The Westward-Moving House: Three American Houses and the People Who Lived in Them
Frances Flora Bond Palmer, Across the Continent, Westward the Course of Empire takes its way, 1868
I. NEHEMIAH’S ARK
Three hundred years ago one Nehemiah Tinkham, with wife Submit Tinkham and six children, landed on the shores of New England to establish a home in the wilderness.
Like his forefathers, Tinkham had been a small farmer. He brought with him in addition to a few household goods those “needful things” which a catalogue for Prospective New England Planters had suggested several years before: 2 hoes, 2 saws, 2 axes, hammer, shovel, spade, augers, chisels, piercers, gimlet and hatchet. These were all he had, these and a knowledge of certain traditional skills, necessary not only for building a house, but for clearing and farming new land. There were no nails on the list — nails being expensive — and no equipment for livestock.
Nehemiah soon acquired some 60 acres of virgin land at Jerusha, a new settlement a day’s journey from Boston. He did not buy the land from a private owner, white man or Indian, still less appropriate a likely corner of the New England forest for himself. He bought it from the Jerusha town authorities who had obtained it from the Crown, and the town assigned him his land without giving him any choice of location.
Nevertheless his farm was as good as his neighbors’. It comprised three kinds of land: the smallest (and most valuable) section was the home-lot, of about ten acres, that faced the green or common and was near not only other houses but the site of the future meeting-house. The Massachusetts General Court had recently ruled that no dwelling was to be built farther from the meeting-house than half a mile. The two other subdivisions of the farm were meadow and woodland. The meadow, located in the well-watered and protected valley, was gradually cleared of trees and planted to wheat and oats and corn, though some of it was left untilled for the cows which Nehemiah hoped to acquire. The woodlands on the rocky hills served to provide building materials and fuel.
The broad axe which he had brought with him from England stood him in good stead; for though he and his neighbors had originally staked out their settlement in a thick forest, they cleared the land so rapidly of its trees that within a decade they had to go elsewhere for wood. While this cutting of trees lasted it concerned all men. Neighbors helped Nehemiah fell the largest trees — the oak and pine he intended to use for his house — and he in turn helped them. All joined forces to clear the common, to build a fence around it to prevent livestock from straying, to build a meeting-house and a home for the minister. The Tinkhams had to live in a temporary half-underground shelter during the first winter, and all that Nehemiah could do was plant two acres of wheat — never a successful crop in New England and from the beginning overrun by barberry — plant some of the unfamiliar Indian corn, and set out a small apple orchard on the home-lot.
Until he died Nehemiah never grew nor tasted a tomato, an Irish potato or a sweet potato. He never tasted either tea or coffee, and seldom tasted fresh beef or pork or lamb. The farm eventually provided the family with flour, a few fruits and vegetables, milk, butter, cheese and eggs. These, together with game, made up most of their diet.
Nor did the Tinkhams possess a yoke of oxen or a workhorse until many years after they arrived in the New World. The fields which Nehemiah cultivated in spite of the many stumps, were plowed for him by the one man in Jerusha who owned a plow. He harvested his wheat with a sickle, threshed it with a flail. He was fortunate to possess a crude two-wheeled cart for hauling loads, though whatever traveling he and his family did (it was little enough) was done on horseback. The few roads in the center of the village were rough and narrow; between villages there were no roads at all, merely trails through the woods.
Title illustration from the original publication of “The Westward-Moving House” in Landscape: Magazine of Human Geography, 1953. [All images from the original publication, except the painting by Palmer.]
Family and Super Family
Had Nehemiah wanted to expand his farming activities, had he been interested in greater yields, and in selling to city markets and buying city goods in return, he would have resented these restrictions on movement and sought to improve his agricultural methods. But he was concerned first with keeping himself and his family alive, and then with maintaining an established way of life. It was a monotonous one, perhaps, but it provided him with food and clothes and shelter, and with the kind of sociability he wanted.
Poor communications with the outside world, a large degree of self-sufficiency, the pioneer custom of all men working together on certain undertakings, and lastly the grouping of all houses around the “Place for Sabbath Assembly” made for a very compact village. In our more charitable appraisals of early New England we speak of its democracy. Actually its guiding principle was something else. There was nothing particularly democratic about the social setup of proprietors, yeomen and latecomers in descending order of importance and privilege. There was nothing democratic about the law which forbade those having less than a certain amount of money to wear expensive clothes. Nor were these latter-day backslidings from an earlier democracy; as early as 1623 it had been proposed that New England be settled by "Three sorts — Gentlemen to bear arms, handicraftsmen of all sorts, and husbandmen for tilling the ground." Likewise the Puritan Church had its hierarchy of elders, deacons, and ministers. In the Jerusha meeting-house the higher your social position the nearer you sat to the pulpit; when Nehemiah acquired a servant she was obliged to sit in the cold gallery with the children. The right to vote, the right to live within the township, the right to speak one’s mind — these were jealously controlled by law.
Yet if Jerusha was not as democratic as a modern American town it had a quality which the modern town has lost. It was a kind of super-family, more like the highest stage in a domestic hierarchy than the smallest unit of a nation, as it is now. Nehemiah found Jerusha good substitute for the rural society he had left behind. He had never travelled much in England and his father and grandfather had travelled even less. To generations of Tinkhams, family and village had been almost interchangeable terms. Nehemiah had been related to most of his neighbors in the Old ‘World and had shared customs and traditions with them all. The people who came to Jerusha came, of course, from different places and from different walks of life; but like the Tinkhams they were all of them homesick, not so much for the safety and comfort of England as for the superfamily they had known. What could take the place of that? Nothing so impersonal as a social contract; what they created instead was the domestic village with its established hierarchy and its working together on a common task.
