Autobiography - Farming In Innocence
[Back Story: I have lived my whole life on the same farm, a handsome cluster of modest farm buildings, tethered by a long driveway to a gravel road. The farm is located in the gently rolling countryside of northern Illinois.

My Scandinavian parents and grandparents had farmed in the community since the early 1900s. My family was hard working, church- and community-minded. In the late 1940s, when I was born, the farm was a family dairy and poultry enterprise. By my seventh year, I was involved with the farming business, performing light livestock chores. By age nine, I was running tractors and milking cows morning and night. And joining my father and uncle in the Saturday outings to nearby Beloit.]


[Excerpt]
I paid for the Sears tractor battery with a check. I was at the Beloit Mall and the battery salesman said, "Peterson, huh? Was Albert your grandfather?"
"Yup."
"He used to bring crates of pigeons into Beloit. Pigeons were quite a treat back then. He always got a good price for 'em, too."
"Yeah, I still see 'em flying around his barn, even though he died twenty years ago," I replied.
"I used to help the vet castrate pigs out there—must be forty or fifty years back." The salesman paused for a moment. "He always kept a close count—couldn't stand to be overcharged. After each pig was cut he'd throw the nuts into a bucket and when the cutting was over he'd count 'em up and that's how many cuts he paid for. And your gramma always made us come in for coffee and cookies afterwards. She wanted the gossip from town. Everyone loved your gramma."

Beloit was once a farm town. Farmers traded on Saturday nights and Saturday nights were hot. Pool halls and ballrooms were booming. Townspeople and farm folk hollered and gambled, danced, swapped goods and gossip. There were shoeshine stands and smoke shops, and my uncle Harold shot a pool ball so hard it stuck in the wall.

My uncle Harold shot a pool ball so hard it stuck in the wall.

By the time I was five, Saturday night started on Saturday mornings, and cars were parked three deep on the streets downtown. Farm hands spent their paychecks on pleated trousers, white buck shoes, and engraved adjustable rings to give to their girls. I came in every Saturday to get out of grinding feed and to read the comic books that fluttered on the outside rack next to the shoeshine stand where the shoeshine man finally learned my name.

Every third Saturday, Grandpa, Dad, and I sat three abreast getting our haircuts at Hirt's Barber Shop. Afterwards, we had chocolate malts. Dad wasn't supposed to have a malt, because he had diabetes. So he bought me two malts. Then I gave him one of mine.

Grandma Peterson saw Dr. Clark regularly about her weight problem. Each time she visited Dr. Clark, she brought three chocolate eclairs. She gave one to the receptionist. Then Grandma and the doctor went into the examining room, where they discussed how fat she was while they ate their eclairs.

Early each spring we got about two hundred tiny yellow chicks. They huddled under an electric light and then grew up fast. Come late spring we'd already have fryers ready. I cut their heads off sometimes, but usually Dad did it. They went every which direction without their heads and tried to fly. One even went way into the ironweed patch once, and we couldn't find it anywhere. After the chopping and flapping, Mom scalded the corpses, and my whole family plucked their feathers. Sometimes they were still twitching when we plucked them and they made mournful sounds through their necks. My sister, Carol, and I would shriek and throw wet feathers at each other. Next day we'd help deliver the dressed spring fryers to Beloit homes.

My sister, Carol, and I would shriek and throw wet feathers at each other.

Cock fighting was outlawed by the time my parents bought their new '53 Pontiac. The Beloit Pontiac dealer needed a hideout for his cocks, so my family gave them a home. Jasper was the most vicious. My sister Mary Jane led her calf around the yard. Jasper perched on top of the brooder house. When Mary Jane turned her back, Jasper attacked her neck with his sharpened talons and razor beak. The calf ran away. Mary Jane bawled. For our trouble the Pontiac dealer gave us an ancient oil painting of Chief Pontiac standing on a bluff overlooking the Rock River.

We had an egg route, too. Three times a day Grandpa gathered the eggs from the nests in the chicken house; when he got senile he gathered them ten or twelve times a day. We traded the eggs for gas at Brownie's Gas Station. We delivered eggs to homes, too—always fifty cents a dozen—never raised or lowered our prices like the stores did. The remaining eggs we traded for groceries at the Beloit Bonnie Bee.
[End of Excerpt]

[Back Story: The family gradually incorporated new technology (including toxic chemicals) into the farming operation, easing much of the back-breaking work. I worked alongside my dad and various hired hands, milking, haying, grinding feed, filling silo, building fence. On some level, I was sure that the rest of the world was farming, too, day in, day out. It was the tapestry of life, the only world I really knew.

In 1969, my father died. I took over the farming operation. Nearby Beloit College, which I was attending, attracted free spirits from all over the world. I was intrigued that my fellow students had not spent their summers farming. I engaged these exotic souls. They streamed onto my farm. They helped me milk cows and rode on my tractor as I planted the crops. This new world of bohemians and renegades brought a creative impulse to my life as a farmer. Soon my tractor sported an eight-track tape player and enormous speakers, the farm basketball court was illuminated by strobe light, and an outbuilding on the farm became my new living quarters.]


