"The river was in God's hands, the cows in ours." So passed the days on Indian Farm, a dairy operation on 700 acres of rich Illinois bottomland. In this collection, Alan Guebert and his daughter-editor Mary Grace Foxwell recall Guebert's years on the land working as part of that all-consuming collaborative effort known as the family farm.
Here are Guebert's tireless parents, measuring the year not in months but in seasons for sewing, haying, and doing the books; Jackie the farmhand, needing ninety minutes to do sixty minutes' work and cussing the entire time; Hoard the dairyman, sore fingers wrapped in electrician's tape, sharing wine and the prettiest Christmas tree ever; and the unflappable Uncle Honey, spreading mayhem via mistreated machinery, flipped wagons, and the careless union of diesel fuel and fire.
Guebert's heartfelt and humorous reminiscences depict the hard labor and simple pleasures to be found in ennobling work, and show that in life, as in farming, Uncle Honey had it right with his succinct philosophy for overcoming adversity: "the secret's not to stop."
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About the Author
Mary Grace Foxwell graduated from Saint Mary's College in 2007. She and her husband Andrew co-direct the social media advisory firm Foxwell Digital in Madison, Wisconsin. Gracie may be reached at www.foxwelldigital.com.
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The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey
Memories from the Farm of My Youth
By Alan Guebert, Mary Grace Foxwell
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Alan Guebert and Mary Grace Foxwell
All rights reserved.
There was a peaceful, nearly silent ebb and flow to the seasons on Indian Farm. Spring rarely sprung on us because the mild winters in southern Illinois rarely locked us in. The days simply got longer, warmer, and more colorful as did the fieldwork and acres before us. All held the promise of a new year of better harvests, better profit, better times.
THE PATH TO HEAVEN APRIL 4, 2010
Somewhere in my parents' home exists a photograph of them standing stiffly on either side of my oldest brother, Rich, in front of a flaming yellow, full-bloom forsythia bush outside the big, brick Lutheran church of my youth. My mother, I think I'm remembering this correctly, wears a stylish dress she likely made herself and a round, white hat that, if turned upside down and used as a bucket, could easily hold a half-gallon of wild raspberries. Dad wears his Sunday uniform: suit, tie, and easy smile.
The occasion for the photo is telegraphed by what Rich wears. Dark trouser legs peek out from an angel-like gown whose yards of whiteness are broken only by his folded hands holding a black hymnal. It's Confirmation Sunday, either Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday 1965, and Rich is a newly minted communicant.
The formality of the photo shows just how important this day is for them. He's the firstborn, the pathfinder for the following five; likewise, their firstborn is moving toward high school and manhood. Together they stand atop one of life's important peaks and the pride of getting there shines through.
I also recall a tiny glint of satisfaction in Rich's eyes. It's a knowing sparkle, perhaps, to the fact that he survived eight years of Lutheran grade school and Luther's Small Catechism and now can shake the dust of both off his shoes forever.
It's a look you see only in youth, though, because none of us—Rich then, Peggy in 1966, David in 1967, me in 1969, Perry in 1971, and Christian in, ah, 1979?—ever did. Each may have thought Confirmation Sunday as parole day from catechism purgatory, but as our gray-haired elders predicted back then, it would become the first step on a journey of deeper understanding and deeper commitment.
As one of those gray-haired elders now, I confidently told a minute's-old confirm and last year that this day would become very important to him. Like me forty years earlier, the young man looked briefly at me as though I had one eye in the middle of my forehead and said, "Yeah, sure."
I remember more of that big day. I remember walking to our grandparents' house, just three blocks from the church, to a big party in Rich's honor. Grandma, apron already on, was stirring a roaster of gravy; Grandpa, suit coat already off, was stirring a whiskey sour for the gravy maker.
Aunts and uncles were everywhere and all slowly wandered into the living room where Rich, like a newly crowned Saxon prince, held court. All told him "how proud you must be" while revealing how proud they were (of what, I wondered, they hadn't done anything) and then handed him an envelope.