Certainly the most obvious symbols of the urge for a super-family were God the stern Father; the Jerusha meeting-house as a sort of super-parlor where the family gathered for prayers; and the genealogical enthusiasm which still possesses New England. But the individual house was scarcely less important, and Nehemiah hastened to build his family as good a house as he could in order to reproduce still another aspect of the traditional background. The completed article was naturally reminiscent of the house he had known in England. It was of wood, of course, much of it unseasoned, with a stone foundation, and it was two stories high with a third story or attic under a steeply pitched roof.
As Anthony Garvan has pointed out in his "Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial Connecticut" the early builders (Nehemiah included) used as a basic measurement in their houses the 16 foot bay — a span originally adopted in England because it was wide enough to house two teams of oxen. In America this was modified to the extent that almost every dimension in the colonial house was divisible by 8 — or half a bay. Another sign of Nehemiah’s conservatism was the manner in which he built the house. The frame of oak which he laboriously constructed with the simplest of tools was a heavy and intricate piece of carpentry — unlike anything we see in contemporary construction. To quote Garvan: "Such frames ... not only carried the whole weight of the building but were also mortised and tenoned together so that they withstood any horizontal thrust of the elements. ... The task of the frame was to carry the weight of the roof and ridgepole, not just to resist their outward thrust."
Thus Nehemiah’s house was built to last, built to be inflexible, built to carry a load, and not built for easy alteration or enlargement. Like his theology, perhaps.
He never painted the house, nor sought to adorn it, but the passage of years has given it softness and beauty, and now we hear persons admire its functionalism. Hugh Morrison remarks in his “Early American Architecture” that the XVII Century builder was so far from being functionally minded that he never thought of inserting sheathing between the frame and the outside clapboards; never realized that the huge chimney was inefficient, or that the lighting in the house was atrociously bad. He never realized that the old fashioned frame he took such pains with was needlessly slow and difficult to make.
The plan of the house was equally non-functional as we understand the term. The ground floor had two main rooms: a combination living room-workroom-kitchen with a large fireplace, and a parlor, also with a fireplace. The parlor was reserved for important guests and family religious observances. Between these two a flight of stairs led to the two bedrooms where the family slept, and above these, reached by a ladder, was the attic where slept the servant. There were in addition several outbuildings, including a barn, all near the house. Outside the back door there was a small garden chiefly devoted to vegetables and herbs, but containing a few flowers as well. The lawn which we always think of as in front of the Colonial house did not exist; a rail fence surrounded the place and kept out cows. The appearance of the house was for long bleak and graceless; its windows were small, the proportion of the rooms ungainly and the furnishings scanty and of necessity crude. But Nehemiah and his wife Submit found little to criticize in it. It was solid, practical and defensible against Indian assaults. If anyone dared mention its discomforts Nehemiah quoted Romans 5:3.
The centripetal landscape. Home-lots and fields of Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1640. [From: "Elements of Geography," Finch and Trewahtha]
Meeting-house as Parlor
We cannot judge the house without knowing what functions it was supposed to serve and what functions it relegated to some other establishment. We are no more entitled to speak of the gloom of the Tinkhams’ existence simply because their house lacked facilities for conviviality than a foreigner would be entitled to speak of the idleness of modern American existence because our houses do not contain places of work. Nehemiah’s home cannot be understood without some understanding of the importance of the meeting-house, for the one complemented the other. If the dwelling sheltered the economic and biological functions of domestic life in Jerusha, the social and cultural functions belonged to the meeting-house. That perhaps is why Nehemiah was almost as attached to the square edifice on the common as he was to his own home; not because he had helped build it with his own hands, not because he thought it beautiful, but because it was an essential part of his life.
It was school and forum for the discussion of civic affairs; it was his barracks and the place where he stored his weapons and ammunition. It was the spot for community gatherings and celebrations. Most important of all it was the image of the kind of world-order that Nehemiah believed in. Here and here alone he felt that he was occupying his ordained place in the scheme of existence, even if that place was humble. He did not enjoy sitting for two hours in a cold building while the Reverend Jethro Tipping expounded the Significance of the Tenth Horn of the Beast, but he believed that all was well while he did so. Dozing off during the exegesis he saw the world as an enduring and majestic pyramid, an orderly succession of ranks — yeomen, husbandmen, squires; elders, deacons, ministers; heathen, gentile, elect — each one indispensable to the solidity of the structure, and helping to bear the weight of the crowning stone. Apt as it was to thinking in allegories, Nehemiah’s fancy saw the same spirit manifest in the landscape around him, in the ascending order of woodland, meadow and home-lot; in unredeemed wilderness, settlement, and meeting-house on the common.
In this hierarchical view of the world he was a child of his age. What distinguished him, however, from his cousins in Europe was his conviction that the order could and should be simplified. Some of the steps in the pyramid ought to be eliminated, as it were, for communication between the highest and the lowest to be more direct and certain. If this world was but a preparation for the next (and the Reverend Jethro Tipping assured him that it was) men should organize it simply and efficiently. And in fact Nehemiah and his fellow colonists had already done this so well that in the eyes of their old world contemporaries they passed for revolutionaries.
The Hostile Environment
Nevertheless, Jerusha was aware that it was only a small beleaguered island of holiness in the midst of a hostile country. Almost within gunshot of the meeting-house was an unredeemed wilderness inhabited by savages. A variety of factors prevented Nehemiah from venturing very far or very often into this hinterland. His fanning methods were too primitive; labor was too scarce for him to exploit all the land he owned — much less acquire more. The absence of roads made settlement difficult in the more remote parts and again prevented him from selling to distant towns. Furthermore, neither he nor his friends were adventurous spirits; they were slow to adopt new ways and new ideas, since the old ones were backed by unimpeachable authority. Remembering the cultivated countryside they had left in England, they were appalled by the lawlessness of the New World environment. Emerson once said that the early settlers “do not appear to have been hardy men. ... They exaggerate their troubles. Bears and wolves were many, but early they believed there were lions. Monadnoc was burned over to kill them. ... In the journey of the Reverend Peter Bulkley and his company through the forest from Boston to Concord they fainted from the powerful odor of the sweet fern in the sun.”
