This interview discusses the Bender Farm and the Darst family's life on the farm.
Darst, David (interviewee); Darst, Lee (interviewee)
Looney, James (interviewer); Conklin, Carolyn (participant)
Cuyahoga Valley Project
"David and Lee Darst Interview, 2011" (2011). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 518012.
Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park
James Looney [00:00:02] My name is James Looney. The date is March 9, 2011. Can you introduce yourselves?
Lee Darst [00:00:11] I'm Lee Darst. I'm the daughter of David who's beside me. He's 92 years old. And we lived on the Bender Farm beginning in 1957.
David Darst [00:00:23] That's correct.
James Looney [00:00:25] So why don't we begin? Tell me about the origins of the Bender Farm and how you came to live on it, Mr. Darst.
David Darst [00:00:36] I took my family from Bath Township in 1957 and went to Florida. We returned from Florida in two years and we wanted to find a place to rent furnished, and in the newspaper we found an ad, furnished apartment. Called on the telephone. They agreed to have my wife and I come to the farm and look over the apartment. Now, this is very interesting because my wife, when she was in high school, worked for one of the teachers at the high school doing house cleaning, cleaning a house and so and so forth. I had also with my Boy Scout troop, traveled up to the farmhouse and then went back into the woods. We arrived at the apartment, at the bottom of the stairs, and I had this question burning in my head. Bender. Ford Bender. And I said in the sixth grade, I had a teacher by the name of Ford and during the Christmas vacation she came back and she said, my name is Bender. And I said, "Great day. We'll take the apartment." "Well, don't you want to look at it?" "No way. We'll take the apartment." And thirty years we stayed there.
Lee Darst [00:02:42] Right. Dad, if I remember right, was '55 when you packed us all into your Nash and we went down to Florida. You didn't have a job or anything, but we went down there, my next in line sister, and then just an infant, your last daughter. And we came back then, you and mom and my baby sister came back, then in '57, and I had to stay in Florida with my next in line sister because I was finishing school for three months.
David Darst [00:03:10] You'd already gone to two different schools.
Lee Darst [00:03:12] Right. I know.
James Looney [00:03:15] So briefly, you spent two years in Florida. What drove you to come back and set up shop again here?
David Darst [00:03:22] Are you married?
James Looney [00:03:23] No, sir.
David Darst [00:03:29] My wife said, No more Florida.
Lee Darst [00:03:33] Plus her great, her grandmother who raised her, was in her 90s and she wanted to come back and, you know, try to help out with that.
James Looney [00:03:44] Now, if I'm to understand this teacher you had in second grade, was it related to the Bender who owned the farm?
Lee Darst [00:03:52] Mrs. Bender was the Miss Ford that he had at King School in sixth grade, so it was one and the same and he didn't know that when he arrived there at the farm. And, you know, it's kind of like it was meant to be. Mom said this is the house where I used to clean for Mrs. Bruner. And the Bruners did rent from the Benders at that time.
David Darst [00:04:12] Things just seemed to roll right in place. Thirty years was a good deal.
James Looney [00:04:20] So you came back in 1957 and moved into the property, correct? Take me back to some of your earliest memories of the property.
David Darst [00:04:30] Of the property?
James Looney [00:04:31] Yeah, your earliest memories of when you initially moved in and experiences you had.
David Darst [00:04:37] Being interested in history, I have some recollection of the house was some way connected with some counterfeiters. The word counterfeiter was in my head. I don't think I could tell you it was Brown or some other name at that time. The barn, huge, beautiful barn, caught my eye and I think I'm going to enjoy this period of time we live here. But each day, almost for twenty-something years, there was something new that we came across. And when you get me started, we'll go and all those things.
Lee Darst [00:05:44] Why don't you tell them what you used to do when you came home from work in Akron or wherever, what did you do then?
David Darst [00:05:52] When I arrived home, supper was all ready and it was more than five or ten minutes I was out doing some farm work.
James Looney [00:06:05] Now you briefly mentioned your parents. Were your parents farmers, or was it something that you decided you had an interest in?
David Darst [00:06:13] There are many things relating to farm, really relatives in the farm business. My father was born and raised in Miami County on a farm and went to Ohio State, not to be a farmer. He played football and graduated in 1913 as a mechanical engineer. So we would visit, before '57, we would visit the farm in Miami County and it was very pleasant.
Lee Darst [00:07:03] But your parents lived in the city most of their lives.
David Darst [00:07:06] Yes.
Lee Darst [00:07:07] So when they were able to buy their own property out in Bath Township, well, Medina County line. But that was a big thing for them and they did try. Why don't you tell some of the farming related things they did out there.
David Darst [00:07:24] The other thing that I want to say is that I joined the Grange, which at the time would be considered a farmers' organization.
James Looney [00:07:46] What year did you join the Grange?
Lee Darst [00:07:47] 1944?
David Darst [00:07:50] Well, I got my 50-year certificate this year.
Lee Darst [00:07:54] But that was after you had dropped your membership when you went to Florida and to get back in the swing of things. So '44. And then you dropped it when we went to Florida.
David Darst [00:08:04] But the principals in the Grange... The whole thing is a way of life as far as opposed to just farming, the different degrees that you went through of learning about the Grange were very impressive. Okay, where are we?
Lee Darst [00:08:33] I thought you're going to tell them about the turkeys on your parents' farm.
