LIFE ON THE FARM
PART 3- FARMING

As told elsewhere in this autobiography, as a teenager, I lived on what I’ve always called “Renold Morris’ farm”.  When I got into genealogy in my mid-50’s, I ran the title to this farm back to 1863, when it became vested in one Joseph Britton Hontz and his wife, Barbara

C. (Edwards) Hontz.  (Joseph, it turned out, was a son of my great-great grandfather, Jacob Hontz, Sr.) They, in turn, passed it down, in 1884, to their son, Jasper J. Hontz Jasper, at some point, built the house that was sold to Renold Morris’s father, Albert Morris, in 1920.  As I have also said, I’m not at all certain that my Dad ever knew that the place he ended up working dated back to his grand-uncle Joseph but I’m fairly sure that it was Jasper who taught my dad carpentry.

At the point that Albert Morris bought the place in 1920, it comprised 74.64 acres.  Albert moved his family only about ¼ mile uphill from their prior residence and I’m told that he did so because his crops would encounter less frost higher up.  Albert’s wife, Daisy “Maude” (Gregory) Morris died in 1957. Albert was still living when Dad and I moved there in late 1958, for he died a few months after that, in May of 1959. He may have lived right there in “Renold’s house” but I never saw him.  Upon the death of Albert, Renold inherited the bulk of the 74.64 acres comprised entirely of farmland and the outbuildings. A small 260 feet by 200 feet section containing the house went to Renold’s sister, Lela "Florence" (Morris) Shaw.

As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to acreage but it was obvious that the greater portion of the farm was made up of potato fields.  The farm occupied the front side of a hill, across the hilltop, and down its back side.  The potato fields began about 1/3 of the way up the front side and continued across the hilltop and down the back side. Dad said there were about 9 acres of potatoes that yielded a little over 500 bushels to the acre for a total annual yield of almost 5,000 bushels.  Mixed in with the potatoes on the hill crest were maybe 3 or 4 acres of strawberries and the lower 1/3 portion of the front side of the hill was comprised of apple orchards.  Farming is a year-round job and I guess I’ll tell it starting with Spring and continuing onward through the other seasons.

During the Spring, Renold did most of the actual “farming” by himself, for it involved driving his tractor and readying the potato fields for the current crop.  (Dad was still wrapping up his Winter work down in the storage bins on the lower level of the barn.)  The “early potatoes” were always in the ground by Memorial Day at the end of May. About 90% of Renold’s crop was a white potato variety called Chippewa.  They were rather flat and shaped somewhat like a dinner plate, quite different from the tubular Russets that come chiefly from Idaho.  He also grew a few red taters called Pontiacs.   There was one huckster from Berwick who had clients who preferred white potatoes called Cobblers but he had no farm on which to grow them.  He would give Renold a few bushels of seeds each year and then bought the entire output. Renold had a machine that actually planted the seed potatoes and Dad rode along on it, keeping the hoppers filled, and making sure they were putting down the seeds properly.  Once planted, the seed potatoes were “hilled”, which required use of a different machine that didn’t need Dad’s help.  “Hilling” meant that additional dirt was piled on top of the spot where they’d been buried, creating a small hill that rose maybe 8 inches above ground level. (Thanks to Rich Bronson for providing some of these details.) From time to time, you may run across a potato in your grocery store that slipped through quality-control and has a dark green spot quite visible against its brown background.  That, my friends, is a sunburn, caused when heavy rains washed away the “hilling” and exposed the growing spud to the sun.

Throughout the Summer, Renold would spray the growing potatoes to keep down the weeds. He didn’t need Dad for this, either. He’d just pull his sprayer down to the small pond, 50 yards from our shack, fill it with water, add the herbicide, and proceed across the fields. The sprayer was powered by the tractor’s “power take-off”, so he could turn the sprayer on and off without leaving his seat.  That power also allowed him to fold back the spray booms on either side, much as a diving bird will fold its wings. Sometimes the turn was near a fence and one wouldn’t want the booms to clip the fence during the turn.

