FARMERS WALK DOWN ROCKY COUNTRY ROAD
The last month torn off the wall calendar in Mell and Ethel Irvin’s farmhouse, five miles west of here, was September, 1981.
Nobody has lived there since then, and the weeds, mice and insects have taken over. It is an unsalvageable farm that would confound all the charitable Farm Aid efforts of Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Cougar Mellencamp put together.
The wall calendar features a portrait of an angelic little girl decked out in her Sunday best and saying her country prayers over folded hands for the ad agency photographer’s camera. The ad line under the portrait reads “Gholson’s Funeral Service.”
Inside the tiny wood frame house are the artifacts of a lifetime--the kinds of bric-a-brac and memories that Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Charley Pride and other Farm Aid stars have earned millions of dollars singing about to an empathetic audience of Middle Americans.
There are greeting cards and letters, all bundled up neatly and stacked in boxes in the corner. There are congratulatory notes from the children and grandchildren on the Irvins’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Tacked up on the living room wall over the old Philco TV set is a red construction paper heart with a small, white palm print on it. It’s dated Valentine’s Day, 1977, and bears a postage stamp photo of the Irvins’ great-granddaughter who is now 9 years old. It reads: “With all my love, Jessica” and is fringed with a yellowing doily.
The TV still works, but there’s no electricity. So the only sound that came through the house during the 15-hour Farm Aid benefit concert, held 100 miles north of here in Champaign, was the sound of whistling wind.
All the pink and taffeta curtains remain in place, giving the home a lived-in atmosphere, even though vandals have obviously been through the two tiny bedrooms, living room and kitchen many times. They took the deep freeze and a few pieces of furniture, leaving only a few old rocking chairs and a wardrobe of old overalls and housedresses.
Spoiled jars of berry preserves and home-canned crab apples from the trees out behind the house still sit on the edge of the kitchen table.
There’s a copy of Farm Journal mildewing on the front porch. Quite by accident, a dead sparrow lies next to the magazine. The magazine is dated 1980, the same year in which Mell Irvin died at the age of 85.
For 80 of those years, he used the outhouse 50 yards south of the back door whenever nature called. Instead of Delsey or Scot tissue, Mell used a corn cob. He and Ethel finally had a flush toilet installed indoors in 1975.
All seven of their living children testify that Mell was tough and practical and stubborn to a fault. Mell attended the nearby Primitive Baptist Church, never smoked, seldom drank and farmed most of his life with a horse-drawn plow. All but one of his children finished high school, a fact that he and Ethel boasted about as one of their proudest achievements.
They loved country music and followed Dolly Parton’s career from her teen singing days with Porter Waggoner down to her frequent appearances on the Johnny Carson show.
Farm Aid was televised over the Nashville Network to an audience of more than 20 million. But the Irvins didn’t see it.
After Mell succumbed to heart and kidney failure, Ethel stayed on alone at the 200-acre farm. Her nearest neighbors became tenant farmers, putting the fallow acreage in feed corn five years back.
Two of Ethel’s daughters who lived in Broughton and nearby El Dorado looked in on her from time to time, but she spent much of her time alone in the old farmhouse. The farm itself deteriorated at about the same speed as Ethel’s health. By the time she moved to a rest home in 1981, most of the neatly tended rows were overgrown and the old red barn that Mell had raised himself back in the mid-1950s had collapsed.
Ethel Irvin hangs on to life, though she recognizes none of her children or grandchildren and must be hand-fed. Her 24-hour-a-day care costs her children $1,500 per month.
Only one of her children took up the farming life. All the rest moved to cities in Illinois, Indiana, Florida and California, seeking a piece of the urban pie.
Her 21 grandchildren became teachers and salesmen, writers and truck drivers, but none became farmers.
And nearly every one of Ethel Irvin’s 34 great grandchildren are now enrolled in one school or another across the U.S. Some want to be astronauts and some want to be doctors, but none want to grapple with the agrarian poverty that afflicted Mell and Ethel Irvin all of their decent lives.
Many of them have never even seen a farm.
Shed a tear for the wind-burned Man with the Hoe, the American Gothic couple that Grant Wood painted forever into the Polaroid memory of America.
Because they are no more, regardless of the millions of dollars that Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid might raise to resurrect them.
After Farm Aid was all over, it was clear that the marathon charity concert held in the University of Illinois football stadium before 78,000 fans last Sunday was actually a 15-hour musical melodrama based on America’s agrarian mystique.
Most of the time, Farm Aid was musical homage by country, folk and even a few rock minstrels to virtually every archetypal protagonist who has ever put in an appearance in a Midwestern farming morality play.
He was the man with indelible dirt beneath his fingernails. The simple descendant of a Stone Age hero who tastes the crumbled loam to test its worth and is able to predict an early frost simply by listening for the early autumn squeal of a thousand katydids, as they begin chirping in a high pitched drone out in the cornfields.