No doubt much of this fear came from the hardships of pioneer life. A spiritual descendant of Nehemiah, Silas Lapham of Vermont, remarked almost two hundred years later: “I wish some of the people that talk about the landscape and write about it, had to bust one of them rocks out of the landscape with powder. ... Let ‘em go and live with nature in the winter ... and I guess they’ll have enough of her for one while.”
But in fact, later generations of American pioneers had little or none of this hostility to nature; the sentiment was largely confined to Nehemiah and his time. What helped confirm it and make it almost an article of faith was the habit the early colonists had of comparing themselves to the Children of Israel in the Wilderness. “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt. Thou hast cast out the heathen and planted it.” Such was the biblical inspiration of the motto of Connecticut and of the state seal adopted in 1644. How great is the contrast between such an emblem and those of the western pioneer states of two centuries later, with their rising suns and optimistic plowmen!
It is possible to interpret the landscape of Jerusha as the expression of pioneer economic conditions. The village centered on the common and meetinghouse, the houses turning their backs on the woodlands, the small fields surrounded by fences and walls — these are certain traits of a subsistence economy and of a society compelled to think in terms of self-defense. Even the non-existent lions and the soporific ferns, in one form or another, are part of every pioneer environment. But we should not forget that Nehemiah thought of himself not as a pioneer but as an exile, that he strove throughout his life not only for security but for holiness, and his interests never wandered very far from that font of holiness, the meeting-house. He never aspired to much more than establishing as firmly as he could a super-domestic order. He closed his eyes on this vale of tears in 1683, satisfied until his latest breath that two things at least were permanent: his own identity (which would rise in the flesh on the Day of Judgment) and the indestructible, unalterable house which he bequeathed to his widow Submit.
It was lucky he died when he did. Had he lived to see his grandson Noah come of age he would have witnessed the beginning of the end of the old order. Noah was one of the first in Jerusha to start speculating in land values. He realized that there was no longer room near the common for more houses and that newcomers were not eager to belong to the church community; they were willing to live far away. It was Noah who persuaded the town selectmen to build roads into the forest five miles distant, and he made a substantial profit selling off some of his grandfather’s unused woodland.
His was not so well-behaved a world as Nehemiah’s, but it was more extensive. It included the West Indies and Virginia and many new towns and frontier farms off by themselves in distant clearings. It included men who went about on horseback preaching a road to salvation much shorter and simpler than the one Nehemiah had so earnestly followed, and others who talked of a more direct relationship between people and government. Noah built himself a three story house and furnished the parlor with mahogany and silver. The old house, now grey and in poor repair, was lived in by one of Noah’s aunts. She prided herself on being loyal to the old ways, but she complained that the house was cramped, and put in larger windows on the ground floor; and she always referred to New England as home.
II. PLINY’S HOMESTEAD
The first time a member of the Tinkham family built a house outside of New England was when Pliny Tinkham moved West a little over a century ago, and homesteaded near Illium, Illinois.
Pliny was young to be married and the father of three children, and young (his parents thought) to be going so far from Jerusha. But though he was not rich he had much more to start with than his ancestors had had two centuries earlier. He needed much more; he intended to farm on a larger and more complicated scale. Aside from money, Pliny and his wife Matilda took little with them, having been advised to buy whatever they needed near their destination. When they finally arrived at Illium they had bought (in addition to the same set of tools that Nehemiah had for pioneering), a team of horses, a yoke of oxen, a milch cow, a wagon, a plow, a pitchfork, a scythe — and ten pounds of nails. These were the articles listed as necessary in the Farmers’ and Emigrants’ Handbook which Pliny consulted.
Pioneering in the Plains
Nehemiah, it will be remembered, had been assigned land by the township; land comprising three different kinds of terrain. Pliny, though no judge of prairie real estate, was obliged to choose the land he wanted and to bargain for it. He finally bought 120 acres from a man who had acquired it as a speculation, had done nothing to improve it, and now wanted to move even farther West. It was excellent land; gently rolling prairie with very rich soil; it contained a small amount of woodland, and was about ten miles north of Illium on what would some day be a road. The nearest neighbor was a mile away.
Like Nehemiah, Pliny built a temporary shelter for the family first of all; only he built it out of logs and thus made it larger and more comfortable than that first underground Tinkham shelter. He did not have to cut down many trees to clear his land, for most of it was clear already, but he did have to cut them down for the log cabin, for a barn for the livestock, and for fences to keep the animals from wandering across the prairie. He soon saw that wood was not to be wasted in southern Illinois; there was too little of it. Again like his ancestor, Pliny hastened to plant the fields he had prepared; but instead of planting for family needs he planted twenty acres to wheat — in order to have a cash crop as soon as he could.
In many ways his pioneering was easier than that of Nehemiah. Pliny had no “hostiles” to deal with. The land was fertile and open, and he had the tradition of adaptibility and self-reliance in a new country. He had a growing market not too far away, and a place where he could always buy to satisfy his needs. And then, finally, he and Matilda were optimistic and adventurous; the very fact that the purchase of the land had been a kind of speculation encouraged them to look at the whole enterprise of homesteading as speculative, for in a pinch they could always sell out and begin again.
On the other hand life during the first years was often harsh. Matilda had a recipe for bread made of powdered beechwood and another for salad made of young pine needles, both to be used in times of near-famine. She found herself having to practice a variety of domestic skills which the people of Jerusha had either never known or had been able to delegate to specialists within the village; the making of candles and soap and dyes, of sugar from corn and yeast from milk. She had to tend a much larger vegetable garden than Submit Tinkham had ever seen, and preserve vegetables that Submit had never heard of. She had to nurse a family and keep it well according to methods which were scientific if rudimentary, whereas Submit had merely relied on traditional quackery and semi-magic formulae or had turned to any neighbor who had had medical experience. As for Pliny, he was not only farmer, carpenter, mason, engineer and blacksmith, he was also veterinarian, hunter and trapper, experimental agriculturalist and merchant.
