Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Hoosier Farm Wife: Rachel Peden

In the 1940s a farmwife who lived west of Bloomington, Indiana, used letters to share with her sister living in Indianapolis the joys and sorrows of earning a living from the land. Nina Mason Pulliam showed the letters to her husband, newspaper publisher Eugene C. Pulliam, who, impressed by the writing ability of their author, Rachel Peden, offered her the opportunity to write a regular column. “I don’t care what you write about, so long as it has a farm flavor,” Pulliam said to Peden.

From February 1946 until her death in 1975, Peden imparted details of her life and the lives of her neighbors along Maple Grove Road to readers of her “The Hoosier Farm Wife Says” column in the Indianapolis Star and “The Almanac of Poor Richard’s Wife” column in the Muncie Evening Press. “I’m just a farm wife with the good luck to have something to write about and a chance to write,” she noted.

Peden chronicled the difficulties faced by small American family farms in the twentieth century as they began to “erode away into large farms, like unprotected topsoil into the rivers.” She also reported on the growing degradation of the land farmers depended upon for their livelihoods. “Man has an inescapable obligation to the land,” Peden wrote. “It is his destiny to touch, observe, and learn from it, in his passionate effort to understand himself.”

Born in Redkey in Jay County, Indiana, Rachel was third of seven children raised by Benjamin Franklin and Laura Mason. Rachel spent her formative years on her father’s High Gap farm on land that eventually became part of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The family resided there for seventeen years before her father’s injury in an automobile accident forced them to move. At an early age Rachel and the other children were expected to help with the daily chores, including fetching and carrying firewood and water, washing dishes, sweeping floors, making beds, and looking after livestock.

Often referring to her father as “the orchardist” in her columns, Rachel recalled that he knew the Latin names of plants and trees, and called them by those names. “My father planted orchards everyplace,” she said. He became so adept at horticulture that his children considered him a magician of sorts when he successfully grafted an apple tree so it bore sweet apples on one side and sour apples on the other. Mason’s real love, however, was peach trees, and he won fame by propagating a successful variety known as the Skipper’s Late Red. “His trouble was that he had more talent than he could use,” Rachel said of her father. While her mother, ten years younger than her husband, sought “small cozy security,” Benjamin always wanted to “reach out for a grasp, however tentative, of some big, exciting thing.”

Educated in a one-room schoolhouse that included eight grades, Rachel had early practice as a writer, as she and her siblings took to heart advice given to them by one of her father’s hired hands, Bill Pofall, who told them if something “doesn’t suit you, just write it down and burn it up.” She noted that there were “so many things that didn’t suit us that we had abundant practice in writing.”

As a young girl, Rachel’s mother had wanted to become a writer and passed along a love of reading to her children. Rachel learned to type by sneaking into her father’s office, supposedly off-limits to his children, and hurriedly pecking away at his old Monarch typewriter. “I never learned to type accurately,” she recalled, “but I learned to type fast, because if the orchardist found one of us there it would be a painful encounter.” (In addition to Rachel’s later work as a columnist, her sister, Nina, published a book on her travels in Australia and won awards for her newspaper writing, and another sister, Miriam E. Mason Swain, wrote more than fifty children’s books.)

After graduating from high school in Martinsville, Rachel attended Indiana University, majoring in sociology and psychology and graduating in 1923 with Phi Beta Kappa honors. She briefly worked as a reporter for the Martinsville Reporter before taking a job as women’s editor at Farm Life, a national magazine based in Spencer, Indiana, with approximately a million subscribers.

While at the magazine, where her sister, Nina, also worked, Rachel said she learned much about writing from its editor, George Weymouth, and treasured a letter from him complimenting her on a column she wrote. In 1929 she married Richard Peden, whose family had been farming in Owen County since Indiana became a state in 1816. The couple had two children; a son, Joe, born in 1939, and a daughter, Carol, born in 1942.

Farm Life went out of business during the Great Depression, and Rachel followed along as her husband decided to fulfill his dream of running a farm of his own. In 1941 the Pedens bought a farm on Maple Grove Road outside of Bloomington on which Richard raised feeder cattle, as well as corn, hay, and silage. By the 1960s the farm had grown from its original 130 acres to 239 acres. Before she started her newspaper column, Rachel wrote freelance articles for such magazines as Country Gentleman, the Farm Journal, and Peoples Popular Monthly, as well as several poetry periodicals.

For her newspaper columns, Peden wrote under the pen names “Mrs. R. F. D.” and “the Hoosier Farmwife.” (R. F. D. stood for Rural Free Delivery, the service first offered by the U.S. Post Office at the turn of the twentieth century.) She said she never went anywhere without carrying with her pencil and paper for her column’s sake. “The farm always inspired something to bring back,” Peden noted. She usually wrote in the morning, composing her columns on a typewriter set up on a small stand under a stairwell in her kitchen. “Sometimes I’m just certain there won’t be anything important enough to write about,” Peden said. “And then, I look out and the leaves are falling, or the sky is pink in the east, or there is hay baling to be done—so many wonderful things on the farm.”

Peden’s work proved popular with readers in central Indiana, with many telling her they saw themselves and their own experiences in her columns. A fan in Muncie helped bring her writing to a wider audience by convincing her son, Angus Cameron, an editor at the Alfred Knopf publishing firm in New York, to offer Peden a book contract. Peden eventually turned her columns into three books published by Knopf with illustrations by Sidonie Coryn—Rural Free: A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living (1961); The Land, The People (1966), which received Indiana University’s Author Award; and Speak to the Earth: Pages from a Farmwife’s Journal (1974).

As she did in her columns, Peden used her neighbors’ actual names in her books and experienced a range of reaction when gaining permission to do so. When Peden asked one neighbor if she wanted to see what she had written about her, the neighbor declined, saying she would wait and see it when the book was published. “Still another said to just to make her really human, not too good,” Peden recalled. “Neighbors are such a joy, and so close to my heart.”

Peden died on August 16, 1975, and is buried at Payne Cemetery in Bloomington. Although her books went out of print for a time, she remained popular in her home community where, in 1976, she was a charter member of the Monroe County Hall of Fame. Starting in 2009, Quarry Books, an imprint of Indiana UniversityPress, began reprinting Peden’s books.

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