Farm Family in Autumn
I’m a big fan of Bridget and Mary Jo, especially the Farm Family series. I recently completed the set by purchasing Farm Family in Autumn and became curious about what happened to the Markham kids (Heaven’s Gate cultists? DeLorean investors? Sec. of the Interior?) That’s when I stumbled upon this interesting tidbit! Hopefully this is new to you guys. P.S.- Mary Jo, you were right! Grandpa was a fraud!
Tom Smith, who would later achieve his greatest critical success as the General Manager of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, was the creator of probably the most moving portrayal of American farm life in the classroom academic film genre, with his ‘Farm Family’ series of 1967-1968, comprising four films comparing the impact of seasonal changes upon the Red Markham farm and family of Whitewater, Wisconsin. Each film chronicles daily and seasonal life of the family and farm, contrasting the seeming simplicity of daily chores with the impact of major events, such the birth of a calf, the harvesting of a crop, or the coming of the summer county fair. With the exception of 'Summer', each film is narrated in first person by a different family member. We think these are important films that are almost ethnographic in their approach to documenting the life and work of a rural family unit, and present them here consecutively, in a unique viewing context (we're not sure these films have ever been screened together, in one sitting). The films are:
'Farm Family in Summer', the only film told in 3rd person narrative, offers a fascinating look at the rural county fair culture, from preparing exhibits to friendly country huckstering, to harness races, to carny rides. 'Farm Family in Autumn' is son Steve’s first-person story of going back to school, sneaking a taste of mom’s fresh-made jam, carving jack-o-lanterns, and the arrival of the tanker truck which collects the dairy farm’s output. 'Farm Family in Winter' is told by Grandpa, who wrestles the hard-starting, gas-powered "snow-buggy" into action, then fetches the vet, who is prevented from reaching the farm road due to adverse conditions, in order to doctor a sick calf. 'Farm Family in Spring', narrated by son Dale, describes a trip into town to buy feed in country store, and a LaGrange 4H club meeting in which the children discuss the progress of their respective projects. The affection that the filmmaker had for the family is apparent, and seems to be evident in the family’s approach to the filmmaker as well, who made four visits to the farm to make these films, and who remains in touch with Dale Markham. The easygoing attitude the family has toward the camera is largely responsible for the charm of this series, a fascinating and refreshing look at a subject that was all too often didactic in the hands of other filmmakers.
Tom wrote to us in early June, reminiscing about the events surrounding the making of these films:
"The Farm Family films were planned as 2nd Editions. There had been a 'Farm Family...' series made in the 1940s in black and white. They were extremely didactic films guaranteed to put you to sleep as quickly as a stiff shot of pentothal. So I was asked to replace them with a new series in color. The first trick was to find a farm where I could film. Headquartered in Chicago, I set out to look in nearby Southern Wisconsin - a two hour drive from my home in Palatine, Illinois. I needed not only a good looking farm but one with kids in elementary school - the age of our target audience. It wasn't easy to find a combination of the two. I consulted with Farm Bureau Agents in several counties. I recall one farm we visited looked great from the outside. The Agent told me they had kids the right age. Then I met the farmer, a handsome, husky fellow - perfect type. We shook hands and it felt strange. Turned out he was missing two fingers on his right hand. I didn't want to have to explain the missing fingers in every film. I knew a lot of shots in the movies would be close-ups of the farmer's hands at work. So this farm was out.
"It took me weeks of looking. I drove past 100s farms of farms and visited more than 30. I ended up in Walworth county in southern Wisconsin, a country where I had lived for one year when I was a kid. As we drove up to the Markham dairy farm, it looked pretty good. I met farmer "Red" Markham and his wife. Red had all his digits, a good smile was a very tall and strong-looking fellow. His wife Eloise seemed to be all in one piece too. The kids were the perfect age but Red wasn't sure he trusted a city slicker like me promising to pay him some small fee to film his kids on his farm for a year. He had heard lots of sales pitches and figures this could be like one of those "free vacation" offers where they really only want to sell you a condo. We sat in his kitchen over coffee and I tried to persuade him but things weren't going well.
"To make a connection I mentioned that I lived in nearby Whitewater for one year when I was seven years old. That didn't make much of an impression on him. Then I added that my brother-in-law was from Whitewater too. Maybe he knew him - Bud Ardelt. Red put his cup down and broke into a smile. "Bud Ardelt is your brother-in-law?" Turned out that Red and Bud played for four years on the Whitewater football team together and in High School were buddies. He shook my hand - we had a deal. (Incidentally well-known historian Steven Ambrose was also on that same football team.)
"It was only my second year at EBEC and the four films were made while I continued to make other films on other subjects. I normally made about five or six, 12 to 18 minute films a year. We began filming with Fall. Then followed each season as it came along. Summer was the last. As you know from having seen the films, there was usually a thin plot running but what carried the show was showing the farming activities during that particular season. Fall was harvest, Winter not much happens but the kids have lots of fun in the snow and they cut their own Christmas tree. Spring is planting time and Summer there is the county fair. I don't recall why we didn't have a first person narration for the summer movie. No one in the films was an actor and to get someone to read a narration was very difficult. I had to do it line by line and often would not let them see the words but rather read it to them and have them repeat it...
"I've stayed in contact with the Markham family over the years. They have now retired from farming but the parents still live on the farm. The kids are all grown-up and most have kids of their own. None are farmers. As I mentioned "Red" was a big guy - over six foot- five inches tall. His sons grew to be taller than he. One of the boys seen in the film - Dale, went on to be a college football star and briefly played for a pro team. He is now in his 40s. I think he works for a seed company. Pam studied nursing but now is raising her own family. We get Christmas cards from them every year and ten or fifteen years ago I stopped at the farm, unannounced. They were just as friendly as they could be. We laughed and talked of the old days and funny things that happened during that year when I made the films.
"The film crew was normally about four or five people. I served as cameraman on a couple of the films but don't recall which ones. Arthur Bothham was the cameraman on the others including the "Fall" film. I second unit on all of them - running up to the farm to shoot one specific scene for a day with my Bolex and then returning home. There was no real "Grandpa" on the farm. The fellow who played "Grandpa" was actually our film's grip - Stanley Wallega. Stanley died about 15 years ago."