A Tilted Saucer of Delight
The Farmhouse: A Study of Three Generations Living Together
I lived in a grand old farmhouse. When I was born it was two and one half years new and still rather sparsely furnished thus displaying hardwood floors and woodwork. My first memory of the house is of the sun casting a golden glow on all that golden oak. The house was built in 1922 as a three-generation home.
My grandmother, who owned a house on Alexander Street in the village, lost interest in moving to town after her spinster sister died in 1915. She sold the village house and put the money into the new farmhouse with the understanding that she would live here and be cared for to the end of her days. She died in 1930. Even so, the house was larger than was needed then since, at that time Mamma and Daddy had only one child, my sister Dorothy. There had been another baby girl, Laura, who died when she was only a few months old during the historic Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Laura's death was one of the great sadnesses of my mother's life. It brought tears many years later when she spoke of these events to me.
During my childhood, our family was four: Mamma, Daddy, Dottie and I. Cousins stayed with us for weeks, especially Gladys Hopkins and Richard and Viola Brown. Gladys and Vi became lifelong friends. Although Gladys died in 1994, her jolly, often ironic outlook on life is a pleasure to remember. Richard became an alcoholic and wasted his life. Vi learned hairdressing under the tutelage of our Aunt Irene and soon after married a local man, Milton Hurlburt: skilled mechanic, well driller, airplane enthusiast and pilot, ham radio hobbyist. They live in Bath and are the matriarch and patriarch of a large family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The house came into its destiny after Stanley and I came to the farm in the spring of 1949. Actually we started living here after our oldest daughter Elaine was born in September, 1948. Daddy had a second heart attack in the summer of that year and could no longer do the farming although he continued to help until the day he died. He had his fatal attack in the barn as he was putting the milking machines together. Mamma contended with a weak heart most of her life due to a long illness with rheumatic fever when she was a child. She couldn't adequately care for the big house. The farm and the house needed an infusion of young hearts and muscles. One by one, five more children filled the bedrooms and overflowed the living areas. Daddy died in 1954 before our three youngest children were born so there were never more than nine of us. A couple of years after Mamma died in 1974, Stanley's widowed mother had a heart attack and came to live with us until her death in 1986. A full house for many years!
One by one the children grew up and left home so that now all those bedrooms are filled with loving ghosts and the stuff the kids left behind. 1997 was a watershed year as Stanley and I prepared to move out of the farmhouse into our little house down the road. Fortunately the ghosts of house and farm went with us. Our son and his wife will be good stewards and, I trust, will let us spend our waning years sorting and disposing of the accumulations of the four generations who have lived here.
Our experience with three-generation living was mostly positive. As I think back, I believe that the credit goes to my mother. She was fair. She was helpful. She was not a complainer. She and Stanley became friends. Stanley and Daddy "hit it off" from the start. Daddy told Stanley things about the farm that I never knew. Mamma was interested in the well-being of the children and actually enjoyed their antics most of the time. After Daddy died, her principal pleasure was watching the children mature and hearing about all their activities. Mamma was an excellent cook who did much of the cooking while the children were small especially on the days when I was substitute teaching. When she could no longer handle putting together an entire meal, she continued to prepare vegetables and fruits. As her health deteriorated and I went back to fulltime teaching, we had wonderfully kind neighbors who came in a few hours each morning to housekeep and look after mamma and our youngest child until she went to school. Mamma was very fond of Pearl Meese and Helen McClary, especially Pearl who came during Mamma's declining years. Helen was here more after Stanley's mother came to live with us.
Mamma interfered so seldom with the way Stanley and I handled the children that I am hard up for an anecdote. Once, when Katie was about three years old, she got into my photo albums which I had just reorganized and tore out many of the photos especially the ones that included her. I was very angry and shouted at her unmercifully. Perhaps I spanked her although probably not as I had a rule never to use physical punishment unless the child was hurting someone. Anyway, Mamma said, "Grace Mary, you're overdoing it." I desisted and eventually cooled down. In later years, when Katie became disaffected with us, she said that she remembered a lot of shouting in her childhood. In actuality, Katie was such a loving little girl that there was seldom a need to scold her. I think that she must have been reliving that unfortunate incident plus remembering when the other children, especially her next older sibling Tom, were reprimanded strongly.
Tom figures in the other incident that comes to mind. He was nearly grown up and in college when it came to Mamma's attention that he was drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Mamma was a devout Baptist and a teetotaler. She had been a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in her younger days. Moreover, she had seen alcohol wreak havoc in the lives of family members. Stanley and I had not interfered with Tom, thinking that he was old enough to adopt his own life style and that beer in moderation would not hurt him. Besides, he would not have paid any attention to us. Mamma lit into him—her most telling argument in her mind, "Who's paying for your nasty habits?" Actually Tom worked all the time he was in college so paid for his own extras. Tom is still an occasional beer drinker but not with the enthusiasm of his bachelor days.
