Monday, September 15, 2014

How to keep out of mischief...

From the September 14th edition of The Day:

This is a match made not in heaven but in a Mystic garden, where tomatoes, peppers and squash have just gone by, and in the orchard, where peach and apple trees are loaded with luscious bounty.

Carl Willis, who will turn 100 on Valentine's Day, and 90-year-old neighbor and companion Marjorie Brooks have worked in tandem since 2000 tending to Willis' backyard garden and orchard on the Noank-Ledyard Road in Mystic where they raise vegetables, fruit and flowers, and sell some of it from a small roadside stand not far from Whittle's Willow Spring Farm.

"I couldn't do it without her," Willis said of Brooks, on a recent weekday while taking a break from farm chores on the 2.5-acre spread.

"I tell him not to go up on the ladder, but he goes up on the ladder," Brooks said, explaining that despite several years of threats of slowing down, she and Willis planted another garden this season and have worked it every day from sunup to sundown since early spring.

"He always says, 'I'm not going to be sitting in a chair like other people my age,'" she said. "It's a hobby for him, a hobby farm. He doesn't want to be sitting around in a chair and then pushing up daisies."

Willis has been a widower since 1980, the same year he retired from his career in highway construction. He lost a son but has a 70-year-old daughter. Seventeen years ago, after Brooks lost her husband, Willis invited his neighbor to dinner. At first she declined, but in 2000, while she was being treated for cancer, Willis pitched in to help her.

"He was so supportive," said Brooks, who lost her only child, a son, to a drunken driver. "He would just be waiting there for me when I came out of radiation. And that was so comforting."

When doctors told her she needed to eat better, Brooks began cooking again and started sharing her meals with Willis. Soon, she was also helping with his garden.

Every day during the growing season, Brooks drives her car from her home a few doors away to get an early start in the garden. Most days, she's there as the sun comes up, last week harvesting peaches, apples, zinnias and sunflowers.

A short while later, after Willis has risen, he joins her.

In the spring, they planted 180 tomato and 100 pepper plants, as well as long rows of squash, cucumbers and other vegetables. They also have asparagus and strawberries. This year, when they planted 1,000 zinnia seeds, Willis used a hoe to measure the distance between plants, poked a hole in the soil with his finger, and Brooks used tweezers to drop three tiny seeds in every indentation.

As the seedlings sprouted, Willis went back and thinned the zinnias to allow them ample room to grow.

Today, the zinnias are a haven for bumblebees and, like all the rest of the couple's produce, they're protected by an electric fence that keeps out deer and rabbits.

Hard work comes naturally to Willis, who was the fifth of nine children born just down the street from where he now lives to Carlton and Mary Jane Chesbro Willis. Although the family no longer owns the 250-acre property and home, the homestead is still there, and Willis can tell you that Timothy Morgan built it in 1763.

"I've been working since the age of 3," he said. "I helped out around the farm. It was my job to keep the woodbox full."

"His mother would tell him, 'If you want biscuits for breakfast, go get wood,'" Brooks added.

Runs sawmill, too

Willis can recall when the Noank-Ledyard Road was a narrow gravel lane and a team of horses pulling a V-plow would clear the snow that accumulated there.

These days, when the couple is out in the car, Willis is a source of information about what farms used to be where, where people used to live, and where he and his friends would go to buy penny candy when they were boys.

He is worried that so much development has occurred in the area, that "eventually we'll all starve" when there's no land left to farm anymore.

In addition to his garden and orchards, Willis operates a small sawmill, where he still labors to make native oak grade and surveyor's stakes for customers who appreciate his custom work.

But it's the garden and orchards that occupy him now.

"I think it's best to do the kind of work you like," he said, when asked about his good health and longevity. "I've always liked gardening - and farming in general - because I was born and raised at that. It's always been in my blood, I guess."

He still has his driver's license but said he tends to depend more on Brooks to get where he needs to go, although he's perfectly comfortable on top of his big farm tractor and can back it into the tight space in his shed without any guidance.

While Willis helped to build highways all over the Eastern Seaboard during his career, Brooks worked in retail, at the former Reid & Hughes department store in Norwich and at the old Seaport Pharmacy in Mystic, as well as other places, until five years ago. Today, she still works one early morning a week at Peppergrass & Tulip, a downtown Mystic gift store, where Brooks orders the greeting cards.

'Always a day's work'

Both Willis and Brooks enjoy the company of customers who patronize their farm stand.

"They're just so happy to get vegetables that we picked that day," said Brooks, adding, "And they are just tickled to death that we don't go out of business."

Customers have brought back pickle relish and zucchini bread that they've made using the couple's vegetables, and even gift certificates, as a way of saying thank you.

"I always worked retail, but there's just something special about these shoppers," Brooks said. "They're so appreciative."

This has been a dry summer and, without irrigation, their vegetables have not been as bountiful as they sometimes are. But the weather hasn't slowed them down at all.

"There's always plenty to do here," Willis said. "I fix whatever breaks down; there's always a day's work."

Until two years ago, he cut his own wood for the wood-fired furnace, backed up by an oil system, that he still uses to heat his home.

Willis and Brooks enjoy their fruits and vegetables and took a break from farming on a recent day to put up 18 jars of peach jam and slice up and freeze bags of peaches. They grow McIntosh and Courtland apples and Alberta peaches.

"Alberta is an old variety," Willis said. "I remember when I was a boy, my mother used to can Alberta peaches."

As for apples, he said, "I enjoy them anyway you fix them."

After he backed the tractor into the shed, Willis took a walk across his property, pointing out chores he needed to get to.

Maybe he'll slow down next year, he said, but then added, the garden and orchard are something "to keep you out of mischief."

"I'm lucky to be able to do it," he said, as he pulled a peach from one of his trees and handed it to a visitor. "But there's got to be an end somewhere; you gotta pull it in someplace."

Walking up the gravel path toward his home, he added: "As soon as I get done with the fruit, I will focus on the sawmill."

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