From Roadways of Memory – Part II

From Roadways of Memory - Part II

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Though it is missing the kitchen wing behind it,

this house is very close in style to the Daugherty house that I loved.

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Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart

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ii

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A few find grace in salvage taken somewhere further down the road.

In Chapter 2 of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Henry David Thoreau makes this observation about imaginary ownership of other men’s farms:  “I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.” I feel that way when I salvage the fallen ruins of Ray Braden’s pioneer home which stood on the hill above our farm to the west of us, and when I recall the house that belonged to Herman Daugherty’s grandfather that stood on an abandoned road a mile south of our farm. Both of these houses shared the same construction features as Ab Johnson’s house; they all three stood in the neighborhood in the days of the Civil War, or were built shortly afterward, with the exception that both houses had an added single-story wing on the back of the house for the kitchen. The Braden house was only slightly different yet in having a roofed, and partially closed in, dog-trot feature connecting the kitchen to the house. And I recall numerous times as a boy walking up to Ray’s house and climbing the sloping, rocky driveway into the pasture around his house at the top of the hill. Always, as I approached the house I slowed with temerity and caution because I knew that dog-trot would be infested with some of Ray’s sleeping hound dogs that rose up and lumbered into the lawn to bark and nose and nudge about my face and shoulders. They never offered to bite me, but coming face to face with a pack of baying hounds was still enough to make me cautious no matter how many times I’d been reassured of safety.

I can recall Ray Braden more vividly than some men from my childhood because I don’t think any one man had a stronger influence over my Romanticist’s imagination when I was a child than he. Ray was the son of pioneers who lived as pioneers lived for the entire time he was a part of my youth. Often when he shared meals at our kitchen table, Ray told us tales about his ancestors coming to Carroll County in a covered wagon and building the first house in the neighborhood—his house—up on its hill commanding one of the best views in the region between his house and Bogard Mound a few miles south of us. Ray was the man who knew the kitchen we sat in at my house had formerly been a single-room house and lean-to on the north hill of our farm, and he remembered how the men working for Mr. Smithpeter had hitched several teams of horses to skids placed under it and dragged it down the hill to its present position before building the large house in front of it. That history accounted for why the kitchen had bead board wainscoting and different window woodwork than the rest of the house.

Ray was already “old” in my view when I was a boy. He was of my grandparents’ generation, meaning born in the late 19th century, and he was probably a boy or youth when he witnessed our house being built. His brothers Walter and William had served as soldiers in the Great War—World War I—and they often wanted my father to share his memories of World War II with them, but that never happened.  My father was increasingly silent about his war experience as we matured, and I often wonder if he would have lived longer, could I have gotten him to talk to me about it as an older man, but I believe I’d have witnessed the same taciturn silence from him on that point. But to return to Ray, the man always sported an untidy sprouting of graying hair usually mussed about his head by wind and his own hand, a few gnarled teeth with gaps for those gone missing, and kind hearted, pale blue eyes the color of chicory that grows by the roadside. Ray punctuated his stories with guffaws of laughter that rocked his head with ragged nods and agitated jerks of his shoulders, and he entertained us with the past that lived in his mind whether we were at table, or riding on a hay wagon, or standing around the barnyard after work was done until the time later in his life when he became a danger to himself and to the neighbors and was sent away to Fulton by his family.

Even as a youth, I knew that walking up the hill into Ray’s meadow surrounding his house was to step into another time. When I said Ray lived as pioneers lived, I meant it somewhat literally. His house, which we were never invited to enter, may have had the electricity of a single bulb suspended from the ceiling in the three rooms downstairs, but he had no telephone. Throughout my experience of him in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ray did all of his farm work with a team of draft horses. He mowed hay with a horse-drawn mower, he put up his hay loose with a pitchfork on his father’s flatbed wagon with spoke wheels, and if he grubbed weeds from his fields, he did so on hands and knees, wearing a straw hat with a ragged brim. On numerous occasions Ray’s team might escape the wire gate pulled across his driveway entrance and go gallivanting about the neighborhood until someone among us drove them home. Eventually, his team produced a colt that grew up alongside its mother, and once when it was about a two-year-old, all three of Ray’s horses escaped on a Sunday morning when I was fifteen, broke through the wire gateway into a pasture where our two horses were penned and lured them away for a long adventure that resulted in my horse Lucky receiving a hoof injury that marked him as not so “lucky” for the rest of his days.

