Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nicodemus, Kansas: Florence Howard, 79, retired farmer.

I was born and raised up on the farm. Been a farmer all my life. I got married in 1950, the guy I married, he was a farmer and a rancher. He passed away in 2005, and I moved down to Nicodemus, been here ever since. We raised cattle, milo, and wheat. Our farm was twenty-five hundred acres, you know, and we had all type of different machinery to work with.

First we stopped in Bogue.  The wide streets seemed like the set of a wholesome movie, with kids splashing away the 100 degree day in a kiddie pool in a front yard; the banker and the postmistress gave us helpful advice about who would be good to talk to for the project in this area.  This former railroad town was struggling though, especially since the authorities took the train away a few years back.  What is a rail town with no rail?

We went a few miles over to the next township, Nicodemus.  It held memories of being a thriving community, though the population has steadily declined to less than 40.  We stopped into the museum to check out displays regarding what Nicodemus was like when the first African Americans came here to settle in the mid 1800's (it was one of the homestead towns, to which emancipated slaves relocated).  The display that I recall the best was about the first abodes in Nicodemus; there was a lack of wood and folks made there homes in caves and holes in the ground.  There was a diary excerpt of a very disenchanted settler who was shocked to see the first settlers coming out of their caves to welcome the new folks.  

Nicodemus grew fast in industry and soon the transplants were doing business on main street and the first farmers were trying to make sense of the plains.  Every summer there is a big family reunion in Nicodemus for all the town residents (who are mostly related somehow) and their relatives who have since moved away.  A man at the museum told us that it's a terrible place to try to score a date; he found out that a woman he had been pursuing all day was his cousin, a few times removed.

The volunteer at the historical society was most helpful in connecting us with the retired farmer, whom they called Miss Florence.  After peering out the window at the other side of town (there are only three or four streets, with few trees) she ascertained by which cars were parked who was in, she picked up he phone to call Florence.  Not getting any answer did not deter her in the least and she jumped in her car with promises to be right back and sped off to Miss Florence's house.  Miss Florence was convinced to come in shortly thereafter and be interviewed by us, and we were grateful to have her unique perspective.

Miss Florence is a vital resident of Nicodemus who looks much younger than her physical years.  She and her husband farmed until his death and her retirement about 6 years ago, and her son still farms in the area.  She patiently answered all of our questions, and seemed too modest to talk much about any subject that she herself introduced.  Discussing her farming life seemed to wear her out.  She shone with energy and pleasure though when she talked about fishing in the nearby river.  Her portrait is particularly eloquent and beautiful, and I think the look on her face betokens the hard work she's accomplished in her farming life.  

When we asked her if she missed farm life, she said, "Oh, yeah. Mmm hmmm. I was lost when I moved back down here. Nothin' to do. Just sit around visiting, go fishin.' Quite a change."

On the biggest issue of being a farmer:


Money. Money to keep it going, you know. One bank we dealt with was real nice, and the other, they got kind of crazy. Found out they finally went under theyself. We had nice neighbors, one thing I was thankful for. There wasn't very many, at that time there wasn't very many black farmers south of here, and they was way older than what we were. Then they all died out and just left us there.
 
Click below to read the full interview with Miss Florence!
 
FLORENCE HOWARD:

I was born and raised up on the farm. Been a farmer all my life. I got married in 1950, the guy I married, he was a farmer and a rancher. He passed away in 2005, and I moved down to Nicodemus, been here ever since. We raised cattle, milo, and wheat. Our farm was twenty-five hundred acres, you know, and we had all type of different machinery to work with.



Did you have a lot of help with the farm?

My son. After he got out of college, well, he still stayed around. Finally he got married, I have 3 grandkids and two greats. Well he's still on a farm, but he bought a small farm up there in Oakley. South Oakley, about five miles. He works for Allied Oil Company now... and that's about it.

Do you still live on the farm that you retired from 5 years ago?

I don't farm it anymore.

How did farming change, from when you got started back then to when you finished?

All the different type machinery that you use, fact, years ago they really changed, updated, air-conditioned, radio, and uh, you don't have to get out off of the tractor to put it in the ground, you just press a button and it will go down in the ground, you know... but now they have improved a lot of it. You need to talk to Gil, and Gary. Gil is a big farmer here.

That's just about what everybody we've met said, "talk to Gil and Gary."

Mmmm hmmm. Gary, he farms, but, Gary farms nice, he keeps his ground worked real clean. He has a crop come up and next thing you know, he's out there workin' the crop up, so I don't understand the way Gary farms. But Gil, he's a good farmer.

Do you miss being on the farm?

Oh, yeah. Mmm hmmm. I was lost when I moved back down here. Nothin' to do. Just sit around visiting, go fishin.' Quite a change.

What is it that you miss?

