When my grandfather purchased his 155-acre farm in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine around 1940, he paid $800 for the land, a five-bedroom farmhouse, and a rather large but very sad looking barn that had likely seen its last coat of paint the same summer it had been built.
Like many Maine farms, the layout of the buildings was meant to allow the farmer to go from his house out to the barn with a minimal amount of exposure to the elements – my grandmother often wrote to my mother that the 5:00 AM temperature in January was minus twenty something, so the “elements” were nothing to sneeze at. The house sat facing the center of the property, not the street. Attached to the main house was a large room that could hold a couple of cords of dry firewood. A side hallway ran all the way from the kitchen to the carriage house so that no one needed to brave the cold during the winter to reach the wagon or sleigh. Between the wood room and the carriage house sat the indoor privy with two holes (no waiting) in the wooden bench that allowed human waste to drop into a hand dug pit below that needed to be cleaned about once or twice a year depending upon the number of occupants of the house. A little lime dropped through each hole every day or so usually kept the odor bearable… Sort of.
The barn was literally three feet away from the carriage house. The idea – which never, ever worked – was to keep the barn and the dwelling separate so that if one structure caught on fire, the other may have been saved. Wishful thinking with no fire departments in most farming communities in rural Maine until well after WWII. My grandfather’s barn had a nearby pond that the Farm Bureau had paid him to have dug. The idea was to have a nearby source of water to suppress a blaze should the barn catch fire. It might have been a viable idea had the Bureau also supplied every farmer with a pump and fire hose long enough to get the water from the pond onto the burning building. Never happened. It would have certainly been a good source of water if the town of Middle-of-Nowhere had its own firetruck – but it didn’t, so my grandfather stocked his pond with trout.
Gramp’s farm had no running water, no electricity, and no telephone prior to 1950. He would spend his summer vacations working on the place to bring it into the 20th century. By the time he dragged my poor grandmother up to Maine to live, the house had electricity, indoor plumbing, central heat, and a telephone that Nana could use to call her friends and family back in Easton for a good cry.
Upon moving to Maine in 1956, my grandfather purchased a new International Farm-All tractor, along with a good used hay baler, a giant sickle bar cutter that connected to the power-take-off on the tractor, a tedder for fluffing cut hay, a hay rake to put the hay into rows prior to baling it, and a not-so good used manure spreader that was so old, it sat on steel wheels instead of rubber tires. There was new milk-room attached to the faded red barn. Inside were stainless steel coolers and wash tubs, along with all the weird looking apparatus that made up the electric milking machines that were used to handle the large number of cows that needed to be milked twice a day, every day. He had a 1946 Dodge One-Ton flat bodied stake truck to haul his hay and the sole family automobile was a 1949 Nash Ambassador that resembled an inverted bathtub on wheels.
Between all that equipment and the seventeen dairy cows, three pigs, and an entire menagerie of chickens, geese, & ducks, Gramp must have spent most of his savings to begin his new, old career. With only one helper who was even older than my grandfather, managing that farm had to be quite the undertaking.
But in the summer of ’57, he had two healthy – if somewhat reluctant – sons in law and two greenhorn grandsons to help him. Through the middle of July, anyway.
After a hearty farm breakfast on that first Sunday morning, Dick and I were told about our new jobs. Dick would be taught to drive the Dodge truck so that two of the adult males could toss the hay bales onto the back while a third man stacked them.
“Why Dick and not me?” I silently asked. It was obviously a rhetorical question since Dick was fourteen and I was only nine.
My job was to feed the clucking, quacking, and honking farm fowl, tend the pigs, and take care of a pretty neat looking brown and white calf. What I assumed might be fun soon proved to be a lot more like work.
Chickens simply spend their days wandering aimlessly around pecking at anything their beady little eyes may see as food. Ducks waddle about and take an occasional swim in the pond often followed closely by their brood of tiny ducklings. Geese on the other hand were born to be mean. The Pit Bulls of the bird world. A 9-year-old kid was fair game and if I ventured anywhere near enough, they would simply raise their wings and attack for no apparent reason other than they could.
The pigs were kept in one side of the machine shed. The windows had been removed, as had the rear door to allow the pigs access from the muck and mud that made up most of the outside pen. It also allowed more fresh air to circulate as the odor was less than pleasant – by a lot. I was told that the place would smell better when I removed the pig manure on a daily basis.
