The Bonzo Dairy Farm of Greenup, Ky.
Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011 1:01 am
The Independent /Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011 1:01 am
Everyone had a job to do and every job was hard. But no one complained and no one quit until the job was done.
That is what the surviving Bonzo siblings remember most about their childhood on the Bonzo Dairy Farm.
Located along the Ohio River just north of the Industrial Parkway, the Bonzo farm was first purchased by the siblings’ grandparents, Jacob and Jenny Bonzo, around 1906.
The couple moved to the farm from Smokey Valley in Carter County and spent the rest of their lives on the farm where they raised nine children.
One of their sons and the siblings’ father, Ernest Bonzo, earned a degree in agriculture from Berea College in 1923 and returned to his parents’ farm where he built a milk house and launched the family’s commercial dairy operation, which existed until after his death in 1996.
Ernest and his wife, Bessie, eventually built their own home on the farm, which they later purchased and raised their own family of nine children — Loretta, Doris, Margaret, Robert, James, Ernie, Laura, Donnie and Tom.
“Everybody had to go out to work,” recalls Loretta Fairchild, 83. “We all worked.”
As they grew and seasons changed, so did their jobs. In addition to their herd of dairy cattle, the family raised dozens of hogs and other domestic animals, along with acres of mixed vegetables, which they also sold either from the back of a truck or to the Russell YMCA.
Fairchild’s job was to deliver the milk, a task she dutifully performed even on the morning of her wedding. “I didn’t get married until nine o’clock at night. I had chores until eight,” she laughed, recalling that day, more than 60 years ago.
“It didn’t matter where you were — when it was milk time you went home to milk,” added Laura Howell, 73, the youngest daughter who was sandwiched between five boys. Her first job was hauling milk between the barn and milk house in a little red wagon.
It was a job Ernie Bonzo, 75, performed before her, beginning when he was too young to even go to school. “They’d have to give the wagon a push — if I stopped before I got here,” he said waving to the old milk house, still standing outside his kitchen window, “somebody had to come and give me a push because I couldn’t pull it. I could haul three, three-gallon milk cans at a time.”
A typical morning on the Bonzo Farm began at 4 a.m., recalled Tom Bonzo, 69, the youngest brother. “Daddy would come through and holler, ‘Boys, time to get up!’ And he’d holler one time. You’d better be in the barn shortly after he got there,” he said, adding chores stopped in time for school but continued in the afternoon with the evening milking.
During the summers the family often worked past dark in the fields.
“A lot of times we’d take stuff out and fix dinner right out on the job — build a fire,” Tom Bonzo recalled.
“And shuck corn at midnight at night,” added Fairchild. “I’ve shucked many a corn at midnight at night.”The siblings agree that all that side-by-side work created a close-knit family that depended on and valued one another.
Particularly after tragedy stuck.
In 1948, three of the family’s oldest siblings — Margaret, Robert and James — were killed by a train while driving home from school. They were 18, 16, and 14, respectively.
The accident nearly drove the family from the farm — the tracks where the accident occurred sit just feet from the family’s home and continues to be busy with trains to this day.
But the family remained, persevering over this daily reminder of their loss.
The deaths deeply affected their parents, recall the youngest siblings, who remember being instantly thrust into jobs they weren’t yet strong enough to do.
“You took away three of the main workers,” explained Tom Bonzo.
Howell recalled she went to the milk house to help her mother strain milk and wash bottles, while Ernie took over milking with his father. Doris drove the tractor and younger brothers Donnie and Tom hauled milk.
“We made it though it and we survived. You can’t run from trouble,” she recalled her father saying often.
The family had its share of troubles that more often than not were brought on by the mighty Ohio River.
The farm was repeatedly flooded when the Bonzos were children. The great flood of 1937 reached to the second floor of Jacob and Jenny’s home while it submerged Bessie and Ernest’s above their door frame — ruining the brand new furniture the couple had just purchased.
The 1948 flood reached the floor joists of the house. The family simply opened their pasture gates and barn doors to let their livestock escape to higher ground. Ernie recalls the family had to recover a pig from the home of a neighbor after the floodwater receded. In 1955, they drove cattle up the railroad tracks to higher ground at the McConnell House.
Eventually, as modern flood control was initiated along the river, the floods became less frequent.
At the same time, milk operations were also being modernized, allowing the Bonzos to further expand production. The family eventually changed the breed of cattle they raised — from Jersey to Guernsey and eventually Holstein cattle — to ramp up production.
By 1964, Tom Bonzo had earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Kentucky and, like his father, had come home to the farm to improve its operations. He oversaw the building of the family’s modern milk parlor that allowed milk to be piped instead of hauled by wagon.
At the dairy’s peak in the 1970s, the Bonzo family milked 125 Holstein cattle twice a day using machines that could milk six animals at one time.
Then a 1973 law banning the distribution of raw milk forced the family to switch from bottling their own product to sending it to Johnson’s Dairy Barn for distribution.
“Then all at once there was too much milk,” recalled Ernie’s wife, Mildred Bonzo. Her husband recalled the family had so much excess milk at times that they would dump it in between rows of corn in the field.
Almost immediately the family began scaling back its production. Eventually, the farm was passed to Ernie and Tom Bonzo, who continued to operate the family’s dairy operations until 1988, when their father died. After his death, Tom continued alone until 1996, when he ceased dairy operations completely due to a lack of available help and a dwindling profit margin.
Today, Tom operates the Sportsman’s Paradise Game Farm on his half of the Bonzo Dairy farm. Instead of the constant mooing of cattle, the farm now echoes with the twittering of hundreds of game birds, which Tom raises for hunters under a license granted by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. He also trains and raises bird dogs and operates a preserve for hunters who purchase his birds. The farm also continues to produce hay, which Tom bales and sells to local farmers.
In addition to their dairy cattle, the lifestyle the Bonzos lead as children is long gone too.
Today, the siblings muse, children are not asked to work as hard as they were — but they lack what all that labor instilled in them. “Life-long discipline,” explains Howell. “The farm work and having the jobs to do was good discipline, for you to learn to do things and stick with things and make sure they were done.”
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.carriestambaugh.com.