Once upon a time on a farm in the middle of Swift County, Minnesota, lived Samuel Netherbee, a farmer who loved his land, his animals, and above all his family. His love of these things was woven into a fine cloth that could not be unraveled.
Samuel, the only child of Jacob and Lola Netherbee, was born on this farm. His father taught him how to read the story of the land’s contours and soil, how to interpret the weather and its effect on the land’s ability to produce. From his father he learned the rhythms of farm animals and how to measure their beats as they were born, lived, and died. At the end of each day, Jacob put his arm across his son’s shoulder and said, “We’ve done a good day’s work.” He said this even if an animal died, if rain didn’t come, if a crop languished. Samuel’s mother taught him patience and love and forgiveness. She taught him to read the Bible and trust in God’s grand plan.
One autumn evening on Samuel’s twenty-first birthday, his father put his arm around him and said, “This land was my father’s and my grandfather’s. One day it will be yours, then your son’s.” He sent Samuel in for dinner. Jacob wanted to check on a young ailing cow. He collapsed next to the sickly heifer. He was dead when Samuel found him.
Samuel became the head of the family. He hired a reliable farmhand, who soon married his mother, and they helped run the farm. At twenty-six, Samuel went to a county dance. He met Sarah, who wore a pale lilac dress sprinkled with tiny pink roses. Her amber hair matched the amber flecks in her green eyes. They danced, twirling across the barn floor to the sound of a fiddle. At the end of the night, he kissed her soft cheek like breeze. She slipped her hand in his. Thus began the courtship of Samuel and Sarah. A year later they married.
Crops were planted and harvested, animals gave birth and were sent to slaughter. Samuel and Sarah hoped each month for a sign that she was expecting. A fistful of years went by, but they remained childless.
The farm thrived. But one day, Sarah got sick, throwing up then fainting. The doctor came and examined her. Samuel sat on a hard bench by the unlit fireplace, waiting. When the doctor came from the bedroom, he smiled. Sarah was with child. She had morning sickness and it would pass. “Say again?” asked Samuel. And the doctor did.
The father-to-be darted into the kitchen, lifted his mother off the floor and twirled her around. Lola’s flour-covered hands dusted his work shirt. He ran to the field where his stepfather sowed seeds for a new crop. Handshakes and backslapping followed Samuel’s news.
Adam arrived in the world and grew strong. He had his mother’s green eyes and his father’s golden hair. At five years old, he pulled weeds from the kitchen garden with his mother and collected eggs with his grandmother. At seven, he shadowed his father on the farm. At ten, he worked the farm like a man.
One autumn day, the men and Adam, now twelve, harvested the fields. The women carried lunch to them at noon, and they ate under a giant oak tree. At the end of the day, they cast three long shadows across the ground as they headed in for supper. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, brown gravy, warm biscuits, and buttered peas made the rounds at the table. They ate well after their day of labor. The women served pumpkin pie with sweet whipped cream. Adam turned down his favorite dessert. “I’m full,” he said. Lola and Sarah looked at him. He returned a frail smile.
After supper they gathered by the fireplace, and Sarah read from the Bible. Adam rose during one of the passages. “I’m going to bed.” He kissed each woman on her cheek. When his mother checked on him an hour later, he burned with fever. Samuel fetched the doctor.
When he withdrew from Adam’s room, the doctor said, “We have to reduce his fever.” The women rallied, and just before dawn, the boy’s temperature dipped. But he died after sunrise. They buried twelve-year-old Adam next to his grandfather. In a succession of springs, animals gave birth, but Sarah and Samuel remained childless. He could not leave his farm to a son.
In 1930, the men planted the fields, but rain did not come, not that year, not the year after. Drought settled in the land, and the fields turned to dust. Samuel’s farm died, and winds lifted layer after layer of soil, blackening the sky. There was no feed for the animals. Without crops to sell, the bank loan went unpaid. The canned food in the cellar dwindled. Cancer consumed Lola, and she was laid to rest next to Jacob. Samuel’s stepfather left the farm in search of work.
Then dust pneumonia killed Sarah.
Still the rains did not come, but a man from the bank did. Samuel packed a small bundle and began walking to St. Paul. Buried beneath the soil, near a small stand of red oak trees, he left his parents, wife, and son. His people were woven into the farm he had loved, a fine cloth that could not be undone.∎
photo by George Bakos