He’d also spray a chemical we called “bluestone” on the potatoes.  Bluestone, when used on potatoes, helps protect them against the same blight that drove the Irish to America in the 1840’s. We’ve never managed to eradicate that blight, only control it.  Bluestone is an interesting chemical formally known as copper sulfate. I later learned that it was also added to reservoirs like Ceasetown and Huntsville Dams to keep down the plant growth.  When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a Red Cross nurse used to take a drop of my blood and drop it into some blue fluid to test its specific gravity.  If it sank, my blood was accepted for donation.  I asked what it was and, when she replied “copper sulfate”, I told her of its other two uses and she thought long and hard before believing me. 

Renold’s orchards comprised a great many varieties.  I’ve probably forgotten a few, but, here goes:  Red and Golden Delicious, Northern Spies, Rome Beauties, MacIntosh, Courtland, Winesap, Jonathans, and one that Renold just called “punky” apples that I think, were a hybrid of two of the others.  Apples didn’t require much maintenance.  Once in the Spring, Renold and Dad would go around and trim the trees by cutting off little new “sucker limbs” before they could grow very big.  Left alone, they would have not produced any fruit but served to just drain sap that was better used on producing limbs.  Absent the “suckers”, the apples that grew would be larger.  If the crop looked like it would overwhelm a branch by its sheer weight, they’d also pinch off some of the smaller apples with the same result. Renold also mowed the grass throughout the orchard maybe once a Summer and he sprayed I don’t know what on them too.  Whereas the sprayer could spray downward onto potato plants and didn’t need Dad, he had to ride along and reach a wand up in all directions to spray the apples.

Strawberries are a crop unlike either apples or potatoes in some respects.   The latter two require a little work in the Spring and then get harvested in the Fall, with just some spraying over the Summer.  Strawberries, although their harvest season lasts just a week or two in July, seemed to require constant, Summer-long maintenance.  I’m not sure where Renold bought his new strawberry plants or exactly when he planted them but Dad seemed to spend his entire summer hoeing them. Apples will, once a tree is of fruit-bearing age, produce for many years.  Potatoes get planted and harvested anew each and every year.  Strawberries are the odd crop.  They get planted, but then will not be picked until their SECOND year. The individual plants that Renold placed in the ground would need an entire season to spread out.  They did so by sending out “runners” which would stop about every 18” and put down new roots from which to generate even more “runners”.  The strawberry patches were atop the hill and, therefore, quite subject to windy conditions.  Left alone, the wind would blow the “runners” into a tangled mess.  Dad would hoe a few feet and then stop to arrange the runners so that they would form a neater row in subsequent years, placing a small stone on each one to hold it until it rooted.  From time to time over the summer, Renold would hire me for a few hours to help Dad.  I think he felt a bit sorry for me, for there were no other jobs available in Sweet Valley and, after all, a kid does have to have SOME money.  Working out in the sun didn’t bother me that much but one of Dad’s habits drove me nuts.  One cannot smoke while hoeing because that task requires the constant use of both hands, so Dad chewed tobacco.  Chewing, of course, results in spitting.  Following behind Dad, more than once I came up with a handful of wet tobacco while reaching for a stone.  “Dammit, Dad”, I’d yell, “Spit over where we were YESTERDAY!” 

For most of the year, Renold also hired Ray Edwards to help Dad hoe.  Ray was a crotchety old drunk who squatted in an old log cabin above Harris Pond.  He’d hike over “North Pond Ridge” and across fields belonging to Cory Foss, Garfield Goodman, and Carl Rood, a distance of about two miles.  He’d just walk into our house and many a time we’d find him sitting in Dad’s rocking chair as we awoke.  At the end of an 8-hour work day, he’d collect his $4 from Renold and hike off to Louie Winicki’s bar down in Hunlock Township, maybe another 3 miles away, to drink up his money.  Then it would be about another 4-mile hike back to his cabin to sleep it off.  About the only good thing Ray ever did for us was to sell us a 12-gauge, single-shot shotgun really cheap.  On the other hand, he may well have been the dude who shot my dog.  Some time after I left Sweet Valley, Ray was headed home from the bar, walking right on the roadway as he was wont to do.  A westbound driver, blinded by the setting afternoon sun, didn’t see him and killed him.  I doubt many folks came to the funeral.

