John Cook grew up in the late nineteenth century on the family farm in the American Midwest. The older he got, the more stories he heard about the world outside his family home. The more he heard, the more he realized he didn't want to spend his life in one place, working the same old soil his family had worked for generations. He wanted to seek out adventure. In order to do so, he would have to leave his home and family behind.
At the age of twenty-one, he does just that. He jumps the rails and rides all the way to California, where he hopes to find his future and make his fortune. Life is different in the old American West, though; rural life taught John to be tough, but it didn't teach him all he needs to know about the outside world. John is lucky to realize dreams and to discover a sense of purpose that he didn't even know he had.
From panning for gold to working as a lumberjack, John Cook strives to live life to the fullest. Based on a true story, A Farmer's Boy follows John as he travels the country and spends many years away from his family, intent on finding his own path to greatness. John seeks independence and livelihood, like so many other men of his generation living in a young nation filled with promise.
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A Farmer's BoyBased on a true story
By Jerome Stanley
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Jerome Stanley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was a bitterly cold winter night when Dr. Bailey was called to the Cook residence to deliver the baby. The doctor bundled up, put on his sheepskin cap with earflaps, and took his black leather bag with him out to the barn. The horses had not yet been unhitched from the buggy since he had come home only a short time before to eat dinner. Fortunately, it was a closed-top buggy open only in the front where the driver sat. At least he would be somewhat protected from the snow that had just begun to fall.
He jumped into the seat, threw the leather medical bag on the floor of the buggy, and snapped the reins. The horses trotted out of the barn into the snow. The whole landscape was eerie, draped in the silent black and white. The air was still, emphasizing the silence. The wheels of the buggy rolled over the new snow with very little noise. The most notable sight and sound was the heavy breathing of the horses and the white vapor from their mouths.
The trip to the Cook home took twenty minutes. He tied the horses to the hitching post and went up steps to the porch. As he knocked, he noticed that the door handle was broken. The midwife Lenora Brooks opened the door. She had prepared everything for the baby's delivery. She led him to the bedroom. He smiled at his patient, whom he had known since she was a little girl. She was drenched in perspiration but managed a faint smile in return. With the help of Lenora and the doctor, the mother delivered a healthy eight-pound baby boy. The baby was given to the mother, and the two rested comfortably.
"Mary Ann, what will you name the baby?" the doctor asked.
"We're going to call him John Henry," she replied.
He smiled at her. "Now, Mary Ann, you obey my orders to get plenty of rest, and let Lenora help you for the next day or two," said the doctor. "I'll stop by to see you later in the week. If you need anything, Lenora can let me know."
Lenora followed him to the front door, slipping out onto the porch with him and closing the door. She had a pinched and careworn expression. She whispered to him, pointing to the door.
"Julius was in a rage because Nathan spoke back to him about something. I didn't want them quarreling and upsetting Mary Ann, so I sent them both over to Ezra's place."
"That was very wise of you."
"You know that Julius is a rigid taskmaster with a temper. As a mere twelve-year-old, Nathan has a streak in him, and he tries his dad's patience. He really came into this world on the wrong foot as far as Julius is concerned."
"Let me know if I can be of any help," the doctor said.
He stepped off of the porch and turned to look back at the house. The thought crossed his mind that this new baby, John Henry, would have a big challenge later in life to become independent from his tyrannical father. He climbed into his buggy and drove off.
John Henry began his schooling at age six in the rural Harmon School. His teacher at school was Eliza Brooks. Two of Eliza's sisters were students at the school. One day Hanna, one of the sisters, lost her bustle made from a roll of brown paper. It fell out of her dress onto the floor. John was sitting in the seat behind the girl. Eliza spoke to the girl with a warning.
"Don't put that bustle back on here while John is looking," Eliza said.
"Oh, he's too young to notice anything," said the sister in an impish voice and proceeded to replace her bustle.
After school that day, Hanna and her friend Ethel Brooks left the schoolyard together to walk home. Ethel was a couple of years younger than John, and he thought of her as being a mere baby. They saw John walking ahead of them and ran to catch up with him.
"Hi, John," said Hanna. "We'd like to walk with you."
"Sure," John said. "But I have to hurry to get home in time to do some chores. Dad says that work on the farm is more important than schoolwork."
"Is that why you don't come to school sometimes?" asked Ethel. She had a very sweet smile, John noticed.
"Yeah, but I don't like school much anyway, so the work at home is fine with me. Teachers are only interested in telling me what not to do. But when I work at home, I can be my own boss and stay around the animals. They are my friends. They don't tell me what to do. And they like me when I feed them."
Just then, Lester Mitchell, the neighborhood bully, ran past them with a couple of boys shouting and calling John a sissy.
"Look at John; he's playing with the girls!" Lester and his friends laughed and ran on ahead.
"Don't pay any attention to them," said Ethel. "They are just stupid."
