160 acres of crops, 80 acres of fun
—by Bill Haglund
If you drive north from Stratford, turn on Xavier Road and head past historic Vegor’s Cemetery and continue until the hills are behind you and the gravel road finally runs in a straight direction to the north, you’ll find what was once my grandparents’ farm.
Unless you know what you’re looking for, however, you won’t know you’re there.
But, I do. I remember Sunday afternoons spent there as a youngster. I remember eating ripe tomatoes, picked directly from grandma’s garden. I remember picking green apples, eating them, too and being stung by wasps when I inadvertently riled them while pretending to be a mechanic in Uncle Jack’s motorcycle shop, long since nothing more than an unused old shack.
But, most of all I remember 80 acres – fully one-third of the 240-acre farm.
There were 80 acres of cropland out by the gravel road and there were another 80 acres on the backside of the property.
In the middle, though, were the most important 80 acres of all. At least, they were the most important if you were just a kid.
Those middle 80 acres were a pathway from the front side of the farm to the back. You’d drive a tractor into those acres, drive down a narrow path, cross a narrow wooden bridge over a small creek, and finally drive up the other side into 80 acres of corn.
As a productive farm, 160 acres of crops provided only a meager existence. Grandpa and grandma Knox purchased the farm during the Great Depression and were able to feed 11 children and raise them all to adulthood. At times, my mother told me, things were so bleak that the entire family lived on sandwiches containing nothing more than lard.
By the time I came along, and was old enough to begin remembering things, several of the Knox kids had moved away – seven girls and three of four boys. The only one remaining at home was my uncle Jack, oldest of the 11 kids. He’d returned home from World War II a hero for his efforts in the infamous Battle of the Bulge that raged on the European mainland for month after month and produced a major Allied victory in that deadly world conflict.
Jack had been married when he left for the Army. His wife left him while he was gone. After the war Jack moved back home and he never left, handling most of the farming chores.
Often during my childhood, we’d visit the farm on Sunday afternoons. Most of the time, there were other families there, too. That meant that my cousins (and there were plenty of them) and I would find lots of things to keep us busy outside.
There was grandma’s garden, of course, and Jack’s cycle shop, too, but there was much more.
There were also 80 acres of hilly timberland to explore. We explored every inch of it, or most of it, at any rate. We’d fish for minnows in the small creek at the bottom of the property, using hooks made from bent needles, attached by thread to a small stick we’d found outside. We’d pick wild berries with our mothers (well, we mostly ate and our mothers mostly picked) and we’d gather walnuts in the fall, then watch our mothers painstakingly remove the “meat” from the walnuts knowing they’d be used in one or more delicious wintertime deserts later.
Although we’d disappear for hours into the wooded acres, our mothers never worried. We always found our way back to the old house, just about the time hunger took over our youthful bodies.
There was nothing more fun, though, on a warm Sunday afternoon when uncle Jack’s friends rode in on their motorcycles. Whether or not there were a half dozen to more than 10 of them, we knew they’d head for the timber. Jack had ridden his motorcycle down through the woods many times, carving out a ramp which every rider would cross, jumping in the air before landing back on Jack’s trail. There were two paths up the other side of the hill, too, and one after another, each rider would take turns going up the hill in an impromptu hill climb. All of them made it up the easier of the two hills; only the bravest of the brave attempted the steeper, longer hill. Only some of them made it to the top.
Once in a while uncle Jack would let one of his nephews sit on the back of his cycle as he went up the shorter hill.
One time, however, after incessant begging (and my uncle Jack saying over and over to me, “No, Billy, your mother’d kill me if she found out!”) I finally convinced uncle Jack to let me ride with him up the steeper hill. He told me, though, that he probably needed his head examined to let me ride with him.
But, he did.
Halfway up the hill, he yelled “Jump, Billy jump!” I scooted off the back of the motorcycle, landed with a thud and rolled back down the hill. Behind me was uncle Jack’s motorcycle. Jack laid on his back on the hillside watching as his beloved Harley-Davidson tumbled down, missing me by only a foot or two.
It was the first – and only – time uncle Jack let me ride up the big hill.
But, it’s also one of the best of many good memories I had of a 240-acre farm with 80 acres of fun.