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Echoes, Still, of Our Family's Farms

By / October 14, 1998



It was a gentleman's farm: 90 acres of woods, vestigial pasture, orchards; a 200-year-old house with an ell and an enormous, mysterious barn. At least it felt so to my nine-year-old sensibilities. My nostalgia persists for the creaky, wide blue planks of the uneven floorboards; the perfume of old pine; musty wallpaper, and horsehair plaster. The Glenwood stove in the ell was the key to hours of fanciful play, pulling Play Doh pies in and out of the iron oven, pretending to stoke the firebox, and lifting the burner plates with the special tool we called "the thingy."

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Grandma loved to explain the significance of the farm's other rustic technology. There were the heat-radiating properties of the shallow fireplaces, the copper bed warmer, the hiding niche (in case of Indian raids) behind the massive chimney. One wall of artifacts was a museum: horseshoes, crosscut saw, stovepipe hat, bear trap, powder horn, Civil War bayonet, canteens, old snowshoes - all treasures found in the house when Grandma and Grandpa bought the property in the 1950s. This was not the family farm; it was its echo.

Grandpa was the gentleman: an insurance executive in Boston. By the time my mother was in college, he and Grandma wanted a retreat where they could indulge in a pastoral pace, woodland songbirds, and visits from the anticipated grandchildren. It worked. Grandma introduced me to the song of the thrush on walks through the spruce trees.

The farm yielded the pleasures of handwork, like scything the field, chopping wood, even pumping water from the well, a far remove from the world of actuarial tables and working on commission. It reclaimed for Grandma her childhood summers at Bradford Woods, the country retreat from Pittsburgh, where her father ran the family canned-food business.

I scratched a little deeper to uncover our roots. My great-great grandfather, Spencer Colby, was the third generation to farm in Moose River, Maine. Life was hard in Moose River. Following the Civil War, Spencer went by covered wagon to Kent County, Mich. In 1869, he wrote to his brother Helon: "You say that you have an idea of buying more land at Moose River, but my advice is for you to come west.... This is a good country for wheat, corn and grass and stock raising and a great place to raise fruit such as apples, peaches, pears, plums and tame cherries and most anything you may want to raise."

Two Colby brothers ventured west, to Michigan and then further on to Nebraska. And then, apparently, we got out of farming.

In a turn-of-the-century photo, taken in their yard in Marquette, my great-grandfather, Walter Colby, stands beside my grandmother. They live in town, not on a farm. She is 7 and holds her favorite doll. Both she and her doll look very much like a current line of historically accurate dolls that come with authentic American stories. And this is how my daughters connect with our family's immigrations, farms, booms, and busts. It is also participation in the societal yearning for links to stories of forebears. Such "song lines" of personal culture are commercialized in a manner alien to the soul of the stories. But they perpetuate a public intergenerational storytelling that is on the wane within families, just like the family farm.

Walter Colby's children's children mirror America's evolution away from agriculture toward factory work, suburbanization, and fewer people per generation. Whereas Spencer and Josephine Colby had 12 children, I have three. We have not earned our living working the land for three generations. A backyard tomato glut will be as close as I come to growing food on the "north forty." We do, however, view our agrarian heritage with curiosity and wonder. I would love to raise up "tame cherries," peaches, and pears on land I call my own. The lore of the family farm persists.

We understand "farm" in aesthetic terms only; we do not have Spencer Colby's experience of farming as long days full of repetition, struggle, and danger. It is the pleasure of a romantic attachment.

Today, that 90 acres owned by my grandparents is within striking distance of metropolitan careers and probably the site of a subdivision: Colonial reproductions complete with faux ells and garages imitating old barns. The John Deere riding mower takes over the scything. All of which makes me grateful to have explored the land at a time when I could still breathe a vestige of its pioneer use - enough to pass along a little lore to my children about family, the song of the thrush, and farms where you could raise "most anything you want to raise.