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William, Lucy & Molly are going to take a break from their weekly correspondence with us this winter. We have received more than 70 “letters from a small corner of far away” over the last year and a half! Winter is the perfect time to step back, assess, reassess, take a nap and recharge.

We started this newsletter as a covid distraction when lockdowns began, and with that farmer superpower of SEEING WHAT NEEDS DONE & CHIPPING IN, mild-mannered William Castle saved the day when he offered to share his weekly doings with all of us, turning what might have been an ordinary email into something super. We are so grateful for William’s effort and dedication to the Home & Shop Companion, and look forward to catching up in the spring.

So, if we want to keep this thing going in the meantime, we have some big shoes to fill. Luckily, we also have a big stack of Journals going way back, and from the beginning there were the recurring ramblings of an observant and insightful writer, Ralph Miller, who also happened to be editor Lynn Miller’s dad. The intention is to share these while William sabbaticals.

The following article is from the very first Small Farmer’s Journal, Winter 1976.

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The little boy in this photo is Ralph Miller, the author (Dad to me), and the gentleman in the cap is his father, Everett Miller (my grandfather), on the farm in Wisconsin. LRM

Rural Ramblings
Ralph C. Miller

The small farm – the family farm – to countless Americans those words must evoke a scene behind a mailbox somewhere back down Memory Lane, a dim reminder of a place of beginnings. After all, the statistics of those who have left the homestead for the dubious joys of the city in the last 40 or 50 years are staggering. Hardly a week goes by but some self-styled “expert” tries to slam the coffin lid on the small farm in America.

The corpse, fortunately, will not lie quietly. The Small Farmer is by nature and tradition a fighter, a gambler, a maverick who refuses to knuckle under. He or his antecedents arrived on this continent dissatisfied with the place and conditions left behind. Along with weather, pests, and the ever-present uncertainties peculiar to farming, here were Indians, the whims of the King’s Ministers, overcrowding by new arrivals and the harsh realities of a new land – they barely broke stride. They went over mountains, across rivers and prairies to every part of this vast country in a matter of generations.

They are still fighting – thank you – and if the opponents have altered, the nature of the farmer has changed very little in any but the externals. One man’s faith in that was put to the test and wound up considerably strengthened last fall. With my Life Partner of some thirty odd years in her accustomed navigator’s seat we embarked on a 9600-mile motor trip for one more look around.

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Here is Ralph again on the right side and his sister, Jeanne, with the trusted farm team. It is teams such as this one that were the vital backbone of the small farm before internal combustion became king.

We traveled through 29 states and the District of Columbia in about six weeks. The Bicentennial figured in, of course, and I can’t pretend that we were on anything as definite as an evaluation of the Family Farm. Down at ground level, however, and ‘moseying along’ at 55 or under, this old Country Boy looks at country – at farming country (cities I just put up with).

We left Oregon in late September ’75, crossed the Northern Rim to Minnesota and Wisconsin, down around to the Ohio Valley, then through Pennsylvania and upstate New York into New England as far as the middle of Maine. We followed the coast south to Jacksonville in North Carolina where we struck west again across the Appalachians. What I said – 29 States.

Impressions? In the main, the West and the Midwest gave me a feeling of a healthy, tough attitude, a sense of permanence. That’s a generalization and there were some abandoned places, sometimes lumped into larger operations, and some of the Farmers, like some of the buildings, may have been a little past their prime, but by no means a majority. With any kind of break in weather, market and ‘Gummint’ regulations, most are there to stay.

I apologize for saying it, but to me the East seemed spotty. Some areas still looked good, others farmed out, overrun by development, or abandoned and gone back to jungle. Around and near the largest cities seemed the worst. Urban blight spreads pretty far. In defense of the East I have to say that Lancaster County in Pennsylvania is probably the most heartwarming sight to me of any single area we saw. That may be partly prejudice as some of the family came from there a couple of hundred years ago. There’s still people around there named Miller – some – not more than 25 per cent to judge from the names on the mailboxes. Then, too, quite a few of them are horse farmers. When I get behind some Pennsylvania Dutch frau dawdling along with her horse and buggy, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning.

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Cousins Orville Holcomb and Ralph Miller at Orville’s farm near Reedstown, Wisconsin. This farm has been in the family since 1856.

A Bicentennial note or two here. I didn’t see anything of that field below Bunker Hill, but the one where General Arnold, Colonel Dan Morgan and the other Continentals and militia drove the Hessians back at Saratoga had a good hay crop last year. The wheat field of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg grew corn in ’75. I didn’t see any Indians, but the woods grow right up to the James and the York on the peninsula around Jamestown much as it must have in 1608. And for the culinary-minded, the flavor of country-cured ham and peanut pie is just as I remembered it; probably hasn’t changed much there in tidewater Virginia since the Widow Custis (she that was Martha Dandridge) married that young fellow from up on the Potamac.

I hadn’t been in North Carolina in over thirty years, but I was much impressed. I liked the whole state, but particularly the Piedmont. There’s a resurgence there that was lacking for me in some states. Tennessee and the Bluegrass state looked good, as did Missouri, but I was a little disappointed in southern Illinois and in Kansas. (I have lived in Kansas.) Big farms and corporate farming may raise more crops, although their efficiency in the long run is debatable, but there is no question in my mind that the settled areas of Family Farms are more attractive.

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Orville Holcomb’s farm.

These were impressions gleaned from travelling through. I did visit some farms in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, but they were personal – roots, old roots. The farm where I was born is now inside the city limits and cut into small plots including a motel.

On my uncle’s farm (the one Grandpa Miller had), all the cows were gone, although he still lived there. He had to give up milking them three years ago when he had a heart attack. He hated to quit as he was only 82 at the time.

On a ridge in southern Wisconsin I spent a couple of days on 160 acres that were homesteaded by my mother’s grandfather, John, over 125 years ago. A second cousin still farms it. In the hills above the Muskingum River in Ohio I spent some time running down an old place and locating the grave of John’s father, Jacob. On the eastern bank of the Delaware there is a stone house on a farm still in use. It was built in 1733 by Jacob’s grandfather.

Although there is continuity and singleness of purpose at times in the farming community, that is not really pertinent. After all, some left farms and rural communities with traditions infinitely older to come here. The important thing, then as now, was not the tradition but the spirit. There are newcomers, seekers, young folks today who are as much in accord with the spirit of those earliest settlers as those born to it. Sometimes more so because they are looking for an answer to some need within them and not because they have inherited a farm.

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The author is the little boy on the right. “Mom’s” on the fork. A neighbor lady is on the wagon.

There is a line from a song that says, “I did it my way.” That may be possibly the biggest single reason why so many are still hanging on and an ever-increasing number are moving back to the country. Independence of spirit is admirable; tradition, resourcefulness and confidence in one’s ability to improvise may be all you need to carry you through, but for someone from the city or from a different culture, a well intentioned word of advice may be invaluable. No matter how ignorant or different you find some of the newcomers, if you are an old hand, reach out. John and Jacob, Elijah and Samuel were all newcomers once someplace; they had to start somewhere. The Small Farmer has enough enemies; he needs all the friends he can get.

Home and Shop Companion 0096

Home and Shop Companion 0096