Home and Shop Companion 0131
Home and Shop Companion 0131

Rural Ramblings – Spring 1982
Ralph C. Miller

“If you ain’t got your health, well you ain’t got nothin’,” is a popular if inelegant phrasing of a common lament that applies to this old Rambler all too frequently. My current ailments are relatively minor and hardly worth mentioning. They will be most readily appreciated by those over 65 who contend chronically with phlebitis, arthritis – and gluttony.

That leads into the path we’re following at the moment. I’ve been 15-25 pounds overweight (according to doctors and actuaries, if you want to take their word for it) for most of my adult life. I certainly can’t blame it on my beautiful wife since she works very hard to balance and control my diet; still she does compound my lack of “won’t power” by being a most delectable cook – delicious food too. Spanish, Italian, Mexican, Chinese – Southern, yes, indeed – she brings her own inimitable touch to every style.

There is one other characteristic she providencially shares with a great many of her sisters across the land… she can’t stand to waste anything. Given the combination of a love of cooking for appreciative palates and a conscientious desire to hold down Friend Husband’s overeager appetite, she accumulates leftovers – which are often even better the second time around.

For variety many of these find their way into what she has learned to call “Rummage Stew.” As will be imagined that can include most anything handy and as a point to this somewhat aimless meander it has occurred to me that this column, like most of them, could just as well be termed that way – “Rummage Stew.” May I hope it turns out as well as hers always does.

The stock for her soup may be poultry, beef, ham or lamb, but meat or meats; our meat as usual is a trip. When we wrote the last column we were at home in Oregon. At the moment we are here on the farm in Florida. 3,000 plus miles to the extreme southeast. Add to that several hundred more occasioned by another twinge of nostalgia as we wandered back down the lane of my childhood memories in fruitless search for things that no longer exist outside those recollections.

With a little coaching from the National Weather Service, Mother Nature provided us with mostly unseasonable, beautiful weather the last week in October and into November. So pleasant that we dared edge north a bit across Washington, Idaho, Montana, Dakota, and Minnesota into Wisconsin. For that time of year it was really magnificent; crisp, clear, nights and warm sunny days, but I kept looking over my shoulder for one of those “Blue Northers” out of Canada that I remember from my youth. Of course, they have come – and with a vengeance we hear, but by that time we were far down here.

A couple of our favorite ladies (in our extended family), and along with a lot of other people, have lately ventured into real estate and found that in these times you earn all you make in that field. They weren’t around for the biggest deals in this country but like all of us they were affected by them.

I don’t know who the agent was who closed the deal on Manhattan Island with Peter Minuit, but there wasn’t a very big commission to take back to the office. Of course, the sellers were Naragansett Indians who just happened to be down there vacationing, so the title was a little cloudy. Yes, and we’ve discovered since that the $24 was down payment – just bait, and we’re still paying for it.

Secretary Seward bought Alaska from some people whose territorial claims were mostly based on the number of furs they had stolen from the natives, but in those days that was counted as legitimate proof of ownership. That turned out to be a bargain even with cost overruns on the pipeline.

The best and biggest deal was the one Tom Jefferson got in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase came backed up by the cannons of the one-time Corsican Corporal. Napoleon didn’t think of it as selling something – just putting it in escrow. At the time his ambitions included taking over all of America just as soon as he had disposed of Europe and Africa. Fortunately for us, megalomania is often self-defeating and his timetable was derailed somewhere around Waterloo.

As to what all this has to do with our present “stew;” well, everytime I go a-wandering through that particular section of the west I think about Meriwether Lewis, about William Clark, John Colter, Charboneau, Sacajawea and the boy Pompey born on the trail. I wonder how many of us speeding down the interstate or even those on the farms and ranches along the way give much thought to what a really incredible and arduous trek that must have been.

This trip crossed that of Lewis and Clark a few times; followed it along the Clark, the Madison and Jefferson Rivers, among others. On occasion I’ve been over a great part of their trail – up and down the Snake, the Clearwater, and the Columbia. I’ve been up on Camus Prairie where they raise 6-row barley. I’ve crisscrossed the country of the Palouse, where those incredible wheat crops have been raised for so many years. I know the Plateau of the Nez Perce below Idaho’s Bitteroot Mountains where Chinese worked the mining camps (and where Sacajawea found the family and people from whom she had been stolen as a child).

The Roche Jaune (is that how you spell yellow in French?) named by Charboneau and his fellow French trappers for the mighty ocher colored canyon through which it flowed is today our Yellowstone denoting the tremendous park and a huge area drained by that river and its tributaries. There’s a Lewis River, too, and the Gallitin, after a Secretary in Jefferson’s cabinet. And then there’s the big daddy of them all – Big Muddy – the mighty Missouri.

