Marion Bartle, Gale Boville, Gary Hauer
It’s always a humbling experience to speak with a remaining constituent of Chili’s small-farm heydays. These few members are a mortal legacy of a Chili forgotten; a living reflection of antiquated values that are fading with each passing generation, until earth and apathy bury the lot. Mortality is unavoidable; apathy, I think, is something we can work on.
If you ever have the opportunity to speak with Marion Bartle, and her niece and nephew Gale and Gary, it is hard to be apathetic. The agrarian roots of Chili exude vicariously in their voices; they have seen the plow horses in the fields, they have witnessed an evolution from tight knit communities to sprawling suburbs, they have experienced a loss of coveted places in Chili. Farming has transformed into a different animal in their lifetime.
Marion, now 93, arrived in Chili seventy three years ago when she married her husband Ralph, now deceased. The white homestead and dilapidating barns that rest on the corner of Morgan and Union streets are the physical remains of her farm days. She no longer lives on the farm, but her land is in view from her back window, and most of it is being rented to other farmers. The crops are different and homogenized compared to the fields she tended to, but it is not difficult to imagine the land that was once worked by her hands. “We had a lot of things. We grew a lot of oats and wheat, stuff like that. We had a few cows and horses too. Pigs, chickens…” According to Gary, “They had sheep back then…on 120 acres. [This farm] bordered two other farms. It boarded Ethyle Miller’s farm on the North, and the Coyle farm on the West.”
According to Gale, “You churned butter one day; you had a wringer washer, so you would do you laundry one day.” “I sold eggs and butter to people, most of them my relations, in the city,” Marion added. “I had a regular route that [I took] every Friday in Rochester.”
Gary elaborated, “We are of German descent. So, we went into the German area in the City, and they would be…cousins or close friends of my Aunt and Uncle because Marion was raised in Dutch Town, a German area of Rochester. Once a week they would take their produce, cream, butter, eggs; in the summer, sweet corn and other vegetables….With the proceeds, they would help to buy the groceries. They also had a steady stream of customers that came to their farm house, usually every week, to buy eggs, cream, or butter. This supplemented their income….They depended on a lot of these people because, back then, this small farm provided an income for five people at the end. If you go back into the 40s, there was about seven or eight people that lived on that farm.”
Gale proffered a story about a unique activity on the farm: “Our grandmother used to serve chicken dinners [to the Men’s Society].” Marion added, “My mother-in-law was the cook, and I waited on tables.” “[Marion] was a city girl, and she had to grow up very quickly”, Gary elaborated. “To come into this house with all these people, and mostly men, it was quite an experience for her. She was a bold worker….Marion gutted chickens, she got into jobs like churning butter to waiting on these men…making homemade lemonade in the summertime as they were baling hay”.
I became enthralled with Marion’s stories, and I found it particularly difficult to change subjects when there was a limitless bounty of details to be gleaned. However, after listening to this biographical account, I was curious about the “benefits” of farming life, the perks of living in the country. “I don’t think I would have lived as long” Marion exclaimed. “I think it’s from the hard work, I really do. It kept me going. I liked being a farmer’s wife, it was a hard life…I liked it.” Gary asserted, “I had a great childhood, because when I got off the school bus, there was always someone home….there was a hub of activity…people gravitated to the farm” For Gale, “I lived up the street, and as soon as we got up in the morning, and that was the first place we headed until we got chased home. There was an old truck my Uncle Ralph let us drive….we always had a baseball game going on the front lawn….it was just innocent fun, not like today. You could go anywhere, and you wouldn’t have to worry, you weren’t afraid.”
And I wondered, why is the Chili we know today unlike the Chili that survives only in memory? What has happened, or is happening, that has abetted the erosion of a simple, laborious, congenial agrarian culture? According to Gary, “It’s the loss of connection. I think if these kids had been exposed to the farm from an early age, they’d still have some connection. They might not want to live on a farm ‘cause it’s too hard work, but they would want to preserve the open space.” Marion quickly chimed in, “And they wouldn’t have to go to the gym to get their exercise.”
“You can have ten people…drive from this point to the point on the corner of Chili Avenue and Union, of those ten people, some people will see nothing along the way, other people will be on their phone, again, depending on age,” Gary explained. “I think the real young people are a long ways away from the farm.” From what I gathered, this ‘disconnect chasm’ is not limited to age, or any other specific demographic; it’s ubiquitous. As Marion acknowledged it, “Living on a farm isn’t easy. Some of these people…think you just sprinkle stuff and it grows. You earn your money.”
To understand the severity of our disconnection, observe the dynamics between a farmer and the land. The relationship is not despotic; it is equitable. You give, and the land gives back. For Marion, “I think you definitely need it. If they don’t have farm land, how are people gonna survive? They gotta have people to do it. That is how I feel.”
Although we need the farmland to survive, have we embraced this maxim in Chili? How many new farms are started compared to tillable acres lost to black top and concrete foundations? These questions derive from a familiar conundrum: are we in balance? From those who cherish and depend on our open Places, the balance may be oblique.
“I would be surprised if [our land] was still farmed [a hundred years from now]” Marion stated cynically.
“Housing developments or commercial. I won’t be farming” added Gale.
When I asked, “What do you hope it will look like,” I received a simultaneous reply.
“Same as it is.”
From the farmer’s perspective, the scales are tipped away from the farmland, away from the traditions that fostered the current identity of our Town. In other words, we are burying the relics of our past, and it seems as if we have lost concern for the potential side effects. When the farmers lose inalienable respect, they are often forced into dire straits, resulting in a slow divorce with Place.
“Every individual should have the right to determine what he is going to do with his property” Gary asserted. “He had to be able to sustain shelter, and food, and be able to live. All the farmer’s equity is tied up in the land. I can’t blame the farmer for having a tear in his eye and selling his property. What we wish for, what we want, and what we can do depends on if our belly is full or not….some of these old farmers have to drive a stake into their chest to sell [their land].”
If a farmer has to drive stakes through his heart to attain a basic standard of living, it is evident, if not obvious, that the farmer no longer enjoys the venerable status he once earned a century prior. And a century later, they are still producing food; but we are distancing ourselves, and relegating the individuals who fill our cupboards and freezers. We can live without malls, hotels, and parking lots – it is impossible to survive without open Places.
“It is a shame,” Marion said wistfully. “I hate to see it go.”