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Uncle Con

Uncle Con

By Bill Stork, DVM

Early April 1936, well before first light, Frank sat motionless, in thought. A shadow on the dusty floor from a single naked bulb, enveloped by last Sunday’s fried chicken, this morning’s coffee and 70-year-old pine, he thumbed the strap of his OshKosh overalls. His left hand surrounded a white diner coffee mug like a shot glass, long since cold, but well before the answers would come. The chair creaked and lid rattled as he dragged the handle of the granite coffee boiler across the wood stove.

Two hundred miles to the north, in Chicago - like every city - The Great Depression had gutted the land. One in 4 men was without work; the fortunate fought for survival. In the Heartland, grain prices had fallen to $0.13 per bushel. At 30 bushels per acre, an 80-acre farm could earn less than $250 per year, a fraction of what would make a farm payment. Many burned corn for heat; it was cheaper than coal.

Soon after sunrise, yet far from earshot, like John Henry in West Virginia, a chain gang would commence. The rhythmic “grunt, ping, thud” of steel driving spikes into railroad ties would continue ‘til sunset, bringing the Norfolk and Southern Railroad north, and bisecting three acres from the farm.

By first frost the steel rails would carry three cars of popcorn 100 miles south to St. Louis. Two rows at a time behind a John Deere B, Frank had planted every tillable inch of Christian County clay that he had a claim to, bringing to fruition a plan and a prayer made somewhere during the second cup of coffee, and closed on a handshake. A man in St. Louis owned movie houses. Folks lived for simple pleasures; when they could scrape together a few nickels and dimes, they would treat the family to a show, and a snack.

Born in 1866, Frank would see the farm through the forties as WWII united the country.  He and wife Agnes would have seven children, all of whom would move away, excepting Conrad, who never left the farm, and never married.

His nephew Bill wasn’t born on the farm, but you couldn't keep him off it. As a boy, Bill would practice welding pieces of scrap steel gathered by Con. When he was old enough to reach the clutch, and anytime school, the Chrysler garage, or the U.S. Navy would spare him, he could be found on the farm, riding a Putt-Putt Johnny, planting, plowing or picking.

Bill had the heart of a farmer; just not the appetite for adversity. When he returned from four years in the Seabees, he entered the apprenticeship for the Operating Engineers, and became a heavy equipment operator and mechanic.

This is my family farm. Frank was my great-grandfather; Conrad, my namesake uncle. Bill, of course, is my Dad.

Memories of Uncle Con’s farm are defining: family reunions, driving lawn mowers, hunting among the stubble for corn dropped by the combine, and pressing apples from the orchard. The John Deere cap on my head isn't because it matches my coveralls. If it was green and made in Moline, Uncle Con would have one and a spare. It was there I drove my first tractor: a John Deere 4020, 100 horsepower, made the year I was born.     

My most vivid memory of the farm is sweet corn. Somewhere around now, forty years ago, the phone would ring, ‘bout 4:30 in the evening:

“This is Con, you better come and get your corn before the ‘coons do.”

He would plant five acres of sweet corn for family, and folks in town. We would load friends and cousins in the back of dad’s yellow ’68 Chevy, and hightail it 25 miles south on Illinois Route 48. When we got to the farm, dad would drop the tailgate and back through the field. The kids would pick and toss ears of “Garwood Supreme,” until the 396 was growling and corn was rolling off the side walls. Back in town when the neighbors saw the Chevy heavy half, bumper- draggin’ down Nickey Avenue, they’d come quick with brown paper bags.

Ask anyone who lived through the Depression: they will speak of what they had, not what they didn't. Nothing, not a kernel of corn, was wasted. The next days would be spent boiling, carving, cleaning and canning corn, until all that was left was a mountain of naked cobs.

Uncle Con farmed through the ‘60s, knowing he would be the last generation of Storks on the family farm. Raw-boned and strong as a spool of number 9 wire, wearing the family uniform - OshKosh bib overalls – he sat at the same kitchen table his father had 40 years previous, lost in his own thoughts. Tough as the soles of his boots, yet he was no match for the tumors that ravaged his pancreas. Cancer had taken his strength and reserves, but his senses were well intact.

Decisions made. The next morning, the driveway would look like a Labor Day Parade: on rolled a roofer, insulator, electrician, plumber, an HVAC panel truck, and a crew of carpenters. By the time the ambulance would take him to St. Mary’s hospital to numb the pain of his last few days, the old farm house stood proud as the day it was built. The shop was rewired and plumbed and the walls insulated and heated.

His sister, my aunt called in a fit. “Damned old fool is dying, and he just had the whole farm rebuilt." Dad smiled and nodded; he knew exactly what was on the old farmer’s mind.  

Six hundred and forty acres to the south was Bollinger Farms. As an upstart young farmer in the late '50s and '60s, Uncle Con was there when Tom Bollinger was short a wagon, or a tractor broke down. As time marched on and my uncle would be less able, Tom would return the gesture, as neighbors do.

By the time Uncle Con passed in 1975, son Steve Bollinger was looking to start a family of his own. Con's sisters came to claim plates, pictures, and mementos. Dad, his cousins and I divided welders, grinders and wrenches.

As far as Steve was concerned, born to farm in his father’s footsteps, where better to start a life than a quarter mile from home in a brand-new, old, farmhouse.

Tractor-pulling fans will recognize “Money Pit” and “Top Gun”, perennially in the NTPA top 10 machines in the Unlimited Division. Each tractor is equipped with three 12-Cylinder Allison Aircraft engines. Decommissioned from retired B-38 bombers from WWII, they were built in the shop Uncle Con had rebuilt, days before he died.

In the house lives Steve, his wife, and their children.

Not a soul named Stork has stuck a plow in the ground for over 40 years, but 50 years ago my uncle did a neighbor a good turn. Last Tuesday, my phone rang:

“Hey Bill, this is Steve Bollinger, y’all better come down and get your sweet corn.”

As a follow up: my dad and his cousin recently visited and were able to flesh out some of the detail in the contract. When Uncle Con sold the farm to Tom Bollinger, he wrote the contract himself. It contained some unique clauses. Aspiring young lawyers take note.

The farm was to be paid in 20 years. During that time in the event of flood, drought, or unfavorable prices Mr. Bollinger had the right to pay no interest or principle, for up to two years.

The payment itself was tied to grain prices. If the markets fell, so did the payments.

Tom used neither clause and paid off the note early.      

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