Countless times I have been commissioned to photograph a piece or tract of land that
has not changed in a hundred years. Almost always, if not always, there are ruined buildings
and structures that are slowly being consumed by the land I am photographing. I have
cautiously entered most of these once inhabited places and, as a visual recorder, am enthralled
by the eroding patinas and textures that create almost a mosaic of patterns and colors, always
making for a great abstract bonanza. I always wonder and think about the lives that once
existed in these places. The voices and conversations that once filled these spaces.
On a very recent trip to the Panhandle of Texas, my wife drove me out to a farmhouse where
she had spent the first 10 years of her life, at a time when her Dad farmed the surrounding
section or so of land.
We walked through this old farmhouse together, watching carefully where we stepped and I
observed closely as Camille's expressions changed. She told me about some of her
remembrances, but only she knew what was flooding back to her.
Below are some of the thoughts as recollected by her --
In July of 2016, Ken and I traveled to Tulia, Texas so that I could work on some estate-related tasks. My parents' estates are still being finalized and my uncle's estate needed attention, too. One of my goals for this trip was to see some new power transmission lines that have been erected recently along the boundaries of two farmland parcels I have inherited. Ken agreed to drive to the country with me. What began as a simple little excursion to inspect some transmission lines ended up being an emotional journey and an unexpectedly vivid reconnection to my past.
I lived on that farm from the time I was six months old until I was ten. The land was owned by my grandfather Roy McCasland, a dentist in Tulia who named his farm "Tooth Acres". PawPaw, as we called him, was raised on farms and owned at least one as long as I knew him. Agriculture was in his blood. It was in my father's blood, too. In every branch of my family, there is a long history of farming and ranching. My dad, John Simpson, or Big John, as he was known throughout the county, had begun farming in the area after graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in agriculture/animal husbandry. He had fought in the South Pacific during World War II and, like many other farmers in his generation, had gone to college on the GI Bill. Soon after marrying my mother, Daddy went into business with his father-in-law and began farming "Tooth Acres". We moved into the little house on that farm in 1956 and became a family of four when my sister was born in 1959. Abundant irrigation water and ideal growing conditions meant high yielding crops of milo (grain sorghum), cotton, and wheat. Daddy raised cattle and hogs, too. Farmers had to work from daybreak to sundown, and be willing to take risks with debt and weather. It was a good life. My dad always said he loved farming because he was meant to be an "outside guy". My love of the outdoors surely must have been inherited from him.
When I first viewed Ken's photos from our afternoon at the farm, I wasn't sure I wanted him to put them on his blog. I felt strangely private about my encounters that day and also a little hesitant to show the farm's state of disrepair. However, being inside the house and in the landscape released such a powerful flood of memories, I decided they should be shared. Even though Ken's photographs speak for themselves and certainly do not require my lengthy memoir-style sketches, I hope someone who reads them can get a small glimpse of my young life at "Tooth Acres". My reflections appear underneath each scene.
Ken entered the house before I did. I hesitated because I wasn't sure how stable the floor was, but since Ken had already walked through this room, he coaxed me to come inside and watch where I stepped. For the first time in decades, I walked through that door and gingerly picked my way across the decrepit floor. This door led from the driveway slab where my parents parked our family car and was the entrance we used most of the time. We seldom entered through the front door; that was for company.
I was astonished at the condition of the house. I had taken Ken and our daughters to the farm a few years back, but we had just peered into the house without going inside. It was in terrible condition then, but had deteriorated even more since. The old floors from my childhood had been replaced with new vinyl and carpeting back in the seventies when Silverio, my dad's hired hand during those years, had occupied the house with his family. Even so, it was a mess to behold. The subfloor was visible and rotting in places. The ceiling had collapsed in some rooms, and I could see daylight through the rafters. Windows were shattered or missing; broken cabinet fronts and drawers were lying on the floor. It was impossible to tell whether the house had been vandalized in the past or simply had been beaten by decades of exposure to the brutal elements of West Texas. It seemed small inside. The house had never been good-looking or special, but a very modest home even in the fifties. My parents gave it as much style and warmth as they could, and being within its walls these many years later evoked myriad memories of my childhood, both pleasant and bittersweet.