Chapter TwoAfter his eighth birthday, John attended school for only about three months out of each year. The fifth grade was his final year in school. That year there were several teachers, each one staying for only a few weeks. One of them taught for three days and then went home sick, never to return. There was a problem with unruly kids in the school. They would often play mean tricks on the teachers. When Mr. Hall was hired to teach, he gave a stern introduction, saying that he would not put up with any jokesters. After that, things were fairly quiet except for two boys who sat on opposite sides of the room and occasionally made soft meows like cats.
Parents and grandparents lived in close proximity on the land, and large family gatherings were common. It was a tight-knit family, with everyone looking out for the others. Grandpa Lewis made John a pair of boots and gave him a white pig as a pet. John went with the pig outside to play one day, and the little animal bolted away to find its mother. John's dad and grandpa were working together at the barn when the pig and John Henry ran past them.
"What's the matter with you, John?" his dad scolded. "Can't you keep that blasted pig from running away?"
John felt hurt by his dad's remarks. He ran after the pig, put it in a sack, and brought it back home. Though his feelings had been hurt, he was proud that he had retrieved the pig on his own without any help. But he realized that his dad could not see this accomplishment as something important.
Julius owned a country store and operated his pig farm. He sold his pigs to the national stockyard in Chicago. When the pigs were mature, they were shipped to the stockyards where they were killed, cured, and shipped back. Julius had to pay the freight to and from Chicago plus commissions both ways. These expenses were passed on to the consumer buying the meat in the store. John learned from his dad about running the country store. In the grocery business of the 1870s, the merchant had to buy from a commissioner instead of directly from the farmer, and he added any commissions to the cost of meat and produce in the store.
The Cook family lived in a log house on the prairie near Shouse Chapel in Bible Grove Township. Outside the kitchen door was a water cistern that supplied the family with water until one year a drought caused the cistern to dry up. Uncle Bill Lewis dropped by one summer evening after dinner and sat on the porch talking quietly with his mom and dad about the need to dig a well. Neighbors often spent evenings visiting each other on their porches amid the singing of crickets in the grass and frogs croaking down at the pond. John had a keen ear and listened intently to these conversations that always taught him new words and ideas about the world around him.
"I'll come over tomorrow and bring a water witch to look for water," said Uncle Bill.
John had heard stories about witches, but he had never seen one, so he looked forward to seeing Bill's witch the next day. But when Bill arrived, there was no witch. Instead, he was holding a forked willow branch lightly between two hands with the tip pointing forward. When he walked over a subterranean water vein, the tip of the branch pointed downward toward the earth.
Eventually five wells were dug. But these wells still were not sufficient to supply all of the needs on the farm. So his dad dug another well in the blackberry patch two hundred yards north of the house. Uncle Adolph came to help. John watched as they dug down eighteen feet. Adolph was digging at the bottom of the hole when suddenly John heard him shout.
"Help me out! The water broke through, and it's rising fast!"
Someone ran to bring a ladder and put it into the hole. A few seconds later, Adolph's head appeared. He was soaking wet.
"I was up to my arms by the time that ladder came down," he said. "Somebody go get some buckets. We've got to bail out as much water as we can so that I can build a brick wall around the well."
When the well was finished, the water stood five feet deep and supplied the threshing machine and all the cattle.
The well outside the kitchen door, where the family drinking water was drawn a few times each day, was quite intriguing to a small boy. John was drawn to it, and his mother constantly had to warn him.
"John, don't climb up on the well curb!" she shouted. John turned his head toward her looking defiant, his hand resting on the side of the well curb.
"If you fall into that well, it will be very dark and scary, and water will cover you so that you'll be unable to breathe."
Finally, his mother had to get him and bring him into the house to prevent him from exploring the well.
Twenty acres of the Cook land was in timber that ran westward two miles to the Little Muddy Creek, where the neighborhood farm boys had their favorite swimming hole in summertime. John was allowed to swim there whenever his older brothers were with him. On hot summer days, he and his brothers jumped naked into the water and enjoyed dipping their feet into the cool mud on the creek bottom. Sometimes the boys fished there for crappie and catfish. John was a dreamer and often stuck his fishing pole in the ground and lay back, looking up at the sky and watching the big cumulus clouds. Someone always had to alert him when a fish took his line.
Timber also ran northward for one mile. John's dad raised pigs that were allowed to roam free in the timber eating acorns and hickory nuts. In October of each year, they went out to the woods to find the hogs and select the largest one for taking home.
"Now, John," his dad said, "it's your job to feed corn to these hogs for the next few weeks. Everyone in this family has to work. Do you think that you can handle that job?"
"Yes, Dad, I can do it."
Julius was a tall, muscular man with deep-set brown eyes and dark bushy eyebrows. The ruddy complexion of his face was accentuated by a shock of dark brown hair and a thick beard. His booming voice often frightened John. This fear translated into his deep desire to please his dad at all costs. So each season little John fed the hogs for a few weeks. Then the butchered animals supplied the family with meat for the coming year.