It’s big country today, too big for mere words, but what it must have been in 1804 and 1805! Buffalo as far as they could see, antelope, wild sheep in the mountains and the biggest, most savage animals then roaming what would be part of the United States – the Grizzly Bear!

Indians everywhere then too, from the Otoes of the lower Missouri through the Mandan Sioux, the Dakotah, the Pieds Noir or Blackfeet, the Absaroka who had taken the young Sacajawea on a raid. They, the expedition, got horses from her tribe and for probably the first time white men learned of that peculiar animal with the white and spotted blanket across the hind quarters. I guess the Appaloosa is the most American of breeds, even more so than the Morgan, since it derives from the herds of native Americans.

This country purchased by Jefferson and opened, explored by the President’s Secretary and George Rogers Clark’s young brother “Billy” was just that – a whole country – and more; almost vast enough to be a continent and offered riches untold. Minerals, petroleum, lumber, fish and game, furs; and greater than all these – the land itself – for the wealth of Barons, the commerce of great cities and not the least, for ranches and farms. To this day this great area feeds not only a big part of this nation but of the world as well.

Well, we sampled some of it, fresh and cooked. Delicious melons near Umatilla and Boardman in eastern Oregon. Our favorite pizza from the restaurant in Coeur d’Alene where we always somehow seem to make a stop. There was an excellent and colorful Japanese Garden restaurant in Billings, Montana where they did marvelous things with Pacific shrimp and western beef. In a small town east of Bismarck we asked about the best place for pancakes. We found them as directed but couldn’t eat nearly all of them. Stacked three high and feather light, they covered a nine inch plate almost exactly.

Except for some fine Chinese food in a place outside the Twin Cities, the fixin’s there were mainly American in origin, notably those apple treats purchased in the huge commercial orchard near White Bear Lake. (I’m gaining weight just writing about food. Let’s change the subject.)

After an eminently satisfactory visit with brother Dale and his family we crossed the St. Croix into Wisconsin at the Dalles, en route to Uncle Ephram’s farm near Frederic. He can no longer do his own farming and leases it out. He is frail and largely confined to a wheelchair, has trouble speaking (he’s about 87 and has had several strokes), but his grip is firm, he’s alert and still likes his joke. He’s the last of the whole generation that preceded mine and I hate to think of letting him go one day.

Home – the part of the state where I was born is altered almost beyond my recollection, but that’s a private sorrow and irrelevant to this column. What is of concern is how little farming goes on in what was once a functioning agricultural community. I’ve some cousins there who raise part of their own meat and produce while making most of their livelihood from other sources. I doubt that the area will ever get back to supporting viable farms. Resorts, recreation and forest products are more suitable that far north. The soil is marginal for farming, at this point, anyway.

Just 40 miles south, however, we were back in the farm belt that the state is famous for. Wisconsin still has those clean, functional dairies that have always warmed my heart’s cockles. They raise beef cattle now in greater numbers than I ever remember and boast a large number of combination and diversified farms – the barns and especially the silos, make me want to warble like a meadowlark.

After a foggy, rainy night’s visit with relatives in Milwaukee (ate too much again), we were rolling south and soon struggling with morning traffic down the heart of Chicago. With apologies to the late Carl Sandburg, I don’t think it is still “hog butcher to the world;” but it IS a big, swaggering, sprawling, shoving industrial giant (with all the ills inherent in such).

I never drive through it without recalling my Grandfather’s oft-repeated story of helping his brother drive the family livestock through Chicago’s streets – behind the family wagon loaded with all their earthly possessions, not to mention hopes, on the way from Indiana to southwestern Wisconsin. That was 1856. I can’t help wondering how many descendants of mine may travel that route in another 125 years.

A very brief stop in Indianapolis to remember the winter we spent there, then on south through Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta… It’s almost as easy as driving down that country today as it is to write of it – almost. When the weather is that good and driving that easy I enjoy that portion of the country immensely. It is gorgeous any time, but about the first week in November the fall foliage is turning on down through the mid-south. Not as spectacular as the one in New England and the northern tier of states, it is still a show worth seeing. Instead of red and orange it is mostly russet, copper and gold laced with still rich greens.

I’ve been through these parts before but somehow always just missed Chattanooga. I’m glad this trip included it. I’ve studied many of the Civil War campaigns and visited the sites and never have I encountered one that lay so open and so readily apparent by reason of terrain and topography. This is not a treatise on that struggle; neither does Chattanooga need my approbation, but I have to enter it on the rolls of my favorite towns at least on short acquaintance.

