Uncle Sam’s House

As recently as 60-70 years ago there were a half dozen families or more living on this farm, other than my own. My family owned the farm and lived in the house that is now our “farmstay” house. The other families were tenant farmers, living in smaller houses scattered around the farm.

Tobacco farming is very labor intensive. Nowadays tobacco farmers grow hundreds of acres of tobacco, using seasonal workers from Mexico to do the labor. But in the past most tobacco farmers were tenant farmers, who grew their crops on “shares.” The owner of the farm would provide a house, land, seeds, draft animals, implements, etc. in exchange for a percentage of the crop grow by the tenants (who are sometimes referred to as “share croppers”). I wonder if that model is something we should consider again, as a way to make entry into farming easier for young people, but that will have to be a topic for another day.

Only a few of the old tenant houses on our farm are still standing.  One of them is in the woods about a hundred yards from our house.

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Rock chimney and hand-hewn logs

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A dog trot connects the old log house to a more recent addition.

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You can still tell the interior was whitewashed

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There was a big porch here, but it has collapsed.

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The foundation has seen better days

There was still a family living in the house when I was a boy, but they were the one of the last of the tenant families left on the farm, and they hadn’t been here long. Before them the house had been occupied by another family for a long time. Our families were very close, like kin folk of sorts. Even though I never met them, I felt like I knew “Uncle Sam” and “Aunt Elnora” (titles of affection and respect, rather than consanguinity), as my father spoke of them often.

I regret that the house has deteriorated so badly. I doubt it will be standing much longer.

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This year at the farmers market a man stopped at our booth, looked at the name of our farm, studied me a few moments then asked where our farm was located. I suspected immediately who it was, and I was right–my father’s dear boyhood friend who grew up in that house. I enjoyed several long conversations with him over the summer. I even brought in an old photo of he and my father playing together as boys, which he enjoyed seeing. It was great hearing stories from his childhood.

The place doesn’t look like much today, but it’s an important part of our story here.

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27 comments on “Uncle Sam’s House

  1. Bob Braxton says:

    A few sites from my growing-up years: the “Mr. York” house that looked very much like this (probably quite a bit smaller, no addition), a sunken place where the cellar of a tobacco barn or pack house used to be, the “Sam Stone” house (there was no building, just some foundation pillars / stones and some plum trees (sour fruits). I am reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” about 1915 to 1970’s migration from all parts of the South to northern cities.

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    • Bill says:

      I met two men and the market this year who grew up in sharecropper houses out here, then made their way to northern cities as soon as they could. Both left home as soon as they were adults. One worked for a week in a lumber mill then took the money he got paid and bought a bus ticket to Washington DC, figuring nothing there could be any worse than the work he was leaving behind. He did well in life. The other is the man I mentioned in the post. At age 18, as soon as he’d finished that years tobacco crop, he caught a bus to Philadelphia. But he didn’t like it there and returned to Danville, where he found a job. He too did well in life. Both told me that despite leaving (and not regretting it) they had wonderful childhoods here, and that those were “good days.”

      This house is considerably larger than the typical tenant house. Most were were one room downstairs and a loft upstairs. As you know that was typical of houses in those days, whether you were a sharecropper or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. DM says:

    I would love to hear you develop these thoughts (model for helping young families transition into agriculture) more! Enjoyed the pictures. had no idea how labor intensive tobacco growing was back in the day.

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    • Bill says:

      Tobacco farming required large families, with everyone helping. It’s still labor intensive (although not as much so), but families don’t work together like that anymore. I suppose overall that’s a good thing, but I can’t help but also feel that we lost something valuable.

