My father grew up on a farm, here on Beaver Island. He knew first-hand about planting, growing and harvesting. He knew about animals.
We knew the stories. We heard about the bull that Dad could ride, about long days spent at the hot and itchy job of haying, about the tree that he’d sit under for shade when he’d take a break from plowing the field.
We knew that, as a teen and young adult, he’d worked on the ferry boat in the fall when they shipped the cattle across. His job was keeping the cows on their feet, no matter how rough the sea, because if they lay down, their stomachs would tangle and they’d die. That was accomplished by riding in the lower deck with the cows, and “jostling” them if they showed signs of leaning or falling.
When we visited the island, we saw the familiar places. We knew the horse barn, and the barn for the cows, with the lean-to attached where the sheep were kept. We saw the chicken coop, and the fenced path for leading the cattle to and from pasture. We knew the pig house, the granary and the wood shed.
I don’t think Dad intended to farm when he moved off the farm, to Lapeer, Michigan. He went to work with my grandfather, his father-in-law, and learned the electrical business from him.
It all started with a tiny plot at the back of our yard that Dad worked up, to show us how things grow. Nothing is so exciting to children as watching things spring from the ground where a seed was planted; nothing tastes as good as fresh-picked tomatoes, or raw peas from the pod. Dad loved our excitement and enthusiasm. Every year, the plot grew larger.
My grandparents home was on one side of our house; a widow named Magabelle owned the property on the other side. The land was bare, except for a small storage shed in the middle of it. Though ten years older, Magabelle was a good friend of my grandmother. She and my grandfather, however, were mortal enemies. Because of that, Magabelle had planted thorn bushes all along the border between her property and theirs. That part of the property became ours. As children, we ran around bare-footed all summer long, and were constantly picking thorns out of the bottom of our feet.
After Grandpa died, Dad approached Magabelle about using her property for a large garden. She agreed. That’s when we started planting a quarter-acre every year.
Dad was not good about collecting money for electrical work, but he was pretty slick when it came to striking a bargain. One year, a truckload of manure was accepted as payment. Lumber, a piece of equipment or a load of wood chips might show up without warning. Dad used some spare lumber to build a small chicken coop. More to build a pig pen, shelter and feeding trough.
Eventually, Mom realized that we were going to starve to death if we were dependent on Dad collecting payment for services. She convinced him to take a job at the shop. Once Dad started working as an electrician at Chevrolet Manufacturing Company, farming became more than a hobby. Then it was life…life beyond work.
Dad worked second shift, and wasn’t home until midnight. Still, in the springtime, he was up every morning early and out on the tractor to get the garden ready. When it was harvest time, his lunch box was always full of samples for his co-workers: the hottest hot peppers, the freshest tomatoes, or the longest cucumbers. When company came to visit, Dad would walk them through the garden. Long distance competitions raged from Russell Green on Beaver Island to Peter “Doney” in Marlette to my Dad in Lapeer over whose corn was the highest, whose pumpkins the largest.
For us children, things were not as much fun. The garden was no longer something we did with Dad, it was something we had to answer for. Weeding and watering were our jobs: weeding in the morning, before the sun was too high; watering in the evenings, to soak in overnight. Mom didn’t dare let us slack off, or she’d be called on to explain why the weeds were overtaking the garden or the vines were dried out.
We couldn’t get attached to the animals. We’d get fifty sweet, fluffy chicks every spring, cull the roosters for fryers after a few weeks, keep the hens for eggs until late winter, then they were butchered, too. We’d get cute little pigs every spring, too, feed them corn that we’d gleaned from the fields, scraps from the table and excess from the garden. They would go in the freezer, too, before the year was out.
Work on the “farm” was play for Dad; for us it was just work. By the time we were grown, most of us never wanted to set foot in a garden again.
And yet…the garden calls to me. In my adult life, I’ve never gone long without a garden. Maybe that’s how it was with Dad, too.