Farm history, tobacco, Hal Wake, Peter Gzowski, my CBC Morningside catastrophe
Speaking of my archives, now safely locked away in a rented storage unit where I expect to retire one day, one of the minor treasures therein is an old issue of The Canadian Forum with my essay "Fallow Fields" (The Canadian Forum, January 1987). My father had died in 1984, leaving the family tobacco farm to my mother in a troubled time. We were havering between different imagined futures for the land, much as my brothers and I are today. I wrote this essay in an effort to think through the situation for myself. It made a splash. Peter Gzowski, Captain Canada, interviewed me on CBC Morningside. This turned out to be a catastrophe (aka learning experience) for me.
I was very inexperienced in the media world. I was much better at being alone and writing. My typewriter was next to the bed. I didn’t have to go out much. I got the call from the CBC and was inordinately pleased. The person who called was Hal Wake, then a producer at Morningside. He asked me all sorts of lively and probing questions about the article and the farm. I expatiated brilliantly. He was kind, curious, and flattering. I didn’t realize that this was a sort of pre-interview, a test to see if I could sound interesting on the radio. But I liked talking to Hal (who showed up in my life much later as the impresario at the Vancouver Authors Festival). This was going to be a breeze. A week or so later I dutifully showed up at the studio on Jarvis Street in Toronto, was ushered into the august presence of Peter Gzowski himself and, suddenly, was on live radio, speaking to the nation.
Gzowski was the opposite of Hal Wake, gruff, glowering, gravel-voiced, clearly in a bad mood. I remembered how much fun I’d had talking to Hal and tried dismally to recall what I had said. Nothing came to mind. Gzowski grew increasingly impatient with my halting answers, wondering, no doubt, how this imbecile had gotten into the sound booth. I wondered how I had gotten there, too, what series of missteps had led me to national humiliation. I felt like I was twelve. Gzowski didn’t even try to jolly me out of my insentience. He closed me down as quickly as he could, and I slunk away, ego and career in tatters.
The lesson I learned, as I thought about this, was that I can’t repeat myself. Pre-interviews were death on my powers of wit and sponteneity, such as they are. I never did another (nor was I ever invited back on Morningside). I also learned that the writer’s life is a trough of vainglory and embarrassment.
But about that essay:
Some of the text is dated now, that moment in economic and technological history is long gone. But the bulk of the essay about the history of the farm and tobacco growing is golden in capturing the times. Here's an excerpt:
The farm I grew up on has been in the family since 1900, when my grandfather bought it (155 acres less five when the Lake Erie & Northern Railway expropriated a right-of-way through the property in 1914) for $7,000. About 40 acres of this was mixed woods — maple, beech, and oak — with a swamp and springs that flow eventually into Lake Erie 20 miles away. There were some damp, low spots, which were fenced for pasture then and planted with corn or soybeans now, and some persistently sterile and yellow hilltops (“sandy knolls” my father called them) that still require extra fertilizer and careful erosion control. The rest was relatively fertile sandy loam, good for growing almost anything; ideal, it turned out later, for tobacco.
Besides the farm buildings, a hired man’s house, and a smaller house for summer help, there was a large Georgian fieldstone farmhouse, beautiful, imposing, but hard to heat, built by the farm’s original owner, a Dr. Duncombe (brother of Dr. Charles Duncombe, who raised the ﬂag of rebellion in Scotland
Whether those orchards survived, or whether my grandfather had a special predilection — his Loyalist forbears settled for a while on the Niagara Peninsula — he started out as a fruit grower. But not just one fruit, or one variety of fruit. This was an era of agriculture before mechanization, agribusiness, monocultures, and, for that matter, tobacco. In the field next to the house, my grandfather grew black currents (picked in 11-quart baskets and shipped by the L.E.&N. to Brantford or taken by car to Norwich and Kitchener) and gooseberries. There was a stile across the railway fence and then a patch of raspberries. South of the raspberries we had a five-acre apple orchard (that’s where the kiln yard is now; one lone apple tree is left, dropping its scant, wormy fruit on the cureman’s shack year after year). The apples were old-fashioned varieties, mostly out of favour now because they don’t store or ship well: Greens, Northern Spies, Snow Apples, and Tallman Sweets (packed in barrels and sent away by rail). North of the barn there were a couple of acres of cherries and about the same in pears (my grandfather tried peaches ﬁrst, but they were frozen out) — again, what is striking is the variety: Kiefers, hard as bullets when picked; Bartletts for canning; Clap Favourites, a dessert pear that started to spoil practically as soon as it came from the tree.
But the farm’s main income came from strawberries, which my grandfather grew in eight- to 12-acre patches, moving the patch every couple of years as the plants went past their peak. Strawberry harvest was the busiest time on the farm, with as many as 60 people; whole families of Iroquois — Generals, Sowdens and Jacobs — came from the nearby Six Nations Reserve to live in rough duplex shacks (they had bunks inside and a cook stove on the porch) my grandfather provided while the season lasted. (There is a shade of irony in the thought that these Iroquois were the same fierce warriors who exterminated the first Ontario tobacco growers, the Neutrals and Petuns, while Canada was still a French colony.) The berries were taken on ﬂatracks to Waterford and loaded onto Michigan Central refrigerator cars bound for Montreal or Detroit. My grandfather did his selling by telephone, anxiously calling between the two cities for the highest price.
By modern standards it was a very mixed farm and quite self-sufficient. Behind the house there was a garden, a chicken run, a hog yard, and along, red hog barn; once a year my grandfather killed a pig and made sausages and lard and cured hams in the stone smokehouse. He kept cows, too, six or seven of them for milking, though he never liked them and my grandmother refused to let him build a silo or get too deeply into the livestock side of the business. During the summer the cows were pastured at the edge of the woods on the north side of the property. Twice a day my father or my aunt walked to the head of the pasture lane to shout, “Cow-Boss! Cow-Boss!” and the cows would amble home and into their stalls for milking. Some of the milk was used on the farm, some was sold in large metal cans picked up every day by a dairy truck.
There was a gabled drive shed for storing machinery,with a weather vane and a circular glass window in the gable, and a large two-storey barn with stables for cows and horses on the ground ﬂoor, and a grainary and hay loft above. Hay, oats, rye, wheat, and turnips were grown on the farm and stored in the barn to feed the animals (some of the grain was ground into grist at a nearby mill; my aunt split the turnips with a hand-turned cutter), and, naturally, we did not need to buy commercial fertilizers. A windmill pumped water to the house and barn. For labour my grandfather depended mainly on a permanent hired man (and his wife) who worked on the farm in return for a rent-free house, firewood cut in the woods, milk, use of a driving horse, land for a garden, and wages that amounted to about $400 to $600 a year (I'm talking about, roughly, the time of the First World War — the troops were getting $1.10 a day). During the summer, my grandfather would often employ a temporary hired man as well. There was a second, smaller tenant house for him and his family and, of course, he also got the free milk, firewood and garden.
You can download and read the rest of the essay here.
In my imagination I have always liked the idea of ending up in a rented storage unit. This is a comic motif in my short story “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night” in Savage Love.
This is the village of Scotland not the country. The village of Scotland is about 10 kilometres northeast of the farm along Highway 24 (what we still call “the new Highway 24”). The rebellion mentioned is the Rebellion of 1837, which played out simultaneously but differently in Upper and Lower Canada.