Shades of the past: This is a story of the ghosts of Texas, and of the people who keep those lost souls alive
BYLINE: joe stafford
PUBLICATION: Austin American Statesman
Time stopped at the Pioneer Farm 120 years ago, and I have a theory why. This much is certain: Hidden in the woods in a dark cemetery behind a rusted spike fence stands a granite marker that bears the names of the five sons -- or, more accurately, sons-in-law -- of the Confederacy who left the farm and never returned, sacrificed to the Lost Cause. I studied that stone marker one afternoon, weed-eater in hand, and I flashed on a kind of vision. It went like this: A Confederate battle flag splashed into the mud as a young man in gray uniform fell, shrieking out all his lost years in a single scream. And the broken soldier -- Lewis Lucullus Giles, born 1839 -- rolled over and gazed into an uncloudy sky and said one word: ``Home.'' That was 1861. That was my vision: His spirit flew home. The other four men on the monument -- Baldy Alford, Bill and George Jourdan, Bill Alford -- also left the farm to fight for the Confederacy, also never returned. At least two of the five, I'm told, died in the squalor of Civil War prisoner camps. The first four died during the war, but Bill Alford headed out West after the fighting -- the far West, as they called it then -- and died there in 1874. That was my vision. This is my theory: When Bill Alford died, he whispered ``Home,'' just as the others had done, and his spirit joined those brothers-in-law, joined the spirits of others buried on the farm already, the former slaves resting in lost graves on adjacent land, wandering Tonkawa spirits and ghosts of Mexican and German settlers who arrived and struggled or prospered and died there. All spirits made equal by death on 2,000 acres just 10 minutes from downtown Austin. And as Bill Alford's spirit returned to the farm, the laws of physics were laid aside, time slowed to a crawl, finally froze about 1880. Nobody ever wanted to go home more than those broken sons of the farm.
Nobody ever wished more ardently that time would just stand still.
And so it did. Of course, the time bubble over the farm is imperfect. Things get through, things like sunscreen and fire extinguishers and digital watches, jogging strollers and bottles of Evian. X-Men T-shirts. Ray-Bans. Port-O-Lets. But a semi-permeable time bubble is a good thing. It allows the farm to function as a living museum, where interpreters in 1880s costumes lend flesh to those lost spirits, grow the crops and cook the meals and occupy the many buildings just as they would have all those years ago. (Most go home at night, back to the future.) But this is no Plymouth Plantation, no well-coifed finished product. The Pioneer Farm remains a work in progress. Earlier this month the farm dedicated the Bell House, a lovely Greek Revival plantation house representing the lifestyle of a prosperous 19th-century Central Texas cotton-farming family. But the insides are unfinished, sawdust on the raw wood floor. Furnishing it will take several more years. And the lake is being dredged -- by bulldozers, when no visitors are around -- made cleaner and more beautiful. Other plans are in the offing.
But change here isn't progress, anyway. The idea is to make things more the same than ever. New generations visit the farm and milk the cows and feed the pigs and pet Mr. A the mule. They taste the fresh bread and butter, gaze into the 3-D stereopticon, shriek as the baby chicks flap their downy wings. Girls in aprons and bonnets bobble about on stilts. Boys in straw hats and suspenders kneel in the garden and pick the tiny red beads of chile pequins under stern warnings from the adults not to rub their eyes. Women on porches twist indigo-dyed cotton thread on creaky spinning wheels. The anvil at the blacksmith shop rings. On a good day musicians make that high lonesome sound under a roof of homemade shingles and play accordions and fiddles, joined by dozens of modern-clothed kids coaxed into jamming along on washboards and dinner bells and maracas. Hearing that music, feeling that life, the ghosts of the farm are satisfied.
The farm is still a home, to the dreams they themselves left buried in unknown graves not in Texas. Lives flush with desire, souls once as fully fleshed as our own. Brought to life by people in costumes.THE WAY THEY DIED THEN The true spirits of the Pioneer Farm are the living, not the dead. The volunteers and city employees who dress up, who sit rocking in the relatively cool breezeway of the Homestead or step gingerly across a pig pen to mend a barbed-wire fence. Before opening hour, employees drive city pickups down gravel roads filling large orange Thermos jugs with ice-water for visitors. Another necessary rift in the time bubble.
