Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lessons I learned on the farm

# Neighbors are the lifeblood of a rural community

Our corner of Lawrence County was a pleasant valley on the eastern edge of Neshannock Township extending from the base of the hill below Mercer Road to the Neshannock Creek, about a mile away. Valley Road runs generally north and south while the nearest cross road to the north of our farm was Sunset Valley which runs due east to the river.

Fixing the location is important because between our house on Valley Road and the Neshannock Creek (The Crick, we called it) a distance of a mile, were five houses and farms. They were our neighbors. Their importance cannot be over-stressed because of the interaction that took place in the 22 years we lived there. Let me describe them, but first some background.

Our family moved to Valley Road in the spring of 1942...Dad was in the Army Reserve and was about to be called up for active duty at the outbreak of WWII. Mother, faced with rearing her brood of five children alone ages 9 months (moi) to 14 years, simply chose to do so in the country, not in the city. They traded the house on Highland Avenue in New Castle for a 63 acre farm on Valley Road...and $3,000. The deal was worth $5,500 at the time ($85,000 today). She was willing to go it alone in a 100 year old house with, at the time of purchase, no indoor plumbing and water fed to the kitchen by gravity. That soon changed, of course with some updating, and the coal fired furnace was in good working order.

There were animals involved too, which included a draft horse and three head of cattle that were purchased to support the family, but all the information Mother and oldest Brother Joe needed to husband those animals resided not in their body of knowledge, but in that of our neighbors.

The Sarah and Russell George farm were to the south. They were an aging couple whose farm bordered ours. Their daughter, a senior in high school, was my keeper many times when Mother needed an extra pair of hands. Dad Russell worked at “The Pottery” or Shenango China. He farmed part time, but did not depend on farming for their livelihood. He had several significant inputs into our horse husbandry including stopping a runaway team as they ran down the road and Brother Joe could not stop them.

At the crossroads of Valley and Sunset Valley was a compound of small buildings and a four room house with neither running water nor indoor toilet. When we first moved to the farm the compound was owned by the Eagle family...I don’t remember them, but the hill on Sunset Valley between Mercer Road and Valley Road was dubbed Eagle’s hill after that family and we traversed that stretch of road many times in the winter on sleds. It was great fun. 

By 1946 the Tieche family inhabited the compound and it became a tidy, attractively painted group of buildings and kept in apple pie order. It was a neighborhood hangout for my age kids because two of their kids were twin boys a year older than me. Tieche senior was a jeweler and the family used the compound as a summer place as their main residence was on Crawford Avenue. They were great neighbors; always ready to help.

The first place east on Sunset Valley was owned by the Noss family and changed owners soon after we arrived…was sold to the Kendall family made up of dad, mom and five kids roughly matching the ages of our family. Dad Kendall was both a farmer and owner of a mobile feed mill...a grist mill, if you will. He ground our cow feed and I spent a lot of time on their farm with their youngest son. I got my eyes opened as to how a family that large could operate in a house without running water and indoor bath. Amazing.

They were not in a position to help Mother when we first moved to the farm so there was not a lot of sharing resources in the late 1940s. But after we sold our herd, we bought milk from them. Neighboring took place, none the less. Christmas Day 1951 we got a call from Kendalls asking for Dad, Doc Lutz, to come over at once. Their third son was unconscious in the barn. Dad hopped in the car and sped over. That’s what you did back then...there was no 911 or even an ambulance service. Dad was a dentist, not an MD, but he had experience in first-aide and emergency procedures under pressure. He took with him knowledge gained in two World Wars and ten years as a Scout Master. As it turned out, Walt was diabetic, which they did not know, and Dad was able to get him going until he could see a doctor. That was neighboring on Valley Road.

The next place east was owned by the Lenz family with four kids, a large herd of milking cows and….a bull. One of my first memories  is looking out the window on the second floor of our house with Mother at my side watching Dave and Joe leading one of our cows up the road to who knew where? Mother knew where….and she told me. They were on the way to see Lenz’s bull. It was my first lesson in reproduction. I was perhaps, four or five. Lenzes traded bull semen, labor, knowledge, food and television viewing (after 1948) to our family. We gave back labor, Mother’s nutritional and medical knowledge (she was a graduate dental hygienist from the University of Pennsylvania) and Dad’s dental skills. Most of our neighbors were patients of his.

