Classic Royko: The Old Man and the Farm

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ADVANCE FOR MONDAY AUG. 3-John Ghere stands with his corn crop on his farm near Onondaga, Mich., Wednesday, July 29, 1998. He farms over 400 acres and his location makes the property valuable and vulnerable to suburban sprawl from both Lansing and Jackson. (AP Photo/Dale Atkins)

The old farmhouse stood along a winding dirt back road. It was the last house before the road disappeared into the heavy Wisconsin forest.

Except for a light in the house, the farm might have been deserted. Stacks of wood, boards, logs, railroad ties, and crates were everywhere in the yard. The machinery and tools were old and appeared unused.

But a light was in the window, and on a fence post was nailed a hand-lettered cardboard sign offering “Fresh honey.”

The only animals in the yard were a friendly dog that trotted to the car, and a cat that sat atop a pile of lumber and stared.

A minute passed, then the door of a shed opened and an old man came out. He was short, almost dwarf-like, and built so squarely he seemed to have no neck. His overalls were the color of tree bark and a shapeless old work cap was pulled over his brow.

He walked heavily, with his arms hanging at his sides like a football lineman. “You want honey?” he asked in a thick Slavic accent. “Come in house.”

The steps led to an enclosed porch in which more wood was stacked, and into the kitchen.

An old black wood-burning kitchen stove stood in the corner of the room. The oak table could have been as old as the house.

An old woman sat dozing in a wheelchair in the living room.

“He wants honey,” the old man said. The old woman nodded.

The man pulled a chair from the table and said, “Sit.” Then he opened a cabinet. The shelves were filled with jars of all sizes and shapes, old coffee jars, jam jars, all filled with honey.

“How many do you want? Two?” He brought out two quarts.

How much? I asked.

He shrugged. “Two dollar.”

He took the two bills, laid them in the center of the table and sat down. “Where you come from?” he asked. “Chicago, huh? Is work in Chicago? Is peoples got work? Good.”

He looked at the dollar bills, smiled and said: “You have drink with me, huh?”

From under the sink he brought out a bottle of vodka, and carefully poured two shots.

He downed his drink, put the bottle back, and sat down again.

“Chicago, huh?” he said, pronouncing it shee-kah-goh. “Long time ago, I go Chicago. No more now. Too far go. I’m too old go Chicago.”

How old are you? I asked.

“I’m eighty-six now. Too old to work farm, too. Now I take care of bees, sell honey.”

The farm, how long did you work the farm?

He thought for a moment. “I came here in 1912. I buy eighty acres, all woods, big rocks. I cut down trees by myself. Cut up wood, chop up wood, take in wagon and sell to brewery. I clear all eighty acres, me and wife. Nobody around here then.”

You came to northern Wisconsin from Europe?

He shook his head. “No. I come from old country in 1900. No work in old country. My father, he work fifteen hours a day for ninety cents. Nothing to eat, no work.

“In 1900 I leave old country and go to Pennsylvania. Work in coal mines. Twelve years I work in coal mines. I save money, and in 1912 I come here and buy eighty acres for $800.”

And there he stayed for almost sixty years. Now, he said, all of the original eighty acres, except the house and yard, have been sold for a modest sum. Small farms in northern Wisconsin aren’t selling for much. Few people want to work as hard as one must to make a living from it. His sons have grown and gone to cities to find jobs.

A cold drizzle was starting to ride in on a north wind. He put some more wood into the black stove and moved the coffeepot over the heat.

Then he walked slowly back to the car and held out his hand. I’ve never seen a hand quite like it. The fingers were so stubby, they all looked like thumbs. The hand was dark and callused from the wrist to the cracked nails.

“You got regular work in Chicago?” he asked. “You got steady job? Good. That’s good. What you do?”

I told him I work for a paper.

Ne nodded. “Good. Everyday you work, huh? Regular work. Good. Is that hard work on newspaper? Hard work?”

I told him that I used to think it was. But not anymore.

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