At dinner, of course, heaven's newest heir ate with the adults in the dining room while the rest of us unwashed whelps were sent to Siberia, the back room off the kitchen. It had no guards so, later, we snuck out the back door to enjoy spring. Rich, however, was trapped by another hour of dessert, coffee, and adult chatter.
I remember, too, Pastor Gross, our stony-faced minister and Grandpa's Missouri Synod soul mate, at the party. Every time I had seen him in church or at school, he was the stiff-collared, thunder-and-lightning voice of fear. That day, however, I saw and heard him laugh. Gee, pastors laughed?
Four years later, a photo was snapped of Mom, Dad, and me in front of that same flaming forsythia. I wear a flowing white gown, a black hymnal, and big smile; they, tired smiles and no hats. They had changed and I was about to. They knew it; I didn't.
Since I was a teenager I could not walk anywhere on the farm of my youth without thinking about the Native Americans who walked the same land before me. I wrote the following column after a spring visit to the farm in search of artifacts. Instead of beads and arrowheads, however, I found peace.
BOYS, BEADS, AND BEYOND APRIL 10, 2011
As the Good Book rightly foretold, when I was a child I thought like a child and acted like a child. That means I did many foolish things.
Probably the most foolish thing I did was give away several tin cans filled with Native American artifacts that I had found in the fields of my family's southern Illinois dairy farm.
Well, I didn't exactly give 'em away. Some I sold, usually for a $1 a can. I once traded a to-the-brim can of beads, musket balls, rifle flints, and arrowheads for a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum that I knew cost a nickel.
Have I mentioned foolish?
Another time my brother David and I swapped some artifacts for two, well-used football helmets and shoulder pads from Southern Illinois University. Oh, they were the real deal—real leather, real Bakelite face guards, real cotton padding—as were we: really foolish.
The really dumb thing is that I still have the dumb helmet. I suppose I keep it to show just how galacticly stupid I was to hand over a Busch Bavarian (my father's brand then and now) can full of irreplaceable Native American history for two pieces of completely frivolous Americana.
That I had so many artifacts was no mystery. One June day my father came to the dinner table with a magnificent spear point. He had found it that morning while cultivating soybeans in the field just north of the farmstead. Cream-colored and maybe three inches long, it was extraordinary; the most remarkable thing I had ever seen.
A half-hour later, after Dad had moseyed off for his midday nap, I ran to the bean field. He was tired; I was afflicted. He rested; I never did. The search became the passion it remains, and forty-five years on, I still return to that field and to the search.
Success, then as now, is aided by the accident of birth. My family's farm, at the confluence of the Kaskaskia River with the Mississippi, has been known for generations as Indian Farm. The name extolled the land's Native tenants, the Kaskaskias, a tribe of the once-powerful Illinois Confederacy that, in the early 1700s, made their home in the flat, fertile Mississippi River bottoms.
Stand in the bare, late winter fields of Indian Farm today and you can see what drew the Kaskaskia to it. On its west is a long, shallow slough fed by the Mississippi that remains home to ducks, geese, muskrat, and beaver. In the distance, gray-barked pecan trees reach to the sky and continue to yield their heavenly bounty every fall. Limestone bluffs rise to the north and two rivers crowd it on the east and south.
In fact, if not for the thatch of corn stalks at my feet and a picket of telephone poles marching steadily toward the levee, most of the land's native beauty remains. It's captivating and, often as not, I spend most of my too-brief visits listening for whispers of wisdom and lore rather than looking for arrowheads and beads.
What parts, I wonder, of the many lives that walked where I now stand remain hidden in the shadows of those grand pecan tress? Did the sight and smell of April's fresh earth move them to thank their Creator, too? Did the soft touch of a spring breeze also carry them gently and happily into a promising tomorrow?
For thirty-five years I have returned to Indian Farm, when I can, to replenish what it first gave me as a child. Now I return to listen, and look for beads and beauty and arrowheads and peace.
And one day, perhaps soon, I will return a final time to add my whisper to the eternal wind.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM TWENTY-TWO TONS OF EDUCATION APRIL 24, 2005
Today's southern breeze gently rustles the heavy-headed tulips outside my office window before sweeping through the apple tree to sprinkle a shower of blossom petals onto an emerald lawn.