Mamma had a serious run-in with Elaine once but I have forgotten, perhaps I never knew, the cause. Elaine was our "golden girl" and I know that Mamma thought her life was too easy. Mostly, I remember the tender, helping moments when Mamma and Daddy rocked a crying baby or Mamma cooked some special dish for a sick child.
The three-generation home was the way children took care of their aging parents. In the days before Social Security, it was the common practice. In the Shults family, it was the youngest child who took on the responsibility. The first Shultses to live on the farm were Josiah and Catherine and their six children, half of whom were born in the Mohawk Valley before they came to Avoca. Alonzo was the oldest son, though not the oldest child, and Horatio Nellis, my grandfather, the youngest. At sixty-five, when Great Grandpa thought he was getting to old to run the farm, he decided to divide it. By this time Alonzo was married. He was given the land and buildings east of the road running along Castle Creek from Head's Mill to the pond. Nellis, who lived at home and was unmarried, was given the land west of the road. Both farms were 106 acres but the home farm had more and better buildings so Nellis agreed to pay Alonzo $1,000, a large sum for that era. Both sons were to have the benefit of any improvement they made on their property if the land should revert back to Josiah. Furthermore, Josiah and Catherine were to receive $200, per year, $100, from each son or "more if needed." This agreement was made March 24, 1873.
The above information and the following story are based on a document of the Supreme Court of the State of New York detailing the judgment made on May 29, 1890, after Josiah Shults had made a legal complaint and a summons to court against Nellis and Rebecca Shults on April 16, 1888. By this time Alonzo had given up farming and gone to Wayland to live. Josiah had taken back his farm and resold it to Alvin Wood, a real estate investor in local farms. In 1883, it was sold to Noah Wightman and remained the Wightman farm until the early 1970s. Now it is divided into three parcels owned by Tami and Robert Tyler, Kitty Ormsby and Clarence and Phyllis Johnson. Meanwhile, on December 31, 1879, Nellis married Rebecca Garlock at her parents' home in Batavia. Naturally, he brought his bride to the homestead. Their only child, my father, Lee Nellis Shults, was born September 20, 1881.
This three-generation household did not work well. Apparently, the aging Josiah and especially the aging Catherine did not like Rebecca. Rebecca was thirty-two when she was married and had earned her own living as a dressmaker for years. She had stylish clothes and nice furnishings including silver flatware, a gold-bordered dinner service for twelve and a silver tea set that daughters Jennie and Mary have taken. Two of her sisters were well-off city ladies. I think that she must have been a strong-minded, perhaps stubborn, person not willing to bend even in the small matters that make up most of our day-by-day living. My mother never liked her very well, either. She was just too demanding, too stand-offish, too condescending to Mamma's lively English-Irish family. Grandma was Mohawk Dutch. She and my grandfather had met on a family picnic in the Meeks woods. However, the court document has this to say about the situation and about Rebecca: "The evidence throughout the entire case is too plain not to see that her presence in the family was the source of discord between them and that without fault on the part of Nellis's wife. None could have seen her in court without being impressed that she was a woman of character and sense, and it is not straining a point to say a better type of humanity that her father-in-law and mother-in-law."
Actually, the two women would probably have papered over their differences for the sake of Nellis and the growing child if the situation had not changed once more. In the fall of 1886, Catherine fell and broke her hip. This obviously necessitated doctor bills and nursing care. It also rattled the old man who was now nearly eighty years old. Instead of asking for a larger payment from his sons, Josiah asked for the farm back. This upset Nellis who was willing to give his aging parents more money if Alonzo matched the amount but told his father he would leave the farm if it were not to be his.
The document also includes some information about dividing the living quarters especially where the old couple should eat. Rebecca thought that they might like their meals brought to them and Catherine was quoted as saying that she would prefer a crust at their table rather than taking her meals alone in her own room. Probably, she had to eat in her room while her hip healed and didn't like it. The altercation apparently lasted from October 1886 to February 1887 when Josiah's lawyer, Mr. Searl of Cohocton, came to the house to draw a new agreement. As soon as it could be recorded, the deed to the farm went to Nellis with his father having a life lease and the old couple having their own rooms and their meals provided.
