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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Twain Under the Farm Spell

Twain Under the Farm Spell

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Readers like to imagine Sam Clemens as a comic senior statesman and razor wit, parading about in a white suit, with a matching shock of white hair and abundant mustache, tossing droll quips and stories into the thick of a chortling audience. Performing and soaking in the adulation of both gentry and hoi-polloi at home, and of crowned heads and adoring multitudes abroad. But of course this was a persona he carefully crafted and publicly lived — this Mark Twain with the cigar and cap of a river pilot, tilting at the gaudy whirling windmills of his day with deadly aim and an unbounded but pokerfaced glee.

But in his greatest works — Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn — Twain offered a contrast and tension between town and countryside, between the web of deals and cons and bustle of activity that the modern world would call decidedly urban, and the hard-scrabble but quiet and ultimately nourishing living on farms.

There were four farms that touched Sam Clemens, rural locales that sustained and helped mold him, that reached from his beginnings through the decades of his greatest creative efforts. Two of them were real working farms, and two were mythical, even imaginary, although real influences even so.

Twain Under the Farm Spell

This is the caretaker John Lewis on Quarry Farm, who caught a runaway horse and buggy and rescued one of the young women of the family, Ida Langdon, while Twain and Crane watched from a distance in horror. As Twain reports, John Lewis “seized the gray horse’s bit as he plunged by & fetched him up standing.” Late August, 1877

The first was imaginary but in place before he arrived, an investment Sam’s father made mostly before his birth. John Marshall Clemens (1798-1847) made a series of purchases of land in eastern Tennessee that in time amounted to 70,000 acres, that he bought for a total of roughly $400. About 100 miles from Knoxville, in Fentress County, the land on the face of it may have seemed a savvy investment. Over 109 square miles, that cost him 6/10ths of a cent an acre, mostly poor and hilly and wooded, hardscrabble land that produced no income and lay untouched into the 1870s. John Marshall Clemens was a young practicing lawyer and shopkeeper with an aloof and unapproachable demeanor. Somehow between the two professions he always had trouble scraping together a living. Yet he expected the land to provide for his family in the years to come. In his vision the country would sooner or later be overrun with immigrants who would need land for homesteads and livelihoods. Young Sam’s earliest memories include his father’s imaginings about how this land would make them rich. As Twain’s Autobiography reports, his father had said: “Whatever befalls me, my heirs are secure; I shall not live to see these acres turn to silver and gold, but my children will.” There followed Sam’s conclusions: “Thus, with the very kindest intentions in the world toward us, he laid the heavy curse of prospective wealth upon our shoulders. He went to his grave in the full belief that he had done us a kindness. It was a woeful mistake, but fortunately he never knew it.” The family’s pius tradition was that John Marshall Clemens made them swear on his deathbed that they would never sell the land. When he died unexpectedly of pneumonia in March of 1847, Sam was eleven. The boy promptly quit school to be an errand boy and apprentice typesetter, to provide income to help keep the family going.

When the family eventually tried to sell the land (Sam was still paying the taxes on the Tennessee land through the 1870s, and was still trying to sell the last of it in 1882), they found a tangle of faulty surveys and conflicting deeds. The Clemens family’s mixed blessing on this Tennessee land was not an uncommon predicament. The buying and selling of land in the first century of the American experiment entailed considerable risk of carelessness and duplicity in the surveying, deeding and transfer. Many land parcels lay unoccupied and unworked in the back country, so that the same land might be sold several times over, often used as collateral, with an unhappy surprise waiting to be discovered years later, to be settled in the courts. Abraham Lincoln’s father Thomas moved his family twice due to disputes over confused or fraudulent deeds, on farms in both Kentucky and Indiana. One of the reasons later immigrants to the western states so readily bought land from the railroads was that at least their surveyors were trusted. Prospective buyers learned the hard way, after building, fencing and planting, then being run off by the sheriff, that they needed to know they would receive a clear and uncontested title to the land they bought.