WHAT??? Feeding these squealing porkers huge buckets of what appeared to be food waste intended for the compost heap was one thing, but cleaning up after them? In all that mud? While they took turns running into me, attempting to knock me down?
Suddenly, those darn geese didn’t seem so bad.
At least the calf was calm. It swatted bugs with its long tail, sometimes catching me alongside the head if I wasn’t paying attention. It had the run of an enclosed pen that was about 25 feet square. That pen also needed to be cleaned but if you gave the cow patties time to dry out a bit, the cleanup wasn’t half as bad. I was tasked with giving the little beast a mixture of hay, rye grass and alfalfa, and making sure his trough had enough water to quench his thirst. Of my three main chores, taking care of this guy was the most pleasant and least apt to get me filthy before lunchtime.
My chores were completed by lunchtime. In those first three hours, I had decided that farming was definitely out as a future career for me. My dad had spent the morning attempting to teach Dick the basics of driving a truck. I took it by the look on Dick’s face that it hadn’t gone as smoothly as he had hoped.
“How did you do?” I asked.
“Your father told me he was going to show me how to replace a clutch in a ’46 Dodge truck this afternoon.”
“Is that what I smelled burning as you drove in?”
“I guess,” my dejected cousin replied.
Uncle Ray had pulled the boat out of the barn and made it ready to haul down to the lake that afternoon. My grandparent’s farm sat on the northern edge of a lake with an Indian name that even Sacagawea would have had difficulty learning how to spell: Wesserunsett. Perhaps that’s why it appeared on most maps as Hayden Lake. Gramp had at least a thousand feet of frontage, although much of it was lined with reeds and lily pads. Dad and Ray were planning on taking their boys fishing that evening.
I’d been fishing with my dad since I was about five or six. We usually took the boat about a half mile up the lake to a cove where there were abundant numbers of bass and pickerel. That evening, Uncle Ray was running the boat and he only pulled it out from shore about fifty feet before casting his line.
“There should be some good eel fishing along these reeds,” he told my dad.
Eel? What’s an eel? I thought to myself.
I would find out soon enough. Ray hooked the first one and it gave him a pretty good fight. I was expecting to see a substantial sized fish when Ray finally yanked his catch up and into the boat.
“Snake!!!” I yelled.
“That’s not a snake. It’s an eel. It’s a species of fish. They taste great when they’re cut up and fried in a skillet,” said Uncle Ray.
“No, that’s a snake!” I responded.
Dick told me to unhook it and toss it in the bucket. Not wanting to look like a 9-year-old kid, I gave it a try. But when the hook was removed and I attempted to toss it into the bucket, it wiggled out of my hand and flew back into the water.
Everyone except yours truly had a good laugh, but I was done fishing for the evening. The rest of them caught five or six more before calling it a night. While they did smell good when Nana was frying them up for breakfast the next day, I wasn’t about to eat a snake, and to this day I still have no idea of what an eel tastes like.
The haying operation began on Monday. My dad and Ray wouldn’t begin working with my granfather until the afternoon of the third day. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the harvesting of hay, it’s essentially a three-day process if the weather is good and the hay can dry properly after being cut. The first day involves the cut. Gramp’s tractor had a power take-off that ran his cutter. He could cut a swath that was about eight feet wide, only occasionally stopping to unclog the cutting blades on the sickle-bar when some of the weeds that grew along with the grass would get stuck in the mechanism of sliding blades. Hay that was laid down in the morning could be flipped late in the afternoon to hasten the drying process.
A tedding machine was towed behind the tractor to flip the hay. It was about a dozen or so feet in width and it consisted of several u-shaped tines that turned on the same axles that the outer wheels did. Tedding is essentially a fluffing process that allows air to surround all sides of the fallen hay. If hay is baled and stored before it is free of most of its moisture, it can rot, grow mold, and spoil. If it’s too high in moisture content, it can even generate enough heat in the interior portion of the bale to cause spontaneous combustion as the hot wet center hay meets the drier portion of the bale. Many a barn has been lost after a few weeks of storing hay with too high of a moisture content. Hence, the need for a nearby fire pond where you can fish for trout while you watch your barn burn to the ground.