Meanwhile Josiah made a will disposing of his other assets. Catherine felt that she was under the thumb of her daughter-in-law and apparently urged Josiah to make a complaint to court that the agreement should be voided citing the will that the lawyer did not know existed. The judgment made May 29, 1890, went against Josiah. Nellis and Rebecca stayed in possession of the farm and life went on with the two families tolerating each other. Unfortunately, life went on to Nellis's illness with tuberculosis and his subsequent death 1 August 1892.
The farm was Rebecca's in trust for their son Lee who was ten years old but with the provision that the old couple could continue living on the farm. All the unfriendly feelings came to a head. Josiah and Catherine moved out of Rebecca's house to live with their daughter Margaret Conner and her husband Harvey who had a large farm a mile up the road. There was one more trip to court not recorded except in family lore. When Josiah and Catherine moved out, they demanded money since they would not be eating at Rebecca's table but Rebecca countered that she was only obliged to provide for them if they stayed on the farm.
Catherine died soon after in 1895 but Josiah died at the unusual old age of ninety-three in 1900. Margaret did gain something tangible for the care of her aged parents. She inherited the Oxx lot, fifty-five acre parcel of land that Josiah owned besides the farms. It bounds the farm that was briefly Alonzo's. Margaret's granddaughter and my second cousin, sold the Oxx lot in 1984 to an immigrant from France, Jacques Bonnardot, who built and operated a trout farm on the property until his death.
Another consequence of this unhappy saga is that my father had a horror of contention within the family or with his neighbors and even more of lawsuits.
The first farmhouse, I think, was there when Josiah and Catherine came to the farm. It was a small frame house with two rooms downstairs and one large room upstairs. So far as I know, there was never a log cabin. When I was a child, the house seemed about to fall in but I explored it to warnings of "Be careful of the rotten floors." There was nothing but dust and rubble downstairs but, in my grandparents' day, the upstairs had been the cheese room and there were still large, flat pans and skimmers littering the floor. Milk curdled in these pans as the first step in the cheesemaking process. Before the local cheese factories were built starting in 1871, each farm produced and sold its own cheese and butter. My grandmother Rebecca continued to make butter but the bulk of the milk produced after 1880 went to the cheese factory on Smith Pond.
In 1881 my grandfather Nellis built a large, Pennsylvania-style barn with a capacity for 36 cows, a large dairy in that era, and cheesemaking on the farm must have ended. Some years after Stanley took over the farming, he hired neighbor Walt Chissom to bulldoze in the old cheese house and a once lovely old elm that had succumbed to Dutch elm disease.
I have only one or two photos of the house where my father grew up and brought his bride. The older part looks small but welcoming with a pillared front porch and a partially pillared back porch. A picket fence stands in the foreground separating lawn from garden. My mother said that the old part had a large dining parlor with an old settee where the farm help could relax after meals. A friend of Mamma's, Frances McNamara Walling who visited us occasionally, mentioned that there was a step-up to the parlor-bedroom wing. She also said that the old house was charming and the new house cold.
When the new house was built in 1922, the parlor end of the old house was moved across the garden and driveway to become the hired man's house. The new house was built on the same site as the old, using some of the same foundation. After there was no need for a hired man, we rented the old house to Woodrow and Pearl Meese who lived there with their family for twenty years. Their children and ours had happy playtimes together. The house deteriorated and we could not afford to renovate it. The Meeses moved up the road to the next place owned by Dr. Alexander Conner (Pat). Pat was my second cousin and our veterinarian. In 1975, our younger son Leonard and the Meese's grandson Darrell Gardner tore down the old house to earn some spending money. One of the beams had the date 1867.
The Farmhouse—Work Place, Play Place
The new house was built by a Wallace builder-contractor, Wayne Moore. I do not know if he had built other houses before ours, but I know of several that he built afterwards: The French house, now Bill and Betty Mitchell's Patchwork Peace bed-and-breakfast; three houses in a row in Wallace; and a renovation on the eastern hill above Smith Pond for Anna and Llewelyn Edwards. Moore must have been familiar with the Craftsman movement for all of these houses have beautiful woodwork and interesting nooks.
Our farmhouse is basically an American Four-Square with central hallways, downstairs and up, connected by an open stairway with a solid oak banister. All the young children who lived in or visited the house have enjoyed sliding down the banister. Besides the halls, there are five rooms downstairs including the pantry with its dumbwaiter to the cellar, and five bedrooms upstairs plus a bathroom. There are three porches and a woodshed-washroom annex leading into the kitchen. There is a full basement with a furnace room, a long defunct electric generator, a rain water cistern, various pumps and built-in shelves for canned goods.
