The abandoned farmsteads shown here are not far from where I live. Such sad scenes are easy enough to find. They have been a part of the landscape of my life, grave markers of the agrarian culture that I love. Each crumbling set of buildings has its own story to tell, but in general, they were built around 1900 or a little earlier, went through a generation or two of gradually diminishing prosperity, and then succumbed to the money-changers and the seeming necessity to expand farm size. These “losers” had no taste for competing with wealthier, sharper, or more aggressive farmers, and died without an heir interested in, or financially capable of, farming in the modern era. The sharper farmer who with his friendly banker bought the farm, chose not to fix the house up and rent it, but couldn’t bring himself to tear it down either. Or in other cases, the new owner did sell the house and barn buildings to someone who, remembering a happy childhood on a farm, wanted to live in the country. The house was saved, but inevitably the grand old barn blew down or was pulled down. Four of the barns that I played and worked in during my youth exist now only in memory.
I think abandonment is the greatest of our sorrows and fears. Death is the final abandonment. I like to linger at derelict farmsteads and imagine the happy family that once lived there, or at least the family that built the place in high hope of happiness. It is easy for me to imagine their lives because I can place my grandparents, parents, and siblings within the confines of such a farmstead and watch them, in my mind’s eye, at work and play.
These homes were marvels of self-sufficiency. No one feared a power outage because the power, at least in the early days, was all homegrown. When “the electric” did come, I remember farmers who resisted it— sensed that it would be a sort of umbilical cord in reverse, drawing away their independent vitality. They grew hay to fuel the motive power of buggy horse and draft animal, cut wood to warm the house, erected a windmill to pump water into a insulated cypress water tank that stood partly above ground or on a high elevation so that water could flow by gravity to the barns and house. They built underground cisterns next to the house to fill with soft rainwater off the house roof for washing, and erected posts in the lawn for a clothesline to dry the laundry. My grandfather even kept a catalpa grove for fence posts. Catalpa endures. Some of his posts, which he used first, and my uncle used again, serve a third life in my fences.
The amazing diversity of the old farmstead was the key to its resilience. The summer kitchen for cooking during the hot months was built close by, but apart from, the house. (One of the photos shows a summer kitchen if you look closely behind the trees. Note how the trees have grown up in what was once the lawn and barnyard. How quickly nature takes back the land when humans disappear.) There were separate buildings for the privy, the smokehouse— I remember one made from a huge, hollow tree trunk with a little peaked roof over the open top and a door cut in the side of it—, the woodshed, the granary, the corncrib, the chicken coop, the pigsty, the carriage house that became a garage. The big hay barn dominated all. Below its mows were the sheep shed, horse stalls and cow stable. If one source of food or income failed, there were others to fill the gap. The only way to starve out such a self-sufficient homestead was by way of paper money and usury which in one guise or another is often what happened.
Always there was a kitchen garden, a larger garden or truck patch farther away, and an orchard. Sometimes on abandoned farmsteads you can find tasty old apple varieties still growing. Frequently, you will still find rhubarb plants, lilac bushes, old fashioned roses, asparagus and lilies of the valley hugging the north wall of the house. All these plants tell in their quiet, enduring way, of farm families making a good life that could still be there if nature’s ways had been followed.
In case I sound overly-romantic or sentimental, what I remember best about our farmstead was that even when my mother was heavy with child and carrying a heavy bucket of water from the windmill pump to the chicken coop, she was singing. I see Dad hurry to her and, scolding gently, take the bucket from her. She had a hard life in some ways, so, I ask, why was she always singing?
And if you think it is easy to sing and carry a bucket of water at the same time, try it.
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