove to oak grove across the prairies because the early farmers needed trees to build houses, barns, and fences and to furnish fuel for heating and cooking. They also didn't trust the fertility of prairie soils, a mistake on their part.

Ford County was in the heart of the Grand Prairie of east-central Illinois, a place where trees were very scarce. They are still uncommon. There are no woodlots on these farms. The only trees are those planted around the houses for shade.

Much of Ford County was wet prairie and marsh; it was great for duck hunting but far too damp to plow. The land was mostly open range until the Illinois Central came south from Chicago in the late 1850s. The railroad hauled in the lumber and bricks a farmer needed to build a house and barn on treeless land, and provided a connection to markets for a place with no rivers. The population of Ford County jumped from less than 2,000 in 1860 to more than 15,000 by 1880.

Farmers in the new county organized themselves into drainage districts and began laying the miles of subterranean tile that drained the wetlands. That work was already under way in 1870, when Heap Benson first appeared on the census rolls of Rogers Township, the northernmost township in Ford County.

Heap was an Englishman, 30 years old at the time of the census, living with his wife, Mary, and their two sons and four daughters. According to the county clerk's records in Paxton, the county seat, it was Heap Benson who first farmed the land that later became my grandparents'.

Benson bought the quarter section for $1,120 from the Illinois Central Railroad, which had received it in 1851 as part of an enormous land grant from the federal government. The railroad was given tens of thousands of acres of public land in addition to the opportunity to make enormous profits as the sole means of long-distance transport for a vast and growing region.

Rogers Township, though hundreds of miles east of the official frontier, was nevertheless a frontier community in 1870, a place where the virgin prairie was being plowed for the first time. Its 592 inhabitants included one young woman listed in the census as a schoolteacher, two men described as blacksmiths, and one carpenter. All the other men were either farmers or farm laborers; all the women were "keeping house."

The region's first railroad lay to the east in Iroquois County, but by 1880 a new line had been laid right through Rogers Township, and the trackside villages of Cabery and Kempton had been founded. The township supported two merchants, a store clerk, a clergyman, four teachers, a railroad station agent, and a track foreman. Heap Benson had sold his farm in 1875 for $5,000.

Among the farm families listed in the 1880 census were Danish immigrants Peter and Anna Mary Mathison, and among their children was a seven-month-old baby girl named Elwena, my grandmother. Daughter of pioneers, she grew up amid prairie flowers, bobolinks, meadowlarks, and rattlesnakes.

Sometime in the 1870s, John and Ellen Bergan came from New York to settle on a farm in Milks Grove Township in Iroquois County, immediately to the east of Rogers Township. Another set of great-grandparents, these Irish. The family name was originally Berrigan.

John Bergan built his holdings to 800 acres. He had five sons to work the land, including Jeremiah, or Jerry, my grandfather. Sons were expected to work the family land and to "work out," in the phrase of the time, on other people's land. Often their fathers collected the wages. In return for their sons' servitude, fathers were expected to help them set up on land of their own when they got old enough.

Doubtless John Bergan helped some when Grandpa and his brother Jim jointly purchased the Ford County land in 1911. Grandpa bought out his brother's share a few years later. The land was Grandpa's second farm, and until the mid-30s the family lived on their first farm, in Milks Grove Township in Iroquois County. It wasn't until the Great Depression took the Iroquois County land that Grandpa and Grandma moved onto the land I knew as a child.

Ford County's population peaked in 1900, when 18,359 people lived there. Rogers Township, too, was booming. Kempton and Cabery between them supported a farm-equipment dealer, a grain merchant, an insurance agent, a newspaper publisher and his typesetter, a dressmaker, an hostler, a harness maker, a confectionery dealer, a hotel keeper, a photographer, a "retail liquor dealer," and a somewhat more straightforward "saloon keeper." There were even two men whose occupation was listed in the census simply as "capitalist."

This was the golden age of the little farm towns, enjoyed before the decline that continued through the agricultural depression of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the postwar era of fast cars and paved roads.

I caught the tag end of their prosperity in my childhood. Grandma did all her trading, as she called it, in Cabery, Kempton, and another little village called Herscher. All three towns were laid out on the same general plan. The highway through town became a broad main street with a business district one block long. The railroad crossed the street at one end of the block. Surrounding the main street for a block or two in every direction was a grid of streets lined with houses. Prosperous farmers who retired to town competed to see who could build the biggest house, and some of their homes were quite grand.

We had a regular schedule: Kempton on Monday nights, Herscher on Wednesdays, Cabery on Thursdays and Saturdays. Those were the movie nights, and the street was lined with the cars of farmers like us. The free-movie man traveled from town to town pulling a small trailer that held his entire enterprise. Paid by local merchants, he would set up his screen in a vacant lot on the main street, place a speaker under the screen, and aim his projector through an open window in the side of the trailer.

That traveling movie exhibitor was an important educational influence for me. Thanks to him, I learned that Laurel and Hardy were much funnier than Chaplin and that Bob Steele was the greatest villain in western movies. Those nights in town also taught me how to open a dud firecracker and set the powder ablaze and how to smoke a Pall Mall without turning green.

Grandpa usually spent his nights in town playing pitch and euchre, his favorite card games. In Kempton, he played in an unused storefront, since Kempton was a Methodist hotbed with no saloons. In Herscher and Cabery, he played in saloons. Cabery was particularly lively, with no less than four bars to serve a population of 250.

Grandpa, influenced by his father's fondness for the bottle, was a lifelong teetotaler. But as he once explained to me, "I'm temperance, but I'm not a temperance crank," which translates as "I don't drink, but I'm not going to get upset if you want to have a few."

