Small Farms

The Percheron On The World’s Most Famous Farm

From Gene Logsdon
Excerpted from The Draft Horse Journal, Summer, 2002
In Memoriam, Andrew Wyeth, July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009

This is a fairy tale story that is not at all a fairy tale. The story has so many parts to it that I scarcely know where to begin. Louise Kuerner’s horse, Dentzel, the Percheron referred to in the title, lives on the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a farm immortalized on canvas by Andrew Wyeth, widely viewed as America’s foremost living painter and by many art lovers as one of the best artists anywhere in any time. He has used the Kuerner farm’s building, animals, fields and people hundreds of times as subject or models. I might argue that Dentzel is now the most famous draft horse in the world too because recently, Wyeth painted him in a work titled “Karlanna,” and a watercolor study done for the final painting called “Fenced In.”

Dentzel’s other distinction in life is that he is currently the only draft horse to be driven (by Louise) in the enormously popular Parade of Carriages that precedes the Point-to-Point  steeplechase races at Winterthur in the state of Delaware every spring. “At 17.2 hands, he’s the biggest horse in the parade,” says Louise, laughing. “But that’s what I wanted. A big horse. When my first horse, Pony, died, I thought I didn’t want to go through that heartbreak again. But when I found Dentzel, I just had to have him. He was even sick when I first saw him, not a smart way to buy a horse, but we nursed him back to good health and he’s been just splendid ever since.”

Louise is married to Karl J. Kuerner, a rising star of an artist himself. (A recent painting sold in the six figures.) He has painted Dentzel many times in his own work. “Well, he has to pay for his keep some way,” Karl says jokingly. Louise’s pastime and passion is driving horse-drawn carriages on the farm and over the many trails along the Brandywine River nearby. She is a regular participant in the Parade of Carriages. She gathers with other drivers at George Weymouth’s farm (another accomplished artist) nearby and together they drive their horses and carriages to the Parade at Winterthur about six miles away.

That Karl is an artist of recognized merit is an intricate part of the fairy tale that is not a fairy tale. To explain, I must start at the beginning of the story, or at least one of the beginnings. Wyeth named his painting of Dentzel, “Karlanna” after Karl and Anna Kuerner, the artist Karl’s grandparents, now deceased. They were the first Kuerners on the farm that was to become so well known throughout the world. Wyeth used them as models for some of his most masterful paintings. The Kuerners, poor immigrants from Germany after the First World War, had to overcome almost overwhelming financial and personal odds to get themselves established on their farm. Having known them myself, I would guess that Dentzel, standing so stolidly and unyieldingly inside the scraggly pasture fence in Wyeth’s paintings, reminded the Wyeths (Betsy, Andrew’s wife, usually titles the paintings) of that steadfast, stalwart, stubborn farm couple who figured so prominently in Andrew’s work. At any rate, as the last unexpected turn in the fairy tale story that is not a fairy tale, who could have ever predicted that the relationship between this hardscrabble farm and one of America’s greatest artistic geniuses would result in a Kuerner grandson, Karl J., becoming a well-regarded and successful artist too. The wonder of this for me is that both Andrew and Karl continue to draw inspiration from the same little farm. Karl once told that while discussing this rather amazing fact with Andrew the latter commented: “And we haven’t even hit the tip of this iceberg yet.”

There was a clue that the fairy tale might  turn out this way. The first Karl, whom I shall call Old Karl in deference to his son, Karl Jr. and his grandson Karl J., the artist, had a brother in Germany who was also an artist. The tendency did run in the blood. It also helps to explain why Old Karl allowed the painters from the nearby Chadds Ford school of art (The Pyle School of history) to roam his property with their brushes and easels. Other farmers in the neighborhood in earlier days looked with displeasure on “those weird people” poking over their fields. Old Karl made them feel at home. Another famous painter, Peter Hurd, who was, as Old Karl told me, “crazy about horses,” boarded  his riding horses on the farm right along with Karl’s drafters and paid the rent by giving Karl a paining. N.C. Wyeth, the very successful illustrator and painter and Andrew’s father, painted on the farm too. According to Henry C. Pitz’s book, The Brandywine Tradition,  N.C. incurred the displeasure of a bull on one of his countryside painting jaunts and escaped only by jumping into a farm pond. This might be part of the reason why his paintings never lapsed into the fuzzy “peace and plenty” tranquility that affects so many artists charmed by scenes of rural life.

But it was with Andrew Wyeth that Old Karl formed the most endearing and enduring  relationship. He even gave Andrew a key to the house so that he felt free to come and go as he wished. While the Kuerners worked at farming, Andrew worked at painting.  “He wanted solitude, to be left alone,” Old Karl told me. “We tried to keep it that way. We farmers understand that.”