[Excerpt]
When it was time to go to college, Dad wasn't well and I wanted to keep farming. I had done a lot of the farming since I was nine. I liked the rhythm of milking the cows—swinging the bucket, squatting and standing, pouring the milk into the cool stainless tank. I liked saying "hup" and " whoa girl" to the cows.

I liked saying "hup" and " whoa girl" to the cows.

So I picked the college that was closest to home. It happened to be Beloit College, eight miles from the farm. In a pinch I could drive there in eight minutes in the new supercharged Dodge I had bought out of the dairy income. The only thing I had heard about Beloit College was that the sophomores didn't beat up the freshmen like they did in my high school.

The first thing I noticed as a college freshman was the contrast between my crew cut and the other boys' long hair. Then I realized that the others hadn't been baling hay that summer. And one afternoon, in the student union, I learned that the kind of fencing the other students were doing didn't keep the cows in. . . .

. . . By the end of my second year at college, I sold the dairy herd. I loaded them up in a fracas and shipped them to Dewane's Sale Barn in Belvidere. After the auction I found a cow hiding in our woods. That night she had the last calf in the new quiet of the Peterson farm. Her labor was extra hard, so I reached in, way up to my armpit, and pulled the calf right out.

I bought a John Deere 1250 corn planter and Lilliston Lehman cultivator. I rented extra land from a neighbor. Chores were over. I could sleep in mornings and watch the students revolt at night.

I could sleep in mornings and watch the students revolt at night.

I opened a head shop, the Stone Quarry, in Beloit to take the place of the dairy and chicken operation. I sold posters that said "Hallelujah the Pill," beads and blacklights, handmade jewelry, and African shirts. My favorite were the Ricki Ticki Stickies—bright-colored flowers that disenchanted students stuck on their cars before heading west.
[End of Excerpt]

[Back Story: By the time I graduated from college, the farm had become a beacon for many young people who were seeking a life close to the land. Dropouts and graduates settled in the neighborhood and on my farm, which was now a hog and grain operation.]

[Excerpt]
Hogs were a mainstay on the farm. I filled the woods and pastures and barns with lumbering sows and foaming boars and hundreds and hundreds of scampering piglets. I bought beef cattle. My friend Larry gave me a rooster, and the whole place had hubbub again, grunts and moos and squeals and squawks. Pigs frolicked, sows nested, cows roamed, the rooster flapped. People hustled about, cleaning pens, ringing sows, and giving shots. They were often students and graduates—philosophers, anthropologists, and artists wanting a reprieve or an apprenticeship. Sometimes they were neighbor boys glued to the land, former factory workers under the spell of pastoral memories, or cross-country truckers with southern drawls. Nurses and midwives, waitresses, childhood sweethearts, and future monks all found employment on the farm.
[End of Excerpt]

[Back Story: My long-haired friends and I saved what we could of the towns and farms that were being thoughtlessly demolished in the '70s. We used the materials to renovate buildings on the farm into studios, galleries, and creative living spaces.]

[Excerpt]
It was the '70s. The old Beloit of smoky pool halls and steamy ballrooms, graceful storefronts and gracious hotels was meeting the wrecking ball. Townspeople called it progress. "We must get rid of the old to allow for the new," they assured one another.

During the slack seasons, we dismantled what we could of downtown Beloit, while it was being turned into ashes and dust. That saloon where Uncle Harold shot the pool ball into the wall—we got its tall arched windows. We scooted about town, just ahead of the wreckers, saving carved doors, curved shutters, round windows, ornate trim, pine hutches layered in stubborn coats of paint, and the Hotel Marvin sign with its broken neon.

From the mid-70s until the early '80s, artifacts from bygone Beloit were being incorporated into the reconstruction of the Peterson farm, creating homes and halls and workplaces for the resident farm hands, builders, cooks, and artists.
[End of Excerpt]

[Back Story: The farm hosted festivals and performances.]

[Excerpt]
The barn rumbled with revelers in the hay, basketball by strobe light, and bands that blew the circuits. Billy would put a lamp in the sow pasture and there would be a party. I wouldn't schedule a party and everyone would come. I pulled a hayrack filled with straw and swaying students fast, as fast as that Farmall 656 would go, sometimes two racks in tandem, filled, fast, weaving, while Jim Morrison insisted through the big speakers mounted on my fenders that "you cannot petition the Lord with prayer."

I wouldn't schedule a party and everyone would come.

You'd know the harvest was over at the Peterson farm. A big round bale of fire might roll down the long hill. A long trough of fire might illuminate the woods. Rockets might zing through the night. Or little kerosene fires would dot the fields, as far as you could see. The best was when fire reached the sky and the farm was brighter than day.
[End of Excerpt]

[Back Story: The farming operation expanded to include hundreds of acres of corn, hay, soybeans, and wheat. This expansion was made possible through taking on overwhelming debt—a debt that finally crashed the farm.]

>>>To continue reading -- "The Sale”

 
 


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