David Darst [00:08:36] Oh. [laughs] Well, we got all day to do that. My father and my mother wanted to get out of the city. And of course, there was something called the Great Depression starting. And we had gone through that they were able to keep me in repaired shoes as I walked to school for eight years. There was a lot of things we learned in the Depression, how to get along with life. And my father always wanted to do farming. The house they bought in Granger Township, Summit County, Medina County had a barn and had a place to raise chickens. Oh, that was just what they wanted. So they were in the turkey business and that was really something to behold. Turkeys roosted in the orchard. We had twelve apple trees and they stayed in the trees during the night and had freedom all around. Then my father decided we might as well make some money out of this. So we went into the turkey business. And, of course my mother wanted to get in the egg business so the son David, working at Goodrich, made arrangements with the cafeteria manager to take eggs from our farm. And if you can imagine, Guy going to work carrying 36 dozen of eggs in a box like that, "Where are you going David?" "Oh going up to the cafeteria." "What you got in the box?" "Eggs." So experiences. The turkeys, they even went into selling smoked turkeys. Which we even don't think about that now. So that was the beginning of our experience prior to Bender, we wanted to do it, we did it. And like I said, it was paradise to find Bender's farm. Next question.
James Looney [00:11:38] So these early experiences you had on your parents farm kind of left a very lasting impression upon what you want to do with your family.
David Darst [00:11:51] Say that again.
Lee Darst [00:11:53] You kind of want your family to grow up on a farm, too, then?
David Darst [00:11:56] Oh, definitely. Definitely.
Lee Darst [00:12:02] And it was quite a farm, 300 acres, 200 of them were woods and pasture land. So as kids, we ran free through there. We rode horses, chased the cows, or the cows chased us. It was just a nice, easy life. But you worked hard. That was expected too.
David Darst [00:12:22] The first thing the kids did was to build a tree house. First thing Murray did was be chauffeur for Mrs. Bender. Take her to the grocery, the laundry, and so forth, and she was always Mrs. Darst was always the doer of good deeds and. It was just not to the Bender place, but then through the church, she became a mobile meal deliverer and then supervisor and we would visit.
Lee Darst [00:13:07] Shut ins.
David Darst [00:13:11] I was trying to think of how many people, hundreds of people, friends, neighbors and strangers, so we all had... We were gaining things, opportunities, while we lived on the farm.
James Looney [00:13:34] So tell me, basically paint the picture of the farm for me in my mind. You said it was 300 acres and 200 of those acres were wooded. What sort of agriculture was grown on the farm?
David Darst [00:13:49] Let's go back to 1996 when Bender, Grandpa Bender, lived in southern Summit County and he wanted the larger farm 'cause he had six children. I think...
Lee Darst [00:14:12] Eleven children.
David Darst [00:14:13] Eleven. Excuse me.
Lee Darst [00:14:15] Maybe six sons.
David Darst [00:14:19] So. He was in the dairy business. And as his children married and left, they came down to the last child who was still on the farm that was Earva Bender, who married Miss Ford.
James Looney [00:14:53] Was that second grade teacher?
Lee Darst [00:14:54] Six, sixth grader. So it was mainly a dairy farm and dairy operation to begin with.
David Darst [00:15:00] Dairy farm, yes. And Earva had a problem—they did this and they did that—but there was no one to help them anymore, so it became his responsibility to milk the cows, plant the, harvest the feed for the cows. So he had a change of farming from dairy to beef cattle. No more milking.
Lee Darst [00:15:35] Now, they used to send the milk out on the railroad there at Ira, the Ira station, right?
David Darst [00:15:40] Yes, that was his father's idea. It was available. The other thing that he changed, he wanted to go into the sweet corn business. He wanted to go and made a business. And... Excuse me. He was able to take advantage of the property, in other words, he needed to raise tomatoes. He wanted to be ahead of everyone else at the Akron market, so he had to get started early. And to do that, he built a greenhouse. The greenhouse is still there. I don't know how many panes of glass are there, but it's...
Lee Darst [00:16:33] The foundation's still there, Dad.
David Darst [00:16:36] He also had a gas well that the people who were developing gas wells in that area had abandoned because it was not producing any. And so they blocked it off. Mr. Bender said, I need heat for my greenhouse. So he devised tripods and a way of raising up and down the bailer to bail the water. It hasdto be bailed because it was blocked and there was no gas coming up, and a great gas because there was the water seal. So every year he had to bail that water out, but he heated his house and his greenhouse with gas heat, which his father never thought of.
James Looney [00:17:48] Was having a gas well at this time something very unique? Was it very special to have this gas well, because I assume it probably hadn't come into mainstream yet?
Lee Darst [00:17:59] Do you know of anyone else on the road or in the neighborhood that had their own gas well also?
David Darst [00:18:04] No.
Lee Darst [00:18:05] I can't think of anyone.
David Darst [00:18:06] The only other thing of that nature was a salt... Gas well, salt well...
Lee Darst [00:18:19] Brine?
David Darst [00:18:20] Huh?
Lee Darst [00:18:20] Brine? Brine water?
David Darst [00:18:22] No, this was salt.
Lee Darst [00:18:25] Okay.
David Darst [00:18:25] Sodium chloride. But this was on the farm just north of us. I think that house is there now. The guy that owned it...
Lee Darst [00:18:36] Morani? John Morani?
Lee Darst [00:18:39] No. Well, yeah, Morani. So we have this greenhouse now, and he was able then to raise his own plants and therefore he would be ahead of other farmers when you got to the tomato market. One of the experiences that my wife actually referred to her as Marty. Experiences Marty and I had on the farm was to be told, tomorrow we're going to do tomatoes, and so we went to the greenhouse and he had a tool he made that put holes into the soil, and then he had bunches of tomato plants, and we had to put a plant each hole so they could grow. Well, that was just the beginning of our adventures. You got the plants growing. Now the weather just right. We're going to plant this in the field. If you told me that to me today I would run. Okay, Marty, you sit over here and David, you sit here, and it was just like this chair here, it's the way we sat and Mr. Bender would take a flat, that's a wooden 24 inch by 30 inch thing, with the plant and put it in our laps. And then he'd hook up his tractor to his planting machine. And we were the machine. He'd go driving along and we would plant, plant, plant. And he was a clever fellow. [laughs] We're in the place where he just sped up. He'd give us a hard time. But that's how we... Eight thousand tomato plants. But, boy, that was just the beginning, and those plants when they were ready, they had to be cultivated weird.