Strawberry-picking season usually only lasted about 10-to-14 days around July 4th.  Renold had about 4 patches under cultivation at any one time.  One was the newly-planted one that Dad hoed and wouldn’t be ready until its second year. Hired pickers would work in the second and third-year patches.  A fourth-year patch might still bear a few berries but they weren’t worth paying pickers to harvest and he let pick-your-own folks come in and get what they could for greatly-reduced prices.  The pick-your-own folks would also get a crack at the third-year patch after it was pretty well played-out by the paid pickers. 

It’s kind of hard to recall after all these years exactly how much Renold paid his pickers but I think it was something like 5 cents a quart.  Beside the fact that I’m getting older, another reason I don’t recall what we were paid is because I didn’t pick that many.  It was too hard on the knees.  I usually only showed up if Wanda was there.  She never caught on to why I picked slower than her and I finally told her when we reached our 50’s.  “So I could keep an eye on yer butt in those cute little shorts!  I always let you precede me down a row.” Renold kept a close eye on his market and the price would vary a wee bit from year to year and so did his wage.  He belonged to a co-op down in Berwick and, at the start of the season, a refrigerated truck from the co-op would drive up in the field right to the packing shed.  At the end of the season, that wasn’t cost-effective and Renold would take the meager output over to “morning market”. That was a gathering of local farmers held under the South Street bridge in Wilkes-Barre at about 5 AM.  Restaurateurs and grocery owners would come in and buy what they needed.  Renold would let me ride along just to see the bartering going on.  After all, it was Summer and it wasn’t like I had to skip school to go.

Along about my birthday, on August 17, the “early potatoes” were ready after 10 weeks of growth.  That meant “night market”.  It was a place at the Kingston end of the Pierce Street bridge, behind a car dealership.  It was open 3 nights a week but Renold never went on Mondays, as the buyers were fewer that night.  He’d go on both Wednesdays and Fridays and I always got go along with him and Dad.  (After school started in September, I’d hurry bus driver Fred Updyke to get me home before they left.  They’d wait for me and I’d jump off the bus, books and all, right into the truck.) Dad would ride shotgun and I’d sit in the middle of the old red farm truck’s bench seat, so much the better to bang on the old radio and try to keep it playing.  I don’t think either Renold or Dad cared much for rock and roll but they humored me as I tried to keep WARM (the Mighty 590) tuned in at 590 AM.  It was a time when World Series games were still afternoon affairs, and I vividly recall October, 1959.  My beloved Dodgers were playing the Chicago White Sox and the Sox’ Luis Aparicio would try to steal second base.  Johnny Roseboro would peg the ball down to Charlie Neal and they’d nail him every time!

Buyers of potatoes in August would only buy a half-peck or maybe a full peck at a time and, to make the taters more attractive, Dad would wash them.  One bushel of taters fit handily into an old burlap sack meant for apples and Dad would dunk them into a barrel of water and then return them to the bushel crates.  Later in the season, folks would be buying entire bushels at a time, to stock up for Winter.  Taters wouldn’t keep that well if washed, so those would be sold “dirty”. 

Night market was a lot of fun for me because I’d get to see all sort of “town people”, including some really cute girls who accompanied their mothers.  I never had the nerve to actually talk to any girls but it sure was nice to look.  The other stalls were occupied by other “truck farmers” selling a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.  Knowing I was a “farmer’s kid”, they’d give me free samples of their wares like peaches, nectarines, or pears. Once in a while, I’d get a squash or two and maybe some turnips, kohlrabis, lettuce, or cabbage because Dad knew how to cook them but I’d turn down offers of pumpkins.  One dastardly old farmer from Dallas once fed me some little red thing I hadn’t seen before.  I forget what he said it was, but it turned out to be a RED PEPPER.  It took me 3 Cokes from the refreshment stand to cool down my taste buds!

Even after I’d left the farm and moved into the King’s College dorm, I still managed to see Dad twice a week if I chose to.  After finishing my shift washing dishes in the school cafeteria, it was only a short hike across the Pierce Street bridge to night market.