There is a full attic occupied in my childhood, and still there, by my grandmother's, my Great Aunt Nellie's and my mother's trunks. My mother's trunk is a small steamer trunk that she used to carry her belongings on the train as she went from her home in Cortland to the various villages where she taught. The other trunks are huge and brought household wares as well as clothing when Grandma and Aunt Nellie came to the farm to live. There was and is furniture: parts of three parlor sets, broken dining room chairs and old rockers, bed frames and dressers that came and went according to family needs.
When Elaine married, our wedding gift to her was a Victorian sofa with four matching chairs newly re-upholstered by Betty Rouse of Wallace. I think this set was Aunt Nellie's and possibly her parents who had died before she came to live with Grandma. The tete-a-tete, with its matching chairs, was Grandma's and was still in use when I was a child. Grandma had made a "crazy quilt" of odd shaped velvet and silk pieces intricately embroidered. This was folded and draped over the back of the tete-a-tete. Our daughter Mary took this set. The third has a Freudian type couch and a cavernous easy chair. The latter was my father's favorite chair but he wore it out; the couch is waiting in the attic for someone to claim it. Some old rockers and picture frames have been sold to antiquers and many modern odds and ends have filled the available niches. It is a classic grandmother's attic, only now I am the grandmother who has to figure out what to do with everything.
The heart of our farmhouse was the kitchen and the heart of the kitchen when I was a child, and into my early married years, was the huge monster of a wood stove, our "Round Oak Chief." It covered the space along one wall except for access to the hall door. It had six lids, a baking oven, a warming oven and a reservoir to heat water. Besides, pipes ran under the fire box to a hot water tank in a niche behind the stove. Only in the hottest days of summer did we run out of hot water. If my mother had properly seasoned wood properly split, she could stir up the coals in the bottom of the fire box and have a hot fire going very quickly. She always kept a teakettle of hot water on the stove. Sometimes there was a pan of sour milk thickening into cottage cheese on the coolest lid.
In the winter, Mamma made dried cakes. She took off the lid over the hottest part of the fire box and heated lard in an old, round-bottomed iron kettle that harked back to Great Grandma Catherine's day. She dropped the cut-out cakes into the sizzling hot grease and, when I reached a certain age—maybe nine or ten, I turned the cakes. My main task, winter and summer, was to carry the wood from the wood shed to the wood box on the other side of the chimney from the hot water tank. On cold winter mornings, when our older children were little, they ran from their chilly bedrooms to jostle each other for a spot on the oven door. Elaine and Katie dried their hair there.
In the summer Mamma canned. She started in May with rhubarb from the garden and pineapple that she bought from a peddler. As they ripened, she canned strawberries, cherries, red raspberries, black raspberries, peaches, long blackberries, pears, and applesauce, all of which, except the peaches, my sister or I picked. She canned peas, string beans, corn, succotash and tomatoes. She made currant jelly, apple jelly from Red Astrachans, Concord grape jelly, strawberry jam, raspberry jam, peach jam, blackberry jam especially to make my father's birthday jam cake, plum butter and pear conserve, She made watermelon rind pickles, Seckel pear pickles, sweet cucumber pickles, cucumber and cabbage relish, chili sauce, ripe cucumber pickles, pickled beans and pickled beets. She didn't like dill so seldom made dill pickles. She never made sauerkraut. My father detested it, I expect from having it too often as a child.
The pea canning called for Herculean labor. Daddy raised peas for the canning factory in Wayland so, when they were cut, he brought piles of the vines to the shady side yard where my sister and I and anyone else who was in the household at the time pulled the pods off the vines and then shelled them. Meanwhile, Mamma washed the jars, got out the pressure canner which took much less time and heat than the hot-water process, and stoked the fire. All of this on the hottest days in July. She not only canned peas for us but also for our cousin Mildred Wessells Gray (Miller) and sometimes for Aunt Frances and Uncle John Bowker. When the peas were served throughout the fall and winter, they were my least favorite vegetable. I can't stand canned peas to this day and am grateful for my freezer which preserves my garden peas so deliciously. However I loved the canning process especially the camaraderie of the preparation and the satisfaction of seeing the rows of jars on the cellar shelves. I can and preserve and freeze in smaller amounts than my mother did and not so many varieties. I'm proud to serve my home-grown and home-preserved fruits and vegetables. Of course, we all think they are better than any commercial variety. Relatives also remember the good times of the canning season and, as they visit to this day, ask to shell peas or snip beans or husk corn—whatever the task of the day. Not long ago, Cousin Johnny Bowker—Dr. John—visited the farm on a day that I was making escalloped potatoes for a church supper. He pared and sliced potatoes with great enthusiasm.
Copyright 2006, Grace S. Fox