Large empty quiet spaces abound. The chinked walls, dusty paths and the tombstones of the Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farm all hint at a thousand stories, and one of the living spirits, Eve Williams, a masterful storyteller, is happy to supply the details. As museum curator, she is in charge of the objects -- the farm's collection of antique clothes, furniture and implements, an assortment crowned by the ``mad-stone,'' an egg-shaped rock that was found more than 100 years ago in the belly of a deer and is said to hold supernatural healing powers. Back at the cemetery -- it's a hidden part of the farm, away from the regular 72-acre walking tour, made more inviting by its solitude and exclusivity -- Eve indicates a granite slab carved with these words: FANNIE BUTLER THURMAN 1856-1890 BABY ERNEST 1890 ``Childbirth was the No. 2 cause of death among rural women in the 19th century,'' Eve tells a tour group with a nod to the marker's clear implication. ``Do you know what the No. 1 cause was?'' Listeners venture guesses. Cancer? Thrown by horses? Exhaustion? Finally someone gets it right. Fire. ``They burned up,'' Eve says. Dressed in voluminous cotton dresses, working over open flames all their lives, many women of the era inevitably caught fire and died.
It's another case of time overlap. Women working over fires in 1999 are no less vulnerable to flame than they were in 1888. Being modern doesn't decrease the chances your dress will catch fire. ``Only back then they didn't know about `Stop, drop and roll,' '' Eve says. And no fire extinguishers.
The Pioneer Farm is not for everybody. Hard-clubbing twentysomething backward-cap guys probably won't get it. Too quiet and slow. And city-grown moms who would never consider swimming in a creek or touching an udder will only just tolerate it for their kids -- as long as they've got Handi-Wipes. But for children it can be a paradise, a revelation about where milk comes from, a chance to hear a red-hot smithing iron sizzle in rainwater. And sometimes, even for adults, the farm gets in your blood. That's the case with Desi Tunstill, who works on the farm but runs her own art business in the city and does other volunteer work with abused kids. Desi was nicknamed ``Psycho Counselor'' by the 6-to-12-year-olds in her summer camp groups this summer, a moniker that gives her a good chuckle. Her intensity is a source of pride. This year her charges made spirit sticks, long wooden rods dangling from leather straps, painted thickly with bright shapes and primary splashes. Night sticks. Power totems. Nobody on the farm is faster-talking or more eloquent than this fierce woman with a leather spirit bag dangling 'round her neck. She talks about her favorite place on the farm. ``Let me tell you about the Tree of Life,'' she says. ``It's a 500-year-old oak tree that was once struck by lightning and has survived drought and flood and fire. It's seen German immigrants wishing for land, African slaves wishing for freedom, Mexicans wishing for better lives, Tonkawa tribes wishing for peace. And the tree is healing itself from that long-ago lightning strike. On a spiritual level it connects every part of the farm, every part of the culture. It represents 500 years of hopes and dreams for our ancestors.
Maybe it wants to see another 500 years. It's healing itself. Closing its wounds.'' Most of the farm's costumed interpreters have a touch of the actor in them. With Desi it's more than a touch. She obviously loves capturing an audience. She laughs as she tells the story of the little blond girl who went about whispering to others in a crowd of visitors until finally someone revealed what the toddler wanted to know: Is this evocative woman with her arms thrown wide, is she, you know, is she God? ``I knew then I'd gone a little too far,'' Desi says with a laugh. ``But that's good. A little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl wanting to know if this black woman is God!'' Maybe not God, but certainly a voice, another good spirit, a living spirit of the farm.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
But many or even most of the spirits of the farm are long since dead. The length of its history forbids otherwise. In 1844 a Texas Ranger named James Rice laid claim to 1,280 acres of virgin land near Walnut Creek, land then partly occupied by a Tonkawa Indian tribe that had been there for about 150 years. That tribe's fate is hazy, but they're gone now. About a decade later Frederic and Harriet Jourdan settled in the area with a large family and nine slaves, eventually owning 2,000 acres. In 1956 their grandchildren donated the land to the Heritage Society of Austin for a park and in 1975, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department began hosting educational programs there and hauling in historic buildings from around Central Texas for restoration on the farm. (And the rest is history, ha ha). A mid-1990s budget scare threatened the farm's existence as a museum: The city wrote the park out of its budget until a public outcry forced an agreement that assures the farm's operation for at least another decade. In fiscal 1999 the city spent $175,000 to run the farm, which employs about a dozen people and benefits from some 10,000 volunteer hours every year, says farm manager John Hirsch. Another $120,000 was collected from visitors at the gate and $100,00 came in from several construction companies intent on improving the place. One other source of revenues is federal grants, which came to about $90,000 this year.
Hirsch, a city employee, has the enviable duty of living in a private, modern home on the farm, where he does a variety of jobs, from grant-proposal writing to helping, say, build a Virginia rail fence. He is at the forefront of the farm's various funding battles.
