My Grandfather, His Farm and Me
Perhaps my grandchildren will appreciate a look at a time long gone both for me and for them. My father was the youngest son of a Maine potato farmer, whose other principal crop was beans grown for making baked beans. He and my grandmother grew their own vegetables, hand-milked their one cow for milk and butter (which grandmother churned except when I was around and got the job), raised chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner and laid out the dead folks in town to get some cash income in the winter.
I spent one whole summer living on the farm, located in Fairfield, Maine, when I was 10, and spent two weeks there every summer when I was a child, because my father spent every summer vacation there helping out his father. Grampa Wilcox was a very wise and quiet man who seemed to posses magical powers to forecast the future and heal the sick, but mechanical devices stumped him. He bought old cars to haul potatoes to market, and when they stopped running, he would haul them out back with his team of horses (I remember they were called Billy and Colonel). When my father got to Maine he would go to work repairing the old cars so Grandpa could use them again. When the cars were not repairable, Grandpa would haul them back into the woods. Many years later, when I became interested in antique cars, I traveled back to the old farm to find them, but someone else had beaten me to it.
Just to show you how much things have changed, I earned my first baseball glove that whole summer in Maine. One of the big problems a potato farmer faces is a nasty weed called mustard that must be pulled out by hand if you are a small farmer. The mustard weed has prickles that make it hard and painful to pull. To earn my keep at the farm I was told if I would work every day pulling mustard, I would get my baseball glove at the end of the summer. I won’t say I worked at it every day, but I did enough to get the glove, and remember to this day that it was a Marty Marion, a famous shortstop of that era. I used that glove throughout the rest of my baseball days.
Not only was Grandpa not tuned in to mechanical devices, but other scientific aspects of life were also a mystery to him. He had constructed a methane pit in the back yard that gathered the gas from the cow and horse manure, and provided the gas for the gas lights that lit the house and the barn in the early days before they got electricity. I have no idea how he managed to build this system, but one day it failed, and he went into the pit and lit a match to see what was wrong. Suffice it to say that he recovered from the explosion but never did that again. I was about 7 or 8 when the farm got electricity, but it never had plumbing.
This is not to say that Grandpa was not a learned and wise man. He knew more about life and nature than anyone else around, and was a person that people from all walks of life would consult for help and advice, and when he looked at you, you just knew that he knew everything. Unfortunately for me, the relationships that grandfathers had with their grandchildren was very different from many of today’s relationships. Grandpa came from a time when death came early and often to children, and families tended to have many children so some would survive. Children and grandchildren were expected to be “seen and not heard” – especially when adults were talking about something important.
One ritual I watched dozens of times was the prophesies Grandpa would make, on request, after some dinnertimes. Just as all meals were cooked on a wood stove in the kitchen, tea brewed from loose leaves was served at every meal. Grandpa would examine the empty tea cups after the meal, and poke around in the leaves left in the cup. Somehow he was able to see something in those tea leaves, and then he would prophesy the future for that particular tea drinker. I was always too young for my fortune to be told, and eagerly waited to grow up enough to hear it someday. Unfortunately that day never came for me. I got too busy, and Grandpa got too old.
The cynics who are all around us today would have laughed at Grandpa, but on that farm in Maine people from all over the state would come to him for advice and a prophesy, and for a faith healing service. Grandpa never charged any money for his efforts, and remained cash-poor throughout his life. Until he retired, he never left Maine, except for one famous trip. His oldest son who was my uncle, Irving, was a troublesome child who one day ran away and joined the circus that was passing through.
After several days Grandpa looked into his teacup and said he knew where Irving was, and that he was going to get him. He said Irving was still in the circus and now located in Virginia. He said Irving wanted to come home, but had no way to do it. Grandpa got on a train and went to Virginia. I don’t know any more of the details, but Grandpa and Irving arrived back in Maine shortly thereafter. Irving turned out rather badly as an adult, and became the black sheep of the family. My own father had to clean up some of Irving’s messes later on in life.
Two incidents involving me stick in my mind. One day on that long summer, Grandpa said he was going to spray the potatoes, and would I like to come along. We hitched the team of horses to a rig that had a large wooden barrel in its center, and a spray rig behind it. Then we pulled the rig into the woods and entered a large swamp that had water in it about 2 - 4 feet deep. It was an eerie and mysterious place, dark and forbidding with huge dragonflies flying all around. Grandpa got down into the water and filled the barrel using a pail. Then he mixed some deadly-looking blue-green chemical with the water, turning it all blue-green. We then drove the rig into the potato fields wearing kerchiefs over our faces, and sprayed the plants with this insecticide. It was undoubtedly some very bad stuff, but since Grandpa lived into his eighties, it obviously didn’t do him much harm.