Ray’s house was shaded by a thick stand of older trees around it, and in the regions behind the house an imaginative boy could find himself far away in time. His outbuildings included a barn as old as the house, and it featured hand hewn posts and beams and wooden pegs holding them all together. Numerous older barns in our neighborhood were leftovers of pioneer construction with adze marks in the beams made by men who planed them by hand and then hand-whittled pegs that pinned these barns together, solid for a century or more if the farmers kept their roofs in repair. Adjacent to the barn were an ancient chicken coop and a log-wall stable with handmade wood shingles—used for his horses in the summer time when they did not need the barn’s better cover. The stable was constructed of three walls and open on the long east side of it, providing the horses some shade from late afternoon heat. Somewhere nearer the house was one of those ancient underground root cellars, such as we had one also on our farm, but Ray’s was a step up in design by having one of those barrel-topped concrete and stone bunker-looking entrances with a handmade door opening to the stairs descending to the darkness below. Our cellar, on the other hand, featured a large door resting at an angle on slanted foundations, and it had to be heaved up and leaned against a post to reveal the stairs at our feet. I always envied our neighbors’ cellars and their little concrete entrance huts.

Beyond this medley of buildings scattered among the trees and the wildflowers that dotted the long grasses, for Ray never owned a lawnmower unless he had one of those old fashioned push mowers with a barrel of whirling blades, or he used a hand sickle, rested Ray’s true little piece of Eden—a sizable orchard with a variety of apple, peach, and plum trees planted by his ancestors and still producing delicious fruit summer after summer despite the bent and gnarled nature of his trees.  To wander here where bee song filled the summer breeze and birds sang from the trees was to enter a corner of paradise planted by pioneers and tended then by their son who shared a shepherd’s spirit with the will of the wind and the soul of the sunlight. Looking back on the Braden farm now, I know I have for a brief time in my life experienced the grace of former days that Thoreau describes so ardently in Walden:

At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew their price. I walked over each farmer’s premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him, took his farm at his price, at any price, mortgaging it to him in my mind; even put a higher price on it — took everything but a deed of it — took his word for his deed, for I dearly love to talk — cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on. . . . Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat? — better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a winter life; saw how I could let the years run off, buffet the winter through, and see the spring come in. The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they have been anticipated. An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow, perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

The Thoreau Reader. Annotated Works of Henry David Thoreau. The Thoreau Society. 3 Mar. 2013 http://thoreau.eserver.org/default.html.

Ray Braden was indeed a man “rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” and though I can not claim knowing if he read Thoreau, if I ever knew a man who lived inherently the wisdom of these words, it was he. I too claim the rights of Thoreau’s imaginary ownership, looking back now on Braden Farm and I help myself once more to a few wild apples glowing so temptingly red on trees gnarled by the rigors of time.

Tabulating these former houses, another one down and gone, makes a mental calendar, a way of giving annual form to formlessness, as I drive out country roads to decorate my family’s dead where they lay in cemeteries bearing family or biblical names: Braden, Mt. Zion, Appleberry, and Ebenezer, my favorite name for its hard meaning: stone of help.

I have no clear memory of when the Daugherty house south of our farm disappeared from the landscape, although I know it was in the years after I moved away from the farm to go to college and to begin a life that would not be dependent on the vagaries of crops, herds, and weather—for that was how I viewed as a youth my father’s captive duties to farm life. This house stood a half-mile down an abandoned road—in the sense that the township no longer “maintained” it with gravel and road grader—that varied from slippery mud to powdery dust and dandelions, depending on the seasons we used it. Eventually the road passed beyond the Daugherty farm and some edges of other farms that had back field access to this road, and it emerged as a graveled quarter mile that ran past Cecil Isaacs’ farm and connected to the gravel road that led us to Ebenezer Cemetery, skirting the edges of the other Smithpeter farm along the way. In those youthful years, how many ways did I experience this maze of country roads leading to various farms in that corner of Carroll County, and unlike Theseus, I need no thread now to guide me from their maze these forty-plus years later. Today, I believe I could guide my sons to drive me through them with my eyes closed, relying on my body’s memory of hills, curves, and necessary stops. My earliest navigations of them were from the backseat of my father’s 1949 Ford coupe or his 1953 Ford truck (which he bought the year I was born and it transported him, my mother, and me to various places we lived in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana during the years he drove a bulldozer for pipeline work). Later, I wandered those roads by bicycle and horse back, and then by tractor as I worked for various farmers during my teenage years. So, I had many opportunities to drive past the Daugherty house and wonder what was within its weathered, unpainted walls, because Herman’s mother had moved from it long before I was born and lived in a smaller house across the road from his farm.