But the Kuerner farm has a story to tell quite apart from the artistry that blossomed on it. The farm can serve as an excellent model for telling the history of agriculture in America up to 1990. The house was built, according to Old Karl, around 1706. Even a person of average height must bend down to go through the entrance doorway, a nod to the fact that people were definitely shorter three centuries ago. The house was used as a hospital for wounded American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and apparently Washington and Lafayette made it their headquarters during he Battle of the Brandywine. That alone is enough to make the farm a special place.

I have little knowledge of what occurred on the farm between then and the 1920s when the Kuerners first rented it and then bought it, but so much did the farm continue the traditions of earlier agriculture that when I first visited it in 1967, it might as well have been 1867. Everything I saw there reminded me of my grandfathers and the long tradition of pre-industrial farming that I almost missed. I understood when Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s model for the famous “Helga paintings” and Old Karl’s nurse in his final days, told me later that when she, also an immigrant from Germany, first came across the railroad track and saw the farm spread out before her, she was so enchanted that she resolved immediately to live somewhere close by.

I was writing a book about Andrew Wyeth at the time. His art on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had smitten me. For the first time I had found an artist who in both his work and his articulation of his view on art made sense to me. I knew that his views about the creative impulse applied to writing too. I thought that I could discover how to write better if I could learn enough about Andrew Wyeth. Both from that notion and from being a farmer myself, I found the Kuerner farm to be a magical place. There was no other word that worked. I saw all round me Wyeth paintings in the flesh, so to speak. It was as if I were viewing Michelangelo’s David, and the statue came alive and spoke to me.

But more than that, if there can be more than that, the farm was also a museum of sustainable farming only slowly and grudgingly giving way to modern technology and the advance of the suburbs. Like an Amish farm, it was able to operate to a certain extent independently of the mainstream economy. Until the mid-1940s there was no electricity on the farm and with the way the farm was operated in 1967, it could still have functioned without it. The water in the house and barn was piped from the never-failing spring on the hill across the road. It flowed first through the house and then the barn without any technology or expense of power except gravity. The water never froze. For three centuries it had just kept running that way. The barn took advantage of the same free power of gravity in another way. It was built into a steep hill. On the back hill side, the Kuerners could enter the top hay loft floor at ground level and unload without much need for lifting power, and then feed downward from that floor level to the second floor and then on down to livestock on the bottom level…

The Kuerners still heated and cooked with wood. Even in her nineties in the 1990s, Anna continued to rise at night to chop kindling in the woodhouse off the kitchen, talking to her cats in German. There was a smokehouse to keep the meat; a springhouse to cool the milk. One of Karl’s and Anna’s daughters, also named Louise, told me that when she was growing up on the farm, sometimes a frog would jump in the pan of milk cooling in the spring water. “Worse that that,” her brother, Karl Jr. chimed in. “Once Daddy noticed a frog swimming in the milk when he got to the cream station. He grabbed it and stuck it in his shirt before anyone noticed.“ Both of them laughed hilariously at the memory….

This was the marvelously self-sufficient world that Andrew Wyeth discovered when, as a boy, he walked over the hill from the Wyeth property, which abuts the Kuerner farm. It was a world totally different from his own rather upper middle class surroundings, but one far from the “simple life” or “bucolic serenity” that upper middle class people fancy they will find on farms. The Kuerners liked to tell, giggling, how  their mother started fires with drawings and paintings that Andrew left in the house, scraps that would be worth thousands of dollars today.  Andrew learned that the Kuerner Farm could be filled with darkness of the spirit as well as light, of tragic sadness as well as joy, of hardship more than ease—a family depending on their wits to survive both nature and what we euphemistically refer to as mainstream economics.

I can amuse myself for hours meditating on how this fortuitous meeting between a practical farm family and a dreamy artist from upper middle class society could produce art so down to earth, so reflective of the real farm culture the world now seems to be abandoning. Whatever mystery is involved, people with roots in rural life sense something in the paintings that they understand but cannot name. Wyeth is as popular in Russia and Japan as he is in America because the Russians and the Japanese are even more aware of the passing of traditional rural life than we are. There must be hundreds of millions of us…. One of the strangest sights I ever saw on the Kuerner Farm was a group of diminutive Japanese visitors walking rather confusedly across the pasture fields, seeking in vain for what they saw in the paintings.