October was the time when Renold’s major potato crop was ready for harvest and it meant a couple of days’ work for me.  The tater-digging machine left them lying atop the ground but they still need to be moved to the barn’s lower level for storage.  Renold would hire an extra couple of adults, whose job it was to pick up the taters and put them into bushel crates.  Either Dad or Uncle Mike would drive across the field while the other would lift the crates up and set them on the old red flatbed truck.  MY job was to slide the crates into neat, even rows.  I think they would fit 5 across and 6-deep for a total of 30 bushels per load.  I’d estimate that, by October, maybe 500 bushels of “early taters” had been harvested back in August and September and taken to night market, so this left about 4,500 bushels to gather in October.  At 30 bushels per load, that’s 150 loads!  The truck would move slowly across the field at first, stopping every 30 feet or so for new crates to be loaded.  Once full, however, it’d head, with both Dad and Uncle Mike aboard, to the dirt road leading down the hill and this occurred at maybe 15 MPH.  This part was the most fun for me.  Dad would yell at me to squat down amongst the crates lest I fall off but I wouldn’t heed his advice until we hit the dirt road and picked up to about 30 MPH.  I was too busy standing up and “surfing” as I’d heard the Beach Boys sing about doing!  The roughness of the dug-up field caused the old truck to lurch in all directions and “hanging ten” was quite easy to imagine. 

Once down at the barn’s lower level, the truck would be backed slowly between the double-doors to the storage bins.  Passing through the doorway did require squatting lest I lose my head but, once inside, I could stand almost erect.  I’d then slide the crates back to where Dad and Uncle Mike could reach them to empty them and then we’d head back up to the fields for another load.  I kept on eye on the taters as we emptied the truck and I’d pull out a big one from time to time.  From the truck bed, I could reach a small scale and I’d be sure to weigh the big ones.  The record stood at 3 pounds and 5 ounces for one Chippewa!

Dad would spend his entire Winters down in the storage area.  Maybe once or twice a day, someone would pound on the exterior door and Dad would open it and weigh out whatever a local customer wanted to buy.  Given that ¾ of the entire lower level barn was below-ground, it didn’t require much heating to keep the products from freezing.  Renold used 3 kerosene lanterns for that purpose and he’d refill the fuel daily.  That would keep the temperature at about 42 degrees F but that was still cold enough that Dad never removed his winter coat while down there.  The bulk of the potato and apple crop was sold “over town”, either to grocery stores or by “huckstering” the streets of Nanticoke, Buttonwood, and Korn Crest.  While Uncle Mike accompanied Renold maybe twice weekly, Dad stayed behind, measuring out potatoes and apples into 5-and10-pound paper bags, around the necks of which he’d twist a metal tie.  There was always a danger that the products could freeze during the huckstering trips and, to avoid that that, Renold had to heat the load.  He’d fill two 35-gallon milk cans with boiling water and place them in the center of the load and then cover the load with a tarpaulin.  Even with that precaution, he wouldn’t set out if the temperature was less than 30 degrees.  The neighborhood he serviced housed many “babushkas”.  That’s technically the Russian word for “grandmothers” but “babushka”  had come to refer to the black scarf favored by old ladies from Eastern Europe.  Renold learned how to yell “good apples” and such in several Eastern-European languages but all I recall is “dobre yopko”, which is Polish.  He’d bellow “dobre yopko!” and the babushkas would come running.

In the midst of one strawberry-picking season, a stranger showed up unannounced at the packing shed.  Weighing no more than 25 pounds, he was totally bereft of friends, for some mean S.O.B. had just dumped him off to fend for himself.  He gratefully licked the hand of any picker who offered him a piece of their sandwich and he drank any flavor of Kool Aid he could get.  At the end of the day, no one volunteered to take him home with them so I enticed him down the hill to our two-room shack.  Dad didn’t mind for we had had a dog before Janet enticed US to head for California and, after all, what’s a boy without a dog?  He wasn’t much to look at, just your average brown, black, and white mixed-breed mutt, and his appearance engendered no immediate suggestion of a name.  I had first fed him by calling “Here, fella” so that became his official moniker – Fella.

