The Tale Of Foster Farm, 1936-2016 II:
Our House Is A Very, Very Very Fine House with Ten Cats In The Yard
Part Two: We Buy The Farm, 1980
(In our first chapter, we related the history of how we came to move with our one and soon-to-be two daughters from a rental house on Peoria’s west side to a 1936 farm house and two-acre spread south west of Metamora in June 1974.
For six years, we rented it for $100 per month and began homesteading.
But in 1980, Ben Grove, the owner, died and our home was set to be sold at auction at the Metamora Bank.
We very much wanted to buy it.
The bank officer approved a loan of $37,000.
The opening bid and only bid was $38,000.
I looked over to the bank officer.
Mutely, he shook his head.
I hugged Jo.
We loved the home that we were about to lose.
Our story resumes at that point.)
Photos Courtesy of John Sepich
Our neighbor lady, Carol, the wife of Don Grove, the farmer to whom we paid our $100 monthly cash rent to, came over and hugged Jo.
I went over and introduced myself to Henry Allen, the lumber speculator who’d made the winning bid.
“I’m Mike Foster,” I said. “You just bought the house I live in.”
“Why didn’t you buy it?” he replied.
“I wanted to, but your bid was a thousand dollars more than I was approved for,” I answered.
It turns out that Mr. Allen had never even seen our house. He wasn’t even sure exactly where it was. It seems he’d heard someone scuttle-butting that it would sell for $50,000 before the auction. Speculator that he was, in the bank’s sale room, he tossed out the opening and only bid, one that we couldn’t beat.
He clearly never intended to own it.
I told Henry to follow our Dodge Aspen station wagon back to the farm in his truck.
On that dreary, rainy April day, our rutted gravel road was riddled with deep chassis-shaking muddy puddles.
I walked him around the place and showed him the outbuildings, which were already showing the ravages of age after 44 years of hard weather.
Our pump-house’s well water was polluted and unpotable, with all five of the five contaminants that the Woodford County Health Department tested for.
He never even asked to go inside to see the house
“Heck, I’ll loan you the thousand dollars,” he said.
I thanked him and said his offer was kind. I told him that we’d ponder it. We shook hands and he left.
Weeks before the auction, Jo and I had vowed to go out for lunch afterwards no matter what the outcome was.
So over a medium rare filet mignon with onion rings for me and a chef’s salad for Jo with glasses of merlot, we agreed that a ray of hope glimmered and that we would continue to trust in God and wait and see.
So we waited and we saw. My mother Shirley Hopkins Foster loaned us $500 and Jo’s parents up in Milwaukee, Ray and Loretta Weslowski, gave us $5,000. The bank said (now they told us!) that they’d give us the necessary $1,000 because appraisals aren’t exactly accurate.
Henry never asked us for our $100 monthly rent. He didn’t exactly own it. We lived here free for six months, until the morning that I drove over to meet him at the Washington Family Restaurant. He signed off on his right to buy it.
He bought me breakfast.
I bought the farm.
Our loan interest rate was 13 percent, then the going rate. Our attorney, my ICC office-mate Leanne’s husband Ron Schertz, forgot to show up at the Woodford County Farm Bureau for the closing, but I phoned him and he sped over from Peoria.
We were signed, sealed, and delivered. Foster Farm was ours.
The 36 years since that day have been lively and busy.
When we had moved out here to Foster Farm, we started out in 1975 by planting way too much garden, starring Jo’s dad’s grown-from-seed Burpee Big Boy tomato and green pepper plants.
Soon, however, we turned to raising protein.
Rabbits came first in 1977. No doubt we were inspired by Lenny and George in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men, but they were delicious. They tasted like chicken, only richer. We had one big grey buck rabbit, named (wait for it) Buck, and six does, including five English Spots and a matriarchal New Zealand White.
Using nothing but a tiny jigsaw and surplus barn beams only slightly more malleable than Pittsburgh steel, I risked my fingers and my sanity constructing six rabbit hutches that looked like M. C. Escher, helped by L’il Abner, was the architect of design.
Soon after that, we added a half-dozen laying hens that I’d bought from a venerable farmer for 50 cents each. We set them up in the henhouse out by the wire crib, the fencepost pile, and the wild peach trees.
