Sunday, July 18, 2010

Landless Peasant, Or How I Happen to Live Off Farm


[Published in Farming Magazine, this was written partly before my 2001 accident.]

Landless Peasant, Or How I Happen to Live Off Farm

On June 23, 1883, my great-great-grandfather John Borer sold a narrow slice of his farmland in Bigspring Township, Seneca County, Ohio to the Ohio Central Railroad. The Ohio Central paid all of one dollar for this land, the same price that all of John’s neighbors received as the O.C.R.R. purchased a right-of-way that ran northwest-southeast just east of the village of New Riegel.

Fifty-five years later, John Borer’s oldest son, David Borer, was killed by a train on the same railroad. On the fairly mild evening of March 22, 1928, an express train heading for Fostoria collided with his farm wagon: “The wagon had almost cleared the track when it was struck by the flyer. The rear of the wagon was demolished, the horses freed and Borer was hurled from his seat by the impact.” He died of head injuries, and left behind a wife, thirteen children, a farm, and a fairly large debt.

Some fifty years later, I went along with David’s third son, my grandfather Albert Borer, to take a few snapshots of the depot in New Riegel, which was about to be demolished. No passenger train had stopped there for years, and the tracks of the Toledo and Ohio Central, later the Big Four, later the Penn Central, were being ripped up. No trains would run on this roadway again.

It was less than a hundred years, from 1883 to 1975. I was only a boy on that cold gray day; now, I wish I could ask him if he saw the irony in all this. His grandfather had willingly sold a scrap of land to a railroad which would in turn cause the death of his father, the loss of the family farm, and after a few decades of tenant farming, squeeze part of the family off the land altogether. The world has changed enough since 1883 that it seems to have been a different world altogether, but in reality it was only a couple of lifetimes. But Grandpa Albert was a good-humored man, a legendary teller of jokes and a man quick to laugh, openhearted, and I can’t imagine him being consumed with regret of loss.

Yet the loss remains, even if one places no value judgment on whether the family would have been “better” or “worse” off if we hadn’t lost the farm. For myself, I frequently look back over my shoulder at that time, when the world was less crowded yet less lonely, filled with uncertainties and yet less uncertain, when the old people of my blood farmed with horses and tools made of iron and wood and leather and considered a steam engine a very marvelous technology indeed. To understand where you are, you have to understand where you’ve been. I was the first generation born off the farm, but that’s where I came from, so I am inclined to map the route.

Grandfather Albert told me once that his father David used to accompany his (David’s) mother into town to sell butter and eggs or to go to the store. She was unsure enough of her English to be uncomfortable in a transaction involving money, of which there was never enough. Rosamunda Borer, the wife of John, might well have felt self-conscious in the New World, for it had been chosen for her, sight unseen. More accurately, she had been chosen for him. John Borer came to America in 1852, if his obituary is accurate. Like many others who came to that part of Seneca County, his language was German, but his nationality was Swiss. He had come from the Canton of Solothurn, south of Basel, in the German speaking part of Switzerland. He brought with him a wife, who died after reaching North America. Writing home, he told his relatives of the tragedy; writing back, they told him, “Come home we have a new wife for you.” Or words to that effect. If this story can be believed, John Borer was not allowed to remain in mourning long, and Rosamunda, of a different Borer clan, found herself in Ohio as his wife.

Why John Borer came to America is more problematic, and perhaps more important, then when he came or with whom. When he died in 1902, he was described as the township’s “oldest surviving settler.” Northern Ohio in 1852, while no longer a wilderness, was still a relatively untamed area. The question remains why great-great- grandfather John felt the urge to leave the civilization of Solothurn, Switzerland for the rawness of New Riegel, Ohio, is as puzzling as it is unanswerable.

Whatever John might have been of whatever he expected to become, the actual course of his life in the New World was that of farming. It was a natural choice; he was almost certainly of farming background back home in Solothurn, where he would have learned about cattle and dairying in the Alpine farms of the region. Like most immigrants, he sought to recreate a familiar order in the New World, and as farming was practically the only game in town (if the town happened be New Riegel before the Civil War), it was a logical choice. On April 13, 1866, John Borer bought a total of 85 acres of farmland in Bigspring Township from a George Borer who seems not to have been a relation but was likely a friend or at least an acquaintance. What John did in the fourteen years between 1852 and 1866 is a mystery, but as he paid $1500 for the property, work as a farmhand is a good bet.

