Alton’s Farm

Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?—better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live

                                    Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Alton died last week.  At 85,  the last of John Jerry and Lydia Machann’s family:  six boys and two girls surviving to adulthood.  He had remained on the family farm, making it yield enough (cattle, cotton, oil) to buy another plot and support him and his brother, AC, for their long lives.  When a third brother, Robert, took early retirement from his factory job and returned to the farm, he, too, bought another plot, left to Alton. A child when his family moved in, Alton died in the house they built to anchor that land.

The Machans were stubbornly individualistic:  half Machans; the other half Machanns.  However, with all those sons, the name died out quickly.  Half the sons were not the marrying kind, another was childless, another had a son and daughter but that son died far too young, and the third was my husband’s father –  an only child, whose children are all girls. The three brothers led quiet if demanding lives. In his last bedridden years, farm life went by his window – he worried about whether a cow ambling by needed deworming, he’d consult the weather reports to see what was coming and his bird books as he watched his feeder.

Before we married, my husband returned to Austin one Sunday, having signed away all but oil royalty rights to the land left by his grandparents.  All the siblings (or siblings’ representatives) had.  There were many rational reasons – for one, broken up it would not even support a lonely farmer.  Then, Alton wanted to farm.  He told his oldest friend about going to Waco, working in the factory for a week.  He returned ready to beg to stay on the farm; I can’t imagine his parents didn’t need another set of hands – farms generally do.   This signing was after his parents’ deaths.

By then, others had chosen their own paths – some had farms of their own, some in the factory. Alton kept the land in the family. It was what he knew and where he wanted to be.   The others would come back weekends, work the farm, fix a motor or roof a shed.  Competent:  they welcomed tasks.  The land had – indeed, still has for their children – a mystic pull.  One wife referred to it as a magnet – and she wasn’t wrong.  Three quarters of their family weekends in the 50’s and 60’s were spent there.  Leaving early Saturday, driving 90 miles or more, the children then played the long day while her husband worked; then she’d bathe them, put on their pajamas, tuck them in the car to be carried to their bedrooms.  A loving woman, she said she was grateful her husband got one year after retirement to spend where he was happy.  Their daughter understands; she is the genealogist, the keeper of records and memories. As does her husband, describing how well he understood his father-in-law, sensing the Machan mind behind the arrangement of tools in his new wife’s garage.

Another reason, implied, understood by all was that Alton was making a commitment to his brother, Alvin Clement (AC).  In his youth, AC had been an excellent student, but in his teens he suffered a head injury.  From then on, he was beset by depression; shock treatments, so popular in the 50’s, didn’t help much.  Depression has taken a heavy toll on the family, though most had productive lives before it overcame them. For AC it began early.

Part of what was admirable about Alton was that, unspoken as that responsibility was, he embraced it.  He gained something – purpose as much as land, kinship. His relationship with his other brother, when he later returned to the farm, was the warm if taut one you would expect from two men, essentially of like mind, but with unique opinions, held with the stubbornness of men who spent a good amount of time alone. The house reflected them: solid, cluttered with those three 80-year lives within it, a man’s house for half its life or more. At one time a woman had reigned – her stylish hats and scarves still in her bedroom.

The family choices were quirky:  Johnnie, Clint’s father, had a Hupmobile. And the farm was welcoming; one friend whose mother had died early remembers shared meals with them and gathering to watch Lawrence Welk on the Machann’s tv.  Three brothers and one brother-in-law had seen a good more of the world during the forties and came back with souvenirs and stories, then settled into the old routines.  In grade school during those years, Alton learned to look beyond that farm’s boundaries – but never left.

After their mother died, in the early seventies, the brothers retreated, making few concessions to modernity (when televisions changed they didn’t – sufficiently impatient to throw one set out the door).  A television that never  turned off appeared after Robert died; Alton was bedridden and others were near to work the mysterious remote.

