Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Happy 50th Sandhill Farm!

Today I'm offering a kaleidoscope of memories from my first five years at Sandhill Farm, on the occasion of its Golden Anniversary.

Exactly 50 years ago today, Ann Shrader and I arrived at the 63-acre property two miles west of Rutledge MO (that we had just purchased two weeks prior for the grand price of $13,500) that would be the start of Sandhill Farm. We rendezvoused there with fellow pioneers, Ed Pultz and Wendy Soderlund, who had driven up from their home in Memphis TN to live near Memphis MO (our county seat).

Both red and white spirea were in full bloom, framing the outside of the modest white clapboard, one-bedroom house that the two couples took turns occupying (while the other lived in a tent) until we completed a 16'x30' renovation on the south side that added two bedrooms and expanded the bathroom. Probably its most distinctive feature was the checkerboard pink & black linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor. (Hard to believe that could ever have been in fashion—excepting, perhaps, at a Good & Plenty factory.)

We were full of enthusiasm for our experiment in community living—which was a good thing, given the bottomless pit of our naiveté. As we had arrived just after the frost free date for northern MO, one of our first acts was getting the garden planted. I still recall Ann's and my excitement at seeing the first shoot emerge from our carefully planted rows of vegetable seeds, only to discover later that it was milkweed, not sweet corn. Talk about a rookie error.

While the house stood on the highest point of the property (in the southwest corner), there was a house located directly to our south that was higher still—the home of Edna & Earnest Childers. They were in their 80s and the only remaining residents of Sandhill after Charlie Gilmer died in 1972. Charlie was the last person to have have lived in our house, which we negotiated the purchase of from his surviving son and daughter-in-law, Bob & Lilian.

It's noteworthy that Earnest, our neighbor, was born in that house and had lived there his entire life. Amazingly, he was already two years old when the Santa Fe Railroad laid tracks nearby, in the late 1880s. The town of Rutledge sprang up at that point, as a service stop along the route from Chicago to Kansas City. Though Edna & Earnest both passed away a few years after we arrived, Sandhill has been continuously occupied since the 1850s. (Before that, we understand it was a seasonal camping spot for indigenous Native Americans.) In the years prior to the Show Me State being fully platted and the current county lines defined, Sandhill was something of a regional center, and the location from where a frontier circuit judge would periodically dispense justice in our corner of the state.

While Ann focused on gardening (something she still does today), Ed took charge of overseeing the house extension, working closely with Wendy's father, an experienced builder/architect. I bought a copy of H. P. Richter's Wiring Simplified (for $0.87) from the local Ace Hardware store and became the community's electrician—while we were doing the house extension, we rewired everything (switching from fuses to circuit breakers) and reroofed the entire house. Laying concrete blocks for the extension's foundation was my first foray into cementitious work, which also became a community niche for me. (Over the years I learned to do concrete work, as well as lay block, brick, tile, and tuck pointing—all flowing from that first summer.)

In the early years we tried all manner of homestead things, substituting labor for dollars. Example: raking leaves in the fall from the Childers' massive white oaks (that were sprouts before the arrival of white settlers) and then packing them into circular bins we fashioned from scrap woven wire fencing. After a couple years of rain and snow we had our own leaf mold, for use as a garden soil amendment.

Our first dog was Rochester, a medium-sized stray that showed up unannounced one day and never left. He was with us for nine years and was the only dog in my life that was closer to me than any other human. Our first cat was another stray, Seymour, an orange tabby. I took it as a good omen (for a cooperative community) that the two of them got along famously. Both were outdoor pets and they would huddle together for warmth on an old blanket inside a plywood kennel on the front porch during the winter months. 

Early on we acquired a Jersey milk cow, Rebecca. While we didn't get gobs of milk, it was high in butterfat and we were self-sufficient in butter in those days. (Cream is most readily churned to butter at 62 degrees, and I did it often enough that I could tell by feel when the gallon we had taken out of the fridge had warmed to the right temp.) 

Milking time was one of the highlights of the day for both Seymour and Rochester. Seymour would follow the milker down to the barn, where he could depend on getting some squirts of fresh milk for his trouble. While the distance from house to barn was only about 50 yards, as soon as Seymour headed down there, Rochester would make a game of overtaking the cat and putting his entire head in his mouth. Seymour would patiently wait until Rochester released him and then would travel several more yards until Rochester did it again. By the time Seymour made it to the barn, his head would be covered in dog slobber.

While the cost of living in our area was low (hence the bargain land prices), so were the opportunities for employment, and we scrambled to figure out a way to make ends meet. At one time or another, in the early years all of us took jobs off the farm. Some taught, some worked for the extension service, some did work for neighbors. As I recall, that first summer Ed drove a tractor for a neighbor, earning the not-so-handsome wage of $60 for a 40-hour week. After that we never worked for less than $2/hour (hard bargainers that we were).

For most of its existence, Sandhill's signature product was organic sorghum, a traditional sweetener in the Midwest and South. The seed for that was planted when Ann & I stopped by the homestead of Joe Pearl & Eva Grover (a mile or two south of Memphis) to buy some sorghum during the fall of 1975. We stayed long enough to watch it being made and were fascinated by the process. They were in their 70s and it was obvious the work was tiring for them. We offered to help, and before we knew it we were back every day, lending a hand. They would only make about 7 gallons a day, yet it impressed us that every drop was sold about as fast as it was made.

Thinking that this might be a specialty product for Sandhill, we planted some cane the next year and traded our labor in 1976 for the use of the Grover's equipment to process it. That went well enough that we took it another step in 1977 and had stainless steel cooking pans made for us at a metal fabrication shop in Quincy IL. We bought a sorghum mill to do our own pressing, and had labels made announcing the availability of Sandhill Sorghum. While we were somewhat concerned about being in competition with the Grovers (we didn't want to bite that hand), it happened that Joe Pearl had a stroke in 1977 and they never made sorghum again, and thus we became the sole sorghum producers in Scotland County. For a period of more than 40 years, sorghum was the flagship product of the community's agricultural portfolio.

Community was a tenuous concept the first five years, as Ann & I struggled to get beyond being one couple living with others who tried it out for a year or two and then moved on. Following Ed & Wendy, there was Pamela Johnston & Michael Almon. Then we had Jesse Evans, Lin McGee, and Linda Joseph (all from Texas, for some reason). It was something of a revolving door in the early years. After five years, it was down to just three of us: Ann, Tim Jost, and me.

Our breakthrough in stability came circa 1979, when Stan Hildebrand, Grady Holley, and Thea Page arrived. Over the ensuing five years the only change in personnel was Clarissa Gyorgy (who came to us from Twin Oaks in Virginia) while Thea moved to Twin Oaks, along with her 2-year old daughter, Shining. After that we were never fewer than 5, and it felt like we'd crossed the line into being a stable intentional community. Whew.

While losing members was always hard, those early years are largely happy memories, and I look back with amazement at what we were able to accomplish with sufficient pluck and luck.


Tristan Holme said...

Fun and insightful stuff, Laird. Thanks for sharing this!

Bill at Midwest Permaculture said...

Enjoyed this very much Laird. I have been in Stelle, IL now for 46 years. Maybe I'll write down some memories for my 50th as well. Cheers.