John Borer eventually owned 186.6 acres of farmland in Sections 1 and 12 of Bigspring Township. A county atlas of the 1880s shows his plat to have been a little larger than average; while not a big operator, his was a respectable showing in terms of acreage. His showing in children was also respectable, not extravagant: David Victor, born in 1870, Henry in 1872, Anthony in 1876, and a girl, Mary Susan, who died in infancy in 1872. John presumably had hired help to farm 186 acres with horsepower in the 1870s before his sons were old enough to help. And what he did on those 186 acres is unknown beyond a few surmises. Corn and wheat must be assumed – everyone raised corn and wheat. Hay crops for feed. Hogs for sale and/or home consumption. And dairy cattle.

Dairying was something John Borer brought from the Swiss Alps. Although images from Heidi are hideously distorted by nostalgia, some of the basics are true. John Borer would have known the sound of cowbells echoing on steep hillsides and the plod of cattle from one pasture to another. Dairy cows would have been as natural for him in Ohio as remaining Catholic or speaking German. And according to tradition, John made and sold Swiss cheese. Like all farmers of the period, his cash income would have come not just from crops sold but from a little of this and a little of that sold to local merchants or traded to neighbors. Swiss cheese apparently did quite well for John Borer, for he kept his recipe secret, telling no one, not wife nor children, and eventually taking it to the grave.

John Borer was placed in that grave in July of 1902, dead of pneumonia. Dead barely a century, he is a sketchy figure at best, a man with an impressive beard (but no mustache) and sharp eyes. His donation of a stained glass window in St. Boniface Church in New Riegel (far more legible today than his faded gray tombstone) testified to his place in the community, and a life that was probably as good as the time and place allowed or encouraged.

On February 21, 1886, John Borer signed his will, which began:

In the name of God, Amen. Be it remembered that I,
John Borer, a farmer, and resident of Big Spring Township,
Seneca County, Ohio, do make this my last will and
testament in the manner following…

The will went on to leave all to his “beloved wife Rosamunda Borer to have and hold the same as long as she holds my name and does not remarry…” Wills rarely reveal much in the way of personality; this sole surviving document bearing his signature tells only that he thought of himself as a farmer, that he loved his wife (but only as long as she didn’t remarry!), and that he was literate enough to sign his own name. What Rosamunda thought of this can only be conjectured. She survived John by 25 years, and only gave up ownership of the farm a decade after his death. She never remarried in any case. On March 6, 1911 she and her three sons went to the courthouse and registered a number of property transfers, breaking up the 186 acres between them. David, Henry, and Anthony continued to swap land and adjust their boundaries until the late 1920s as they established their own households.

John’s will also asked that all of his “just debts be paid with convenient speed.” Debts are rarely subject to convenience, however, and David Borer inherited some of them along with his share of the land. David Victor Borer was a shortish man, looking stern with a slightly aggressive mustache (but no beard) in his surviving photographs, but with a face that also looks to have had at least the potential for a sense of humor. In 1895, David married Josephine Borer (her maiden name) in Bowling Green, Ohio. Josephine’s father and mother, Emil and Barbara (nee Fisher) had once lived near Fremont; how the family learned about the John Borers of New Riegel cannot be certain, but folklore has it that David Borer was sent to meet the family and make a choice from Emil Borer’s large selection of marriageable daughters at the farm Emil was renting near Bowling Green. David was only in Josephine’s presence three times before they married on May 3, 1895, but whatever might be criticized in the method or amount of courting, their marriage was a success at least in the sense that they brought thirteen children into the world between 1896 and 1918.

David seems to have worked on his father’s farm before John died in 1902. Thus he was pretty well established as a farmer by the time his share of the land became officially his. David’s working life, which stretched from about 1880 to his death in 1928, comprehended some of the best years of farming’s “golden age,” particularly the first three decades of the twentieth century, when a diversified farm in the Midwest could earn its owner at least as good a living as a factory worker in the city. The amount of work needed to make a “golden age” farm go was for many an argument against that kind of life, and David’s lifetime also saw the percentage of Americans classified as “rural” fall to below 50% for the first time. But it is no criticism of my great-grandfather to point out that David Borer was probably aware of none of these trends, and it would not have affected his life and habits if he had. Like all of us, he played the hand he was dealt by time and place and fate, and did as well as he could, and better than some.

