Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Monday, December 26, 2011

Farms that Straddle



PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: There are still a few places where an old road, preferably a dirt road, winds through the middle of an ancient farmstead. They are a welcome discovery, though sometimes it's hard to get a lens around them gracefully and make them into a place. It is exactly this, "placeness," that I most enjoy about them.

If my road leads through a working farm, it feels preoccupied with daily chores. I am an intruder as much as if I had crossed through the family's kitchen during meal preparation. However, photography has taught me that such places are a wonderful intersection of private and public space. They are an opportunity to meet the farmer at his labor as I seek permission to photograph on his farm. Many farmers welcome conversation and a few moments' pause, and some share stories and offer tips on the best views. Sometimes they take me on a tour to show off the new piglets or share ancient yarns and family lore.

Such places must have been more common once. Whether a road was public or private, road maintenance was once the responsibility of the landowner; it was especially hard work and totally non-productive. One didn't want too many slushy spots that needed to be restored after every spring thaw. The farmer who maintained the road wanted to make good use of it, and traffic, such as it was, was probably light.

When one passed through a farm, one might pass waiting wagons of hay, dodge ducks, chickens chucking and gabbling, and sometimes the world paused while a whole herd of slow cows headed out to pasture. Even if daily traffic was light, surely friends stopped and regulars and all weary wayfarers. Their visits seasoned the week and spread the news. As much as the front porch, these yards where farms took possession of the public road were points of interchange.

Today they are rarer than roadside tree rows and often as fragile. Such places not only battle the usual sprawl and decay that consume old farmsteads, but they are constantly harried by the automobile's need for faster, wider, straighter, and soon the port side of the roadway has forgotten the starboard for the raceway in the middle. Too often I find myself speeding by spaces where the place has vanished, catching lingering traces passing: a forlorn barn too close to the road, a house with a big, front porch facing an empty field and a ruined silo, phantom nodes along a vacant network,

This road (above) has passed through the middle of Averill Farm since 1746. The cows have turned to apples, but the farm continues with the 9th and 10th generation of Averills farming there today.


NOTE: Averill Farm is the setting and inspiration for The Magical Christmas Horse, a new children's book by Wendell Minor and Mary Higgins Clark. You can read about it here.