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Many of my childhood memories were centered around hours spent on the Varga family farm, originally a plot of nearly 27 acres, diagonally split into two parcels to the south by one-thousand feet of track owned by the Hocking Valley Railway. Those origins date to 1864 one year before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House ended the Civil War. The steel rails and wooden ties of today are now part of the CSX system. Our visits to the farm were nearly all weekend events. The second youngest of my father’s brothers, Jim, never married and maintained the farm of just over 20 acres, caring for his mother, my grandmother. I remember thinking how d ifferent “the farm” was from our neighborhood not quite four and a half miles away. In many ways I would come to see the family farm as a cultural link for me, a metaphorical Plymouth landing, a Tranquility Base for my paternal ancestors. True, there were previous addresses which the family called home but not in my lifetime. 2031 Williams Road represented somewhat of a new beginning for them and a nexus for me, where my grandparents native Hungary and my native America would overlap. Here, I felt closer to the land and the ways of the “old country”, which was marked by consuming what you grew and building or creating what you needed. There were times we gathered around an open fire just beyond the barnyard and before the plowed rows of planted fields began. Hardly recognizing the difference, family conversations in English would often s eamlessly morph into Hungarian and back again, accompanied only by the sound of the crackling wood fire beneath a wonderful willow tree. Cut from a firm loaf, my mother would give us large pieces of hard crusted bread and then taught us how to dab that slice with the drippings of a skewered hunk of bacon fat which only moments ago had been kissed by flames and surrounded by smoke. The Hungarian phrase is “Sutni szalonna” (Shoot-nee Saala-nah) or baked bacon. The delicious result is called “zsiros kenyer”, in English “greasy bread”, a tasty sustenance that was made possible by a campfire that glowed till sunset. The warm, fat-smeared bread could be embellished with slices of tomato, garlic, cucumber or onion fresh from the nearby garden. As a child I didn’t think of it as a cultural node, I just thought it was what we did. At times my Grandmother Varga presented us with warm bowls of broth filled with noodles or flakes of confetti-like dumplings. My affinity for warm hearty soups “leves” (pron. lev-esh) began as a child at my grandmothers’ kitchen table. I would take my time consuming each bowlful. These days my cousin Kurt, who enjoys cooking, comes the closest to replicating Grandma’s soups. Sometimes we would add her homemade tomato ketchup. Her vegetable garden yielded some of the grandest tomatoes, many ending up in the thick, rich concoction which she bottled and stored. It was more of a spice-laden sauce with a still on the vine aroma, better than anything you found on supermarket store shelves.
Owning a farm, as every farmer knows, is a bold statement of self-reliance. According to population records, 60% of Ohioans lived on farms in 1890. By the time my Grandfather moved his family from the city to Valley Crossing 32 years later, that number was cut nearly in half. At this writing, I have not been able and may never be able to learn with any certainty why my Father’s father made a decision counter to the national trend, which saw large migrations from farms to cities. Farming was not what he was close to in Hungary, so it’s a bit of a mystery. Our family stories place my Grandmother firmly in the administrative seat when it came to farm operations. Nearly six years to the day after my grandparents purchased their acreage on Williams Road, America was plunged into deep economic depression. That period of need and despair would drag on for a decade. Farmers in the Midwest generally fared better than their counterparts in the Great Plains during the 1930’s. The independent spirit of farmers also led them to be able to provide for themselves better than those in cities who may have lost their only source of income. Family documents show my grandparents incrementally struggled to maintain the Williams Road property during the national economic crisis of the 1930’s. I’ve heard stories about the Varga’s selling what they produced to those in the city but they also shared the farm bounty when they could. Everyone was just trying to get by during the Depression.
Approaching east on Williams road you first saw the fields then my cousin’s house, then my grandmother’s house. urning into the driveway we passed a small side yard to our right with room for some amazing flower beds. My grandmother took pride in her flower gardens which could be found in several spots around the house and farmyard. Beyond the driveway flower beds and along the main driveway your eyes would take in the cement block milk house or tej haz (pron. tie haus). Only a few steps from that one room structure was the family homestead. Before my time, a sloped roof addition was added to the house containing a small bathroom off the kitchen and a sunroom offering a pleasant two step entry to the kitchen. The original kitchen was located in what I knew as the dining room. My grandmother would use that sunroom as her version of a greenhouse for her succulent plants and it would serve as a sales room for eggs and other farm goods to the public. The far end contained a small utility room. As children, we came in through that multipaned sunroom where we would knock the snow off our jackets and boots after playing outside before entering the house to get warm. The story of my grandfather requesting and receiving electric service to the farm house was much talked about. Rural electrification was just getting started and he became the first customer in the area with a power line coming in from Alum Creek Road direct to the house. This my grandfather apparently paid handsomely for according to our father. This must also have been a source of pride for the family as their neighbors would continue to require the use of candles or kerosene for illumination.
Entering the farm and to the left of the driveway, running its’ length, there was a good-sized apple orchard with tree after tree of the tiniest, tartest green apples I had ever tasted. Devouring those tiny pomes lead to my very first personal experience with the sage proverb of having “too much of a good thing”. My stomach cramps the next day were nearly unbearable. In summer, the canopy of leaves in that grove would filter the sunlight and perceptibly dim the area. I can’t ever remember climbing more trees in my life than I did in that orchard. They seemed designed to be conquered by little boys. My fun wasn’t without consequences though. One day I lost my balance. While making my way up branch by branch I began to fall backward. Luckily, my one shoe wedged itself in a crotch of the sturdy growth as I came to layout upside down with my back slamming up against the trunk. My head came to rest just inches from the ground. I was in the trees by myself that day and it was embarrassing having to scream for help while hanging upside down. The memories of that orchard, with its fallen fruit resembling a squishy cobble stone floor persist, though the trees and their fruit are long gone. In a way, the Varga family farm was a familiar island in an unfamiliar sea of agriculture. Everything here seemed spacious and big. Big trucks, big buildings, big tractors and lots of space. I was raised around green and yellow farm equipment. This was unmistakably a John Deere farm. Today, I see the resemblance of my father to the Vermont blacksmith turned inventor. They both, in their way, tried to make things better for themselves and others.