Articles

Malabar Farm State Park: Louis Bromfield Comes Home Again

By Roy A. Barnes

As a writer myself, I found it a refreshing experience to take some time to visit a place that was once the grand home and farmland of a writer from an era so long passed. Malabar Farm State Park is the place I speak of. It’s located in Lucas, Ohio, roughly 70 miles northeast of Columbus.

In 1935, author Louis Bromfield’s novel, called ‘The Man Who Had Everything’, was published. It focused on a successful and popular playwright named Tom Ashford, who seemed to have it all, but whose soul was empty. He makes a trek back to his former home in France, where his first love and the large farm left to her offer a re-ignited sense of purpose for Ashford’s life. In reality, Bromfield was much in the same situation as his protagonist. This writer had everything most aspiring authors wished to have: a successful career with a myriad of best-selling books, and a Pulitzer Prize bestowed upon him for his 1926 novel ‘Early Autumn: A Story of a Lady’. He had a lovely wife and three daughters, a sprawling estate in Senlis, France, where his garden included some 350 varieties of flowers alone, as well as a fine selection of vegetables.

Still, something was missing in Bromfield’s life, and he had a good idea what it was: a return to his boyhood roots in Central Ohio. This, despite the fact that his native America of the late 1930’s was one still mired in the Great Depression and on the verge of entering the second great world conflict. Yet no matter where Bromfield found himself on the globe or what rich and famous people he hooked up with, he could never get away from wanting to re-live the time of his childhood. His nighttime dreams were often of those days gone by, even as he took part in great and daring adventures on the subcontinent of India or found himself in the midst of brutality and misery of France’s trenches during the First World War. Bromfield longed again for the time before the advent of the automobile, of social and dining occasions at his church, and even of his family’s mighty struggle at the plow…

Louis Bromfield was born on December 27, 1896, in Mansfield, Ohio, which is 11 miles northwest of where Malabar Farm stands. During the first part of his life, he was raised on a number of failing farms, yet his love for the area endured, despite the difficulties his family went through in their line of work. His mother Annette wanted Louis to become a cultured writer, and urged him on. Ultimately, Bromfield would study agriculture and writing at Cornell and Columbia University respectively, but World War I would beckon him to enlist in the Army Ambulance Corps. Bromfield served in France, where he also distinguished himself heroically in battle. Bromfield would be awarded the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre for his wartime bravery. Fellow ambulance drivers and writers Ernest Hemingway and Malcolm Cowley were Bromfield’s contemporaries during his wartime stint in France. After the war, Bromfield returned to New York and began writing for such publications as ‘Time’. He published his first novel, called ‘The Green Bay Tree’, in 1924. The novel met with critical and public success.

Bromfield’s third book about a prominent New England family’s trials and tribulations, titled ‘Early Autumn: A Story of a Lady’, would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. His characters centered on the Pentlands, a New England family of distinction, but slowly declining over the course of three centuries. But events, including the exposure of a family skeleton, and the introduction of outsiders to the family, would result in some profound effects upon the Pentland clan. Bromfield would go on to write 31 successful books over the course of his career, including ‘The Farm’ (1933) and ‘Colorado'(1947). Bromfield’s novels were greatly influenced by his love of the rural life and how modern industrialization was encroaching upon it.

Bromfield was a literary success, and Hollywood would want his services, too. He would write many screenplays for the cinema. Twelve of Bromfield’s short stories and movies would become feature films; including the 1939 hit ‘The Rains Came’, starring Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy. Despite all his literary honors, Bromfield put more value on accolades like an award given to him by the French Ministry of Agriculture for introducing American vegetables into the market garden areas around Paris. But by the late 1930’s, Bromfield, living in France with his wife Mary and three daughters, was, in addition to his desire to return to the past, becoming very disillusioned over the war climate that was building in Europe. This would be the final straw for his ultimate decision to return back to his agricultural roots in central Ohio in 1938 with his family.

What Bromfield found, after the snows blanketing the Midwestern farmlands had melted away, would not be the glorious past of his mind and soul. Instead he would encounter once-enriched earth that was now of low quality, due to years of mismanagement and neglect. But Bromfield possessed the financial means and insurmountable will to forge ahead with a working farm of his own making via much trial and error over the next fifteen-plus years. Bromfield would also begin construction on a Western Reserve architectural style home with 32 rooms, that would be affectionately called the “Big House”. Bromfield would ultimately name his 900-plus acre property Malabar Farm. This nomenclature was inspired by his travels to India, where many of his works like ‘The Rains Came’ (1937), and ‘Night in Bombay’ (1940) took place. Malabar is an Asian word that means “beautiful valley”.

