“As the light faded from the sky, we would build an immense bonfire and settle down to eat steak and roast corn, drink boiled coffee, sing songs and tell stories as the fire roared upward and sent its sparks toward the star-lit hood of the sky. Then the cattle would gather all around us in a circle and stare entranced, their white and roan and black faces oddly illuminated in the dancing light of the fire. That was as near as the Ferguson Place ever came to being “civilized” in the present sense of the word, and that was quite near enough.”
– Ellen Bromfield Geld, The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories of Louis Bromfield
I grew up knowing the Hollywood giant Louis Bromfield as a legend, a man who had traveled the world, but returned to his home farm very near my hometown because he wanted most of all to be a farmer.
My father had once had the good fortune as a young student to have met the man while visiting Malabar Farm with his FFA chapter. I loved to ask him to tell the story. Dad’s blue eyes lit up with joy when he recalled that day.
Louis Bromfield was in his hey-day prime when my father was in high school in 1950. Books written by Bromfield were rewritten in to screenplays and were big hits.
So, when Dad’s FFA instructor told his young students they would tour Malabar Farm to study newly-constructed conservation farm practices, he added that Mr. Bromfield surely would not be on the farm, but off in his Hollywood worldly pursuits.
Dad was standing on the edge of the small gathering when someone tapped him on the back. He turned to see a very tall, imposing man behind him. It was Louis Bromfield, surrounded by several of his beloved boxer dogs.
He asked very quietly if the kid would like a ride to see a much better view of his amazing farm.
The dogs piled in to the open jeep along with their master and this shy boy. Bromfield then proceeded to drive the small jeep straight up the most incredible mountainous terrain, stopping atop Mount Jeez. From there, he pointed out newly-constructed waterways, land intentionally left idle.
He mentioned the planting of legumes and contour farming, and he discussed his hopes and plans for the farm in the coming years. Dad was already destined to become a respectful, soil-conserving farmer, but there is no doubt that this momentous meeting impacted him in a positive way.
In the memoir written by Bromfield’s daughter Ellen Bromfield Geld, she describes her father as a man whose only emotions “he ever really cared to show were those of rage and amusement. The rest he kept for the Ferguson Place … undoubtedly, the world’s tormented souls would be in far better shape if every man had a Ferguson Place to go to or, at least, if every man understood the full value of such private beauty and solitude.”
Bromfield would take his daughters along to this lovely, private farm of rough terrain and earlier neglect, where he pastured his cattle.
It is said Bromfield did his best thinking on this “untamable land above the trees,” where his head would fill with new ideas.
“When we had rested a little,” his daughter writes of a day spent on the Ferguson Farm, “we returned home by devious trails. My father had by then forgotten our existence and wandered off on his own, leaving us to find our way as best we could.”
Malabar Farm is now, thankfully, an Ohio State park, saved from development or neglect. Thousands of people visit annually, some who admired Bromfield’s writing, others who want to see this working farm, and still others who are fascinated with the lovely home in which Bromfield’s friends, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, repeated their wedding vows.
It is a place that still holds the power to move those who visit. It is, thankfully, an enduring gift.