Lee Darst [00:21:31] Put down hay.
David Darst [00:21:33] Yep. Mulch, yes.
Lee Darst [00:21:36] Mulch 'em, yeah.
David Darst [00:21:40] But everything that he did, he in some way, made. He had a forge where he could heat the metal and pound it into shapes. He had a good neighbor across the river, Cranz. Lumin Cranz and Harman Cranz. He relied on them to do his heavy metal work. And the greenhouse. Heat by gas. And biggest problem was on a windy storm day, you'd have a chance of losing glass, and you had to replace it. But that was his project from the very beginning. He made some of the things that he needed to complete the job. And I always would remark, what a mind.
James Looney [00:22:58] Mr. Bender seems like he was sort of a Renaissance man with a gas well, he did most of his own metalworking.
David Darst [00:23:09] I don't think he had any more education than maybe...
Lee Darst [00:23:13] He went to high school.
David Darst [00:23:18] Yeah.
Lee Darst [00:23:18] He played football.
David Darst [00:23:19] He played football for high school, but I don't think that during the time he lived with his parents that he did any of this clever, I call it clever work because I'm still amazed at what he did up here.
Lee Darst [00:23:41] Well, you know, he subscribed to a lot of magazines, farming magazines and popular science and things of that sort. Popular Mechanics. And he would read those over the winter and plan how he could use that to make his farm better.
James Looney [00:23:58] So you're in... So in your experiences, Mr. Bender was largely self-taught.
Lee Darst [00:24:05] He was self-taught, plus what he learned by watching other people. A lot of the men in the Valley were all in the Masons together, you know, and I think they just helped each other out all the time, you know. They developed specific skills that they had and then they shared them. So they all benefited from that.
David Darst [00:24:29] Okay. Can I tell you about other important things on the farm?
James Looney [00:24:36] Absolutely. I just want to be clear. So when you moved into this farm in 1957, Mr. Bender had already had some pretty ingenious things around the farm to give him an edge over local competitors would also be growing agriculture.
David Darst [00:24:52] He had used several of the local boys to be his helpers. And when I came in there 24 hours a day, I became... [laughs]
Lee Darst [00:25:07] Boy Number One.
David Darst [00:25:10] But I learned a lot of things.
Lee Darst [00:25:15] The Ben... I'm sorry. The Benders didn't have children of their own, and Mom and Dad were about that same age that they would be like that. And we three girls grew up as they were like our grandparents, so.
David Darst [00:25:29] Yes, that was another important thing. I had a great desire to be a historian. And here I end up in history all around me. For one, in the 1850s—don't quote me on that date—they wanted to run a railroad through Hudson and Ghent and on into the west called the Clinton Air Line Extension. Well, Mr. Bender said when he moved there, they had a little building like a supervisor's building when they had worked on the railroad and it got... Have you been to the farm?
James Looney [00:26:47] I have not.
David Darst [00:26:50] The farm sits on a plateau above Akron Peninsula Road, and east... Mr. Bender told me that the railroad was to come across the front of the house. Well... Prior to that, the road, Akron Peninsula Road, came up from there to that plateau and the road itself went almost to the front door. [laughs]
Lee Darst [00:27:31] Well, a lot of farmhouses were built right on the road.
David Darst [00:27:38] The other thing... It's still available if you know what you're looking for... As the railroad property went across the front of Bender's house, it went further south and there's part of a hill that was cut down for the track to come along and then cross the Cuyahoga River going west. And that is still there. The other thing was the fact that Earva's brother... He was younger, wasn't he?
Lee Darst [00:28:34] Mhm. Well, Earva was the youngest. Frank was next.
David Darst [00:28:38] His next brother was a neighbor... He lived in the house, not the Bender house but further south from there. His property included what was called the Fort Lot, F-O-R-T L-O-T. And [the] historian that made a survey of the Cuyahoga Valley, he had records of such things as Indian campground, Indian village, and the Fort Lot was called that because it was built so on all sides, but one it's steep on both sides like a fort, and it was very flat area. Well, the only time I was there when Mr. Bender's brother wanted help with his tomatoes. So I went to help him, and I remember they set me up. They knew I loved Indian artifacts, and his brother's name was Frank, and Frank said, "Oh, what are you doing there?" And I said, "Oh, doing my job." He said, "Look over here." Beautiful arrowhead. "That's yours for working," he says. The Fort Lot was then turned into a housing development called Towpath Village, and they had to sort of cut down here and there, and when they removed the topsoil or top layer, there must have been 100 black spots here, here, here, here, which were the campfires of many people who had lived there, the number of years that was open, and I don't know how many years that would be.
Lee Darst [00:31:03] And you're talking about Native Americans as the people that lived there for many, many years.
David Darst [00:31:11] So there was another historic area. And something in history, when Sheriff Lane wrote his book, history book, he mentioned the counterfeiters and he mentioned the fact that Dan, D-A-N, Brown had gone to the gold rush in California and had returned with ninety thousand dollars of gold. Well, people who read that book would go up in their wagons and drive up to Bender's farm and look at where this fellow Dan Brown was buried. Well, Earva told me that his father got tired of all these people coming up on his property looking for Dan Brown's tombstone. So Earva told me that his dad hooked up to a horse and hauled it and threw it in the gully just to the left of the barn. Happy-go-lucky me... "Tombstone? Earva, what the tombstone for?" "Oh," he says, "it's just old Dan Brown's marker." "Where's it go?" "Well, my father put it there because it was causing trouble." And I said, "Well, let's look at it." So we hauled it out of there. And Earva said, "Well, I remember it should be right about there." So that's where we put it. And it's there today.
Lee Darst [00:33:09] You think.
James Looney [00:33:11] But no gold was ever found, huh?
David Darst [00:33:15] Well, let's see, what've we missed here?
