Wandering in York County

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Roger Wilson's Book - Too Much Ice Cream, Not Enough Paint

Fewer York residents live on farms, but this writer keeps memories alive

Immigration: A hot button topic that seems to have dominated politics and the news.

While most people are focused on migrants from Central America or the Middle East, many aren’t aware of the mass exodus occurring inside the United States.

Who makes up this quiet migration? Farmers.

According to John Shover, author of First Majority – Last Minority, emigration from farms to urban centers since the Great Depression is higher than the immigration from foreign countries to the United States between 1820 and 1920.

This means that more people have moved from farms to the cities since the 1930s than people who came to America between Monroe’s presidency and the First World War. This era of “mass migration” includes Ellis Island.

Donnie Wilson, Roger’s brother, in a wheat field around 1950. Roger Wilson Photo.

Stover reported that in 1790, 19 out of 20 Americans were rural dwellers. Eighty years later in 1870, 79% of Americans lived in rural settings.

By the 1920s, a huge shift took place. For the first time in American history, officially half of the population lived in cities.

Then, between 1929 and 1965, an additional 30 million Americans moved from the farms to the cities followed by another 8.6 million during the 1940s.

Why the mass exodus? Stover simply said, they weren’t needed. With the use of farm equipment, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, growing farm productivity led to fewer farm jobs. This pushed people out of the country and into the cities where there were jobs.

Even with the monumental shift from country to urban life, living on the farm remains, for many of us, our fondest memories. I was lucky enough to live on a farm for a few years while I was in elementary school. I can still feel the thrill of jumping from the lofts onto the piles of straw, the frustration of waiting for what seemed like hours for the barn cats to let me pet them, and the fear of Sally the goat, who head-butted me in the rear as I launched myself over the fence into safety.

When I was running around on the farm 20 years ago, Roger Wilson wrote his memoir of growing up on a York County farm.

Roger Wilson’s York County farm memories

Roger Wilson, author of Too Much Ice Cream, Not Enough Paint. Roger Wilson Photo.

I recently took my Comprehensive Exam for my doctorate at Penn State. For the past year, I read 100 books about my areas of research. Yes, I enjoyed reading most of them, but for some every page seemed like a spiritual test of endurance. Many can sympathize with the drudgery associated with having to read for a class, project, or work.

So after the exam, liberated from the exam, I looked at my book collection and picked Too much Ice Cream, Not Enough Paint by New Park resident Roger Wilson to read for sheer pleasure. It was a good choice.

Roger Wilson taught elementary school at South Eastern School District for twenty years. Then, he taught Science Education at Millersville University and Towson University. Since then, he’s written and co-authored multiple books about local history while staying active in the Stewartstown Historical Society and the history of Peach Bottom slate.

In 1947, Wilson’s parents, Donnie and Bonnie Wilson, purchased a 229-acre farm near Muddy Creek.

In his book, Wilson described his farm adventures including the fear of driving the tractor – a Farmall H, going to the barn to hear rain pound on the tin roof, and planting cabbage seed with a salt-shaker.

The family worked extremely hard, but they also played hard, too. In fact, the name of the book comes from Wilson’s grandmother, Nan, who said, “The trouble with this place is too much ice cream, not enough paint.”

The location of the Wilson Farm near
Muddy Creek. Roger Wilson Photo.

One of my favorite stories was when Wilson hunted weeds with a sickle, turning the chore into a game where he anointed the tallest weed the “king” or “queen.” He crept closer and closer, slashing the “guard” weeds until alas!

“The guards had been eliminated, the pokeberry king would stand there unprotected, and one quick swipe would cut him through,” Wilson wrote. “As the king slowly fell over the pleasure was a warm kernel of joy, making me more confident, more powerful.”

I reflected on this story – anyone with the tiniest of properties knows the demon plants that ambush our knockout roses and hydrangeas. 

The Wilson Farm in 1947. Roger Wilson Photo.

Roger finds an illegal still in his backyard

Another of my favorite stories is when Wilson and his three brothers found a working still. With such a large property, exploring previously uncharted territory led to exciting finds.

Roger Wilson’s photo of his family in 1948 shows the happiness of growing up on a farm. Featured in photo is Elsie Brown, Donne Wilson, Weston Wilson, and Roger Wilson laughing. Roger Wilson Photo.

On this particular day, the brotherly crew approached an old farmhouse about half a mile from their home. Finding a few 50 pound sacks of sugar, dozens of cardboard boxes holding clean mason jars, coke used for smokeless fuel, “we knew that something was strange, foreign, mysterious,” Wilson remembered. Next they uncovered hogshead barrels, “big enough to belong to Paul Bunyan,” copper tubing, a furnace, wooden vats, and an empty lunch bag. “The whole place had an aroma of grain and mash, of alcohol and sugar, a smell foreign to the woods,” wrote Wilson.

