Groundhog Day in May and other adventures at Pete’s farm

George Brown
By George Brown

“Ok George, hold him up by his hind legs then grab his front legs with the other hand and hold on tight while I castrate him.” I followed Pete’s instructions and watched as he wielded a razor blade and, with the skill of a surgeon, deftly neutered a squealing seven day old male pig. Then Pete grabbed another squealing pig, handed the razor blade to me, and said, “Ok, George, it’s your turn.”

This was just one of the exciting animal husbandry experiences I had during the year and a half Yvonne and I served as caretakers on Pete’s farm near Saint Leon, Indiana while I was attending graduate school at Miami University in the late 1970s.

Pete, an incredibly hardworking and highly successful building contractor, had purchased the 120 acre farm as a place to escape from his suburban home on evenings and weekends. As I got to know Pete, it was easy to see that he was, with some success, trying to relive his childhood memories growing up on a nearby farm.

The caretaker arrangement worked well. In exchange for “keeping the place up,” which included chores like painting buildings, mending fences, and caring for Pete’s assortment of farm animals, we enjoyed living rent free in the circa 1850s two-story log cabin. In later years a full length front porch and a large country kitchen had been added, and the entire house had been clad in siding, but these modernizations took nothing away from the nostalgic atmosphere of the old log home, and the massive white barn and scattered outbuildings that accompanied it. Except for the electric line running to the house it was as picturesque as a fine Amish farm.

In addition to the sow and her piglets, Pete’s menagerie of farm animals included a small flock of sheep (which I helped sheer), a coop full of chickens, a half dozen Holstein steer feeder calves (which we bottle fed) , several barn cats, and one love struck Hereford bull named Big Red.

I say love struck because I lost count of the number of times Big Red broke through the pasture fence (which didn’t speak well for my fence mending skills) to visit the neighbor’s Guernsey milk cow. Each time the neighbor called I would walk the half mile up the road with a heavy rope in one hand and a large coffee can full of molasses sweet feed in the other to coax Big Red home. Luckily he loved the sweet aroma of the molasses and would almost trot along beside me nibbling the sweet feed all the way back to our barn.

The owners of the Guernsey were two elderly sisters who also happened to be retired Catholic nuns. I guess you could call them “sister-sisters.” After long careers as teachers they had returned to the farm of their childhood to enjoy their retirement years. The lived modestly, supplementing their meager income by selling eggs produced by their large flock of Golden Comet hens.

The only other neighbors who lived close by were the Distell brothers, Matt and Joe. I don’t recall that Matt and Joe were Catholic, but they lived as frugally as monks. Their old farmhouse, which sat at the end of a long lane directly across the road from us, had been in the Distell family for at least three generations. With its outhouse, backyard well, and woodstove for heat, the only thing about the Distell homestead that had changed in a hundred years was the weathered clapboard siding that had faded to a dull gray.

Matt and Joe were both in their 80s, and like many farmers of their generation every morning they enjoyed a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs followed by meat and potatoes of one sort or another for lunch and supper. Despite this high fat diet both men were as slim as rails and had no apparent ailments. This could be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that each summer Matt and Joe hand cut and split four or five cords of firewood to satisfy the wintertime hunger of the huge woodstove that sat in a corner of their combination living room-bedroom located just off the kitchen. The rest of their large farmhouse had been closed off for years.

The great blizzard of January 1978 occurred while we lived at Pete’s farm. We were without electricity for about a week but got along well with the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen to cook on and keep us warm. When the snow finally stopped I waded through the large drifts to check on the sister-sisters and the Distell brothers. I needn’t have bothered because I found all four doing as well, if not better, than we were.

During our two summers on the farm we planted large vegetable gardens. Actually, a great deal of the planting and weeding was performed by Yvonne’s mom and dad, both of whom had learned the art of vegetable gardening growing up in Corbin, Kentucky. Yvonne’s dad was a master weeder and her mom was a master cook. It was a perfect combination.

Unfortunately, not long after planting our garden the first spring we discovered we would have competition to consume it. A family of groundhogs had taken up residence under a corner of the barn just a few yards from a corner of the garden. Quick action was needed.

I retrieved the 22 rifle Pete kept locked in the old milk house for just such occasions. I had never owned a gun (and still don’t), and, as I recall, Yvonne’s dad had not fired a gun in 25 or 30 years, but he said he could handle it. So with the rifle and a few shells in hand dad selected an upstairs bedroom window that provided a perfect view of the groundhog burrows.

Perched in the window, Dad looked like an Army sharpshooter patiently waiting and watching for the enemy to appear. It wasn’t long before one fat unsuspecting groundhog emerged, and the instant he did a loud crack of the rifle sent him tumbling – a perfect shot. It was my job to retrieve and bag the groundhog, which I did. Within an hour Dad had fired two more perfect shots and I had bagged two more fat groundhogs.

An hour or so passed with no sign of another groundhog so I went off to do some chores while Dad remained at his post in the upstairs window. He finally came down and while we were putting the rifle away I asked Dad if he had seen any more groundhogs.

“As a matter of fact I did,” he said. “I had just sat the gun down to have a drink of water when four of them popped out of the burrow all at the same time. I grabbed the rifle to take aim but before I could get it to my shoulder they turned tail and headed for the woods like a bunch of lemmings headed for the cliff. I don’t think we will see anything of them again,” he concluded. And sure enough we didn’t see another groundhog the entire time we lived at Pete’s farm.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.