For immigrant farmers, a harvest of fellowship
My parents, Hungarian immigrants, came to America in the early part of the 20th century. (My father arrived in 1912, having just missed sailing on the Titanic, and my mother in 1922.) They both came from rural backgrounds and were anxious to have their own farm in America. After my father worked in the coal mines of West Virginia, the woods of northern Michigan, and in factories from Ohio to Wisconsin, he finally saved enough money to buy a farm in Pennsylvania. Their American dream was a reality.
But it took some getting used to. Farming in America was on a much bigger scale than the small farms my mom and dad knew in rural Hungary. The weather was different, as was the terrain and the machinery. As my father told me about that first summer on their farm, I could well realize the anxiety he must have felt.
"I probably cut down more hay than I should have," he told me. "Your sister Mary was just a baby and your brother Joe was due to be born in a couple of months. Although your mother tried to help me as much as possible, I was very worried about her with the baby coming due and all."
My father had bought some good horses. They pulled that mower as if they knew what they were doing and even seemed to be enjoying themselves, Father recalled. After the mowing, he took a dump rake and started making piles where the hay could dry out, later to be picked up with a wagon. But this was before hay balers or even hay loaders. The hay had to be pitched on wagons by hand. This involved a lot of hard work and, even more important, time. Depending on the weather, time can be a crucial factor for farmers ... especially in those days.
When it came time to bring the hay in and stack and cover it from the elements, dark clouds started gathering on the horizon.
"I told your mother," my father said, " 'Those clouds don't look good. I better get on that hay.' "
Mother wanted desperately to help, but Father wouldn't hear of it. But as he started to pick up the hay, sweat pouring down his brows, he knew he was in an uphill battle.
Then something wonderful happened. "As I drove the team out to the hay fields for another load, I suddenly saw a team of horses and a wagon come into my field. Then another team and a wagon! Then another! Before long there were about six teams and wagons out there. The neighbors had arrived!"
Since Father was new in the neighborhood, both pride and shyness, plus the feeling of being an outsider, constrained him from asking the neighbors for help. Most of the neighbors were from English, Scotch, and Irish stock. And my parents still spoke only broken English. But apparently, this didn't seem to bother these northern Pennsylvania country folk. With a smile and a nod, they began hauling in the hay. In addition to the wagons and horses, some of them had their teenage or younger sons helping right along, pitching the hay.
"These people had been farming here long before me," my father recalled with a smile. "They knew what they were doing. And with their help I beat the rain."
Some of the hay was stacked, some placed securely under an open-sided shed. Between loads, my father told my mother, "Mary, there's going to be a lot of hungry farmers pretty soon. Better try to rustle up some of those chickens for dinner."
But they needn't have worried about food: The wives of these hay-hauling farmers soon walked to my parents' farm with baskets of fried chicken, hams, pies, cakes, and bread.
"Those neighbors saved my first hay crop," my father said. "They really saved the day for your mother and me. They were the Kelloggs, the Fords, the Singletons, and others. All good people."
As my folks settled into their new farm, they got to know the neighbors better, and they started to share labor during haying time and the harvest. That was the way things were done back then. The neighbors worked together and in a short while my parents were not the "new" neighbors - they were just neighbors.
While the neighbors saved my mom and dad's hay crop that day, they couldn't save the farm. During the Great Depression, when the bottom fell out of the market and the cattle and milk my parents were producing dropped back to rock bottom prices, they lost their farm.
But their American dream continued. In 1934 they packed up their few belongings, six children (and one on the way), and the family dog, and headed for a new start in Minnesota.
Their first year in Minnesota was almost a repetition of their start in Pennsylvania. Trying to get ready for winter. Putting up hay. Trying to beat the rain, and so forth.
This time, though, the farm was not to be lost. It's still in the family. But until the day he passed on, my father always fondly recalled the day the neighbors came to help the "new" people in the neighborhood.