I’ve mentioned a time or two that old farmsteads fascinate me. Something about the simplicity of the structures, the lack of technology, the old tools that operated on horse or man power, leaves me in awe at how these farm families survived, in some cases thrived, on mostly hard work and pure grit.
They also remind me of my grandfather’s farm, who, when I was a boy, still used old, notched and chinked, log corn cribs; plowed his two red horses rather than crank up his tractor; worked in his own smithy shop; and butchered and processed steers and hogs. My grandmother tended a yard full of chickens.
I remember salt-cured hams hanging in granddaddy’s smokehouse, the sweet aroma of new hay in his horse barn, and the sound of the first drops of milk ringing against the bottom of the pail when he started the morning milking.
My grandmother churned butter with a hand-operated churn; she worked it with her hands to remove excess liquid before placing it into wooden molds. When it cooled and hardened, the golden blocks of butter came out with the imprint of a flower.
Those memories popped up last week when we took my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law on an afternoon jaunt to nearby Roan Mountain. The mountain is reason enough to take the 45-minute drive. It is spectacular, but on the way down, we veered off the main road to see the Miller Farmstead.
Sometime in the late 1800s the Miller family cut a small farm out of the Appalachian forest near the North Carolina/Tennessee state line. The farmstead remained a working farm until the 1960s. Fortunately, it has been preserved as part of Roan Mountain State Park. The frame house perches on a small knoll in what’s known in these parts as a “holler,” a small valley, I guess.
A barn, still dispensing the smell of hay, remains intact, as does a corn crib, a spring house, a root cellar and a privy. The privy brought back less than pleasant childhood memories.
A horse-drawn hay mower, sat, appropriately, in front of the hay barn, beside a stack of new hay higher than my head.
A wooden raceway brought water into the farm yard from a spring somewhere in a wooded area higher up the knoll. A cursory look across the muddy walkway failed to reveal the water source. A splash of water running from the end of the wooden trough proved that mountain spring water is cold.
A family cemetery occupying a high spot above the farmstead shows the hardships early settlers faced. Etched into weather-worn gravestones are family tragedies, infants, young people, wives and husbands, a few lost to war — lives cut short by disease, accident, or misadventure.
Old farms stand, emblems of desperation — and hope. Old farmsteads. They have stories.