On a bad day—when a chickenhawk shows up or my boot tears while I’m ankle-deep in pig muck—I always think the same thing: “I don’t have to do this.” And I don’t. I can always get the food I need at the grocer, and there are numerous ways to spend time that pay actual money in return for my labor. But what keeps me mucking out barns and chasing away hawks is what the work provides me: a connection to a time when folks did need to farm to survive, when the grocer wasn’t an option and rubber muck boots didn’t yet exist. It’s a connection to history.
Farms have a special way of transporting people’s minds back in time. Because farms are designed and refined over many years to grow food efficiently, they tend to stay farms, creating and preserving agricultural history as the days pass.
Our farmhouse, for example, was built during the Civil War on a timber foundation and with log walls hidden between gypsum and siding—a fact discovered by (and torturous to) the poor telephone installer who found himself needing to drill a hole in our house for cable. A massive, centuries-old burl oak stands in the front yard. The home itself is history.
John & Myrtie
When we moved in, our county extension agent, a kindly cattleman named Keenan, gifted us an image of the house taken during photography’s early days. In it, a family stands stolid and stone-faced. The patron, John “Buck” Payton, is jacketed and behatted, with a proud belly straining a worn pair of overalls and a horse at his side. John’s wife, Myrtie, is positioned in the center in a high-necked, ruffled hoop dress; beside her is a younger woman similarly dressed, and between them a blurry-faced child whose patience was shorter than the required shutter time. Five people—two suited men, and a couple with a baby—stand on the porch behind them.
I think about John and Myrtie when I’m out in the pasture, looking at the house from afar. Did their pigs run these woods the way mine do? How did they scare off the hawks? What did the burl oak look like then? (I’m sure they’d envy its expansive shade in the hot Kentucky summers.)
When I voted in the most recent general election, in a fire station tucked back off the windy main road, the older woman behind the desk looked at the address on my license and said, “Oh, you’re the young people who moved into the Payton house! I used to swing over the road from a tire tied to that big oak tree.” She also told us that a pet monkey once lived in our sunroom.
More Recent Times
A market customer shared a more recent piece of our home’s history when he told us his family had owned the house for many years, his parents purchasing it when he was a child. He later brought his elderly mother by our table to meet us, and she shared that they’d bought the home to keep the kids away from “those hippies in Lexington.”
The man and his brother, one a carpenter and the other a stonemason, later brought the house back from disrepair, gutting it and remaking the walls, ceilings and chimneys with the skills they’d acquired in the years since childhood. After the remodel, our market customer had lived in the home, filling the spacious backyard with sunflowers and paths that goldfinches would swoop through at top speed.
A Brand-New History
Farms are special for many reasons, and history is an important one.
But not all farms are built on traditional-use land, with creaky old farmhouses owned by generations of agrarians. My uncles built homes on open fields and established farming operations on virgin pasture. Maybe you hauled a trailer to an unoccupied plot or collect eggs from a brood of suburban backyard chickens.
If you can’t look back at your own John and Myrtie, consider that you might be your homestead’s John or Myrtie. Your farm’s history is young, and you’re writing it with every harvested tomato. When your children or grandchildren see you pluck an egg from the hand-built nesting box or watch you call the cows home to a brand-new barn, they’re creating and preserving the land’s history in memory.
When you choose to tend a piece of land in exchange for sustenance, you’re participating in a tradition that’s thousands of years old. You and your homestead become a point on an agricultural timeline stretching behind and ahead of you. Stand tall in your overalls, just like John and Myrtie did.