Jan 5, 2011

December 15, 2010: Northwest of Custer, The Farm, Damn Democrats

“Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them ---The Beatles “In My Life”

Just northwest of Custer, Michigan at the intersection of Tuttle and Hansen roads lies an old one room schoolhouse where my father was educated. About a quarter mile east on Hansen rests a ten acre plot of land upon which is located an old farmhouse and several out buildings. Known colloquially as “The Farm”, it is the place where my grandparents brought the family in the early 30’s to weather the Great Depression and upon which they lived, with my great uncle, the rest of their lives. The land had been in the family since my great-grandfather settled there in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and where, having divided the land among his heirs, the portion upon which the old farmhouse was built had fallen into the possession of my great uncle. The “folks”, as my grandparents were affectionately known, took up residence living off the crops they could raise and becoming bee keepers in order to generate the cash necessary for medical care, clothes, transportation and the other necessities of life. It was a frugal existence. The house built along the back of the property was situated at the end of a long four hundred foot driveway that divided the land into two fields in which beans, corn and wheat were raised. There was a vegetable garden on the west side of the house with a strawberry patch, and a fruit orchard on the east side featuring apple and peach trees. On the northeast corner of the property lay the “swamp”, a heavily wooded minor depression on the clay fields which held about four feet of water, in some parts year round, and consumed about a fifth of the land area. Behind the swamp was located the “bee house” and the bee hives. Here in this self-contained unit “the folks” resided until the viccitudes of old age called an end to the grand experiment in what would become an unheralded version of Walden Pond.

The difference, of course, was that these people--unlike Thoreau-- had come to stay. Descendants of Methodist preachers and children of the late nineteenth century’s “Grange“, “Greenback” and “Progressive” movements my great-grandmother and later her daughter were to work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1914, while my great uncle was studying for a short time at Michigan State College, now known as Michigan State University, my grandmother would join her brother in demonstrating for Women’s Sufferage. Here were turn of the century progressives hardened by the stern lessons of the “Great War”, as the First World War was originally known, and adherents to the conclusions of the Nye Commission that the great calamity was caused by international financiers and the greed of the munitions industry. Later, with the bitter harvest that was the 1930’s another layer of distrust of banks and “eastern money” encrusted the attitudes shared by a whole generation concerning the “economic royalists” as Roosevelt would call them.

Going to the farm, as late as the 1960’s, was like stepping back into the early twentieth century. It wasn’t simply that these were the formative years for these people, although that had a great deal to do with it, it was that hard times and an enforced frugality had brought slow changes to the landscape. For instance, although rural electrification had brought power to the countryside with the New Deal, for economic reasons--principally the decade or so in life normally allotted the most productive-- they were consumed by the hardships and the aftermath of the great international economic collapse that was the 1930’s. By the time America, and the world, would emerge from the calamity, which had found relief only as a result of another great war, my grandfather born in 1890 would be 55 years old and nearing retirement. The result was that, for our purposes, rural electrification had not yet reached Hansen Road. To go to the farm would find you in a bit of a time warp, back to that place romanticized in my youth on endless television serials, the rural “west” minus, of course, the horses. Here one would confront an attached “out house” to which one would retreat through a covered “wood shed” attached to the house. Here one would find not electric lights but kerosene lanterns. Here one would encounter meals prepared on wood burning stoves and water drawn by a hand pump located in the house.

Here, in this simple place, one would find some concessions to modernity. No television but there were some electrical appliances, a radio I remember always tuned to FM with which they could listen to classical music from the Interlocken broadcasts, run from a gas powered generator and a windmill attached to a series of auto batteries. There was some refrigeration in the form of a twelve volt system. Later, I remember not when, standard electrical lines were brought in but I was much older by then. What I remember most was that these people, although poor and isolated by most community standards, nevertheless were active in the Grange, the rural agricultural movement dating back to the previous century and an integral part of what constituted the “Progressives”. They held weekly discussion gatherings with fellow friends and farmers, and were avid readers of the “Progressive” magazine and other such publications. I can remember in the late 1950’s sitting on the living room floor playing with the toys and listening to discussions over my head concerning the writings of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Marx and Engels, Charles Darwin. There were discussions about religion, philosophy, economics, and a thing called ecology. Yes, as early as the 1950’s, years before Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring”, my great uncle, holding forth on the evils that would befall the great lakes upon the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, would speak of the ecology and our responsibility to it. They practiced what they preached, nothing was wasted and nearly everything was recycled. When they moved off the land what was left after a century of living could have been placed in a couple of paper bags. Later, after grandfather had passed and grandmother moved to town, I took my cassette recorder and sat her down and recorded a series of conversations lasting about six hours. I did this not simply for personal reasons but to capture, for the record, a true turn-of-the-century progressive. Here were all the years of living and the wisdom it produced, here were all the contradictions implicit in the ethic of the nascent social engineer. When she moved from the farm I helped her gather a few last items. Upon her bureau, representing polar opposites, were two prominent portraits: one a drawing of Jesus Christ, the other a photograph of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin.