Moreover, the Tinkhams of Illinois were from the beginning much more on their own than the Tinkhams of Massachusetts. What neighbors they had were friendly, but they were remote and few. The Tinkham dwelling was several miles from Illium (and a good distance across prairie mud from the road leading to Illium) and once Pliny reached the town he discovered that no one there felt any responsibility for his welfare, spiritual or physical. The banker, the storekeeper, the shipper were all eager to do business with him, but they were not much interested in his personal problems. There was not one church in Illium; there were three. One of the ministers came out to see the Tinkhams, led a prayer, left a few tracts, and never came back. The population of Illium was constantly growing and changing. The rumor of a new railroad, of a packing plant, of a new county-seat sent half of them scurrying elsewhere. In spite of his spending a good deal of time at the courthouse and in the bank, and of attending every fair, Pliny always felt like an outsider in the town.
Flight from the Village
To his forefather such a feeling would have been almost too humiliating to bear, but Pliny was a different person. He needed a different society a different economy and a different landscape, and he had left New England because he knew that he needed them. The reason given by the Tinkham tribe for the young man’s defection was that there was more money to be made in farming out West, which was true, and that the old farm was exhausted after two hundred years of cultivation, which it was not. They also blamed the railroads, the cheap land, the growth of large cities — everything except themselves. But the fact is Pliny had rebelled against the old-fashioned farming methods of his father and against the old-fashioned domestic tyranny. The elder Tinkham, obsessed by the ancestral craving for security and solvency, and, like his ancestors, indifferent to the promise of wealth, had steadfastly refused either to enlarge the farm or improve it in keeping with new ideas. What had been good enough for Nehemiah was good enough for him. Furthermore, he firmly believed that as father, as representative of God in the home, he always knew best, that he was the apex of the established domestic order. He treated Pliny as a child of ten. Thus when Pliny moved West it was not so much in search of easy money as in flight from the Old Testament household, the old self-sufficient economy; in a way it might be said he was fleeing the New England village: common, meeting-house and all.
It was natural that the landscape which he and the other fugitives created in the West should have been in many respects the direct opposite of the landscape they had known as children. Instead of the cluster of farmhouses around the church there were farmhouses scattered far and wide across the prairie; instead of the land being fairly and equally apportioned by a benevolent authority, it was bought in the open market; and instead of the superfamily life of the New England village there was no village life at all. It was as if Pliny (like his remote ancestor) had set out in his turn to eliminate a few more steps in the hierarchy, some of the barriers between himself and immediate experience. Parents, clergy, aristocracy, township in the old sense were all abolished. And the chief artificer of the landscape was no longer the community but the individual. The independence that Pliny felt was expressed in a popular song:
I have lawns, I have bowers
The Functional House — 1860
I have fruits, I have flowers
The lark is my morning alarmer.
So jolly boys, now,
Here’s God speed the plow
Long life and success to the farmer!
Most significant of all of Pliny’s creations was his house, for it incorporated more revolutionary features than had any previous house in America. He placed it on a height in the center of the farm, where the air was fresh and the view wide, though he built at some distance from the highway and out of sight of neighbors. He and Matilda agreed that their house should be built primarily for the use of the family rather than for display or entertaining, and that it should be designed so that if need arose it could be easily sold. This was the advice that every home-owner gave them, and it was in keeping with the speculative attitude they both unconsciously retained from the very first days on the farm. But that was only the beginning. After reading several useful handbooks on building, Pliny and Matilda decided that their home should be a place which could be added to in the future as the family grew and as they put aside more money; they planned for rooms which could be used as bedrooms now and later as storerooms, they planned for sliding doors which could divide a room in two.
A house with a flexible plan, a house designed so sensibly that it could be used by one family and then sold to another — a house, in short that adjusted itself willingly to that outward thrust which Nehemiah’s house had resisted so stoutly — was in itself a totally new concept. Equally new was the way Pliny built it. He abandoned the time-honored frame construction of his ancestors — and (significantly enough) the traditional dimensions based on the bay and the half bay — and used the latest method, the so-called balloon construction. Balloon construction is actually the type of construction we now use in every frame house in this country, but it was invented only a little over a century ago. Its principle, as Gideon defines it in Time, Space and Architecture “involves the substitution of thin plates and studs, running the entire height of the building and held together only by nails, for the ancient and expensive method of construction with mortised and tenoned joints. To put together a house, like a box,” he adds “using only nails — this must have seemed utterly revolutionary to carpenters.” But to Pliny, who never prided himself on being a radical innovator, it was the logical procedure. It called for cheap and plentiful nails, and these he had.
So the house was inexpensive and fast to build, and it was larger, better-lighted and more convenient than the house in Jerusha. Its rooms were numerous, and whereas Nehemiah had thought chiefly in terms of the social function of each room — one for the family, one for ceremonies, one for the servant and so on — Pliny thought in terms of domestic or practical function: kitchen, milkroom, pantry, living room, bedrooms, and of course a piazza. Just as he had promised, it was a house designed entirely for family life and not for show. What was the spiritual center of this dwelling? In Jerusha it had been the formal parlor with its Bible and hearth. But because of the scarcity of wood around Illium, and because of the more sensible arrangement of the rooms, Pliny had only Franklin burners and a cook-stove; two fires sufficed to heat the entire establishment. All that remained of the hearth was an open Franklin burner in the living room (or sitting room, as Matilda called it); and a small collection of books for family reading. Whittier and Longfellow and Household Words took their places alongside the Bible.
