Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Over the river and through the woods

Back in December Buffy and I visited her family in Minnesota. We always have a chance to visit her grandmother for a few hours to hear her tell her favorite stories. She's a dear woman. Intense, honest and quickly jubilant. She laughs loudly at every joke with a tickled Oh you rascal! Every time we visit she scurries over to the fridge to pull out her recycled Country Crock container filled with spritz cookies and crispy peanut butter bars. And our conversation is always at the little kitchen table where she offers Buffy a mug of delicious Folgers Crystals instant coffee while I get my fill of summer sausage with mild colby on a roll.

She's 82 years old. 80 of those years lived in MN. Every time when we remind her that Buffy's studying renaissance and comparative literature and I'm studying linguistics Grandmom makes the connection to her own studies. Ohh!? she exclaims You know spelling was my best subject.

During the last visit she saw me scribbling something on my hand. What are you writing there? she asked. Buffy knew immediately that I had heard her grandmother say something noteworthy. Of course I couldn't tell her that. She's dear but she's also a little sensitive. Oh I'm just writing down some ideas for how to teach my class I said. So here's what I was really writing down:

  • She was speaking of having recently moved to a new house. Of the old house and its new tenant she said

    "I won't go there after he once moves in."

    Looks like a shuffled blend of after he moves in and once he moves in? It's almost like he splits up the slot that would normally be held by either after or once and the both sprouted up -- one on each side. Of course that's not an actual theory.

  • Telling us that her husband forbade something (I can't remember what):

    "Him told me I couldn't"

    Buffy insists she does this knowingly in order to sound endearing and childlike. That may be. The context supports the possibility. I've heard her use it several times so I'm going to start listening for this accusative in a non-coordinated structure.

  • While telling us a story about an event that tried her patience and confused her and made her feel like she was losing her mind:

    "I was ready for the fox farm."

    I found 3 Google™ hits for "ready for the fox farm."

    One hit from Dan Small OUTDOORS for a story by George E Wamser who says he "has turned the corner towards fall in life, but is not ready for the fox farm yet!" He lives in Oconto, Wisconsin.

    One Google™ Book Search result from Beyond the Freeway: Stories of Fascinating Times that Have Faded Away by Peter Benzoni who writes "The mules that pulled the cars out to the station were getting old. They were ready for the fox farm." Google™ provides a map of "places mentioned" for the book and there's a clear cluster of mentions in northern Wisconsin spreading into northeastern Minnesota and the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Benzoni attended high school in Hurley, Wis.

    The third hit takes us to for an excerpt from a book by Margo Howard who collected letters from her mother Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer. On 21 October 1960 Esther wrote "The Jaguar in the meantime is ready for the fox-farm. Damned thing is the worst car mechanically we have ever owned. It is in the garage again . . . stopped dead on me."

    Among the stories Esther tells her daughter are several anecdotes about her good friend Hubert H Humphrey. Humphrey was then senator from Minnesota and became a friend when they were living in Eau Claire Wisconsin. Margo writes:

    Hubert Humphrey, from Minnesota, became a family friend when we lived in Wisconsin and Mother was a player in Democratic politics. They first met when she was in the Senate gallery listening to him deliver a speech and sent down a note asking to meet him.

    When Margo was applying to colleges she found herself with fewer options than she had expected. Even her safety school didn't accept her. Of course it was Pennsylvania. Not a very safe net. Humphrey sent Margo's mother a note saying

    Tell Margo that I have written a recommendation for her to Brandeis University. She will not only be permitted to enter as a result of that recommendation, but most likely become the Dean of Women or Campus Queen on the day of registration. When Humphrey recommends they are recommended.

    Margo was of course accepted.

    I'm sure several of you know Friedman Lederer's famous alias. The name of the book is Ann Landers in her own words: Personal Letters to Her Daughter.

    Three hits are a thin example of a regional expression. But I'm not sure what else to think. Has anyone else heard this phrase? As Grandmom used it the phrase it was akin to "ready for the loony bin." But the other examples sound more like "ready to head out to pasture." Can anyone connect it (with these or any other meanings) to Wiscon-sota? Mr Verb?


  1. DARE has "fox farm" along with fox farm bait, fox feed, fox meat, as names for a horse that's (as I would have said) ready for the glue factory -- recorded in ME, IA, WI, if I read aright. They may have more to tell you now, 23 years later.

    Margo Howard says she doesn't remember knowing what it meant, only that it was her mom's expression for washed up, on its last legs; she wonders if it was a Russian phrase.

  2. Excellent. Thanks jan. I'll also have to ask Grandmom about it the next time we're up there. And any other family -- to see how they understand it and use it.

  3. Any chance the "him" in "him told me" is a ... can't think of the name for it ... a referent for her husband? I'm thinking of the Anglicized Gaelic "Himself" and "Herself" used nominatively. Does she use it in constructions like, "You know what Him thought of that"?

    Oh - fox farm? They certainly have them in Russia, but that phrase is totally unfamiliar to me.

  4. ps - while poking around I found this:

    "There were hmm 5 or 6 3000GT/Stealths there, a great showing among a total of 120 cars; many F-bodies, MANY Corvettes, alot of BMW's, Porsches, a Panoz racer, a few serious Porsche and other brand racecars, the cool 1970 Pontiac GTO with BIG brakes, handling setup; 1982 Caddy with handling setup, ~500cid Caddy engine, that twisted its driveshaft up at 120mph going into turn 1 :-) , damaging rear seat floor some; some S2000's, inclding one supercharged to "7 and 1/2 psi", [a note Paul with twin 2835 turbo'd Supra and I made to selves: when we start talking alot about HALF POUNDS of boost, it's time for the fox farm]."

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  6. I just heard a story using the phrase, "ready for the fox farm." I had never heard it before, and promptly went to look it up online. Yours is one of the few hits I found. According to my s\o, the phrase was used by the 70+ year old members of her family in Washara County, Wisconsin. By context, it seemed to indicate the idea of "being at death's door."

  7. Yes it looks like the idea of deterioration is a common one. We were just visiting Grandmom and I forgot to ask her about it.


  8. I just heard my 90-year-old grandmother use the phrase "ready for the fox farm," and it was definitely used in the context of being at death's door. Intrigued by the phrase, I googled it and ran across this post, one of the few relevant hits I got. Interestingly, my grandmother lived most of her life in Wisconsin, so it definitely seems to be a regional phrase.

  9. "Ready for the fox farm" was used by someone in my family at one time because I will use it from time to time. Must be an older relative/ grandmother. I use it to mean something along the lines of "they have gone crazy and they're getting old". My family all lives in Northwestern Ontario, Canada which is close to Wisconsin but still quite a bits away.

  10. We just heard that expression used by a friend of my 86 yr old MIL in her annual Xmas card. They are both from Taylor county WI, which is famous for mink farms, not fox farms. We were intrigued by it, and I supposed that before the advent of mink farms, their were fox farms....the animals were fed with horse meat and no doubt beef that was unfit for human consumption. Hence the expression...

  11. My friend's 101 year old grandmother has been telling her that she's "ready for the fox farm" for a few years now. I believe she's originally from Wisconsin (I can't remember where exactly).

  12. My mom, who is originally from Berlin, Wis., which was known for its fur purveyors years back, just used this expression last week. She thought it had something to do with the local industry.


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