Finding The Farm, A Place Rediscovered

The problem with rediscovering a place from childhood is that it is unlikely to have remained the same. Or it is no longer there at all. Or it has stood unloved for so long, you must look past the faded paint and cracked windows to envision the grandeur again.

Heinrich Schliemann, the classical archaeologist from the19th century, sought to find mythical Troy from Homer’s stories of antiquity, and when he did, he found six Troys, all buried on top of one another.

“We could imagine nothing pleasanter than to spend all of our lives digging for relics of the past,” he said.

When we look behind us, we are archaeologists ourselves, hoping to excavate a period of time we lived in, or maybe just pleasant summer weeks as my mother sought. We had been driving the roads of Sugar Grove, Pa. together hoping to find the farm where my mother had spent so many happy days with her sister and their relatives.

When we finally found the long driveway she remembered, it was not by chance. We had spent the day before looking at old census records and death certificates and my daughter happened upon a clue: the 1920 census report had the street “Lakewood Road” attached to her Uncle Albert’s entry, and while the road is now called “Forest,” I knew immediately the farm must have been on the road leading from Sugar Grove to Lakewood.

In fact, my mother and I had driven down that road years before together and she’d gotten an eerie feeling at a place in the road that the farm was somewhere close, but then the feeling faded as quickly as it came.

Bolstered by our new clue, we seemed to drive right to the old farm now that we had the street, and god strike me down, we bombed right past the private driveway sign to get a better glimpse of what lay beyond, for which I now apologize.

There wasn’t immediate recognition from my mother, as if she wanted to run to the porch like Scarlett from Gone With The Wind and vow never to leave Tara again. It was more like resignation, that this was the farm but it was no longer her farm-it was not the same way she had remembered as a child.

But what a lovely thing it was to see that somewhere along the way someone had bought the place and restored it. It was perfect-the sort of place Martha Stewart would live, with its white facade and black trim, its generous green lawns and a pond, and the barn that my mother played in beautifully restored. It was now an estate, devoid of animals and corn.

My mother’s farm was likely buried beneath three Troys now, its current layer one of graceful but intentional charm-a “new farmhouse” look, as we often see in restored homesteads that aren’t really farms anymore.

My mom was glad we found the property, but maybe you can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe so famously warned us. But I was amazed after so many decades, how much of her memory about the place was intact-the long driveway, the farmhouse first and then the barn. The only thing missing was the dip in the driveway, but it had likely been leveled at some point along its way to its current grandeur.

Aunt Esther, who hadn’t married until the age of 42, and had lived on the farm for a good part of her life with her brother Albert and his mail order bride Tillie, had eventually moved to Curtis Street with husband Frank and we’d found the exact address on Esther’s death certificate.

The very best part of the day was talking to the lovely couple who had bought the house from Esther and still lived there. And they were able to fill in many missing pieces of the Johnson puzzle.

We learned that Albert must have sold the farm sometime after 1950, and that he hadn’t stayed there his whole life like we had imagined.

They’d moved down to a house near Esther, where Tillie likely died, and where Albert died in 1974 at the age of 90. The windows of that house were being removed for what we guessed was demolition.

I’m sure it had been a fine house back in it’s day and it had served its purpose.

What is amazing is that you can go to a place like Sugar Grove and still find people who remember your relatives, can talk about the peacocks they’d owned, their traits and characteristics, and where they all lived or moved to. That couldn’t happen in a place like Orlando, Fla. It is something unique to rural areas where people tend to stay put and live in the same house year after year, stoking their love for place and community.

We were grateful to Sugar Grove for retaining its charm and much of its memories-which is the same way in which I see my mother now.