Oh, land. Bein' around livestock. I raised a lot of chicken, turkeys, ducks. Then we had, uh, I raised a lot of hogs too. And cattle. And one time we had 400 head of cattle we raised. The pasture we had, see, was a creek ran through there, and of course we had a couple windmills there. So we had plenty of water for the livestock.

What are the biggest issues that you had to deal with over the years in agriculture?

(Without any hesitation) Money. Money to keep it going, you know. One bank we dealt with was real nice, and the other, they got kind of crazy. Found out they finally went under theyself. We had nice neighbors, one thing I was thankful for. There wasn't very many, at that time there wasn't very many black farmers south of here, and they was way older than what we were. Then they all died out and just left us there.

Is it something you would go back to?

No not at my age.

Maybe just at a small scale?

(Laughs) Well, if I had been close to town, see I was 30 miles from town. But I soon got used to that long drive, you know, back and forth. People out there in Logan County, they own so much land, and, you know, it was different out there than what it is here. They probably own 'bout couple quarter land out there where they own like five or six thousand acres. That put the next neighbor, you know, way away from where you'd be livin.'  And that's what the people couldn't understand, why we were so far apart. The neighbor was with the land, the way the land ran, the amount of land they owned, you know. Been quite a few of them, since I've been down here, pass away. So if I would go back out there I'd be lost 'cause they're all gone. With this new generation...

 Do you see very many young folks getting into farming?

Well, back there in the 1900's, I could see 'em. But I don't know about here in the two thousands.

Most of the kids moving away?

Mmmm hmmm. Yup. But, it varies in different places. Some say, they say kids are moving back home. They have a better opportunity of getting a job or getting on a smaller farm, and then you take other states, you find where they don't want nothing to do with farming life anymore. I wouldn't mind being on the farm at different times I get to thinking, and then again, I'm glad I'm away from it. 'Cause it's so much confusion anymore going on between the farmers and the people.

What do you mean, they don't get along?

No, they don't get along. A different thing the government should be doing, he's not doing right, so he gets a headache either way he looks at it. Like wheat price. You might have a good wheat crop but when you go to sell the wheat you ain't gonna get nothin' out of that, two dollars somethin' a bushel when you should be up there at six dollars, five dollars a bushel. But it's not. Gasoline's higher. You can't win for losing all the time.

What would be some other changes you'd like to see in agriculture, might help farmers out?

Well, mostly the price! Everything seems like it's going down. Somebody still in farming, like Gil and Gary, they could answer that question better than I could.

Did you feel pretty supported over the years?  By your community?

Oh yeah, mm hmm. Out there in Logan County, in Oakley, people were more supportive than what they were down here. Did you live on a farm?

Mmm hmm, small farm in Oregon.

What did you raise?

Just vegetables mostly, herbs. We were surrounded by dairy farms, and my parents just did veggies, and they've still got it, they're not really farming it anymore, but they still live there. We're heading back to Oregon now.

Well it's a shame the way you can ride all over this part of the country and see nice farms just sitting out there, going to rag. So many homeless people, it's a shame how the government do the farmer, don't put enough help for him to hold onto the farm, you know. And I know out there in Oakley there's a lot of 'em lost their farms to the ranches. If I had it all over to do, I don't know whether I'd go back on the farm or not. One day I'd think about if I was younger I wouldn't mind it and thinking I'd get some wellness built from it, you know.

Do you feel like you were appreciated as a farmer?

Mmmmmm....

By the community, or by people who were not farmers?

Mmmmmm, yeah, in a way.

(Door opens, male voice says "excuse me" and Florence comments on how hot it is outside)

It seems like kind of a rough place to be a farmer, especially before all that air conditioning and everything, extreme seasons...

You have to have good will power to stay in farming. If you're not strong, it is nerve racking.

What were the hardest years for you on the farm?

In the summer, when all of them hail storms come up, we'd be getting near harvest, and the hail storm come through and just wipe you out clean, that was hard. And, in the fall, for the milo crop sometime you'd have an early freeze, it might damage the milo crop. You wouldn't get it all. Same way with corn crop. We had bad corn crop where we got hailed out while it was growing, before it had matured out, you know. It takes a lot of nerve to be a farmer.

What do you imagine the future farming being in this area? Do you think anyone else is going to come in?

(Sighs) I doubt it. Might be a few, might think about coming back, after their retirement. But they have to have a good retirement to come back here to live. The price of everything, you know.

What was it like being a woman farmer?

It's a man's world. It's a man's world alright, but there's a lot of women involved in farmin' along with they husbands. Out there in Oakley, you see women out there runnin' the tractors, drivin' the truck, and some would be foolin' around with the dairy, you know with the cow and the milk and all like that. Practically all of them out there in Logan County, the women be out there helpin' they husbands, working the fields and everything. We didn't have no dairy, you know, milk cows or nothin,'we just ran straight. About workin' the field, I drove the tractor many days. I enjoyed it.