The young Clemens family had moved west from Kentucky to Florida, Missouri, arriving just in time for Sam to be born, on November 30, 1835. Jane Clemens had followed her sister Patsy Quarles and her family west, after the Quarles family had come to Florida the previous year and their glowing letters spoke of the region’s positive opportunities. Here Sam was to experience the first real farm of his life. His mother’s sister Patsy had married John Quarles, and it was their farm that Sam visited throughout his earliest years. Even after the Clemens family moved a dozen miles away to the larger river town of Hannibal, the Quarles farm was where he spent summers, between the ages of 7 and 12, with visits into his 20s. John Quarles had set up a general store in the tiny but promising hamlet of Florida, but also had a farm several miles outside town. The farm included an orchard, with hickory and black walnut trees, and tobacco and corn fields. The farm had a double log cabin, two identical buildings with a planked and covered breezeway between, where the table would be set for summer meals. It was here that the children got to know the rural facts of life, about cash crops and sustenance, tobacco and corn, chickens, cattle and hogs, which also included a fairly benign introduction to slavery. As Twain wrote in his Autobiography, “It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for the (black) race and my appreciation of its fine qualities.” This appreciation was honed on the nightly storytelling of Uncle Dan’l, the patriarch of the slaves on the place. Both children and grownups would gather for his tales, many of which had become favorites the little ones would demand by name. Twain was to credit this man for much of his success as a storyteller, and his warm and wise nature was the model for Jim, the runaway slave who befriends Huck in Huckleberry Finn.

But now we need to leap over some of Clemens’ most formative years, past his father’s struggles with business and his untimely death, past Clemens’ brief and colorful career as a riverboat pilot, his travels west to avoid the Civil War and explore frontier towns and Gold Rush mining camps, culminating in the discovery and refinement of his skills as a comic writer, storyteller and public performer in San Francisco. The third farm was to be another largely imaginary affair, where Twain settled after wooing and marrying Olivia Langdon in 1870. Olivia was the protected daughter of a wealthy family who after initial skepticism took Sam Clemens to their bosom. The newlyweds were first given a house in Buffalo, New York by Olivia’s wealthy father, which dovetailed with a one-third interest Twain purchased in the Buffalo Express. But within a year he had lost interest in the newspaper, and after the death of Twain’s father-in-law Jervis Langdon, he sold both the house and the newspaper investment, and moved to Hartford, to be closer to Olivia’s widowed mother and her family. They rented a house in a Hartford neighborhood known as Nook Farm, which had been a farm but was now a gathering of genteel residences, the Victorian equivalent of a wealthy suburb. The house they rented from the Hooker family was quickly nicknamed Nook Barn, although there was nothing particularly nook-like or farm-like about it. By now Twain was on display as a well-known writer and public figure, at the heart of a prosperous and socially ambitious community. It was here that the Clemens family settled, bought land and began construction of a show place on Farmington Avenue. One of his near neighbors was Charles Dudley Warner, the scholarly friend who would co-author Twain’s satiric first novel, The Gilded Age, the two of them writing alternative chapters. The educated and influential society Twain collected around him fed his ego, and helped him hue to the attributes of a loving husband and parent, but couldn’t help but cramp his writing style. The irreverent rascal and social critic that lay at the core of his best writing needed room and solitude to ferment, then let the words flow.

