Dance on Friday to the Hillbilly music
I’m a likeable chap, the girls all say
I’ll tumble your outhouse over as a prank
Do what I do when they call me Abe
Now in his 90s, Abe Waruch has long put his days of upending outhouses behind him, but he’s still a likeable chap. The elder farmer’s story was recently set to music by singer/songwriter Kelleigh McKenzie as part of an event hosted by Sage Arts on April 24, entitled Unsung Heroes: A Musical Celebration. Kelleigh came to visit with Abe at his Cherrytown farm throughout this past winter, collecting stories of hardship, camaraderie, and farm life that she then put into song. With such a deep well of experiences to draw from, Kelleigh had plenty of material to work with.
After emigrating from the Ukraine, Abe’s father earned money to purchase his upstate dairy farm while working in New York’s Fulton Fish Market. His mother, also of Ukrainian stock, married her husband when she was just 17, and the two went on to have nine children together. During the early years, the family ran the farm without the assistance of machinery, indoor plumbing, or automobiles.
“In the old days, farming was drudgery,” Abe said. “It was hard work. Everything was by hand.”
I pick them rocks and crank that butter
Climb up in the mow and spread around the hay
Fetch the water from the creek in a pail
Work the field with my ass to the sun all day
Old-time farm life was fraught with hardships that are nearly unfathomable today. Dairy farming is a year-round business, as cattle need to be fed, watered, and milked regardless of the weather. The Waresh family not only ran their farm using limited technology, they also did so during a time when severe winters were the norm.
“We’d pound a hole in the ice in the creek for the cattle to get their snouts in to drink water,” Abe says. “Every night, it would freeze solid again. The cows would drink so much that they’d stand there and shiver. It would chill ‘em right to the bone.”
Challenges like these were par for the course during the early part of the 20th century, and tough times created strong bonds within families and communities. Today, Abe is the last living among his siblings, and his love for his deceased family members is immediately apparent when he tells stories of his sisters and brothers. On the farm, everyone worked.
“The girls could do it just as good as the boys,” Abe says, explaining that his sisters would pick rocks after plowing right along with his brothers. One of his sisters, Vera, even insisted on walking daily to Kerhonkson so that she could attend high school at a time when an eighth grade education was typical among both genders. “She was the only one who did it,” he says.
Abe himself may not have attended high school, but his quick wit and farming knowhow was indispensable within the family and the surrounding community.
“Abe knows cows,” says Kelleigh, who used her song not only to relate the overall story of the Abe’s life, but to capture tidbits of his farming expertise. After watching a veterinarian assist a mother cow during a difficult birth, Abe learned the telltale signs of a heifer in labor too long, and how to reposition a calf to assist in the delivery.
Cow got a problem, know how to solve it
Farmer come a’ hollerin’: The calf won’t come!
Rope around the feet, two fingers in the mouth
Pull the calf out, get the birthing done
Skills such as these were invaluable to neighboring farmers, who relied on Abe when a birth was going wrong. In turn, farmers in the community rallied around the Waruch family when they themselves needed help. One summer, at the peak of the haying season, Abe’s father broke his neck and was unable to work.
“Every farmer pitched in and got the hay in the barn,” Abe explains. “That was the ritual. Everybody pitched in. They knew that my dad had nine children.”
Kelleigh’s clear, high voice combined with the down-home sound of her 1897 Fairbanks banjo captures not only Abe’s experiences, but his joyful outlook in spite of a difficult life. Seeing the challenges of working the land first-hand, none his five children chose to pursue farming, instead moving to places as far away as Guatemala and Alaska to pursue lives and careers of their own. Cattle may no longer graze the land of the Waresh family farm, but the spirit of the men and women who toiled here lives on in the next generation.
All my kids I sent to college
All went out and made me proud
Growing their families all around the world
But they sprouted up in Cherrytown