I realize now that he was also politicking in those saloons. Grandpa was elected to four terms on the Ford County board, an amazing record for a Democrat. He claimed to be the only Democrat ever elected to any office in Ford County.

Grandpa was a populist. That word gets thrown around a lot, but I figure it certainly applies to a man who cast his first presidential ballot for William Jennings Bryan. He once removed his money from a savings and loan after they told him they would be paying him a higher rate of interest on his savings. "All this means," he told me, "is that when some little guy comes in looking for a loan, they are going to charge him more for it."

Grandpa loved Roosevelt, rejoiced that he lived long enough to vote against Goldwater, and hated the Vietnam war. "I sent two children to the second war," he told me just before his death in 1969, "but I wouldn't send any to this one. I don't blame people for rioting over this one. I'd riot myself."

On those nights in town when the men vanished into the saloons, the women stayed outside. They strolled up and down the main street, often sitting in each other's cars to chat.

It's hard for me to write about my grandmother. She died 35 years ago, and my memories blur. I do know that her eyes lit up at the sight of me and I felt the same way about her. I know she taught me morals and taught me not to be impressed by wealth and power, to realize that wisdom could be cloaked in rags.

I was her main companion during my days on the farm. Farm life was hard for women. Winter was worst. There wasn't as much work to do, but the weather kept people indoors, and women couldn't go into town during the day and hang out the way the men did. Even in summer, women were usually confined to their houses, gardens, and chicken coops. If your children were grown and gone as hers were, you could spend day after day alone. Really alone. No telephone, miles from town, in a silent house. The good roads and fast cars that spelled doom for the little towns were liberation for the women, who could now drive to Kankakee--the nearest city of any size--and escape the silence.

Grandma had taught school before she got married, boarding with a farm family near the school. She had her first child just a year after her marriage. She worked hard, keeping a big house with no electricity or running water, with outdoor plumbing and a coal stove.

I helped her some. I carried water from the well and coal from the basement. I dug potatoes and picked vegetables from the garden and killed and dressed chickens. But most of the time, I just played. She didn't expect me to do much work. I was more valuable just as company--somebody to talk to, to have around to hear and see, a break in the isolation.

My grandparents retired and moved into town in 1952. My uncle Jimmy took over the farm, working it as a tenant. Within a year of their retirement, my grandfather suffered the first of several heart attacks and my grandmother died, quietly, suddenly, in her sleep.

With big families on both sides, I knew a lot about going to funerals, but Grandma was the first person I really knew and loved who died, and I cried in disbelief and anger.

Uncle Jimmy farmed the land until 1969, when Grandpa died. The inheritance was divided between him and my mother and my aunt. Jimmy bought 80 acres of the land and the buildings. The other 80 ended up in the hands of a millenarian sect called the Stelle Foundation. They talked of building a greenhouse on their 80 acres, but they never got it together. The land has since been sold to another farmer.

The Stelle Foundation is still around, however. Just down the road to the west, they have a small development of a dozen or so mock Tudors and other suburban-looking dwellings, where they live totally surrounded by cornfields in expectation of the imminent end of the world.

The McMahon farmstead next door--like many others in the county--has totally vanished. Corn grows now where the house once stood. Some farmsteads in Ford County survive only as a single building, a barn or toolshed that gets used by whoever farms the land around it. The fields of corn and soybeans stretch on forever.

Ford County's population started a long, slow slide after the peak year of 1900. The next 50 years record an uninterrupted decline, from 18,359 in 1900 to 15,901 in 1950. A small blip took it over 16,000 in 1960, but then it started down again, reaching 15,265 in 1980.

These numbers tell only a part of the tale. When I first started visiting the farm, almost 80 percent of the people in Ford County lived in rural areas. By 1980, the population was half urban, which means mainly Paxton--the county seat--and Gibson City. People in little villages like Cabery and Kempton get counted among the rural folk.

In 1870, when Rogers Township was a raw frontier with no towns or villages, 592 people lived in its countryside. Today, just over 400 live there, and some of them, like the man who now owns my grandparents' house, work in town.

In 1982, there were only 804 farms in the whole county, down from 964 as recently as 1974. The average size of the farms keeps climbing, 325 acres in 1974, 360 acres in 1982. Less than 30 percent of the farmers own the land they farm, and among them they hold only 13 percent of the total land area. Seventy percent of the farmers are either landless tenants or people who have some land of their own but must farm more to live.

Only about 100 farms keep cattle, only 12 keep milk cows. Only 31 keep chickens, and most of those are specialized operations that do things like raise pullets to laying age and then sell them to egg producers.

Corn and soybeans dominate, and yields are enormous. Some years, Ford County farmers harvest twice as much corn per acre as they did 40 years ago. Costs are also enormous; the price tags on the biggest bean combines near six figures.

Cabery and Kempton still have about 250 people each, but most of them live there and work elsewhere. The villages are no longer retailing centers. You could take a nap in the middle of their main streets at noon on a weekday and not be in any danger.

The only noticeable signs of life are the bars, one in each town--apparently Kempton's Methodists have been overcome. I ran into my cousin Jack in the Cabery Bar and Grill, and we reminisced about the days when we chased each other through the haymow.

Jack still farms, and he does it the modern way. He owns 120 acres, but he farms a total of 960; the additional 840 he rents. Some of his land is 20 miles from his house. He commutes on a tractor or combine. He grows nothing but corn and soybeans.

I asked him if 960 acres was enough to provide a living. "Just barely," he told me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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