The Grapes of
I rode into New York State in April of 1970, stuffed into the box of our '59 Ford pickup. I sat on our cedar chest full of clothes, hedged in with other furniture, big and little siblings, and our beloved Eskimo Spitz dog, Pearly. It was almost completely dark in there, so I was glad big sister Lydia was squeezed right against me. Rachel, next older than me, at seven years old, complained again that she was hungry. It had taken so long to pack everybody and everything into the truck that we didn't leave Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, until suppertime—and then there was no time to make supper.
I wished I could see out to observe the world's curiosities as we passed. Yet "boring" was not the right word for this ride. Chilly wind seeped between the plywood truck racks enclosing the load and made us huddle together tightly to keep warm.
Then, the mattress which served as our ceiling started flopping up and down in the wind, alternately threatening to collapse upon us, or sail away from our load. Big sisters Lydia, Drusilla, Nancy and Lavina were clutching it with their hands and trying to figure out how to alert Dad, at the wheel, to our plight. We thumped, knocked, and yelled to no avail. We tried shouting in unison: "One, two, three," then, "Da-a-a-d!" at the top of our lungs. Drusilla even stuck her head out from under the tarp which covered our exit hole at the top of the load and launched her powerful, high-pitched call that normally carried far.
In the cab of the pickup, no one knew all this. Dad was busy following road signs for our route. Little Susan and Nathan were sleeping, and Barbara was pitying herself that she was missing out in the excitement of riding in the back. (Mom had insisted that Barbara stay front because of her trouble with travel sickness.) Mom herself was wearily trying to find room for her feet among the three little Terriers that were taking up most of the floor space.
Considering everything, the trip was quite successful. Our wayward mattress was brought under control, and occasional stops for snacks and restrooms helped make the ride tolerable for us in the back. The best part, Rachel and I thought, was the box of crisp, tangy Pizza Spins we divided among ourselves. We didn't know anything could taste so good.
The home into which we walked at midnight was ancient, drab, dusty, and cobwebby. It smelled of cow grain and rats. Rebecca, the oldest sister at 21, and ten-year-old Chris, had arrived with a previous load of belongings and had tried to get the dust, oat grains, and rodent droppings swept out so that we could at least set up beds. One back room remained in use for oats storage by our landlord.
We used lanterns and candles for our lighting and lugged our water supply bucket by bucket from the landlord's barn. And we tried to edge out the other inhabitants of our house, such as spiders. Susan was afraid of spiders and deplored the eight-legged creatures that might come swinging down upon you without provocation. Otherwise, we were not at all daunted by our new surroundings; we children delighted in adventure. Besides, this last move had brought us breathtakingly close to The Dream.
When we were all together, there was a warm, strong feeling inside me that all was well. My biggest worry when we traveled was that somehow one of us would get left behind or lost. Now we were back together with Rebecca and Chris, and no one else was planning to travel. Several of the girls had even landed jobs immediately at a neighboring grape farm. Just temporary jobs, of course. Once The Dream was realized, everyone, even little me, would have enough to do just working at home on the farm.
We were thirteen Lapps arriving in New York: Mom, Dad, and eleven of us children. The place was the twelfth dwelling the family had known in the nine years since Dad and Mom had stood up to their Amish preachers and were thrust out of their Lancaster, Pennsylvania, homeland.
After they left behind their small farm in Lancaster, Mom and Dad simply turned to some other spot on which to till the land. For Dad is a man of the soil. Our ancestors have farmed as a way of life and as a means of staying alive for uncounted generations, father passing on to son the skills required to extract a livelihood from the dirt.
Also passed on have been certain codes of behavior. Mom and Dad were brought up to look to their own resources and resourcefulness for life's material needs, and to shun government aid at all costs. This principle would prove much harder to put into practice without the close community life which my parents had enjoyed in Lancaster.
The specter of poverty haunted them for a decade, striking hardest the year of my birth. "I will go out and beg if I must," Dad explained, "but I won't accept government handouts." The fall of that year, a scant harvest left us with nothing to live on after the landlord was paid off. Mom recalls their attempts to scrape by with odd jobs—"It was any work we could get our hands on."
We eventually abandoned our migrant labor and farming attempts in five different states. Finally the attraction of lakeshore produce operations (particularly grapes) brought us north to Western New York, where we would establish the family farming enterprise we'd dreamed for all along.
When the name New York is mentioned, most people quickly envision that city of millions, and of skyscrapers, on the state's southeastern fringe. Upstate New York, and Chautauqua County in particular, couldn't be farther removed from such metropolitan grandiose. Most of our state teems with diverse agricultural enterprises. Among these enterprises, the dairy industry claims the lead.
The western borders of our state are defined by bodies of water, and at its farthest southwestern reach, you come to Lake Erie. This is where Chautauqua County lies, wedged like the toe of a boot between the shores of our lake and a hornlike projection of Pennsylvania territory. Ours is a land of small towns and large fields, of hills, clear streams, and forests, and of many growing things from alfalfa to apples, from Herefords to hogs, and on into a vast, defiant assortment of life forms. Defiant, because of our climate, where June temperatures can be anything from 28 to 98 degrees, and January temperatures can dip to 30 degrees below zero. Add to this the copious winter snowfall, and it makes our area just as friendly to ski resorts as to farming.
Why live in Chautauqua County? The late Joyce Swan, a Chautauqua County resident who used to write about country life for the enjoyment of Buffalo News readers, gave this justification of our part of the world:
"The land's biggest offering is an absence of confinement, and refinement, a permission give to the mind and heart to develop something, or withdraw from something, a freedom of the spirit."
It was just such a freedom and opportunity that we Lapps sought when we moved to Western New York.
© 1993, Hannah Lapp