The third day usually sees the hay being raked into windrows just an hour or two before it is baled. The hay rake is much the same setup as the tedder, as it is simply towed behind the tractor and needs no other source of power.
When the hay is deemed dry enough, the gasoline powered baler is fired to life and hooked to the rear of the tractor. The baler eats up the windrows of hay and spits out compressed bales of hay that are about 19 inches high by 16 inches wide and in my grandfather’s set up, 36 inches in length.
My less than delighted father and Uncle Ray were then called to duty. Dick was by then, a two-day seasoned truck operator who could almost depress the clutch pedal all the way to the floor and who only stalled the vehicle two or three times when he popped the clutch too quickly on startups. George Favreau – who I had nicknamed “Hi” when I was about two years old – was the man on the rear of the truck tasked with stacking the hay as my dad and Ray tossed the bales onto the back. Hay bales weigh in at between forty and seventy-five pounds depending on the moisture content, so tossing them onto a slowly moving truck whose bed is about 4 feet off the ground was no easy task for my grandfather’s two favorite sons-in-law. My job was to keep Dick company in the cab while he ground the gears, popped the clutch, and took about ten years off the life of the old Dodge’s starter.
Everything was going just hunky-dory for the first couple of hours. And then the truck lurched forward when Dick popped the clutch and hit a ground hog hole at almost the exact same nano-second in the spectrum of time. I saw old Hi in the side rearview mirror as he flew off the back of the truck and landed on his right shoulder. He wasn’t moving as I stuck my head out of the window and looked back.
Dick was grinding on the starter when I tapped him on the arm and told him that I thought he had just killed Hi.
My dad and Ray were already helping the old man by the time that Dick and I were out of the truck. I was instructed to run back to the house and have my mother fetch dad’s car to take Hi to the hospital. The old man was awake and he wasn’t bleeding, but one shoulder was definitely about ten inches lower than the other one. My dad said he had a broken collarbone.
I wasn’t sure what that was, but by the look on the old man’s face, I was pretty darn sure it really hurt.
I’m not sure why I got to ride along with Hi and my dad to the hospital, but the experience is one that I have never forgotten. Suddenly that brand new Dodge became a time machine that would transport us back to the beginning of the century.
Skowhegan was about 12 miles south of the Middle-of-Nowhere and it supposedly had a hospital that could take care of old Hi. I’d been to hospitals before. Big brick, multistoried buildings with lots of doctors and nurses and usually a couple of ambulances parked out front. Easy to spot from the road.
“Where’s the hospital?” I asked as we turned into the driveway that had the “Redington – Fairview Memorial” sign on the front lawn.
“This is it,” moaned Hi from the front passenger’s seat.
Redington – Fairview Memorial Hospital was in an Italianate style mansion on top of the hill on Fairview Avenue in Skowhegan. It was a very large Italianate house, but it sure didn’t look like any hospital I had ever seen.
Inside, the place was a combination living museum of ancient medicine and elegant mansion. Behind the doors to the main entrance was a long hallway, complete with a working fireplace at the right and an older lady dressed in a white nurse’s uniform sitting at the desk at the far end. My dad said she was probably Florence Nightingale’s daughter. There was one wicker wheelchair and one white iron gurney waiting near the front door for those too weak and infirmed to walk the length of the hall. Both had wooden spoked wheels and appeared to be Army surplus from the Civil War. Hi was instructed by the nurse at the check-in desk to have a seat while she asked him a few questions.
After giving her his name, she asked him what year he was born.
1872???? I knew that Hi was pretty old, but had he just answered 1872? I quietly wondered if he had known Mark Twain when he lived in Redding. The guy was eighty-five and he was still working as farm hand in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine for my sixty-one-year-old spring chicken of a grandfather. To a nine-year-old, eighty-five might as well as been two hundred. At the time, I was then certain Hi was the oldest human being I had ever met. Maybe Redington – Fairview Memorial looked more up to date to him than it did to me.
Dad and I were shown to the waiting room. It looked like it hadn’t changed a bit since it had been converted from the original wood enshrouded parlor of the 1878 house – it too had a working fireplace. The furniture had to have come with the house, it was of a heavy Victorian style with tufted upholstery. It turned out that the house had thirteen bedrooms and a total of some thirty rooms in all. It had been previously owned by then United States Senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith before a group of local doctors purchased it and converted it into a hospital.