They brag there about being able to see seven states from Lookout Mountain. The metropolitan area reaches into three of them, but it is definitely Tennessean in flavor rather than that of Georgia or Alabama. Oddly enough, Tennessee never seems to me as deliberately “southern” as even Kentucky which lies immediately to the north. Of course, no one would ever mistake it for Yankee land, either. It has a feel that is unique to itself – can’t help wondering if that is engendered by those early pioneers who set it up as the independant Republic of “Franklin” way back there about the time of the revolution.

Leaving Chattanooga, we were already in Georgia, a fine state noted for peaches, peanuts and peanut farmers. What I like the least about Georgia is Atlanta. Like Houston, Atlanta has become too “Yankified” as we southerners might say. Too much bustle and stir. I like my south where they rock in cane chairs on wide verandas – “you all with that southern drawl” – where they dine on hush puppies, cornbread and black-eyed peas, hog jowls and turnip greens – “and that’s what I like about the south” – thank you, Phil Harris.

That’s Georgia, but it isn’t Atlanta; at least, not to me. I think even Scarlett might be disappointed. Maybe Georgia has been in the spotlight too much lately. I think they might be happier with a little of that “benign neglect” politicians speak of. Good farming country though and not to be judged by prejudice or adverse publicity.

Home and Shop Companion 0131

So here we are on the farm in Starke again. The cattle are fat. They still have a couple of goats (including Buddy, the young billy we bottle-raised last winter); the land clearing and grass seeding are proceeding. I’ve added new doors to the barn, cemented the floor, built a couple of hay wagons and have a few more such chores in prospect.

Nearby, our friends, J.R. Wainwright and Homer Hart struggle with the problems plaguing farmers everywhere; the skyrocketing costs of seed, fertilizer and fossil fuels and the depressed market for crops and cattle. A lot of talk of parity but “if a free market had floated to the level that farm costs have increased – to a like percent – and if the farmer had gotten his share instead of it all being gobbled up by the processor, the distributor, the speculator and other middlemen, then he (and the whole country) would be a lot more stable.” This opinion expressed and bedeviled by us on frequent occasions.

Occasions like the only still existing Pecan auction in the world held at J.R.’s Farmer’s Market in Starke on specified Thursdays from mid-November through mid-January. Crop is mixed, prices mediocre to weak. That’s the verdict from my expert, J.R. The auction is open to the public on consignment. Wainwright Farms and the market buys a little but mostly the buyers are housewives, small shopkeepers and the like, looking for 20 to 100 pounds or so.

J.R.’s capacity is now largely advisory, or so he says, letting his sons do the actual managing. I doubt if anything gets by him, however. Very little in all of Bradford County goes on that he’s not aware of.

I could tell you of the tons of produce they raised this year, in addition to the cattle and hay – cucumbers, cauliflower, corn, turnips and the like, including eggplant – thousands of bushels of eggplant on few acres and thereby we get to a source of great satisfaction to this old Rambler. I’ve been working on him, have had him reading the Small Farmer’s Journal and when the crop, the eggplant, got too big and the ground too wet and soft that they couldn’t get in with a tractor, he went out and bought one of only three harness mules still in this area.

All of those eggplants were worked and cultivated by mule power. For what it’s worth, he now says if he were a young man he’d be buying up some of these fat and relatively useless riding mares, get him a Mammoth Jack and go back to raising mules. Feels they could have a future down here as well as a past. Sound like anyone you know?

We’re not up to our armpits in draft animals yet in this country but it is heartening. In pastures along the road in Wisconsin, I noted some fine Belgians. On the same farm (Greenlee?) in the south edge of Indianapolis, I saw the team I mentioned in this column in ’77. Grade Percherons, I think, but they could have Shire blood. I was too far away to tell. I’m pleased with signs of growth.

Speaking of that, haven’t I read that the recent census found the number of farms and farmers slightly on the upswing for the first time in decades? I guess there’s good news and bad news – isn’t that how they say it? Prognostications out of Washington are gloomy, to say the least.

However, as a friend of mine used to put it, “Cheer up, things are never so bad they can’t be worse – and they’re bound to get worse before they get better.” Isn’t that a happy note to close on? Especially when it’s pretty close to the truth. Survival is the keynote here, I guess. If you are on a small farm, a garden, a beef animal, chickens, a pig or even a fish pond may help tide you over. Put them all together and you might try a “Rummage Stew.” I recommend it. Good eating!

Home and Shop Companion 0131

Home and Shop Companion 0131