It sat there for years harmed only by the vandals of time and weather, shaded by maples, and looking so inviting. I recall one summer day when I was baling hay for Herman, and taking a rest under the trees, I soon summoned the courage to see if the door were locked. It was not. It took me very little time to debate—would I trespass or pass on by? Well, I was sixteen and I could not help myself—and in I walked. I know now that I could have asked Herman to let me see the house and he might have laughed, but he’d have said, “Sure, but I can’t imagine what’s in there of interest.” But that would be the expression of someone who did not understand the Romanticist’s attachment to ruins and follies—no matter what architectural form they take in a more modern age. For me, here was a pioneer home, an open door for entry, and an invitation to another time, and I accepted. The house had never been modernized—ever. Its wood kitchen cupboards were the same hand-made ones built by the original builder. These stood across the room from the house’s central chimney that offered a flue hole for a wood burning cook stove. The kitchen sink was a built-in zinc-lined wooden affair under the east window of the room, with an iron pitcher pump mounted in it to bring up water from a well under the kitchen. This was a convenience often unheard of in those early days when this house was built—our own farmhouse had a sandstone well curb and a deep well outside the kitchen door. In our early years there—pre-1960 and before we had plumbing in the house—my brother Don and I would quarrel about who had the last turn pumping a bucket of water for the kitchen when it was raining, sleeting, or snowing and was completely uninviting to go out to grip an icy, slippery pump handle. Wandering into the two front rooms, I looked around, admired what remained of fifty-year-old wallpapers from early in the century when my father was born in 1910, noted the parlor side of the chimney also missing its flue cover, stove pipe, and wood stove, and then I opened a cupboard door in the corner to discover the staircase rising to the upstairs. After a short look at the two rooms upstairs, I was ready to go back outside and return to the reality of a sunlit hayfield. I know now with the right selection of primitive antique furniture—the kind my wife has collected for years—I could move into that house today, imagining  myself an older  Henry Thoreau, and I would be supremely happy, I’m sure—in my “country seat” that I have imagined in so many houses, in so many ways, over so many years.  Such are the fractures in time, allowing us to imagine something that would be perfect for us, even if we are powerless to make it happen in reality.

Now, in wandering these old roadways of my memory, I could never go very far in any one direction without arriving ultimately at another Smithpeter house—the dream house of my youth and the object of my mother’s deeply felt veneration. For if Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara were ever to stand anywhere else, its likeness surely stood here on a hilltop a quarter-mile off the road, surrounded by venerable oak and hickory trees, and reached by a gravel lane that curved down a slope, ran past a duck pond, and climbed back up the hill to lead visitors to a stone mounting block used for horseback and carriage arrivals and departures from the time the house was built ca. 1854 by William Smithpeter until over one hundred years later when I would ride a school bus up to this house to pick up the Starnes girls when they attended high school at Bogard.  Always painted white in the years I saw it, the Smithpeter house was one of Carroll County’s true ante-bellum survivors into modern times. It featured two square two-story columns supporting a front portico centered between pairs of windows to the right and left, with a smaller inset portico supporting a balcony over the front door. Green roof shingles and green shutters, white paint and pillars, this house looked like a remnant of a southern dream time placed a little too far north of Dixie. It looked out from its hilltop among oak trees that must have been twice as old as the house itself, and though it would not rival Oak Alley at Vacherie, Louisiana, it was a worthy substitute for southern grace and grandeur transplanted to a hilltop overseeing rolling Missouri farmland. The builder of the house rests among my ancestors at Ebenezer, and in 1905 his son John G. Smithpeter with his wife Cora Estelle Powers Smithpeter built the house I grew up in on our farm three miles northeast of this grand setting. Born in 1904, their daughter Zelma Evelyn Smithpeter grew up in the house and eventually became a coloratura soprano with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later, by some reports, with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Regrettably, the William Smithpeter house burned one night in the early 1980’s, ironically, in a fire caused by a modern woodstove burning too hot for its old chimney, though I have to say that dying by fire is perhaps a more fitting end for a proud old house than falling victim to decades of damp and decay.

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2 comments on “From Roadways of Memory – Part II

  1. gpcox says:

    It’s wonderful to carry all these memories and for letting us hear them.

  2. James Hart says:

    Thank you for your comment. I do hope I am making some of my past seem real to readers–even if you do not know this part of the Midwest. What I am writing about is not all that different for others who see the past that we remember or heard our parents remember, and it is slipping away all over this land. jh

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