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A Life Spent Building a Better Future

Ann Knowles

For the past several years, Veteran's Day for me has been a solitary celebration. I don't participate in breakfasts, parades, nor do I even leave the farm. For me, Veteran's Day has been the day I plant garlic. Having little time in the fall when I wasn't teaching or supervising FFA events, the November holiday provided the perfect opportunity to get the 300 plus cloves of garlic in the ground. You see, garlic needs the cool soil of fall to initiate germination and ensure a bumper crop the next summer.

With the garden tilled and the heads of the current year’s garlic divided and sorted for the plumpest, best cloves, I head to the garden, armed with a couple sticks to mark the rows, a basket of garlic, and my grandpa’s garden plow. As I take the plow handles and strike out across the cool, dark soil, I reflect on the hands before me that have held this simple, worn garden tool. On Veterans Day, solitary in my garden, I think of my grandpa.

My grandpa, Otis DeGarmo, was born in 1889 on a small farm in southern McDonough County near a locally infamous area called Gin Ridge. He grew up driving teams of horses in his father’s fields, playing in loose hay in the mow of the barn built from trees cut on the farm, and skinny dipping in the creek that meandered through the “home place”. When World War I called, he answered with two years of service in France, but not before marrying the love of his life just days before sailing to Europe.

Upon his return from the Great War, Grandpa and Grandma bought a small farm on the banks of Grindstone Creek and “set up housekeeping”. Grandpa worked the land with his team of Percheron draft horses, built his own barn, made Grandma a blanket chest from the walnut wood in an outhouse and raised two children. In late winter the men of the neighborhood would gather at the sugar camp to tap the sugar maple trees lining Grindstone. They would tell stories as low, flat pans of sap boiled over wood fires; smoking corncob pipes and passing a jug as they whittled tender green willow branches into spiles to drive into the maples. Most years there would be syrup for the family plus enough to sell and make the mortgage payment.

He milked a half dozen cows by hand and sold the extra cream to buy flour and sugar and pretty material to make a new dress for his little girl. In the droughts of 1934 and ’36, he cut elm trees by hand each day to feed the cows when the pasture grass burned up. He slopped hogs, cut firewood, built furniture, cured hams, and spent cold winter nights reading by the wood stove.

My grandfather spent his life serving… his country, his family, his land, his community. With every action - building a chest, saving the cows, raising his children - he worked to build a better future.

Grandpa was a master gardener and I believe my love of the craft comes from him. I can remember his lanky, overalled frame bent over the garden plow, making deep furrows in the poor, light timber soil that he’d amended with horse manure. Beans, ground cherries, turnips, onions, and tomatoes thrived under his watch and hoe which he wielded like a dagger against the lamb’s quarters, jimsonweeds, and button weeds that dared to peek above the soil.

Grandpa died in 1968. He lived his entire life within a mile of his birthplace. He was a simple man with an eighth grade education, a dyed in the wool Democrat, a veteran, father, farmer, and devoted husband. I am honored to put my hands on the same dry wooden handles; to push the old rusty plow share into the cool fall soil; and to watch the dirt part into a straight, deep furrow as my grandpa did a hundred years ago. He is my hero and I pay my respects to my favorite veteran each November 11 -- by myself, with my garlic, in quiet remembrance of a life well lived.

In a nation where support for our soldiers is politicized, I keep my veterans day as local as possible - close to my family, my land, and heart.

Ann Knowles owns and operates Hickory Grove Farm and she is a retired agriculture teacher.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse opinions are welcomed and encouraged.