Friday, October 19, 2012



Ronnie Bennett’s childhood story

            The morning April air was just bit cool as 14 year Ronnie left his family's farm house to walk the three miles to the Hartford school house for a spelling bee but as he climbed the hills and jumped the ditches along the dirt road the temperature seemed just right to his short-sleeved arms.

            Just as he reached the half-way point which was the driveway to the County Farm he heard someone call his name. Ronnie recognized the voice as that of the operator of the facility. Old man Richner matter-of-factly walked down the driveway to meet him.

            Having lived this close to the County House all his life the teenager had accepted the atrocity as a fact of life and wouldn't really grasp its significance for many years.  The County Farm was the only option for the very poor without family to take them in, the elderly too feeble to care for themselves or anyone with mental problems. The county would hire an operator for the farm and allow him to make all decisions for those unfortunate enough to be sent to the facility by the court or their family.

            "Would you like to work today" the tall man asked the boy as they approached each other in the driveway. "I was going to the spelling bee but if you need me I guess I will help you today because I'm not that good a speller anyway," he replied. "Aunt Janie died last night and I've got to go to McHenry for a box. Could you get the old mare and hook to the rock sled and go by the house and get Rollo and you and him go dig a grave over by the fence in the far side of the graveyard," the county house operator said.  "O.K., where’s the shovels and dynamite and I'll get right on it," Ronnie said.  "The shovels, broad axe, and hoes are in the smokehouse but you better not set off any blasts without me here and besides the ground over there is not that rocky," Richner said.  "O.K.," the boy said disappointedly. Blasting was the favorite part of helping the old friend of his family with clearing and other tasks last summer.

            As the teenager reached the porch with the mare, sled and other tools he saw Rollo coming out of the house on his home-made crutches. The boy had worked with Rollo last summer removing rocks from the fields on the county farm so he well knew what the middle-aged man whom had spent most of his life at the county farm could or could not do.

            The lame man made his way to the sled and sat down on the edge and laid his crutches on the pile of digging tools. Ronnie walked along beside the sled and drove the mare as close to the iron gate of the County Farm cemetery as possible.  Rollo took his crutches and the broad axe and made his way to the gravesite while the boy tied the mare.

            The pair dug the grave in about two hours to the depth of five foot on the highest corner since the hilly gravesite sloped slightly in two directions. As the boy and slightly "Slow" man labored on the grave they talked about hunting and fishing and other things until the conversation got slow and Ronnie asked, "Rollo, how did you come to be here at the Poor House (another name for the county farm)."  My folks died when I was 10 and nobody kin to me liked me being crazy so someone brought me here in a wagon pulled by two black mules," the man replied.  After another few quite moments the boy chanced a second question very cautiously, "Rollo, you don't have to tell me but I was wondering how come you are crippled."  The man replied, "Mr. Hall, who used to run this place, cut the leaders in the back of my legs when I tried to run away from here right after I first got here and heaven knows I had my reasons for running off.  I made it to the church house and everyone was mad because I was there being crazy and all. He used a butcher knife and it hurt really bad for a long time.”

            The grave was barely finished when they heard the sound of Mr. Richner's old ‘36 flatbed Ford Truck coming down the driveway toward the house. The pair took the sled back to the porch of the house and looked at County Farm Operator and waited for him to tell them what to do next.

            Ronnie helped Richner unload the very plain wood coffin onto the porch. Two old women who were residents of the facility were finishing combing and brushing the hair of the corpse as the box was unloaded. The 14 year old helped place the deceased into the coffin by grasping the feet while Richner grabbed onto the torso. They lifted her from a homemade slab of oak boards placed on saw horses. The Operator then called for anyone who wanted to pay last respects to Aunt Janie to come out of the house and do so. About ten weary, hopeless and feeble men, women and one child filed by the coffin to view their friend for the last time.

            The Old Man, the cripple and the boy loaded the coffin onto the sled since the road was not firm enough to get over with the truck. This time they opened the wrought iron gate and drove the sled in across graves with flat rock markers to the open freshly dug hole. Richner told Ronnie to throw a couple big dirt clods into the grave and the directions were followed. "Take the lines off the mare and bring them over here," the county house operator told the teenager. They placed the lines one on each end of the coffin and used them to lower the box into the ground. The dirt clods allowed the lines to be removed after the coffin was in place.

            “Thank you for helping today. Would you finish up here so I can take the Missus to visit her sister, she hasn't been out of her bedroom today while this mess was going on," the Operator said."  Ronnie and Rollo covered up the grave and placed a flat rock at the head as a marker as the old truck roared down the driveway back toward town.

            This happening is only recorded in the memory of the man who was the 14 year old in this story. A bulldozer pushed away the wrought-iron fence, the grave markers of sandstone and marble and the last evidence of a past and sorrowful chapter in the history of our society. The removal of (evidence of) the cemetery was necessary to make way for a building in which to store golf carts at the local country club. 

1 comment:

  1. I read this often to remind me why I can not locate graves of those I search for in researching...Thank you for all the wonderful lessons!