Growing Up on Poor Farm Road

Instructions on school forms read, “Address of student.” I carefully wrote down “R. R. 5, Poor Farm Road, Bedford, Indiana.” (Of course that was before the days of state codes, such as IN, and zip codes, such as 47421.) How would you like to grow up on the Poor Farm Road? Wouldn’t you rather have a box number and a street name instead?

In the 1950s, as a little boy, I did not think much about it. I was blessed, even though it was a gravel road of only about three miles. The day we got the road blacktopped was one of the banner days for all of us who lived on the road. We had no shoulders and no guardrails, but we also no longer had clouds of dust billowing into our houses or large holes to steer around. Steve and Larry on bikesTwelve families lived on the three-mile stretch. We shared our phone with six other families as part of a “party line.” In an emergency, you just politely asked whoever might be talking if you could have the line for an important call. Only one family of the twelve ever had a new car, and there was only one car in each driveway. But we all had access to a second car—a neighbor’s car. If our car didn’t start in the early morning, we’d simply stand by our mailbox until a neighbor came by. Dad would wave and the neighbor would stop, or the neighbor would wave and Dad would stop; then he’d drop you off wherever you worked. Most worked at the same factory in town. If a neighbor got sick and could not plow his garden or feed his cattle, word got out quickly and the neighbors would take over. One farmer often drove his tractor down the road to see if any neighbor needed his garden plowed so he could do it for them. Neighbors shared skills. My mom went to Mrs. Neal, who lived in a house trailer behind her daughter’s house, to have her hair done. My mother was known for her home-made rolls and pies. She would share recipes as well as provide a fresh butter pie when a need arose.  As a small boy, I would tag along and play with the dog or listen to the women talk.  As I look back on those days, I realize the laughter and camaraderie gave a little boy a feeling of security and love. Across the street lived a hermit, Mr. Alexander, who had very little to do with any of us. I’m sure he was just shy and felt insecure around people. But his life style was puzzling to me, so I often walked over to talk to him and watch him around his little farm. He planted his own garden, cleared the land, and hunted. I’m still not sure how he survived. But I learned later that he was not a happy person since eventually he took his own life. I wish I had been nicer to him and included him in some of our activities. He was left alone mainly because he chose to be, but also because his breath and his body always smelled awful. After all these years, I still think of him as one who laughed with a six-year-old and patiently answered questions about what he was doing, his farm, and the tools he used.

The last house on the road was once a county-run residence where poor people, mainly the elderly and disabled, lived; thus the name “Poor Farm Road.” But on that road I learned about the richness of life—how to treat everyone, to respect older people, and what it meant to be nice. In addition, I enjoyed the fresh air, the smell of newly-mown hay in the summer, and the delicious vegetables that were not only eaten every day, but also frozen or canned for the cold days of January and February. You see, I never thought negatively about this name’s being associated with my home. To me, the Poor Farm Road is synonymous with great lessons I learned—rich lessons that guide me all these years later. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:3