A small town newspaper editor has to accept old folks in the community stopping by his office to tell stories. Most of the editors I worked for felt they had better things to do, but I liked it. Hemingway, who knew everything about journalism, once said something like, "no matter how busy he really is, a journalist should always act like he has nothing to do."
When I was editorial page editor of the West Chester "Daily Local News," I used to hear wonderful stories of the old days from the likes of Liz Heed, Charlie Lucas, the ex-mayor, and Caroline Rubincam, the widow of a prominent local artist. But my favorite visitor was Marshall Jones. Marshall had been working Maple Shade Farm, 193 acres of pasture and woods on Shiloh Road in Westtown Township, since before my parents were born. It was the last farm in the township and one of the last east of the Brandywine Creek. Housing developments hemmed it in on all sides.
He'd had one heart attack by the time I met him, and he was renting out the dairy operation to a tall, quiet fellow my age named Peter Flynn. Marshall seemed sort of lost in his semi-retirement, and his wife used to shoo him out of her house and tell him to find something to do, so he started visiting the paper to chat with the ag reporter, who quickly passed him off to me. Marshall seemed not to realize that non-farmers didn't rise at 5:30 a.m. every day, and I used to get calls from him at home at 6:30 in the morning to talk about the celebrations at the end of World War I, or about gawking at the first airplane to pierce the skies over West Chester.
I had stored up some of his stories, and used the excuse of his 80th birthday in 1989 to collect some of them and publish them in the paper. I went out to the farm to interview him. I drove south out of town on a January day, past single-family houses on neatly mowed quarter-acre lots. We walked to his barn at sunset, I in my corduroy pants and docksiders, he in rubber boots, green work pants and a dark flannel shirt. Marshall was a short man, with rugged hands and gray, chipped fingernails. His thick, white hair had a few wisps of blond still.
The Joneses were Swedes. They had been farming on rich riverbottom earth in what is now Philadelphia even before William Penn and his seasick Quakers sailed up the river to found their colony. The city grew, and the Joneses moved in the 1800s to next-door Delaware County. When Jones was a boy, the city caught them again. "Sixty-Ninth Street terminal was built in 1907," he told me. "That's where the trolleys from West Chester, Norristown and Media all converged on the elevated there. That opened up that area. They started to develop again, and my father said, 'I guess we better get movin' ' "
In 1913, the day before he turned 5, his family loaded up the wagon and rode down the dusty West Chester Pike to the farm they had bought in Westtown. Jones took over the farm in 1935. His father died two years later.
We walked out from his house at milking time. Machinery sat haphazardly on the ground around the barn and shed. The bare earth was deep, black mud. Dogs yapped and bounded around the barn, chasing cats, tame rabbits and hens. "This is a work farm," he explained. "It's not a showplace." Forage filled the troughs: dark, pungent clots of old weed. In the milking shed, cold and lit by bare bulbs, we watched 45 Holsteins file in and wait their turns at the suction machines, chewing cud while the machinery hummed. The floor was slippery where they had passed. I looked down mournfully at my docksiders. "That won't hurt you," he chuckled.
He told me how it was when all the milking was done by hand. "When you got under the cow to milk her, you always sat on the right side. If you sat on the left side, she'd kick you out. I don't know why that is." He remembered the switch from horses to tractors. He still kept a mule team, because he liked mules. Their bad reputation is a slander on the species. Mules just work hard, and they know what they like. Marshall used to hitch them up to pull a wagon around West Chester during the town's annual Halloween parade, till kids started throwing peanuts at the mules one year and they got spooked.
He spoke warmly of the German POWs who were sent out to help harvest local farms during World War II, when the American youth were all overseas in uniform. And he remembered Grandview Acres, the suburban tract housing development built in Westtown in 1953. "That was the first one. And then it just kept spreading." The developers had brought their evil habit of naming the plywood palace housing tracts after whatever they had ruined to clear way for them: "Fox Chase," "Deer Run." His brother, Russell, used to own the farm across Shiloh Road. "He died in 1972, and his kids sold the farm," Marshall told me. More plywood palaces. Westtown had had 30 dairy farms when Marshall began farming. He never intended to be the last one. "Young fellows have sold out and gone to Maryland, upstate Pennsylvania. Frankly, I don't like to see these good farms going. But you can't help it. And I don't blame the young fellows, either. If I was young, I think I would do that."
