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by Tom Thomson
The Indomitable Louis Bromfield
Louis Bromfield, author and farmer, is buried next to his wife, Mary, in the little cemetery on the Malabar farm in north-east Ohio. Yet, inexplicably, his presence is still very much alive in the fields and around the big rambling house he loved so much. I feel this in my bones. It comes upon me in a jumble of perceptions.
I picture him coming out of the house. His boxers-Prince, Baby, Gina, and Folly-are romping about their master's feet in a joyful, salivating frenzy. Hand outstretched, he welcomes the first of the day's visitors. They come from far and wide, as much to see him as to see Malabar, his famous farm.
They come to see the miracles he has wrought in changing a drab farmhouse and what were once worn-out eroded hillside fields into a verdant 20th century version of Eden. They come to talk to him about his methods of farm management- and just about everything else under the sun, too.
Titans of industry and educators come to exchange ideas and listen to his views on a rapidly changing world. The famous glittering names of Hollywood come for leisurely weekends of hospitality and stimulating conversation.
Students and young people are attracted to Malabar-and Bromfield. Sometimes they come to talk, then stay to help with the work. Plain dirt farmers from around Pleasant Valley drop by to say hello to their good friend.
Someone once said that Bromfield was as big as outdoors. He stands 6'2" in his stocking feet. But he's big in other ways. As you listen to him talk, you're impressed with his deep convictions and the fire burning in his eyes. Then, immediately, he puts you at ease with his famous smile.
His tanned, wrinkled face changes expression as easily as Ohio weather changes. He has a religious fervor about the proper use of land, followed closely by the love of his dogs - and politics.
One moment he laughs derisively at bureaucrats. The next he remembers he has a speaking engaagement before a group of state officials and business leaders. His large hands make a motion of exaggerated helplessness. Again his wide mouth breaks into a grin. In a more serious moment he outlines his dream of establishing a youth camp to teach the principles of conservation and nature lore to children of all races and nationalities. About race in America, he wrote in his book, Malabar Farm:
The cure for all these racial differences and ills is at base equal economic opportunity, education-better diet, and better soil upon which that diet is grown, -better ethics, and finally the annihilation of ideas about the superiority of one race over another.
The morning sun burns through the mist hanging over the wooded ridge of the Ferguson Place across the road. Bromfield returns to the house from his morning walk.
From the spacious Malabar kitchen comes the aroma of fried ham to accompany platters of scrambled and fried eggs for breakfast. He leans down and affectionately pats Prince on the head before heading for the dining room. Later in the day he will write in his journal:
At least 18 people sit down at table for every meal. We eat well and what we eat is the best in quality, fresh from the garden or dairy or hen house. Thousands of people from nearby and far away have paid us visits. Everywhere there are children helping with the haying and filling the silos, fishing and swimming in the ponds, learning to know and respect the farm animals . . . discovering the satisfaction of honest work.
On other pages he has recorded tales he heard as a boy about the exploits of Johnny Appleseed, renegade Indians, and such colorful local characters as Phoebe Wise who killed an ardent suitor by firing her shotgun through the front door of her house.
During breakfast there is animated conversation. Louis is in the thick of it. There is talk of the cold war with the Russians, of unemployment, the plight of the poor, and the underfed. He lambasts the politicians in Washington, then recalls how he was a Democrat most of his life. That reminds him of his father - and more stories. He says it was from Charlie Bromfield, his father, that he inherited his political savvy and his love for animals and the land. As a child his youngest daughter once remarked: "The trouble with the animals on this farm is that they all think they're people."
"My father was interested in two things not counting politics," Bromfield says. "The restoration of ruined farms and the reformation of run-down horses." Everyone laughs heartily at the way he says it, even those who have read his books and know it's the gospel truth.
After breakfast he ambles over to his jeep, climbs in with Prince at his side, invites several guests to get in the back seat.
Proudly he drives them around the farm which consists of over 900 acres. They stop to observe the sleek herds of highly productive Holsteins. He tells his friends how he reclaimed marginal hillside fields by nourishing the soil with humus and using new methods of disking and plowing. His visitors notice the long luxuriant hedgerows of multiflora rose. Bromfield explains the hedge serves as a perfect fence, windbreak, and refuge for wildlife. As if to reaffirm his statement, a Mockingbird mounts to the top of a branch and bursts into song. Around and about come the melodies of Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, and a Summer Tanager.
At noon the group returns to the house, entering the spacious entrance hallway with its beautiful "floating" stairway, a style of architecture originally designed by Thomas Jefferson.
That afternoon Bromfield retires to his book-lined study and its massive 10-foot desk to catch up on his correspondence. In his journal he will jot down conversations and new ideas while they're fresh in his mind. Later in the afternoon he will be in the fields again.
Late afternoon will find Bromfield, tired, sunburned, and grimy, coming in from the fields where he has been mowing hay. He will jokingly tell his guests that Confucious said "the best fertilizer on any farm is the footsteps of the owner."
That night around a crowded dinner table the house will literally glow with renewed life and vitality. The game room will echo with laughter, and famous guests will add to the subtlety and bite of the conversation.
