Grandpa is 89 years old. A couple of months ago he had a nasty bout with a case of double pneumonia. He was hospitalized for several days, and required having fluid drained off his lungs. He had made it home on oxygen and was reading the “funny papers” when I called to thank him for a package of grapefruit he and Grandma had sent me. Delicious grapefruit I might add. One of my favorites. “That’s the last part of the paper I read,” he explained to me in regards to the comics. I smiled as I remembered that my brother and I used to rifle through the Sunday newspaper hunting those comics and then sprawl out on the floor on the carpet and take turns reading sections of them, occasionally bursting into laughter as we went.
Grandpa asked me what was new, so I told him that at that time we were expecting several little lambs soon. “We used to have sheep. That was a long time ago,” Grandpa replied. My ears perked up. I had no idea that my grandfather’s family used to keep sheep. So, I asked him to tell me about it. What follows is indeed not at all what I was expecting. I liken it to a cross between a really sad Hallmark movie and an old western, one rife with strife, guns, and the law of the west. (Well, mid-west in this case) It is truly an unbelievable tale as well as a piece of history. My own family history to be exact.
Grandpa told me that his father worked in a stone quarry and his mother owned a restaurant before they took up farming. They purchased 120 acres for $600 on bank credit and moved into a two room farmhouse that boasted a well, a washstand, and a three-hole outhouse. That is where my grandfather was born. He lived the first nine years of his life there with his mom and dad, six other siblings, and grandma (his mom’s mom.) He said that his parents owned the place for a total of somewhere around 15-20 years. During this time they, “never paid a dime on the principal.” They sold the place for exactly $600 when they finally gave up trying to get the terribly poor dirt to produce a decent living and rented a farm in a different location. I thought that sounded awfully sad, to stay and work there that long and have absolutely no equity in your farm. Times were different back then though. Most of Grandpa’s story takes place during the years of the Great Depression.
They had a big barn with hand-hewn timbers that they would keep the livestock in. That’s where the sheep come into the story. His family had 44 ewes, 2 cows, lots of chickens, and 3 horses they used to plow the fields with. (One of the horses was blind but it would still plow in the field quite nicely hitched to one of their sighted horses.) Except for the one blind horse that stayed in its own special stall in the granary, they kept all the animals in the barn at night. They also stored all the hay in there that they would use to feed the animals with over the winter. My grandfather was only somewhere between 4 and 6 years old when it happened, but he still remembers it. The entire barn burned down one night and all the animals inside died. The family dog was in there too and he died as well. “That was a sweet-spirited old dog too,” lamented Grandpa. That was the end of my grandfather’s family ever owning sheep. The only animal that survived that night was that one blind horse. The shocker is that it was their neighbor that set fire to their barn.
Grandpa said that this man was “vicious, mean, crazy, and just plain ornery.” He said that he liked fires and that he “liked to set them and then watch them burn.” Apparently this fellow burned a total of 17 barns in that poor little farming community, developing himself a nefarious reputation. This particular fire he started by setting the hay ablaze. A few years later, he attempted to burn another smaller barn they had by sloshing kerosene all over the boards of the door. That fire his 3 older brothers managed to catch just in time. They ran outside in their bare feet and kicked the dry, kerosene soaked boards right off, quelling the fire before it had a chance to spread completely out of control. He said that time the dogs found his trail and chased him, but he had already made his escape and was halfway home by that point. Visible tracks pointed straight towards this man’s house.
“But Grandpa,” I asked, “If everybody knew what this man was doing, why wasn’t he arrested and prosecuted? Could nobody prove anything or what?” The reason he gave me is this: He said that they had the fire chief come down from the big city, but that the chief refused to press charges or do anything about the situation because he personally had family living there in the area. He was afraid that this bad dude would retaliate by burning the homes of his loved ones.
You’ve heard the term “pyromaniac” but this brings a whole ‘nuther level of meaning to the word. Grandpa said this guy didn’t like anybody, and didn’t want anybody near him. (As a side note, I find it entirely sad that the ornery fellow apparently received no help or else refused to accept any sort of help for his wicked state. He remained isolated and was not only a threat to others and their livelihood and property, but undoubtedly suffered greatly from bitterness and who knows, maybe even a serious mental illness.) Anyway, the neighbor with the obsession for starting fires remained at large …until a new guy from Kentucky settled into the community.