David Borer wound up with 140 acres after he and his brothers were through adjusting and swapping parcels. In 1925 he sold 40 acres at the east side of the property which included an 8-10 acre woodlot, the rest being pastureland. The buyer was Joseph Steinhauser, who would later rent land to David’s third son. More about that later. The 100 acres left to David was all cropland. On this acreage was the farmhouse, a large white house that was ordered from Sears Roebuck. The barn was a good-sized structure including a lean-to cow stable and machine shed. Corncrib, hog house with pen, and garage made up the other structures in the farmyard. Intimately familiar as they doubtless were to the family, it was a very typical assortment for an Ohio farm at the end of the nineteenth century.

Water was provided by a drilled well that went down ninety feet. Operated by a pump, rather than a windmill, the well provided water for both people and livestock. Another well east of the barnyard provided water for animals, water yanked to the surface by a noisy Mogel kerosene engine. A well is a mundane thing on paper, but it was certainly a place with its own aura on the farm, and to know about it is almost to be able to hear the splashing of water into buckets and feel the cold of deep underground and smell the iron of the pump and the strong scent of livestock slurping and slobbering. Wells engaged all of the senses in a way that the kitchen faucet somehow does not.

A varied collection of fauna relied on the water from the Borer well. Between one and two dozen cows and an equivalent number of calves could be found in any one season. My great-uncle Fred Borer, the last of David’s thirteen still living, remembered “five or six brood sows, and 20-40 feeder pigs, [and] before 1925 about 20-30 sheep.” Cows, hogs, and sheep were omnipresent but transient, somehow lacking in individuality. Horses were different; their personalities and names could be recalled years after they were gone. David had five to seven workhorses at any time, including Bess, Jim, Babe, Bob, and “old Kernal.” Babe and Bob were sorrels, Bob had a white mane and tail. The rest were gray to white. Bess was black. Horses did all the heavy work on the farm, and were a correspondingly large capital investment. Bob was sold in about 1916 for about $225. But horses also had personalities, and could be pleasant or fractious: “Old Kernal tried to bite my scalp off one time.” In a class by herself was Bess, the black buggy horse.

Like all pre-gasoline farmers, David prided himself on his ability with horses. Here is Uncle Fred’s vivid memory:
The farm was his, that was his domain. I will always remember
wheat harvesting time. For days ahead, he would be patching
the canvasses that delivered the cut stalks of wheat to the
knotter and tied the bundles. The grain binder had to be
untrucked, taking the transport wheels off; their were two.
He had to lower the bull wheel which drove the mechanism
and engage the tongue, with a small wheel beneath the tongue,
to the front of the platform and binder. He then would hitch
the three horses to the neck yoke and three-horse evener.
Then he would climb up to the seat, insert his foot in
the bundle carrier pedal, pick up the lines and a long fish
pole to urge the horses on. Only then in a big deep voice he
would shout “Giddop in Gotts Nomma,” and off he would
go riding that outfit like a king on his grand carriage.

This image of a man mastering a machine is both as old as it is striking, in this latter day when the machines so often seem to master us.

David Borer’s farm was not pre-industrial, by any means. Machines played their part even if they were relatively primitive devices in which horsepower was determined by the number of living horses connected to them. Particularly in the processing of crops, machines were almost indispensable in many ways. David had a fairly standard Ohio mix of crops: 15-20 acres of corn, 10 acres of wheat, 8-10 acres of oats, 20 acres of hay, and 20 acres in pasture. As these crops came ready for harvest, various machines were brought to bear on them. The wheat harvest was probably the most mechanized, as the above account of a grain binder makes clear. The wheat (and oat) harvest also signaled the arrival of steam threshing machinery, perhaps the greatest spectacle of the farming year. Steam threshing was the only work that required expert help from outside; the average farmer could neither afford a steam engine nor had the expertise to operate and maintain one. Threshing “rigs” were owned by big operators who traveled from farm to farm threshing the crops at each place. David had wheat threshed by William Schlachter, whose usual territory was south and west of New Riegel. Technology changed with the passage of time. In later years, contract threshing was done by Andy Stark, using a Titan kerosene engine, a monstrous machine the size and shape of a steam engine but technologically a forbear of the tractor. Although David did not live long enough to own a tractor, threshing in the last years of his life was done by Edmund Huss using a McCormick tractor and separator.

Hay was a vitally important crop in that it fed the workhorses. Hay was stored in the haymow of the barn and hoisted into place via a hay track. Again, Uncle Fred:

Getting the loose hay up in the mow was another thing.
There was a track in the peak of the roof, and a car-like
affair with a set of two ropes, one set for raising it [the
hay] up, and another for pulling it over into the mow. We
kids would drive the team pulling the ropes and hooking the
ropes into the sling which would pick up the hay. It was Dad
[David] who did the heavy and hot job of leveling the hay
in the mow; he usually did not have a dry spot of clothing
by the end of the day.

