The Eilers farm rests upon as beautiful a plot of land as one will find in the world.
The Eilers farm is the home of my father’s youth, where he learned the hard-work ethic by which he took care of his family and handed down that ethic to his children.
The Eilers farm is the house and barn and outbuildings and land where Louis and Ethel brought eight children into the world—John (Dad), Francis, Betty, Barb, Pat, Marilyn, Margaret, and Russell.
The Eilers farm is the location where family gatherings of every stripe—from Christmas parties to hunting days—created and cemented some of the best memories of my life.
“There’s the farm!” This was the ecstatic cry of my branch of the Eilers’ tree every time we made the left turn from 48th Avenue onto Wilke Road, which, when it crested, turned into Clay Road and, as the woods to the north cleared, once more was revealed to us the familiar white farmhouse.
“There’s the farm!” There was never a time when traveling the twelve miles north and west from Montague was not an occasion for delight.
About two miles east of Lake Michigan’s shore, the house sits majestically as the land rises from the road the forty yards toward it, the lush-green lawn a most welcoming of mats. As we would make the turn into the long driveway, we counted on at least one of Uncle Francis’s exotic peacocks to be wandering near enough that we had to stop to avoid hitting it. (Why did he have those things? We never fried up a long leg or sat before a bowl of peacock puree. Could it have been simply because they were so majestic and beautiful?)
Having parked the car, with the house to the east and barn and buildings to the west, the opening of doors brought the farm-air aroma that belongs specifically to this place. Truly, specifically to this place. I have been on a lot of farms—indeed, for a summer, I worked on the Stevens farm, which borders the Eilers farm to the west, among the dairy cows, in the hay mow, driving tractor on the fields, providing me intimate knowledge of farm fragrances—and never have I whiffed the same scent as emanated from the Eilers farm.
Its combination of silage and sewage was sniffingly sublime.
I am getting ahead of myself. The farm’s unique smell combination of Charolais beef cattle manure and crops grown in soil which reminds one why the township was named “Claybanks” did not predominate in the early years of my life. In those days, it was the icky-sweet smell of oil being pumped that filled the air.
After World War II, Claybanks had been explored for its oil deposits. On my grandparents’ two-hundred-plus acres, which is fairly evenly divided between arable land and deciduous and pine forest, the detection of the gooey black stuff resulted in a handful of wells. We kids marveled at their pumping and, because we grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies, thought our family was getting rich.
At our Eilers family reunion this past July, I gathered my aunts for the purpose of learning the history of the farm, including answers to my oil questions. “Did Grandpa and Grandma make a lot of money?”
“No,” came Aunt Betty’s reply. “Dad sold the rights to the oil, so they didn’t continue to make money off it.”
“Were they able to build the current house from the oil money? The former house was in pretty sad shape, right?” Aunt Barb chimed in. “Yes. The new house was built when I was in high school, maybe 1950.”
This would be the most success I had in questioning my aunts. Wanting to write about the farm, I had prepped for this day when I would have present my father’s four living siblings. My questions, I thought, were not fancy; the typical ones on which to build other questions.
• How did Grandpa and Grandma meet?
• Where did they both grow up?
• If neither grew up on this farm, how did they come to buy it?
To each of my questions, I received a shaking of the head, perhaps a giggle, and always a “If Francis were here, he’d know.”
Uncle Francis died in 2003. He had been both the inheritor of the farm and the family historian. He was the only one of the siblings not to marry at a young age—he wed at 35—so, I assume, that’s why he took over. He followed his father’s lead. Grandpa worked at Continental Motors in Muskegon, while also tending to the farm, while Francis worked at Dupont Chemical in Montague, while also managing the land and beef cattle and, I suppose, pursuing those pesky peacocks.
He enjoyed studying the Eilers ancestry, and took most of his knowledge with him to the grave, so we miss him both for the lovely guy he was and for the wealth of information he possessed.
My aunts’ having frustrated my efforts for the days which preceded my life, I conclude this piece with three specific memories of my father and the farm.
You can take the boy off the farm, but he’ll never get all of the soil out from under his fingernails. Dad kept a large garden in our back yard, yet, at various times, he also had plots of vegetables a few doors down at my brother’s in-laws, and at his brother Russell’s farm, and at the Eilers Farm.
Dad and I did a lot of gardening together. “Do you want to go out to the farm tonight and hoe beans with me?” would always find me in the passenger seat of his pickup, gleefully making the twelve mile drive north and west and, you guessed it, when we cleared the hill, we worked to beat each other at calling out, “There’s the farm!” and then laughing like a couple of kids who were skipping school to head to their favorite fishing hole.
Speaking of fishing, Park Lake extends along the northeast edge of the farm and, at times, it was a hotbed for fishing success. Dad, savvy from extensive angling experience, knew the hottest of hot-spots. It was at a bit of land that jutted into the lake. It also was a favorite haunt for the local geese which, um, caused us to do the goose-step around their droppings. Dad naturally dubbed the spot “Goose Poop Point.” (Say it out loud. It’s fun to say.)
Finally, the woods saw plenty of deer hunting action. I will not bore you with the loads of stories that only are fascinating when told around a campfire, consumed with plenty of adult beverages. Instead, I will grow sentimental with this, my eyes welling up at the conjuring of the picture of my father in the woods of his homeland.
Beginning in 1981, we set up deer camp northeast of Montague, in a bit of the Manistee National Forest that’s called Hell’s Half Acre. We continued to hunt at the farm, but only after our opening week at camp.
Dad camped as long as he was physically able, then would only drive out to hunt for the day. More and more, he did what would be the most natural thing in the world for the farm boy to do.
He would drive to the farm and sit in the woods all by himself.
If I were him, that’s where I would have been. All alone with a mind crowded with the best of memories. No one to pester him as he watched for deer and scanned his mind for distant days past when he was the oldest of eight, the leader of the pack.
The daily chores, which formed young John’s work ethic and which earned from his children the saying about his stamina for work: “Just peckin’ away.” The love of animals, which he kept alive as in the laying hens he had for years at our house. The planting and weeding and harvesting, which he continued until the final summer of his life. The family meals at the jam-packed table of ten, which he headed up at our house with our crowded table of seven.
There was the walk to the west of the farm, to the township school. And in the same direction but a longer trek to Stony Lake and the nearest store, from where he once bought a bag of sugar but, during the walk home, did not note either its small hole or how light it was by the time he arrived at the farm. A shorter jaunt to the east ended at the Catholic church, where young John once sang his way to a Christmas talent show victory and five pounds of chocolates. And road trips in the headlight-less auto meant one or two kids would be sitting on the hood, lanterns lighting the way.
Now that I have lived in three states and six towns, in places where it was flapjackingly flat (Port Hope, Michigan) to spots with spectacular bluffs which gave way to ear-poppingly steep hills and deep valleys, which so tightly surrounded the town that I experienced claustrophobia (Guttenberg, Iowa), my experiences have taught me that I most enjoy and esteem the soft rolling hills of Claybanks, Township and the Eilers farm.
I might never live on that hallowed land, but I will take many holy memories to the end of my days.