      There are lots of negative connotations to sharecropping, and rightfully so. But it was a system that made sense then. The landowners were poor too and they needed labor. The sharecropper families needed homes, land and capital. The arrangement made sense. I’m not even sure it would be legal today (certainly the child labor probably wouldn’t be), but I wonder if some sort of sharecropping arrangement connecting landowners who want to see their farms tended and young wanna-be farmers who can’t afford to buy or rent land wouldn’t be a win-win. Maybe I’ll create a post with my thoughts on something like that.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, I spent a lot of time on my uncle’s farm during the childhood years. The family history on my Mom’s side is on that farm. I don’t think it’s much more than three or four hundred acres and it’s totally rented out as my Uncle died this year at 83 years old and my Aunt just couldn’t stay there on her own. The orginal house is unsafe to go in any more but I can remember my grandmother cooking and canning on the old wood burning stove. I don’t remember farming with horses but my first memories were of grandpa milking cows in the barn before the new one was built. It was an awesome time in family history and like your farm much activity happened daily. Now the houses are quiet, the barn is silent, and the animal corrals are without activity. If I sit and think on these things, I still can hear the voices of the past in my mind laughing, joking, planning, directing work to be done, and gathering around the dinner table at day’s end. Those were good days when family worked together for a common goal. I often wonder what will be the legacy of my generation the grand kids will ponder 30 years from now. Hopefully, blog posting will document life’s activities for them to read and enjoy.

    Have a great day visiting Uncle Sam’s house.

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    • Bill says:

      Excellent comment Dave. I’m trying to listen to those voices more these days. We tend to zero in on the present moment, at the expense of the past and the future. A book I’ve just finished suggests that those aren’t as separate as we usually think.

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  4. Great post Bill, the tidbits about tobacco farming are quite interesting as that is a crop that does not grow anywhere near here.

    Loggers and woodcutters were the “share croppers” here in the Northwest timberland. I forage for mushrooms now where the woodcutter’s cabins were as the land has returned to forest. Bits of their life is visible, stone foundations, bottles, jars, and various rusted cans. Roofs were made from cedar shakes, and with our rain forest-like rain a building without heat returns to the soil pretty fast.

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    • Bill says:

      The old outbuildings here have tin roofs. As in the case of our old “home house” the tin sometimes was laid right on top of the cedar shingles. We’ve discovered that as long as the roof stays secure, the buildings will last. But as soon as the roof loses its integrity, the building is quickly doomed.

      If you look at the first picture you’ll see that the tin roof is peeled back at one corner of the front of the house. Beneath that the logs are rotting. I should have fixed that roof, but I hadn’t noticed it and it wasn’t a priority.

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  5. shoreacres says:

    I love that you came across the fellow who grew up in the house. That really is wonderful. While it’s a little poignant to see the house settling back into the ground, your photos suggest a terrific project: recording the process over time. I watched an old barn descend back into the earth over two decades, and at some point it became strangely satisifying.

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    • Bill says:

      I met him once briefly, at my fathers funeral nearly 30 years ago, but didn’t remember what he looked like. But as soon as he asked the question I knew by the way he asked it who he was. I was thrilled to meet him again and to be able to talk to him about the old days.

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  6. How interesting. Not something we have out on the plains. Nice for you to make the connection with your dad’s childhood friend.

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  7. It’s funny when I started reading this and looking at the photos I had a flashback to the smell of old buildings like that – there were old dilapidated houses on my grandma’s land in Alabama – they probably were sharecropper houses too now that you mention it. My sister and I spent part of our summers there and we’d go “treasure hunting” through them with my cousins.
    I don’t know how you do it Bill – coming up with such a variety of topics DAILY! I’m impressed.
    Keep ’em coming…

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    • Bill says:

      There are still lots of treasures to be found around here. I have lots of them stored away that I plan to return to someday when I’m old and tired. 🙂

      I peeked underneath the place to see if I could spot anything that might have fallen through. As you can see in the photo of the rock foundation there is a hubcap under there. I have no idea why it’s there. Sadly the middle of it is broken out so I can’t tell what model car it belonged to.

