January 31, 2021—If you talked to me recently, you know I’m completely obsessed with living in the past. This work is the book I’ve wanted to write since I was a child. In 2019, I compiled letters my now 92-year-old aunt gave me; letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother before they married “Always Carl” had a narrative arc, but it was determined by the letters.
Something about the “Always Carl” project set off some internal alarm. If I was going to write my magnum opus, it should be now. I started on the new book “Centennial Farm Family” about 18 months ago.
I know I should get to the point and tell you what it is about, but I’m not ready yet, so you are getting more context. My maternal grandmother was wicked crazy about her ancestors and their stories. She liked to dress up like a pioneer in a bonnet, black dress, and a petticoat. (She was on the Bicentennial committee for our county and wore this heavy, black outfit on the July 4, 1976 parade float. Seriously, she was 68, so I guess she was long past menopause, but I don’t know how she did it. She was big into the DAR, which wasn’t something I wanted to join. I’m still mad about Marian Anderson.
“Grammy,” that’s my grandmother, told me stories from the time I was a baby until she died in 1994. She took me to history meetings. She shared pictures with me. One of the things she liked to do was interview people on her fancy-schmancy new cassette recorder. The librarians had transcribed one of the recordings. Grammy interviewed a man, born in 1880, who knew her parents and talked about farming from 1880 to the then-present, which was about 1970. He was a good storyteller, and she asked good questions, which I so appreciate fifty years later.
I always thought I would write a book about her family and the farm. The stories were compelling, and that the farm continued was pretty impressive considering some of the events that happened. I started looking through the boxes she gave me.
Grammy also wrote a lot of handwritten notes. I found two that made me cry and fully accelerated my brain into go mode. I found two notes on which was written “For Amy LeNore,” dated 1958, and tagged to items she thought I might find interesting. I was a year old. I realize now that I have been brainwashed. However, it is so sweet that she thought someday I would be interested in these old stories.
“Centennial Farm Family” tells the stories of four generations of the Long family, who kept the same farm for a century and received recognition from the Indiana Historical Society. There are hundreds of other families who have received this recognition. (The farm stayed in the family for 173 years, but the book stops in 1937.)
Reuben Long came to Indiana in 1835 to stake his claim for 160 acres. Through wild gyrations like two Great Depressions, a cholera epidemic, and a Civil War soldier’s death, the family ownership was sometimes in jeopardy. Still, the land came to my great-great-grandfather Washington Long, Reuben’s seventh of eight children.
Two of Washington’s three sons died, and the other had tuberculosis. But the farm passed to another generation, split between his remaining son and daughter. Washington’s daughter and husband had three daughters, one of whom died, and the other two left the area.
When my great -grandfather died an unexpected and horrific death, my great-grandmother doesn’t know what to do with the acreage, half of the legacy farm, and the land she and her husband have purchased. Two men come along to help her–unlikely suspects really–one of them is in a wheelchair, and the other has a wealthy and kind father.
The farm that was in the family in Indiana for 173 years was sold 11 years ago. While Reuben’s great-great-great-grandchildren (I would be one of them) still live in Indiana, his great-great-great-great grandchildren have flown the coop.
It’s ironic, for me, that I am the one keeping the farm’s memory alive. I was not interested in agriculture, though I was interested in the stories and pictures. I wished my family owned the local newspaper. Not a farm. As a child, I loved going to the farm, seeing the wildflowers, watching the stars from the large, flat lawn beside the farmhouse, and being with my grandparents. I wasn’t the type to show animals at the 4-H Fair or make my clothes or grab eggs from under a chicken.
Writing a historical narrative about one’s family is a challenge. It isn’t quite journalism, and it isn’t quite history. And it is not fiction. One can speculate, but one cannot make things up. I am fortunate that I have items from my grandmother as well as a rich oral history. She told me the same stories so many times that I have them memorized. And along the way, I guess I always knew that I would write this book because I interviewed both my aunt and my father multiple times over the years. What has also been helpful is the encouragement of many writer friends. I also took both the beginning and the advanced “Creative Non-Fiction Magazine” classes on Historical Narrative. For anyone interested in writing a family book, I highly recommend the classes.
Earlier this week, I had the good fortune of hearing David Maraniss speak about his new book, “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father,” through my membership in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Maraniss discussed the tightrope walk between journalism and history and discussed the challenges of working in one’s voice. He mentioned that he takes about four years to do a book and is currently working on a new book about Jim Thorpe, the great Native American athlete who started the National Football League. He affirmed some things for me, one, that I wasn’t taking too long, and two, I need to chase some rabbits into holes for accuracy and completeness of the story.
Talking about research, he said, “Turn the page.” Three little words that are the key to writing an excellent historical narrative. I’m afraid I’ll never stop writing this book. The manuscript is 98% finished, but as I edit, I find things. And when you find things, you dig another rabbit hole. That’s how I found out today that Washington’s wife’s brother married Reuben’s brother’s daughter. In English, this means that my second great-granduncle married my first cousin, four times removed. That explains a lot. Stay tuned.
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