Later in 1977, we added two Cheviot ewe lambs, Patience and Prudence, for breeding with farmer friend and neighbor Pete Streid’s Dorset ram.
I bought those from Rich Thomas, an ICC biology teacher who farmed just west of Morton. To transport them, I went down in my Chevette hatchback with my longtime friend from Spalding ’64 and The Tempests, Tim Slevin.
We threw them in the back and Tim got in with them to prevent them from joining me in the driver’s seat. He had to fight them off like an NFL offensive tackle.
As the Chevette chugged up Germantown Hill, mutual friends Rick and Denise Layman passed us by, gaping in wonderment.
Tim rolled down the window and yelled “DOUBLE DATING!”
For the first few years, we tethered the ovine ladies to steel eye bolts I’d set into the east side of the wooden corn crib.
I used sturdy leather dog collars and 250-pound test nylon rope we bought at Fandel’s Variety Store on the east side of the Metamora town square. The barn-red paint on the crib rubbed off, turning their wool pink. Neighbors would drive by, marveling at that hippie college professor and his rose-collared sheep.
Of course, sometimes they’d entangle themselves as in Shelobian webs. I would have to untangle these Gordian knots from a spitting, biting, kicking, drooling ewe. This was not easy-breezy.
Later, to enable them to graze on our abundant farmyard alfalfa, timothy, and red and white clover, I hit on the idea of roping them to one of the concrete blocks that I’d found in the barn.
We soon discovered that Patience never strayed away from Prudence, so only Prudence’s tether was necessary.
That worked well until the day I received a frantic phone call in college from Jo. Patience had decided to light off east on our gravel road, heading toward the Metamora-Washington blacktop and freedom in the Promised Land, with Prudence following her towing the block at a sporting clip.
When I raced home and saw the cloud of dust rising, I filled a coffee can with cracked corn, headed them off before they hit the blacktop, tossed Patience into the back of the Chevette, and took them back the plantation.
In 1982, we added chickens for eating.
Our first were fifty murderous bantam Brown Leghorn cockerels, who would attack us from behind. Jo and the girls would take brooms out to fend them off. Frisbee in the field north of the barn became dangerous.
Once, when I was climbing up the hay bales stacked to get one to feed the sheep, a vicious little rooster, blindsided my head with beak and claws. If my glasses and seed cap had not protected me, he’d have put my eye out. I grabbed his cocky neck and nearly slew him then and there.
So when people would say, “Oh! How can you kill something that you’ve raised from a day-old baby chick,” I’d retort: “Are you kidding? With some of them, it’s ‘You, pal, are first in line.’”
Moreover, they were tough, scrawny little peckers when we fried them up.
Finally, we finally settled on the Cornish Rock cross breed.
Martha, who is autistic, faithfully fed them twice daily. When it was time to show them at the Woodford County 4-H fair, we’d bathe them. At last I understood the metaphor “madder than a wet hen.”
For five years, she won the grand champion purple ribbon and brass plaque for in the categories of rooster, two hens, and meat pen of three. After the fair closed, we lingered to help with the fitlthy chore of cleaning out the poultry barn, which added considerably to our cachet as 4-H leaders.
Our chickens would arrive at the post office one day old, in the convenient fifty-count cardboard box fresh from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.
We would dip their baby beaks in water and meal and keep them under heat lamps, at first in our cellar (bad idea, that) but later in a pen that I cobbled together out of old wooden window screens out in the big barn.
That worked out well. I purchased custom-ground 20% protein corn-oats feed from Pete. I always thanked by giving his family the biggest bird from our first harvest.
The chickens gained weight so fast that they would blow their leg joints out and die. Jo bought boxes of generic dried milk as a calcium supplement that we added to their daily feed from the first day they arrive until the last one was plucked.
We’d usually process eight to ten on a Saturday morning. Supper that night was the finest, fattest fryer accompanied with all the hearts sautéed in butter. Ambrosia.