The corn harvest was relatively low-tech by comparison. Corn was shocked in the fall, before it was too dry, and later husked in the field. These were labor-intensive projects done in the cold gray days of November and December, and corn husking was one of the main labors for which friends and relatives assisted each other. Threshing was another act of shared labor, as was butchering. Joseph Fisher, a first cousin to cousin to Josephine, worked for David as a hired man in the early years, but as Josephine supplied David with a seemingly endless number of sons, there was no need for hired help as the years went by. Children were put to work early. At age six they were expected to begin milking (two cows/morning), and by age ten they graduated to driving teams for corn cultivation and helping on threshing days. There were stables to clean, wood to chop, gardens to weed, and dishes to wash. Older children were kept out of school to help with spring planting and the fall corn harvest.

In theory, at least, one of the chief advantages of farm life was the ability to grow your own food. In fact, once the pioneer period was past, no farmer was ever completely self-sufficient. Coffee, sugar, salt, and other staples came from stores in New Riegel or Tiffin. Yet thanks largely to the efforts of Josephine, the family was able to raise a surprising amount of its own food. Hogs were butchered and processed for pork, although cattle were not butchered on the farm. Gardens provided produce in season and canning took care of the rest of the year. Two apple orchards provided the raw material for a run or two of applebutter each fall. Raspberries and blackberries were to be had for the picking along fence lines and in the woods.

That David and Josephine worked hard for their living should be obvious by now. Farming was not just a job that one went to, but a life that was lived. More difficult to recreate are the elements of what might be called “rural life culture.” David and his family shared a common culture with all rural people of the midwestern corn belt, but with some distinctive elements based on the family’s Swiss-German origins.

David’s children, the third generation since John left the Canton of Solothurn, grew up speaking German at home. School was conducted in English, so the children became bilingual at an early age. David and Josephine both spoke English and German, although their English would have had a heavy accent, and a half century away from Switzerland, their German was fairly corrupt. World War I and its violent anti-German sentiment spelled the end of the German language, and the generations that followed would learn no more than a word or two via oral tradition.

“When es raigened comes much ungelegen.”
“When es dudered im holen walt geps noch snay und colt.”

These two weather superstitions preserve both the flavor of the pidgin-German spoken at the beginning of the last century, and a fleeting look at the folklore of farm life. Another stereotype that lingers is that rural people were somehow more superstitious than those living in more “refined” cities. And superstition, particularly that relating the agricultural cycle, was present in their lives. They also retained a strong affiliation with the Catholic Church as did almost all of their neighbors. Josephine in particular was very devout, sometimes attending mass twice on Sundays. Sometimes religion and superstition blended, as in her treatment of a “wen” by hitting it with a Bible. While there is no reason to question the importance of religion in their lives, the institutional Church played little part in farming beyond sponsoring a yearly harvest festival. Indeed, priests often came from a different social setting, as exemplified in their frequently being Republicans while shepherding a flock of Democrats.

So the farm and farm life of David Borer appears at the remove of seventy years, clear enough in places, although somehow as gray in the imagination as in the handful of black and white photographs of him that survive. Much cannot be recovered, and some of the questions we would ask might not be answerable by David himself. They are modern enough questions, perhaps born of our leisure to ponder them. Great Grandfather, did you enjoy what you did? Did you find your life fulfilling? Was your life better than ours, closer as it was to the sky and the earth? But these questions remain hanging in the air. Just as John left only the few lines of his will, the only writing I have in David’s hand is a postcard he sent home from Chicago (of all places) on December 8, 1909, and it read only:

I am all right yet. It is below zero this morning. Yours, D.V.B.

One is tempted to hear a flash of humor in that statement. “I am all right yet.” And so he seemed for nineteen years more.

Whatever else David Victor Borer’s untimely death in 1928 meant, it spelled economic ruin for his family. There was probably no way that ten sons could have made any useful division of 100 acres and hope to come up with a farm big enough to support a family, so it may be that David’s demise simply forced the family to face this difficulty much earlier than they expected, but with the same results. And if David had inherited a few debts from his father, David’s sons faced a more serious debt. The Depression may have begun nationwide in 1929, but farmers were beginning to experience hard times as early as 1922. David and Josephine had to sign notes many times, borrowing $50 here, $25 there, making payments faithfully, but with another loan always seeming necessary.

