|Steve and Knight on the Back Forty, Autumn 1956|
Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
I have written here several times about my grandparent’s farmstead in southwestern Michigan where I lived for a time back in the mid-1950s. My parents were traveling for my dad’s job and so I had a stable home as I started my school career at the one-room Acorn School just down the road from the farm. Having lived in cities – Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles - during my earliest years, I found the farm to be a fascinating and mysterious place where I could free-range to my heart’s content . . . even as a five year old boy. How many kids can say that today?
My days on the farmstead fell into a routine. Life was much simpler back then. After a morning of spelling, repetitions and ciphers I was happy to walk back to the farm for a few daylight hours of rambling through my grandparent’s fields and the woodlot beyond. This afternoon time was usually my own after a few quick chores upon returning home from school. After a cold glass of milk I would visit the chicken coop where it was my job to gather the eggs and bring water from the pump to fill their trough. I would also bring cracked corn from the granary which I spread around the yard, the chickens pecking at my shoes. My grandma was often busy with her own chores around the house and with the preparation of the evening meal while my granddad would be busy in the barn mucking out the stalls and tie-ups and laying in a fresh bedding of hay for the cows in preparation for the evening milking. On weekends I would often follow my granddad around the farm, sometimes on foot and other times up in his lap as he navigated his red Farmall tractor from one task to another. My uncles and neighboring farmers would come when it was time to cut and bale hay or harvest the field corn and asparagus.
Most of my explorations of the farm began in the large yard separating the farmhouse from the weather-burnished barn and the other out buildings. It was shaded by a magnificent oak tree and I would go around picking up fallen acorns and collecting them in small paper bags which I then secreted high up in the corn crib. I had no reason for doing this. My faithful companion was Knight, a friendly and trustworthy border collie who, strangely enough, was my best friend during those months I spent at the farm with few, if any, children to play with. A prodigious assembly of cousins had not yet arrived on the scene.
In the summer the fields reaching from the barnyard to the distant woodlot were planted with alfalfa, asparagus (western Michigan is considered by some the asparagus capital of the United States), and field corn. When the corn had grown above my head I would often go into the field and walk about, changing directions at will and wondering where I would be when I finally emerged into the open. Browned and withered in the autumn after the harvest, the corn stalks would be cut and gathered into shocks dotting the field until they were ensiled as cattle fodder for the coming year. A small creek ran through the woodlot and I always enjoyed walking along it looking for frogs and minnows. Sometime I would take a small cane pole with me and fish for bream in the larger pools. I had a fort, its walls marked out by cords of wood my granddad had cut. Later in the autumn some of these logs would be sectioned and split and transported to the dooryard to feed the winter furnace in the farmhouse cellar. These explorations of the farm fields and back woods were a special time, when my boyhood imagination would run wild with possibilities as I listened to the wind rustling trough the crops, the trees and branches scratching and creaking as evening approached.
One of my aunts or uncles would usually stop by in time to be invited to join us for dinner and we would all gather around the large dining room table for a bounteous feast of meat and potatoes. A large picture window opening to a broad panorama of the farmyard and the fields beyond the barn and out buildings, the cows just beginning to arrive at the barnyard from their day grazing in the pasture.
In the early evening after dinner I would join my granddad in the barn and watch him milk each of his six cows in succession. It was my job to retrieve pails full of corn meal from the granary which I mixed with a portion of ensilage (mostly green corn fodder) to which I added a generous dollop of black molasses. The girls appeared to enjoy it well enough. The milk from each cow was poured into large metal milk cans which were then submerged in a water cooler overnight, the morning milk added before the cans were rolled to the side of the road near the barn to be collected daily by the local dairy truck. Except for weekends, I left the morning milking to my granddad who was up every morning at dawn. On weekdays I had to eat breakfast before my walk back to Acorn School for the day’s lessons.
Willa Cather’s sentiment from the Great Plains almost a century ago still held true as I wandered my grandparents’ farm in the mid 1950s. Its good earth was magical for this city boy. Now, almost sixty years later, I still have fond memories of those days of innocence, wishing that my own could end like this.
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