Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Handful of Pinto Beans

Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always wanted to be a farmer. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t drawn to the soil as if by some unseen power. At an early age, I was told that I had a green thumb and many's the time that people would ask me to plant their gardens, bushes, etc. because they said, “If anybody can get them to grow, Matthew can.”

Milkweed Ladies on the Mallow Farm.

The very first thing that I ever remember planting was a handful of pinto beans. I remember Mom was looking over a bag of store-boughten pinto beans that she was getting ready to cook (looking over them I’m sure you know, means that she was sorting through them and picking out cracked beans and the occasional pebble.) Well, she had a few beans picked out that were unsuitable to be cooked and I asked her if I could have them. She said that I could, but not to eat them because raw beans will give you a stomachache. I said that I wouldn’t eat them, but that I was going to plant them. It was early spring then, way too early to be planting anything on the mountain, but Mom told me to go ahead and plant them but to plant them in the corner of the garden (she told me to put them in the corner because she knew I wouldn’t let them plow it up after I planted the beans, even though they had little to no chance of growing). Well, I remember I went out and poked a hole in the ground with my pointer finger, and dropped a bean into the cold soil. I covered them up the some dirt and I repeated this until I had all of the broken and misshapen pinto beans planted. I checked on them several times that first day, and occasionally over the next few days, but I soon lost interest in waiting to see the first sprouts of the beans that I was just sure would soon pop through the soil. A few weeks later when the garden was plowed up in preparation for the spring planting, Mom noticed that there were five little bean plants growing in the corner of the garden. She called me over and showed them to me, and of course there never was a bean plant that ever looked so good as the ones that I had grown. Everyone was shocked that the plants had grown from the cracked pintos that had been sorted out of a store-boughten bag of pinto beans!

We tended to the beans that spring and they were getting up pretty good in size when my family decided to move out of Johnson Holler to over across the mountain to the Mallow Farm. The main reason was because my brother Jason had started to school the year before and Dad would drive him over North Fork Mountain every day to catch the school bus in Monkeytown, and this fall I would be starting to Kindergarten, so Mom and Dad figured it’d be better if we lived on the same side of the mountain as where we’d be attending school rather than risking the trip across the mountain every day all winter. The Mallow Farm was also closer to Dad’s work, it was only about a mile from the gate of the farm whereas Johnson Holler was about 15 miles. The third, but not the least important reason for moving out of Johnson Holler was because we wouldn’t have to pay rent. I remember rent at the old house in Johnson Holler was $50 a month, plus you had to supply your own buckets to catch the water that leaked through the roof when it rained. This was so the water wouldn’t rot out the floors (yes, the house was that good!). But on the Mallow Farm, there was no rent but we did have to tend to the farm. It seemed like a good deal to all of us, we got the run of a 585-acre farm just for taking care of it. I suppose another reason why we moved to the farm was that my Grandmaw Henry had just passed away and Mom and Dad were taking care of five of Dad’s siblings, of which the youngest was just 3 years older than my brother Jason and the Mallow Farm was more conducive to raising a passel of “heatherns” as we were frequently called, than most anywhere else they could think of.

So that was the long way around of telling you that I never got to harvest those first beans that I ever planted. We moved out of Johnson Holler early that summer, and had to leave the old garden behind. I’m sure the deer and groundhogs had a field day with it. Over the years I have often wondered if those pinto beans ever amounted to anything.

Germany Valley...my home.

After moving to the farm, we have plenty of ground to tend to. Since Mom and Dad were raising all of us kids then, our family garden was easily 2 acres in size, one acres of which was planted in potatoes. I remember there were plenty of “garden suppers” as we called them, suppers where everything we had came out of the garden. I don’t ever remember going hungry though. We also raised hogs, chickens, sheep, ducks, guineas, cows and a horse. The sheep, cows and the one old horse were owned by the man who owned the farm but we tended to them the same as we did our own.

We only saw the owner about once a month, if that, except during haying season, during which time he would be over every day cutting this or that hayfield. I remember that he had two teenage sons who were smitten with my Aunts who lived with us then. They were all about the same age, and every day for lunch they’d come over to the house to visit. They said they came for some cool spring water, but they wasn’t fooling anybody, they was a-tryin’ to court my aunts. Nothing ever amounted to their advances, Mom said that the girls were too young to be interested in boys, even though the girls were the same age as the boys. Mom always told the girls not to be a farmer’s wife, because they would work you to death and they’d find themselves broke down with a passel of kids before they was 40. I find it ironic now just how picky Mom was for us all, we really didn’t have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of, but she always expected us to do better for ourselves. From where I’m sitting now, I’d have thought she’d have welcomed one of my aunts marrying up with the farmer’s sons, but she never did. But I reckon it goes back to the days when our family had money, and although the “uppity” customs that went along with the old ways got passed on down to us, the money didn’t. My granny always said we was “poor genteel”.