John assumed his daily chores at an early age and learned to discharge his responsibilities like an adult. He was a quick-witted boy with a ready smile and a quiet manner. He always accomplished what was expected of him. He was the embodiment of the American pioneer spirit that was very much alive in the small midwestern town of Bible Grove. People worked hard every day except Sunday, when the neighbors often gathered at church. After church, the young boys went home and spent the afternoon breaking in mules, horses, and ponies. Bill Sunderman had a number of animals that needed breaking in, so young John and his friends donated their time for the fun of doing it. John was too small to be of much use, but he observed carefully and learned quickly, helping in any way he could.
Chapter ThreeJohn's parents and grandparents lived in separate houses on the farm consisting of 320 acres; 160 acres of it were prairie land and the other half was timberland. The wood was used for fuel and making tallow candles. They raised vegetables that were traded at the local store for sugar, tea, coffee, and spices. Grandfather Ezra was a farmer but also a shoemaker and a millwright. He built the first flour mill in St. Louis, Missouri, on the south side of the Free Bridge. When he died, Grandma lost their share in the milling company, but she carried on the shoemaking business at home. She did her own tanning of the leather for the shoes and taught John how to tan hides for shoestrings. Boots were made for him that lasted seven or eight years and could be enlarged as his feet grew. When the shoes became worn, they were equipped with new half soles and kept well-oiled for longevity.
To young John, his grandpa was an impressive figure with his abundant gray beard and mustache, wrinkled skin, and wire-rimmed glasses. Especially in the evenings, when Grandpa Ezra sat in his rocking chair reading the newspaper beside the kerosene lamp, his enormous shadow cast upon the wall, he appeared to be a giant filling the room.
Sometimes John wanted to stay for extended periods with his grandparents, partly because he wanted to escape the watchful, critical eye of his dad. His grandma slept in a room with lots of heat in the winter, but his grandpa didn't like a hot room. He had an unheated bedroom and slept on a featherbed mattress under big comforters. He let little John sleep with him. One cold winter night, there was a big full moon shining high over the pond that was visible from his grandpa's bedroom window. The moon itself was too high in the sky to be seen, but a perfect reflection shone brilliantly on the pond's surface. Grandpa Ezra thought that John was awfully quiet because usually John wanted to talk or wanted to hear a bedtime story.
"What's the matter, John? Cat got your tongue?" Grandpa asked.
John remained quiet for a moment and then said, "I'm scared."
"What are ya scared about?"
Look, Grandpa, the moon has fallen into the pond!"
There was a wonderful world of bedtime stories. It was a magical time that took him out of the ordinary world and into a fascinating place where strange and unusual things happened.
"Grandpa, tell me the story about the old woman in the potato patch."
Grandpa cleared his throat and assumed a deep, somber, and resonant tone. He spoke very slowly with a grim expression.
"Once upon a time there was an old woman who lived alone in the country. In the spring and summer she kept a potato patch near her house. One day she was hoeing in the patch when she heard a very strange growling sound. This happened several times, and each time she would stop to go to the house and see if she could find what was causing the sound and then go back to work."
John snuggled down into the featherbed and pulled the cover closer to his chin. Grandpa Ezra continued, "Finally she went into the house and searched until she opened the closet door in her bedroom, and there stood a terrible monster!"
John shrieked. Grandpa Ezra continued, "The woman said to the monster 'My, what big eyes you have!'"
Grandpa then assumed a growling speech deep in the throat to imitate the monster's voice.
"'The better to see you with, my dear.'
"'My, what big ears you have!' said the woman.
"'The better to hear you with, my dear.'
"'What a big nose you have!' she said.
"'The better to smell you with.'
"'What a big tail you have!'
"'The better to sweep the graves with, my dear.'
"'And what big claws you have!'
"'The better to scratch out your eyes!'"
John could no longer contain his fright and jumped under the blanket, squealing and giggling with a mixture of fear and joy. He knew that it was all in fun. After the story he felt a sense of protection in the safety of his family. Although he loved hearing the story, he knew that his family would always protect him from the monsters in life.
Grandmother Geraldine was a spry, buxom woman with white hair, rosy cheeks, and deep blue eyes that twinkled in the most delightful way. She spent her days looking after her family with loving care, and John often kept her company while she worked. She made her own baking powder for bread. It was delightful to eat her biscuits that were made in a Dutch oven in the fireplace. He always felt her deep love for him. She often protected him from his father's rough remarks.
"Now, Julius, don't be too harsh on the boy," she would say.
He often went with her to the milk house to watch her turn the big crank on the cream separating machine. There were two vats built one above the other with a spout that poured from the upper to the lower one. As the crank was turned, the inner lining of the upper vat rotated, spinning the cream to the top until it ran down the spout into the lower vat. The cream was taken to the house to make butter while the skimmed milk was poured into large metal containers for transport to market or for storage to be used in feeding the stock.
Excerpted from A Farmer's Boy by Jerome Stanley Copyright © 2012 by Jerome Stanley. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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