Albert Borer, David’s third son and my grandfather, knew all about debt as a young man in the 1920s. He occasionally cosigned notes with his father and mother, sharing their debts. Certainly at the time of his marriage in 1924, he had few prospects of becoming an independent farmer with land of his own. He met Armina Elchert while acting in a play called “The Little Clod Hopper.” Entertainment in rural Ohio was still whatever you made yourself in the 1920s, and although he had known his future wife all his life, it was not until this amateur stagework threw them into each other’s society that anything other than acquaintanceship crossed his mind. At least that’s how Armina told it fifty years later. But in marrying Miss Elchert, Albert gained a formidable father-in-law in Oliver Elchert.

Oliver Elchert was old by the standards of 1925, well into his seventies. A widower, he had the bearing and the belly of someone who was well off. Unlike David Borer, Oliver Elchert was a big operator. Rich in land, he did not borrow, he loaned. He gave each of his sons a farm or their own, and saw to it that Armina, his youngest daughter, had a sheltered life with some of the finer things available in a country town if you had cash money to spend. Many of the more middling folk around New Riegel probably made entries in their account books similar to the unnamed man who noted paying “Olver Elchert” $20.80 for oats on February 19, 1911. A few years before his death, Oliver Elchert married a younger woman named Rosa Nick. When my grandmother told me this story fifty years later, she still spat the name, and seemed to feel her father had been put up to it by some of his cronies. What Oliver thought of Albert, his new son-in-law, is difficult to say, but it is true that by 1927 Albert owed the old man $500 and was paying 4% interest on the loan. As most of Albert Borer’s other loans were at 5%, perhaps the extra 1% was a family discount.

In the years between his marriage in 1924 and his return to full-time farming in 1929, Albert and Armina lived in New Riegel. Albert found work as a section hand on the railroad and made deliveries for a dairy. Moving to town in those days did not mean cutting yourself off from farm life in the way it does now, and in the late 1920s Albert developed an interest in Poland China hogs. He purchased two sows on November 28, 1927 from Washburn, Hershey, & Lewis of Tiffin. “Ohio Beauty” and “Black Maid” by name. At a similar sale in 1926 he had purchased a boar with the lofty cognomen “Long Aeroplane.” We can only assume that Long Aeroplane was pleased to make the acquaintance of Ohio Beauty, for on September 27, 1928 she gave birth to a litter of nine piglets sired by him. When Long Aeroplane was sold in 1929 at the Fostoria Union Stockyard, he weighed 960 pounds and someone scribbled on the receipt, “The Big Guy.” Albert retained an interest in Poland Chinas for at least a decade, attending auctions on two successive February10s, 1937 and 1938.

A valid question might be raised about the usefulness of knowing the names and birthdays of your grandfather’s pigs. Said pigs were sausage decades before I was around. But these names combined with imagination and a bit of research can recreate part of a vanished world. The day Ohio Beauty farrowed nine piglets was a mild September day, warm but no longer hot in the early autumn days. Crickets and cicadas buzzed in the spent grass outside the pigpen. The smell of blood and pigshit burned in the nose and Albert would have worn high boots and forked clean straw as the nine piglets made their entrance.

In addition to swine, Albert also owned some cattle. His meticulous account book from 1927 notes, for example, that the “Little Red Cow had 2 c[alves]” and listed dates as follows: “Bred May 3rd 1926 Fresh Feby 11 1927 Bred Aug 15 1927. Butchered $75.” Such was the life of a cow. A white bull, a red bull, a “spottie” calf, a bay mare and a number of heifers were also ticked off, as are payments for gasoline, fertilizer, timothy, plow points, and Mass cards.

By 1929, Albert had two children to support. That year, his widowed mother turned over ownership of the farm to his oldest brother Joseph, so it was clear that he could expect nothing from his father’s estate. Perhaps for these reasons, he decided to return to farming full time. Yet purchasing a farm was out of the question, leaving tenancy the only alternative. On September 6, 1929, Albert signed an agreement with Joseph Steinhauser to become Steinhauser’s tenant for two years beginning April 1, 1930. “Albert Borer to get 3/5 and Joseph Steinhauser 2/5 of all crops except corn which will not be divided and Joseph Steinhauser has 1/2 interest in the hogs. Albert Borer is to haul owners share of crops to nearest market and keep up fences [.]” This arrangement was somehow unsatisfactory, for at the end of the lease, Albert moved to a 60-acre farm owned by C.C. Schrote for which he paid $250 a year and which included no crop sharing arrangement.

