I appreciate the moments when comfortable familiarity is shattered and molded into a new experience. As I biked up the moderate incline on Union Street to Ethyle’s homestead, I considered the innumerable instances where I had passed her small white tenet house before. I neither wondered of its relationship with the surrounding corn fields, nor was I ever curious about the resident in that house set far too close to the road (I later learned that the road was constructed far too close to the house). And suddenly, a place that blended unassumingly into a familiar landscape beckoned with potential, precisely due to the reasons aforementioned. The besetting corn fields, the proximity of Union Street – these are particularly unique characteristics (considering any other abode within Chili), and they portend the qualities of one of the last remaining agrarian matriarchs in our town. When Ethyle was married in 1942, she and her husband Charlie settled in the venerable Italianate across from her current residence, a homestead situated on 216 acres of fertile farmland that stretches to Clifton.
“We had hay, beans, corn, wheat, oats, cattle, alfalfa…we had a big barn across from the [Fellows] cemetery that we filled with hay…until the wind blew it down in the 1970’s. [Everything] went to market…there is a bean plant in Caledonia…they took them up there by the truckload; with the hay, you would bale it up to use in the winter. My father was a hay buyer. He would buy other farmer’s hay, and load it on a railroad car…might go down South for the race horses.” During the course of a day, “I used to bale hay, and I used to do the draggin,’ and put the hay up in rows…anything they asked me. I couldn’t plow or anything like that, but the baling was easy,” she asserted. “I was active on the farm, and I loved every minute of it. I do not regret it”.
I have to admit, I was not raised on a farm (although we do have one horse), and during my conversation with Ethyle, I attempted to harvest a truckload of details in an attempt to assemble a basic conception. To do so, I posed several blatant questions regarding the “benefits” and “drawbacks” of farming, and I hoped these would form a gateway between farming, and our generations removed.
“You know what? To me, every kid should live on a farm” she replied steadfastly. “They should spend a summer with a farmer. They would learn a lot. It would be the greatest thing on earth for them. I really believe in that. There is nothin’ any nicer than being on a farm….Then, there wouldn’t be the problems [we have] today…if the kids could go out, work on the farm and keep themselves occupied.”
As our conversation matured, we swayed from the farming Chili once boasted of, to the farming we might see: “It don’t look too good. With the houses they are building, look at what they took down Union Street here…that was all farm land. They’re taking away a lot. That is why all the little famers have to move out….it’s really not good for the farmers. They’d better start thinking about this too”. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I asked, “what will your land look like in 100 years?” “I don’t know…the way it is now, I don’t know” she responded dejectedly. “I don’t know if there will be anything here, with the way the world is. It would be nice if you could see it like this, but it’s not ever gonna be. Its gonna be all houses, all townhouses, all those things will take right over”.
To avoid a cynical demise to our conversation, I wanted to understand Ethyle’s hopes for her Place, a possible longing or a dream. To capture this personal ideal, I crafted a Disney-esque question: “If a genie appeared out of a lamp, and gave you this power: you could preserve one thing in the town, what you protect?” Ethyle was initially a bit surprised by my introduction, but after the question settled for a few moments, she replied, “I would like to protect the farmers, the land…to keep it open!”