Like Kendalls, Mr. Lenz sought out Dad's professional skills when he showed up on our doorstep with his lovely daughter (she was a year younger than me) sporting two broken front teeth and in tears. I was home from college and called to Dad who was also home that Saturday morning. We jumped in the car and took Marilyn to his office where he tended the exposed nerves and readied her for caps. Her dad took her home, smiling, I recall. We drove past the spot of the accident on Mitchell Road where she failed to negotiate a curve due to ice and hit a tree...tooth marks were still on the steering wheel...just as the wrecker pulled up.I do not know for sure, but I do not think any money changed hands. There was no way Dad would charge Herman when he had bailed our family out of lack of agricultural awareness while he was in the Army.

As an example, I helped Herman with grain harvest on several occasions and had been instructed to not accept any money for the work. He tried several times...even stuffed $2 in my back pocket which i pulled out and let fall on the ground. Neighbors did not accept payment back then, at least that was my experience.

Then there were the Nesbitts. Located at the top of the hill overlooking the bottom field on the edge of the Neshannock, Than and Gertrude were the epitome of subsistence farmers of the era. They survived the depression and raised a son who was the first in the neighborhood to own and operate a custom combining service. Just beyond their house was Than’s sister Minnie. Miss Minnie, we called her, was never married and kept a house of impeccable order. We got invited inside each Halloween, all eight or ten of us neighborhood kids, for her to guess who we were. She gave us homemade treats...always delicious. She had a milk cow and I would walk from our house through the fields to her house...well over a mile and back with a jug of milk on some occasions.

But back to Than and Gertrude; they were special people. Than was always available to help with whatever crops needed to be harvested. He had a binder and corn picker...both horse drawn and was always on the thrashing (threshing) team before their son Paul bought his first combine. On one occasion my sister brought a bucket of lemonade out to quench the thirst of the men involved in the threshing operation. I recall  Than, smiling through that gray, dusty face, with his false teeth clicking (which Dad had made) kissed Phyllis on the cheek. She was about 12, so I would have been six...must have been 1947.

On another occasion Dad and I were visiting their house...maybe delivering some repaired dentures to Than. They were discussing the loss of a premature child that their recently married son and his wife had experienced. It is one of the few times I saw Dad tear up in front of neighbors. They exchanged feelings and reactions that Dad knew too well. He and Mother had lost three babies early in their marriage...twin girls at five months and a boy several years later who went full term, but was still-born. These were siblings I never knew and was amazed at the emotions that flowed that evening. Those are the things you share with neighbors.

There are more stories, of course, but suffice it to say I knew full well what it meant to be a neighbor in the Pleasant Valley of Lawrence County. We loved, respected, laughed, cried, and attended weddings and funerals of many of them. It was part of my education on the farm.


David Eakin said...

My Family moved in to Camp Eastbrook quarters on or around 1961. We lived there for 8+ years. I know Valley road well since it was our bus route and I would ride my bike up and down this road to the natural spring to slake my thirst. Two Robinson families lived there as did the Andersons. The Oesterlings were my neighbors. There was a cinder pit just across the opening of Valley rd from Maitland lane and at the base of PAinter Hill where fishermen would park and traverse the path to the "Bass Hole" along the Neshannock crick. Sunset Valley road had a social club called The Gripers Club of which my grandfather was a member. My Grandmother worked at the pottery as well.

Tom said...

David...was your relative Esther Eakin camp director in the 50s? My sister was a counselor there summers of 54 and 55. Brother Jim (he could drive) and I would bring the staff pizza after hours and hang out at the pool with the counselors. Great fun...good memories. I heard of the Gripers, but was not sure where they met...somewhere down by the Crick, I think. You were riding the same bus route that I did for 11 of my 12 years in school...senior year I had a car and drove every day.