By Patty Gillespie
A rusty strand of barbed wire embedded in a tree trunk, a cluster of daffodils blooming in a pasture field, and a bit of blue crockery protruding from a creek’s sandy edge, like whisperings of secrets, make me long to know. Who lived here before? What were their lives like?
We had to take the boat to reach my husband’s grandmother’s homeplace (the farmstead of her childhood). Over 40 years ago, at the convergence of two creeks, a dam was built. Afterward, the acreage of the former homesite became isolated on a narrow peninsula surrounded by the waters of a power plant’s cooling lake.
But it was actually many years before, sometime in the 1930s, when the homeplace was abandoned. Speculation about the reason for that abandonment points to one particular life-changing incident.
From my position at the bow, I scanned the shoreline. “There,” I pointed. My husband Jim swung the boat toward shore and cut the motor. We climbed a gentle slope. At the apex, we noticed two lines of tall trees standing like sentinels, progressing eastward. Between those old trees lie a flat depression, overgrown by grasses and saplings. Here was the old roadbed which I had spotted from the boat.
As we walked upon it, we observed the surrounding woodland. Among a tangle of raspberry stems, a roll of weathered decorative woven-wire leaned against a big hollow fallen tree. “Hey, Jim, there’s a roll of fencing,” I said.
He looked and remarked with a chuckle, “I bet that fancy yard fence was meant for keeping livestock out, not pets or kids in.”
A short distance beyond, a row of cheerful Easter flowers bloomed among the leaf litter of the forest floor. Had we found the homeplace?
Jim commented, “I think this is it, but I’m not sure. I remember during the summers of my late teens, I’d drive from the south along a dirt road and then turn westward.” He told of passing the vacant old farmhouse and the dilapidated barn, still standing back then. “But at the creek there was no bridge, so I’d wade across. Over there was a wonderful woods for squirrel hunting!”
A few more steps and off to our right, we noticed evidence of the road from the south. Yes, this was the homeplace.
To our left loomed two huge concrete gateposts, surprisingly upright and rigid. The concrete of the posts showed very little sign of deterioration despite the many years of weathering. We skirted around them.
As we ventured farther off the roadbed, we paid close attention to where we placed our feet, which we are in the habit of doing anyway since we raise cattle. Here there was a good chance of finding a well. Hand-dug wells or cisterns often now exist as half-hidden deep gaping holes – very dangerous!
We found a few glass jars, a rusted-out metal washtub, and picked a few of the old-fashioned yellow daffodils for a bouquet.
As we were walking back to the boat, Jim stopped at a dip in the roadbed and spoke quietly. “It is thought that this is the spot where my grandfather was killed – killed by his in-laws.” Jim gestured back toward the homeplace and added, “In 1924.”
“Oh! 1924 is when it happened,” I gasped. “Your mother would have been just a little girl when she lost her father.”
Jim added, “I don’t know very much about it, really. I think that my mom didn’t want me to know, but I’ve heard some. Apparently, a woman driving a horse and buggy along this road happened upon the scene immediately after the shooting and identified the men involved. On the internet, I discovered an old newspaper article. My grandmother’s brother served time in the penitentiary at Chester and his father was acquitted.”
When we reached the shoreline, Jim said, “Yet,” as if trying to reconcile two opposing notions. “Up until the time of the incident, they were considered successful farmers, a wealthy family, supposedly.”
As we motored away across the water, I looked back at the wooded peninsula. The homeplace had kept its secrets.