About 22 years ago the local historical society planned a party. The town of Greenwood was turning 165 years old, and the group approached me to write and to share a poem or two for a gathering at the Methodist Church.
I wasn’t interested enough in town/village history at the time to sit down and write a new poem for the occasion, but I figured I might have some older pieces I could share, if folklore and natural history counted.
Apparently they did. When the town’s birthday came around, I sucked on a beer or two then went to the church to read my poems.
This reading of mine had the potential to be another bust or… something of a pinnacle in my writing career at the time. My rationale was that a writer/poet could read for the public far and wide and be published almost everywhere, but such accomplishment rang hollow if there wasn’t also some connection to the local community.
It stood to reason that if a poet valued real people and real places in his work, he should then be able to speak quite freely among the people of his hive. I assumed erroneously that I would have little or no response at the church, that I’d be looked at merely as another “expert” in the art of word manipulation and would receive, at best, polite applause.
But strangers and acquaintances alike gave thanks for what they perceived as knowledge worth remembering. I felt honored that the poems were appreciated in the way that poetry was welcomed long ago– before the academics and the garden-weed versifiers stole it wilfully or ignorantly from the body of viable literature.
One man who had been a life-long resident of Greenwood and now had some connection to the area historical society commented on a poem about a locally famous pine tree that was levelled in the mid or latter 1800s. He had never heard the story about the giant “pine saplin’.” I experienced a brief anxiety attack. Perhaps, then, no one in the room of 40 or 45 people had understood what the hell I was talking about…
Maybe no one here had heard about the tree that was converted into a neighborhood farmhouse, or about the square dance that was held on the great tree’s stump when bullfrogs of the marsh chorused inbetween the fiddle songs and bouts of merriment.
And if no one knew the story of the early settlers and the “saplin,'” maybe it was just a figment of a poet’s deluded mind…
Fortunately I was soon conversing with Daniel Redmond, age 84, a life-long resident of the town. Dan remarked that his hearing aid had behaved itself for my reading and, certainly, he had known about the pine tree saplin‘, as it was called in library documents. In fact, Dan had witnessed that incredible stump himself. The old square-jawed, muscular farmer claimed that the pine tree’s stump reminded him of comparable, though slightly lesser, trees that once stood on his well-kept farm on Greenwood Hill.
Dan had been a “custom” grain thresher until 1945 when combines would displace the steam-powered, horse-drawn mechanization that had been a large part of the Redmond family life. Dan recalled how the changes came and made their impact on the land and people. His work experience on the local farms had added to a growing body of Greenwood lore.
Rooted in one place throughout the century, Dan lamented how people seemed disinterested in their land beyond its monetary value. For example, landowners invited destructive lumbering techniques, assuring a quick and easy haul with big machinery. Redmond knew the ecological value of trees. “They give us more than most of us suspect,” he said.
Although agribusiness and outside interests came along and lent their hand to the break-down of community spirit, Dan applied an antidote of sorts; he planted trees. He planted them on cut-over lands and on swampy acreage where he’s found that native pines grow well.
I had also read a poem about the vanquished American chestnut tree, and Dan recalled the species well. He’d collected chestnuts early in the century before a blight came along and demolished the tree throughout the Appalachian districts.
Though I’ll never feel completely comfortable with the broken and diminished farm community of which I am a part, I’m pleased to have contributed a little something to its re-empowerment (miracles can happen, right?).
Old crank that I am, I didn’t feel like singing “Happy Birthday” at the village’s 165th, but I had fun eating cake. For several minutes I’d been like a fiddler at the dance floor of a 19th-century tree stump. I was less than thrilled about the early settlers’ destruction of the wilderness, but pleased for the chance of striking up a tune with the chorusing frogs of night.
I don’t remember this event happening, even though I would’ve been seven or so. Where is that white house? It looks familiar but I can’t place it…maybe just the angle.
I could write an entire post (and maybe will someday) about how places like Greenwood lost their soul, in a way, with the disappearance of people like Dan. While most people don’t share the value that you place on ecological purity for its own sake, people like Dan at least recognized that their health and livelihoods were inherently connected to it. Before the days of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, a small farm needed to respect the land and keep it healthy and productive. Large agribusiness doesn’t need to stay within natural bounds, and their cost structures make smaller farms irrelevant. Many of the remaining small farms in rural America are running on borrowed time using methods that will ultimately bury them.
I guess that’s a sad footnote to your more hopeful piece, but what you wrote there toward the end is true: Anything you can do to connect a community to its history and its soul is all the more valuable.
You wouldn’t have had much reason to remember it, a pretty low key event, and I may not have recalled it either if I hadn’t written down some notes about it afterward. As for the house, it’s just the angle you don’t recognize because the pic is taken from straight east of it, about where the old Agway building stands. Looking west to Main Street.
I think if I had ever recognized the soul of 20th-century Greenwood, it would have been from the vantage of the now defunct Hotel, as I worked both sides of the bar at one time. So many characters, so many stories true and false coming thru the door. Dan was one of numerous guys with stuff to listen to. I miss that whole aspect of the local community.