The developers were circling. "I get about two calls a week," he told me. "They're after me all the time. 'Why don't you sell? You're crazy if you don't.'" He had been offered $4 million for his land. He rented the old tenant house on the property to people who worked in an office in West Chester. "I get more from that than I get from the farm," he laughed. "I guess that's the way it's going. The best crop is houses." Marshall had 4 children, 10 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren. Most of them lived nearby, but none was interested in farming. I asked him what he wanted to happen to the place in the future. "That's a big question," he sighed. "I'd like to see it stay in a farm. But there's going to be a million dollars inheritance tax due."
Peter Flynn couldn't hope to buy it. He got $12.75 for a hundred pounds of milk. A good cow brought about $1,000 at auction. If he worked forever he'd never make $4 million farming. Jones held a vague hope the township might buy it.
"I've been offered several million dollars by developers. But I'm almost 80; what good's that money going to do me? I don't need it. I wouldn't know what to do with it. And I know what to do with a farm. And I'm still able to farm, so I'm going to stay here and farm as long as I can. I like to grow crops; I like to see animals."
He sometimes wrote letters to the editor -- in those days the sole cost-free way for an average person to get into print. He wrote them at the drop of a hat and my boss was usually kind enough to run them at length. Typically one might begin, "I see by the headlines that polls show citizens are worried about the economy. Let me tell you how we dealt with the Depression on the farm in the 1930s," and he'd launch into a string of quirky anecdotes that never bothered to get back to the current anxiety about the economy.
Marshall sometimes asked me to help him write down these stories and edit them and publish the collection as a book. I don't mean to flatter myself; I am sure he pestered a few journalists and scribblers that way. It was a slow, patient pestering. I put him off, and then suddenly I left town. A new editor took charge of the paper, and he didn't like me, and the feeling was mutual. He also didn't like anyone who opposed land development. "Tree and bunny people." He dismissed them.
So I moved over to Lancaster County, and left the "Daily Local". When my marriage fell apart a lot of my connections to West Chester trailed off. Marshall was one of the people I lost touch with. Last year, the long-delayed history book I had started writing during my West Chester days finally got published. I went back to West Chester for the book-signing. Getting that book done seems like the snapping of the last thread of my connection to the place.
At the book-signing I saw a woman I had known, and I asked her about some of the people I used to take an interest in. With hesitation, half knowing the answer, I asked about Marshall. He had begun to slip, mentally, she told me, and his kids put him in a nursing home. I wondered about that: the guy had been sharp as a tack at 80. His children sold the farm fast. The township didn't buy it. And Marshall was dead. I want to visit his grave, someday. I'm glad I have no reason to go down Shiloh Road, so I wouldn't have to see what was there now, or what name they had carved on the gilded wooden sign at the entrance.
Before he died, he did self-publish a little book. Mostly a collection of his letters to the editor. But he knew ten times as much as he wrote down, and I'll never stop being sorry I didn't take the time to help him compile more of them.
Yet now I look at his book, and I see it was good that I didn't take the job. I would have cut out things. Like that the engine in the tractor was made in Grove City, Iowa. He devotes a whole sentence to that fact, which to me at that age would have seemed utterly irrelevant. And it is, when you read the piece as narrative. But it mattered to him; it was a thing worth noting to Marshall, a fact worth setting in print for posterity, that such an engine in use in a Chester County farm was made in Grove City, Iowa. If you knew Marshall, you knew that was how his mind worked from point to point. That was his voice. Those stepping stones. To have cut out that seeming excrescence would have been to have killed him.
I read them now and I feel him alive still, again. The difference between the story with the engine from Grove City and the story without it would be the difference between a photograph of your grandmother in her living room, and the wood-polish and horsehair smell of it when you walked into it and saw her there, the clock ticking tall in the corner, and watched her set down her knitting with a smile and stand up to greet you.