The family land held them and reading entertained them.  Heavy dependence on nature teaches stoicism:  farming awes, humbles, toughens.  And the Machann/Machan boys were a tough breed.  When Frank, the oldest felt a heart attack coming (before cells and after his wife had taken out the landline) he got in his truck and drove as fast as he could.  Why the speed?  He was hoping the law would notice and then take him to the clinic; they didn’t but he got there.  Robert broke his hip; when he’d been x-rayed the doctor looked around for a wheel chair; how’d he gotten there the doctor asked?  Walked, the always taciturn Robert said.  Sans wheelchair, walker or cane – the break a few days old.  And Alton was tough.  When he died he had been in hospice for months; Parkinsons blocked food, then he couldn’t swallow water, then breathing was difficult. His pulse and blood pressure dipped and rose but for three weeks his heart kept beating.

Alton and Robert were quite curious about the world, international events.  Well- thumbed copies of National Geographic were kept, weighting their book shelf until it gave. One Sunday we visited:  they weren’t always welcoming but they had come to expect my phone.  They pounced:  which species of elephant weighed more, how much more? When I got the phone to work (tin roofs & good reception aren’t compatible), they were satisfied.

Alton studied best practices for ranching:  subscribing to farming magazines and keeping up with the research at the ag school.  He built his herds carefully.  But he never farmed as most do now – the computer wasn’t integral, in fact they didn’t have one (he’d give me a list of the IRS pages to print when the government stopped sending forms to post offices). Nor did they move to cell phones. Electricity has been expanded in the house, but tentatively, as switches were nailed to open studs after the drywall had been stripped and termites defeated. The supports were obvious – nothing hidden, no artifice.

Their intense managing of the farm became looser and looser as debilitating diseases attacked the men.  Still, the cows were fed, the hay baled, often by others they hired but they did what they could.  My friend laughed that their cows lived the life of Riley.  They could count on food and water, they wandered around an acreage with few internal fences. No artificial insemination, they courted as they wished.  Occasionally a few were sent to the sales barn.  Instead of the careful culling of past years, the two men, bent over at the waist from scoliosis, put food in the pen; unlucky cows that wandered in before they shut the gate were sold.

After Robert’s death, life changed. The interdependence of two old men living by themselves in the country was broken.  He couldn’t live alone.  Those first months, Don, son of Lydia, stayed at the house, trying to set to rights the farm, the house and bookkeeping – the combination was a huge task. He and his wife went back and forth to their home, ninety miles away.  Checking the books, he realized the extent of “gifts” to a hand who helped the brothers – falls were not unusual and the two men alone so far from town needed help with the farm and for themselves.  Such dependence had its drawbacks; the neighbor also had a 30-year reputation with the local sheriff. Through slow steps Don moved the now 55-year-old out of Alton’s orbit, though for years Alton would fancy giving the farm he’d bought to that neighbor (who had already lost his own family’s farm by not paying taxes). Drugs were the problem, though it was easy to suspect character was too.

Don liked to be outside, he liked to be busy – his name wasn’t Machann but he had many of their traits; he saw Robert as an older brother.   (I met him at a family wedding; Robert and he looked at each other, then at the crowd:  they had to get outside they said. So they went to the cool night air where they could see the stars.)  Indeed, when Don was transferred to the pecan research farm near Caldwell, he gladly returned from west Texas; he built a house on the road edge of the family farm for his wife and daughter. He had left that house, after retirement, after a divorce, when his own parents needed him (and accepted that they did, more readily than his uncles had). Alton needed him so he returned,  despite his own health issues.

His degree was in forestry and he was a renowned grafter; he knew the farm.  A self-effacing man, he repeatedly points out that he hadn’t studied farming nor cattle but trees. Of course, he’s right; still he knew a lot more about it than my husband (whose specialties were Matthew Arnold and Ruskin; he published Czech farmers’ autobiographies but didn’t live their lives, gaining the skills of the library and losing those of the farm.) The third widowed cousin had remarried, her husband loved the outdoors; he was an electrician but had moved into IT  (a skill more needed on the farm than they realized). But these men are an aging lot – only ten years separate each from Alton.  All have persistent health problems; Jan and Fred also care for the last living aunt –her mother Lucille, widow of Ed.