When the railroad left in ’36 the business started its decline, including agriculture. When the Hotel left, I’d say that the hub to the wheel had fallen out (just my opinion there). Thanks Brent.
I am thoroughly enjoying your winter musings, Walt! Keep ’em coming. A great distraction from the cold to warm the heart and brain.
Glad you appreciate ’em, Mike. As much as I enjoy dreaming about the upcoming fly-fishing times, and doing a bit of tying, too, I’m taking up the slack with some other issues of concern that I hope seem relevant to the reader too. Thanks for hangin’ out with us.
As guys like Dan are lost to the passage of time, something else will be lost too, and I’m not sure what to call it – a kind of authenticity, maybe. Community, or the idea of it seems to matter less and less as technology continues to isolate us, people’s values change and everything, no matter how trivial, seems to have a price tag attached to it. I like talking to the old timers because you almost always come away with a nugget of hard-won wisdom, a lesson taught by experience. As Henry Rollins said: Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit.
Greenwood is no exceptional town but there were older folks I used to talk with who had Rollins’ mileage, that’s for sure, and it was fun to learn about the place through them. There was knowledge to be gained if you were willing to lend an ear. It’s different now, thanks to hi-tech and to changing values. We can do more work with just the same effort that it took before, and we can work without looking each other in the eye, but something’s lost. It gnaws at the soul, and it has more to do than just getting old.
In my personal experience, I realize that I let a lot of knowledge and wisdom pass me by when older friends and relatives passed away. I was too busy to “lend an ear” — and now it’s too late. It’s great that the community is celebrating its history and big of you to join in, even if it was somewhat reluctantly.
Jim, It’s probably one of those situations where we don’t know what we’ve got until we lose it– old friends, relatives, community members who’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge worth listening to, remembering, and passing along to benefit the future. I’ve tried to make note of some of the more interesting folks I’ve met and to make sense of things. Far too insufficient, but we do what we can. Thanks for reading, and for commenting!
I sure have enjoyed your ramblings. I don’t remember that town meeting or the story about the “pine saplin” but I certainly remember Dan.
Dan had kept bees and when I moved to Greenwoodin 1972 I set up a couple of hives. I would go over to Dan’s and ask him countless questions on bee keeping. Along with his helpful answers I would always get a history lesson about Greenwood and the surrounding towns.
He would tell me stories of how it was when he was younger and the many changes he has seen
throughouy the years.
If you walk up the lane behind my old place by the tower there is the remains of an old threshing maching like the one Dan used.
Hi Pete! Good to hear from you again. I think this meeting occurred just after you left, or not long after. Yeah I miss old Dan. He was a bundle of local knowledge and always willing to share and be helpful. It’s interesting to hear about your friendship with him. I meant to post an illustration of an old steam thresher, the kind that the Redmonds used, on this blog post but forgot it. Maybe when it gets warmer I’ll go wander up that lane behind your place and look at that old thresher and make another post sometime on that subject. Take care and keep in touch!
I loved reading this account. What a fun glimpse into the life of a small town with rich history. I wonder, how many of our towns have buildings and streets and natural spots just bursting to tell their stories from days gone by? What state is this in? Here in Alaska we certainly have rich heritage going many, many centuries back, but we have fewer old buildings and towns like this still standing from the days of striking gold. I do love finding historical places here.
Thanks Mary Anne, I’m glad that you enjoyed this. The town in question is located in western New York, near the Pennsylvania border. I would hazard the guess that most rural towns in America that have not yet become totally modern and renovated have their natural sites and human structures with stories to be told. We can learn of these thru written histories and historical groups or, better yet, thru older community members who can still recall the richness of their lives therein. I’ll bet that Alaska has many locations with a richness of heritage, both natural and man-made, and tales begging to be told. Jack London merely scratched the surface of those gold-rush days.
I apprecite your comment here and hope to hear from you again.
Ah, sounds like a beautiful place. I’ve only been to New York once. My dad was born in Yonkers.
One of my favorite historical places I DO know about up here is Independence Mine. (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/indmine.htm) I hope to write and post photos about places like these more in my Alaska blog.
Thanks for the interesting link to the mine state park. I’d also be interested in seeing your blog about Alaska places– no doubt quite intriguing for an outdoor guy like me.
Hiking around that mine is just breathtaking. It is situated in the mountains and the view is absolutely incredible!
Clicking on my name will bring you to my blog. I’ll have to stop by and let you know when I post about a historical place.
Mary Anne, a quick perusal of your blog tells me that I’d like to add it to my blogroll so that I (along with others) can have a quick link to follow your adventures. It appears that your Alaskan winter has been a mild and pleasant one compared to the Arctic season we’ve been experiencing way down here!
Thank you very much! I will check back here too! Yes, we’ve been having such a mild winter. I’m mostly sad about that, but the thought of being that much closer to summer outdoor activities excites me!