Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Farm and Its People

My grandmother was a complicated woman. You'll just need to trust me on this. But the one thing that is certain about Gertrude Ann Connell Cook was her love of the farm on which she was raised. "The farm" was a constant source of inspiration throughout her long life. She spoke often about relationships with her father, her Aunt Mary that raised her, and her many siblings. I have hundreds of photographs of the house, the animals, and the land situated near Milton, Indiana. This place was obviously the hub of the Connell family, nuclear and extended.

Even in her later years, when she would mistake me for a long-deceased sister as we sat in her room at the nursing home, my grandmother would recall the days the girls would walk through the fields chasing a dog or a horse. I finally realized it was better to just play along at these times, and taking cues from years of listening to family lore, I slipped into the role of Elizabeth or Frances. The sisters were certainly best friends, and "the farm" was where they shared their most memorable moments together.

So I should not have been surprised to find a handwritten manuscript detailing every nuance of "the farm" in one of the boxes of genealogical treasures I found among my grandmother's belongings after she passed away. Except I was. This finding absolutely stunned me. On several sheets of wide-ruled notebook paper, neatly aligned back in the plastic wrap with the remaining blank sheets, was the following account. My grandmother's schoolteacher handwriting is so recognizable while the emotion contained within the words is not. She obviously used her writing to express her softer side, feelings that did not come easily in other relationships. There is no date on the script, and no evidence as to why it was written or why it stopped so abruptly. The considerable amount of notes in outline form at the end of the original, not contained here, makes me believe she was attempting to write an autobiography.

I hope one day to finish the work my grandmother began. She understood the significance of preserving family history and has given me the gift of her memories, in her own words. "The Farm and Its People" has provided a glimpse into the life of my grandmother that I didn't know existed. She was still a complicated person. But I'm beginning to understand her a little bit more.

The Farm and Its People, by Gertrude Ann Connell Cook

The only ones left who shared this world with me, will tell me that I didn’t get all my facts straight, but I’ll remind them this is the way I remember.

Once you have lived on the land, been a partner with its moods, secrets and seasons, you say to this land, “You are part of me.” I wasn’t born on this farm, but moved there before I was two. I have been a part of the thousand sounds, sights and smells. I again am sitting under the maple tree in the front yard. There were just two at first, I remember-then another grew up tall and husky on the other side of the graveled drive. We had a rope swing on the one on the north side. The ground warn smooth in a hollow where we would drag our feet. On either side of the front entrance was a tall cedar tree. I would sit and wonder how can I ever climb to the top? I think I climbed everything tall on that farm. Along the fence of the yard, that enclosed the garden side, were cherry and pear trees. Along the road in front was the catalpa (pop corn) tree. In the front corner of the road and garden side was a lilac tree that I loved, it was my corner to be alone, to dream, wish and imagine. In a family of nine, it was useful.

All around this yard was a fence-a picket fence, a big picket swinging gate at the driveway. We had all the old fashioned plants and flowers, tiger lilies, roses, violets, star-of-Bethlehem, a soft red blooming bush. On the other side of the drive there were lilac bushes, more trees. This side was fences from the horse field. The driveway led past the long open porch, on the south side of the house. To the back of this yard and to the south was the buggy shed-outside of this on the driveway, our father would shoe his horses- Bessie, Silveretta, and others driven to the buggy, I cannot remember the names. Right next to the buggy or carriage shed was the chicken house. These were torn down in later years. I can barely remember them. The drive way went thru the yard, went to the carriage shed around the back of the house thru a gate, down a hill, into the barnyard. Walking straight thru the driveway, you went down a hill, past the smoke house. At the bottom of the hill was a well built wooden, spring house. The water was cold and fresh, gushing from this spring-it went into troughs in the spring house out the back into the horse trough. In the spring house we put the milk in crocks. Some of the milk we let the cream come to the top which we skimmed and put into the churn to make butter. I used to like to churn, and work the butter, add the salt, and put it into rolls. The plug would be pulled first to let the buttermilk run out. I never liked buttermilk. In later years we had the separator. It was in the kitchen, one in the corner near the cellar door. How I hated that separator! Washing those discs!

In later years a huge walnut tree grew over the spring house, but the wooden house was replaced by a cement block house. It was never the same. When the boys caught fish they used to keep them in the horse trough. The land was swampy around the springs. We use to make water wheels from buts of shingles and sticks-this spring water went out into the horsefield and there was a little stream. Along this stream, willow trees grew. Paul and Mary Margaret made a Flying Dutchman between a couple of trees in the horsefield. We had a lot of fun there, until one day Frances flew off and wrapped around a tree, knocked the wind out of her-we though she was gone. I never played there much after that. In the barn lot, not far from the horse trough was the duck house. I never liked the ducks much. I never liked to get them off the old canal, or from the horsefield streams, in the evening. It was Paul’s job for many years, until some of the rest of us grew up, and it was passed down from one to the other. Whenever I smell the mint from fresh mown (cut) hay, I think of the horsefield.

The horses wore a dusty path from the horse barn, over the railroad, over the bridge, to the horse trough-then back to the barn again-from the field in the eve to the fields in the AM-morning, evening.

For many years there was a tame white crane that lived in the canal and along the bank. It was so tame we would talk to it. For some reason, someone from town shot it.

