ON THE FARM
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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”.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
in July and August, 2008 by
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
Shrewsbury PA 17361
cell phone (717) 309-1402