Our dining table where we ate every meal was placed against the wall on the right. On occasion, it served as a conference table for my dad and farmworkers to discuss jobs and seasonal work. I remember Daddy meeting at that table with Mexicans who didn't speak English, a black man named Preacher, and the patriarchs of migrant laborer families. Earl Davis, my dad's long-time lead hired hand, would sit with my dad at that table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. My parents didn't smoke, but they never asked a guest to smoke outside. Attitudes were different back then. I would watch as Earl deftly rolled his own cigarettes. He would open a pocket-sized tin or sometimes a muslin pouch filled with smoking tobacco. He then would pull a rolling paper from its packet and hold the edge of it, making a trough with his forefinger. With the other hand, he would pour the brown leafy substance in a line the length of the white paper, somewhat mounded in the center. With skilled precision, he would roll the tobacco in the paper between his thumbs and fingers and lick the outer edge to secure it. He would snap the lid of the tin closed or, if using a pouch, would pull on the gold drawstring with his teeth. Then he would light the neat little cigarette and smoke it down to a short butt, making gray smoke clouds that swirled around in the shafts of morning sunlight streaming in from that side door. These visits between Earl and my dad must have occurred during winter when the farm workload was lighter. Summers were too busy from dawn to dusk for lingering over coffee.
I remember when we got our first black and white TV. It stood in the upper right corner of the photo and we would watch it seated in chairs that were under the windows. Suzanne and I watched "Captain Kangaroo", "Superman", "Mighty Mouse", "Our Gang", "Lassie", "Lost in Space", and "I Dream of Jeannie". I watched "Friday Night Fights" with Daddy. He didn't have a son, and it seemed normal to me that we did that together. As a family, we sat in that room and watched Jack Benny, Perry Como, Ed Sullivan, and Dinah Shore. In 1964, we all watched The Beatles perform live for the first time in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. I remember thinking the screaming girls were silly and annoying.
We moved to town when I was ten. My mother had taken a teaching job for the first time since she had become a mother. Daddy moved our entire household one day during the first week of school that year. I remember our last supper meal in the farmhouse was on August 30, 1966, my tenth birthday. My parents' gift to me was a dainty Timex wristwatch with a black suede band. After that, Suzanne and I were "town kids".
As I gazed out the trio of windows from what once was the family room/dining area, a slideshow of the past ran through my mind. Visible through the window to my left is the old iron T from which were strung three wire clotheslines my mother used during the warm months. Hanging laundry could be risky since wasps liked to make nests in the hollow horizontal tubing of those Ts. I visualized white bedsheets flapping in the ceaseless wind and remembered what it sounded like when they snapped in the gusts. I always thought sheets fresh off the line smell like air and sunshine.
The same window held the swamp cooler. My younger sister Suzanne and I loved to climb backward into the big chair underneath it and talk into the cool rushing air, our little voices distorted by the rhythm of the fan. We would laugh and do it over and over, thinking we sounded like robots or aliens (we called them "space people").
Since this bank of windows was north-facing, my dad could monitor approaching thunderstorms and "northers" from inside the house. A set of west-facing windows in the big laundry room provided another prime vantage point for viewing weather coming from that direction. As anyone from a farming background knows, keeping a vigilant eye on the weather becomes habit. Weather could bring the blessing of much-needed moisture or it could bring disaster to a farmer's livelihood in a matter of moments. Many times after dark, my dad would stand with his elbows on the window sills, watching lightning in the distance and wondering if welcome rain or dreaded hail were on its way.
Sometimes a spring storm would bring the most feared phenomenon of all (at least to a young kid): a tornado. Looking out the window, I could see the place where the old earthen storm cellar had been. I suppose it is still there; the grass has grown over that entire area, making it difficult to see some old features. I began to reminisce about a particular afternoon in the spring of 1965, when that cellar sheltered our family and the hired man and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Davis, during a storm that spawned a tornado. It was the first tornado I had seen up close, and the experience is etched indelibly in my mind. The pristine white funnel descended tentatively from a dark cloud, bounced on the ground, then turned dark brown as it churned dirt. Gathered around the cellar entrance, we watched as long as we dared. I remember feeling caught in a dilemma: being terrified to descend the rickety wooden stairs into the dank depths of that cellar, but even more terrified to stay above ground any longer. After we emerged unscathed at dusk, we called around on our party line telephone and found out that the tornado had destroyed some outbuildings and silos at a nearby farm, but injured no one. The old black rotary-dial telephone was kept under the middle window on a wooden telephone table. Last week, I found that table in the concrete storm shelter of the house in "town" that my sister and I inherited from our parents.