I picked up one of the magazines to peruse while we waited to see if Hi would survive. Like everything else in that place, the magazines in the waiting room must have been included in the sale when the mansion first became a hospital. As I thumbed through an ancient edition of Country Life, I saw an advertisement for Commodore Walther Luttgen’s Redding, Connecticut Estate, Villa Linta. Having no idea who Luttgen was, I looked at the date of the feathered edged magazine – June 1922! I was certain that Hi remembered the place even if I had never heard of it.
Luckily, Hi was going to live and he appeared before I found a copy of Harper’s Weekly that announced President McKinley had been shot. I was beginning to think that we may not be able to return to the good old 1950’s if we stayed in that ancient building much longer.
We were back at the farm before supper. Hi was wearing some odd looking crisscross brace that was meant to keep his shoulders even, but he still looked like he was in a lot of pain. However, he did appear to perk up with all the attention the women of the house were showering on him.
With Hi down for the count for the foreseeable future and Dick dismissed from truck driving duty, the three remaining healthy males split the duty of driving the truck and loading the hay. By Saturday afternoon, all of Gramp’s fields were cut, and the hay baled and stored in the barn. But Gramp made an announcement at supper that night that was not at all welcomed by my dad and Uncle Ray.
“We have three more fields to cut on Monday over in Cornville.”
Now before you start thinking I’m making this stuff up, there really is a town named Cornville that sits right next to the Middle-of-Nowhere (East Madison), and we did harvest hay there that year! https://www.maine.gov/local/town.php?t=Cornville
By Wednesday afternoon, the Cornville hay was cut, dried, and baled. Two loads had gone back to the farm, but the men were tired and hungry, so my grandfather and Ray drove the third load back to the barn while my dad agreed to drive the tractor the ten miles or so back to the Middle-of-Nowhere. I got to ride with Dad!
20 mph on a Farm-All tractor, sitting in the open air about 6-feet above the surface of the road with those giant cleated tires whizzing around not more than 3-feet on both sides of you is quite the experience. Cars and trucks roaring by covered us with dust. Those ten miles seemed more like thirty, so that farmhouse looked pretty darn good when it came into view. It was going to be nice to relax that evening before going back to Cornville for the rest of that hay the next morning.
Not so fast! Remember the danger of putting wet hay into the barn? By 9:00 PM, we could hear thunder in the distance.
“If that hay gets wet, we’ll lose it,” Gramp told my father and uncle as they looked at each other and moaned.
Twenty minutes later, they were all back in Cornville loading hay onto the back of the old Dodge in the lightning punctuated darkness. They got one load back to the barn and were halfway back with a second when their luck ran out and one of the storms that had been rolling through the area hit. They had the truck inside the barn before the top layer of bales was too wet to save, but there were probably another thirty-plus bales back in Cornville that were getting soaked and would need to be destroyed.
Dad and Ray finally had some time off just in time for the final week of their vacations. That’s just about when the daytime temperatures went from the mid-80’s to the upper 50’s. So much for sitting under the shade of the maple trees and going out in the boat for some fishing. We watched a couple of Red Sox games and listened to Gramp swear whenever Ted Williams would swing and miss for a strikeout when he should have hit a home run at every at bat. I took care of the calf I had named Angus and Dick became enthralled with the teenaged girl who lived on the farm across the road (whom he would later marry).
On the second Saturday in July we headed back to Connecticut. There was no traffic to beat leaving the Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine, so we departed around 8:00 AM after Nana and my mother had a long goodbye cry. The trip home was somewhat faster, but just as windblown and super hot once we approached Hartford in the late afternoon sun. We stopped at Halzack’s to pick up some fresh milk and Pete asked us how George and Edith were, knowing that we must have been to Maine since we only bought milk from them on our return trip. Like everyone else in rural Connecticut, we had our milk delivered whenever we were home.
Dad cut the three-week old high grass on Sunday while mom and I retrieved our tail wagging mutt from the Step-A-Side Kennel. Beginning on Monday, I could sleep in for the rest of the summer and dad could get back to his day job where he could recuperate from his vacation in Maine. We would do it all over again in 1958!