“The Schrote Place,” a few miles east of New Riegel, included a white two-story farmhouse and a white barn with some miscellaneous outbuildings. Albert farmed for the Schrotes until the end of the growing season in 1944. It was the farm where my father was born in 1935, and thanks to Depression-era government paperwork, is at least a partially reconstructible place. In addition to the Schrote acreage, Albert rented land across the road from Maggie Hoepf (always pronounced “Hepp”). This brought his total acreage to 115. If 1932 was typical, 25 acres were planted to corn, 35 to wheat, and 26 to “tame hay,” including alfalfa. Three acres were in oats, five in barley and rye, and a further sixteen classified as “woods and wasteland not pastured.” The spring and fall hog seasons each produced four litters, one of 26 and one of 27. Two hogs were slaughtered for “use on farm,” and one was kept for breeding. The numbers in 1933 were quite similar, with a few more acres in corn and a few less in wheat, and somewhat smaller litters of pigs. Of the 39 acres of corn, 20 were harvested for grain and produced 990 bushels. The other 19 were “hogged off,” and produced 400 bushels. Other documents certified that Albert grew corn, wheat, oats, and timothy in 1934. He also grew an acre of potatoes and maintained an orchard of apples, pears, peaches and cherries and grew a quarter acre of “sorghum for sirup.”

The old world of farming and the new world of agriculture briefly coincided in the years between the world wars, and this was evident in ways that Albert Borer farmed the Schrote place. David Borer never owned a tractor, but his son did, a lug-wheeled Farmall with a faded coat of red paint. But alongside the tractor, Albert kept a team of workhorses, one of which was Blind Dick. Farming with horses was becoming anachronistic by the 1930s, but Albert continued to use them to the very end, even if they no longer played a major role in the work of the farm. Dick’s death is still regretted in family storytelling; owing to his blindness, he walked into a threshing machine belt and had his nose torn up so badly that he had to be euthanized. Of course, this incident is another bit of ironic death. Blind Dick the farm horse was killed by a steam threshing machine which was itself a holdover in the face of tractor technology.

In addition to tractors, trucks had become a fixture on mid-western farms by the 1930s. Trucks and tractors required higher capital expenditures than farmers traditionally made on machinery, but also opened up new possibilities for income. In the early 1940s, Albert tried growing sugar beets, which had to be trucked to Fremont for sale and processing. Albert made some extra money at this by driving the truck which hauled his and his neighbors’ beets to market. On the down side, beets were an expensive crop to grow. In 1942, the company extended credit for seed, fertilizer, “blight control dust and “dusting labor,” and equipment. Albert had a tab with the company of $319.15 before he sold a single beet. When the last of the crop was sold on December 8, he had turned a profit of $219.93 for all his trouble. A year later, his profit was a mere $71.01. Farming was getting more expensive, even while profits fell.

But even as fertilizer and pesticides made their appearance, some things didn’t change. Cows, and sales of their milk and cream to the local dairy, were still an important source of income. Perhaps Albert’s cows had more personality than his father's did, for at least some cow names survive in family memory. Of course, “Tarzan” is a distinctive name for a cow, and therefore perhaps easier to remember. Other cows had names like “Buzz Saw” (a white-headed Jersey heifer) and “Reddy” (a red Jersey heifer). Albert kept records of when each cow was bred, freshened, and sold, or occasionally butchered. His logbook noted a tragedy regarding a three-year-old red heifer, which “Died under straw stack Jan 7th 1937.” Hogs were a constant presence as well, collectively if not individually. Butchering remained a yearly event, and a favorite of the farm’s transient population of cats, which gorged on the plentiful offal. Butchering day was a day of plenty for all, however, and allowed Albert to be expansive. He teased a son with an offer: “If you some to see us you can have a piece of wurst.” Labor was shared, and so was the fruit of the labor. Or in this case, blood pudding and headcheese.

Although on a reduced scale, Albert’s farm was not all that different than his father’s. The crops were similar, and despite the tractor and gasoline-powered trucks that became commonplace in the 1930s, much of the work was similar to what had gone before. How long Albert could have continued can only be conjectured. The economy of farming was becoming such that a small-time tenant farmer could expect constant indebtedness and less and less chance of living the lifestyle that was becoming “typical” by mid-century.

