A Lifelong Respect For Farmers
Wednesday - June 18, 2008
I’ve been thinking about my dad of late - Father’s Day and all. He was a butcher who always wanted to be a farmer. Although he spent the last 16 years of his life raising a couple dozen head of cattle on a small farm in southwestern Michigan, he readily admitted that he only played at it.
But in the process of his playing, he instilled in me a respect for farmers that, to this day, I’ve never lost - he and a fellow named Walt Jackson.
In 1781, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.
“It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. ... Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.”
Jefferson wrote things like that - overwrought and, if carried to their ultimate conclusion, downright silly. He carried his views on farmers to such an extreme, arguing at one point that the new United States would be better off without any industry at all. Manufacturing bred dependent employees - poor fodder for a democratic state. Better, he argued, to remain a nation of “virtuous and independent” farmers and allow corrupt Europe to produce our manufactured goods.
Walt Jackson was the first farmer I ever knew. Walt owned 120 pretty productive acres; he leased a couple of hundred more up and down a gravel county road. My dad owned 28 highly unproductive acres - most of which was swamp - across the road from Walt’s place.
Walt planted corn, wheat, barley, oats - you name it. He also kept pigs - lots of pigs, and on hot summer days being downwind from Walt’s pig sty was a redolent experience.
Walt was a good neighbor. Whenever my dad got his little Massey-Ferguson tractor stuck in the swamp - which was often in the springtime, Walt drove over on his big, red Farmall, chained it to the Ferguson, and dragged Dad out. My dad, of course, reciprocated. Come harvest time, he put in full days helping Walt.
I’m not sure whether Walt possessed Jefferson’s “substantial and genuine virtue,” but he was certainly nice to kids like me. He and his wife Hartzell were childless, so Walt adopted every kid he saw, slipping them quarters, offering them rides on a couple of old, broken-down horses he kept, letting them sit in his lap and steer his tractor. I was among those who benefited from his love of children.
And he honored his pious and equally nice wife. Hartzell Jackson attended the Baptist church and she did not allow liquor in her home (chickens, yes - in a back room off the kitchen, but not liquor).
So Walt kept a bottle in the barn. My dad and I would drive into the Jackson’s barnyard, and before my dad turned off the engine, Walt would come bursting out the back door.
“Say, Pete, whattaya say we go into the barn for a minute? I’ve got something I want to show you.” What Walt had to show - always - was a bottle of bourbon. My dad wasn’t much of a drinking man, but he’d take a neighborly sip from Walt’s bottle.
So I’m not sure about Walt’s virtue, but I was convinced early on that he was one of God’s “chosen people.” Walt’s place - and ours - required well water. We were, to use a contemporary phrase, beyond the reaches of the municipal water grid.
We needed to find water. My dad, as he did in so many matters rural, called on Walt for advice. “No problem, Pete,” was Walt’s reply. “I’ll be right over.”
True to his word, Walt arrived forthwith, his “divining rod” in hand. A divining rod was a Y-shaped branch cut or fallen from a tree. Walt seized two forks in his fists, the third pointed forward in front of him. He solemnly walked around our house, from back to front, both sides, slowly, methodically.
Suddenly, the branch began to twitch, and turned downward. “Drill here!” Walt exclaimed. Two days later, Mr. Flynn, the local well driller arrived, drilled, and brought in what my dad liked to call “the sweetest water in county.”
When that well went dry a few years later, Walt came back with his divining rod and found water again - equally sweet.
Maybe Mr. Jefferson had it right about farmers - and their relationship to God - after all.
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