Grandpa’s Potato Farm

When I was four years old in 1952, my sister Phyllis was in kindergarten, and I had to stay during the school day at my grandfather Walter Terry Rogers’ house in Bridgehampton. Aunt Alice Rogers, his daughter-in-law, took care of me while my mother returned to work as a schoolteacher. She would give me breakfast in the big farmhouse kitchen. Mainly it was toast toasted in the type of toaster, which had sides that pulled down so that you could turn the toast over to brown the second side. Over near the window, Aunt Alice had a butter churn and she would pour the steaming milk just brought in from the barn into the churn in order to make butter for the toast. The milk in the glasses would separate and thick cream would rise to the top. Uncle Al would scoop the cream off the top of my glass so that I could drink the thinner milk from the bottom of the glass. To the east in the room was a big old cast iron coal stove. Next to it was a coal bucket with a little metal scoop shovel for adding a few chunks of coal at a time to raise the temperature. On top of the stove were round metal discs, which had a spot where you could lift up the burner with a metal tool and you could stir the coal and ashes around to increase or decrease the amount of heat. A big teakettle was always full of hot water on the stove and a coffee pot was perking. In the back was a big stew pot where chopped up vegetables and other items were added throughout the day. Aunt Alice would heat up an iron on top of the stove and sprinkle water onto the ironing board as she moved the metal iron over the fabric. Grandpa Walter would have me hold the coal bucket in front of a door that opened in the front of the stove and would scoop the steaming ashes into the bucket with a small flat shovel. Once that was full, Grandpa and I would carry the bucket out into the yard and fill all the holes in the dirt driveway, which was set up in a big oval so people could drive in on one side and make a complete circle before they drove out again. While Grandpa and I were outside, we would go over to the barn and fill a bucket or two with milk from the resident cow, Bossy. “Here, Bossy, Bossy, Bossy,” we would both call and a cow or two would amble in from the field, happy to get the heavy milk load milked out of her udder. He would let me try to milk her too, but I could barely make a drizzle into the bucket. You had to squeeze your thumb and first finger together on opposite sides of the teat and firmly and slowly pull downwards until a stream of milk hit the side of the tin bucket, sounding like rain on a tin roof. We’d walk across the yard and pour some of the milk into a white porcelain bucket and add to it the cut off crusts of white bread. Little yellow ducklings would come over and start drinking up the bread and milk for their breakfast. Black and white kittens would join in too. Nearby was the tall wooden structure where corncobs were stored to keep dry so as not to get moldy during the winter. We’d pull a batch of dried cobs out of the side of the corncrib and load them into a corn-shucking machine. I loved turning the long handle as the cob was pressed into the top of the machine and tons of hard corn kernels shot out of the front of the machine into a bucket. The corn was used to feed a lot of the older farm animals, too. Grandpa raised Muscovy ducks, which were angry birds with huge red wattles all over their faces and necks. He also had the adult chickens. Almost every day, he would put a grown up animal across a well-used wooden stump and would bring the axe down onto the neck of the animal before it had a chance to understand what was happening to it. The head separated from the body, and the animal ran around in circles for a while before its brain realized it was dead. I didn’t like this part of farm life. Aunt Alice would steam the body of the bird until all the pinfeathers could be removed and grandpa and I would go into the next barn over and run the sharpening machine. It consisted of a big sandstone wheel that was attached to wooden pedals and a seat. I was much too short to sit on the seat and reach the pedals, but I could make an attempt to push the pedals down as the wheel turned around and grandpa would hold the bloody edge of the axe against the wheel, sharpening it for the next murder. At about this point in the day, Uncle Lloyd would tear into the yard with his old pickup truck. It had long wobbly gearshifts in the center of the floor of the front seat and open holes through out that revealed the ground below. Uncle Lloyd would push in the clutch pedal and I would move the knob following the lined pattern that was printed on the big black knob at the end of the gearshift. First, second, third, reverse. That last one meant you had to push down and really move the knob down a crooked pathway on the floor. Uncle Lloyd would unload things and throw more things into the bed of the truck. Sometimes it was equipment and sometimes it was groceries or supplies. I’d go with him into the potato house, which was the largest building on the farm. Inside it during the fall months when the potatoes were being picked, there would be a big silver conveyor belt, which slowly moved the dirt-covered potatoes way up towards the ceiling at the back of the barn. From there they dropped from the end onto a huge pile of potatoes. It was our job to cull out the potatoes that were damaged or rotten. We would throw them to the side over our shoulders. Rotten potatoes would threaten to rot out the entire crop before spring. The cool, dark potato house stored the potatoes safely all winter long until the demand was up in the spring. Then they were loaded into dusty potato bags to be sent out to market. In the spring, I would ride next to Uncle Lloyd on the seat of the tractor as we cultivated the fields to be ready to plant potatoes. Some of the winter-stored potatoes were cut into pieces, making sure that there were many eyes on each part. Potato vines would grow from the eyes. The cut up potatoes were coated with a white powder and were loaded into a planting machine. When the fertilizer machines were running, my uncles and grandpa wouldn’t let me near the machines or fields. They thought it would be bad for me to breathe in the powder. About this time in the farm cycle, a break would be taken for the Memorial Day Parade. Since Uncle Lloyd had been in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, he still had his uniform and gun and helmet and marched in the Memorial Day Parade. At the monument in Bridgehampton, the military escort would shoot off a 21-gun salute with several volleys of shots. I hated the noise and put my hands over my ears. Spent shells from the bullets would shoot out of the gun whenever the bolt was released. Everyone would go to the American Legion sponsored picnic, which included hamburgers and hot dogs, following lengthy patriotic speeches at the Community House. Back at the farm, bread and cakes were being baked, fields were being watered, the cows were being milked and the ducks were being prepared for a meal. Next year, I would be in kindergarten and wouldn’t be spending as much time there. Maybe it was just as well, because I had enough time to go into the huge pantry and eat the fancily wrapped piece of wedding cake that was being stored there from Aunt Alice and Uncle Lloyd’s wedding. Aunt Alice placed me on top of the refrigerator, and Uncle Lloyd came in the swinging screen door, which slammed shut. “What have you done now, Alley Gazebo?” he’d question me. Meanwhile, old Rip Tide, the dog, would look up at me, and he wouldn’t tell about all the other mischief I had been up to.