This is a view into the kitchen with some of the living room visible on the left and the laundry room straight ahead at the rear. The old gas stove on the wall to the left was the heat source for the main living area. I remember standing close to it and getting my hair singed!
Could this possibly be the same tidy kitchen where my sweet mother prepared every meal from scratch? The refrigerator was on the left before the green pantry door and the range was straight ahead against the back wall. On hot summer afternoons, I remember making Fizzies at the peninsula on the right. My mother, Helen, was known to be a great cook. We grew up eating homemade biscuits, pies, cakes, cookies, canned fruit, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves. I remember licking the beaters and bowls when she made something sweet. We have photos of my little sister, Suzanne, sitting beside the pink strawberry cake our mother made for her second birthday. To this day, that is my sister's favorite cake. My own daughters request that I make it for their birthdays, too.
Mother could cut up a whole chicken in a just few minutes. Women learned that skill back then. Fried chicken was my favorite meal. I was not a meat lover as a child, but I did love her fried chicken and gravy. The first time I ever ate fresh asparagus was in this house. If people in the fifties and early sixties ate asparagus, it probably came in a can. I hated anything made with canned asparagus and would refuse to eat it. Then, Mother served fresh asparagus one day and I did not recognize the vegetable at all. I've liked it ever since!
My mother was not your typical farm wife. The daughter of a dentist, Helen Rose McCasland grew up in Tulia, our little town, and graduated from college. She was beautiful (but never thought of herself in that way) and had fine clothes. She was refined and appreciated the arts. She had a lovely mezzo-soprano voice and sang in the church choir; she was requested to sing solos in countless weddings, funerals, and special events nearly her entire life. She had been a schoolteacher before I was born. As Ken and I drove away from the farm that evening, I recounted to him how challenging farm life really was for women like my mother. As a child, I liked the open spaces and freedom, but it wasn't so easy for mothers. We lived on dirt roads 17 miles from town. All our conveniences, social gatherings, and church activities were in Tulia. Mother drove to and from town several times a week. Mother once told Ken that whenever she got stuck in the mud during a downpour, she would just wait patiently, sometimes falling asleep, because she knew that Daddy would soon show up in his pickup or tractor to pull her car out.
The water source for the Texas Panhandle is the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground reservoir that lies underneath the Great Plains. Our crop irrigation wells and our domestic water well tapped that aquifer, producing water that was usually clear, but sometimes had red sand in it. I remember taking more than a few baths in brownish water while sitting on top of a gritty layer of sand that had settled to the bottom of the tub. Women had to wash clothes in that water and cook with it. We drank it. There was always dirt blowing in the window sills, too. Even though Mother vacuumed and dusted frequently, it was nearly impossible to stay ahead of the dirt. That's what it was, too. It was field dirt, not dust. Every so often, she waxed and buffed the linoleum floors. Farms had wasps, bees, varmints, bad smells, mud, and cesspools. Then there was the isolation. Fortunately for all of us, we had many friends and family who lived in town. After my mother passed away, Daddy said that she never complained, but was always sweet and happy. I'm glad he thought that. It's how I remember it, too.
This is a hallway leading from the back of the kitchen to the laundry room on the west side of the house. My dad had a chest of drawers against the wall on the right where he kept his work clothes. He sent his khaki pants and shirts to Mrs. Carter's steam laundry in town. I think he grew accustomed to doing that when he was a bachelor farmer. He said his work clothes were so dirty he didn't want my mother to have to wash them. The clothes would come back from the laundry neatly pressed and folded, tied in bundles with string.
