The Grapes of
On Burr Road, Part 2
We called it the Burr Road place—that tiny farm not three miles down the road—where we settled next. It was our "compromise farm," not big enough for a herd of milk cows, but better than not owning land at all. Mom and the girls appreciated the luxury of electricity and plumbing in the small but comfortable two-story house, and Dad was happy with the empty barn where we could keep a milk cow and a few more animals. As far as we children were concerned, it was almost too good to be true—the stately Maple trees where swings could be hung, the lilacs and shrubs round about the house, the sweet little stream just right for wading, with a miniature wooden bridge crossing it, and the nearby barn and woods. And it was all our own!
The grownups regretted having to use up $8,500 for the purchase, nearly wiping out our carefully saved Dairy Farm Fund. Yet it wasn't the purchase of the farm that troubled them the most. It was the new John Deere tractor, most of its $5,000 price tag covered by a loan. We were in debt again. Mom figured it meant she'd have to work away again. The hardest part for her was going to be leaving Nathan, who was only a year and a half old. Working away from her little ones wasn't new for her though; necessity had called for it several times over the previous ten years.
Grape tying was the newest of the different skills Mom had mastered. But the grape tying season was just coming to an end for the year.
Rebecca, the oldest, and Drusilla who was 16, had been lucky enough to find a boss willing to teach them how to tie grapes right away when we arrived in New York. Dad and Mom were referred to Douglas and Rosemary Hayes, who owned another vineyard not many miles away. Dad was offered the job of tearing old prunings out of the grape vines, (called pulling brush). He asked the Hayeses whether Mom couldn't tie grapes for them, and was told that they didn't have the time to train a new worker. Dad hates to pressure others into doing him a favor, but that was one time when he applied a little push. "Oh, she will learn how!" he assured them "I believe you will be happy with her." The task of making this prediction come true fell on Mom's shoulders, and it would prove a tougher task than either of them had imagined.
Mom accompanied Rebecca and Drusilla for a few hours to learn the basics of the job. It looked easy just watching them: in her daughters' muscular, energized hands, the grape vines were parted, swung up over the top wire of the trellis, the ends brought down to the bottom wire, and quickly secured in place with strings or threads of copper wire.
But once on her own at the Hayes vineyard the next day everything seemed confusing to Mom. While the experienced workers in the next rows zipped past her, finished, and came back on other rows, she fumbled and fretted with her vines and suspected she wasn't worth her pay. Any minute, Mom envisioned, the boss or his wife would walk over to announce they'd had enough, and fire her. The silence around her fueled her apprehensions. The tension crept into her performance, and she began drawing the grape vines too tightly, until the boss noticed it. "That's murder!" he remarked. "Those vines will get choked on the wire when you do that." Douglas gave her occasional instructions thereafter, which Mom welcomed, for they helped her to build confidence and pick up speed. At age 42, she couldn't tie quite as fast as her oldest daughters, but at least she learned to do the job well, and even enjoyed it. The Hayeses, it turned out, would want her back again, year after year.
Grape tying ended, spring sunshine prevailed, and we worked together on our 18-acre place on Burr Road. One neighbor plowed a few acres of garden for us so that we could plant vegetables for the table and pantry, plus a little extra for selling. Another neighbor agreed to pasture and house heifers (young cows) for us, as well as allow us one-third of his hay crop if we harvested it.
Dad bought us a large old workhorse to pull the harrow and cultivator for our garden work. But for making our neighbor's hay, we were going to need much more than an old work horse. That's where the tractor entered in, with it accompanying debt.
"How will we ever pay the bills?" Mom questioned.
Dad said he didn't see how he could do without the tractor, and went ahead with its purchase despite the reservations of Mom and the oldest girls. The luxury of staying on the farm instead of working away was to be short-lived indeed.
We set out with horse, cultivator, and hoes to battle the lumpy soil where garden seeds would be given room to sprout. To Dad's surprise, the soil defied out efforts. "I never saw anything like it!" he declared, as the soil, instead of falling apart, stubbornly hardened into rough clods, hardly accommodating the delicate seeds and seedlings. .. .What kind of farming is this going to be?" he doubted aloud.
Working beside him, we children tensed up at his frustration, and willed the soil to yield to us, to not drive us off and away. Our moves had been so many.
The older girls and Chris were beginning to feel the need to make attachments. They wanted animals to raise and keep instead of selling. They wanted land where they could establish familiar, private places, where you spoke to the land with your imagination and your sweat, and the land answered with gifts that represented the Creator's input combined with your own.
Lavina, the middle child in the family, thought about the cows she wanted. She was twelve, and she was determined to milk the family cow as soon as she arrived. And she knew that when we finally established a dairy herd, she'd be part of the milking crew. Lavina had been in other people's barns, observing the process of mechanized milking, and, on some occasions, helping. She was confident she could handle it.
We planted tomatoes and peppers as a cash crop, and melons, onions, radishes, cabbage and squash, among other things, for our own use. We bought a milk cow and her calf, and a buck and doe rabbit, which quickly led to an abundant rabbit population. Two Hereford heifers were added, which Barbara and Rachel called Beulah and Beatrice. Rachel claimed Beatrice, Barbara claimed Beulah. Not that they actually owned the animals; such claims fell under the government of the young generation and held little bearing on financial decisions regarding the animals. However, the emotional involvement in these claims ran deep, and was a good source of favoritism—such as pointing out the window and bragging, "Look at my Beatrice! She's jumping up and down because she knows it's my easy day."
"Easy day" and "Hard day" were our own terms in yet another system of self-government which we youngsters employed. It represented the distribution of our chores, whereby one child would perform an especially lengthy or tedious chore on one day while her teammate did it the next.
© 1993, Hannah Lapp