Lee Darst [00:33:17] Not for want of anybody looking for it. When the vendors had sold to the park and were cleaning things out, there were two men from Copley that asked for permission to dove down into the cistern in their scuba gear to see if the gold was down there. Of course, it was not.
James Looney [00:33:35] And so this was kind of a myth about the Bender Farm that there was this ninety thousand dollars of Dan Brown's gold?
Lee Darst [00:33:41] Yeah. We truly believe the guy absconded with it from California, but how do you get back to Ohio from California? Most likely you go by boat. By ship.
David Darst [00:33:55] Isthmus.
Lee Darst [00:33:55] And, yeah, through the isthmus there and around, and a lot of ships went down in the storms of that time. So whether the gold was lost, we don't know because Dan Brown died of consumption or something similar to that [in] 1857 when he returned. So...
James Looney [00:34:11] Took the secrets to his grave.
Lee Darst [00:34:13] Absolutely. Which didn't stop the Secret Service or whatever they were called at that time. They had him just in Disinterred. Yeah, exhumed. And as a result then the family had him buried in the family cemetery off the property.
David Darst [00:34:30] I had to learn a lot about farming the hard way. I'd make a wrong move. I had a disk behind me. And I'm in a big tractor. And the disk got into some sand and sank down in so it stuck. So I hop off of the tractor and go back and I pull the pin that's holding the disk. And I hop back on the tractor. [Makes a loud hissing sound] And everything went fine, except the hose was still conduct connected to the hydraulic, and I could hear Mr. Bender a mile away, and we won't write that in place. Little things like that. You... [laughs]
Lee Darst [00:35:40] You only do once. You only do that mistake once.
David Darst [00:35:46] Yeah.
Lee Darst [00:35:47] Yeah.
James Looney [00:35:50] So tell me more about the early years on the farm from 1957 on when the children were a little walk. Walk me through it. Walk me through a day in the farm.
David Darst [00:36:04] I worked at Goodrich. [I'd] get home and whatever he planned for me to do, that's what I did.
Lee Darst [00:36:18] It's pretty much seasonal, you know, it changed with the seasons as to what you did. The main task was hoeing weeds or cultivating the weeds, and everyone in the family was given a hoe and said, there's your row. And that was fun because you'd just get out there and you'd kind of daydream. And there were a lot of wildlife things to watch. So. The Cuyahoga River went right by there, and it was just not too unpleasant I'm sure. But usually Earva Bender had a schedule mine. He knew exactly what he was going to do and what day, and he did that. He was pretty much a one-man show. When he needed extra help, he called the boys of the Valley or he had us do work and got the task done. The worst thing, of course, was the hay. You would cut the hay and of course, you had to dry and you'd rake it and then you let dry some more and before you could bale it. Well, inevitably when we were ready to bale, the storm clouds were over there getting ready. So we'd have to hurry up and do that. Well, picking up the baled hay, that's hard work. But putting it into the mow in the barn was the hard work, especially when you knew those storm clouds were coming in. So there was a lot of momentary agony [laughs] as you had to hurry to get things done. But it was all good, hard work.
David Darst [00:37:43] Okay, now, for a good part of our experience there, Mrs. Bender, at one time, when they had married was salesperson of a little stand selling whatever Earva raised and where Akron Peninsula Road makes a big curve around Bender driveway is where they had their stand. Well, before we came there that stand had been destroyed by fire. What we got involved in was having our wagon, our big hay wagon and put our vegetables that we were raising on the hay wagon, and used that as our sales area at the bottom of the hill by the barn. And we had people coming from Bath, Richfield, Cuyahoga Falls, to buy vegetables from Bender. We came to the time when we needed some other type of activity, and Mr. Bender or Mrs. Bender thought of pumpkins. And we became known as the pumpkin farm, Bender's Pumpkin Farm. And I think I cried more over with pumpkins than anything else. We'd have the seeder, seeder would plant the seeds automatically, and then you had to go along and cull and take out those plants that weren't doing very well. And I think I told him, I've got to cry. I got to get myself accustomed to killing this plant. Oh, David, you will when you finish this row. But that became a big deal for us. I was able to cook up three weeks of vacation right after, one after the other, and so during Halloween time, I went on vacation from Goodrich and we were in the pumpkin business. He had 15 acres of pumpkins. And just to tend them, weed 'em, is part of it. After you gathered them up and you washed 'em down and then you put 'em on the ground or you put 'em in the truck, and we delivered pumpkins to schools in the area. And in those three weeks of vacation, I moved a lot of pumpkins and delivered them. One store was having a sale promotion and giving away pumpkins. And I remember I made my first delivery to the store. By the time I got back, they want another load. And I had the same problem with the schools. There was a school in Akron that wanted pumpkins and it seemed that pumpkin business was booming.
Lee Darst [00:41:58] Before that, we should tell 'em about the farmers' market there in Akron.
David Darst [00:42:02] Yes.
Lee Darst [00:42:02] Every farmer had their own little stall that they rented every year, and Bender's had one. If we got a surplus of tomatoes or whatever vegetable we would truck it on in there. And you get there about 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning and you go in and sit, all these men, I remember kind of being a scared little girl when I was first offered to go to the farmers' market, but we said at the big counter and ate breakfast with all these guys. And, you know, they're all doing their farm talk. And by 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock, then the groceries in the area came in to buy directly from the farmers. So that was a part of the truck farming business that [we] first initiated in. And then later Earva Bender had gotten enough relations with the local markets that they came to us instead of we have to deliver, although there were some times on weekends we delivered, but a lot of the... Well, even Acme, didn't Acme get some corn from Bender's originally in the '60s?
David Darst [00:43:07] It was more of the market on... Oh my.
Lee Darst [00:43:15] Vaughn's? Vaughn's market?
David Darst [00:43:17] Yes, Vaughn. He had the one in Brecksville and he had one in Akron at... I'm trying to think of the name of it. Masonic Square. It's in North Akron. But they were steady customers.