On the left was the bathroom. Inside the bathroom were storage cabinets and the hot water heater. When I was in first through fourth grades, my mother drove me to meet the school bus at 7:00 a.m. The farm was located in the Kress school district, but my parents had decided to pay tuition and transfer me to Tulia schools where my friends and family were. On cold winter mornings, Mother would wake me before dawn. The main part of the house was so cold, Mother would seat me on the edge of the bathtub where it was nice and warm. That's where I would eat breakfast until it warmed up in late winter.
On hot summer evenings, we would leave that side door open; Panhandle evenings are nice and cool. I remember the sound of June bugs buzzing and bumping into the door screen, attracted to the light inside the room. In my imagination, I can still hear the humming of irrigation well motors, near and far, running through the night. Many irrigation pumps were run by converted truck engines and they didn't have mufflers. Over the decades, the Ogallala Aquifer has depleted gradually. Wells need to be much deeper now to reach good water. Now farmers must raise crops using much less water or simply raise dryland crops. A farmer friend recently told me that our dads used up all the water, pumping it on their crops as if the supply would never run dry.
Our dog Ringo would look longingly at us from outside this door. He was allowed inside on very cold days only. He had a dog house right outside that door. He was a red and white border collie that had been a surprise gift from Daddy. We loved him. Boredom and lack of a job are probably what got him into trouble. Mrs. Davis really didn't like the fact that he would kill one of her chickens here and there. He chased cars and ended up with a broken rear leg when a pickup ran over it; it was never set by a vet and became fairly useless. However, it didn't seem to bother Ringo or slow him down at all. I don't believe my parents understood that he was intelligent and needed more training, more attention, and more of the things we commonly give our pets today. When we moved to town in 1966, we didn't have a fenced yard at our new house so Ringo stayed at the farm where Daddy could feed him and check on him every day. Some time later, Daddy told us Ringo had run off. It wasn't until I was middle-aged that I learned the truth. Ringo had gone to a neighboring farm and was shot. He probably had become a nuisance, possibly killing some chickens, but I do not know. Daddy couldn't bear to tell us all those years. I wish I could have done it differently . . . but I was only ten.
This was our living room. The front door is gone. We had nice furniture and an area rug on top of wood floors. The bedroom belonging to my sister and me is through the doorway to the left; my parents' bedroom was on the right (not visible). I was four or five when Santa Claus knocked on that front door on Christmas Eve. He brought a new red tricycle for Suzanne and a little red, white, and blue bicycle with training wheels for me. It was a very exciting Christmas, indeed. I think I had trouble falling asleep that night. As it turns out, Santa Claus was my grandfather, Dr. McCasland, or PawPaw, as we called him. For many years, he played Santa Claus for countless community and church events in Swisher County. He was the perfect Santa, too, so much so that I didn't recognize him under the white beard and red suit trimmed with real fur until I was in second grade. When I told him after a church Christmas party, "PawPaw, Santa Claus sure did look an awful lot like you tonight," he said he would tell me a secret if I promised not to tell my mother, my sister, or my cousins. He gently revealed everything about the legend and his portrayal of Santa. He urged me to still believe in the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus. I was only seven, but I took the information well because it had come from the jolly old elf himself! And I tried hard to keep our secret.
Before we drove away, I asked Ken to take one more photo of me at the farm. This is right outside our old house looking north. The old storm cellar is up the road on the left and the Quonset barn is in the distance. The well house is the little stucco building on the right next to the power pole. Up the road on the left is the home where Mr. and Mrs. Davis lived. It, too, is in ruins. When I was a child, I was told that a couple of the houses had been army barracks before being moved to the farm. I think theirs was one.
