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  • Mj Pettengill

It Made Me a Better Farmer

Updated: May 7


Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

I often share excerpts from the narratives of the women and Samuel from the EIG Historical Fiction Series.


Silas Putnam is a central figure as well. There is much to learn from him as he navigates the challenges brought about by his father, a veteran seriously wounded in the Civil War.


Silas also grapples with finding his power as an overseer at the County Farm. As expected, in his quest to be tough, he struggles with the ongoing demand to overcome his sensitivities.

Many readers are critical of him. I find that, at times, I am too. However, his role in a patriarchal society following a war that took a toll on this country in unimaginable ways continues to emerge. We can imagine that it was difficult and worth acknowledging. I often wonder if we will ever learn from our past (only if we are aware and give it thought). It is something worth pondering and including in our thoughts and prayers.

At this time, I would like to express gratitude to my friend, Cynthia. When I cried about the death of my first farm animal—Elsie—a baby Toggenburg goat, she explained the importance of comprehending livestock and deadstock. It stayed with me and made me a better farmer. —Mj Pettengill

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Silas Putnam – May 23, 1873

Daddy always said that when somethin’ is born, somethin’ dies, and when somethin’ dies, somethin’ is born—livestock, deadstock.

Two days after Samuel’s birth, Daddy became deadstock when he up and died, leanin’ against the woodpile with a half a jug of whiskey froze in his hand.

I guess I shouldn’t have ‘spected nothin’ more from Daddy. He weren’t ever the same after the war. He lived by the jug and died by the jug. I thought it were a blessin’ for Mamma not to have to put up with his cussin’ and carryin’ on, but grief hit her hard. Jessie weren’t pleased when I invited her to move in with us come September, but Mamma didn’t want no part of leavin’ the house she was born in.

When I was a young boy, Grandpa Putnam gave Daddy a two-drawer pine cigar box. Even though he never had more than a handful of cigars at one time, Daddy beamed with pride because the box held up to a hundred cigars. When Mamma gave the old wooden box to me after he died, I didn’t have no desire to look inside.

Other than accidental bits and pieces of useless things that Daddy had a knack for collectin’, the only thing I ‘spected to find was the stench that he carried with him as far back as I could recall. I hauled the box into the house and left it on the floor by the foot of the bed. Jessie bothered me every day to open it, beggin’ me to look inside. I couldn’t get her to understand that Daddy didn’t have nothin’ worth savin’.

I was about to get some breakfast, when I found myself reachin’ for the box. I held it in my hands for a spell before finally openin’ the top drawer. Jest as I ‘spected, the familiar rotten smell hit me. I slammed the cover shut.

I sat in silence with the box restin’ on my lap waitin’ for a feelin’… any feelin’ at all. Like when he died, I waited for tears, but none came. After his service, when the folks was all gone, I still felt nothin’. Why didn’t I grieve for the bastard? He managed to kill any hope of grievin’.

Then I felt somethin’ odd, too odd to accept or speak of. So, I pushed it way down inside. I kicked myself for havin’ such feelin’s. I preferred to feel nothin’ than to feel so much joy and relief that I wanted to dance.

I rubbed my hands together and re-opened the drawer. I unfolded the crumpled receipt for the cow that he bought from Clarence Hutchins, dated June 10, 1868. She was a fine black and white cow that followed me around the same way a dog followed its master.

Next, I happened across a neatly folded paper with, “Volunteer Enlistment,” printed boldly across the top. It broke the barrier. I felt a twinge of sadness or maybe somethin’ else when I recalled all them nights we sat by the fire. He told stories about his heroic deeds: bein’ shot in the leg, mouthin’ off to a Reb, and the other gruesome tragedies of war. I knew most of the words by heart. As the years passed, he often relied on my memory to help him so he could conjure up some well-earned tears.

I pulled out the soiled handkerchief pressed into the corner of the drawer amongst brittle tobacco crumbs. It had been many years since I had seen Mamma plyin’ the needle. I shook it and tried to smooth out the wrinkles before droppin’ it back in the drawer.

The yellowed newspaper clippin’, from when his regiment returned from the Great War of the Rebellion, had tears in the creases from frequent handlin’. I leaned over to show Jessie. She didn’t move, sleepin’ soundly with her new flowered nightcap snug on her head. I envied her. Ever since the birth of Samuel and the passin’ of Daddy, I lay awake wonderin’ how everything got all knotted up. I tried to figure out why Abigail didn’t tell me about the child, or why she chose to go to the County Farm. I thought about it over and over again, ‘til I finally fell asleep, only to wake up thinkin’ ‘bout it again.

Excerpt: Etched in Granite Book One