For that reason I must be careful that I do not read into a painting just what I want to see there. I think of the one that Andrew gave Old Karl, one of the first he did on the farm, when he was only 16 years old. It is a rendering of Old Karl’s workhorses (they were Percherons too) and a hired man, plowing… It would be easy to interpret the painting, “Spring Landscape At Kuerners” as a rush of sentimental romanticism or of true sorrow for the passing of horse farming and the passing of the family farm… I made that mistake at first. But as Andrew told me, he is not interested in farming as such, nor does he try to make historical or sentimental statements with his paintings. He just embraces what he sees and how he sees it and then works on it as if he were portraying, as he puts it, “my own little world.”… In this case, Old Karl told me, the young Wyeth was struck by the way the sun’s rays at a certain angle made the sweat on the horses glisten with an almost unearthly glow. Many farmers who have worked horses are familiar with this sight. That is why, I think, so many people with roots in farming love Wyeth’s paintings and why some urban art critics, not fortunate enough to know that culture, do not… With a similar ignorance, they don’t see much difference between a Wyeth painting and say, a Currier and Ives illustration.

But here’s the irony that forever baffles the student of human behavior. Practical Old Karl sold that painting for $12,000 so he could buy a tractor. The person who bought it turned around and resold it to a collector for $65,000 as Wyeth tells in it in his Autobiography. Today the painting might sell for over a quarter million. But Old Karl wanted money to buy a tractor and he wanted it now. Imagine: the farmer sells a priceless painting that immortalizes plowing with horses in order to buy a tractor. That’s the history of farming in one sentence….
~
See also Gene’s Organic Art?
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Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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Did the Amish Get It Right After All?

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

There is an interesting development in mainstream U.S.A that just might have significant relevance for garden farming. Record numbers of people are acquiring pets. The dog and cat business is not at all depressed by the recession. (If you are wondering what all this has to do with the Amish, bear with me.) You see evidence of the trend everywhere, especially in advertisements where dogs are shown licking the cheeks of children— this in a society that has an almost manic dread of germs. Pets are the in-thing. Apparently our society is so enmeshed in its mechanical and electronic gadgetry that the human psyche is seeking solace in real life, as in the ancient loving connection that we have always enjoyed with animals.

The modern pet craze is not limited to cats and dogs but embraces many animals, especially horses. (Now you see how the Amish are going to get into this discussion.) Statistics say there are 6.9 million horses in the U.S. involved in various activities from racing, showing, pleasure riding, polo, police work, farming and ranching. The horse business or hobby adds about $112 billion to the GNP. Horses generate more money than the home furniture and fixtures business, and almost as much as the apparel and textile manufacturing industry. In other words, while we generally think of Old Dobbin as a step backward in time in agriculture, horses are very much a part of our modern economic and social lives today.

Why this is pertinent to garden farming becomes apparent from what happened a few months ago. At the time when the national banking fraternity was on its knees in Washington, begging for money, news all over the media reported that Hometown Heritage bank in Lancaster County, Pa., was having its best year ever. Hometown Heritage may be the only bank in the world, surely one of the few, that has drive-by window service designed to accommodate horses and buggies. Some 95% of the bank’s customers are Amish farmers. The banker, Bill O’Brien, says that he has not lost a penny on them in 20 years. They obviously don’t have auto loans to pay off and do not use credit cards. They might not need bank loans at all except to buy farmland, which especially in Lancaster County, has risen almost insanely in price. O’Brien says he is doing about a hundred million dollars worth of business in farm loans. To further make the point, an obscure law does not allow banks to bundle and sell mortgages on farms and homes that are not serviced by public electric utilities.

There is plenty in this situation for economists to contemplate, but what struck me the most was the fact that these farmers are buying farm land that can cost them ten thousand dollars per acre or sometimes more, and paying for it with horse farming. And because of their religion, the Amish do not accept farm subsidies that keep many “modern” farms “profitable.” Facing these facts, it is very difficult to see how economists or agribusiness experts can claim that farms using horses or mules for motive power are any more backward, or any less profitable, than farms using tractors.

If you study the great debate that raged in farm circles from about 1920 to 1950 over the economics of horses and mules vs. tractors, (a good recent book on the subject is Mule South To Tractor South, by George B. Ellenberg, Univ. of Alabama Press, 2007), you will learn that the experts never agreed. Both sides finally admitted that it didn’t matter anyway. There was a rising kind of younger farmer for whom tractors were just too alluring to resist. These farmers were going to use them, no matter how much more they cost than horses. Farmers who loved farming with horses wept while they watched trucks haul their teams off to the the rendering plant. They did not get rid of their horses because of the supposedly harder work involved but because they were afraid that if they did not switch, the farmers who did switch would eventually take all the land.