Late Autumn on the Mallow Farm

We might have been poor as church mice but there were things we done that were atypical of our neighbors in a similar financial predicament, for example, we always had to eat everything with a fork, finger foods were just unacceptable and were considered beneath us…my mother still won’t eat a sandwich! All these years later, I’m still guilty of eating everything with a fork, or at least I have to have a fork in my hand while I’m eating, even if I don’t use it. Another thing was we always had to have clean sheets and pillowcases on our beds. We knew a lot of people who were as poor as we were who didn’t have sheets or pillowcases, and we just thought that was awful. The ones we had might have been worn out, but by crackies we had them and used them! Another thing was our shoes had to be clean. It didn’t matter what we had been doing, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere in dirty shoes…not even scuffed up shoes…for that was a sure sign of “trashiness”. I still find myself now, whenever I meet someone, the first thing I look at is their shoes. I’ve found over the years that this is a pretty good method of sizing people up, although there are some exceptions to this rule.

The farmhouse on the Mallow Farm.

We lived on the farm for several years, and today I consider myself having grown up on a farm even though we moved from it while I was still in elementary school. We moved from the farm because Mom and Dad had bought a house up on the mountain where Dad's family was from. It was originally part of the old Burns property but had been sold off back in the Depression to pay for a store bill. In those days, my Granddaddy didn’t have much but land, so much so that it is told that he sold the back side of the mountain for a horse and buggy, and he sold the land that borders the current Burns property for a bottle of whiskey! I ain’t never for the life of me figured out why he would have sold all the good land on the mountain and the valley below and kept the rockiest part of it. It could be because he couldn’t give away that part of the land, let alone sell it, but at least he kept enough land to give future generations of his family a sense of place and of their heritage. God knows, thats about all we have left! That and a bunch of cousins and relatives who will fight and quarrel over nothing more than a rock, its sad to see that the family has crumbled the way that it has over the past generation or so, it just seems that people don’t want the land but they don’t want anyone else to have it either. I suppose it all happened because Grandmaw and Granddaddy broke the old custom of leaving everything they had to the oldest boy and everyone else just had their lifetime rights to the property, instead of following that custom which had worked for the past 200 or so years, they left their estate to all of their children to be shared equally. The old custom might have been unfair, but the equal sharing way has done nothing but tear the family apart. All I know is that Grandmaw and Granddaddy done what they thought was best.

Remnants of the original Burns homeplace.

So there’s a little dirty family laundry for y’all out there reading this rambling post. Now to continue what I consider the main thread of this story, after we moved up on the mountain, on land that was now ours and ours alone, we found out just how much we missed the farm. While we did still raise hogs and chickens, we didn’t have near the land to grow our garden, raise our stock or just to get out and enjoy. We also didn’t have a big house like we did on the farm and we really had to pare down. We gave truckloads of stuff to my one Aunt who sold a lot of it in a big yard sale. We also gave away stuff to just about anyone who needed something. Probably the two things that most affected me was having to give away a lot of my toys (it took seven pick-up loads to carry all of our toys from the farmhouse, but the new house could only hold around one pick-up load). The other thing was losing our beloved dog, Pete. Pete was a farm dog, and after we moved off of the farm, he pined away for it. One day we noticed Pete was no longer with us, and the next day, the man who owned the farm brought Pete back to us and said that Pete had found his way back to the farm (about 5 miles away). Dad figured it would happen again and told the man if Pete wandered back down to the farm again, to just go ahead and keep him. A few days later, Pete went back to the farm and the man kept him. It was hard letting go of Pete but we knew that is what made Pete happy.

Aside from that, I liked living in our new home, we were located right beside of my Grandmaw Mary, whom I dearly loved, and just under the hill from my Granddaddy’s house. We also didn’t have to walk a half-mile to catch the school bus either. So while I did miss the farm in many ways, I suppose it was for the best. My family had returned home to the mountain that had borne our blood since 1699, and I suspect like the many generations of ancestors who came before, they will remain there for the duration. In the meantime, I am a farmer without a farm but the memories I have continue to sustain me even though in the back of my head I can hear Gerald O’Hara from “Gone With The Wind” repeating “Land, Katie Scarlett, Land. ‘Tis the only thing worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. Land, Katie Scarlett, Land, Why it’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing that lasts…”

And to think this all started one early spring day all those years ago with a few old cracked-up pinto beans that weren’t fit to eat.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Come Have a Look

From "Have-A-Look Poems" by Elkins, WV, native, B. Wees

The Old Store

'Tis three score years and maybe more
Since father started this old store,
A little "shack" not long nor wide--
So folks about the country side
Could "Have a Look."

