Late in the last century, on a visit to the East Coast to see relatives whom I knew mostly as faces from childhood photos or as infrequent sojourners in Seattle, I got to know my Aunt Miriam for the first time in my adult life. We shared an interest in family history, it turned out, and besides driving all over Western Maryland together visiting cemeteries and sites of historical relevance to our family, we pored over old family photographs that she had in her keeping.
One of those photographs made a strong impression on me that I have never forgotten. It was a photo of her grandfather, my great grandfather, Benjamin Fleagle Jr., sitting at the top of a huge wagonload of hay being drawn by two farm horses. It was taken sometime around 1909. When Miriam showed me the photograph she said it was her grandfather bringing in the last of the hay crop on the farm at Mayberry before the family moved into town, into the suburbs of Baltimore. He sold the farm and moved into a house he bought (or his eldest son bought, or they bought together — one cannot tell from the deed of title as it only recorded the name Benjamin Fleagle and they were both named Benjamin Fleagle) in Colonial Park Estates in May, 1909.
It occurs to me even as I write this that my aunt may only have meant that this was a photo taken sometime during the harvesting of the last crop, not the actual last wagonload. But to me it doesn’t really matter. To me, the photo always represented a pivotal moment in the history of our family, the moment we came in off the land and became townsfolk. At the time, I imagined that this farm had been in the family for generations, possibly since our first known ancestor had emigrated from Germany in the early 18th century. I learned later, through the writings of his other son, my grandfather James Ezra Fleagle, that Benjamin Jr. had been living in nearby Taneytown before he bought the farm at Mayberry. I know he was a mason at some point in his life, but I don’t know where he lived when he plied that trade or whether he had been a farmer at any time before. And all I really knew of his father, Elder Benjamin, was that he was a devout and active member of (and an elder in) the Church of God. So I am now not sure that this was the first time we left the land, but I know that it was the last time we left the land.
For this reason I find the image simultaneously beautiful and sad, even if it does not depict the actual last wagonload (which in fact it might). Beautiful for its own earthy, workaday, late-summery sake, and sad for what it meant in the large sweep of our family’s time on American soil. When the last load of hay was gathered into the barn and the horses unhitched and put away, we bid goodbye to our immediate, reciprocal relationship with the land and the seasons.
This week a box arrived for me containing letters and photos from the early 20th century that Miriam wanted to pass on to me for safekeeping. She has recently had to move out of her old house in Baltimore and no longer has room for many of the things she stewarded for decades, including this box. It contains treasures, I have no doubt, that I will spend months and years discovering — letters between friends and family filling in the little bits and pieces that make up our lives, and worthy anecdotes that have been forgotten, and dates and names that will help fix in time events that we may have wondered about.
But the first thing I did was thumb through the old sepia-colored photos mounted on cardboard. And there it was.
And here it is, the photo of the last crop being brought in from the fields. -mdf
Image archive ID:
About the physical photograph:
Mounted on cardboard.
Written in pencil on back:
“GRANDDADDY BENJAMIN #2”