``Any time a historical building is moved from its original location it loses its historical designation,'' he says as a pair of yellow Labradors bounce around the crowded farm office -- one of its few air-conditioned areas. ``So we had to get a special education slash historical designation.'' The educational focus of the farm is the bailiwick of Barbara Roberts, who runs programs for some 300 pre-K through third-grade children who arrive each week for self-guided tours during the school year and for other programs in which fourth-grade and older kids dress in period clothes, cook lunch with produce grown in the garden, do chores and work with animals.
``They learn to appreciate life in the 1880s,'' Barbara says. ``The hardships and the fun.'' ``The real fun part,'' says Sue Fischer, another costumed interpreter, ``is when the kids say they can't leave yet because they haven't finished the laundry on the scrub boards.'' In all, the farm sees 18,500 students a year -- a number expected to increase with the opening of the Bell House -- plus 250 to 300 visitors on days the farm is open to the general public. Everyone involved in the Bell House project credits Will Shepherd, a member of both the Heritage Society and the Friends of the Farm, as the vital force in getting that project completed. Another spirit of the farm -- an architect in real life -- who dresses in street clothes, visits the farm with his family, likes the farm's rough edges. It's a diamond in the rough, he acknowledges. ``And we want to keep it in the rough,'' he says. You know. More the same than ever.
HOLLYWOOD'S FICKLE LOVE
The real hard-core spirits of the farm were the dryland farmers of the black bottom prairies -- a harsh realm where the main irrigation system is still made entirely of prayer. The 1880's sharecropper counted on the Poor Man's Wealth, in which a woman gave birth to a baby every 18 months for a couple decades in hopes a handful would reach adulthood. Free labor, lots of love, emergency backup kids.
Sharecropping is a way of life all but gone, kept alive by hardy men like Elroy Brown -- one of 10 kids himself -- the Pioneer Farm's best-known figure and in many ways its most genuine. He turned 65
this year, retired and now works odd hours part-time. Elroy and his son still sharecrop a couple hundred acres in Webberville just east of Austin. Hollywood fell temporarily in love with the farm in the 1980s, fell in love with Elroy, too, casting him as a blacksmith in ``Lonesome Dove,'' big portions of which were shot on the farm. (Other movies shot here include the made-for-TV films ``True Women,'' and an adaptation of Willa Cather's ``A Lantern in Her Hand.'') You can see why they loved Elroy, with his dried-apple face and twinkling eyes, pants tucked into boots, cowpoke hat -- Central Casting's idea of a Texas-style St. Nick. He speaks in a soft voice, endlessly fascinating and funny. Elroy tells a good story about his scene in ``Lonesome Dove'':
``They done shot that one scene like three times and I had a big old chaw of tobacco in my mouth and finally I decided to spit,'' he says, grinning. ``And that was the one they kept.'' Elroy worries sometimes that his country diction will teach bad grammatical habits to the hundreds of kids who visit the farm each week. But it's a small worry.
``You know, I never went to school much and don't read and write much better than these little kids come by here. Well, one day a man was wanting me to write him a check out and my son said, `Daddy, ain't you ashamed you can't write a check out?'
``And I said `I'm just ashamed I ain't got no money in the bank!''
But Elroy is money in the bank for the farm. One of its best spirits. Look for him at the
barn or out by the Homestead where the milking goes on.
A BATCH OF CORNBREAD
Anyone who visits much eventually finds a favorite spot at the Jourdan-Bachman farm. For Jo Hammons, who has volunteered for 10 months with her young daughters Emily and
Natalie, that place is the Tenant Farm. It's an irony that this one-room building, meant to represent the lives of black sharecroppers of the time, is the only historical structure on the farm not built primarily by African American labor. It was built by Germans. ``I really like the people who lived here,'' Jo says of the dozen or so family members who would have shared the little home. ``I'm always rooting for the underdog, and in my mind they made it. They ended up having their own farm.'' Jo's most recent lesson in pioneer living: The tribulations of making cornbread in a Dutch oven in a fire outside, coals under the little black cooking kettle, coals piled on the lid for even heating. Batch No. 1: Burnt beyond all hope. Batch No. 2: A perfect loaf until you bite into it. Oops. Salt used for sugar. ``That's pig food,'' Jo says. Batch No. 3: Taken from the fire too soon; fine around the edges, but mush in the middle. ``More pig food, I guess,'' Jo admits. Finally, Batch No. 4: A perfect loaf. Daubed with fresh butter, it vanishes into the mouths of visitors in seconds. ``I have more respect for these people every time we come out here,'' Jo says.