Lee Darst [00:43:40] We picked corn by hand on the farm.
David Darst [00:43:44] Yes. He believed in taking... When you first got your hand on an ear, you knew it was ready to be picked, and his neighbor, Mr. Szalay, bought a big picker, automatic, and sit up there—[makes sound] "Beep! Beep!"—and pick the corn. Well, it grabs the ear like that and throws it in the back. And Mr. Bender picked it and put it in his sled and he had a horse that pulled it. And right up to the end, he was using horse and handpicked all his sweet corn.
James Looney [00:44:47] Why do you think he insisted on using the horse and handpicking method as opposed to a new technological method which would have made the work easier?
Lee Darst [00:45:02] I think it was the way things were done that you use the horse, plus you had the quality control of knowing that that ear was ready. And it was just, I think, just the way that he had always learned and carried on with that. Now, when you talk about the new technology, of course, you need megasized fields to make it profitable, which, of course, the Szalays have now done in the farm. In fact, they are farming half of the Bender Farm acreage for sweet corn along the river. So I think there's also the investment of money to buy that new equipment.
David Darst [00:45:40] Yes.
Lee Darst [00:45:41] So sometimes the old way was better for him.
David Darst [00:45:44] I'm... Excuse me. I would say that 99 percent of the things on his farm were used that he bought at a sale. And I can remember twice being assigned the job of taking the big tractor and going to that place and hooking up, and I think the first thing I had was a hay rake, and the next thing I had was a baler. But everything was used. All his tractors were used.
Lee Darst [00:46:20] And he had the wherewithal to repair them. So that was good too. Getting back to the sweet corn, they used to pick about 600 dozen years. 600 dozen ears [laughs] of corn.
James Looney [00:46:36] How many acres of the property were used for growing sweet corn?
Lee Darst [00:46:42] Well, it was 100 that was...
James Looney [00:46:43] Farming.
Lee Darst [00:46:44] Farmed, yes. Probably all but what, let's see, 15 in pumpkins and maybe 10 in tomatoes? And then we had maybe five in melons. See, he rented some property to on the other side of the river.
David Darst [00:47:05] He rented lots of property.
Lee Darst [00:47:06] Yeah.
David Darst [00:47:07] Cranz.
Lee Darst [00:47:08] They built a school on the best melon-growing land in all of the Valley. It was a shame. [laughs].
James Looney [00:47:15] Tell me about that.
Lee Darst [00:47:17] About the best melon-growing area? Well, it was sandy soil from the silt from the river when it would overflow. You realize upstream was the Akron sewage treatment plant. So when the overflow came through and they opened the floodgates and everything came down the river, we had some very fertile soil. I thing I also enjoyed as a kid growing up, I'd go out after a flood when the waters were gone and I'd go and see what new sports equipment I have—footballs, basketball, baseball bats, and so on. So that was always good, but this... The other land that was available on the other side of the river had always been farmed and had always been fertile and it just seemed to work well. This one particular area where the melons grew well was a natural amphitheater type of thing, and it was just well protected and enough sunshine that it had just the sweetest melons around. Can still taste 'em today, those Saticoy melons [a type of canteloupe].
James Looney [00:48:24] But this land that they built the school on was not part of the Bender property?
Lee Darst [00:48:27] No, it was on the other side of the river. It was part of the Cranz property.
James Looney [00:48:34] To take a step or two back in terms of the farmer market, how long had Mr. Bender been participating in this farmer market before you, before the Darsts became involved?
David Darst [00:48:46] Mr. Bender having a farmers' market?
Lee Darst [00:48:50] The stall there in...
David Darst [00:48:51] Oh.
Lee Darst [00:48:52] Beaver Street. His father may even have had some, [David Darst: Could easily be.] some of that. So usually the families did that. They had their spot. Some of 'em even put their names on there because, you know, this is my spot. Whether you showed up that day to sell or not, you know, depending on if you have the materials to do so.
James Looney [00:49:17] I suppose another good point of interest for me was you mentioned briefly you needed something else to do which facilitated the growing of these pumpkins. And I'm just interested in how the transition came about from going produce and going to the farmers' market or whatnot to why, why and how pumpkins became so popular for your business. I mean, were there other pumpkin-growing farmers in the area or...
David Darst [00:49:47] The competition in the Valley on the sweet mar... sweet corn market was very, very tough. Mr Bender... He was in competition with Mr. Szalay, and that's not Johnny, it's Szalay's senior. He would tell me, "David, I'll be back in a few minutes." And then as I hear him coming, I look up the sky and there's this column of smoke. Well, poor Mr. Bender always wanted to know what Szalays were using for fertilizer, and he'd go up and look at the fertilizer bags.
Lee Darst [00:50:53] It's common practice to leave your bags there in the field after you emptied 'em and just leave it there and let 'em decompose. Well, Szalay's put a match to 'em and burned 'em. Now, whether they did that so the Benders wouldn't find out the Szalay secret or if it's just cleaning up their mess, [laughs] we never knew. But Earva always thought, oh, they did that on purpose so I couldn't know what they were using. So in other words, the competition for sweet corn was...
David Darst [00:51:20] Terrific.
Lee Darst [00:51:21] Terrific. And you would look for a short season type of...
David Darst [00:51:28] Do you know where Copley is?
James Looney [00:51:29] I'm sorry, Copley?
David Darst [00:51:31] Copley.
Lee Darst [00:51:31] Copley.
James Looney [00:51:32] I do not.
David Darst [00:51:33] Copley is just south of Bath. And if you went down...
Lee Darst [00:51:38] [I-]77.
David Darst [00:51:42] Yeah, 77, but you only went in about a mile into Copley and you would see a sign, Bender's Corn. Well, no relation, but there was a Bender's farm selling sweet corn and pumpkins. Szalay's started pumpkins after we went out of the business. We went out of the business because I was still working at Goodrich and Mr. Bender [was] in a nursing home. But...
