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BOOK DIGS INTO LIVES OF DEPRESSION-ERA FARMERS

SHARE BOOK DIGS INTO LIVES OF DEPRESSION-ERA FARMERS

Depression-era farmers are the last links with the sweat and joy of life on a small, diverse family farm, according to two people who plan to preserve those memories in a book called "Salt of the Earth."

"We wanted to go out - indeed, we felt compelled to go out - and talk to these old guys," said one of the authors, Teresa Norris-Phillips, a free-lance copywriter.She and Candis Kelly, a graphic designer, have collected stories and photographs of nine Illinois farmers ages 79 to 94.

Among them is Eli Meiss, who remembers a generation of farmers who ate the fruit and vegetables they grew, churned butter from the cows they milked and carved hams from the pigs they raised.

"We were self-sufficient," Meiss said. "Today, a farmer's just like a poor city boy."

Peter Ropp recalls kerosene lamps for light, horses for transportation and stoves for heat.

"When returning from town on a cold night in a horse-drawn vehicle," Ropp said, "it was heartening to see the glow of the stove from the hill a half-mile south of home . . . a real joy on a winter night to watch the yellow and blue flames play after the coal was added."

Norris-Phillips and Kelly set out in January 1989 with tape recorder and camera, uncertain of how two city women would be greeted.

"We arrived at the door thinking, `Why would they want to tell us their life stories?"' Kelly recalled. "We'd walk out backward three hours later saying, `We really gotta' go now.' "

The women listened and looked.

They stood atop James Yontz's tall grain bins at San Jose; they looked at the faint traces of stagecoach tracks at Dill Seymour's home near Seymour.

Rather than using set questions, Norris-Phillips let the farmers reminisce and focus what mattered most to them.

Meiss, born in 1905 in Fairbury, Ill., began farming at the height of the Depression - in a year when drought and chinch bugs devastated his oats.

"Maybe starting in the '30s was good for us," he said. "I can't say I've ever lost any sleep if I had a short crop, but I'm always glad if I get more."