Over the past 28 years or so that I have been selling land, I have stumbled across things that were either out of place or not quite as they once were. When I spot them, my mind starts wandering, wondering what it was like living on this farm many years ago. I start thinking back, from explorers making treaties with Native American nations, to settlers claiming vast territories. Then settlers carved large tracts of land into many smaller tracts. The families who moved onto the smaller tracts journeyed from faraway places and brought their ambitions, ideas, and determination to succeed in this new country.
I’ve found kudzu and honeysuckle strangling old farmhouses at the edge of a clearing and daffodils scattered around a forest floor, and these things remind me that what once existed is long gone. Nevertheless, the yearly announcement that spring is near remains intact. A pile of rocks where a chimney once stood or a depression in the ground where the cellar used to be prompts questions. Did the people who used to live here bring daffodils, fruit trees, or other plants with them from another state or country and plant them with hopeful dreams of fertile soil and abundant game? I like to think so. Maybe the roof leaked or cold air rushed through the walls in the winter and dust settled on the sparse furnishings, but I want to imagine that the owner built his home to the best of his ability.
Children played after doing their chores and neighbors visited on Sunday afternoons following church. Inside of this house, death brought sorrow and the birth of a child brought celebration. It was once a home. This home did everything it could to keep the rain from soaking the folk inside and stood strong to block as much of the cold air as possible on the harshest winter nights. How many families lived in this house? How long has it been since someone lived on the land that time forgot?
Most old homesteads had a barn. Some had a simple log lean to hewn by hand. Others featured larger, sturdier barns made from rough-cut lumber. Either version served the same purpose. It was a place to keep livestock, milk cows, and store ear corn and grain. In these barns, work started before daylight and many workdays ended after dark. Before planting the new crop, with backs aching from pushing plows, trace chains jingled behind mules as homesteaders forced apart the soil. Chopping cotton and cleaning the weeds out of the garden. Dragging a cotton sack all day, bent over, and bleeding fingers that the sharp edges of the boll repeatedly cut.
Experienced pickers started picking at the far end and worked their way back to the wagon while filling their sacks. Swinging axes, clearing land to make more farm ground or pasture. In anticipation of the harsh winter ahead, mules snaked logs back to the sawmill andhomesteaders cut firewood to fuel cook stoves and fireplaces. Many families were in store for difficult times. After plowing through them, settlers discovered that those red sand hills could not hold together and a good cotton crop would never grow. While much of the Delta land was fertile and very productive, some was nothing but swamps that would seldom dry and prone to floods that would ruin crops year after year. Now, pine trees awaiting a different kind of harvest cover those red sand hills bearing the jagged proof of erosion, and the Delta swampland settlers never should have cleared now bears hardwood and helps repopulate wildlife on the land that time forgot.
Sometimes I’d find an old piece of farm equipment, what in those days would have been a modern combine, tractor, or cotton picker, or a simple mule implement resting out in the woods where, many years ago, a farmer parked it. Big trees surround it and grow up through it, pushing harder and harder against the metal over time, briars and vines weaving in and out of the rusted relic, protecting it. I wonder how many neighbors came to see this new technology when it arrived, hoping that one day they could also own one for themselves. We look at restored and preserved equipment today as if it were a fossil from prehistoric times. When they first came out, tractors started with a hand crank, ran on steam or kerosene, and had steel wheels, but owners were as thankful for those tractors as the modern farmer is for his 150 horsepower version. Who would use a one-row cotton picker or a combine with a 10-foot grain header today? One row at a time was how you did it on those old farms that time forgot.
Also during my adventures walking or riding across properties, jumping ditches, and getting stuck miles from the nearest house, I have come across old cemeteries and grave markers. In some instances, a few simple sandstones without names marked grave locations, maybe because the loved ones had to lie their departed to rest in a humble grave while passing through on their journey toward a better future. Other grave markers were fancier by design and bore intricate detail evidencing hours, if not days, of killed labor. Had the deceased family members lived on the property? Or were they members of a once flourishing now long forgotten community with their remains resting beneath the forest, squirrels, and blue jays chattering above in their distinctive voices, while nearby deer bed down for an afternoon nap? Maybe one day, a curious family member will try to locate their ancestors who built our country, fought for our freedom, labored a hard life, and broke free of past oppression on the land that time forgot.
Asphalt, concrete, subdivisions, and warehouses cover some of these old farms. Large tracts of land became smaller tracts. Sometimes children moved away from the old family farm looking for a better life than that of their parents and grandparents. With long hours of hard work, two or three good years wiped out by a bad year, just to start again the next spring hoping and praying to get back in the black, but even the most prosperous years cannot alleviate the uncertainty of crop futures, the cattle market, or milk prices. Other children stay to farm, raise cattle, or run the dairy operation. If taking over the family farm is in their blood, they love the smell of freshly plowed dirt, the uncertainty, and the challenges. They find joy and take pride when they turn around, look over their shoulder, and behold the progress they made using cutting-edge technology.
People driving down the road sometimes pull over and watch in amazement as cotton pickers pick six rows at a time, and every so often, spit out a bale of cotton. Tractors pull planters that drop seeds 30 rows at a time and cattle farms have several 100 or 1,000 head of livestock. Modern dairy barns are fully mechanical now and can milk more than 100 cows at a time. Buying their neighbors’ land to expand farm operations, modern farmers are pushing harder, working smarter, and monitoring the future’s market on the internet. Satellites 100 miles deep in the atmosphere beam signals to GPS units. Farmers live in brick homes with heat, air conditioning, and electricity available at the flip of a switch. They travel from one side of the state to another in a matter of hours and have their meal passed to them through a rolled down truck window. In some ways, this country has changed, yet, in other ways, it remains the same on the land that time forgot.