An East End Farm Family Story
In some ways, this farm family story is very much like the stories of many other families who came to the East End to make their futures in farming or other ventures. Each experience is full of meaning and richness, unique in itself, yet, in the telling, there is a common theme. It was through extraordinary courage and effort that the foundations of a good life for following generations were set.
Imagine leaving everything and everyone you had ever known to travel to a place so foreign that neither language nor culture had any meaning. Nothing would be familiar or necessarily welcoming. Then, imagine being a 16 year old girl when you ventured alone into this unknown world. Our grandmother made such a voyage in 1909. Countless others did as well. Some say that immigrants at that time followed one of two paths. There were those who dreamed of making their fortune here and returning to the only home they knew and loved, with money enough to buy the land they could never have bought had they never left. Then there were those who knew that when they came to this country they would never go home again. New world, new life. This was the path our grandmother chose and she chose wisely. And since then, four generations have thrived from that first choice.
Our maternal grandmother, Julia Stachiw, came to this country from the western part of Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe. Beautiful, fertile land none of which her family owned. Ukraine was, like much of Europe at that time, still a feudal society. In the countryside, landowners controlled all wealth. Those who worked the land gave all but a part of the harvest to the landowner. We know them here as sharecroppers. To stay in these conditions meant that you could never hope for a future where you would own your own land and determine your own future. For that, you had to leave. And so she did.
Washing windows on the Lower East Side in February was not the life she had in mind. Where are the farms? Follow the Long Island Railroad east to the very end. Our grandmother worked many jobs at first—a maid and cleaning lady in a hotel in Orient Point and as a laborer on farms along Route 25 in Calverton and Riverhead. On one of these farms she met our grandfather, Isidore “Mike” Stokojlo in 1912 and married two years later. They worked hard and saved every penny they could. Twelve hours a day for $1, and the farmer kept the crop. She had seen this story before. Sometimes he paid less, thinking that a young girl right off the boat would not know better. True, she could not speak English but she knew her numbers. When she confronted him, he gave her probably the single most important piece of advice she would ever hear. “Julie, if you don’t like it, go buy your own farm.” You know what happened next.
In the winter of 1920, one late afternoon when the sun was setting early, our grandmother met Ed Rogers, a real estate agent from Westhampton Beach, to look at a farm in East Quogue. Practically sight unseen on a dark winter evening, she bought, for $1500, the first 50 acres of what would become our 116-acre farm. East Quogue-she could barely spell it let alone find it again in the light of day.
Our mother, Frances, was born in 1927 – their only child and the center of their universe. Not a son. No matter. She would become the strong-willed, smart, and hard-working woman that her mother was. Times were hard in farming even before the Great Depression. A growing family with only two people to work the fields meant more hands were needed. In 1929, our great-uncle Harry was brought from Ukraine to live with us. A gentle soul, Uncle Harry felt he was the luckiest man alive. And he was. He was drafted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. But the only action he saw in WWI was escorting the wife of a Polish Major on her trips to the market. Harry, of course, ate pretty well. He often had soup with meat in it. As the story goes, when his service ended and he went home, both he and his mother wept…her tears of happiness to see her son alive and his tears of sadness that he would never see meat in soup again.
In 1944, Mom was only 16 when she married our Dad, Paul Kijowski. There was no question that he would join her as part of her family. By then, our great grandmother was brought to this country. And then came the children…4 in all. All girls. No matter. Despite the pity of his friends at being a farmer and having no sons, he was always proud of us. He and Mom would see us become as strong-willed, smart, and hard working as the two generations of women before us.
What amazed so many of the people we knew was how our parents’ marriage did not end in divorce. Friends saw so many opportunities for it, especially in managing a business and keeping a household of eight to ten people together. But the secret, as we children could figure, was that there was an absolute commitment to each other and to making the whole thing thrive. And they did. Along the way we learned a few lessons to live by.
Life Lesson 1: The Importance of Work and Teamwork
Life on the farm is all about teamwork. Chores and responsibilities were not based on girls or boys, men or women’s work–except when it came to operating machinery and repairing equipment. There were so many things to be done in the fields and in the home that never once did any of us say, “I’m bored.” The seasons and the weather determined how busy our days would be. From March through November, nearly every day involved some type of work that needed to be done: picking strawberries, planting and harvesting potatoes and cauliflower, carrying lines of irrigation pipes (yes, they were carried then). And weeding. Endless rows of weeding. We each depended on the other to do her or his part or the work would not be done. Work was not to be avoided because that meant somebody else would have to do it, and that was selfish. You did not have to like it, but it had to be done. Because we saw how physically hard our parents and grandparents worked, it was important out of respect for them that we do our part.
Life Lesson 2: Saving For A Rainy Day
Farming is not just a way of life it is a very risky business. Farmers are always “gambling” on the weather, market conditions, and the ever-increasing cost of seed, fertilizer, and all the other supplies, and of course, property taxes. From December-May, after the harvest and all the stored vegetables were sold, we lived on our savings. From year to year, nothing was certain and everything depended on how careful we were on spending.
Life Lesson 3: Living Close To Our Earth
Dad would remind people that soil was not dirt. It was a living thing to him and to us as we grew to understand it. It was our source of livelihood; it was our way of life. It gave meaning to our lives. When all 300 crates of cauliflower were loaded onto the truck for market, he would say, “just think of how many people we don’t even know will have these for supper.” Living close to the earth meant that you were conscious of this and of other things small and great: knowing the sweet smell of ripe strawberries and the odor of rotting potatoes and cauliflower leaves left behind after harvest; knowing why there were good reasons to squash some bugs and leave others alone; and always being aware of the power of Nature to create and destroy. You learn humility and you learn stewardship. All of this needs to be nurtured and cared for.
Growing up on the farm in the East End gave us one of our most important treasures–a sense of place. We have traveled and lived in many parts of this country but the farm has always been ‘home’. That sense of place is why our family chose to preserve it as farmland, so that future generations of farm families might find that same sense of place here.
It has been nearly 100 years since that mid-winter night in 1920. We often wish that we could bring all of them back to see what became of their dream and hard work. For us, no matter how long ago, the story of how this came to be is still our touchstone.