Echoes From a Childhood Farm Visit
Have you ever noticed how one little sight or sound, or even smell, can instantly transport you into the center of a memory?
While driving home along a country road in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, yesterday afternoon, thinking of nothing but putting away the groceries, I caught a whiff of hay from a partially cut field, and suddenly I remembered being 12 years old in the summer of 1943, and camping out with my mother and three of my friends at a farm owned by my parents’ friends, Mr. and Mrs. Don DeForrest.
The DeForrests’ place contained a large stretch of forested land through which you had to ride on a quiet country road before reaching their level, arable acres spread out along upper Standing Stone Creek, three miles above its joining the historic Juniata River at the lower end of Huntingdon, near where an Oneida Indian village once stood.
Our Victorian house would have overlooked the actual spot had the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, often bearing troop trains in those days, not come between. Sometime in the 1930s, a dam with a wide sluiceway had been built across Standing Stone Creek. Every morning during the summers, lifeguards would come and drop wide, thick planks onto prepared ramps, closing the sluiceway so the water of Standing Stone Creek could deepen enough to make the best darned swimmin’ hole in Pennsylvania for us lucky youngsters in Huntingdon.
Most of my friends and I had brothers – and in my case also a sister – serving in the military, so as young as we were, like our parents, the war was very much with us.
The only good thing I could see about the war was, because of it, Mother and Dad had planted a one-acre Victory Garden at the DeForrests’ place, which required our going to the farm several evenings a week so Dad could tend the big garden, the harvesting of which would send Mother into weeks of canning food to feed us through the winter. (Like most country women, she always aimed for – and attained – a thousand Mason jars of good things to eat through the coming winter.)
It was while we were there tending the garden one evening that the DeForrests, dear, hospitable people they were, invited Mother and me and any friends I cared to bring along to spend a few days on the farm, where we could sleep in the old log barn’s hayloft. Mother, who had loved to fish since she’d been a little girl bending a safety pin into a hook at the end of a piece of string, was even more delighted at the prospect of a farm visit than I – and Jane, Kitty and Margie, the three friends I invited to share in the adventure.
The DeForrests’ log house – 150 years old if it was a day – sat on a knoll overlooking the creek. The big barn lay back from the creek a short way beyond the house.
The morning Dad drove us out to the farm before he went to work at the Huntingdon Reformatory where he taught printing to boys who had gotten a bad start in life, Mrs. DeForrest was waiting for us. She provided us with a battered farm table and some backless chairs, and she refrigerated the food we’d brought along to cook on the campfire, for which Mr. DeForrest had provided nice cured logs. Mother, her eyes shining in anticipation, helped us “set up housekeeping” before escaping to the creek with her fishing rod and can of bait. And four little girls who grumbled about dusting at home became excellent “barn-keepers.”
Each morning after breakfast, we swept the dusty floor, climbed into the haymow to straighten up our beds, washed dishes with water we hauled from the well, and picked bouquets of wildflowers – daisies, yarrow and honeysuckle – which we placed in a pickle jar and set on the table.
Around 10 every morning, when the mailman came, we walked to the road to get the mail, with 3-year-old Lee DeForrest, a nut-brown, blue-eyed, blond imp/angel, and his Border Collie, Boots, leading the way. Lee had three older siblings away in the service. With no children nearby to play with him, he was thrilled to have four girls around to make a fuss over him.
In the twilight, after the supper dishes were washed and put away, we would gather more wood and replenish our fire. By now, Mr. DeForrest, tired from working in the fields, would come out with his wife and Lee to tell us tales of the early days, when Indians camped beside Standing Stone Creek.
“I’ve plowed bushels of arrowheads, hatchets and bits o’ crockery out of these old fields, girlies,” he would say. “Still turn an arrowhead over now and again.”
We’d listen wide-eyed, and, later, lying on our blankets in the haymow, we’d hear the owls in the woods and think they must have called just like that when Indians inhabited the land. We terrified each other with ghost stories and agreed that Mother’s accounts of unexplainable happenings down in Smith Valley where she was born and raised were the best of all. And Jane would set us shrieking in feigned terror by standing along the barn wall, wide-eyed, with her flashlight pointed upwards under her chin, eerily lighting her unsmiling face.
Mr. and Mrs. DeForrest are gone now, along with a son they lost in the war and beautiful little Lee, who drowned in the creek a year after that magical summer. The barn has fallen into the soil, but the old log house still sits above the stream, haunted by the love, laughter and sometimes heartbreak of the sturdy families who lived there.
And, though the fields lie fallow, if you want to badly enough, you can still smell the newly mown hay.
Author Millie Baker Ragosta has written 13 romances for Doubleday’s Starlight Library Line as well as a weekly column, Baker’s Dozen, in Twin Circle for eight years. Her writings allowed her to help her 11 children go to college.
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