Another time Grandpa said he was going to do some horse-hoeing, and would I like to ride Colonel while he did it. In horse-hoeing you use a single horse to pull a plow-like farm implement that has the blades arranged so that they shear along the sides of the hill-rows containing the potato plants, cutting through and pulling the weeds out. Unfortunately the saddle had seen better days and could not be fastened, so I rode on a saddle that was sitting loosely on Colonel’s back. It was just my luck that we disturbed a hornets’ nest, and they stung Colonel. He took off at a gallop, throwing off the saddle and dragging the horse-hoe behind him, bouncing along. I grabbed the handles on the horse-collar and hung on for dear life, screaming all the while. From the other side of the farm, my grandmother heard my screams and decided I had been bitten. She ran to scoop up some mud to put on my bites just as Colonel ran out of steam not far from where she had run. I jumped off, and Grandma ran up and put the mud on where she thought Colonel had been bitten. I was shaken up, but I was fine.
During World War II meat was in short supply, and you needed ration coupons to buy some. We went to Maine as usual one summer during the war, and something that seemed mysterious to me happened. Being summer, it was not deer season, and hunting deer was illegal. Very early one morning there was a kind of meeting among my father, my grandfather and a neighbor. There was a lot of whispering, and it was obvious that something unusual was going on, and then the men disappeared. The next day it was announced that we would be having liver for dinner, and at dinner I found out that it was deer liver. It seemed to me that it had a green color, and I couldn’t eat it. When we drove back to Providence our car contained a mysterious package, but when we got home my mother made my father go out in the back yard that night and dig a deep hole. Later it became obvious that she had put her foot down and made him bury the deer meat.
My mother did not like those summer vacations in Maine very much. She was a city girl through and through and hated using a privy during the day and a chamber pot at night. The farm women (there always seemed to be various family from Maine around) were also a very competent and hard-working bunch who could put together a marvelous meal complete with scratch biscuits – all made on a wood stove and without running water. I think these women made my mother feel inadequate. There was a pump handle at the slate sink in the pantry, but the water it produced was not potable. One of my jobs I had when I was there was to take an enamel pail and walk to a spring in the woods where the farm got its drinking water. I also remember that that big kitchen had a telephone in a wood box, and you cranked it to ring the operator.
The farm was actually quite large and included a small mountain that contained many fields and wooded areas. At the top of the mountain (or large hill if you prefer) there was a small, abandoned house where I used to play. Grandfather had built it for my aunt, just as he had built himself at least five other houses that had burned down from chimney fires. When Grandpa retired he and Grandmother moved to Raynham, Massachusetts, where he built a small two-room house. When that house was finished he built a larger house beside it, and then made the small house into a garage.
I lived for a while in Norton, Massachusetts, as a young married man, and was able to visit Grandpa from time to time in the short time he had after Grandmother died, bringing home with me vegetables from his garden. I don’t know if they remember, but some of my children, Connie, Sharon and Steve also visited there a few times.
In her later years in Raynham, Grandmother became well-known to the local police because she developed and suffered from arteriosclerosis and lost her short-term memory and knowledge of who she was. She would leave the house and get lost wandering around town, and Grandpa spent much time looking for her and reclaiming her from the police station. Grandmother died from old age, and Grandpa followed her not too long thereafter. We always felt that he passed away from a broken heart after he lost Grandmother.
I have so many wonderful memories of those times on the farm that I would not trade for anything. In the days before television, everyone went to the movies all the time, and Grandpa loved them so much he went almost every night and took me along to see Tom Mix and Gene Autry movies at the Opera House in Fairfield. He loved ice cream, too, and a stop at the Creamery in town for a sugar cone of rainbow flavor was also usually in the cards. I slept on the bed my Dad had used when he was a child, a tiny straw-mattress bed in a tiny room upstairs, listening to the strange noises and wondering about all those other empty bedrooms and whose they were and what might have happened there.
I can only hope my own grandchildren can look back someday with some happy memories of boating and sailing, cross-country skiing and that house in the woods in Dighton.
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