There is an old still buried somewhere on our farm. Most of the time I don’t think about it, but sometimes, when I am walking with my dogs through the tall prairie grasses, and I am in a particularly contemplative mood, I do think about it. And I wonder, where would they have buried it?
In the January chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm, I wrote about my father’s father, William, and how he became a bootlegger during Prohibition. I also wrote that he eventually became his own best customer. And I alluded to the devastating toll that his drinking took on his family. But I didn’t tell the story of the buried still.
My grandfather William was buried on my sixth birthday, November 12, 1962. I barely knew him and have limited memories of him. It wasn’t until 1995, when Danny and I purchased the family land on which we now live, that I began to pay attention to the family stories of Grandpa’s escapades that began during Prohibition and ended at his burial.
Getting caught bootlegging meant fines and/or jail time, and Grandpa got caught plenty. But he also had some loyal customers whose supply would be gone while Grandpa was in jail. So, if one of his supporters got wind of a potential raid, he tried to give Grandpa enough warning to allow him time to hide the evidence.
Grandpa’s modus operandi was to bury the still and hide it below ground. One family story described Grandpa quickly digging a hole in the dirt floor of his barn stall, then covering the hole with wood planks and straw. He moved a cow into the stall on top of the planks. It never occurred to the authorities to search beneath the cow – probably because the cow’s deposits on the floor provided a natural deterrent.
For years, I had heard bits and pieces of a story about a still that had remained buried somewhere on the family ground. But the details were vague and they varied depending upon which family member told the story. It was supposedly a good-quality still with a copper kettle, so even though more than a half century had passed, the kettle should still be intact. I developed an urge to find it.
During a conversation with one of my students at Fort Hays State University, she described to me how she had taken part in an underground search as part of a university-sponsored field trip. I mentioned my desire to locate the buried still. She suggested that I contact her instructor in the geophysics department to see if it were possible to use their sophisticated equipment to help me find it.
In exchange for a donation to their department, a professor from the geophysics department agreed to bring their equipment and three graduate students to our land to conduct a search. But it was impractical to search all 240 acres. By that time my dad had already passed away, so I asked Uncle Alvin for guidance as to where the still might be buried. He suggested the area around the old barn.
On April 9, 2001, the professor and three students conducted an electrical resistivity survey to search for conductive metals such as copper. They also conducted a magnetometer survey to search for iron bearing material. Sure enough, two anomalies were discovered.
The first anomaly produced an old rusted tin can, not a still. The second anomaly was more interesting.
Digging to a depth of two to three feet, the rather large anomaly produced a small piece of curved copper plating and some steel mesh. Both could have been from a still. But the family story implied that a still had been buried in its entirety. The geophysics team was convinced they had found the still for which we were searching. I wasn’t so sure.
Later that summer, at a family wedding, conversation turned to our recent search for the buried still. We described the search, and what was found, to a number of family members. The information spread like wildfire through the wedding hall. At one point, a cousin came up behind me and touched my arm. I turned to face her. “Aunt Caroline wants to see you,” she said.
Caroline was the youngest of Daddy’s siblings, one of only two girls in the family. The two girls were the oldest and youngest of nine children, with seven brothers between them. Daddy was the third oldest child. As the youngest child, and the last to leave home, my mom always said that, “Caroline had it the worst.” After my grandmother, Caroline’s mother, died in a tragic car accident in 1942, young Caroline was left at home without a protector, without a buffer against her father’s alcoholic rages.
I sat beside Caroline at her table. She wanted to hear first-hand about our search for the still. She listened silently as I relayed the details. When I finished, she told me matter-of-factly, “You didn’t find it.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because Alvin didn’t bury it. Pete and I did.” Pete was the second-youngest child, the brother nearest her in age.
She continued. “We buried that still where no one will ever find it.” And then she told me the story.
One day while their father was gone, she and Pete took his still and – together – they buried it where they were convinced, he would never find it. They concocted a story of a thief, someone they only caught a glimpse of from a distance, who came to their farm and stole the precious still. They swore to each other that they would never, ever, tell their father the truth, or tell anyone else where it was buried.
They knew the risks. If their father didn’t believe them, they knew they would feel his wrath. They did it anyway. Until the day he died, Grandpa believed that someone had snuck onto his farm and stolen his copper still.
I asked Caroline if she wouldn’t now, since her father was gone and so many years had passed, share the location of the buried still. I told her it might act as a cautionary tale to the younger members of our family. I quoted George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Caroline responded, “You feel that way because you didn’t live through it. You couldn’t possibly understand.” Then she added, “You know, Mary Kay, your dad once asked me where the still was buried. I told him, ‘Herman, I can’t tell you that.’” She paused. “Your father respected that.”
Then she looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Don’t ask me again.”
I never did. Caroline is gone now, along with Pete, Daddy, Alvin and the rest of their generation. And the still remains buried.
Some may consider Caroline and Pete’s burial of the still as an ineffectual act of defiance from two desperate children. After all, it didn’t stop their father’s drinking, it didn’t resurrect their mother, and it didn’t repair their family. For many years, that’s the way I saw it.
But with the passage of time, I now see it differently. I see it as the empowered triumph of a little girl over the demons of a dysfunctional childhood. The still – and all it represented – may have destroyed the happiness in Caroline’s family, but it did not destroy her fighting spirit. It may have stolen the innocence of her youth, but it could not steal her spunk.
The still will stay buried on our farm in an ignominious, unmarked grave. But the tale of the fearless little survivor will live on.
Next Week: Mooving On