In 1944, Albert began to suffer from a skin rash. The doctor diagnosed it as an allergy to sunlight, and suggested that he look for some line of work that would not include constant exposure to the sun. Combined with the increasingly bleak financial situation, Albert made his decision, and decided to give up farming in favor of running a grocery store in New Riegel. On Tuesday, November 21, 1944, auctioneer Frank Clouse sold off Albert’s farming equipment. It was a modest assemblage: two horses, seven cattle, ten hogs, 500 bushels of wheat, 250 bushels of “Canadian oats. Hay in Mow. 1000 bundles Corn Fodder.” And a “Full Line of Farms Implements. McCormick-Deering Farmall Tractor with Cultivator. And numerous other articles.” My father remembers the family being disappointed by the outcome of the auction, which did not bring in much money.

My great-grandfather David Borer died of head injuries in an accident that, with hindsight, was set in motion by his father John selling land to a railroad. In my own turn, I came very close to dying from similar head injuries in July 2001. During a long recovery I have pondered the place of farming in my family through its final three generations. My grandparents had thirty-five years of life ahead of them when they left the farm, and life goes on, even if it changes into something other than it had been. But November 21, 1944 marked the last day on the farm for my family. Albert seems not to have regretted the loss too much, and eventually found satisfaction serving as the postmaster of New Riegel.

But as the distance between farm time and my time stretches past a half-century, I feel the worth of preserving some of these memories. I don’t know if any of it has meaning to anyone but me, but in my recovery period I can’t help but think: my forbears were agriculturists for – how long? - a thousand years? Three hundred generations? Perhaps it is my generation that deserves sympathy. It is my time that faces a life cut off from the old certainties of farming, with no obvious certainties to take their place.

By Book to Guangzhou


[This was (allegedly) published in Guangzhou's English-language newspaper. I never actually saw it myself, so I cannot confirm this.]
By Book to Guangzhou by Alan Borer

It is very appropriate that Guangzhou has an English language newspaper, partly because the city has been an international hub for centuries. For hundreds of years the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties and even the Republic of China used Guangzhou, which the “foreign devils” called Canton, as the one place that foreigners were allowed to trade with, and thus encounter, China and the Chinese people. More concisely, if you wanted to go to China, you had to pass through Guangzhou.

Time has left a wealth of diaries, journals, and travel accounts of foreigners visiting Guangzhou. Newly literate Europeans, and later Americans, had a taste for travelers’ tales and adventure stories of going to exotic places. Just as the British explorer Henry Stanley gave westerners written accounts of “darkest Africa,” any number of writers wrote books about their travels to mysterious, distant China. And as Guangzhou was the only formal entry port, those travelers often had to rely on mysterious Canton, plus Hong Kong, Macau, and some other Chinese areas which had been leased to European governments under less than honorable circumstances.

Readers were offered a host of travel narratives with old-fashioned sounding titles, like Description of a View of Canton (1838), or Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818). The travel narrative that includes Guangzhou is therefore, a venerable literary tradition. That tradition is kept alive in the pages of this newspaper. And this seems a fitting place to mention a relatively new book by Valery Garrett entitled Heaven is High, the Emperor Far Away: Merchants and Mandarins in Old Canton, published by Oxford University Press (2002). It is a marvelous account of the Guangzhou that greeted some of those early foreign visitors, and thus greets more recent visitors who want to understand not only the what of Guangzhou but the why as well.

Garrett begins her account with a description of her own first trip to Guangzhou in 1975:

“the city beckoned...A taxi, hired from the few waiting at the hotel gates, took me to the Pearl River, through quiet streets with an occasional truck and numerous bicycles, waiting for rations of rice and charcoal.” (p. xii)

How different from when I saw the city earlier this year. If you live in Guangzhou now, or have visited recently like I have, you may be surprised to hear the city described as ‘quiet.’ And while there are still many bicycles, thousands of cars now mingle with the ‘occasional truck,’ which is not occasional any more.

As Garrett says in the book’s first sentence, “Canton has always attracted opportunists.” Arab traders brought their religion and culture to Guangzhou, and in AD 626, built China’s first mosque. In the eighteenth century, French, English, and Portuguese established trade footholds in Guangzhou. Trading tea, porcelain, and, sadly, opium, led these “fankwaes” to establish “factories” (the old definition of the word meant something more like “trading post”). Later, on, Christian churches and social services came with the European merchants, doing varying degrees of good or ill to Guangzhou natives. For example, the chapter on Shamien Island, which was a foreign concession until 1949, brings the reader to this strange place, where extravagant European consulates and their accompanying lifestyles mingled with Chinese urban life.

