Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Bailey Farmstead...the Most Important Fact in Agriculture

    Leafing through a copy of L.H. Bailey’s most autobiographical book, The Harvest, I came across a passage on the importance of the home, specifically the home as a farmstead. Bailey wrote that the farmstead, “…is the greatest and most important fact in agriculture…The good single-family farm in the real open country (not in the environs of cities and towns) is one of our greatest social assets…Any estimate of agriculture that misses this situation is defective and of little avail...” I have no doubt Bailey pictured his childhood home in South Haven with its colonnade arches and tracks of orchards.  What are we to make of this bold statement, that Bailey saw the home as the “most important fact in agriculture?” I would have thought that the crops, livestock, commercial output and technical ingenuity would be the important facts in agriculture. Not so for Bailey. It is the home. Happily for us, through the interventions of past generations, the iconic image of the Bailey farmstead/home in South Haven still stands, its longevity supported by its historical significance attachment to Bailey.
    Reflecting on his essay I realized the farmstead/home in South Haven preserves immediately at least two values for us. First, is its historical value. This 19th century Greek Revival home is an important physical artifact of Michigan’s agricultural settlement that, as historian Kenneth E. Lewis unabashedly puts it, shaped the destiny of the lower south Michigan region. Secondly is the value that Bailey points out, the farmstead as the symbol of naturalness and rightness in the place of things. As Bailey puts it in the same essay, “[The home] outweighs the quantities of things, the turnovers and the activities of the produce market. The home is still part of the farm, rearing new generations in the very midst of the realities of life, without make-believe, stage-play, patronage, advertising, go-betweens, or superfluities. It is a twelve month institution, seemingly as native and unremovable as land and trees and ceaseless brooks.”
    I never experienced a farmstead life. My childhood was nestled in the concrete of suburban Detroit bereft of any natural process besides the ritual of public school and Sunday mass. However, my monthly visits to the Bailey homestead awaken some dormant aspect that is connected with the land and its long history, where the dictates of modern life are only a small passing drama. The value of naturalness comes through. As a historian, I am happy to see that the Bailey home still stands. As an individual, however, I am more keenly aware of this deeper value that Bailey realized of this home, sown from the seeds of his youth. It is a good thing to know both.          

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