A Clermont Childhood – Farming in the War Years

Editor’s Note: In March 1939, Gilbert and Margaret Royston and their five children moved from a farm on Parshall Lane to Clermont Farm, just east of Berryville, which they continued to rent until 1948. In this series of articles, the youngest of the Royston children, Don, recalls the Clermont of his youth.

“A Clermont Childhood (1939-1948),” by Donald R. Royston, first appeared in Proceedings (Vol. XXVI, 2008), the Journal of the Clarke County Historical Association. The Clarke Daily News is very pleased to present this five-part series in collaboration with the Clarke County Historical Association.

The 3rd annual HarvFest — a family-centered celebration of local food, farming, and history — takes place at Clermont Farm in Berryville, Virginia on Saturday, June 18, from 11-5. Clarke County has a rich heritage of farming and history that continues to this day. The national movement toward eating local food, practicing sustainable agriculture, and connecting the producer to the consumer is well underway and HarvFest will bring this education and celebration to the public, prepared cuisine, entertainment, and educational activities.

HarvFest is a one-day festival celebrating local food, farming, and history. Clarke County’s rich agricultural and historical heritage will be showcased via local food and drink vendors, farming demonstrations, and historic tours and displays. HarvFest is hosted by and benefits The Clermont Foundation and Clarke County Parks and Recreation.

HarvFest will be held at the historic Clermont Farm just east of Berryville on business Route 7. Clermont was surveyed by George Washington in 1750 and currently sits on 360 rolling acres owned by the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources and managed by a local trust. Clermont is a working cattle and sheep farm.


A Clermont Childhood: Farming in the War Years

by Donald R. Royston

Clermont was a pretty large farm for Clarke County, about 355 acres, with two barns, two silos, four houses, a spring house, two machine sheds, a chicken house, a hog pen, a huge corn crib, a meat house, two gardens, two fruit orchards, and even an old cemetery located in the middle of the fruit orchard near the “big house” — the one used exclusively by the owners, a brother and three sisters of the McCormick family.

Gilbert Royston farming near Berryville, Virginia - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association

All these acres were originally farmed using horses. Pop later purchased a McCormick-Dearing Model 1020 tractor with steel wheels and a “Little Genius” plow. When the 1020 later broke down in the middle of a field, he traded up for a more modern International Harvester (IH) Model H tractor that seemed to be a constant aggravation. On numerous occasions, the plow would get hooked under a rock, causing Pop to back up to reset it. That would push the trailing wheel sideways, and then the plow would get crooked, and pretty soon it got all tangled up —even up on one wheel. This Model H also had steel wheels initially, and the engine was somehow configured to start on gasoline and then be switched over to kerosene. One day as Pop was cutting wheat with his hired man, Skeeter, riding the binder, he ran over or into a rock with the front end of that tractor, breaking the “bolster.” Parts were difficult to get, and the field of wheat had to be finished using horses to pull the binder. Pop would later have rubber tires placed on the Model H.

The only person I ever saw driving the IH tractor was Pop, but he sometimes relented and allowed Bill and me to steer the wheel while we sat on his lap. But only one of us at a time! Horses were used almost exclusively to plow, plant, and harvest as well as for the myriad of other necessary tasks on a farm this large.

Besides my oldest brother, Gilbert, Nathaniel “Skeeter” Garner was Pop’s only other full-time employee. Skeeter was provided a house to live in — we called it the “cabin” — but he ate breakfast, dinner (the noon meal), and supper with us, in the same room but not at the same table. Skeeter was black, and segregation was the norm during those days.

Skeeter was almost like an uncle to all of us. He   protected and mentored us, and indeed as far as we were concerned, he was one of us. Mom especially won his heart. She could have asked Skeeter to fly to the moon, and I believe he would have tried to accommodate her. But he watched out for all of us, including Bill and me, sometimes with strange results. There was the time, for example, he shot the cats.

Bill and I had some tame rabbits we kept penned in a hutch. I’m not certain how or why we had these rabbits. They might have been brought to us as presents by our maternal grandparents, NaNa and PaPa, on one of their annual visits from Pennsylvania. For some reason on this occasion, Flopsie, Mopsie, Cottontail, and Peter were not penned up. Maybe one of us forgot to close the gate. Anyway, the rabbits got out into the yard, and the house cats began feasting on them. Hearing Bill’s and my screams upon our discovery of this massacre, Skeeter came running from the house with Pop’s 12-gauge shotgun and began shooting cats. I’m uncertain how many villains he killed or maimed, but we had to have a large cat and rabbit funeral and burial.

We were at Clermont during World War II. We had no electricity then, or ever while we lived there, but we received the Northern Virginia Daily newspaper by postal delivery and had a battery-powered radio. Batteries cost money so we conserved the energy of the batteries by not using it often. When we did turn on the radio, though, everyone paid attention. We normally listened to Pop liked – “Amos & Andy,” Gillette’s Friday night fights or World Champion prize fights, and Lowell Thomas for the news. I even remember hearing the broadcast of the news of the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.

I recall Mom had made blackout curtains that hung over the two windows in the living room. Our source of light was an Aladdin kerosene lamp. It was brighter light than regular kerosene lamps. And we didn’t stay up late. Farm families were early risers. During those war years, as we listened to the news, Bill and I became fascinated with guns, airplanes, and armies. Pop later told folks he never had a straight nor sharp hand saw after Bill and I came along. He said we dulled and bent his saws making play guns — mock German Lugers and Colt 45s.

One place we often played during those war years was under the meat house. We pretended our B-29 cockpit was beneath the steps. A more perfect place couldn’t be found for our ingenious minds! Between the steps we had our view of the anti-aircraft flak coming to meet us; we had the bombs loaded behind us — actually lumps of coal   — and we were doing our best to bring Germany and the enemies of the USA to their knees.

Next: A Clermont Childhood — Trouble with the Law