And to this "shack" planked up and down,
Located seven miles from town;
And from the rail road thirty six--
The folks would come, talk politics
And "Have a Look."

And underneath that clapboard roof
He sold 'em calico's and snuff;
Kentucky Jeans and cow hide boots--
Some with high heels for gay "galoots"
To "Have a Look."

From Webster, through the muddy roads
The good were hauled by wagon loads,
And sold at prices fair and square
So people came from far and near
To "Have a Look."

And there on rainy days and nights
On nail kegs 'neath the smoky lights
Would sit a gang of gray haired boys
And chuckle o'er their old time joys
And "Have a Look."

Then Vig and Amby would come in
And "chune" up the old violin
And play some old toe-twisting tune--
'Twould start a hoe-down might soon
Then "Have a Look."

And old "Black Pete" and old "Black Jim"
Would tell ghost stories, ghastly and grim,
'Til all the gold in land and sea
Would not induce a boy like me
To "Have a Look."

And when the woods with music rang
Aunt Mime would bring a poke of "sang",
A cautious trader was Aunt Mime,
You bet, she always had the time
To "Have a Look."

The old store suited the old ways
But now new people and new days
Demand a store that's more complete
You'll find one here that's hard to beat,
Just "Have a Look."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Summertime at the Sow's Ear

Always at this time of year, my mind drifts back to those summer days sitting on my Granddad’s front porch. I remember one lazy summer day on Granddad’s porch, I lived up to my nickname “Hacker”. They called me that because seldom was the time when I didn’t have an old hatchet with me. I don’t know why but it seemed that I always had a hatchet. I’d use it to clear brush if I wandered around in the woods, I’d throw it at tree's and blocks of wood to see if I could make it stick, or I’d just hold it above my head and let out a war whoop and make people think I had went off and was going to chop them to pieces. Regardless of what i was doing, I always seemed to have a hatchet with me. Well, on this one day and for some still unknown reason, I took to lightly hacking at my Granddad’s old dry-rotted porch posts. It didn’t take much until the posts simply crumbled away in places.

Granddad's house, "The Sow's Ear".

My Granddad tried to get me to stop but eventually just said, “If you destroy those posts, you’re goin’ to have to cut me some hickory poles to hold up the porch roof.” Well, I continued chipping away at the posts in the middle of the porch, even then I knew that the corner posts would hold up the roof. After I had hacked the old posts away, I went up in the woods and cut and trimmed up some nice hickory poles. I peeled the bark off of them, and they were a very pretty white color. We placed them in the spots where the old posts were, and nailed them up. They looked about a hundred times better than the old posts did, and even my granddad said it was a big improvement and said, “Hackey, I reckon you done me a good deed.”

That was until my Aunt Nawey came home from work. She about had a conniption, and said it looked like a bunch of hillbillies lived there with the hickory poles holding up the porch roof. She marched over to my Dad and told him what I had done, and wanted him to replace the porch posts. As luck would have it, we had a few old cedar porch posts there from where we had recently remodeled our front porch, and Nawey said that would be fine. The next day, me and Granddad put up the new porch posts and all was again right with the world. Nawey threatened to skin me alive if I hacked at the new porch posts! After they passed Nawey’s inspection, my Granddad informed her that he liked the hickory poles better and told her “No matter how hard you try, you ain’t never goin’ to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!” (I bet you can’t tell that I could get away with anything with my Granddad!)

In those summer days of my youth, we always seemed to have the same routine every day, about noon we’d go down to Riverton and get a few snacks and to catch up on the local gossip for the day, and then after about an hour or so, we’d start back up the mountain, only coming home through the Bland Hills.

Bland Hills

Bland Hills road was always so quiet and peaceful, and we’d poke along on our way home, stopping to look at anything unusual that caught our eye like grazing deer, an occasional hawk flying overhead, or perhaps some blooming patch of wildflowers alongside the country road. Seldom was the day when we’d pass another vehicle on our trip, and it was because of this that Bland Hills was chosen as the location for my Granddad to let me drive his truck, even though I was underage and still a couple of years away from getting a drivers license.

Looking back, I’m sure that he let me drive coming back up the mountain rather than driving down the mountain was so I couldn’t really let the truck get away from me on the uphill drag. I learned to drive fairly fast, and I had driven our car with an automatic transmission before so that wasn’t an issue for me, but figuring out a clutch was entirely different. It also didn’t help that Granddad’s truck was a 1967 Ford F-150 with a 3-speed transmission on the steering column! I don’t know whoever came up with the concept of a 3-speed transmission, but whoever it was should be dragged out into the woods and shot. As I recall, first gear was way up on top on the front of the column, second gear was all the way down on the front of the column, and somewhere about halfway on the steering column you could, if you were lucky, manage to finagle and contort the belligerent beast into third gear. Reverse was one of those directions that remained a mystery to me in the old truck, it was supposedly somewhere through the magical corridor, down by the magical mirror and was only attainable, I’m convinced, by saying a few quatrains of an old Pennsylvania Dutch hex. Luckily, on Bland Hills road I didn’t have much use for third gear or reverse, so I was good to go. I remember Granddad would drive over toward the backside of Riverton, and pull off the road and let me under the wheel, and I’d take over right at the foot of Dolly Ridge. Try as I might to ease out on the clutch upon taking off, I’d always either lurch forward and kill the motor, or I’d tear out throwing gravels and dirt for several yards behind me. All my Granddad would ever say is, “Take ‘er easy, hackey, take ‘er easy!”