The unexpected death of Prince, his favorite boxer, was a great personal loss and left Bromfield dejected and downcast.
On a fishing trip he had felt a vague sense of something wrong. Returning to Malabar he was told that Prince had died. Fighting back the tears, he looked at Mary. "I think l'll go have a look at the farm before dark," he said. As he got into his jeep, Prince's brother, Baby, jumped in beside him. Before, it had always been Prince who went everywhere with him. Now it was he and Baby driving up to the Ferguson Place where he instinctively went when he was worried or depressed. In the pastures high above the valley, where.the sky was so close he could almost touch it, he would seek peace of mind.
Halfway up the lane through the woods, Baby started inching over toward the driver's seat, suddenly leapt into Bromfield's lap, began licking his ear, exactly as Prince had done so many times. It was exactly as if the dog knew.
This sudden outburst of affection was so violent that Bromfield, gasping and laughing, shouted, "That's enough, Baby! Let me alone!. I have to drive!"
When they reached the high farm he climbed out of the jeep, followed by Baby, and he sprawled out on the warm wind-blown grass. He remembered back to how Prince always knew what a suitcase meant. The dog would grow worried and miserable even if he dressed to go into town. He would reassure him by saying, "It's alright, kid! I'm coming back! Don't worry!" In his journal he wrote:
"Then as I lay there on the grass, Baby turned suddenly and again began licking my ear violently, and quickly out of the threatening sky a wild storm broke . . ."
After returning with Baby through the storm he went to bed early. The spot at the foot of the bed where Prince had always slept on an old green rug was empty for the first time since he had been placed there as a puppy. He fell asleep but twice during the night he was wakened . . . once by the passing of another storm, the other time by the feeling of something stirring and pressing against his leg. When he sat up and reached down there was nothing there.
After a long time he fell asleep again only to be wakened this time by the sound of scratching on the screen door. It was exactly the sound made by Prince when the door stuck in wet weather. He listened for a moment, then concluded one of the other dogs had gone out and couldn't get back in again.
He put on the light and went to the door. The storm was over and the moon was shining high over the wooded ravine. There were no dogs outside the door. Again he wrote in his, journal:
The two experiences were not imagined nor were they the result of drowsiness for each time I lay awake for a long time afterward. I do not know the explanation save perhaps that no creature, in some ways even a human one, had ever been so close to me as Prince.
Russell Lord described Bromfield as being an outsized person "outraged that it's a man's fate to live but one life at a time." Bromfield himself once said that he was forever destined to be seeking one thing and running away from another.
He had not yet recorded his sorrow on hearing of the death of his friend, George Hawkins, his manager and advisor on most of his books.
There will be the coming excitement of his good friends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall getting married in the rose garden and spending their honeymoon at Malabar. Later will come the terrible pangs of grief at the death of his beloved wife, Mary.
Great men always die too young. This was true of Louis Bromfield. Though he lived life to the brim, the breaking of the cup only emphasized the loss.
Much of Bromfield's knowledge of conservation practices was gained from his farm manager, Max Drake, who had been the Mediana County agricultural agent and Hershel Hecker, district conservationist for the Soil Conservation Service. As the sustainable agricultural theories that they advocated were put into practice on the farm, Bromfield became an all-out supporter of such methods.
Born in 1896 in Mansfield, Ohio, he died in 1956. He wrote 34 books in 33 years. The Green Bay Tree in 1924 was his first big success. Two years later he won a Pulitzer Prize for Early Autumn. His other works followed in orderly succession. Seven of his books were made into movies. All of them were popular in the 30s and 40s. The Rains Came, The Man Who Had Everythinq, and Until the Day Breaks were big hits. Greer Garson starred in Mrs. Parkinqton.
From his quick pen came the movie scenarios for Briqham Young and Walt Disney's The Vanishing Prairie.
Today Malabar is maintained by the state of Ohio and is dedicated to the memory of its founder and to his dreams of good farming practices.
The 32-room house still retains an atmosphere of hospitality and elegant style. The valuable collection of 17th and 18th century French furnishings contributes to the charm. A sparkling chandelier of crystal festoon, brought from the Bromfield's French villa at Senlis sets off the dining room. A mirror wall with an eagle and 48 stars of gold surrounds an Italian marble fireplace in the living room.
An impressive selection of art is displayed, including paintings by French and Spanish artists and two delightful oils by Grandma Moses. There are also several portraits of Bromfield and members of the family.
One of the guest bedrooms is variously called the morning glory room (because of the wallpaper pattern), the honeymoon suite (because it was occupied by the Bogarts), and the rooster room (because a large number of figurine roosters Louis gave Mary are displayed there).
Bromfield's study boasts his famous semicircular desk and a nearby card table where he actually did most of his writing. There are walls of books and an interesting assortment of memorabilia. In a corner of the study is a little two-way door which allowed his boxers freedom to come and go.
The home and farm is now a state park and is open for guided tours year-round. Wagon tours of the model farm are also available. The park is located off State Route 603 southeast of Mansfield. Special events include a Maple Syrup Festival every March. For further information, call 1/419/892-2784.
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