Lee Darst [00:52:24] I think the pumpkins were just a gimmicky type thing and they had become popular to buy 'em at the stores. Now you go to the grocery store, you buy them. But we did the angle of we dressed up in Halloween costumes and sold 'em, clowns, witches, whatever. We had multiple things with all different kinds of pumpkins. We had gourds. We had Indian corn. We did the whole gamut of things. And people just liked to drive out to the farm and pick out their pumpkins. This is where they're grown, that type of thing. Of course, we had about thirty head of cattle that were there in the pasture beside it, and we'd throw the old pumpkins over to 'em. And of course, the people come and see the cows. And it just was a nice place to come on a Sunday evening, or afternoon I should say, and and get your pumpkin and see the farm.
James Looney [00:53:20] So how long have you, had the family been farming the pumpkins? I have written down that you started in the 1960s. Is that correct?
Lee Darst [00:53:29] Mhm. That's correct. Mid '60s, would you say? I think so, maybe before that. Yeah, I'd have been in high school in '63, so maybe right around that time.
David Darst [00:53:46] It's a good time. Busy time.
James Looney [00:53:54] Were the... Was the Bender Farm known... I assume it had quite a reputation for its produce and its pumpkins at the time in comparison to its neighbors. Is that correct?
Lee Darst [00:54:04] I'd say so, yes. There really weren't any large farms around to have a greater reputation than than Bender Farm during the time we were there.
David Darst [00:54:16] No, no.
Lee Darst [00:54:17] Right.
David Darst [00:54:18] The idea of selling on your own property eliminated a lot of people. And I think we were as friendly a sweet corn stand or pumpkin stand you could find. Like Lee said, we had costumes and we had pumpkin decorated and we had everything laid out.
Lee Darst [00:54:58] And the prices were very reasonable.
David Darst [00:55:02] Yes.
Lee Darst [00:55:02] I think they were. For like the schools and to other salespeople, the pumpkins were sold by the pound rather than, you know, an actual price for each one, and so they got a pretty good deal.
James Looney [00:55:25] Now, was the truckside stand also the roadside stand selling produce, this was also going on for some years as well as the pumpkin selling, or was it that you would take the produce to the farmers' market?
Lee Darst [00:55:41] The farmers market was mainly earlier, even before we got there, and it was only when we had an oversupply of tomatoes. Tomatoes, you never know what's going to happen. All the tomatoes were picked by hand. They were graded out by quality. You had your baskets of firsts, the best ones, the seconds and thirds. You sold certain ones... Different vendors would come and would want to, you know, get different grades to sell for themselves. When you had an oversupply, you needed a market for it. So you took it to the farmers' market. At the end of the season when they, all the tomatoes came one time, the field was opened up for people to come pick their own canners. And that was [laughs] quite a bizarre thing. You would get people in, of course, that could care less about the tomatoes. They'd be stomping with their big feet all over it, and I think it's any type of berry picking or anything, you know, where you go and pick your own things. It was very difficult to keep people where they should be and not destroy half the property. [laughs] But it was fun. It was a good way of getting rid of your extras, so it was a positive thing.
James Looney [00:56:57] Tell me about painting the Bender barn and why that's such a significant experience for you. I know I mentioned it briefly on the phone, but...
Lee Darst [00:57:09] So you don't know what the Bender barn looks like. [laughs]
James Looney [00:57:11] I admit I do not.
Lee Darst [00:57:16] Ooh! [laughs] It was a bank barn. So that means you have your cattle stalls underneath. So that's your first floor, really. You drive up onto this next floor. And this was a barn specially built for hay storage. So you had... Well, actually, I said that wrong, didn't I? You'd drive up onto the top floor from the bank barn. There was a lower floor that had, excuse me, had an entrance up the other way on the side. And then the bottom is where the cattle came in. So that... I'm talking about three stories plus the hay story, so it's almost like a four-story house is what we were painting. Well, you don't have ladders that are generally that high, so you have to invent something. And Earva Bender had the brain to invent it. Do you want to tell about what he invented?
David Darst [00:58:06] Yes. He wanted to make a platform that could go up and down the sides of the barn so that the two people who were going to do the painting could sit on bicycle seats and pedal, and they would pedal up or down while they did the painting.
Lee Darst [00:58:40] It's a like a scaffold.
David Darst [00:58:41] Now, it gave me great pleasure to have faith of these people because my job was not to paint. My job was to be sure that the wires that go up and down, holding the painter, were properly secured inside the barn. And so they drop that to the ground and get the wires. I wrap 'em around the building beams and they'd hop and away they roll up, paint.
Lee Darst [00:59:22] This was cable. It was attached to like under the roof, the eaves part, the beams, and then fed down and then the bicycle apparatus was used to bring that up and down and he actually put brakes on this. He used a braking system so it would be safe to do that, had a back to it because as you went higher, of course, you're leaning back. And it was quite a joy to paint your back [laughs] as you're trying to do the top part of the barn. But that, four stories, that's one thing. But then we had two cupolas on top, two little square decoration ventilators. So you had to go across the slate roof that of course had lots of moss on it to get to the cupula to get that painted. And that was no big fear for me. I was about 20. I was in college that time, 20, 21. But when I went to get back on the ladder [laughs] after being on that roof, I always got that sick feeling in my stomach. Is this gonna hold? But it did. It did.
James Looney [01:00:33] The painting of the barn, was this done every year? Once every several years?
Lee Darst [01:00:38] No, I think this is the first time that I remember it being done while we were there. And that was... It was painted in 1970 is when we did that. And my mom and I did most of the painting and it was by brush. It was oil paint and by brush. So you would try to complete one section and then the next day the scaffolding had been moved so you could do the next section down. So it was a slow process, a summer project, if you will.
David Darst [01:01:05] It was thorough.
Lee Darst [01:01:07] Yeah, it was thorough.
James Looney [01:01:10] And it was only you and your mother painting this barn. Just the two of you?