To say that the most important room in the Tinkham house was dedicated to family gatherings rather than to ceremonial occasions is to say that the house was designed for social self-sufficiency. None of the previous Tinkhams ever had so complete and independent a homelife as Pliny. This was chiefly because the house had to take the place of the church and meeting-house and school — and sometimes even the tavern. Weddings, funerals, burials, business deals, holidays gave it an importance that no Tinkham dwelling had ever had before or ever had afterwards. It expanded to include almost every aspect of country living; it represented in its way the golden age of the American home.
A prairie farmhouse designed by Solon Robinson, early advocate of balloon construction. [From: "The Emigrant's Handbook, 1856]
The Functional Farm
The farm which Pliny operated was not only larger than the one in Jerusha, it was far more efficient. Nehemiah had done everything by hand except haul stone and wood, and plow. On the farm near Iliium every phase of the process of raising corn, except for husking, was done by horse power — and this long before the Civil War. Nehemiah had not owned one piece of farm machinery; Pliny had wagons, plows, cultivators and harrows, and after ten years, when the roads had been improved, he acquired a buggy. Gail Hamilton, a popular Boston essayist in the ‘60s, compared the Midwestern farmer with his New England counterpart. The Midwestern farmers, she wrote, “do not go on there in the old ways in which their fathers trod for the very good reason they have neither ways nor fathers. ... They make experiments, for they must make them. Indeed their farming is itself an experiment. Their broad lands necessitate broad vision. They farm with their brains as well as their hands. ... Instead of taking his hoe and going to work, the (Midwestern) farmer harnesses his horse and takes a drive, but his drive does a good deal more hoeing than the Massachusetts man’s hoe.”
The Massachusetts man — to be specific, Nehemiah — had chiefly sought to satisfy his family needs from the proceeds of the farm, and as long as the family needs remained pretty much the same year after year, he saw no point in increasing the size of the farm or its yield. Pliny, on the contrary, gave up after the first few years any attempt to provide for the family in the traditional way; why raise sheep and spin wool and weave and dye and sew, when the railroad was bringing in ready-made clothes from the East? So he devoted more and more of his land to a cash crop — corn — which he could easily dispose of for ready money.
Once embarked on commercial fanning, Pliny no longer had any reason for limiting the size of his farm; no matter how much he raised he could always sell it — or so it seemed; and as a result the farm started to expand. He bought other small farms, leased land, sold land, cleared land until he never quite knew how much he controlled. The expanding farm went hand in hand with the expanding house. Nehemiah had never changed the shape of his fields, bordered as they were with stone walls and each distinct as to soil and slope from the others.
But Pliny, using wooden fences, could change his fields at will, and as he acquired large horsedrawn machinery he consolidated many small fields into a few big ones. Again, the flexible plan of the farm paralleled the flexible plan of the house. From the beginning Pliny had never seen the wisdom of having a diversity of land; he had naturally wanted as much of the best as he could afford to buy, and a uniform topography was certainly most practical for a uniform crop. He never had any of Nehemiah’s feeling that even the worst and least productive patch of land served some inscrutable purpose in an overall scheme. He spent much time and thought trying to modify the farm and increase its yield, thus making it impersonal and efficient, and easier to sell to another corn farmer.
It is unfortunately true that Pliny robbed the farm of variety and human association, and made it look more like a place of work than a traditional landscape; but it would be wrong to say that he did not love it. He probably never had that dim sense which Nehemiah had of being in partnership with a particular piece of earth. Pliny was indeed a strict and arbitrary master. Nevertheless he and Matilda and the children felt another kind of love which their colonial ancestor had never known. They enjoyed what in those days was called the grandiose spectacle of Nature. Pliny rode and hunted and fished in the remoter parts of the countryside, his children played in the woodlot and in the streams, and around the house Matilda planted a grove of locust trees and a romantic garden of wild flowers and vines. They belonged to a generation which believed that only good could come from close contact with Nature; like Thoreau they regarded Man “as an inhabitant or part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Never a church-goer but always inclined to piety, Pliny was fond of saying that God could be worshipped in the great out-of-doors without the assistance of a preacher. As one of the emigrant handbooks put it (no doubt to reassure those pioneers who had always kept up their church attendance at home), “The church-going bell is not heard within his wild domain, nor organ, nor anthem, nor choir. But there is music in the deep silence. ... He is indeed within a Temple not made with hands.”
The Family as a Natural Society
It is hard to realize that there was ever a time when such sentiments were new. But a century ago they not only represented a fresh approach to the environment, but a greatly simplified religious experience. Pliny loved the world of unspoiled nature for the same reason Nehemiah had dreaded it: it afforded him a direct and unimpeded glimpse of reality. Nehemiah had preferred to retain a hierarchy of Scripture and clergy between himself and the source of wisdom. Pliny liked to imagine that God was separated from him by little more than the thin veil of appearances.
The same sentiment inspired his concept of the ideal homelife. Remembering his family in Jerusha, forcibly subordinated to Old Testament law and parental authority, he chose to think of the household on the farm at Illium as a happy group of free individuals held together by common interests and affections, a beautifully natural society, independent of the outside world and unspoiled by artifice.
As he grew older Pliny had from time to time an uneasy suspicion that the house and the farm were no longer quite in harmony. The old domestic crafts had long since been abandoned, and increased contact with the national economy, increased dependence on hired help and semi-professional skills, all tended to disrupt the ancient unity and self-sufficiency. But until his death in 1892 Pliny looked upon the homestead as the source of every virtue he admired: frugality and simplicity and independence. The free American farmer was the noblest of men, and to think of leaving the farm was to risk losing his identity. His solution to every problem, domestic or agricultural, was “add a new room” or “buy some more land.” He insisted on a home burial (the last in the county) as a sort of final investment in the land, a final planting. He had no doubt that the proceeds would be profitable to everyone.