Did you do other work besides farming?

That's what I done, farming. I didn't work out or nothin' like that. Back there then, I raised a bunch of chicken, you could sell eggs, we had about 3 milk cows, and different ones that didn't have cows they would come by and buy cream, you know they would churn for butter and stuff like that. That's what I done. I sold eggs all the time.

What did you do for fun?

We had a little club 'round here in the country, an organized womens club... it was more like a sewing club... sewed aprons and dresses, and little bit of everything. That went on every month... and then I joined a club over in Garden City which was 15 miles from me, and they would have club meetings about every month. So I kept myself busy.  Well when I wasn't goin' to club meetings I was goin' fishin,' I like to fish. I didn't spend no lonely days out there.

What were winters like?

Cold. We burned, uh, butane, and we got the butane from a little town called Winona, Kansas... and then Scott had a Co-op and my husband changed and went with the Co-op. They would bring the gas out and fill up the 500 gallon tank, you know, butane.

What do you think the role of the farmer should be in society?

I... wouldn't know. That would have to be answered from Gil or Gary.

What role did you play as a farmer? Why did you choose farming?

Pass away time, sometimes. And then sometimes I would do it when my husband had to go to some kind of farm meeting in town. What little I could do to help, I would do it, which he appreciated. And as for our son, got out of high school, went to college in Garden City, and after he got out of college, well, my husband just turned the farm over to him, he loved farmin' life now. We had over a thousand acre farmland, along with the pasture, you know.

Is it hard to not be on the farm?

I don't pay any attention any more. It was kind of strange when I moved back here, you know, missin' the farm, missin' my husband, but...that's somethin' you never get over with. But I just keep on keepin' on, tryin' to do the best I can, all I can say.

I have a son and a daughter. My son lives south of Oakley, on his little farm.  And my daughter, she live in San Jose, and she just left this morning to go back to California. She had to go back to Denver and catch a flight back. This is where I was born and raised up at. Came back where I came from.

Does race have any bearing on farming? Why?

Some of 'em didn't have an opportunity to be a farmer, and the ones that had the opportunity, they just couldn't deal with farming life, so they move on to the city, where they ended up at. And it was hard for black people to get ahold of land anyway, and the one that did get ahold of it was just lucky. Now see, Gil, he's the biggest black farmer here in Nicodemus, I'm not going to say Brim ? County 'cause there's just three, four...five black farmers here. There's one black farmer down in Rooks County. Gil, and Gary, and then Nevin I think is three. But it's other black farmers has land here, but they don't live here, they have the land rented out, see. And now Gil, I don't know how much land he farmed, but he farmed a lot of rented land along with what he owned. He's one of the lucky ones, his grandfather had land, and left it to his son, and then his son inherited what he had, see... makes a difference, somebody hands something down to you and you don't have to struggle to try to get hold of something, you know. I think Gary only had a quarter of land, 60 acres. A section being 640 acres. Gil, he really have hit it lucky, once he started hitting the oil wells, they've got, I think, 5 oil wells on his property out north of here. Only him and his sister out north on the farm. She lives, I guess you could say a mile away from Gil, and I think there's an oil well close to her and the rest is scattered kindly over on the other side from Gil's house. So that's a great help. He be kicking out about $5,000 a well a month. Of course, I forgot about Earl Schveitzer, he has one oil well on his property. Earl's kind of going downhill, I think he's about 78 years old now.

(Angela- museum curate- comes in and we introduce ourselves and talk about the disconnect between farmers and consumers)

If things don't change we'll be right back in the dirty thirties. Price keep dropping down... go to the grocery store, keep going up! It's going to be rough for those who are starting out on account of machinery is outrageous, you know, the price, and getting started is hard. Less they can get a loan to operate and go from there.
(Giving us tips about other farmers)

There's another farmer, a young boy, in his fifties... Randy Rose... I know quite a few other farmers... I don't know. You think you have the answer for different things and you don't, you know. It's a hard life out there anymore.
What you hear people say they enjoy about coming to Nicodemus is that it's so quiet, peaceful, you don't hear sirens and all that kind of crap, you know. Plenty of deer, some mountain lions. I know when I go fishing around these little ponds, and a big bunch of trees, you know, surrounding me, I'm looking from one side to the other, see if anything going to come out. I keep my car parked close where I could run to it. I've been catching channel cats, and oil heads, I wouldn't know a bass if I caught one.

1 comments:

Dwayne said...

I really appreciated reading this. I grew up in Bogue, Kansas. Later we moved to Oregon. So I could relate to both Mrs. Howard as well as the author!

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