The Most Famous Farm In America

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall And The Spirit Of Being “Teched”

“It is the duty of every citizen, for his own welfare, if for no other patriotic reason, to support and fight for and possibly initiate measures having to do with conservation of soil, water and forests.”

Louis Bromfield
A Primer of Conservation

From the 1,310-foot summit of Mount Jeez, the view of rich farmland and forested hilltops is certainly one of the most beautiful in the Midwest. Many years ago, this hill was known as Poverty Knob, its soil so exhausted by poor farming methods and subsequent erosion that no one could make a living on it. That changed in the 1930s when the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield returned to the Ohio countryside of his youth, purchasing 600 acres consisting of four depleted farms, and restoring the topsoil through methods regarded as newfangled and controversial at the time until the land became famously productive again.

Bromfield blamed what he called whorish agriculture for the exhausted soil and eroded ground, much as he blamed the Dust Bowl of the 1930s on short-sighted agricultural practices. His methods of topsoil restoration included so-called “trash farming,” precursor to no-till agriculture, as well as strip farming, contour plowing and sheet composting. It has been said that he is responsible for the beginning of the organic food movement. Were he alive today, he would be scandalized by the horrors of factory farming and the world-gobbling practices of agri-business.

Bromfield insisted that the first word to come to mind when anyone looked out over the valley from the summit was “Jeez!” Hence, the name Mount Jeez. From the summit, one can view parts of three Ohio counties, nearby Pleasant Hill Reservoir and Mohican-Memorial State Forest.

He named his lands Malabar Farm, after the Malabar Coast of India, where he had spent time while writing his bestselling novel The Rains Came. For his home, he constructed a 19-room Greek Revival-style house, known ever since as the Big House.

Bromfield became an outspoken advocate for sustainable agriculture, an enthusiastic horticulturist and larger than life promotor of ecology and wildlife management. Many of his works of fiction, most of which were made into movies, have been sadly forgotten over  the years, but his nonfiction works continue to inspire generations of farmers and naturalists.

Louis Bromfield was famous during that period from the 1920s through the 1950s. His novel Early Autumn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. Numerous of his other novels were turned into movies, like The Rains Came, featuring such luminaries of the silver screen of yesteryear as Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent and Nigel Bruce. The movie premiered in his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, in 1939. While much of his fiction has been neglected by more recent critics and readers, some, like The Farm, The Man Who Had Everything, The Wild Country and A Good Woman would seem to deserve more attention today. He also composed the script for Walt Disney’s nature classic The Vanishing Prairie and the animated film Ferdinand the Bull.

Given all that, Bromfield’s real passion was agriculture. He writes lovingly of farming and nature in his nonfiction books, such as Malabar Farm, Pleasant Valley, A Few Brass Tacks, Out of the Earth, Animals and Other People, and his autobiographical From My Experience. He attracted agricultural experts and countless others from throughout the nation and from overseas as he illustrated his successful farming techniques founded upon an ethic of working with rather than against nature, ideas explored in his book A New Plan for a Tired World.

Bromfield writes passionately of such seasonal labors as mowing alfalfa, tapping maple trees to make maple syrup, planting vegetable gardens, harvesting wheat, oats, corn and other crops throughout the year, realities that our ancestors took for granted but that so many have now forgotten. Among the thousands of visitors to Malabar Farm today, societal naiveté sometimes raises its head. During the annual Maple Syrup Festival in February and March, visitors have been overheard by rangers complaining, “I don’t see why they have this at this time of year with all the cold and the mud,” clueless that it is only in late winter when maple trees produce.

On one occasion, a bus loaded with school children from the city arrived as the park’s dairy herd was being milked. A common response was, “Ugh! I would never drink that stuff! We get our milk from the supermarket.”

Some of Bromfield’s most kindhearted writings involve the many animals, both wild and domesticated, that shared his bucolic farm life. In such books as Animals and Other People, he writes warmly of the six dogs, four of them boxers, who follow him everywhere. When his oldest most beloved boxer Prince dies unexpectedly, he writes most movingly of his great sense of loss in the story “Goodbye to a Friend,” a sentiment that all dog lovers can share.

Other animal friends and their antics fill the pages of Bromfield’s many volumes. He speaks of a herd of goats who will never go far from their beloved porch swing, of a duck who doesn’t realize that he is a duck, of a Guernsey bull named Sylvester and a mongoose named—what else—Rikki. He speaks of the joys of raising pigs in a chapter of Animals and Other People, entitled “A Hymn to Hogs.”

His “Cycle of a Farm Pond” depicts the realities of the food chain by describing the relationship between food fish, such as bluegills and sunfish, and predator species like largemouth bass. When predators are too few, the bluegill population explodes. As the food supply is gobbled up by too many ravenous mouths, the bluegills become stunted and deformed; Malthusian theory at work in the real world. Humans could learn a thing or two about overpopulation from Bromfield’s writings. In fact, one chapter of his book Malabar Farm, an otherwise charming agricultural memoir, is entitled “Malthus was Right.”

During the summer months, it was not unusual for a tourist to stop by a vegetable stand at Malabar and to their astonishment find a famous movie actor like James Cagney or actress such as Kay Francis selling sweet corn, watermelons or baskets of green beans. Bromfield was a lavish entertainer, and many celebrities of that day came to visit him at Malabar. He often put them to work. Among those famous visitors was the actor Humphrey Bogart, with whom Bromfield became best friends. Their relationship was defined by personal compatibility and good-hearted banter. Bogart said that he hated phonies, that  he preferred the company of real people, like Louis Bromfield. While the two differed somewhat politically, Bromfield becoming more conservative with the passage of the years and Bogart being more liberal, a supporter of Adlai Stevenson’s failed presidential campaigns, they respected one another’s views.

When Bogart, then 45, announced his engagement to the 20-year-old actress Lauren Bacall, there was no question but that the wedding had to take place at Malabar Farm. There was also no question but that Louis Bromfield would serve as Bogart’s best man, while his business manager George Hawkins gave the bride away. The local and national press descended in droves upon Malabar Farm. For a wedding gift, Bromfield gave the newlyweds one of his boxer puppies and an acre of land should they ever decide to build a cottage there. Given that World War II was still raging in the Pacific, the wedding brought a bit of joy to Americans of all stripes, and it caused Malabar to become The Most Famous Farm in America.

In his autobiographical volume From My Experience, composed toward the end of his life, Bromfield explains his philosophy by drawing upon Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s concept Reverence for Life. He comes to recognize that Schweitzer’s idea had energized his own lifelong passion for nature and animals, a spiritual relationship that he defines as being “teched,” a sense of kinship with the land and our fellow creatures. To be teched, Bromfield explains, is to love the land, animals, trees, and all living things and to understand them.

Bromfield passed away in 1956 after a bout with bone marrow cancer. For a number of years, His beloved farm was managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the conservation organization Friends of the Land, founded earlier by Bromfield, the famous soil conservationist Liberty Hyde Bailey, and others. The tobacco heiress Doris Duke, once known as the “Richest Little Girl in the World,” donated money to prevent the land being invaded and destroyed by developers. Finally, in 1976, Malabar Farm became a state park, a place where thousands of visitors come each year to explore the fields and forests, learn of Bromfield and his passion for conservation, and thrill to the view from atop Mount Jeez. Louis Bromfield would be proud. Perhaps all of us who have come to love Malabar Farm over the years are now a bit teched.

June 2022 Issue

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Lorin Swinehart
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