He never dreamt that his grandchildren would desert the place as soon as he vanished. They did, however. They could no longer enjoy the kind of life Pliny had arranged for them. They wanted less routine, more excitement; they took no pride in owning a large farm and having little cash, and they were bored with their identity as independent landowners. They rapidly went their several ways and the farm was eventually acquired by a Lithuanian immigrant with fourteen children, who raised onions, acres and acres of onions.
Pliny’s way of life died with him, but Pliny’s ghost, and Pliny’s home continue to haunt us. To many urban Americans they still embody a national ideal. Thanksgiving in Pliny’s kitchen, fishing in the ole swimmin’ hole on Pliny’s farm. Pliny himself behind a team of plow horses now advertise beer and refrigerators and Free Enterprise. But the Tinkham family (who ought to have known what they were leaving behind, and why they left it) have long since moved on, and not all the persuasion of advertising copy writers and politicians can make them return to the farm near IIlium.
"A Typical Illinois Farm-Scene" as depicted in a mid-XIX Century periodical.
III. RAY’S TRANSFORMER
The latest Tinkham house is not yet finished. It is being built at Bonniview, Texas, by Ray Tinkham, who hopes to have it completed sometime in the Spring of 1953.
Meanwhile he and Shirley and the two children, Don and Billie-Jean, are still living out on the ranch with the Old Man. The Old Man, though a widower, does not want to leave the story-and-a-half frame house with its broad veranda that he built at the turn of the century. It is set in the midst of the cottonwoods which he and his wife planted, thinking of the grove of locusts around the house in Illinois. So he will stay there until he dies. Ray and he have a written partnership agreement by which the Old Man feeds a certain number of steers, while Ray manages the farm. It used to be a cattle ranch, but having discovered a vast underground supply of water Ray now plans to raise large crops of wheat or cotton or sorghum or castor beans, depending on the market. For the last month the bulldozers and earth movers and caterpillers of a contracting firm have been levelling part of the range, contouring slopes, building irrigation ditches and storage tanks and installing pumps. “You’d never know the place,” the Old Man says as he looks at the brand-new geometrical landscape. He often wonders how the venture is being financed — as well he might, for Ray Tinkham has little cash, and there is hardly a farm credit institution, public or private, that is not somehow involved. But Ray is not worried, and the Old Man has confidence in his son.
Now is the slack time of the year, and every afternoon the two men and Ray’s boy Don, and once in a while a neighbor, go to work on Ray’s new house. It is being built out of the best grade cement blocks, brought by truck some two hundred miles, and it is to be absolutely the last word in convenience and modern construction. It is to be flat-roofed and one story high, with no artistic pretensions, but intelligently designed. It is located on a barren and treeless height of land on the outskirts of town. It has city water of course as well as city gas. Ray bought four lots on speculation when he came out of the Navy. From the large picture window in the living room there will be a view of prairie and a glimpse of a strange rock formation in the valley below. It will even be possible to see a corner of the ranch twelve miles away; the dust being raised by the caterpillers is very visible when the wind is right.
Planning the House
Twelve miles is an ideal distance. It means that Ray can get out to the headquarters (as he calls the old ranch house) in less than twenty minutes in his pickup, and leave his work far behind him at the end of the day. If the young Tinkhams were to continue to live out on the ranch the children would have to travel by bus to the new consolidated school in Bonniview, and even then miss the supervised after-school play period. As it is they will be able to walk the four blocks to school, and their mother will be near her friends after the daily trip to the supermarket and the food locker. She will be able to drop in on any of them for coffee. Ray approves all these arrangements and is counting the days until he and Shirley and the children have their own home.
He has even put up a rough frame where the picture window will eventually be, and Shirley never tires of looking out of it, over the vacant prairie and the strange rock formation below. Ray, who is a graduate of an agricultural college, pretends that he knows nothing about planning a house and leaves almost every decision to his wife. A very wise move, for she has not only pored over every home decorating magazine available, she has practical ideas of her own. She wants the house to be informal and not too big; easy to take care of, easy to live in, cheerful and comfortable. Styles and periods mean nothing to her, and since the place will be adequately heated by gas she suggests they save money by doing without a fireplace and chimney. She apparently knows the role the house can be expected to play in the life of the family, regardless of the role it might have played in the past. She knows that once in the new home the children will spend most of their time elsewhere and receive little of their upbringing in the house or from her. She will give them bed and breakfast, send them off to school and in the late afternoon they will return in time to eat, having learned from their teachers how to sew, how to be polite, how to brush their teeth, how to buy on the installment plan — knowledge which Shirley herself acquired (after a fashion) from her parents. Eventually the two children will leave the house altogether, and their mother has already decided what to do with their bedrooms when that happens.
Ray, as a matter of principle, has never transacted any of his work at home, and even leaves the ranch books with an expert accountant in Bonniview. For the new house Shirley plans a small dressingroom off the garage where her busband can wash, and change his clothes after work. It is not that she feels that the home should be devoted exclusivelv to her interests, though the family recognizes her as the boss; indeed she is just as eager as anyone to reduce the functions of the house and to make it a convenience rather than a responsibility.
She wants as many labor-saving devices as they can afford; she wants to buy food which is already half prepared — canned or frozen or processed — and then entrust it to the automatic time controls of an electric range; she wants to have an electric dishwasher, and a garbage disposal unit and incinerator built into the wall of the kitchen; she wants thermostat heat control and air-conditioning. She wants an automatic washing machine. Confronted with these demands and with Shirley’s reluctance to have a lawn or a vegetable garden — “who would water it?” — or a separate dining room for company — “just another room to take care of and more people to feed” — Ray is tempted to ask what she expects to do with her leisure? But he knows the answer; actually she will be lucky to have two free hours a day; and he himself thinks leisure — time spent away from routine work — a very desirable thing, though he cannot say precisely why, and he knows that Shirley is not lazy, that the house should not monopolize her time. It is not important enough to any of them for that.
