Is it fancy to romanticize life on a dairy farm in North Harmony, New York? My Grandparents Johnson lived on Goshen Road in Panama one mile outside Bear Lake, Pennsylvania, from winter 1917 to sometime in 1925 or 1926. No one seems to recall exactly. It is part of the narrative, mythic to me, that surrounds this family tale.
The farm built by my grandfather’s hands, his brother’s hands, from my great grandfather’s blueprints, sat on 77 acres atop a rise in the road just past the Phelps Road corner where the little wooden schoolhouse once sat. Behind the farm, beyond the long fields of corn and wheat and barley the great untamed woods of Niobe rose as they do today, blue black in the distance, mysterious, dark.
The barn was vast. In the photos it looks half the size of a football field, two or more stories with hayloft, three steeples with lightning rods on each one. It had 16 windows on the north side, six on the south, and several above and in front by the milk house door. It’s a barn so well structured it lasted until this decade, 100 years. The bungalow with its wrapped porch and dowelled railings has been torn down. The barn sat west to east backed by a grain silo, a silo standing there to this day. The great doors opened to the lower level where the cows and horses lived. The second floor kept the buggies and plows. The loft held enough hay for two winters and kept the barn warm even on the coldest nights. And the nights way out there a mile from the Pennsylvania border could be frigid. I see from the photos, both the barn and the farmhouse had the signature J. Alfred Johnson diamond shaped window at the attic peak. Even now, as I drive the streets of Jamestown a hundred years since my great grandfather built houses here, I can identify at a glance those houses and buildings he engineered by the diamond windows.
I’m reminded of this now because my grandmother and grandfather moved there in January 1917. I’m not sure how they got there, by rare automobile or a horse drawn sleigh. I wish I had asked them. I look outside and imagine that long, hard drive in such weathers. My father, the last of four children, was born less than a month later right there on the farmhouse kitchen table.
In front with a lovely covered porch wrapping around the front and south side was a two story house fit for a family of three daughters and then a son, my father, who arrived amidst a snowstorm early morning on February 1, 1921. After three girls, finally Ben Johnson had his son. My great grandfather J. Alfred, used to joke that Ben found dad as a baby up in an apple tree in the orchard. It was a great joke laughed about at every holiday. When I think of it now, I wonder why such a joke? J. Alfred had an odd humor. Ben was true to his strong-willed father though. After a stint of running away at age 18 to the West Coast, to Seattle where we’re told he almost stayed, wanted to stay, he returned and did what his father asked of him from then on. Ben was a most dutiful son.
Ben and Martha his Finnish wife ended up on the farm at J. Alfred’s request though he had built them a fine house at 711 Newland as a wedding gift. Martha loved that house but she would never live in it again, first shuffled off to the farm 17 miles into the wilderness then off to Brooklyn for two years then back to Jamestown where they lived in yet another J. Alfred Johnson house next to Ben’s father and mother until both died in 1933 and 1934. My Aunt Marian, my father’s middle sister, once said to us, Imagine how our mama felt way out there in the middle of nowhere with a house full of grown men to feed three times a day and four children under the age of 8 to care for? No cars then. Not even a radio. I do imagine. How did little Martha feel? When I see photos of her on the porch with little Raymond, my father, I can see that despite the workload and the alienation from all she had known, she was happy on that farm.
She was clever with sewing and upholstery. She sewed pretty floral curtains for all the tall leaded glass windows. Jane, Helen and Marian all remember this. Mama, they called her, first syllable accented. Ben loved his animals, the draft horses especially, and ultimately could not send another cow to market so he quit farming. Ben, tall as a Viking, a tender man, full of mercy. Ben loved gardening more, especially huge yellow dahlias, which he grew at 221 Barrett for years. He loved all plants though he became a steelworker, specializing in heights and high work others did not want to do.
But those years at the farm were in their way idyllic. Ben and Martha spoke of them now and then, at holidays if asked, in private if one of the grandchildren asked. Neither talked much. Neither ever made chat. All my life granny Johnson would surprise me. Just when one grew comfortable in her silence, her face set and serious, a hearty laugh might erupt from her throat, a laugh so full of joy you had to laugh too. It surprised you and reminded you she was jovial at heart. They were stoic Scandinavians by nature, tough, resilient, hard working. They loved us and each other forever. Now in the months when roads are clear, I drive the old Goshen Road and stop by the now empty land where their house stood, and look out at the same orchard where great grandfather joked my father had been found in a tree one winter’s morning, and stare out to the wood and hills beyond, imagining a life like that.
I am haunted by it, their life on that farm. On days like today when it is zero degrees, when the snow falls fast and the world is silenced by it, I think of my tough little Finnish grandmother, sewing those curtains with her perfect stitches and hanging them in the kitchen and the girls’ bedrooms to brighten the world. I think of her frying up potatoes and meat on the stove, of scrubbing the washing for her four children, her husband, herself, and four farmhands. I think of standing with the little bay mule, holding my father Raymond on its back, and she, dressed in her checkered gingham, her dark hair wild. Oh, Martha, I want to say, I hope you were happy. My grandfather Ben, strapping and gentle, is in my mind’s eye always driving the harvest wagon behind his two favorite horses. He is blond and unsmiling. I think, here is a man who never shirked a task, who never raised his voice. Here is a man who grew dahlias big as a bread plate and brought them into the house for his little Martha.
My father is not the old man crushed by neurological disease, but that fat cheeked, smiling boy, and my dear aunts, dear beautiful aunts, are standing with their oldest sister Jane, their shepherd, on the porch of the farmhouse, together.
These are my people, these Johnsons. Someone else farms the land now. The primary buildings are gone. But that empty land on Goshen Road — named after the fertile land of Goshen “where light shone even in the plague of darkness” as told in Genesis 45.10 — the place on the lift of a hill, bereft of all but memory now, lives on in the family narrative, mythical, idyllic.