In the barn lot with the spring was a cluster of buildings. The plotted double corncribs with yellow ears showing. The tool shed, filled with the planters, plows, etc. with the long sloping roof. We would hull the walnuts, put them on the roof to dry. In later years Dad had his blacksmith shop. The building used to be in the orchard, and later was moved for the blacksmith shop. The granary was a forbidden place for us in the orchard, but we liked to get in there, with our bare feet and walk in it, chew some wheat, and make chewing gum. We almost lost Olin in a corn slide in a half filled corn crib, one time. That was scary and we were lucky to save him. The girls used to use the empty corncribs for play houses. Horse shoes were used as horses (“playlike”). An impaired horseshoe horse would have a rag bandage with brick dust sprinkled on the bandage and tied on one end of the horseshoe. We would have families of paper dolls that lived in the corncrib houses. Whichever one was playing at the time and whoever was the oldest, that family was always one penny richer than the other families.

Going thru this barnyard there was a bridge over the canal, and then crossed the railroad. We all loved the horse barn, stalls for the work horses, Old Molly and Joe, etc. harness on pegs along the walls, behind the stalls-smell of hay in the haymow-crunch of corn in the feed boxes-hay thrown down from the hay mow and sometimes a handful of brown sugar thrown in the feed boxes from the sugar barrel beside the door. Then there was the cow barn attached to the horse barn. There was a box stall for the mother and colt.

Back of the barn, several feet away ran a branch of the White River. We had the “old swimming hole” the ripples to wade in, islands to wade out to, etc.

Morning and evening the Big Four train would steam past the barn and thru the farm. The crew would whistle as it went by. In the summer, the crew would often stop the train at the curve just past the barn and go swimming in the river.

The canal that ran along the railroad was the one built for the waterway of the horsedrawn barges. The levee for the horse and driver was still there thru the farm. We all played along the canal, watched the frogs, turtles, fish, crawdads, snakes, etc. The turtles would bury their soft shelled white eggs in the soft dirt along the bank. This was south of the bride. North of the bridge, on one side the R.R. and the other side the springs from the bottom of the hills at the orchard. In the winter the springs would freeze on top from the spring water still flowing underneath and would have a ripplelike frozen bank. We would slide down these on our skates on to the frozen canal. I can remember getting up before breakfast, before school, by moonlight, and skating on the canal. The ice like glass.

In an open spot where there was sort of a hollow, watercress stayed green all summer and winter. Many trees grew along this hill from the orchard to the canal. Buttercups bloomed in the spring water. We had paths thru these hills-made by animals and us. Wild cherry, wild plum etc. bloomed in the spring. We loved the big wild cherry tree.

All kinds of apples were in that orchard. In the beginning it was always sprayed. We had golden delicious, red delicious, grimes golden, morden blush and many others. We used to take wagon loads of crabapples to the White’s cider mills. The big barrels of cider (which turned to vinegar when stored). We would have two layers (shelf like bins) of apples in the cellar up until spring-along with the bins of potatoes.

There were several hills at the end of the orchard near the corncribs. Some of the boys and girls with Paul guiding the framework of an old springwagon, with his knees and feet, we would start at the top of the hill, and fly down and up the hills and most of the time end in the canal.

Someone broke a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Of course these statues were always blessed. Aunt Mary saw to that. We buried the pieces under a wildrose bush in the orchard. Everytime we passed this bush we would genuflect. There were two old tombstones in the orchard. I wish we had taken care of them. Perhaps they were picked up in clearing.

We loved the old woods below the barn. The honey tree at the turn of the woods. We followed the dry river beds in the summer, swung from the wild grapevines, picked white violets under the honey tree-wondered about “Cold Springs”-knew where to find the mushrooms-we cherish memories of Frances’ birthdays with the wiener roasts.

In the fall let me smell the fragrance of wheat and I see Dary Christ rattling up the road, smokestack puffing smoke, turning in the lane tooting the steam whistle. In the house the long table pulled out-chairs all around-the water buckets and stand on the porch, with the roller towels-store mean bought-the next morning wagons from the fields-strawstacks piling up-the wheat wagons going to the mills.

Our nearest neighbors were Harry Ward on Stant’s (not Stant’s then) corner, Ed. Wilson’s across the fields-Grandma Conney-(Montgomery’s) Mart Kellam-Uncle John Callan-Rufus (Harper Lindsay) Oliver Wallace- I have ridden to town on the back of Harper Lindsay’s springwagon. We used to gather wild strawberries along Wilson’s road. When we got home, all we had was a big red stain in the skirt of our dress. We never thought of eating, we brought them home, even if we had nothing but a juicy stain.

Tramps stopped by for something to eat. We always gave them something to eat. Aunt Mary gave them sandwiches. They had our place spotted for that. Gypsies camped down the road under a big oak tree. We were afraid of them. One time they stole a dog-Ponto. Dad tracked them all around, but we never found Ponto.

We always had a garden. In long ago days we had rhubarb, horseradish, asparagus, gooseberries, strawberries, and will you ever forget the garden by the river by the barn?

There were 320 acres of cultivated fields, woods and pasturelands.

In our world there were Father, Mother, Mary Margaret, Paul, Elizabeth, Gertrude, Frances, Cornelius, Blanche, John and Olin. I can’t remember the name of Agnes? Hubble who used to help at the house for a while. Then there was John Kraus who came as a hired man. He stayed on and became a part of us. When I was 13 my mother died. Olin was barely two. Mary Margaret was a senior in H.S. Our mother’s family lived in Glendale, Ohio. Aunt Mary and Grandpa Driscoll came to live with us. I cannot remember my mother very well. Aunt Mary was a mother to us. She taught us the beauty of nature, hills, music, sunsets, skies, her church and religion meant so much to her.

Aunt Mary had a millinery store on Fountain Square in Cincinnati. She catered to the “carriage trade.” Always she would fashion hats from bits and pieces. I remember a beautiful leghorn hat-a beautiful black heaver she had with her when she came to live with us. They had so many lovely things.

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