I wish I had read this book before visiting, or somehow found it while in Guangzhou. It starts with a marvelous account of Imperial Canton. Visitors who have gone sightseeing in Guangzhou will find the origins of many familiar sights they saw. I was fascinated that the Guangdong Provincial Museum, which I visited, is built on the site where Qing students took the interminable examinations that were the key to high ranking (and well paying) government positions in Imperial China. Or that the “Five Story Pagoda,” which I saw in its new guise as the Guangzhou Municipal Museum in Yuexiu Park, was once just within the city wall.

Ms. Garrett tells this story, filled with pathos and comedy, with clarity and ease. Her descriptions of Qing Guangzhou, for example, are detailed, but not to the point of burdening the casual reader. Quotes for the letters and diaries of earlier travelers are included, but do not run on at such length that they make reading a chore. And there are numerous, and gorgeous, illustrations. A surprising amount of the city was photographed in the second half of the nineteenth century. This means that Imperial Canton, with its narrow streets, crowds, and seemingly random buildings, can not only be read about, but viewed by the 21st century. The book is fun to look through as a sort of scrapbook, if only for its illustrations.


Cultural intermingling is rarely accomplished without friction. Europeans were eager to establish their varying brands of Christianity, and the Anglican, Catholic, and Protestant churches that can be seen to this day in Guangzhou are legacies, for better or worse, of the West trying to introduce their thinking to China. One of their converts, Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed himself Christ’s Chinese brother, after hearing Christian missionaries preach in Guangzhou. The resulting Taiping Rebellion against the Qing took a nearly unbelievable twenty million lives. In 1911, the weakened Qing dynasty collapsed in the wake of the revolutionary activities of Dr. Sun Yatsen in Canton. Even the great revolutionary leader Mao Zedong spent some time in Canton staring in 1924, teaching and guiding peasants who aimed to bring revolution to Canton.

I paid a visit to the carefully preserved buildings of Chairman Mao’s Peasant Movement Institute when I visited Guangzhou this year. They preserved one kind of revolutionary foment coming out of Guangzhou. Along the Shangxiajiu Road in modern Guangzhou I also saw a series of statues that depict early foreign visitors to the city meeting with or observing Chinese natives. The Europeans’ expressions are various; a mixture of surprise, amusement, condescension, and bafflement. Modern western visitors may experience some of the same emotions. But the statues, and Valery Garrett’s book, help the muddled visitor realize that they are not the first. Guangzhou, sometimes hospitably and sometimes not, has a long, long history of being the first stop on a visit to China. The culture mix has not always been productive, but it has certainly had a long and interesting story.

Chinese Laundryman in Westerville


Browsing through an old issue of the Otterbein College Tan and Cardinal, I saw an advertisement for a Chinese laundry in Westerville. From approximately 1917 to 1925, a certain “Hop Lee” ran a laundry at 12 North State Street. That conjures up all kinds of images, from the “No tickee, no shirtee” stereotype to laundries as fronts for opium dens. But I’ve married into a Chinese family, so I decided to look deeper.

Unfortunately, Chinese laundries do not lend themselves to research. Chinese immigrant men who ran laundries often were the victims of American mainstream prejudice. They kept very much to themselves, and thus appeared secretive and mysterious to outsiders.

Not surprisingly, Hop Lee mostly defies historical recovery. He was
probably from southern China probably from near Guangzhou (Canton) or Hong Kong. His real name was probably Li. Many a Chinese man adopted the spelling Lee, closer to the pronunciation of Li to American eyes. Or, Hop Lee may not have been his real name. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in force, and men coming to this country sometimes used the names of dead relatives or friends who had been granted permission to enter.

The census of 1920 showed a 55 year-old Hop Lee living on Third Street in Columbus, with his younger cousin, Wing Haey (The spelling is probably phonetic). This may not have been the same Hop Lee, which was a common name in the Chinese immigrant community. If it was the same man, he might have commuted to Westerville by streetcar. Most Chinese laundrymen, however, lived in or above their laundries.

As I was just about to give up hope of finding anything more about Hop Lee, I spotted a quotation from him in a 1917 copy of the Public Opinion. Lee was quoted as saying he liked hot weather because it meant more laundry business. Unfortunately, he was quoted in stereotypical Chinese pidgin English, and we can only guess what phraseology he really used.


Whoever he was, Mr. Lee probably worked long hours for little pay. We can guess that he was lonely – the male female ratio among Chinese immigrants was 90% male to 10% female. He left little if any record of himself. But the next time you eat Chinese take-out, you might remember Hop Lee, who may well have been Westerville’s first Chinese businessman.