I grew up when horses were still the rule in farming. I had a runaway with a team and a wagon when I was 11 years old, so I know the dark side of it too. Because of the strange circumstances of my life, I worked on horse-powered farms again in my early twenties. I assure you: farm work is no harder or easier using horses than tractors. Each has its pluses and minuses physically. Mentally, farming with horses is more relaxed (they always start in the morning no matter how cold) except during a runaway. The horse farmer I worked for during those years, (1950s) was by no means Amish. He did have a big old tractor to plow his hilly acres. He used horses because he made money farming with horses. He was the best economics professor I never had. The way he farmed wasn’t what you’d find in articles in the leading farm magazines; it wasn’t very pretty. But it was a lot prettier than the Americans lined up at the employment offices today because they opted out of hard work in favor of the great American dream of ease and forty-hour weeks.

I do not speak as an uncompromising champion of horses. I actually prefer my 1950 WD Allis Chalmers which has cost me hardly $5000 total during all the years I have owned it. But that is not my point. I just wonder if we are not making a mistake by not taking seriously what the Amish are demonstrating to us. Given the facts of the matter, I don’t think it is naïve to suggest that young garden farmers take a closer look at horses, mules, even oxen for motive power on their little farms. Quite a few already are. Given the demonstrated yearning that humans have always shown for animal companionship, it seems entirely logical to me that young farmers just might lose their acquired attraction for the tractor one of these days to become horsemen and horsewomen again. The dollars and cents, the Amish will tell you, are on your side if you enjoy being at home and would rather work hard physically on occasion rather than pay for exercise at a fitness center.

With peak oil upon us, think of it this way. You may be able to grow enough extra grain or biomass to make ethanol for a tractor, but it will always be cheaper to grow the extra hay to feed a horse. You don’t have to distill the hay.
~
See also Gene’s An Ode To Horse Manure, And Other By-Products Called Waste
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Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: © Marianne Venegoni | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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Knowing One’s Place

From Gene Logsdon (1991)
Garden Farm Skills

Dave Haferd sees his farm with eyes that are 200 years old. He knows every foot of its 180 acres, on top and underneath. Walking across his land, he discourses endlessly and joyfully upon almost any rock, post, tree, clod, weed, or building that his eye falls upon. The gully that cuts deeply into the hill going down to the creek is where the road used to go years and years past, he says. The boulder in the fence corner required two days of hard work to move out of the field, he says, which reminds him that over in another field—he waves his arm in a southerly direction—there is a stone so huge embedded in the soil that he has never been able to move it. He worries, now that he is thinking of retiring, that the next farmer will break his plow on it.

The wild hop vines on the fence are not really wild, he confides, but escaped years ago from the fields, when hops were grown here commercially. He says this casually, not seeming to realize that he may well be the only person, until now, who possesses this potentially useful memory of this northern Ohio county.

Over there, across the boundary of his land, on what is known as the High Bank of the Tymochtee Creek, he says that the Indians burned Colonel William Crawford at the stake in 1782. “Or so the history books say,” he adds. “Actually, I believe Crawford was burnt in the bottomland across the creek from the High Bank. That’s what Black Betty told my grandfather. She was a herbalist who often came to the farm in the late 1800s. She told grandfather that she had talked to Indians who had been there.”

The boulders set at regular intervals in a loose line across the Tymochtee, he points out, were put there for stepping-stones by the Indians and were, he believes, part of the ancient Indian trail known to have traversed this region. And just down from the stepping-stones is the old ford, where, before good bridges, farmers drove their horses and wagons across the creek.

Walking along the edge of one of his fields, he asks me if I can see anything unusual in the wheat growing there. I cannot. “If you look close, you can see a sort of division. On the west side, the wheat is a bit taller and lusher than on the east.” Now that he points it out to me I can see the difference. “On the east side,” he explains, “the land was cleared and farmed eighty years ago, and on the west side, forty years ago. I still call the west side the ‘new ground.'”

In an isolated little cemetery we walk through, he pauses at almost every tombstone to give a brief history of the grave’s occupant. “That fellow was worthless,” he said. “And that one next to him hit Poppa with a hoe handle over a line-fence dispute.”

In another field, he stops suddenly and studies the ground. “Right here someplace there’s an old gas well. Pipe broke off down in the ground but the gas continued to seep up to the surface for years. We would light it when we were hunting and have us a real nice campfire.”

It is not only old bones and gas wells that he knows about. “There’s an eight-inch tile runs through under the fence right there and goes clear across that bottom ground to the hill, with four-inch laterals branching both ways along the foot of the hill,” he says, as if I were the son he never had, the next generation to whom this essential knowledge needs to be passed on. “Well, I’ve got ’em all drawn out on a map,” he says, almost to himself, “but it isn’t the same as coming out here an seeing where they are.” He pauses. “You really can see them some days, you know. Right after a rain, on cultivated soil, the dirt will dry out first right over the tile lines.”