From McMurray’s, we also ordered the layers They were a wild array of Brown Leghorns, Speckled Sussex, Andalusians, Marsh Daisys, Wyandottes, Black Australorps, Araucanas from the Andes, Cochins from China, Anconas,, Golden Polish, Plymouth Rocks, Silver Polish, Buff Orpingtons, Dominiques, also known as Dominnickers, and Amaracuanas.
Then, in 1981, the Thanksgiving ultimate: turkeys.
We bought them down at Les Sutter Farm Supply down in Morton, later our source for ducks and geese. Five Guinea fowl, runaways from our next-door neighbors although we didn’t know that until it was too late for them, wandered and joined the party in the big long chicken-wire pen I’d constructed just west of the wire crib.
With turkeys, we started out with the colorful bronze breed of greeting card fame, but soon settled on the classic white ones, which grew bigger and were more docile, albeit still dumber than feathered boxes of rocks.
We usually bought four.
They were free-range, fancying the Foster Farm Feral Feline Incest Project’s kibble, lawn gleanings, the custom-ground grain, and the occasional beetled tomato.
Those turkeys loved tomatoes with the added piquancy of the spotted beetles. I’d call them and lob a fruit their way and watch them run for it. I speculated on spray-painting numbers on their backs and wagering on their races, but gambling is a silly vice.
Contrary to popular myth, turkeys can fly. A few times when I came out to put them back in the barn that was their dormitory, I found them perched placidly up in a big maple.
I had to use the long bamboo pole employed for retrieving Frisbees stuck up in the cedars to poke them down. Thereafter, I trimmed their wing-feathers and they were earthbound.
The weekend before Thanksgiving in 1981 was the first harvest time.
I took my trusty $8 Sears hatchet out to the barn where the ancient chopping block was and whistled my buggy-tomato call and they all came running.
By this time, I’d had quite a few rabbits and chickens worth of experience. This had to be the same, right?
I hefted them all and picked the plumpest. Based on the fact that it dressed out to almost 30 pounds, it had to weight close to 60.
With considerable difficulty, I hoisted the dear dumb bird up on the block, said a prayer that its poultry spirit would go where all good innocent turkey souls go after a just life, and wound up and gave its neck my best whack.
Its wing shot out. My glasses flew one way, my hatchet the other.
It looked up me as its neck bled from a tiny shaving-nick of a cut.
“Are you talking to me, Mack?” it seemed to say.
Let us draw a veil of discretion over the rest of this sanguine scene.
But I finally prevailed.
I disemboweled it and cut off the feet with branch-clippers. Plucking it took Jo and I much time and, for the wing-feathers, pliers.
The next morning, I found one of the feet on our front porch.
“Take that, you lousy kibble thief” was the unspoken feline message.
That week, we four, my mother, and the biggest bird, giblets and all, journeyed down to my sister Claudia’s place in St. Louis.
For my sins, I got to pick the neck clean of meat for the stuffing my mom made, a painstaking but tasty chore.
It barely fit into my sister’s big blue roasting pan. The rich golden-brown gravy nearly overflowed.
And it was very, very good.
Of course, the menagerie had added cats almost at once, since they could dwell outside in the outbuildings and not plague Jo’s allergies.
The first to wander in was a three-legged grey tiger cat missing a forepaw, who we named Tiny, after Charles Dickens’ Tim in A Christmas Carol, who was likewise lame in his right leg. Her daughter was Annie, who in turn had four kittens.
After they all lit off for the territory, as farm cats almost always do, a gorgeous long-haired black and white mother-to-be, marked like our English Spot rabbits, arrived. We called her Bebe LeStrange, and her sole surviving son was dubbed Lucky.
Lucky soon got lucky with his mother, and so swift were they to post to incestuous sheets that within a year, the Foster Farm Feral Feline Incest Project (hereafter, FFFFP) was up and running.
Other cats, many of them dumped in the country by people who didn’t deserve to own pets as well as strutting strays, joined the orgy. The most we ever had was about 25. Right now, we have five or six. The FFFFIP was well-established.
Our first dog came to us on the cold, rainy night of March 15, 1975. Jo and I had gone in to see Muddy Waters play at the Bradley Memorial Fieldhouse, with ex-Peorian Luther Allison as his volcanic opening act.