Lee Darst [01:01:12] Pretty much. Pretty much. Well, Earva would paint some, but, you know, he was doing other farm work, so. Yeah.
James Looney [01:01:23] Share with me some more of your more poignant memories from your years on the farm that maybe we haven't touched on.
Lee Darst [01:01:31] Water for the cows. Cows always get the water. We had a cistern, so when it didn't rain, that means there was no water in the cistern. We would hire some of the water-carrying companies in Northampton would bring out big truckloads of water. Of course, that went to the cows first. So Saturday baths were [laughs], you know, a luxury on the farm sometimes in the summer. The cows were... had water in the wintertime. They had a system of watering cups and so on, very much like they have today. Sometimes, of course, the water would freeze in the lines, in the pipes, and it was always a fun thing, taking a settling torch down there and trying to thaw out those pipes, how dangerous that was. But fortunately, we always made through alright. Well, then Earva decided enough of that kind of stuff. He made a box, a cement block box underneath the drinking cup where there was a light that he could turn on and it'd be just enough warm enough to keep that so the water wouldn't freeze in the cup. But, you know, sometimes things don't always work as you planned, and we'd have to let the cows out into the pasture. We put 'em in the barn, locked 'em up during the, like, January, February, the worst time, because that's when the calving, the cows were being born, and he didn't want 'em out in the field somewhere. So we had to let 'em out of their crowded up area and go to the farm pond, a little pond. And of course, we had to go out there and break the ice so the cows could get out there and drink. And of course, we had one silly cow that had to go out. She's very pregnant and she gets out there and sprawls her back legs, can't get up. This does not have a good happy ending, unfortunately. Got her up. She was fine that day. Well, the next day she went out and did the exact same thing, but broke her leg at that time. So she had to be dragged off and destroyed. So there were a lot of happy, fun things on the farm. But there's always, you know, hard facts of life type thing.
James Looney [01:03:37] Growing up on the farm. Is that where you learned like a great proportion about life and the harsh realities of life through that farm?
Lee Darst [01:03:46] Yes, but I don't think it's so much the harsh reality. There's just reality, you know. Right. Right. Very busy road. I can remember the first time my first cat got killed on the road. Oh, that's terrible. Well, like any kids today, but you had a barn full of cats, you know, you quickly adopted the next one is your pet and so on. We had chickens that had been given to us. A lot of people dump things off on the farm. You just had that happening all the time. We had chickens. We made a pen for 'em, you know, gonna feed them, get eggs, and well, the raccoons had better other thoughts for those chickens. So, you know, one night they came and slaughtered all the chickens. Well, what do you do? We did nothing with 'em, but Earva's brother Frank came and got them, and he had chicken for several Sundays in a row. So, you know, it's just the reality.
David Darst [01:04:38] Are you familiar with the music center? Blossom Music Center?
James Looney [01:04:43] Very much so.
David Darst [01:04:47] We would find during a concert very difficult to go across the road to our field if we had to do some work there. We got sure that that was all done before the concert because you couldn't get across. And we used to find all kinds of things. I remember one thing was a watch, someone's watch...
Lee Darst [01:05:15] Lots of money.
David Darst [01:05:20] Yeah. [laughs]
Lee Darst [01:05:20] I thought you were gonna tell him about our cultured bull. Remember the bull that got loose from the Bender Farm?
David Darst [01:05:27] Oh, yes.
Lee Darst [01:05:28] And he found his way up to Blossom Music Center. Well, that's fine, but you got to get him back down. And that was quite some task to do that. We did not have a trailer to load him into, so it was herd him home all the way.
James Looney [01:05:45] How did it escape?
Lee Darst [01:05:46] Just break through a fence and just go on. Cows are very curious animals. You know, grass is greener on the other side.
David Darst [01:05:56] Now, I can tell you something about Earva's father's farming. Earva told me that up on top of the hill behind... This is the barn. He used to raise potatoes up there. And I don't think you Earva had any mind of raising potatoes because he never mentioned it to me, but he told me that trail that went up... I said, looks like it's been used quite a bit. Well, that's where they used to go up to work the potatoes.
Lee Darst [01:06:42] That would've been around Depression time, wouldn't it? Depression years? Wouldn't you think?
David Darst [01:06:49] The biggest thing with cattle is that you've got to keep 'em in, and to keep 'em in you had to fence 'em. And he used a barbed-wire fence, and the charger was in the barn—[makes a sound] "Doot! Doot! Doot!"—sending the charge through there. Well, it must be half a mile of fencing it had to go through. And then if a tree would fall down, then you had to go in and replace the wire. One of the things that I learned was to climb hills. I think that was our third or fourth year. And he said, we're going up to repair fence. And he made a little cart-like thing, and all I had to do was pull that cart to the area where we were going to work. No wonder arthritis is bad as it is. That was rough.
James Looney [01:08:08] How often would you have to pull this cart? Just during the growing season?
Lee Darst [01:08:13] Just whenever you needed to repair the fence.
James Looney [01:08:15] Okay.
Lee Darst [01:08:16] It... Barbed wire comes on a, what's called a bale about that big, probably weighs, oh, 50 pounds plus. And so it's easier if you had something to pull. And that's what you did. The only thing is pulling on straight flat land is one thing. [David Darst laughs] Going up and down hills carrying this thing is quite something else. That was just to repair things, so most of the time things were in good shape. You worked hard to make sure that was the case.
David Darst [01:08:47] The thing I'd like to talk about it is the gas well. Gas well, I told you, had to be bailed every year because it's plugged, but there's seepage of gas enough to do the heating he wanted, but you had to take the water that develops on top of the seal. So he devised a tripod to sit there, and he'd bring one of his tractors down and hook up a belt and that would take the...
Lee Darst [01:09:33] It was like a winch.
David Darst [01:09:35] Yeah, and it would take the baler—that's the word, I couldn't think of the word—baler. And I would check the baler over and we'd splash it open because it had a plunger in the bottom.