When I search the center of my soul it is here, at “the farm”, I always return. It was here that I sat at grandmother’s knee and listened as she told me about my place in the cosmos. She talked about our being descendants of one John Kaye who invented the “fly shuttle”, the finishing touches on what was to become the modern mechanized loom. It was this innovation that is said to have industrialized the textile industry, the first such industry to enter the modern age. For this reason, I suppose, there has always been an undercurrent of guilt in the family for having launched the industrial revolution. We tried to make up for it, she would almost apologetically intone, citing another relative who, due to involvement in labor agitation, was reportedly placed aboard a convict ship bound for Australia only to jump ship and land in America. My great-grandfather, contracting tuberculosis from years in the textile mills, left England and came to America as a man of the cloth doing missionary work among the Indians in Iowa before putting down roots in Western Michigan. Here were living links to the living conditions of the working classes at the beginning of the industrial revolution, conditions that inspired the works of everyone from Charles Dickens and Karl Marx to Upton Sinclair. While grandmother could and did take issue with the theology and the prognostications of those on the far left, she related a telling truth: whatever their shortcomings one cannot fault the descriptions of what was clearly before their eyes. Truth I was later to confirm for myself laboring with migrant workers in the fields of Western Michigan.

It was here that I would make a periodic pilgrimage to see “the folks”. I remember one such visit in 1964. We were at Ludington visiting relation on my mother’s side of the family. Sitting with my family in my great grandmother’s living room my uncle asked “have you been to see the folks?” “What?” I replied. “The folks” he said, knowing that the meaning was generally understood. “No”, said I, being only 15 at the time I was too young to drive. “Let’s go see them” he said, and we got up and set out on highway 10 due east past Scottville to Custer.

Going to the “farm” was always an experience. The front of the farmhouse had this large picture window which looked out over the front yard, past the big maple tree and down the long driveway to the old gravel road. It seemed as if grandmother spent her entire life looking out the window for as soon as a dust cloud would emerge and she would see a car turn toward the drive she would bound out of the front door and be halfway across the lawn before you could get out of the car. What would follow would be a series of questions like “do you have all your teeth?” as part of a general inquiry into your health and well being. Then would follow long discussion about what one was doing with one’s life and about one’s family leading to broader talk about the community and the world in which we live. Whenever you went to see “the folks” you were expected to stay for dinner and, as the dinner hour approached, grandmother would repair to the old wood stove and yield the floor to my great uncle and, on occasion, my grandfather.

They say that opposites attract. It was certainly the case of my grandparents on both sides of my family. My grandmothers were cerebral, aloof, analytical, judgmental. My grandfathers were earthy, affable men who worked with their hands and could easily have been ward heelers for Tammany Hall. So it was no surprise when grandpa came up to me, during a rare lull in the conversation, and, getting directly to the point, asked: “are you a Democrat, Joe?” “Yes, I am”, I replied. “Good”, said he, “damn Goldwater, warmonger.” Then followed, through expletives, an oblique reference to the lessons of the great wars and the findings of the Nye Commission.

Four years later, during the height of the campaign season, I once again set out one early Sunday morning to see “the folks”. Leaving a note at home that I had gone north and would be back in time for work later that evening, I set out on my seventy five mile pilgrimage. Once again the scene was repeated: Grandmother went through her usual perorations, finally grandfather was permitted a few moments. Again, directly to the point of paramount importance: what are your political leanings and, by extension, the character of your soul. “Are you a Democrat, Joe?” came the gruff question. “You bet I am” said I. “Not one of those Johnson Democrats are you?” he asked suspiciously. “No, I’m not”, I replied, saying something to the effect that I was doing some work in the Kennedy campaign. “Good”, he said as if to pass favorably on my demonstrated ability to discern right from wrong, “Johnson’s a damn warmonger!” “I suppose it doesn’t matter though”, he said, after a long silence. I was taken aback, Johnson had announced his retirement and Humphrey was about to take his place. “Why not?” I asked. After a brief pause he said: “Oh, the damn Democrats…they take our good socialist ideas and water them down”.

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