Then in the summer of 1872 he and his family went to spend the warm months with his widowed mother-in-law and her family in Elmira, New York. In particular Twain and Olivia were drawn to her adopted sister Susan Crane and her husband Theodore Crane, who had been Jervis Langdon’s office manager and head clerk. From her father, Susan had inherited a working dairy farm in the hills overlooking Elmira, called Quarry Farm, for the abandoned stone quarry on its high ground. There the busy distracting world could be kept at bay, and frail Olivia could receive welcome help caring for her young children. Following that first summer, for the next 18 years Twain and his family returned every year to spend as much time as they could with the Cranes. The Cranes soon remodeled their house, adding more bedrooms and space for their regular visitors, and in 1874 Susan had an octagonal studio built for Twain. Designed to resemble the pilothouse on a steamboat, it was situated up a fieldstone path two hundred yards from the house, on high ground with a commanding view of Elmira and the green hills all around. There the writer would retreat after a light breakfast, and work through the day, routinely skipping lunch, though he smoked an average of 18 and occasionally as many as 30 cigars a day, of the cheap brand he favored, away from disapproving womenfolk. Then late in the day he would come downhill for supper and time with the little ones. The Cranes seemed to offer the Clemens family just the right balance of attention, affection, protection, space and privacy, which allowed Twain to get much of his best work done. It was at the pilothouse on Quarry Farm that he was to complete Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old (1875), Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884-5), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and the Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).

Huckleberry Finn was to prove a watershed in Twain’s life and work, and writing it called for all the resources of his Quarry Farm retreat. As with Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi, he hit a bump midway through the book that forced him to set it aside. He worked on the book for parts of seven years, and at one point for over a year he turned to other, lesser projects. The writer could not get past a self-imposed hurdle, which occurs when the steamboat runs over the raft in the dark, at the end of Chapter 16. Huck and Jim are separated, and get stuck ashore in the hellish crossfire between two feuding rural Kentucky clans. What happened to Twain? Maybe the story just got too dark and bloody, too serious for a comedy about village outcasts on the run. But when he was able to get back to work at Quarry Farm the following summer, he rediscovered the raft out the other side of the mayhem of the feud, and reunited the two fugitives. The beginning of Chapter 19 offers the most idyllic passage in the book, with the days and nights on the raft seeming to open out into an almost heavenly panorama, as “they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely.” The pair tie up in the daytime and run down the river in the dark, though always potentially deeper into trouble, deeper into the slave states of the South, as always both lulled and seduced by the irresistible draw of the river. Yet Twain’s instinct unerringly led him to make the story darker and more menacing to Huck and Jim, with the entry of the King and the Duke. These parasitic conmen will finally steer the story away from the river, and run it aground. Ashore Huck will be forced to revert to the childish, bookish games of Tom Sawyer, that trivialize and dismiss what had really been at stake for the two fugitive friends.

And beyond that book Twain slowly moved on, to another, more overtly dark treatise, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s mind was endlessly fascinated by inventions, by the burgeoning technology of his day. His greatest failure as a provider was on a par with his father’s dream of the Tennessee land, when he risked nearly everything on an investment in a typesetting machine. Publishing was a business he fancied he knew all about, as journeyman printer, then as writer and publisher, and he was excited by the possibilities of the Page Typesetting machine, and kept pouring good money after bad until there was nothing left.

Which led him back to the lecture tour to raise money. In his life Twain travels like Huck does, bedeviled by qualms and guilty purposes, never quite at ease where he is, except on the raft where he can invisibly slip past trouble. It is telling that Twain never went back to his job as a riverboat pilot after the Civil War. His excuse was that he would have to relearn the river, which after all would have changed immeasurably in his years away from it. But it was in part an admission to himself that he might never have been all that good at it, and was meant for other pursuits anyhow.

Which never included farming. Idyllic as the setting was, we shouldn’t imagine Twain milking cows on Quarry Farm every summer. Though he liked dogs and kittens, he was no son of the soil. Seeking more regular exercise at Quarry Farm in the summer of 1884 he tried to learn how to ride a bicycle, of the high-front-wheel style then popular, but after one hard crash he thought better of it. As he said, the farm’s hills were too “long & steep” for such contraptions.