Don was a “fixer” in the old, prudent, mechanical and practical sense:  the house was leveled, a shower was added to the back porch, a shed was built as was an additional back porch.   Don replaced the ancient stove, down to one burner, with a new one that required two days of retrofitting to use propane.  But the ranch was not just the house and an increasingly fragile Alton could not live alone.  A caregiver was hired and Don’s wife had a nephew she described as competent, with cattleman ambitions.  The job was kept open for him until he finished his last courses at Baylor.

With conferences at Alton’s bed,  Don mentored his wife’s nephew and hired two semi-retired hands.   Fences were fixed, mesquite was cleared, cows were dewormed.   First, their wives were care-givers inside, but they had come by and were drawn into the work.  Their biographies fascinated me: one had had been a literal cowhand on a big spread in his teens, then started his own business towing wrecks from the Houston freeways, fixing them as he later did the farm’s machinery.  His wife’s long working life was split, beginning with a decade or two in public television in Boston until she married the cowboy, after which she worked at a Texas women’s prison.  They both were felled by Covid and its aftermath.  The second couple were generations deep in Caldwell; he’d rodeoed; her favorite time, she’d say, was when he broke horses and she gentled them.  Those days had left marks on his body.  Working together, they were a team hard working with great reserves of energy, duty and love.  Fortunately, all his caregivers had great senses of humor.   Those last weeks drained  them (by the end there were five to fill in all those hours) but they never became impatient with him – or with us.  And, although Alton was essentially sweet, caring for him was not easy.

And so, last week, he was buried at a graveside service at the New Tabor Cemetery.  Their grandfather had been a founding elder in the Novy Tabor Brethren Church; the brothers’ faith was in the pietist tradition, with a Texas accent..The Hus encampment, a few miles away, draws Brethren youth from across the state for summer camps. (Our children went there; I observed its purpose was to mate them with their own – my children found that a good deal less witty than I did.)  Robert and Alton had a falling out with some. minister or other and they stopped going to church, though probably as strong a reason was the painful scoliosis that made walking and driving difficult for their last decades.  Still, it was the Brethren Journal, published monthly that they read.  And it was to Brother Joseph, minister at the Snook Brethren, that Alton turned in those last weeks, and he who buried Robert.

Perhaps because he was the youngest, Alton had sympathies for young men – especially ones paying for older men’s hard decisions.  He didn’t like the local sheriff because he’d instructed his deputy, a young father, to storm a house.  He took the shots Alton firmly believed should have been for the older man.   In the last weeks of his life, Alton repeatedly went back to a new theme – I don’t know what prompted it.  Eisenhower was no hero.  He ordered the D-Day invasion.  The other three brothers had gone to war as had their sister’s husband.  None were at Normandy.  When I voiced some reservations, he glared out at me with all the anger his 85-year-old failing body could muster: he wasn’t up for discussion: Eisenhower was a bad man who made a bad choice because men died.

Neighbors were as important as family.  They were a good proportion of the people at the graveside service.  This was true of one of his long-term friends, an ebullient and generous man who, despite his own busy schedule, drove the brothers to their frequent doctor’s appointments.  Joe said it wasn’t generosity (though it clearly was) but because he could practice his Czech – as he could with fewer and fewer in the community. He led the music at the graveside service.  Farmers on all sides helped one another out, warned of feral dogs, bad weather and chatted about the quirks of nature and men, blind cows and grifters, tornados and lightning.

Take his attitude toward his 46 cousins.  The best and worst were brothers.  One was a gentle, helped everyone he knew: humble, good.  The other was a grifter and con-man, given to borrowing cars and destroying them within days, strutting about as an “oil consultant.”  His abuse of family generosity was the reason Frank’s wife had taken out their landline.  He called someone in China and talked for an hour or more (no one knew who he could have known there), leaving a long distance bill that would have strained anyone’s budget.

The three Machans grew old looking alike – indeed all are similar.  It is the lean, strong boned, brown look of their friends and neighbors.  Victor Davis Hanson has some of that look and not surprisingly Field of Dreams was a favorite book of theirs. Water rights and the stupidity of sending Burleson County water to urban centers like San Antonio were constant complaints.