Strolling along the creek that flows through his farm he speculates on whether, as rumor has it, the landfill upstream might be polluting the water. Although the idea troubles him, he is not given to the shrill protest that abstract knowledge brings to environmental debate. “There’s still a lot of fish in the creek, so it can’t be too bad,” he notes hopefully. Then he smiles and the patience of a thousand years of peasantry glints in his eyes. “When I was a boy this creek ran black with oil during the oil boom years. The oil scum got blocked by fallen logs and my brother and I set fire to it. The whole creek was on fire. A sight to behold.” He pauses to enjoy the scene in memory one more time. “But forty years later we drank out of the creek again.”

Today, with our wives, Dave and I are returning from a walk viewing his crops, our Sunday afternoon ritual. As we pause on the road in front of the house, he points with his walking stick at a barely discernable, grassed-over rut that starts at the foot of the hill next to the cornfield below us, and runs parallel to the road out past the grove of pine trees, then along the edge of the garden, and disappears where it meets the lawn at the top of the hill. “That’s the old cowpath,” he says. I nod, although I can scarcely make it out. “That’s where we used to drive the cows up from the creek every evening. Right up the hill across the edge of the garden and lawn to the driveway, then on to the barn. After the cows learned to follow the route, we didn’t even have to worry about them scattering off into the yard.”

We walk on to the driveway then, myself marveling at the detailed knowledge Dave has of the farm he was born on, had farmed all his sixty-four years, and which his father had been born on and had farmed his entire life, learning from his father, who has spent the greater part of his life on the farm, too. “See that bit of depression in the grass right there?” Dave asks. “Used to be a hitching post there. Sunday visitors would tie up there and the horses wore a hole in the ground stomping their feet to chase away flies.”

I stare at him in great wonderment. Although we have been close for many years both by reason of kinship and friendship, or perhaps because of that, I have never been able to convey to him the uniqueness and significance I see in the depth of his knowledge about his farm. It is something he takes for granted, as if everyone knows their places as well as he knows his. I do not know how to tell him that he is a last member of an ancient tribe—the genuine traditional farmers who committed themselves lovingly to a piece of land and husbanded it from generation to generation, carrying in their memories a lifetime of their own experiences and that of their fathers and grandfathers on that land. Dave’s crops are almost always just a little better than the others in the neighborhood, because he knows his place.

Had I spoken all that aloud, Dave would only have been amused at this example of what he takes to be my romantic exaggeration at work. He does not know his own value. He does not know that the disappearance of his kind puts society at terrible risk. A stable food supply depends entirely on the concrete particularity of his kind of knowledge, without which the abstract expertise of science is useless. If one can leap imaginatively over the ruins of several civilizations, there is a direct line between Dave Haferd and the ancient Phoenician settlers who turned the sands of North Africa into a garden of plenty, building precisely on this same intimacy with place. When those farmers disappeared, so did North Africa’s glory days, leaving not only an agriculture in ruins, it needs to be pointed out, but a landscape dotted with empty amphitheaters. (Read: football stadiums.)

But after walking with Dave Haferd on his land, there is comfort even in that. If errors are repeated over and over again, rightness returns again and again also.

We wade into Dave’s clover field west of the barn. It stands almost to my thighs, hardly a weed in it, our noses full of the sweet smell of its blossoms, the air over it full of dancing butterflies and bees. Redwings and meadowlarks rise from it and settle back into it.

Red clover is always in the rotation on this farm, whether Dave makes hay from it or not, and in these latter years more often he just plows it under. “Oh yes, it still pays if you only plow it under,” he says. “This ground would not last without a regular plowdown of clover. And it’s the greatest help in weed control. We learned that long ago.”

The clover reminds him of something that makes him smile. “We always sowed clover seed by hand, walking. I still do, in fact, most of the time. Poppa was not one to buy new machinery if he could avoid it. We had one of those little hand-cranked seeders that hangs on your shoulder, and a fiddle seeder, and one of those horn-type broadcasters, which I guess was the oldest of all. He’d assign the crank model to me, the horn seeder to my brother, and he’d manage the fiddle seeder. Side by side we’d walk back and forth across the field, sowing seed, cranking and fiddling and sawing the air. From the road it must surely have looked like a three-piece band marching along.”
~
See also Gene’s Pasture: The Foundation of Garden Farm Success
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Barbara Field
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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