The Davis's house was humble, but it was filled with love and laughter. Earl was a crusty old fellow, good to the core. He teased and joked with my sister and me and tickled us if he wasn't too tired. I remember many evenings after he came home from working, he would lie on the floor of their living room in front of the TV, so exhausted he couldn't move. Suzanne and I spent a lot of time at the Davis house. Mrs. Davis called herself, simply, "Davis". My mother preferred to call her Mrs. Davis; we kids called her both. She was an older woman, or maybe she seemed older because she had endured a lifetime of hard work. The mother of five children, she was a loving, generous, God-fearing woman who had been raised in Arkansas. Sometimes Davis spoke with yearning about her young days in Arkansas. My mother wondered how she could tolerate the dry barren plains after growing up in the lush environs of Arkansas. She was a second mother to my sister and me. At the end of a summer day, Suzanne and I might find her sitting on the wooden steps leading to her front door. She would rest her elbows on her knees and exclaim in her Arkansas drawl that she was "tored", and we could see it was true. She might take off her shoes to reveal blistered feet or show us blistered hands that had worked a hoe all day. Davis and her daughters sometimes earned a little extra money by "chopping cotton" (hoeing weeds by hand in the cotton fields). To shield their delicate skin from the sun, they would wear Levis and long-sleeved shirts with old-fashioned bonnets Davis had sewn. We would sit with her and beg her to do the trick with her teeth and after a few moments, she would summon the energy to oblige us. With her tongue, Davis would flick her false teeth out of sight to the back of her mouth and give a big affected grin, revealing bare gums and no trace of her dentures. Then, with a sudden clack, she would thrust them forward to the outside of her lips, making her face look delightfully cartoonish. In an instant, she would flick them back into place again. We laughed and laughed. I still miss her.
Earl and Davis had three grown boys who no longer lived with them. It was always a happy day when they came to visit. Their two younger children, Rita and Darlene, were quite a few years older than Suzanne and me, but they were our joy and delight, our only playmates much of the time. They were sweet to us and played so patiently with us, making mud pies and indulging us in our little girl games. As they grew older, they let us play in their makeup and hair curlers. We spent eternal afternoons waiting for Rita and Darlene to walk up the road after their school bus had dropped them off. When we were very young, I remember their long full skirts worn with bobby socks and saddle oxfords. They grew up, and everything changed when Rita got a boyfriend.
The day Earl and Davis moved away was one of the coldest January days I can remember. It was also one of the saddest. Suzanne and I hovered around the family as they loaded furniture and boxes on a truck. The front door to their house was wide open and there was no escape from the wind and stinging cold. Earl was getting older and years of farm work had taken a toll on his body. He had taken a good-paying job at a grain elevator in nearby Happy, Texas, and the family had found a lovely turn-of-the-century brick home there. Happy is only 16 miles north of Tulia, and we were somewhat comforted by the adults' reassurances that we would see one another frequently. My dad was happy for Earl, but knew it would be hard to replace him on the farm. No one would ever replace them in our hearts. I held back tears as bravely as possible until we watched the moving truck fade out of sight. Then I'm sure I cried a long time.
From time to time, there were other families who lived on the farm. For several years, the Talamantes family lived in an old house that is no longer standing. Their younger children were close to our ages and, naturally, they became our playmates. I loved eating their mama's homemade flour tortillas. For a couple of years when our three families lived on the farm at the same time, it was quite a lively place.
Ken and I accomplished our mission, and more. The transmission lines look like I thought they would: heavy wires suspended from tall brown steel structures. The surrounding area is criss-crossed with new transmission lines just like them. Some people speculate that wind power is coming. I never fully believed the utility company representative who negotiated with us on the lease when he said the reason for the transmission lines is to improve service for the rural customers. No one is moving to these farms.
I was happy to see that many farms in the area, unlike ours, are still in cultivation. The cotton fields looked very healthy. Our farm is in a popular government program called the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. After my dad stopped farming in 1985, native grass was planted in accordance with CRP requirements. The purpose is to mitigate soil erosion, enhance wetlands, and preserve native habitat. As one can see in the last photo, grass has covered the road and all the other areas where people once worked, drove, and played. Thriving fields of wheat, cotton, and milo once grew all around where I am standing. Cattle grazed in the field to the right. Shiny new tractors and combines were parked near the barn.
My parents are gone and my beloved Uncle Roy Allen, who had no children, passed away last November. I now co-own the 630 acres with my sister and my aunt. One day my cousin Steve will inherit Aunt Dorothy's share. After that, our children might co-own it together. I wonder what is in store for this wondrous piece of earth. Will it remain in CRP grass, looking much as it did when Coronado first explored the area? Will it ever be in production again? Will wind turbines stand tall, spinning in the West Texas wind as they generate electricity? Will we decide to sell it? For now, I'm glad to hold onto it, but in any case, I am grateful for rich memories of a place, people, and way of life that helped shape me.
-Camille Simpson Redding