Years later, Bromfield would write that some of his best experiences on the farm were with the farm animals themselves, often finding his pigs and cows more desirable to be around than many of the people he would come into contact with. He was fond of one pig in general, who managed to escape a fenced feeding lot several times by climbing high enough on the fence to get out through the bigger holes that existed on the upper part of the fencing!

Bromfield would be remembered as a great advocate and crusader on behalf of American farming, helping to improve the yields of farm lands through better soil and erosion management techniques. This Pulitzer Prize winner promoted organic farming, and warned about the dangers of the new and supposedly progressive pesticides starting to become widely used in the 1950’s. When Malabar Farm was open to the public on Sunday afternoons, hundreds of people would show up to get the word on Bromfield’s latest ideas about agriculture and what new farm-related innovations he was working on.

What also made Bromfield stand out among his contemporaries was the fact that he was never afraid to voice his views, even if his outspoken opinions stepped on people’s toes. Bromfield’s last book, based upon his returning to central Ohio to take up farming, called ‘From My Experience’, was published one year before his death from bone cancer and hepatitis in 1956. The book opens with a one and half page Apologia that begins with:

If at times in this book the tone of writing appears to be unduly controversial I attribute this to long contact with many of the closed minds and the unimaginative mentalities with which agriculture, like any other science, is afflicted.

Bromfield kept close company with the entertainment elite, so much so, that Malabar Farm would become a hangout spot for the Hollywood jet set. A wall in the “Big House” has many photos of Tinsel Town’s brightest stars from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would exchange vows in the grand farmhouse on May 21, 1945.

Mr. Bromfield felt that farming was the straw the stirred the drink of American life, writing in his book 1945 book ‘Pleasant Valley’ “We are apt to forget that the man who owns land and works it well is the source of our stability as a nation…” Yet while he afforded such esteem on farming in America, he could be just as critical of it, too. He had become very critical about farming when he wrote the following in his 1947 book ‘Malabar Farm’: “There is as much original sin in poor agriculture as there is in prostitution…and a good deal of the agriculture practiced in this country is itself no more than prostitution.”

Bromfield did come home again, but he realized that he couldn’t have his childhood past back. He instead made peace with the realities of the time, and forged ahead to make positive contributions to agriculture, done in the spirit of never forgetting where he came from. Bromfield’s written words would also leave an even longer-lasting legacy for readers of quality literature.

Today, Bromfield’s Malabar Farm is still a working agri-entity. Hay, cattle, hogs, and turkeys are grown and raised here. One can see Draft Horses known as Percherons (a.k.a. Normandy Horses) around the barn. These horses were imported from France in the late 1830’s. They look similar to Clydesdales, and like the famous BUDWEISER horses of legend, they, too, pulled beer wagons; and thus, their name of “draft horses”.

Not only is Malabar Farm a continuing agricultural work in progress, the venue also serves as a showcase for a number of cultural events that enchants the crowds throughout the year. The theatrical work, ‘The Tetched Phoebe Wise’, is performed several times each season by local actors, and is based on the life of an eccentric Mansfield woman who inspired many of Bromfield’s works including ‘Up Ferguson Way’ and ‘The Wedding Gown’. Year round activities like hay rides, star parties, and bird walks also take place on the farm. Malabar farm has several walking trails in which to explore the natural beauty of the area, including one path called Bromfield’s JungleBrook Trial. One can even drive up to Mount Jeez, which is the highest point on the farm to get a great lookout of the area.

Bromfield’s youngest daughter, Ellen Bromfield Geld, is still alive, and contributes to the Malabar Farm newsletter. She even makes visits to the farm, though her home has been in Brazil for quite some time.

I personally found it inspiring to spend some time in the “Big House”. I had never seen a Pulitzer Prize up close before, but it was hanging on one of the walls of his spacious office, where he also kept a bed. To the right of this great honor, Bromfield’s “laptop”, an old Underwood typewriter, proudly adorns his desk. Being in the presence of Bromfield’s office and objects that identified his career, I hoped Louis’ spirit would rub off onto me; and thus, urge me on to more growth in my own writing.

Malabar Farm State Park: 4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas, OH. 419.892.2784. www.malabarfarm.org.

Malabar Farm, a Hostelling International Designate: This was the former home of Bromfield, while he was building “The Big House”. It’s a 1919 Sears & Roebuck Farm House that serves as a 19-bed hostel. It has been frequented by travelers who’ve come from all over the globe to visit Bromfield’s farm. Currently, the hostel is managed by Betsy Rush, a retired nurse. She and her trusty four legged companion Pepe make the place a real treat for guests. 3954 Bromfield Rd, Lucas, OH. 419.892.2055. email: hi-malabarfarm@juno.com.

Roy A. Barnes is a freelance writer who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming. His travel-themed articles have been featured in such publications as Transitions Abroad, GoNOMAD.com, and Bootsnall.com. His literary works have been featured in publications like The First Line and Skatefic.com.