This Old Farm: A Treasury of Family Farm Memories

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Original artwork from period advertising materials is used throughout "This Old Farm." Classic photographs also tell the story of America's love affair with the farm.
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Vintage ads help tell the story of the family farm in This Old Farm.

A recent conversation with a farm wife went something like this:“It rained so much, we got a late start planting. So they’ve been out in the fields until after dark every night. When they come in, they’ve got to fix whatever broke during the day. And then they’re up at 4 or 5 in the morning to get a head start on the day. It makes for long days,” she said. “But we’re still here, so we must like it.”

If such sentiments make sense to you, you’ll feel right at home with This Old Farm: A Treasury of Family Farm Memories. A fitting companion piece to This Old Tractor: A Treasury of Vintage Tractors and Family Farm Memories released last year, the book celebrates what’s good about farm life, and, in a good-natured way, cusses the rest.

Edited by Michael Dregni, This Old Farm is a sort of fancied-up family photo album packed with photographs, old advertisements depicting early farm scenes, essays, poetry and artwork. All that’s missing is a dusty pink ribbon wrapped around the memories. But Dregni’s efforts are solid, and the package holds together neatly, each piece complementing the next.

The book opens with a foreword by Roger Welsch, the well-known writer and humorist. You can almost see him squirm as he writes of the deep love he feels for his farm, even if others find it less than impressive. (“About all that can be said for the place of yours,” one neighbor notes, “is that if it wasn’t there, there would be a hell of a hole down there by the river.”)

But he’s careful to note that, on the farm, all is not sweetness and light.

“This attachment we all seem to have for farming leaves us curiously dissatisfied,” Welsch notes. “It’s not as if we are all on one side of the fence or the other, that we hate the farm or love it. We all treasure the good, tremble before the bad, laugh and cry, avoid and miss the feel of the farm.”

The content is divided into familiar sections: The Farming Life, A Place on Earth, Working the Land, All Creatures Great and Small, A Patchwork Quilt of Farm Living, and The Meaning of It All. From the outhouse to the barn, from cows to pigs, from profit to loss, the farm experience is recounted through a variety of perspectives.

Ben Logan’s “The Land Remembers” is a bittersweet recollection of boyhood spent on a Wisconsin farm. Warm sentiment is carefully paced, with bits of country humor catching you just before you go off the deep end. Logan, who now lives in New York City, is about as far from those roots as he can get. But he remembers the rhythms of country life, marked by the changing seasons, and his observations ring clear and true.

No book on farm life can overlook the importance of the barn, and This Old Farm is no exception. “If you drive by almost any deserted farmstead, notice that the barn has outlasted the house,” Bill Holm observes in “And God Said: ‘Let There Be Red!'” “It was better built and better maintained through most of its history.” But the book also takes a close look at a farm structure that rarely gets the attention it is due: the outhouse. In a chapter simply named “Privies,” Henry J. Kauffman touches on everything from determining the best location for a privy to construction materials to design (down to and including ventilation concerns).

“… hearts, half-moons, diamonds … These might seem to be very inadequate, since they might only indicate in which wall the door is located,” he observes. But, he continues with some understatement, “That fact is important to know.”

The backbreaking labor of harvest is recounted in two passages. A.C. Wood’s contribution recalls the old-time harvest field, from the era of scythes to early self-binding reapers. The second piece is an excerpt from Robert Amerson’s fictionalized memoir, From the Hidewood: Memories of a Dakota Neighborhood, in which a classic “coming of age” parable is set against a backdrop of threshing rigs and tractors.

The farm wife – and children – are not excluded from this collection. “A Patchwork Quilt of Farm Living” draws us into the kitchen, where unending toil produced culinary treats that can only be dreamed of today. Sara De Luca pens vivid memories of domestic chores in “The Polk County Homewreckers.” The prospect of the weekly Laundry Day, she writes, was enough to direct her toward city life.

“If I ever did become a married gal, I wouldn’t be wrestling with wood stoves and wringer washing machines. No, I’d be one of those modern types featured in the Ladies’ Home Companion. I could picture myself already, wearing city suits, high-heeled shoes, and little white gloves, waving at my gleaming appliances as I danced out the door.”

But when it comes to grumbling about farm life, things are not always what they seem, says Gordon Green in “The Time I Quit Farming.” Even a contrary son, he says, qualifies his gripes.

“I never did say that I didn’t like farming,” the son asserts. “It was just that I didn’t like the way we were doing it here and now.”

This Old Farm is tied up neatly at the end, with an accounting by Patricia Penton Leimbach, a writer in the style of Erma Bombeck. Just as Roger Welsch notes in his foreword that farmers are torn by their love for the farm, and their frustrations with it, Leimbach makes a careful accounting of the farm’s challenges and rewards. The latter she finds in abundance.

“… sunrise over the valley about 300 times (no failure with the sun; I was absent a few times)… sons coming in to supper from working with their father … impromptu visits with neighbors: total value: incalculable.” FC

This Old Farm: A Treasury of Family Farm Memories, Voyageur Press, 1999; ISBN 0-89658-411-9; 160 pages.

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