A second later it picks me up on its warm wings and carries me back to the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth. Back there, April brought two seasons: planting and baseball. Without fail, though, planting beat baseball because all hands, no matter their size or skill, were needed on the farm.
Mid-April usually planted me on the steel seat of an Oliver 77 that dragged a four-section spring harrow against the grain of our many fall-plowed fields.
Seat? I didn't sit. No one could as the narrow-front tractor bobbed like a cork from mellow plow slab to mellow plow slab slowly turning the bleached gray skin of that farm into a moist, jet-black bed of hope.
Despite the body-bruising, brain-rattling ride, I kept a keen but bouncing eye on the freshly turned soil of the previous pass for the telltale white of an arrowhead, rifle flint, and musket ball.
One of those precious finds, a cream-colored arrowhead, rests on my office desk today. It's a perfectly sculpted artifact of those long and long-gone days; a testament to the fact that while cultures come and go, only the land lasts forever.
My father would often be in an adjoining field, reworking my work with what was then a massive field cultivator, maybe sixteen feet wide. Not far behind him was the planter, manned by leathery, nearly always complaining Jackie, our farm's main hired hand.
Dad, of course, had the responsible job, applying the pre-plant herbicide and then working it in with the dirt-shaking cultivator. A homemade rig of steel saddle tanks, a PTO-driven pump, and hoses going everywhere made his 1850 Oliver look like something out of the Battle of the Bulge.
The spray only added a final, sinister touch: yolky-yellow Treflan for beans; milky white atrazine for corn.
Dad's rig easily outpaced Jackie's because the planter, a six-row ground-driven Oliver, was designed to break down. A whirl of sprockets, chains, and plates but no monitor, of course, it often tossed drive chains off its row units for no reason other than that was what it was engineered to do.
From afar, I could always tell when that happened. Jackie, upon discovering he had just planted five rows and not six for a half mile, would rub his three-day-old whiskers and fling fabulous curses into the wind. He hated that planter.
I, too, quickly learned to hate it the year I planted the farm's entire crop while on a Dean Warren Wessels—imposed college sabbatical. ("You're taking up a space for someone who actually wants to be here. Come visit me when you're serious about a world-class education.")
That was the same year, what with an excess of bone-headed, youthful labor at hand, Dad put the planter's tall and long dry fertilizer boxes back on. It meant more chains, more breakdowns, and more work. I toted, emptied, and then planted twenty-two tons of dry fertilizer, one fifty-pound sack at a time, that spring.
It was the education Dean Wessels somehow knew I needed because the next planting season found me back at the University of Illinois lifting myself and my young family forever out of the reach of spring harrows, saddle tanks, and Oliver planters.
And arrowheads, warm spring days in the field, and long evenings of quiet, tired satisfaction.
My and the lovely Catherine's return to Champaign carried a hidden bonus for Dad. Since he was destined to be the main corn planter the following spring, the main corn planter quickly became a shiny, new, monitored John Deere Max-Emerge.
Shortly thereafter, the fresh-air, log-wagon 1850 was traded for an air-conditioned Ford 9600 and the cranky Oliver baler was ditched for a Vermeer round baler. Guess Dad got an education during my final planting season, too.
Odd how an aching back can train an under-used brain, and apple blossom petals on a green sea can float you into yesterday.
PLANTING A SEED MAY 5, 2013
The first good corn-planting day of spring finally arrived at my central Illinois farmette April 30. Like the month's previous twenty-nine days, however, no one within 100 miles used it to plant because near-record rains had washed April away.
So now it's May and it's late by any corn planting standard. On the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth we sometimes finished planting corn in June, but we always started in April.
Those long ago planting seasons, all seasons, in fact, always marched to a two-step tune: the very predictable, twice-a-day milking of 100 Holsteins and the very unpredictable rise and fall of the nearby Mississippi River. The river was in God's hands; the cows in ours.
That meant the acres planted any day were limited to the acres Dad could "work"—field cultivate while applying a pre-plant herbicide—ahead of the planter between morning and evening milkings and then again at night. It wasn't much, usually fifty acres most days and maybe sixty in a big day and long night.
