In 1955 our landlady summoned my father to fly from Illinois to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where she lived. She wanted to show him the registered Angus cattle that she planned to buy in the showplace farms of New Jersey. She planned for the farm on which we lived near Paxton, Illinois, to become such a showplace, to breed and sell registered Angus cattle. Of the sixteen farms in Illinois that she inherited from her physician husband, the 320 acre farm that we leased would be the most suitable, in a highly visible location along a busy state highway, with many acres suited to pasture and hay but not grain production. After five years of leasing, my father had proven capable of caring for a herd of a hundred beef cattle that produced many calves and a significant income every year, and he had cleaned up the farm, replacing the deteriorated fencing and taming the previously out-of-control weed population. She would call the farm “Hamilton Oaks,” honoring her late husband and referencing the twenty-acre oak grove behind which the farm buildings sat. She wanted my father to buy a fifty percent interest in the registered cattle, as they already shared half interests in the rest of the farm production. He could not commit to that new expense, having no extra savings to spend, but she made it plain that he must agree to her proposal for the farm conversion itself, if we were going to stay there.
The next two years would see a flurry of activity. An old barn was moved about two hundred fifty yards to the west side of the bluff above the river valley, and it, along with a second old barn, was renovated with stalls for select cattle. A new pole barn, 120 by 60 feet, was built to serve as hay storage and shelter next to new concrete feedlots on the site vacated by the old barn, on the east side of the bluff that opened to the major pastures that lay in the river valley to the south and east. Large earth movers scraped topsoil from the farm lots to level the entire top of the bluff; the earth movers covered the whole area with hundreds of tons of gravel excavated from the river valley, providing plenty of mud-free parking and work areas. The banks along the entire half-mile length of the river, piled on both sides with dredging mounds left forty years earlier, were smoothed to provide additional pasture.
A new deep well was drilled, providing plenty of fresh water for the growing herd of cattle. Every building was repainted and renewed, except for the house in which we lived. Sided with asbestos shingles, the house had uneven interior walls suggesting an old story-and-a-half log cabin underneath, expanded with a turn of the century addition of a living room and a third bedroom above it, accessed through a hallway that had been more recently converted into the only interior bathroom. The outhouse still stood in a corner of the yard; it was especially useful when the plumbing and septic system balked, which was often. An oil furnace sat in the small rock cellar under part of the house. We had inside plumbing and central heat for downstairs; we could not complain.
Board fences replaced the woven wire fences around the farm lots visible from the highway, and we spent many weeks painting those new fences white. Masons built a large ornamental concrete block gateway to the farm, and the “Hamilton Oaks” sign, five by six feet, with the image of a black Angus bull prominently displayed, arose on one side of the entrance.
The registered cattle began to arrive from New Jersey in cattle trucks. The prize bull alone cost $5000, much more than our annual income. He was overly fat and barely able to move, as was fashionable in the fair judging circuits of those days. Twenty-five expensive cows came with him. We pored over their pedigree papers, impressed by the extraordinary names and titles given to each one. Naturally, as a harbinger of things to come, the surly bull had no interest in the cows that came with him.
Boxes came filled with fancy leather show halters, curry combs, brushes, and a large barley cooker. Several weeks of feeding cooked barley was supposed to add a fine sheen to the black Angus hair. (We didn’t grow barley.)
Our landlady gave me a registered Angus calf, Prince Something-or-Other, that had a misshapen head. I was ten years old and had just begun to take part in 4-H, and Prince was my project for the year. My oldest brother was working his way through college, and he took a year off to help during the year of construction. My middle brother was finishing high school, and also working to earn money to start in college, so the success of the enterprise fell to some extent on my successful competition in the fair and cattle show circuit. I attended the Farm Extension Service cattle judging school, and learned what I could about how to prepare and show my steer. For the next four years I went to the 4-H fair, earning “B” ribbons for my steers every year, a long way from the Grand Champion prizes so coveted by our landlady. She thought that two men and two boys would have plenty of time to show cattle during summer fairs, but that was not the case, nor did the registered bull cooperate, so we relied on the unregistered herd to provide the 4-H projects. Artificial insemination was becoming available, but she did not want to pay for that when she had already paid so much for an award-winning bull and everything else.
The farm looked like a showplace, not up to New Jersey standards, certainly beyond ours, but there was no market for her registered cattle in our area. After five years she was ready give up, sell the herd at rock-bottom prices, and get rid of us. After we left, no one painted the fences, no one raised cattle, and the “Hamilton Oaks” sign was taken down.