How important the land itself was to the family’s identity was something I’d sensed.  However, in the last years, as Alton clung to life in his hospital bed and I listened to Clint’s cousins, I began to understand:  it was the land he wanted to pass on as it was.  He expected them to keep the farm going, a place where roadrunners and buzzards, deer and cattle could roam freely.  I knew how family name, family business, even family farm was important, but for him it was three-dimensional: his time and his place.

The rutted drive to the house is around a half mile itself, curving and turning through areas grown high on both sides with trees and then open plain with a watering hole in the middle; old metal debris covered with bushes lie beside the road, marking where an optimist once drilled for oil – long petered out.  The road has the beauty of those sentimental turn of the last century midwestern prints – just drop in a barefoot boy with pole around the next bend. Slow-paced, idyllic.

He had many stories, with lessons he thought obvious.  Some were of the grifters – the local builder that framed a house, passed inspection, and then ordered every other stud knocked out. (From guilt or naivete, his worker told that story in the barber shop; for that trick or some other, the contractor ended up in prison.)  One of his stories was of a local woman whose cow was stolen; she went to a Dallas psychic, but before the reading concluded she was already out the door.  The psychic described the cow in a yellow truck – when black was the only manufacturer’s choice. But the woman knew one man in the county who had bought his at a Shell Oil fleet auction.  She sent a hard man. He got her cow.

The story he repeats the most, an origin story with blurred details – apparently began in 1928 or so.  (One detail doesn’t change:  Frank, his oldest brother, drove the loaded family truck through the urban tangle that already was the center of Dallas. He was 14.)  Pride in his father’s stoicism, hard work, sheer competence put to the test were the subtexts.  Then nature’s (and man’s) darker sides appear. Alton wasn’t to come along until 1937, so this was a story he’d only heard. I’m not quite sure why the family was farming in west Texas; they’d left Burleson County.  But it looked to be a good year.  Then, as so often and so ruthlessly, weather happened:  a hail storm flattened everything, grinding the crops into the ground.  Their father had gone to the local land office, where officials said they could give him no monetary relief but a farm had been foreclosed in East Texas.  He could take that.  And so, the family packed up.   Exhausted, they arrived in the hamlet and were given directions.  They found the ashes of what had been a house, what had been a barn.  Alton said his mother just sat down on a tree stump and started crying. His father thought it through.

Then, he said, we’re going back to Caldwell, to central Texas.  That was where their kin were and that was where people knew him.  He saw no reason any east Texas bank would extend credit. So they came home.  Once there he told his tale to the local banker.  Porter also owned a mill; he made an offer:  I’ve got a farm for my mules that work the mill.  If you’ll take care of the animals and the machinery, you can live there.  There’s room for a few hogs and some vegetables.  You can work it until I retire.  A few years passed; they were able to move on to land they had bought and built their house.

He likes to emphasize that his father’s word could be trusted, that he was prudent, practical, hardworking – and so were his children.  The older sons enlisted and married.  People tend to both prune and embellish their narratives; I hope the details are right.  But, remember, Alton wasn’t born until after the central events, his memory and now mine are not to be depended upon.  Still he told it so often, he wanted his listeners to hear his subtext.  Reputation is important and built on acts, but your word is important, too – a good man understands what isn’t in the contract but is meant, each side acts as he would in a just world.  A good man is competent.  I like stories like that; in my experience small town banks build towns, businesses, farms.  Losing them is one of the great losses of the last decades.

An implicit, unspoken duty to the land and the people on it were central to Alton’s life.  He took care of AC, he farmed the family farm, kept it going until last week.  And now it will remain in the hands of others who’ve been given a strong directive – keep it as it is.  He gave away the plot he bought.  This he saw as his to give and he wanted to give a young man the ability to start out, a faux son.  He gave it to a young man he hoped would be like him, would like him – prudent, humble, competent.  Optimistic, sentimental, but understandable if not wise.

His two widowed sisters-in-law often hinted that selling the cows and land, moving the brothers into a more comfortable retirement was a good idea.  Spend the money on themselves, they’d say.   The women worried (quite reasonably) about the danger of working cattle and hauling feed to men of their age. But still they stayed.  In his last years, it was only Alton that got, that needed,  round the clock care, money saved for decades.  But the land remained.