Twain Under the Farm Spell

Maybe he just needed the “farm” notion somehow linked to his lifelong enterprise. It is clear that the rural setting and repose offered at Quarry Farm allowed him the freedom to invent, spin out and revise his tales. Some critics have accused him of allowing his readers to indulge in nostalgia, a yearning for times past, but that dismissal is too easy and inexact. Twain had a fierce countervailing urge to never allow readers to conveniently whitewash their remembered history. The linked stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are set in a quintessentially American village modeled on Hannibal, Missouri, not set in some idyllic distant time, but in a hard time he knew well, where slavery still reigned, where life was often short, uncertain and violent. It was a world of dubious law and order, where mobs for better and worse might hold momentary sway, where hucksters and conmen like the King and the Duke preyed on the innocent and gullible.

Twain’s lifetime was one of dizzying change. In 1840, when he was five years old, the country’s total population was 17, 063, 353, in 26 states, of which 10.8% was urban (defined by the Census as living in places with 2,500 or more inhabitants), and 89.2% was rural. By the time he died in 1910, the population had grown to 92,228,496, with 45.6% urban and 54.4% rural. In the spring of 1882 in order to stir up his memories for his two stalled projects, Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn, Twain took a riverboat tour of the Mississippi River, from St. Louis south to New Orleans, then north to Minneapolis / Saint Paul. He mentions the clamor and noise of the trains, their triumphant whistles all along the great river. By comparison to when he had been a riverboat pilot (1858-1861), the Mississippi and its tributaries had since become a sleepy commercial backwater. When Twain was young, steamboats on the Mississippi had been the main tool in opening and developing the frontier, settling and knitting up the country’s heartland.

Students of American literature have reason to be thankful to Susan and Ted Crane for the steadfast offer of a summer retreat to Mark Twain and his family on their farm, for the long and illustrious list of works he completed there. Mark Twain’s genius was as a homespun humorist, both on the page and in person. Though the trappings of success and his wife’s family drew him inevitably into the circles of the wealthy and powerful, he was to feel a lifelong affinity for the low frontier life he came from, and always at heart remained a playful social critic who could skewer hypocrisy and cant in all its forms. The Quarry Farm buildings outside Elmira are now open as a museum, and the octagonal pilothouse where Twain wrote has been moved to the grounds of Elmira College, where visitors are welcome. The place probably still smells faintly of those endless cheap cigars.

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

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We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

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Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Of Peace and Quiet

LittleField Notes: Of Peace and Quiet

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Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet.

Cabbage

Cabbage

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Cabbage is the most important vegetable commercially of the cole crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard, broccoli, and many others. It also ranks as one of the most important of all vegetable crops and is universally cultivated as a garden, truck and general farm crop. The market for cabbage, like that for potatoes, is continuous throughout the year, and this tends to make it one of the staple vegetables.

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Bamboo A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

Bamboo: A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

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The bamboos are gaining increased attention as an alternative crop with multiple uses and benefits: 1) domestic use around the farm (e.g., vegetable stakes, trellis poles, shade laths); 2) commercial production for use in construction, food, and the arts (e.g., concrete reinforcement, fishing poles, furniture, crafts, edible bamboo shoots, musical instruments); and 3) ornamental, landscape, and conservation uses (e.g., specimen plants, screens, hedges, riparian buffer zone).

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

What We've Learned From Compost

What We’ve Learned From Compost

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Our compost piles will age for at least a year before being added to the garden. We have learned that the slow aging is more beneficial to the decomposition process as well as not losing nearly as much nitrogen to off-gassing as happens with the hot and fast methods. Another benefit is the decomposition is much more thorough, destroying weed seeds, pathogens and any unwanted chemicals much better in a slower composting setup.

Apple Cider Autumns Nectar

Apple Cider, Autumn’s Nectar

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While autumn’s beauty is food for our souls, autumn’s harvest provides food for our tables. Along with the many hours and days of canning and freezing our garden produce, harvest time also means apple cider making for our family. We have been making apple cider, or sweet cider as it is commonly called, for six years. Beginning slowly, the demand for our juice has resulted in a production of over six hundred gallons this year.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT