Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Tribute to Uncle Frank

Uncle Frank died two weeks ago. I wasn't able to make it back to the funeral, so here is my tribute. As a child, I spent much time on Clara and Frank's farm, running around with my cousins. Those days are gone but the memories live on. I took these photos last April.

I was six years old in January 1963, when we left Moore County. All our stuff—toys, beds, tables and chairs and a refrigerator along with the swing set—were packed up in the back of one of Frank’s 2-ton farm trucks. A canvas tarp covered the truck Frank drove to our new home in Petersburg, Virginia. While unloading stuff into the little box house my parents had rented, Frank made a big deal about how we were now living in the city. He was always joking, but also always willing to lend a helping hand and it was as if he was proud of us for the opportunity the move created for our family. We stayed in that house less than a year, and then moved to a few miles away to a house my parents had purchased near Fort Hell.

During the three and a half years we lived in Petersburg, we always stopped to see Clara and Frank on our way down to Pinehurst or when leaving to drive back north. They lived not far off 15-501, the highway that cut from Sanford over to the Sandhills. Stopping at their home was always exciting and anticipation rose when we turned down the road to their home, bouncing on a dirt two-track that ran the ridge between fields. In those fields, Frank had collected a box full of arrowheads that he’d show off if asked. When we passed his two tobacco barns, the road turned to the right, dropping off the ridge and down to their home. The small farm house had a couple of shade trees around it. A little ways to the west was the big old barn (that no longer seems as big as it did). The pasture was behind the house, the cows corralled by an electric fence which my cousins challenged my brother and me to touch. There was a well right off the porch with a pitcher pump handle. The hand pump remained in case the power was out, which it never was when I was there, but we were told of ice storms that knocked the electricity off for days. The pitcher pump presented a challenge, to see if we could get the pump primed. Water always seemed to taste better flowing out of the old iron pipe. There was also an old outhouse, which wasn’t used (except maybe during power outages), but was a place that a young kid had to check out, only to find himself locked inside. The old house was heated by wood burner in a central room. In the winter it was always warm and cozy and we “city kids” got to experience life on the farm including hot chocolate made with fresh milk that produced a film along the top. It took some encouragement to get us to drink it.

Frank always had a small herd of beef cows and there was always one breeder cow that needed to be milked, much of which was given to dogs to drink. Once, my older cousin showed us how to use a cow’s tit as a squirt gun. Pretty soon, we were all attempting to squirt one another when Frank appeared and didn’t look pleased and told us we’re lucky the cow didn’t kick us out of the barn.

Frank’s farm was always busy in the summer, except on Sunday when things slowed down a bit. Two of these Sundays are memorable. In both, we were on our way back to Virginia. After church at Culdee with my grandparents, we’d head up 15-501 and stop at Clara and Franks for a few hours. While my parents visited, my brother, sister and I would run around with our cousins. They didn’t have a lot of work on a Sunday, maybe checking the temperature in the curing barns or milking the stray cow without a calf. The rest of the time was spent playing. Once, during the summer of ’63, we were treated to a pony ride. On that trip to Pinehurst, my parents took me to Dr. Tufts, a woman physician who’d taken care of me since birth. She gave my school check up, sticking me in the rump with my shots. I was up on the pony when it jumped and I fell off onto my already sore bottom. Frank jumped all over Terry, my older cousin, for not watching the pony, but I’m sure I had something to do with the animal’s temper. On another Sunday afternoon, we were riding bikes through the pasture where my uncle had moved a winding trail through the high grass. We were all barefoot in those days and I was riding on the back on Marie’s bike and somehow I got my big toe caught in the spokes. It chewed it up pretty good, but didn’t break any bones. Leaving my brother and sister behind, my foot wrapped up in a towel that was quickly turning red, my parents rushed me back to the hospital in Pinehurst. It hurt! They gave me something for the pain and cleaned up and bandaged my foot. I wasn’t able to get the bandages wet or dirty which meant I missed out on a lot of backyard playing that summer.

Once, during the summer, Frank and his family visited us in Petersburg. It must have been early in the summer, for once they started curing tobacco they’d be no way they could have left the farm. We were living in Walnut Hills then, just down the road from a Civil War museum built around a Yankee artillery battery named “Fort Hell.” Supposedly (I don’t know if I remember this from having said it or from having Frank repeated it so many times), Frank asked me why it was named Fort Hell and I told him because their cannons really gave them Yankees hell. I rode back to Moore County with Clara and Frank on that trip. Cars must have been much larger then to have gotten two adults and five kids inside for a five hour trip. Maybe they took me along to see if they’d have room for another child, for in a year or two, Clara would give birth to Marci. Somewhere along US 1, I think just south of the Virginia border, we stopped for gas at a country store kind of place that had, in the back, a collection of Indian artifacts. Frank and the proprietor talked about the collection of arrowheads and tomahawks. Frank had me tell the proprietor about Fort Hell.

After we moved to Wilmington, Clara and Frank built a new home. Instead of being down off the ridge and behind their pond, this one was on the highway, next to his parent’s home. No longer did we have that long drive down the two-track. This new house seemed to be the most wonderful thing, with a large fireplace and an intercom system that played music and allowed one to talk to another room without walking down the hall. In the winter evenings, when we’d be there, Frank would always make a big bowl of pop corn and we’d eat it by the fireplace. We’d talk. Those were good days. However, I later learned the intercom wasn’t so grand.

I must have been around 11 or 12 years old. My brother and I were staying with our cousins on their farm; the four of us were sharing the same bedroom. We’d been joking around for much of the night, when we should have been sleeping. It wouldn’t be long before we’d hear Frank, over the intercom, with a voice that seemed to be as deep as God’s, telling us to go to sleep. That was our first warning. When he came into the room, you knew you’d gone over the line.

One day I was fishing on Frank’s pond with my cousins. We weren’t catching much, mostly talking. There were some ducks floating peacefully out on the water, and Terry remarked how that was the life. Overhearing his son’s comments, Frank reminded him that the life wouldn’t look so good when one of them big snapping turtles that hang out at the bottom of the pond come up and grab him by his webbed feet and pull him under and have him for dinner. Frank was one of the hardest workers that I’ve known and he instilled that into his children.

Frank was a successful farmer and business man, running a tobacco warehouse in Carthage in addition to the farm. Over the years, he added to his farm and expanded the number of curing barns he tended. But through it all, the heart of his farm continued to be the same piece of property he’d farmed as a boy. When all the other farmers were switching to bulk curing barns, Frank held out, continuing to cure the leaves on a stick, bragging about the quality of tobacco and how much more his sold for than those who were short-cutting the curing process. But as he slowed with age and with the enticement of government tobacco allotments buy-outs, Frank stopped raising the golden leaf. But he had a hard time with inactivity. He started a strawberry business and grew vegetables to sell at a roadside stand and to a number of grocery stores in the area. He bragged about the sweetness of his corn and his automatic sheller for field peas that saved his customers time. But there was also sadness in his heart as my aunt died from an infection following surgery, a dozen or so years ago. He’d remarry, but lost his new wife to cancer a few years later. Through it all, Frank kept farming.

I stopped by to see Frank when I was in North Carolina last spring when I was heading home for a visit. It was early April. I found him out in a field on one of his tractors, planting peas. We talked for a while and then he pointed to the strawberry patch and told me to go over to the far rows, where he’d planted a few rows early (just in case he got lucky with the weather). He told me to look around and see if I couldn’t find myself a quart or two of ripe berries to take back to my parents. Frank was always giving and those fresh strawberries, a full month before anyone else had any ripe ones, sure tasted good.

Frank farmed the same land that his daddy farmed. I don’t know how far back his family was on that land, but I’m willing to bet that Frank knew it better than anyone. He was a good steward to what God had entrusted to his care. He’ll be missed.


  1. What a lovely tribute to your uncle, Sage. And what a wonderful man he was.

    I lost two beloved uncles in 2010 - the greatest generation...

  2. those pics remind me much of my father, who was so often on the tractor. In fact, tractors were so much a part of my life growing up. I'm sorry for your loss; he sounds like a fine man.

  3. What a beautiful story about your past and your uncle and times spent growing up brought back memories for me just like that with my dad's uncles. I treasure that closeness to nature, God and a family filled with love and spirit your uncle will live on everyday, and now we know what a great uncle he was. I enjoy reading those names of places especially out east they just gave things interesting names didn't they? Very lovely post Sage, sorry for your loss, but gee you have great memories for sure!

  4. How fine to be remembered so well. He was like so many men who gave their lives to farming. A love affair with the land and the seasons. Hard to let any of it go. Sounds like he didn't until the very end. Excellent tribute.

  5. Lynn, sorry for your loss. Frank was a good one.

    Charles, I've often wondered how my life would be if I was that connected to the land. Frank reminds me of some of Wendell Berry characters.

    Karen, thanks, good memories come from a good life

    Ron, he was farming through last summer!

  6. nce. sounds like you carry some great memories with your uncle. sorry for your loss...

  7. A great tribute - memories you will carry on in your heart. glad you have those memories

    I'm sorry for your loss kind sir

  8. Beautiful Buddy--So sorry for your loss!

    Glad you got to see him on his tractor. He seemed outstanding in his field!


  9. Sorry for your loss Sage.
    Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam. 'may his Soul be at the right of God'.

  10. I hope his land holds memories as sweet as these for a hundred generations of your uncle Frank.

  11. Awesome recollections, Sage.

    Everything did seem so much bigger as a kid. I still drive by one of my grandparents' old houses from time to time. Back then, it seemed like it was a mile off the road with a huge front yard. Now it seems like there would've barely been room at all for us grandkids to play.

    Sorry for your loss. This is a wonderful tribute to your uncle.

  12. Very touching post, I'm so sorry for your loss Sage.

    To live in hearts we leave behind
    Is not to die.
    ~Thomas Campbell, "Hallowed Ground"

  13. A lovely tribute. My thoughts and prayers for your family during this time.

  14. We used to dare each other to touch the electric fence, too! (Not a good idea when you're barefoot and it's been raining...)

    Sorry for your loss. He sounds like an amazing, independent, generous person.

  15. Wonderful tribute. He sounds like a fine man Sage, I am sorry for your loss.

  16. Beautiful tribute to your uncle. Think you did him and the farm proud. Great atmosphere--could picture myself there.
    Sorry for your loss :)

  17. Sorry to hear about the loss. Tributes are common, but rare indeed to come across one such as this one. Your memory speaks better. Be it about people or your hiking. This man sounds like a honest man. Those who toil the land and sprinkle their sweat over it, will always leave their shadow buried there. You remember him well. God bless.

  18. Sorry for your loss, Sage.

    I loved the part about you being lucky the cow didn't kick you out of the barn. :)

  19. Sounds like a great Uncle who left you many wonderful memories.

  20. Oh what an incredible tribute to a wonderful man!
    Sounds like you were indeed blessed to have him in your life!

  21. I'm sorry for your loss but what a wonderful tribute to your uncle. Nicely done.