Trying to live love well through the power of the Everlasting.
*Updated 13 October: upon further reading through the family records and talking with my great-aunt and grandmother, I realized that my original version of this had some inaccuracies. I’ve fixed them in this updated post.
I live on a farm. It’s a family farm, handed down from generation to generation. John L. Armstrong and Anna Marshall Armstrong, my great-great-great-grandparents, bought it in 1869. They had a farm in a town roughly 30 miles away, right in the St. Lawrence River Valley. The soil in that town is much, much better than ours. That was important, because John and Anna were potato farmers. In 1867, their entire potato crop was loaded onto a train bound for New York City. Stopped overnight, an unexpected frost wiped out the entire crop. John and Anna lost their farm.
They packed up and moved closer towards the Adirondack Mountains, and bought a mill on the river of a tiny little town. Moving closer towards the mountains from the St. Lawrence River Valley was the exact opposite of moving up in the world. Two years later, they had just enough to buy a farm in that same town. They were farmers again. But they had a problem: the soil in this new location was too poor to really do anything, so they converted their farm into an inn. They built a large structure right on the road, and the barn became the carriage house. Their business consisted mostly of lodging the loggers that supplied the mill with timber.
John and Anna had four children: Abbie May, Ella Euphoria, Carrie Belle, and Frank Marshall. Ella and Frank died in childhood; Ella at 16 and Frank as a baby. John and Anna buried them both, before Anna herself passed away. John buried his wife and lived only two more years, dying without seeing either of his surviving daughters married and knowing that, since his only son had died, his family line would never bear his name: Armstrong.
Abbie and Carrie took up the reins and continued the family business. Carrie met a local man, married him, and immediately had a son. Within a year the son had died, and before she was an old woman Carrie would lose her husband as well. Tragedy had again claimed many lives, leaving the family line on the brink of oblivion.
I know all these things because John and Anna had a Bible. One of those great, big, tear-your-arms-off-as-you-try-to-pick-it-up Bibles. In the pages of this treasured family Bible, these events were recorded with beautifully chosen words to describe not only what happened, but in enough detail so that those to come would understand what happened. It was kept in the family, and is currently in the care of my grandmother.
Now I can’t know this, but I can guess it pretty easily: I’m guessing that Abbie had several days where she wasn’t sure things were going to turn out okay in the end. Her family had lost the farm she’d been born on, and with it everything they ever knew. Potato farmers no more. She would have been intimately familiar with the details, and the sorrow to her, though chiefly experienced as something that mostly affected her parents, was real nonetheless. She lived through her family losing everything. She buried her brother, her sister, her mother, her father. A few years later she would stand by as her nephew was buried and, later on, her brother-in-law. Grief coupled with the heavy burden of knowing that the survival of the family rested with her.
Yikes. Like, really. Yikes.
But there was a brilliant ray of sunshine that hasn’t been mentioned yet. She met a young man who stayed in the hotel when he came to town to work on a bridge, George Swift. They fell in love and were married. Together they made a go of the farm. Abbie gave birth, two years after her nephew died, to the sole member of the third generation: a boy whom they named John. John Swift. Tragedy struck again, when roughly five years later the inn burned to the ground. Abbie and George rebuilt and kept on going.
Abbie’s son John Swift grew up – a miracle in and of itself given the family history – and turned the farm into Swift & Sons, a dairy farm providing the local area with milk. He started a maple sugaring business in the forests behind the fields. He married and had five children. He started a general store in town that carried him and his family through the depression quite comfortably. I’ve seen ledger books of accounts started for neighborhood families during the depression. When his neighbors had no money, he gave their groceries to them on charge accounts that had no certainty of ever being settled. He bought up neighboring farms in foreclosure auctions, and added their lands and resources to his own.
John Swift’s youngest child was named Marian. Marian and her husband, Glen Thomas, took over the farm eventually. They had three children. They kept the maple syrup business going. They transitioned from a dairy farm to a hobby farm with a roadside stand selling sweet corn because the government began to regulate dairy products and the processes involved. Thomas’ sweet corn is a local staple now, with scores of customers swearing that they’ve never had any corn that was better. Glen and Marian poured money from their day jobs into the farm, to renovate it and restructure it.
Marian and Glen’s eldest son, Brian, runs the farm now. He’s the fifth generation. Brian (whom I call Dad) began adding new branches of business. We now are a staple for pumpkins, apples, squash, and all sorts of vegetables. The roadside stand is now our entire barn, cleaned out and decorated every fall to house the growing business. Right now, as I write this, you can walk through the entire barn and see vast displays of beautiful pumpkins, corn stalks, hay bales, apples, squash, maple syrup, and honey for sale. Dad also pours money from his day job into the farm, and that mixed with continued support from Marian and Glen – Grandma and Grandpa – combined with revenue from the farm’s sales, are helping to shape a new business model for our family farm that will hopefully see us through a few more generations. I’m a proud member of the sixth, you see.
My grandmother and I talk often about what our ancestors might feel to know that we’re still here. We still live on this land, we still call it home. We’re not just scraping by here either, we’re thriving. Even though there are seasons in which we’re not sure how we’re going to scrape it financially, we’re still thriving. We have customers stopping who tell us with unbridled joy about their family tradition of coming to our family’s tradition.
Abbie Armstrong Swift’s life ended much better than her youth’s circumstances suggested. She saw the farm, a symbol of the harsh hand dealt her family, flourish and prosper. She saw healthy grandchildren fill her rooms, grandchildren with first and middle names that remembered and honored her parents, siblings, and husband. The family legacy she left behind wasn’t one of tragedy and despair, but of God’s provision and faithfulness. A story of God’s redemption working in circumstances and hearts through many generations.
Now, 142 years after John and Anna Armstrong settled here, we have members of a seventh generation – my nephew and nieces – who are being raised in the hope and glory of the gospel of the Living God. John and Anna’s descendants don’t bear the name Armstrong anymore, but many of us do live in trust that the Father is up to something, and it’ll be okay in the end. Even if in the meantime you have to lose your farm, your parents, your siblings, and who knows what else. God’s doing something. God’s redeeming the pain and loss.
God’s doing something good to the benefit of many, many people.
I know, because it’s in the Bible.
A big, leather-bound, aged bible whose cover reads, in small gold letters, “J.L. & Anna Armstrong.”