Fella was no dummy.  He made a quick decision to stay where he would be fed, even though the fare was just table scraps. (That’s “orts” to you crossword-puzzlers.)  We certainly couldn’t afford any official dog food.  He ate off an old cracked dinner plate that Dad had been about to trash and sometimes we just tossed his chow onto the ground outside the shack.  He took to sleeping, as many dogs are wont to do, on the lower end of our bed.  We were glad for the warmth he provided our feet because, as I’ve told you, our shack had absolutely no insulation and could get down below freezing in the winter.  We only evicted him from that perch once, about two seconds after he’d bounded onto the bed.  It took only two seconds for us to realize he was fresh from an encounter with his distant cousin – the neighborhood SKUNK!  We kept him out for about two days until the stench waned.

I guess Fella lived a carefree life as a “free-range” dog.  Unlike the custom around much of Sweet Valley, he wasn’t chained life-long to a coop but rather, came and went as his fancy took him. In fact, it nearly broke my heart to HAVE to tie him to the porch the one day each year when Renold mowed the orchard.  Left to his own devices. Fella surely would have lost a leg frisking around the mower.  

Fella and I did have one minor adventure in the orchard.  I had previously TRIED to train him to fetch by throwing little green apples.  He’d chase them, all right, but he never quite figured out that he was supposed to bring them back.  I forgot all about that “training”. I was a typical teen in that I had begun to doubt the wisdom of many “old wives’ tales” I’d been told.  One was that that you should never throw a rock at a hornet’s nest lest they follow a reverse flight of the rock and sting you.  “That’s stupid!”, I said to myself, “you mean there’s an invisible trajectory that only they can see?”  I decided that what would happen, in all likelihood, was that they’d would sting anything that moved and I decided to test that theory.  There was a major hornet’s nest hanging from an apple tree not far into the orchard, so I stood on the dirt road and got ready to lob a fist-sized rock and then be totally brave and NOT move a muscle. The rock struck near the nest, shaking the limb to which it was attached and ZOOM! ZOOM! ZOOM!  It seemed like 10,000 hornets came pouring out in all directions.  Several hundred must have come within a foot of my head but I held my ground and didn’t flinch or even bat an eye.  It worked!  I didn’t get stung once! I was lucky they didn’t react to a scent because I sure was sweating up a storm.  I held that pose for a good five minutes and decided to test the theory again with a second rock.  I swear to you I never noticed that Fella had come up behind me to see what I was up to.  He took off to chase the rock and gave no notice to my cry of “NO, you damned fool dog! DON’T!”  He arrived just beneath the limb two seconds after the rock hit it and he immediately realized his dilemma.  You wanna talk about a “beeline”? Those little buggers could fly much faster than he could run. They must have stung his butt for 100 yards down the road until he jumped into the pond where Renold filled his sprayer!  I later hugged Fella and apologized to him sincerely.  He was a loving dog and forgave me but, from then on, I always checked to see where he was before I tested any more theories. 

As I’ve said, Fella was a “free-range” dog.  He wasn’t the type to sit anxiously in the yard awaiting the arrival of my school bus.  In fact, I often didn’t see much of him each day until he got hungry or it was time to jump on our bed for the night.  The time came when he didn’t make an appearance for two days in a row and I thought only “he’s found another girlfriend around the neighborhood somewhere.  She’s playing hard to get”. Those two days stretched into two weeks and I finally decided he’d been hit by a car but I didn’t know where to look.  Maybe two months later, Dad said someone had found what was left of him, tied to the tree where someone had shot him.  I never found out who did that dastardly deed but nasty old Ray Edwards was atop my list of suspects.  He most likely had another gun beyond the 12-gauge shotgun he’d sold to Dad.

Most teenage country boys engaged in hunting but I wasn’t that good at it.  As I told you in my “Mooretown age 6 to 11” chapter, I used to help Rennie Rosencrans hunt squirrels but I now lived further away from him.  Without his help, I couldn’t “corner” a squirrel on one side of a round tree so as to get a clear shot.  During “small game” season in October I made a few meager attempts at grouse or ring-necks but failed miserably.  I’d almost step on one only to have it fly away and scare the heck out of me.  I’d get off one shot but never came close to hitting one. 