My dad Claude and mother Shirley were baby-sitting for Martha, then five years old, and seven-month-old Megan.
Luther was incandescent, especially on “Caterpillar Blues” and “Hey, Bo Diddley.” But Muddy bettered him. The young lion roared and the old lion roared back louder and more fiercely. They both had their mojos working and they sure were working on us.
When we came back, curled up at my dad’s feet was this brindle bull terrier.
“He was crying out on the front porch so I let him in,” my dad said apologetically.
We privately thought And out he goes tomorrow.
Having just enjoyed Muddy Waters’ magnificent show, I was kindly disposed toward grizzled old black guys with an obvious mojo.
Martha, who named every one of our six dogs, said his name was Billy, and so it was.
Billy was a piece of work. He chased and caught Frisbees; getting them back from him was a tough tug of war. When we put a plate of table scraps for the cats out the back door, he would whimper as if he had this most urgent need to pee and poop. So I’d let him out the front door and by the time I walked the dozen steps back to the kitchen, he was growling and snarling and devouring the cat’s supper.
He attacked every male dog that ever wandered in. Somehow he could never follow through on his stud role. When a beautiful white border collie that we named Blanche turned up in heat, Billy was brutally mauled by successful rivals for her favors.
She had five gorgeous white pups, who, bless their little doggy hearts, really made a mess of our yard, pooping and whizzing everywhere, ripping open a bag of sidewalk salt. When the pups were old enough to walk that winter, kindly Uncle Billy led them off for adventures to the far north. Three of them got flattened on Hwy. 116.
Finallly, I sadly chose harsh love and took Blanche and the two survivors to be euthanized. I stayed with them as they passed over the rain bow roat, petting them and talking to them: “Bonne biche, Blanche, bonne biche. Cher Blanche, bonne niche. Dormez-toi.”
Billy urinated on every strange tire that pulled here and would be off on a greyhound chase after every car and truck that passed down our road. When our friend Slevin came over with a brand-new yellow Porsche, he and I tried valiantly to defend its shiny new wheels.
But it was in vain. Hopping by, Billy finally tagged the left rear tire. His urine matched the bright yellow exactly.
When we’d drive up to Milwaukee to visit and stay with Jo’s folks or down to St. Louis with my mom to stay with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, Billy rode in the back of our Dodge wagon like a tail gunner.
Three times (1975, 1976, and 1978), we took Billy to Toronto with us to visit Marquette University Honors Program and English graduate school friends Teresa and Albert Moritz, poets and newspaper writers. It’s harder to get a dog into Canada than four persons.
On our first trip in our VW camper van, we were going through customs in Windsor, Ontario. I had Billy on a twelve-foot clothesline leash.
He saw another dog and took off running. The leash looped around my leg, sending me crashing to the ground inflicting a serious rope-burn and scabbed knees. Never has the epithet “son of a bitch!” been uttered more fervently.
In December, 1983, doom caught up with Billy. Or, rather, he caught up with it. Our farmer friendly neighbor Pete Streid came over to return Patience and Prudence after they’d run with his ram and been bred.
When Pete headed off in his livestock truck, Billy gave chase. This time, he caught it.
Shaken, Pete came back with Billy’s corpse.
“I swear, he ran right under my wheels,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything.”
I took off Billy’s collar. The ground was frozen stiff as a corpse, so we put Billy’s into a big cardboard box, then into a garbage bag, then under an upside-down galvanized steel garbage can weighed dowb by a couple of cement blocks, to keep the coyotes from claiming him.
A few months later, former ICC student photo editor and A Fine Kettle Of Fish co-founder Jeff Putnam came over and we two dug a grave on the western Frisbee field near the barn just east of the cedars and laid the good dog into his final resting place.
“I remember the day we buried Billy. The ground was sodden and we had a hard time finding a spot to dig. He was a damned good dog, a boarding-house hot plate, bare bulb, and cheap stogie kind of dog, if I recall your description.”
And he would have successors.
(To be continued.)
Photos by John Sepich.
Scanning and editing by Jo Foster.
Coming in Part Three: Other Dogs. Front Porch Fishing. The Four-Party System. The Big Remodeling.