The Functions of the House
He is right. It would be absurd to talk of the new Tinkham house as an institution, in the sense that the house near Illium was an institution, when it represents so little of permanent significance. What connection, for instance, can it possibly have with the process of earning the daily bread when it is twelve miles distant from the place of work? Its educational function will grow slighter every year; even home work has been done away with in the Bonniview public schools, and discipline is largely left to the teachers. Whoever falls sick goes to the hospital, for modern medical practice involves the use of complicated technical equipment. What social prestige is attached to the house that Ray is building? Neither he nor Shirley gave any thought to social or snobbish factors when they chose its site; convenience was all that mattered. They will sooner or later clamor for a paved road in front, but expensive and time-consuming landscaping they both consider superfluous until they know how long they will continue to live there. Although the Tinkhams have social ambitions like everyone else in Bonniview they instinctively know that their standing depends more on the organizations they belong to, the car they drive, the clothes they wear, than on their house and its furnishings.
They have no illusions as to the permanence of the establishment they are about to set up. It does not occur to them that they will spend their old age in the house, much less that the children will inherit it and live in it after they have gone. As for the kind of family life that the Old Man knew back East in Illinois — reading out loud together, Bible instruction, games, large holiday dinners, winter evenings in the sitting room and so forth — the very mention of it makes Shirley impatient. The only time her family spends its leisure together — except for rapid meals — is when they are out in the car. And when the children do stay home they go to their separate rooms and listen to their favorite programs on their radios. The Tinkham house will have no provision for a permanent library of books, for a common literary heritage; an unending stream of newspapers and magazines, scarcely ever read, will pass through the living room. The Old Man regrets that the children have no religious instruction; has Shirley ever tried reading the Bible to them? “For pity’s sake, Dad! Ray and me never go to church, so why should the kids?”
If such is to be the economic and social and cultural status — or lack of status — of the new Tinkham home, what will actually distinguish it from a motel — which indeed it promises to resemble at least on the outside? Chiefly this: it is the one place where certain experiences, certain external energies are collected and transformed for the benefit of a group. This is clear in the design of the house itself: it is consciously planned to “capture” the sun, the breezes, the view, to filter the air, the heat, the light — even the distances, through the picture window, transforming them and making them acceptable to every one. The kitchen is essentially a marvelous electric range which transforms raw or semi-raw materials into food; the living room is the radio (and some day the television set) which transfonns electronic impulses into entertainment; the dressing room transforms Ray from a workingman into a different person. The whole house exists not to create something new but to transform four separate individuals into a group — though only for a few hours at a time.
In a word, the Tinkham house is to be a transformer; and the property of transformers is that they neither increase nor decrease the energy in question but merely change its form. There is no use inquiring what this house will retain from the lives of its inhabitants, or what it will contribute to them. It imposes no distinct code of behavior or set of standards; it demands no loyalty which might be in conflict with loyalty to the outside world. No one will be justified in talking about the “tyranny” of the Tinkham home, or of its ingrowing other worldly qualities. Neither of the children will ever associate it with repression or wax sentimental at the thought of the days back in the Bonniview house. But still, it serves its purposes. It filters the crudities of nature, the lawlessness of society and produces an atmosphere of temporary well-being where vigor can be renewed for contact with the outside.
Transformation of the landscape: Levelling land in the Southwest for irrigation. [Photo: Soil Conservation Service]
The Function of the Farm
It is no doubt significant that the house should be deliberately located at some distance from the farm and that it should have no connection with the farm setup. There are definite similarities, however, between the farm which Ray is creating and the house still under construction. Both of them, of course, disregard traditional form and layout, and the landscape which Ray will eventually produce will be as functional and as unencumbered as the house he is building. But how does he think of his farm? Does he, like Nehemiah, think of it as a fragment of creation which he is to redeem, support himself from, and pass on to his progeny? Or like Pliny, as an expanding organism, the victory of one individual over Nature? Does he look upon its produce as God’s reward for work well and piously done, or as part of a limitless bounty given by a benevolent Nature to those who understand and obey her laws? Neither; Ray is the first of the Tinkhams to doubt the unending profusion of Nature, the first of ten generations to believe that the farm can and should produce much more than it has in the past, that much energy now being wasted can be put to use. Nehemiah, who saved every penny and never contracted a debt without examining his soul beforehand, would deny that Ray had any sense of economy; he turns in his grave at the thought of the mortgages and pledges and indebtedness, and of the small balance in the Bonniview bank.
But Ray knows something that Nehemiah never knew and Pliny never quite grasped: that work and time and money are interchangeable, and that the farm serves only to transform each of these several kinds of energy into another. What does this knowledge of Ray’s imply? Nehemiah was aware that his occasional small farm surplus could be converted into shillings and pence, but he never put those shillings back into the farm. Pliny, who disposed of most of his produce on the market, knew that in order to get money out of a farm you had to put money into it. Yet he never calculated the worth of his own labor or that of his sons, never kept account of the milk and eggs and meat the family took. He refused to make a distinction between the family and the farm; they belonged together. Finally it never occurred to him to expect the cost of certain improvements to be balanced by greater yields or lower overhead. If the price of corn was low, why bother to spend money on fertilizer? The farm, like the family, was not to be treated in terms of dollars and cents.
On the other hand Ray is organizing his farm along entirely different lines. As he sees it, it is to be an instrument for the prompt and efficient conversion of natural energy in the form of chemical fertilizer or water or tractor fuel or man hours or whatever into energy in the form of cash or further credit — into economic energy, in a word. There are still a few old-fashioned ranchers near Bonniview who accuse young Tinkham of being money-minded. Farming, after all, is a way of life, they say, and science and new ideas can be carried too far. They think that if he had not gone to agricultural college but had served an apprenticeship with his father on the ranch he would be more respectful of the old order.
