Butch Remembers The “Old-Time Farmer”

Do you remember the farmers who were your neighbors when you were a youngster? Yes, there were many. There were thirty-two students in my Darlington High School 1966 graduating class, and eighteen of us had fathers who farmed. In fact the majority of kids who attended the small county schools came from farm families. Each farmer in those days farmed less than 200 acres, with a few owning their land and the rest working as tenant farmers. Here is how I remember a farmer from the good ol’ days….

The daily life of farming could be considered monotonous to many people…12 to 14 hours a day on an old Farmall, Case, John Deere, or Allis Chalmers tractor…tilling the land…or taking care of the livestock. They grew corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, sorghum, and alfalfa, and raised many types of animals…hogs, beef cattle, dairy cows, sheep, chickens…along with a horse or pony for the kids. Each man awoke at dawn, ready to begin the chores…feeding the animals, keeping the equipment in good condition, making repairs, tending to the crops, and hundreds of other duties. They rarely, if ever, took a vacation.

The farmers I knew didn’t learn how to farm by going to college, by attending seminars, or by reading books. Most learned farming from their fathers. They had many skills. They were smart and were masters at being self-sufficient. If a problem arose, they used common sense or visited neighboring farmers for suggestions. Many times farmers joined in to help each other with the harvesting and other jobs. If a fellow was injured or sick, the entire neighborhood came over to help.

All of the farmers dressed the same…overalls, work boots, an old jacket, and of course a cap from a seed corn or fertilizer company. Their hands were tough and calloused. They weren’t concerned with getting rich, owning possessions, or becoming famous. What mattered to them was their families, their farms, their faith, and their communities. Some of them lived in the same house their entire lives, with farms being passed down from one generation to the next. They had attended the same church since childhood. Their kids went to Darlington school just as they had, and several married their high school sweetheart. I cannot recall any who were divorced.

Each time that Dad and the other farmers made a trip to town…to the elevator, the service station, the restaurant, the drug store…they talked crops, the weather, the basketball team…and of course had a good joke to tell their buddies. On the 3-mile stretch of road that led to town there were six farmers who tilled fields along that road: Lloyd Wells (my uncle), Wally Peebles, Dick Weliever, Gene Smith, Damon Caldwell, Floyd Hampton, and Chuck Doubet. Within a two-mile radius of our farm were fellow farmers Forrest Flaningam, Norman Coltrain, Marvin Bush, Lynn Crowe, Reid Booher, Orville Timmons, Reldo Huffer, John Royer, Royden Paddack, and Bob Groves.

The equipment these men used was minimal. For instance, Dad owned a Farmall M tractor, a smaller Ford 8N tractor, 3-bottom plow, 10-ft disc, 4-row planter, cultipacker, tractor-mounted two-row corn picker, wheat drill, two wooden wagons, a small pull-behind combine, and a sickle-bar mower.

In the 1950s, many farmers took on second jobs to make ends meet. Dad sold seed corn, measured land for the USDA, and drove a school bus to have enough to feed a wife and five kids. By the early 1960s, many men just couldn’t make a living from farming. Dad finally had to give it up as a tenant farmer in 1966. After his equipment was auctioned off and he paid all of his bills, he had a grand total of $24.00 left to start a new life in town. Fortunately the banker loaned him $15,000, with no down payment required, so he could purchase his very first house at the age of 42. Sadly, many of the neighboring farmers I knew also had to give up farming and seek work elsewhere. The lucky ones, mostly the farmers who owned their own land, continued on, and a few of those farmers have children who farm their land today. But the number of farmers here in Montgomery County is quite small compared to the past. Today only three men farm the land that was near our farm, compared to the seventeen I mentioned earlier. These farmers till thousands of acres, and very few even have livestock. With millions of dollars invested in their farming operations, one bad year could spell disaster. But they persevere. Why? They are just like their fathers and grandfathers. They are farmers…and proud of it. And although my Dad worked at another job the rest of his life, he was still a farmer at heart.

John “Butch” Dale is a retired teacher and County Sheriff. He has also been the librarian at Darlington the past 32 years, and is a well-known artist and author of local history.