Lee Darst [01:09:56] Dirty but necessary job.
David Darst [01:10:02] Yeah, but it's... Good time to learn things. I have no regret.
James Looney [01:10:12] Now you farmed this land from 1957 as a family with the Benders until when? Is it still currently being farmed? Or by...
Lee Darst [01:10:20] It... [laughs]
David Darst [01:10:29] I missed the...
Lee Darst [01:10:29] It was your birthday in 1987, you left the farm, right?
David Darst [01:10:34] Yes.
Lee Darst [01:10:35] December 19, 1987...
David Darst [01:10:39] '87.
Lee Darst [01:10:39] And we haven't been back there since. The park purchased it from the Benders. Both Benders went into nursing care type of facilities, two different ones, and fortunately, I had purchased a little five-acre farm up in Richfield Township and my parents moved up there where I was living, but the park had purchased the land. And, of course, they were buying up everything they could at that time and... We better just leave it at that. [laughs]
James Looney [01:11:20] Are there any other stories you'd like to share with me today?
Lee Darst [01:11:25] Any the other stories about farming or life in the Valley there?
David Darst [01:11:40] Gas well... The house... Wanna hear about the house?
James Looney [01:11:55] Absolutely.
David Darst [01:12:00] Our apartment. You approached it from the outside, your own entranceway, stairs up to this second floor, or if you were in the house and you want to go up, there was regular stairs. Well, when you got up to the top of the stairs coming from the outside, you would see big logs on either side of the hall and sometime prior, and I don't, I don't think it's, I think it was even before Benders lived there, they had raised the second floor, and those were the beams where the building rested on the inside.
Lee Darst [01:12:52] Yeah, where the roof had rested. There were hand-hewn beams.
David Darst [01:12:57] And the attic, we very seldom went in the attic.
Lee Darst [01:13:02] Storage. But that's where they found the counterfeit plates from the Browns incident, "they" meaning the federal government at that time, who was investigating. What else about the house?
David Darst [01:13:24] But the... Mrs. Bender always had the relatives in for christmas. And our wife, mother, Marty, helped Mrs. Bender with that project.
Lee Darst [01:13:53] Baking and getting the entertainment things together and decorating. It would be maybe 40, maybe 50 Benders come visit.
David Darst [01:14:04] But like all relatives, they had to know how much money they're gonna get out of his estate. And he hired a lawyer from Akron, which I had known for quite a while, and I trusted him. And I had one relative who had called me, well, what's the decision today? And I said, everything's okay, and I had to go into the lawyer's office and go over the books, I think, every month. But they were all happy when it was finally announced. Mrs. Bender's sister's boy got most of it. And I don't think they were in no, in any way desiring to live in there.
Lee Darst [01:15:23] That was a moot point by then anyway. The park had it. So.
Carolyn Conklin [01:15:29] We're just about out of time. Do you have a final question or anything?
James Looney [01:15:31] I suppose, in terms of this interview to understand the oral history of the region, I mean, things you can't read in books or things like that unless you're going to talk to people like this, being a historian yourself, Mr. [Darst], help me to understand the overall historical significance that might not be present at first sight about this farm, in your experience, farming it for over 30 years.
David Darst [01:16:06] Interpret that for me.
Lee Darst [01:16:10] [Laughs] Would you rephrase that a little bit?
James Looney [01:16:13] Okay. Yeah, perhaps I'm not being clear. That's kind of... We're... The goal of this interview is to discover oral history that, you know, isn't easily accessible to most people. You know, I can't go and find a book about what it was like, you know, to farm and to be in the Cuyahoga Valley during this period of time. And now many farms, especially family-run farms, are a thing of the past, you know, this mass farming, mass commercialization. In terms of the historical significance of your farm, if I, if I asked you that, what would you say, in your opinion, would it be?
Lee Darst [01:16:54] I think it's an example of that Yankee know-how of how to make things work and how to always improve on things, and I think that's... It was a model farm for that image of that.
David Darst [01:17:13] And I would say the Darst family was mighty lucky. We made the connection. I know I enjoyed 30 years of toil. It was fun. That's the way we looked at it. It's hard work.
Lee Darst [01:17:33] Considering you're 92 now, I guess it did you a world of good.
Carolyn Conklin [01:17:39] I have one final question for both of you. What do you enjoy most about farming or living on a farm?
David Darst [01:17:50] I didn't get it.
Lee Darst [01:17:52] What do you find most enjoyable about farming or living on a farm?
David Darst [01:17:57] Well.. If I were to compare bender's farm with let's say Cranz's farm, which was in the same valley...
Lee Darst [01:18:13] Yeah. Two different types.
David Darst [01:18:15] I would say that Bender was...
Lee Darst [01:18:28] It was a self-sufficient farm.
David Darst [01:18:30] Yes.
Lee Darst [01:18:35] And you enjoyed that about it?
David Darst [01:18:39] Yes.
Lee Darst [01:18:44] Just a lot of freedom, the responsibility you had for what gets done and there's no one else to blame but yourself if it's not done or done correctly. It's just a good way of living. And...
David Darst [01:18:58] I think a lot was in the favor of what is known as knowing your landlord and the landlord knowing the tenant. I think that is very important. Here was my sixth grade teacher, and her husband living on this farm without any children, and here's a man who was a student with his three daughters. And it wasn't just me, it was my wife Marty and the three kids. We were something they needed and we took in everything they gave us.
Lee Darst [01:19:55] And we got to have a horse.
Carolyn Conklin [01:20:02] Thank you very much. Before I stop the recording, could you please follow the Benders' names for me?
David Darst [01:20:08] Earva is E-A-R-V-A. His middle name was Carl. C-A-R-L. And her name was Katherine with a K. K-A-T-H-R-Y-N.
Carolyn Conklin [01:20:21] Okay. Thank you so much.
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