IF WE CAN JUST GET THROUGH THIS
The Tenant Farm is also the favorite place for Todd Williams, full-timer and the main farmer, who often works long hours in the hot sun (tiny sun-caused cancers recently removed from nose and cheek), and looks forward to the shade of the back porch. It's a quiet place. Secluded. From a nearby cedar tree hang a dozen cobalt-blue bottles, meant to catch any evil spirits that might invade the farm. Ineffective against raccoons, though. A few weeks ago the masked bandits broke into the nearby chicken coop and killed all the chickens. Todd, tall and bearded with a sharp friendly voice, is making repairs. ``It's so secluded here, you don't see any outside intrusions, you don't hear cars on the road,'' he says, tipping his hat back off his eyes. ``It's kind of like an island. You can almost feel if you're down here in your costume, that you really are in that time. How they were worried about the baby pigs or whether it's gonna rain or whatever. It really gets into what people were thinking: `If I can only get these pigs through this.' ''
Getting your pigs through this. Through the drought, through the winter, through the muck, through the boot-sucking glop that any real farm creates in spades. There's another theme sounded often by the spirits of the farm, something we've lost here in 1999: Closeness to the earth.
Jean-Louis Dehoux, volunteer blacksmith, speaking of his youth in Belgium, voices the sentiment: ``Not that long ago people there lived on farming collectives; that's how they survived the Great Depression. Something like that would be a real disaster now,'' he says. ``So many have lost the connection to the land.''
Jean-Louis visited the farm three years ago with his daughter, fell in love with the place, started volunteering as he discovered the value of the overlap between then and now. That place where the 1880s and 1990s meet, out front of the blacksmith shop where a class of fourth graders gather to watch him hammer a glowing red tip of weldable steel. ``You can see a real contrast between classes from different schools, too,'' he says. He swings his hammer. Ping! ``Some teachers have real control of their classes (Ping!) and they all gather around and pay attention to the blacksmithing (Ping!), but at other schools the teachers are basically just babysitting (Ping!) and the kids are running all over the place and have no interest (Ping!) in what the farm is about.'' The iron goes back into the fire. ``That's why my kids go to the Round Rock school district,'' Jean-Louis says, wiping his brow. ``I saw the way the Round Rock classes behaved at the farm and liked it.'' Now there's your overlap between then and now.
A KODAK MOMENT
The ironic moments on the farm are those when time overlaps completely, distant past and present jumbled up and not play-acting anymore. It's real life, and maybe it's 1880-something and maybe it's 1990-something, or maybe it's just a weird Time Tunnel blend of the two. The day they dedicated the spanking new Bell House, they buried a time capsule, a tube about the size of a pony keg -- to be opened in October of 2099 -- filled with the detritus of our culture, items chosen by kids, summer campers. Things like a Blue Sky soda can, an ad for an Apple G3, a few Hot Wheels cars, a photograph of someone's kitchen. And for some reason, an ordinary table fork. Later the two-dozen costumed interpreters gathered a few feet away on the front porch in the evening sun for a photograph.
Reflected by fresh white paint and at a perfect angle of attack, the sun became increasingly cruel. Sweat poured off the overdressed people who wriggled and grimly joked as the shutter clicked. My daughter and I sat in the midst of the crowd as she squirmed, hair plastered to her forehead. ``A few more seconds,'' the photographer said. ``Just a couple more seconds.'' It occurred to me that our discomfort was no worse now than it would have been 100 years ago and we are no less mortal. All those costumed people squirming under a harsh sun just as they'd have squirmed a century ago, making the same grim jokes, wearing the same clothes, wishing Matthew Brady there would hurry the heck up. A costumed crowd inhabited by the spirits of the past, drawn by a focus of feeling, spirits who would rather savor the intense discomfort of the sun than suffer the nothing-at-all of the grave. ``Say cheese,'' someone said. The group finally broke into a laugh, the good photo was taken, and we split apart, the magic past, spirits scattered into the evening glow. My daughter and I walked away holding hands, back toward the dressing rooms to change into street clothes, T-shirts, Capri pants, Birkenstocks. ``I'll be dead by the time they open that time capsule,'' I said to my daughter. ``I might not be,'' she said. ``Yeah, maybe not,'' I said. ``But you'll be an old, old lady.'' ``Yeah.'' For a moment I wondered if they'll ever make a museum to urban life in Texas in the 1990s, if two or three generations from now volunteers will dress in Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps and sit for hours in front of 21-inch monitors, imitating their forebears, us. Get together in meeting rooms wearing suits, scribbling on flip charts while paying visitors watch from behind a velvet rope. Maybe they'll make a museum like that. Maybe. More likely it'll still be the Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farm, and the folks who finally open that time capsule will be dressed in bonnets and suspenders. And it's my honest hope there'll be among them a dad and his daughter, lending flesh to lost spirits on a Sunday afternoon.
Click here to visit the Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farm web page.
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