John and Happiness

My friend and neighbor John was on to something true and timeless

By Joe Brenneman

On my way to feed cows every day I pass an old abandoned farmhouse situated in the middle of the field. It was the home for many years of my neighbor, John, the grandfather of my current landlord. As a matter of fact, John was born in that house. As were his five brothers and six sisters one of whom died at birth. It is not a big house with only a kitchen, living room, one bedroom and a bathroom that was obviously tacked on when electricity and indoor plumbing became available. Apparently, there was a bunkhouse located near the house and as soon as possible the children, at least the boys, were relegated to the bunkhouse. Still, it must have been an interesting time finding a place for everyone, especially at mealtime.

John was ending his farming career about the same time I was starting mine. He built himself a new house much closer to the road on the edge of his property. I spent quite a bit of time listening to the stories John told about what life was like in the Flathead while he was growing up and his years farming.

When John’s father initially moved to the area, and for many years after, all the farming was done with horses. As I drive by today in my tractor with a heated cab and four-wheel drive I think about what life was like back then. I imagine the hard work that went into taking care of the horses, milking the cows, raising and preserving vegetables, getting firewood and all the rest of what had to be done to stay alive and relatively comfortable. I imagine John and his brothers sleeping in the bunkhouse and rushing into the house for a big meal before setting off on the day’s work.

We tend to look back on those days with a mixture of gratefulness and nostalgia. We are glad that we don’t have to hitch the horses to the wagon to go to town, but at the same time we long for what seems a simpler time and often harbor a nagging suspicion that our ancestors, despite their physically demanding life, were more satisfied than we are. One of the things John used to tell me was that, “Back then,” referring to his youth, “if we had two nickels to rub together we felt rich, and most of the time we had no money. But none of us in the neighborhood did, we were all in the same situation and didn’t know any better and we were a lot happier for it.”

He was probably right. Today, with information being heaped upon us from all directions and advertising that plays to our insecurities and selfish natures, we are well aware of all the things we don’t have. If not careful, we spend a lot of time imagining how much better our lives would be, and how much happier we would be if we only had what we see other people possess.

What is the point of this somewhat rambling article? Well, number one: it is cool to recall how things were done 100 years ago and I feel honored to be so closely connected to the continuity of the farmland. Number two: Happy, satisfied people aren’t necessarily the ones with all the stuff. My friend and neighbor John was on to something true and timeless.

Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.

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