“Buck” season started in early December and I did get lucky once.  Renold’s farm was surrounded on 3 sides by 12”-by-8”-square wire fencing about 6 feet high.  Deer could still easily get into the orchard by coming through the unfenced Grassy Pond Road-side between our shack and Renold’s house. We’d often hear their hooves on the frozen ground outside our shack. Despite such easy access, they’d often choose to worm their way through the fence atop the hill or on the backside of it.  Dad and I figured out a good plan.  A few days before the season opened, we’d walk the fence line and spot the holes they had made.  The very day before season, we’d block the holes with tree branches.   One hole was along the western side of the property above the orchard and that was where I chose to wait.  As daybreak dawned and the season was officially opened, sooner or later a buck would come along and try to get out through that hole.  A forked tree stood to one side of the wagon road Renold used to access his strawberry and potato fields.  Its one trunk was just the spot along which to hide my shotgun.  I hid beside the second trunk and peeped a few times to spot what was headed my way.  Soon a small herd of deer approached but, alas, the leader was a doe not eligible for harvesting.  “Darn”, I thought. “she’ll give the alarm and the rest will scatter.”  The wind must have been blowing in just the right direction for, I swear, that doe walked within 15 feet of me and never noticed me! I waited for about another ten minutes until she was safely down the hill and then I peeped again.  Here came a small buck!  I counted to about 30 to give him time to get closer and then I sprang from behind the tree and took my shot.  He flinched but then took off running across the top of the hill.  I reloaded my single-shot shotgun and managed to get off a second shot before he disappeared into a strawberry patch atop the hill.  I was pretty sure I’d missed him again.  It surprised me to no end as I crested the hill and found him lying dead.  Apparently my first shot had done him in. 

Now came the problem of how to get him down to the shack.  Dad had gone to hunt in the swamp next to Renold’s sprayer-filling pond and I yelled “Albert!” several times.  (Had I yelled “Dad!”, several men could have come running.) I heard no response and set about doing the proper thing, “tagging” the deer.  PA state law required that one tie a tag onto a kill before moving it, indicating its sex, estimated weight and where and at what time it had been collected.  As a tenant farmer’s dependent, I didn’t need an official hunting license to roam Dad’s employer’s land or that of adjoining neighbors.  As such, I didn’t have the official tag that comes with a license.  I’d planned ahead for this eventuality and I whipped out a pencil and piece of scrap paper.  He was a young buck, no more than 125 pounds with a “Y’ rack (a 4-point set on antlers with two points on each side.)  He was too heavy to carry and besides, I didn’t want to get blood on my clothes.  I decided to drag him but then, what to do with the tag?  I tried hanging it on his rack but it then scraped along the ground and came off.  Sticking it in his ear seemed to work and I started dragging him.  I took him through a gate in the fence and proceeded down the dirt road.   ‘twas a good thing I hadn’t planned on having his hide tanned, for I rubbed off his entire one side by the time I got home.  Only THEN did Dad show up.  Oh, he’d heard me yell but didn’t respond because he KNEW it was me by the sound of the shotgun.  He’d retraced my entire route, i.e., up the wagon road, across the top of the hill and than all the way back down the dirt road.  “Thanks, Dad”, said I.  “I could have used some help.  I’m plumb tuckered out.”  Dad cleaned the carcass in the field across from our shack and then I hung it on the maple tree on our front yard.  I added a sign that read “This is RONNIE’S – not Albert’s.”

Dad fried up some of the meat and we gave the rest to the Gross family.  It still tasted “wild” to me and I refused to eat it.  Then, too, I felt sorry for the poor buck.  I had had to psyche myself up by saying  “You S.O.B! You’ve been eating our strawberry plants!” before pulling the trigger.  That factor, combined with my distaste for the meat, has had a lot to do with the fact that I have never again gone hunting.  Yes, the herds DO need to be culled lest they starve, but it doesn’t have to be me doing the culling.  Heck, I don’t even prepare Hamburger Helper any more because I don’t like handling raw meat.  Call me squeamish but that’s just the way I am.

Written in July and August, 2008 by

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

Home