In every corner of rural America, things blend together. The land seamlessly shifts from river valleys to hill country; fields snake in and out of forests and forests in and out of fields; people move in and out of hard times and cornucopias of venison, corn, and weddings; they migrate to the city, they migrate back. Indentured servants, slaves, indians, revolutionaries, criminals, missionaries, tractor salesmen, crows, owls, wolves, cows, dandelions: They bustle about, coming and going. In the big city, this coming and going is measured in hours. In hill country – it’s measured in centuries.
Just to the north of gorgeous US route 20 is the town of Litchfield, NY, population 1,513. Wheelock Hill presides over the highway like an old buzzard. This hill, like all the others around it, is a member of a smiling, tired gang of hills that may be some of the oldest not only in Appalachia, but in the whole country. Like the times and the culture, even the mountains move slowly here. It is gentle in this regard – in others, it is severe. During the winter – a six-month-long affair – the wind bites through thick parkas and furs, coats the roads in black ice and thick snowbanks, and freezes creeks into monasteries of ice. Spring brings thick mud and longer days; and the race begins to plant the corn, fix the tractors, and to press as many sturdy young men into farming labor as are necessary. By the time the dense humidity of summer settles over Litchfield, the corn will be high and the kids will be barefoot in the woods, laughing, playing, fighting, falling in love with each other and the land around them.
The place that I am describing is not something out of a Mark Twain novel or a Walt Whitman poem. Far from an ancient myth or a sneeze of misguided nostalgia, the simple agrarian life is alive here in Litchfield.
It was in this hardscrabble patch of soil that the old Litchfield Grange building stood.
The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was a movement that began in 1867 as a way of both organizing farmers to better their conditions and to build community in agricultural areas. Their original purpose hearkens back to a distinctly rural American sense of social justice and equity; they campaigned for free rural mail delivery and lobbied congress to enact limits on what railroad companies could charge for agricultural shipments, they acted as meeting centers for weddings, dances, concerts, and for gathering together the “tillers of the land” when the disaster capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries got out of control and proved ruinous for the farmers. Consider this folk tune published by the Grange in 1905;
Brothers of the plow, The power is with you;
The world in expectation waits, For action prompt and true,
Oppression stalks abroad, Monopolies abound;
Their giant hands already clutch The tillers of the ground.
Awake, then, awake! the great world must be fed,
And heaven gives the power to the hand that holds the bread.
— Geo. F. Root,
“The Hand That Holds The Bread”
Grange Melodies (Philadelphia, 1905)
And so it was with the Litchfield Grange. This old building saw not only the constant, unending cycles of freeze and thaw, flood and drought, but also the cycles of life and death, of poverty and prosperity, of revolt and contentment. Stiff with age, rusticated and sturdy, the frame stood like a monument to another time. Today, the “hands that hold the bread” no longer conjoin for a square dance in old Litchfield, nor do they even hold much bread. More likely, they hold a shift knob in a tractor, or they hold the cash that remains from the day they sold the farm to bigger interests. The town sleeps as the tractors whir and grind down the corn – and Wheelock Hill still watches in her rusticated, ancient curiosity.
And I myself am curious when Brian, our custom builder and designer, gives me a call. He implores me to stop by to take a look at some of the new wood he’s just unloaded. “Where’s it from?” I asked. When he tells me Litchfield, I get even more curious. I had heard that name only a couple weeks ago, but couldn’t remember where. “Where the heck is that?” I asked him. “Between Utica and West Winfield, in the boonies.” Immediately, I remembered just where I had heard the name.
I had stood, feet aching as I stood on the soaked earth in a torrential downpour in Richfield Springs, NY, only two weeks before. I, being in my twenties, and perhaps somewhere on the spectrum between “adventurous” and “absolutely foolish” have hitchhiked around the US for a number of years, as a guerilla sociologist of the most half-baked sort, learning about America’s people and land by direct contact. With so much trouble across the earth, and many reasons to be cynical, I find that the mutual trust of the act of hitchhiking restores my jouie-de-vivre and spirit of hope. Yet that day in Richfield Springs, the well of hope had sprung dry – despite the rain. I wasn’t getting any rides.
Finally, a woman by the name of Sherrie pulls over in her rusty Ford Bronco. Grinning and smoking a cigarette, she throws the door open and hoots, “Get on in now before ya drown!”. Immediately, I burst into laughter – the car is warm, the smoke smells good, and I am happy to see another human being who seems to be plenty good company. “Thanks so much,” I say, before asking her where she’s headed. “Eh, up around West Winfield” she says, sounding unsure.
Rural people do this peculiar thing: When discussing whatever tiny town or hamlet they hail from, they are somewhat evasive. This is not because they are suspicious of you or rude – it’s merely because in such vast expanses of thinly populated land, they assume, often rightly, that you will not know their little town by name. So they relate their general vicinity to you by approximation: “I’m from near Utica” or “Oh, maybe half an hour west of Plattsburgh”. When hitchhiking, the approximate location given by a rural-dweller is almost always the furthest town they can take you on the route you’re headed; in this case, West Winfield.
And immediately, I recognize what she is saying: That she is from some tiny podunk village. Me being something of a connoisseur of New York’s more obscure locales, hillbilly havens, and backwoods one-horse towns, I figured I’d ask out of curiosity where she was from. “I’m from Litchfield, born and raised on Jerusalem Hill. Never left neither.” That she had never left was impressive to some degree; this woman was, by her own description, as old as the hill on which she was born.
She spoke of her children, her son who had gone to Iraq in 2002, her daughter who ran a taxidermy business nearby. She spoke of her impoverished childhood as the daughter of the owner of a long-since-closed motel on Route 20 and the struggles they faced when interstate 90, some miles north, was constructed – sending more drivers on routes that did not pass by the family motel. And, she spoke of her marriage. “I got married at the old Grange in the ’61” she had said, and at the time, I thought very little of it.
But as Brian hung up the phone, her face flashed back into my mind. The Grange! Sherrie! As I went into the wood shop the next day, some of the first wood from the Litchfield building had finished drying. One of our builders, Nick, was busy filling orders, and pulled a board out, beginning to craft it into a shelf. I wondered whether this board had seen old Sherrie get married; I wondered, as well, whether it had seen her husband’s funeral, or whether it had seen her children’s baby showers. I wondered if her son saw it as he came back to Litchfield from Iraq.
And now to think of this board’s happy retirement, after seeing Sherrie’s story, – and surely many others – after hearing the old Grange hymns sung, after the hardest winters and their vicious windchills in the negative forties, after the farms nearby were bought and sold and brought to prosper or go fallow – it made me sit back and grin with wonder. Now, a new life for this wood. Now, it would sit in someone’s kitchen, watching a new set of children grow up, protected from the brutal winters and wet summers. Maybe it would wind up in dry Phoenix or in Alaska. Maybe it would go all the way to Australia, as one of our recent orders did.
And in the process of this new transition for the life of this wood, we’d find ourselves transitioning, too. To a long break from uncertain days where work was hard to find, to a better life for us and our kids. I’m not sure where Sherrie is today, but if I ever hitchhike back through West Winfield – I’ll be sure to tell the story she never imagined would unfold.