Through the magic of the singers’ myth making and the technology of television, much of America was captured by the Farm Aid catch line, “Keep America Growing,” even though the way America grows in 1985 is much more sophisticated, efficient and coldly calculating than Merle Haggard might have his audience believe when he mourns the passing of the amber waves of grain.
The stark facts of survival speak for themselves.
Reporters who toured the rich farmland of Champaign County during a pre-Farm Aid media tour were deluged with press kits and computer printouts laying out some of those facts. Last year, 43,770 farms closed down in the U.S., according to the USDA statistics, for example, and the debt load on the remaining 2.3 million farms remains about $212 billion.
But the U.S. remains the most powerful agricultural country in the world and those farmers who survive will share that power with fewer and fewer of their peers. Even though 1985 is no banner year for U.S. agriculture, farmers will still export $32 billion in crops.
According to the Farm Aid printouts, the surviving 1,900 farmers on the 645,000 acres of Champaign County could hardly be viewed as simple down-home hayseeds. Their annual gross revenues come to more than $200 million.
“I’ll be back on the program later on with ‘Boys of Summer,’ but right now I’d like to sing this for my father and my grandfather,” ex-Eagle Don Henley told the screaming, predominantly college-age crowd who came to hear Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid.
The song, “A Month of Sundays,” is about the dying family farm, Henley explained. It is also about his own farm belt roots, traced to his grandparents.
Almost half the rock and country stars who took the stage paid similar tribute to their forebears. B.B. King was the son of a cotton sharecropper. Willie Nelson worked for pennies a day raising hogs in Texas. John Denver subsisted on an Oklahoma farm for most of his pre-adult years.
Joni Mitchell, John Fogerty, Neil Young and even Billy Joel claimed farming forefathers. They all spoke emotionally about the debt owed to those who were never lured away by the bright lights of the big city.
But none offered to go back to the farm.
On stage, Bob Dylan stood out alone as the only artist who refused to blubber. His five-song set ended with a rollicking version of “Maggie’s Farm”:
“Well I wake up in the morning, fold my hands and pray for rain.
“I’ve got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.
“It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
“Ah, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
Brian Zook, one of those who came to see Dylan and the others perform, also refuses to work on the farm.
“Oh, Farm Aid’s probably not a dumb idea, but I have some reservations about how much good it’s going to do,” said the 21-year-old University of Illinois agricultural economics major. “About three farmers in Champaign County alone carry more debt than they’ll make on this one concert.”
From the start, most farmers said Farm Aid was futile, Zook says. He says he wouldn’t have been interested in going either if some of his heroes hadn’t been on the playbill: Neil Young, the Beach Boys, John Fogerty and John Cougar Mellencamp, among others.
His own father runs a 680-acre farm in the next county. He raises corn and soybeans and carries his share of heavy debt, but not so much that it has put him on the brink of bankruptcy yet.
But Zook says he won’t be going back to take over the family farm when he finishes school.
“I want a job with a future and there is none on the farm,” he said, adding one more reason he won’t work on Maggie’s, his father’s or anyone else’s farm once he finishes up his last year at the university.
“It’s called profits. Money. Something my father doesn’t see much of. That’s why I’m not going back.”
Back in the gravel-road community of Broughton where Mell and Ethel did most of their shopping up to the day Mell died, every business in town is shut down except the U.S. Post Office.
Marge, the Broughton postmistress for the past dozen years, blames Hamilton County’s woes on its inability to lure any outside industry. Up in Champaign County where the Farm Aid concert was held, they have a diversified economy to fall back on, she says.
In addition to the university and better top soil, Champaign also has Kraft Foods’ Velveeta cheese plant and a 13-acre warehouse where the Southland Corp. stores most of its Twinkies, potato chips and other nutritious goodies before shipping them to 7-11 Stores from coast to coast.
“Our youth’s leaving because there’s nothing for them,” Marge said. “They can’t make a living farming, so they go to the city.”
Marge and all the others in town are big fans of Willie Nelson and they hope his Farm Aid bash will provide a psychological boost for Hamilton County. But nobody holds out much hope that Farm Aid dollars will trickle down to Broughton. They are not so naive as to believe that most of the Farm Aid millions won’t be diverted to middlemen along the way.
That’s always the way it has been in southern Illinois, Marge observes, but the people here seem to get along regardless.
“We’ll make it. We’ll come out of this. We always have,” she said grimly.
Up on the post office wall is a calendar similar to the one in the deserted Irvin farmhouse down the road from Broughton a few miles. It marks the third Monday in September as the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
There is no child’s praying portrait over the dates like the calendar in the farmhouse.
But it does carry an ad line from a funeral home.