Jeff Manes: Families have farmed good earth for generations
November 2, 2012 3:48PM
George Richard “Dick” Uhter, 85, of Shelby is pictured with his neighbor, Ron Brown, the fifth generation to run the Brown family farm. Uhter and his father worked as hired hands on the Brown farm. | Photo provided
Updated: November 5, 2012 9:15AM
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.”
— Author unknown
George Richard Uhter was born the year George Herman “Babe” Ruth became the first major league baseball player to swat 60 home runs in one season — 1927.
Uhter was hesitant to let me into his house because I was wearing a Chicago White Sox jacket. Dick is a diehard Cubs fan.
Uhter, 85, lives in Shelby. He has been married to Lois for 60 years; they’ve raised four children.
Like his father before him, Uhter worked as a hired man on the Brown farm. Ron Brown, the fifth generation of Browns to farm the ground, sat in on our conversation. Dick and Ron live across the street from each other on Indiana 55.
“I was born right here,” Uhter began. “Not in this house; the original house burned down in 1941. But this place sits on the same foundation.”
I imagine this land was under water when old John Brown purchased it after the Civil War. His obituary states that he spent time in Andersonville (Ga.) prison camp.
“I don’t know about that, but his grandson, John Holton Brown, told me that the man who did the surveying around here didn’t even have a high school education.”
Tough duty being one of those early surveyors when this area was all wetlands. Early memories of the Brown ranch or farm?
“My dad used to start in March with an old 15-30 three-bottom plow. He’d just continue to plow and plow and plow. There were about 3,600 acres altogether back then and, at one time, the Brown ranch was like 12,000 acres. They owned property from Shelby to Indiana 2.”
How big is it today?
Tell me more about the “good old days” on the farm.
“We farmed with horses. We had at least 50 horses here on the farm. Dad started here in 1923.
“In the early days, I’ve been told they raised marsh hay. Then, the Browns got into cattle; they had about 3,000 head of cattle when I was a kid.
“They husked all the corn by hand in the old days. Twice a day, old Harry Walters would bring that triple-box in full of corn. He’d go down the field two rows at a time, harvesting that corn by hand. Edmire Henson, right here in Shelby, was the cornhusking state champion.”
How things have changed.
“They used to plant the corn so that it could be cultivated both north and south and east and west. I’d harrow with a John Deere G (tractor) ahead of and behind the planters.
“There was an old-timer who told me he could do more with a team of horses in a day than I could do with a tractor. But that wasn’t true; he could do about 20 acres and I could do about 120 acres.”
You must be about Ron’s dad’s age.
“Yes, that would be Bob Brown; we used to fight each other once in a while.
“Ron’s grandmother used to make us wash her windows. I had to use an extension ladder. She’d watch me like a hawk and would tell me from the other side of the window pane when I missed a spot. I believe Nada was either half or a quarter American Indian.”
It might surprise some folks as to how many of us along the Kankakee River have Indian blood in us.
“My dad was a great trader. People bartered a lot back then. I remember when he traded a pocket knife to Ron’s dad that didn’t have any blades. Dad was in the car when Ron’s dad proposed to his mom.”
I see you have all your fingers; a lot of old farmers and farmhands don’t.
“Yeah, I was lucky, I guess. Old George Howard wasn’t so lucky; he was feeding hogs just north of here when he got caught in the (power take-off). Well, hogs are attracted to blood, and they would’ve eaten him alive if Ron’s grandpa hadn’t showed up.
“The PTO shut down because George’s leg was wrapped around it; otherwise, it would’ve killed him. John Holton Brown had to cut off the rest of George’s leg so he could rush him to the doctor.”
That had to be a ghastly sight.
“With the aid of a wooden leg, George continued to work here on the farm.”
No disability checks in those days.
“No, sir. But ol’ George could still bale hay, jump on and off a wagon — you name it.”
I’m sure you ventured off the farm and into the town of Shelby on occasion.
“Oh, yeah. We had a cow and would separate the milk from the cream. That’s how my mom would make her spending money. She’d take cream, butter and fresh eggs to town.
“I hated churning. If you had the cream the right temperature, you could make butter in about four minutes. But if it was cold, it’d take you forever.”
Any other memories of Shelby?
“People would gather around Frenchie Sirois’ hardware store to gossip. Frenchie was a piece of work; every other word that came out of his mouth was a cuss word.”
Dick, I’ve interviewed former race-car driver Jigger Sirois and Eleanor Sirois Bartz for this column.
“They would be two of Frenchie’s children.”
Someone told me that if Frenchie was listening to or watching a ballgame in the store and a customer asked him for a gallon of paint or a pound of 16-penny nails, he’d tell them, while glued to the radio or television, that he was sold out, even if he had a shelf or bin full of whatever was requested.
“Yep, that was Frenchie. He swore a lot, but he was as nice a person as you could ever run into.”
You’re a big Cub fan.
“Yeah, that tickled me to death when the (St. Louis) Cardinals got eliminated by the (San Francisco) Giants the other night (in the National League Championship Series).”
I was kind of hoping it would be the Detroit Tigers and the Cards, just like in ’68. What a World Series that was — Detroit in seven games.
“The first game I ever saw was the Cubs and the White Sox — the city (exhibition) series. Mr. Brown took us to the game. I couldn’t hardly grasp it. Comiskey Park was so lit up at night. Stan Hack was playing third base for the Cubs at the time. I didn’t want to leave.”
Who won the game?
“I don’t remember. When you get up to my age, sometimes, you don’t know whether you’re pitchin’, catchin’ or playin’ first base.
“I still go to all the Lowell football games every Friday night — home and away.”
Ron Brown’s father, Robert Brown, is having health issues these days. But Ron told me his father wants to restore or preserve the old grain elevator that stands on the property. He can’t bear to see it razed.
Ron and Dick feel the same way.
The Browns were the ranch owners and the Uhters were the hired hands, but they’ve treated one another like family for nearly 90 years.