The neighbors of course found it advisable to warn said new guy what he might be getting himself into by moving there. Apparently this gentleman was not one to be trifled with. He decided that the best defense was a proactive and preemptive offense. Toting his shotgun, he went down to introduce himself to the known serial arsonist. “I hear you’re the guy burning all these barns around here. If my barn burns, I’m gonna come down here and shoot you dead.” This must have scared the old fellow. That was the last of the string of barn-burning problems that community ever had.
Grandpa told me a little about their life on the farm after that during the next years of the Great Depression. He said the ground was dry and a poor red clay. They sold tomatoes to a canning factory, what tomatoes they could manage to grow anyway. Sometimes they couldn’t even get their investment back. They would receive half the profits from the canning factory for those tomatoes. One year, due to a combination of the poor soil and an especially uncooperative season of weather, their share of the profits was $3.00.
“In the early ‘30’s we scrounged for everything,” he explained. They put up carrots and potatoes in the cellar, and they had plenty of fruit from their trees. He told me that his mother put up 3,000 half gallons of home canned goods every year. And yes I did get him to verify that is what he really said. (Um, are you sure Grandpa?!) If only half of what he told me is even close to the truth, I cannot even begin to imagine how sore that poor woman’s feet must have gotten. No indoor running water either! He said they would buy salt, pepper, and sugar. Usually that was all they bought too. I absolutely love farm life, but this kind of farm life does not sound like fun at all.
His older brother had a resourceful idea. “I don’t know where he got the money,” mused Grandpa, “but Ray got some steel traps.” Ray set his trap line of 6 traps and caught rabbits, possums, and skunks. I’m pretty sure he then taught his little brother (my grandpa) to help him with the work of trapping. Whole rabbits would fetch 10 cents each at the market in town on Saturday. Ray would save all the rabbits he caught all week long and somehow freeze them as he caught them so they would be good for the market. He usually caught about 8-10 rabbits each week. Possums were good for their hides. Each hide was worth 25-50 cents. The dogs got to eat the possum meat, and they would render the fat to make shoe grease. Skunks were the jackpot! A skunk pelt would bring $5! Grandpa said though that even the dogs wouldn’t eat the meat, they just had to burn it with the rest of the trash. I can’t imagine what you would have to go through to get a skunk hide cleaned up enough to sell it. Nonetheless, catching a skunk was cause for great celebration. You could buy a lot with $5. When they caught a skunk, they would usually purchase a 24 pound bag of flour, among other things.
May was strawberry season. Grandpa picked lots of strawberries for his parents. In addition, he also got paid to pick for a neighbor. He would receive 5 cents a gallon for picking those strawberries. On a good day, he would pick 20 gallons of strawberries. Within three weeks one particular year he had earned himself $15. He knew exactly what he wanted: a bicycle! He bought himself a used bicycle with the money he had earned. He didn’t know how to ride it though. On his way back home from purchasing his bike, he tried to learn how to ride it …on a gravel road. “That didn’t work out too well,” he admitted. He skinned his knees all up before he decided gravel may not be the best choice of terrain for bicycle riding. He did learn to ride it though, and upon finding a can of green paint and a paintbrush, painted his new treasure green. He kept that bicycle long enough to paint it several times.
Something strange began to happen to me as I was listening to Grandpa’s story. I felt like I was watching an old movie. A piece of history began to play before my eyes as I was hearing him. I stepped back in time. I felt like I was there. I saw the big orange flames reaching high up into the dark night sky and heard the roar of the fire licking up and devouring a barn full of beloved and innocent animals. I saw my little grandpa and his family standing there in utter disbelief as their whole livelihood had turned into a blackened pile of smoldering old timbers overnight. I could smell the smoke as it hung in the air the next morning. I could sense the pain and the fear of those animals caught in the traps. (I hate the very thought of those things. I understand though that my grandpa’s family were only doing what they could to survive.) I saw my grandpa’s skinned knees and felt his pain from falling off that bicycle he’d worked so hard to purchase picking so many strawberries on his hands and knees. I saw the strawberry stains on his fingertips and under his fingernails as he once again gripped the handlebars of his new used bike and tried again to learn to ride it. I saw all this, and then at the end of the stories was me. I stood at that moment somehow woven into the fabric of history itself. I got a glimpse into my own past and the whole vision ended in the present. All of a sudden I was back at home, sitting on the porch, talking on the phone with Grandpa.
Where will history go from here? What am I doing now that will remain as stories for future generations to look back on? How many other stories from my past have I not heard?
What about you? What stories do you have? Have you heard any of your history? Is there anyone in your life you could ask? If you are fortunate enough to have someone in your life who knows a piece of your history, don’t lose the opportunity to ask. You never know what you might see.