His last major choice ensured maintenance:  the 35-year-old who bought the cattle and leased the land, adding some of his cows, selling some of Alton’s, has a good reputation.   He partners with his father and they run the local sale barn, leasing other fields around town.  When he offered a generous contract he reminisced about coming out there as a kid, playing around while his father loaded cattle.  Alton’s relationships, like most in smaller towns, went generations deep.

This gives the cousins a breather, perhaps part of a long-term solution. Alton’s hope was to leave it, frozen in history, perhaps in the early nineteen forties.   But the three couples to whom the land was willed as a whole will need to make decisions.  It may not produce a profit but needs to be self-sustaining.

If he farmed differently, if he lived differently, that long ago gift of his siblings would have been forgotten. Marriage and children give a different perspective.  But those weren’t his choices.  So, he passes both land and obligation on.  The three couples – two nephews, one niece – who inherited that land share that feeling in varying degrees – I think even his four great nieces do. They are intent upon trying to keep that promise to him, never formally set out but suggested repeatedly.  They know what he wanted and they understand they are taking on a duty.

They are going to be tested – it will not be easy to keep it as it is when all about  changes, high rises towering where fields of cotton grew and cattle roamed not long ago.  One of our daughters is making strong – sensible and to the point – arguments for a conservation easement, which would allow for the lease but keep away encroaching developers.  I tend to scoff at her back-to-nature moments but think in this case she understands her uncle.  After 50 years, I think of myself (and am) an outsider, my choices alien to the culture of her father’s people. My daughters, raised as much by their grandmother as by me, understand the value of competence, the aesthetics, the passions of the Machanns (and the Matceks as far as that goes).   She’s the most Machann:  her honors thesis was on the Brethren church, she got her masters in a kind of hazy ecology, she speaks Czech and married a man who speaks it better, they were married in the Snook Brethren church.  They named their son after Cyril, the Moravian linguist and saint.  She practices her accordion as well as cello.  She talks of the weather and prepares her compost.    She and her husband and new baby have come back to take care of her parents (of course, we tend to think that is a bit unnecessary – but . .) and to improve our neglected house where they intend to raise their son.  She understands about keeping the past nestled in the present.

8 thoughts on “Alton’s Farm”

  1. Had neighbors – two brothers and a sister. They really helped my dad learn more about farming when my grandpa died of a heart attack while my dad was in the army. The neighbors never married, and when they passed away there was no family to turn the farm over to. At the end, they donated their farm to the state. It is the center of what is now the Funk Lagoon. Thanks for bringing back some old memories.

  2. Ginny what a great history of the family farm and story of the uncles lives, very interesting. Good luck to Tessie and Tim keeping the farm traditions going.

  3. I was sorry to read that, no less painful for being forewarned.

    I spent 30 years in agriculture, mostly installing equipment for farmers and ranchers, with some of it spent farming as well. I never knew of a successful farm or ranch, or even a solvent one, that was managed 9-5. That Alton kept it going this long took knowledge that he couldn’t find in books, skill that isn’t taught in any school, good luck, never enough, and bad luck, always more than enough, but always work. Work that was counted in seasons and years, not hours. In the old cowboy saying, from can see to can’t see. days spent wearing out 4-5 horses (horses have more sense of their limits than men) or working into the night repairing whatever absolutely had to be running tomorrow.

    I never met Alton but I knew a lot of men and a few women like him. If they ever stop making them like that, you’ll know when you walk in the grocery store an there’s no food to be had.

  4. Thanks for all the comments. It is going to be complicated. One lesson I think we are quickly learning is that lawyers may be a pain but doing without them is like a snowball that keeps getting bigger with each year, each generation.

  5. My grandparents had a farm, which was my grandmother’s legacy from her parents who had homesteaded it in the 1860s. She was born in the upstairs bedroom of that house. The pasture was original prairie and my grandfather had it plowed up one year. They planted corn which grew 10 feet high that summer. That gives an idea how how fertile that land was when first farmed.

    At the time I knew it, it was farmed by a sharecropper who was the son of a previous sharecropper who now had his own farm nearby. My father was one of 10 kids so, when my grandmother died, the farm was sold. I have many happy memories of the farm when I was a boy.

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