      I’m glad you enjoy the posts. I’m sure some of them are real headscratchers. I admire bloggers who have a theme and stay on point. But I like the freedom to post about whatever is on my mind (within reason).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dearest Bill,
    Indeed, the closeness between families, all working for the same farm is something that is being lost forever it seems like.
    There was no wealth and a lot of hard work went into such crops like tobacco.
    In Indonesia, while working and living there for some three years, we’ve seen the tobacco crops and than the drying, alongside the streets, of the leaves on racks. They had to be brought inside the homes and later cut. We were invited by our driver one day, he wanted to show us how the entire family and more people, got involved in the cutting; all manual labor. No wealth in that area… It leaves you kind of sad by watching them and thinking about the hard life of our own ancestors.
    My Dad had to work at a big farm as a farmhand at the age of 15 and my Mom at the age of 14… Merely kids and especially compared by todays spoiled and sheltered teens that age.
    Both is not the optimal situation, the young generation ought to learn how to do things by hand, gardening, cooking from scratch etc. There is so much that is being lost and no longer being passed down from generation to generations.
    One wonders what stories they will be able to share at old age…?
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    • Bill says:

      I have mixed feelings about it. I’ll forever cherish my memories of working alongside by brother, sisters, cousins, mother, grandparents, and aunts on a tobacco farm. We started working as very young children, but it didn’t seem unusual. Everyone did it.

      Tobacco is a noxious crop so I have no fondness for the plant, but I do know that lifestyle promoted tight-knit families and a good work ethic. I suppose it’s better for children to not do field labor that young, but I truly believe that in losing that life our culture has lost something of great value.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Joanna says:

    Your story also speaks of mutual respect on your farm and I am guessing that made a huge difference. It seems so stupid that we can’t make farming pay proper wages, meaning that the sharecropper would not be in poverty and can do what they enjoy – if that is there desire. One thing that strikes me about poverty is the lack of choice, if there is a choice then a lack of money does not feel like poverty. We don’t need a huge income and we feel rich enough at the moment, but once our savings run out then our choices will narrow and then it would feel more like a chore, something you have to do to live.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right about choice. Choosing to live simply feels a lot different that being forced to live simply. Unfortunately, these days far too many people are just choosing not to work at all.

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      • Joanna says:

        Is that really the case or how it looks on the outside? When I think of where Ian comes from, there are many who are said to be choosing not to work, but what a choice they have – stacking shelves with low wages that makes getting benefits just hard enough to be a fraught experience and low enough to have to go through the hoops. Enough to drive them all to extremes. Who would trade their places? Not sure I could.

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  10. avwalters says:

    I wouldn’t be able to resist the project of restoring that bit of history. Of course, I’d swaddle it in rationalizations–an authentic rental for the tourist crowd–but really, I cannot resist the lure of history.

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    • Bill says:

      I was tempted. But we spent a small fortune restoring the main house, putting a new floor and roof in one of the other tenant cabins and putting new roofs and sheds on two of the tobacco barns (for no reason other than my desire to preserve history). There was a limit to how much we could spend and there was no way I could rationalize spending money on this place, which might have been too far gone to save anyway. We had to give up on the old stable, packing barn and granary too. They were just too far gone to save. Having said that, I should’ve nailed that tin down when it started peeling back, but I didn’t notice it. I’ll try to do that this winter and at least slow down the inevitable.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. EllaDee says:

    The G.O.’s family were share farmers. A few years ago we had the opportunity to buy the house they lived in on the farm, where the G.O. spent his first 7 years, which had been subdivided. Sadly though much of the original house had burned down, and the new part plus a few other things about the property didn’t suit quite suit us when we weighed it all up. But the place tugged on our heartstrings for a while. We now have in our shed the original work benches from the main property, belonging to the family who owned it, a kind gift from one of the remaining family members.

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  12. Rachel says:

    So beautiful! If the place is about to fall down, have you considered letting some parts of it go through reclamation? People will pay a lot of money to get and restore some of what is there. Rustic is “in” and at least it would live on through other people, ya know?

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    • Bill says:

      Good idea and I may try to use what we can. Old houses and barns like this are common here, so it’s not likely that there would be much value. When we first moved here I looked into selling some of the old heart pine logs from a fallen barn and there was no market for them, even though boards were selling on the internet at sky high prices (for things like rustic cabins in the mountains of Colorado).

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  13. Candace says:

    How fascinating to have that kind of history on your own land.

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