The Identity of House and Farm
Ray dismisses these criticisms as beside the point. He did not invent this kind of farming all by himself; his chief contribution is a willingness to accept certain definite trends. Labor is expensive and hard to get, so he has to mechanize and streamline his operations. Mechanization is expensive on a small irregular farm, so he has to expand and gamble on the results. The market fluctuates, so he must be ready to adjust the farm to other more profitable operations, or to sell it at a good price and get out. The farm is not a self-supporting economic unit, it depends on the outside world, so he must be assured of good roads and efficient transportation. Thus the new farm reproduces many of the characteristics of the new house: labor saving devices, efficient and simplified layout, adaptibility to and anticipation of change, and dependence on the proximity of a complex economy; on markets, super or otherwise. Like every other new house in rural America, the Tinkhams’, in materials, method of construction, and location, has no organic relationship to its environment — weather or topography or soil. The Tinkham farm is of course something of a new departure, and its efficiency is yet to be proved. But it too is pretty much detached from the semi-arid Southwestern landscape which surrounds it. Ray has changed the topography in no uncertain manner; his abundance of water for irrigation amounts to a change in the climate, and the soil — which even his father had always thought to be a constant factor — is being altered and improved in a variety of effective ways. Nothing more need be said of the infinitesimal cultural role which the home plays in the Tinkham family, but it is worth noting that the farm is, if anything, even less productive on that score. In the days when the Old Man ran the ranch and had several families of workers living on the place there was such a thing as a sense of unity among them all, and there was a distinctive way of life. Ray’s few workers are paid well and treated well; but they check in and out like factory hands and think of their boss as an impersonal entity known as the Tinkham Land Development Company. And in fact Ray pays himself a salary as manager.
Two paint ponies stand in the corral waiting for Don and Billie-Jean to ride them. Once the farm is in operation they will be ridden on weekends only and in certain prescribed areas. Ray has made it clear that the farm is no place for Don to play at being farmer or rancher. “If he wants to learn this business he’ll have to go to agricultural college the way I did, and study chemistry and engineering and accounting.” Don, however, at present wants to be a jet pilot.
The ranch will not take every one of Ray’s working hours. He hopes in time to be able to leave it to look after itself, not merely overnight but for weeks on end, while he and Shirley and the children take winter vacations in California. He even dreams of having a small business in town to keep himself occupied. At present there are only two operations which he will delegate to no one: the preparing of the soil and planting of the seed, and the investment of the financial proceeds. The harvesting of the crop he has already contracted out to an itinerant crew which has its own machinery, and for several months of the year the Old Man’s steers will be turned out into the stubble. In a sense all that interests Ray are the first process and the last — the energy which goes into the soil in the planting and fertilizing, and the energy which comes out of it in the form of money. How can he and the rest of the family help but think of the new farm as essentially an impersonal and flexible instrument of transformation? How can they help but be indifferent to the traditional aspects of farming? The farm at Bonniview is not and cannot be a way of life. It is not even negotiable property (since Ray can scarcely be said to own it); it is a process, a process by which grass is converted into beef, nitrogen into wheat, dollars into gasoline and back into dollars.
It would probably be fair to say that Ray is not a farmer at all, any more than his house is a farmhouse. Ray would be first to agree. Nevertheless there is a bond between him and the land that cannot be entirely overlooked. He himself is subject to the same forces (however defined) which have modified so drastically the concept of the farm. For one thing, Ray’s identity, like the identity of the land, has become alarmingly mobile and subject to rapid change. His remote ancestor Nehemiah (of whom he has never even heard) remained true to his identity of yeoman throughout his life — and even died believing he would some day rise again intact in every particular. But for some reason Ray is leery of any kind of permanent label. He will not call himself a farmer, for instance; he says he is engaged in farming. And who knows what he may not be doing ten years hence when he has made a success or failure of the Bonniview venture? Head of a trucking firm, oil well driller, owner of a farm equipment agency? They all cross his mind. He encourages his employees as well as his children to call him by his first name, as if he were reluctant to have any public status. He would probably explain this aversion of his to a permanent economic or social identity by saying that he merely wants to be himself. But even that identity refuses to be defined, just as it does to a lesser degree with his wife Shirley. Ray laughs at her incessant attempts to be someone different — now a peroxide blonde, now a redhead with a poodle haircut; following diets, mail order courses in the Wisdom of the East, dressing up in slacks and cowboy boots and then reverting to femininity — never a dull moment when Shirley is trying to develop a new personality. But at the same time he is not always very sure of himself. Far more intelligent, far more sensitive than the first American Tinkham, he has inherited none of Nehemiah’s tough integrity and self-assertiveness. It is easy for him to lose himself, as the phrase goes, and to become a totally different person; at a prize fight, or after two or three drinks, or at the scene of a bloody accident. “You should have seen yourself at the movie,” Shirley says when they get home; “You sat there in the dark imitating every single expression Humphrey Bogart made on the screen.”
Ray does not know the difference between hypnotism and amnesia and “getting religion,” but he likes to talk about them; he likes to read in science fiction about brain-washing and thought control and transmuted identities. “It isn’t scientifically impossible,” he says, and he thinks of how he himself is radically changing the composition of the soil, how he is changing the face of the earth on a small scale. He thinks of the new house, not yet completed, ready to change its form, its owners, its function at a day’s notice.
Bonniview is no more immune to the spiritual forces at large than were Illium and Jerusha. Ray is no less moved by an urge to apprehend truth than were Nehemiah and Pliny. If he has unconsciously destroyed the order which his father had established, and made his home a very different place, much freer, in many ways much poorer, it is chiefly because he has wanted to eliminate some of the stages between reality and himself as his predecessors tried to do. He sees the relationship in his own characteristic terms: he sees himself not as a child of God wishing to learn the parental command, not as a child of nature heeding the good impulse, but as an efficient and reliable instrument for transforming the invisible power within him into a power adapted to the world as he knows it.
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