Granddad & my cousin Poodies.

Once I got took off, I was pretty good at it and didn’t have much difficulty in shifting gears since most of the way was in first gear, and once we got up on the ridge, I’d shift into 2nd. Soon after getting to the top of the ridge, we would come to the forks in the road, the left going towards Monkeytown (which was were home was) and the right going back into Brown Bear Lodge.

Well, Granddad would always say, “I believe we’ll ride back this way today and see if anything is different.” There never was anything different back in Brown Bear Lodge, I'm fairly sure that nothing had changed there since the Yankee's marched up Dolly Ridge after the Battle of Riverton way back when the North invaded America. But going right at the Forks did add a couple of miles on to the trip since the road back into Brown Bear Lodge was a dead end and we’d have to backtrack out of there. I remember we’d drive by the old Cunningham Cemetery where two sets of my great-so-many-grandparents are buried, and Granddad would inevitable tell me about them, and tell me about how years ago they had a problem with groundhogs back there, and the groundhogs had gnawed and dug their way into some of the graves and were bringing out scraps of clothing from the graves. Of course, this was very upsetting to the people who had loved ones buried there, and several men set around with guns and waited for hours to shoot the groundhogs. After killing several groundhogs from that spot, then men stuffed rocks into the groundhog holes and covered them over the best they could. He said now people kept watch for any sign of groundhogs returning even though that had happened several decades ago, and no other action was needed. It was almost as if he shared the cautionary tale with me to keep alive an ongoing feud between humans and groundhogs.

The old Cunningham Cemetery.

Eventually, I’d have to turn around, and I had a favorite spot for it, remember how I said I could never find reverse in the old truck, well I got around this by turning around at a wide spot in the road near a big open meadow. It was wide enough to swing the truck around without having to put it in reverse!

This is the meadow that has the wide spot I used to turn around in.

After backtracking the Brown Bear Lodge road, and then onto Bland Hills road toward home, I would creep along ever so slowing, sometimes stopping to see something of interest, and all the while learning how to take off without popping the clutch. I’d drive to what we called the “First Hill” near the main highway, at which point I’d pull over and let Granddad take over the wheel again, and he’d drive us on home.

A typical view in the Bland Hills.

Once we got home we’d sit on the front porch and talk and tell stories, or find something that needed done, like poking around in the outbuildings or climbing up in the attic at Granddad house. It was always an adventure, you never knew what you were going to find. I remember one time we were up in the attic digging out some old boxes of stuff. The attic was but a crawlspace, and you had to be really careful so as to only place your weight on the rafters of the old house. I recall that it was so hot and stifling that you could barely breathe, and I’d crawl around, find a box, and drag it back to the opening of the attic and hand it out to my granddad on the porch roof. I remember one time I kept noticing the electric wire had been gnawed by a rat in several places and I commented to granddad, “If that rat gnaws through the rubber coating of that wire, it’ll have a bad day.” Well sure enough, after crawling further back into the attic, I saw the skeletal remains of the rat, still stuck into the electric wire where it had succeeded in biting its way into oblivion. Really, I don’t know what ever kept that place from burning down with the gnawed electric wires, the sawdust insulation and the wiring system that my granddad figured out and installed.

We’d then dig through the boxes that were placed “overhead” for the past several decades, there’d be old pictures, school papers from the kids, sometimes knick-knacks, and various other items. It really was like sorting through Pandora’s Box. If something caught our eye, we’d lay it to the side so we could take it with us. Everything else was placed back into the boxes and put back into the attic, where those treasures remain to this day. I wonder what I would find if I were to look through those boxes today?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Eggology 101

The following poem is from the book "Have-A-Look Poems" by B. Wees dated 1946 in Elkins, West Virginia.

Egg-ology by B. Wees

Old Farmer Corn Tassel remarked to his wife,
As he hung up his hat on a peg:
"I'll be jiggered if I can see, for my life,
How a black hen can lay a white egg!"

Said Mrs. Corn Tassel: "Just take my advice,
Your question's both silly and vague.
When you hear the hen cackle, just remember the price,
And go fetch home the egg!"

Chicken Coop at Granny Sue & Larry's Homestead.