Jackie, the farm's loyal hired man, was the planter jockey. He worked 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. six days a week without fail. He had no watch because he couldn't tell time, but he did have three times—starting time, quitting time, and dinner time—programmed into his DNA and, like him, it never failed.
The Oliver 77 he drove was nearly as faithful. Gas-powered with both hydraulics and a PTO, it was his go-to tractor for planting, manure spreading, baling, and pulling grain and silage wagons. It ran like the watch Jackie didn't own.
The planter, an Oliver of mid-1960s vintage, was very different. It was the worst piece of engineered iron ever sold to anyone. It never completed one round, be it a quarter mile, a half mile or, like most of our fields, one mile, in a cornfield without some minor or major breakdown.
If, by some miracle, its chattering collection of ground-driven chains and rotating planter plates held together long enough to actually plant six rows up and back, Jackie, a world class cusser, could be seen on his knees in the middle of the headland praising the miracle.
Oh, the miracle wasn't on the level of Lourdes or Knock; it was bigger.
The planter stuck around as long as Jackie and my brothers and me. Since my father never ran it, he seemed to overlook the fact that its main design feature was failure. To him, most of the planter's failures were operator failures: we were going too fast or too slow; the ground was too wet or too dry; we wore our caps too low.
As previous years' columns have detailed, the planter's final spring came in 1978. That cold, wet, forsaken season I planted every kernel, row, and acre with that forsaken planter.
But I was more than the corn planter that year; I also was the planter monitor. Four or five times every round, I climbed off the tractor to check every sprocket, chain, and planter box to make certain it could make it another 400 or so yards. If reassured, I'd climb back on the tractor and off I'd go.
For another 400 yards. Then I'd stop, climb down, and check it all again. Often on my way back to the tractor I'd smack the implement's tongue with a hammer just to let it know I still was alert.
Late that winter, I took a freezer full of food, a new interest in writing, and the lovely Catherine back to the Big U and off to a different future.
A couple of months later, my father, threatened with the prospect of planting corn with a machine he had fixed (and everyone else had cussed) daily for fifteen years, traded that planter for a six-row John Deere MaxEmerge with a Dickey-john monitor. Had he made the swap in 1978, I might have stayed.
Wait a minute, you don't think ...
PRAYING AND WAITING MAY 11, 2008
As the cold, wet planting season of 2008 slips into mid-May, corn and soybean farmers are grousing about weather delays, the likelihood of reduced yields, and a summer of stress before they find out if the former clobbered the latter.
While I empathize with their dilemma, that this is easily the most costly crop any farmer has ever planted and the delays only add to the historically high (until 2009, that is) tab, there truly is nothing to do but pray and wait.
While we weren't big on waiting on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, we did pray. We gave thanks each morning for the new day; noontime dinners and evening suppers both began and ended with prayer and, after supper, the family always gathered for evening devotions (that concluded with two prayers) regardless of the season or undone chores.
In all that heavenly beseeching, though, I don't recall us ever praying for fair weather, a good crop, or high prices. Most times we thanked the Lord for the blessings we had received: caring friends, a crop-making July rain, good health, bountiful food, and respectfully suggested it would be fine with us if those blessings simply continued.
The heavy lifting, the formal, fervent praying, was left to the pastor during worship services. Since, as he sternly reminded us every Sunday, he was "a called and ordained servant of the Lord," I figured he had the singular ability, and maybe even the temporal responsibility, to make specific requests through prayer.
I mean, he often offered up names, dates, and ideas we simply didn't have the spiritual courage to pursue at the dinner table.
That cowardice began to drain from me, however, halfway through St. John's Lutheran School when my teacher that year, Mr. Hartman, told the story of a boy my age (what a coincidence!) saying the Lord's Prayer with hundreds of other churchgoers one Sunday morning.
Excerpted from The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey by Alan Guebert, Mary Grace Foxwell. Copyright © 2015 Alan Guebert and Mary Grace Foxwell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
SPRING: PLANT, 15,
SUMMER: GROW, 31,
FALL: HARVEST, 73,
WINTER: EAT, 105,