A good life well recalled

Growing up on an Illinois farm

The dewy-eyed farm memoir is by now a discredited genre but nostalgic farm folk and wannabe urbanites apparently eat these stories with a big spoon. Countryfarm Lifestyles (“a country living website for homesteading, self sufficient living and the good life”) offers compilations of such trifles as “Aunt Ruth and the Ginger Snap Cookie Incident.” Other versions of the type include love poems to favorite tractor brands and homilies on the pleasures of the outhouse.

It thus was a skeptical James Krohe Jr. who picked up a review copy of Alan Guebert’s new book recalling the farm of his youth. Guebert, having labored with distinction as a journalist, editor and commentator for the quality farm press, in 1993 began syndicating his own weekly column called “The Farm and Food File.” In his columns he often recalled growing up on Indian Farm, an 800-acre, 100-cow grain and dairy farm in the bottomland of Randolph County. The best of these pieces have just been collected as The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey and published by the University of Illinois Press.

Don’t get me wrong. While Guebert does not shrink from the sentimental – his Christmas tribute to the farm’s longtime dairyman is a model memoir of the moist-eyed sort – he also does not shrink from explaining why he chose to not follow in his farmer-father’s footsteps. A field once harrowed and planted and fertilized stays that way; cows have to be milked twice every day, plus fed, and stalls cleaned out, and that still leaves planting, harvesting and processing the plants that feed them. Getting it all done was sweaty, dangerous and monotonous. One spring, back home from a hiatus from the U of I, Guebert “toted, emptied, and then planted twenty-two tons of dry fertilizer, one fifty-pound sack at a time.”
Most readers will learn a lot from this slim volume about farming they probably didn’t know, from the welcome advance of farm technology to the lifestyles of hired men. They will also learn a whole lot about the Gueberts, who seem to be people most people probably would have liked to know.

One such is the Uncle Honey of the title, Guebert’s uncle Lorenz. A partner in the farm, this retired milkman was gentle, quiet, unpretentious, imperturbable by calamity, which he usually brought on himself when behind the wheel of motorized vehicles of all sorts, as when he plowed up a mature pear tree. Uncle Honey left an indelible impression on the young Guebert, but then, as he puts it, “It’s impossible to forget the explosion made by a silage blower when its paddles, roaring at 2,000 rpm, attempt to eat a crowbar Uncle Honey had mislaid on the unloading apron of a silage wagon.”

Our real hero is Guebert the author, whose own coming of age is recalled here. Nothing Guebert writes makes me any less certain that in most ways a farm is the best place to grow up. The things he and his siblings missed were pleasures, and thus unimportant. All the things they were obliged to do – master complex machinery at an age when city kids aren’t even allowed to cross a street, take responsibility for the well-being of living creatures, learn how to work cooperatively, spend time in the company of older if not always wiser men – are very important indeed.

When there wasn’t any work in the fields or dairy, the young Gueberts would butcher chickens, make peach butter, dig potatoes, paint outbuildings or can up all the vegetables and fruit they grew on the farm that fed the eight family members and the help all winter. The last was a small farm operation by itself; a hundred quarts of peaches was a typical haul from the orchard.
Not just work, in short, but useful work. Life on Indian Farm also was rich in incident and character and ritual, big meals and family Fourths of July, prayers every evening and church every Sunday and watching the Cardinals on TV, all brought back to life here by an expert anecdotalist. The proof of a boyhood is the man, and if we can trust a loving epilogue by Guebert’s daughter and editor, the man turned out to be a good one.

Collected columns are probably best read the same way they were published, one at a time. Still, finishing it left me with an appetite to visit his website to read what he has to say on agricultural policy. No higher compliment can be paid a writer.

Note: I am told that Mr. Guebert will be in the area over the next week or so, signing books and accepting compliments. Look for him at Our Town Books in Jacksonville (June 4, 7-9 p.m.), Prairie Archives in Springfield (June 4, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.), Union Hall in Bloomington (June 11, 6:30-8:30 p.m.) and Neverending Story Bookstore in Havana (June 13, 1-3 p.m.).

Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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