Sunday, August 21, 2011

Early Days

Potter Lake
I live on an old farm in Pennsylvania where the only thing we raise are aesthetics.  We don't have livestock or row crops so I suppose I really shouldn't even call it a farm, but I still do. My Dad bought the place in 1946 with the idea of starting a sports camp for adults. But then he met my Mom and plans changed. Instead they bought a house in Mountain Lakes, NJ and invented my brother and me.  So the farm stayed "the farm," a secluded weekend getaway.

There was no interstate before 1962, so we would drive up on windy two lanes through Milford and Honesdale. My Dad owned a big red Ford station wagon and I loved the Friday night drive up when they would let me make a bed way in the back among all the carpentry tools and groceries. I'd lay there and look up through the giant curved glass window and watch the stars stream by overhead. I guess I must have been a farmer in another life, because after we left Stokes Forest, crossed the Delaware River and started the slow ascent into the dark hills of eastern PA I could smell fresh cow manure and I knew I was home.

Our house was built in 1867 and had never been renovated. It was in sad shape when my Dad bought it. He had to replace most of the floor joists because they were suspended over a dirt floor basement and had dry rot. He did all the work himself with the help of friends and my Mom's father. Where there had been six tiny downstairs rooms, he opened it up into one large living space with a front bedroom where the old parlor had been and a small cold water bathroom replacing the "borning" room which had been off the kitchen. There was no plumbing when Dad bought it, just an old outhouse. One strand of electric wire ran from the utility pole to a bare light bulb in the kitchen. Don't ever let anyone tell you those old farmers had it easy. Beside the fact that there is more rock in the ground then soil, the summer is short and winters long and cold. I burn four full cords of wood in a season. Even with a chain saw and dump cart to haul it, fire wood is a lot of work. Cutting it all with an axe or buck saw and hauling it home by horse on a stone boat could not have been any easier! But you know what?  It is so beautiful in these hills that you can see why many of the families put down roots stayed.

My Dad was an engineer and the summer after I completed first grade he took a job with the Kellogg Corporation and moved the family to Battle Creek, Michigan. Leaving the farm and my friends in New Jersey broke my heart. Fortunately my Dad kept the farm and every summer my Mom, brother and I were join our Grandparents there for six weeks. My dad only got a couple weeks vacation a year, so he would take one of them at the end of our stay to drive us home.

I use to spend a lot of time at the farm up the road. It was a mile away and I would walk up there every morning and help with chores. Most of the time we baled hay; the small square bales. There I learned how to drive a truck and a tractor and how to work on equipment. Joe ran the place. He was one of eleven Pavelski kids. By the time I knew him, only two other children lived at home, both younger then Joe, who was thirteen years my senior and like a second dad to us all. He seemed to know fix anything and always had the answer when it came to running the place. I helped Joe pull calves from cows with big ropes when they were all twisted up inside the mother and went searching the woods with him when a heifer snuck off and got lost giving birth. I helped him build the addition on his barn, and hauled God knows how many tons of fieldstone to be used as fill beneath its concrete floor. I was also the milk can boy and carried the buckets from the electric milkers down to the milk house at the far end of the barn. With all the strength in my arms, I would lift the milk bucket and pour the steaming white liquid through the funnel filter and listen to it splashing down inside the big two handled can. There was a water-filled refrigeration cooler there, and when the big cans were full, they were lifted and placed into its liquid reservoir. Joe had to do that, because I was too little to pick them up.

There was a tiny door in the wall of the milk house, maybe 3'x2', through which the cans were passed on mornings when the milk truck came. That is a sound I will always associate with my early days on the farm; waking up in the front bedroom to the clanging and banging of the empty milk cans as the truck turned up the hill and took the rutted lane to Joe's farm. However many full cans the driver hauled away, he was sure to have the same number of empties to drop off. The stony dirt road bounced the driver as well as the truck and the musical clanging of the steel cans could be heard half a mile distant in the quiet of the morning.

When I look back at it, the style of farming that had gone on for more than a century up here all changed within ten years of my life. Regulations were passed requiring farmers to install pipelines and bulk tanks, and that meant most small operations had to double in size to cover the cost. The old hand-hewed timber frame barns weren't designed to accommodate the increased volume of animals. The cost of renovation drove a lot of the older farmers out of business. It was also as if the government encouraged this exodus, paying the dairy operator a hefty reward for every cow he took out of production.

Joe made the transition. He was young, smart and and an agrarian workaholic. After his barn burned in the early 1990's, he retooled his dairy operation to incorporate for the new system of 'bale-age," which replaced the need for big roofed hay mounds by enabling outside storage. Now his hay is rolled into four foot high cylinders resembling the sections of a giant Tootsie Roll.  These in turn are machine wrapped in white plastic, creating a vacuum seal around the bale.   The plastic wrap ensures freshness and high nutritional value from hay harvested early in the season. Larger tractors, rakes and balers zip across my fields now and in two days finish what use to take two weeks of hot, back breaking work. Hands no longer touch the hay. When I was a kid, each bale was pulled from the baling machine with a longshoreman's hook and stacked on a flat hay wagon. A couple of us boys always rode on board to pass the bales up as the load grew. It was dusty dry work and we drank a lot of sugary Kool-Aid to wash down the taste of the bitter weeds in the hay. The bales were transported one wagon at a time and then unload by hand onto what looked like a big metal playground slide. It had an endless loop of narrow, rectangular paddles spaced just far enough apart to fit a single bale in between. But the hay elevator was a fickle machine. The weight of the bales varied and too many bales on board could make the chains start to slip on their drive sprockets.  Bales also would pile up, caught in the doorway of the mound. If you didn't scramble up the elevator on all fours and pull the jam loose, within a few short moments there could be half a dozen laying on the ground with their twine ties broken.

In the summer, the heat in the mound was incredible. The moisture in the hay made the air heavy with humidity and lack of ventilation in the old timber frames made the sweat pour from your body as if you were in a sauna. The chafe of the bales could drive you nuts, sticking to the skin and making you itch all over. It was a game of mind matter, telling jokes and stories to each other to distract yourself from a discomfort that was impossible to avoid. Regardless, I loved the work. My arms got tough and sinewy, my hands calloused from hauling bales by their twine. I use to take a couple coils of used twine home with me to Michigan each year and I would store it in my bottom drawer so I could pull it out on those dreary winter days, sniff in hard and smell the memory of summer on the farm. It was intoxicating.

When I graduated high school, I returned to the East Coast for college and began to build a life within proximity of the farm. The house was still uninsulated and the stone fireplace my father had had built was the only heat source, but I would still hitch-hike in and spend a weekend when I could, hauling water from the spring and living like a 19th century farmer. At about age twenty I drew up what I called the "Tri-Tier Plan." It was a landscaping blue print on notebook paper that delineated my vision for developing three separate levels of landscaped terrain descending from the farm house to the lake. Ponds would have to be added, timber cleared, meadows created. I've been working on the project ever since; its a living painting that I've created with hand tools and a 35 horsepower tractor. There are only a few people now who remember the place from the 1960's.  Newcomers will never comprehend the work its taken to make it look so "natural".  That's my little secret, shared with my aging neighbors and the farmers who came before me.

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