Naively, the boys took their time investigating not fully grasping the implications of their discovery. That is until they realized they had to tell their parents. But, before the brothers announced their findings, their “accomplishments” felt all their own: “we were in charge.” Once the authorities arrived, adults controlled the situation. But for a few short hours, the young cohort relished in the space that “felt like a room in the woods.”

I, too, remember building dams in creeks and building sanctuaries in the shrubs. These places, for a child, felt like the “rooms” similar to the places Wilson described in his book. And, like Wilson, I can transport myself back to those imagined oases where fantasies reign and adventures await.

Willie Tyson purchased the Wilson’s farm in 1958, when Roger graduated from high school, ending the glory days of childhood on a farm.

If you want to learn more about Wilson’s farm adventures, you can purchase a copy on Amazon. The York County History Center also holds a copy in their library and archives.

The Wilson family living on a York County farm in the early 1950s. Roger Wilson Photo.

Farming statistics today

As of 2017, the USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture, states that there are just over 2 million farms in the United States.

Compare this to farms during Wilson’s era. During the 1950s, there were 5 million farms. Furthermore, each farm today works 444 acres where as a 1950s farm encompassed 210 acres – about the size of Wilson’s farm which had 229 acres.

Let’s look at some farming statistics for York County.

The USDA reported that there were 2,171 farms in York County in 2012, 200 less farms just five years earlier in 2007 (2,370 farms). Out of York County’s 583,040 acres, the U.S. Census tells us 262,062 are farmlands. That means just under half of our land is farmed. Since’s Wilson’s time, the average acre per farm in York County has been cut in half to 121 acres.

The Wilson family harvesting cabbage during the mid 1950s. Roger Wilson Photo.

Here is what those acres of farmland are being used for:

  • 74.4% used for crops
  • 12.5% woodland
  • 7.4% pastureland
  • 5.7% other uses

Out of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, York County was first for soybeans, wheat for grain, and winter wheat for grain in 2012. York County was second in the state for grain, oil seeds, dry beans, and dry pea production as well as second for Christmas trees (and, 19th in the United States). Finally, York County ranked fourth in the state for the value of crops including nurseries and greenhouses. Average age for the principal operator of a farm is 57.4 years old.

My life on a farm

Watching the lively events taking place on the farm while I type this blog post. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Even though the amount of people running farms are decreasing, it doesn’t mean that we’ve lost access to farm-related memories.

For about two weeks, I read Too Much Ice Cream, Not Enough Paint out loud to my husband before we turned out the lights to sleep. Occasionally, my husband would stop me to relive a story since he, too, grew up on an farm. He remembers admiring the physical strength of the farmers, the freedom of adventuring what seemed like miles from home, and, like Wilson, the fear of driving a tractor.

Even though I spent a couple of years on a farm, the large majority of my childhood took place in Yoe where my childhood explorations were confined to our quarter-acre lot.

But, unlike the majority of Americans who left the farm, my husband and I now live in his childhood house. The property doesn’t raise angus anymore, but large portions cultivate corn, soybeans, and pasture for cows belonging to another farmer.

One of my chickens venturing into my neighbor’s house. Samone Maddox photo.

I am lucky enough to enjoy the views of mother nature and agriculture out my writing window. So, if any of my co-workers in Hershey are reading this, you know why I commute an hour one way – I LOVE living on a farm.

Our only neighbors, Samone Maddox and her boyfriend Devon Butler, also run contradictory to the statistics and did not grow up on a farm.

Maddox, having lived in Baltimore all her life, said the biggest change from the city to the country are the animals. There are animals everywhere, “and I’m in their hood. The sparrows are all in your face and that’s totally acceptable!” She’s even sent me snap chats of my chickens venturing into her living room.

Farms may be shrinking, but memories are growing.

Samone Maddox, originally from Baltimore, never thought she’d come home from her marketing job to enjoy country life with a chicken. Samone Maddox Photo.

3 comments on “Fewer York residents live on farms, but this writer keeps memories alive

  1. So interesting and fun for me to read. I spent most of my yoing life in a 1850’s fieldstone farm house. My dad traveled to downtown York every day and my mother to Eastern HS to teach. I had a tire swing, a pond to swim and ice skate on and a sleeping porch
    Our water was well water
    I learned to drive a big Ford Tractor, snapped beans with Mrs. Mundis on the next farm and walked through the woods to the bus stop with the McCleary kids. I would not trade a minute of that time for all the money in the world. We had 90 acres and could not see another house at all. I get very homesick for York County now and then.

    1. Sounds like you should write your own book! My generation will appreciate those stories and if they’re written down they can be re-told over and over again.

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