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Remembering Uncle Clayton's Clydesdales Titan and Ganymede


Justin Isherwood  |  Wisconsin State Farmer

Uncle Clayton lived and breathed on a 240-acre farmstead under the watch of the ghost mountain below the village of Bancroft, inelegantly known as Mosquito Bluff. A sand land farm with a touch of Roscommon, Clayton tended a herd of 12, a size once thought adequate to health and prosperity. 

His barn was the classic gambrel with a separate wing including its oak-floored horse stall whose ceiling wasn’t designed for his massive creatures named for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, in order Ganymede and Titan. They of the known tribe of Clydesdale that when deployed as traction could sorry most wheeled tractors of that age, the petite jeweled darlings of the new age of agriculture; Ford 8N, Allis WC, the Farmall, the Model B. Difference being the farmer did eventually pity his horse and relent the long day to the water trough, the oat sack and a good burlap rub down. Never to pity the tractor, as was an omen.

My father, himself of the horse tribe, only reluctantly swapped the horse stall for the tractor shed. An act of betrayal he never quite forgave himself. That his sons might ever after be soulless, we were devoted to a couple days with Uncle Clayton, the family’s last horseman. A day spent with Clayton was to know ever after in your soul how Lord God Jehovah meant agriculture to be, a true faith by horsepower in the flesh not the cylinder head.

Uncle Clayton’s farm was in the eventide shade of that remnant mesa rising 400 feet above the peneplain.  Such was the farm site, any hot summer day it was by late afternoon transfixed, when the bluff cast a long and cool finger over Clayton’s stead, a shadow as felt cosmic in nature as hay-day heat radiated from your bones. When suddenly over your whole being an angel of the Lord changed the atmosphere as the sun slid behind the ancient watch of that mountain.

Clayton’s farm had a museum quality because of its betrothal to the horse version of agriculture. The horse stalls seemed sumptuous, the very sound of the oak timbers in the worship of hooves the size of serving trays. The tack room smelled of mineral oil, the lines and collars arrayed neatly as a locker room of the Green Bay Packers on game day. I came to look on the plow harness less as implements of husbandry as vestments of a holy order.

Such was how Uncle Clayton farmed, his every act seemed a Eucharist, about him was the pace and poise of a holy man. His farm was almost a movie set, the spartan farmhouse, a kitchen of the late 1930s, everything painted white, in the corner like some chessboard king was the pitcher pump. The refrigerator with its bushel basket condensing coil on top, the linoleum floor, the spring-loaded summer door that barked at your heels. In the corner a “garbage burner” twin lid wood stove, for those who believed coffee cannot be properly brewed by electrical resistance, neither propane.

For several days I was lent out to Uncle Clayton, at no pay, but my father’s wish to be exposed to the demigods as Yahweh meant them. I harnessed, I tilled, I mowed hay by the wonderful thing that is the mowing horse, once trained to make the corner with a parade ground turn. That the mower might nod off, a peace only the horseman knew. 

I slept in the spare room at the top of the stairs, its double hung window faced Mosquito Bluff, such the proximity by middle dark a stream of cool air flowed off its slope and displaced the thin atmosphere of that room. On those nights the mountain’s flank was a celestial object, starred as the Magellanic Clouds as super novas of lightning bugs ignited among the mast wood on its slope.

In 1960 Uncle Clayton, childless, sold his farm, the site burned to the ground, buried and leveled within days.  Gone was that prime white farmhouse, the tack room, that bedroom window that filled with mountain air. A center pivot was installed and that field for the first time in history was plowed by a wheeled tractor.

Some say there is an art to farming. That there are Rembrandts and Picassos of plow, cultivator and potato sack. To say I once knew Rembrandt.

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.