By Brenda Reeser
When I was a little girl growing up on the farm on Dingle Hill I was happiest when it was my turn to walk up to Mary Ellen McLean’s house to play. With a clean change of clothes that my mother insisted I put on, I’d run up Ridge Road for about a third of a mile, the tall waving grasses of hayfields on each side of me. Timothy grass, alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil were planted to make the best quality hay. There were many choices of things to do with Mary Ellen. In the summer we’d run to the small shed next to the barn. The shed was filled with neatly stacked lime bags. Each bag was wrapped in sturdy brown paper. Mr. McLean, Mary Ellen’s dad, would spread the lime in the hayfields to neutralize the acid in the soil. Mary Ellen and I would play with our dolls in that enclosed, clean place, dressing and undressing them. My mother sewed dolls’ dresses made of pastel pink and blue fabric; soft fabrics that were well-worn and kind to a child’s hand.
Sometimes we’d steal peas from her grandmother’s garden which was in back of the house. The two of us would wait for her to return to her kitchen leaving a pail full of fresh snap peas behind. We’d creep up to the pail like little thieves, grab hands full and run back to the safety of the shed excited about what we were able to collar. These antics were done for playful adventure, and, thinking back, I believe her grandmother was amused and enjoyed watching us from her kitchen window. Once I was invited to stay for lunch. A hot farmer’s meal was prepared and it was the first time I tasted succotash. Mary Ellen liked this dish, so I liked it too. Growing up around vegetable gardens has given me a continued appreciation for fresh tasting foods.
What imagination and hope we had as children in the country. There wereenough things for us to do to satisfy our need for play. We planted watermelon seeds underneath the big hemlock, absolutely convinced of a big crop the following summer. We’d visit the Storey farm that the McLeans owned as well. The abandoned house was especially fun to explore because we were certain that it was haunted. I anticipated finding a treasure inside that ramshackle of a house. And I often stared with wonder at the old dated calendar (a faded, pinkish picture of a woman?) hanging on the wall of what might have been the kitchen.
During the haying season Mary Ellen and I waited as her father drove into the second story of the barn to unload a wagon full of loose hay. This was before farmers owned balers. Farmers loaded hay from the field with a pitchfork. Once the hay wagon was full, Mr. McLean used a large hayfork and winch system and was able to grab an entire load at once by tripping a rope and dumping it into the mow. As soon as he was finished, we’d leap, ignoring the warnings from our parents. “You’ll poke an eye out. There might be sticks in there!” I still remember the hand-hewn beams and wooden pegs that held the McLean’s barn together. The stanchions held gentle, beige Jersey cows; cows that children could stand next to without being dwarfed. I spent many pleasurable hours in that barn.
I recently witnessed a whole barn being torn down to be buried. I stood and gawked as the bulldozer was pushing at one wall; pushing and then backing up and pushing harder. The bulldozer was like a giant serpent writhing, merciless with its victim until its collapse. I left. I couldn’t watch anymore as the bulldozer continued. Relentless. I’m thankful to be able to hold onto memories of time spent in barns.
Mary Ellen and I often played on the rock ledges in a cow pasture owned by our neighbor, Grant Brisbane, a piece of property that was adjacent to Mary Ellen’s place. Once again we imagined mysterious thing: bears hibernating and bobcats waiting to pounce. We looked for Native American arrowheads and ran farther up the pasture to visit with Grant’s Guernsey cows. These cows were known for producing a high butterfat content in their milk. Some of us still remember Borden’s advertising their Golden Guernsey milk!
Those were the days when children could run freely all over the countryside. We did not have to worry about strange hunters or “no trespassing” signs. We didn’t need to be concerned about mean dogs or unfriendly neighbors. We were happy young girls, and felt, innocently perhaps, welcome and free to be everywhere.
The McLeans gave up farming and eventually moved to the Village, where Mr. McLean had a special place in the community. He was knowledgeable about the history of Dingle Hill. People listened to him when we gathered at the Andes Hotel where interesting discussions took place. He told stories about the owners of the farms on Dingle Hill. Everyone acknowledged that he was the leading authority on Dingle Hill history and lore. He was devoted to his research about farm life. Mr. McLean was skilled at pen and ink drawings about farm life and rafting on the Delaware River.
I honor my childhood memories with Mary Ellen. It was a precious and beautiful time before we became adults and went our separate ways!
Note: Mary Ellen lives in Chicago and has worked for 23 years in the Rush Medical College in downtown Chicago. She is an Instructor and a Research Associate. She and her sisters, Joan and Nancy, published posthumously “We Lived on Dingle Hill: A Native’s History of the Region and His Personal Recollections” by their father, John D. McLean. A copy is available at the Hunting Tavern Museum’s Parthenia Davis Gift Shop and at the Andes Library.