Book called “Gold in the Grass” was sensation in 1954

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Today there are quite a few published authors in Wellington County. Such was not the case 50 years ago, when the county consisted largely of farmers and small-town industrial workers.

Writing in 1954, the late Hugh Templin thought there were quite a few local authors, but his list came to less than a dozen living authors. He himself had authored a local history and a wartime journal of his trip to England. Most of the other books were either local histories or collections of poetry. None of them had enjoyed large sales outside the immediate area.

All that changed 50 years ago this fall, with the publication of Gold in the Grass by Margaret Leatherbarrow. Not only was the volume published by a major Canadian firm (Ryerson Press), but it enjoyed notices in national publications, and reviews in periodicals across the country.

Gold in the Grass can be classed with a number of other books that appeared in the years after the Second World War: a naive but optimistic young couple decide to take up farming, overcoming a series of pitfalls and setbacks. There were dozens of books on that theme in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and even a few Hollywood films. The classic of the genre was The Egg and I, a best-selling book later made into a movie.

But Gold in the Grass is more than that. It was a pioneer in describing new farming techniques, and it became a classic pioneering work two decades later to the organic farming and “back to the land” advocates. Overall, it had a more serious tone, describing how poor soil could be restored to fertility. And it lacked the crude humour that was an important characteristic of most books of that type.

The author, Margaret Leatherbarrow, was a Fergus native, the daughter of Matthew Wilson of the famous Fergus milling family, and the sister of Perry Wilson, the Fergus contractor. She trained as a nurse in the 1930s, and later worked in psychiatric wards. During the war she took a position in the Montreal area, caring for wounded soldiers.

One of the patients there was Alfred Leatherbarrow. He had suffered injuries to his feet, and was regaining his mobility, though at an agonizingly slow pace, assisted by crutches. Before enlisting in the army in 1939 he had worked in a textile mill, and for three years as a farm hand in the eastern townships of Quebec.

Alfred and Margaret began seeing a lot of each other, and in January 1946 they married. With Alfred discharged from the hospital, they spent the early months of that year at an isolated cabin near Fenelon Falls. Alfred had once wanted to become a doctor, but now he decided he would rather farm. For a man with bad feet, that was perhaps not the wisest decision, but a sense of optimism and adventure seized the young couple.

On a visit to Margaret’s family in Fergus, Alfred decided he like this area of Ontario. A farm in the area would be ideal, and it would be close to Margaret’s family. After weeks of looking, they found a place at the north end of Pilkington, about two miles from Alma.

The farm had been unoccupied for two years, with the land rented until the end of 1946. Conditions on the farm sound primitive to us today: water (undrinkable) from a pump in the kitchen, no drain on the sink or any other plumbing in the house, stoves that gave no heat. And of course, no electricity and no telephone. With useful enthusiasm the young couple moved in, augmenting their meagre furniture with donations from relatives and various bargains picked up at auction sales. The couple had no car, truck or tractor.

With the land rented out, they could do little farming that first year, restricting themselves to a large vegetable garden and a flock of hens while trying to restore the house to a habitable condition.

Alfred tried to secure a Veterans’ Land Act (VLA) loan to purchase the farm, but their evaluators thought it would never be able to support a family. The VLA inspectors later relented, and granted the loan. He did receive a modest disability pension for his injured feet.

The first years, with little available cash, were a struggle. Alfred soon discovered that the land on the farm was very poor indeed. The crops in 1948 and 1949 were disappointing, as was an early venture into dairying. Alfred supplemented their income by doing casual labour for neighbouring farmers.

The Leatherbarrows enjoyed cordial relations with a few neighbours, but others looked down on the newcomers. They had paid too much for a played out, weed-infested farm, and they seemed far too enthusiastic for novelty in agricultural practices. The consensus in the neighbourhood was that they would last two years.

From the beginning, Alfred searched for ways to limit the amount of physical labour he needed to perform, in order to lessen the pain in his feet and legs. He spent much time reading magazines and books on agricultural techniques.

In March 1950 he attended a Soils and Crop Improvement meeting in Fergus, sponsored by the Ontario Agricultural College. That meeting changed his approach to farming. Soon after he went to Guelph to talk to the speaker, Prof. Weir, personally. OAC personnel were always delighted to see such enthusiasm from real farmers – many disdained the OAC people as “book farmers.”

Alfred changed his practices, using harrows and discs instead of plows for cultivation, and planting much of the farm with a mixture of alfalfa and grasses. He did no fall cultivation. That immediately eliminated the erosion that had cut deep gullies across the fields every spring.

Most important was the practice of using green manures, cultivating growing crops of clover and oats into the soil. The new methods brought immediate success.

Leatherbarrow was among the first in the area to construct a trench silo. That was a purely economic decision: it cost less than 10% of a conventional silo. Using a forage harvester designed and constructed by McKee Bros. of Elmira, and first tested on his farm, he filled the silo and the barn with fresh-cut alfalfa.

Soon, several OAC faculty became regular visitors to the Leatherbarrow homestead, which Margaret named Friendship Farm. Often, the OAC people brought visitors, sometimes by the bus load. The new techniques proved very successful. The couple stopped using red ink to keep their books.

In 1953 Margaret started writing down the story of their seven-year adventure, using a pencil and foolscap sheets. She showed parts of the story to an old family friend, Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record. He encouraged her to finish the story and submit it for publication, though she had never written anything for publication.

In late spring of 1954 she completed a typewritten version, and submitted it to Ryerson Press. She was delighted and astonished when the firm, then a major Canadian publisher, accepted it. Though the book had many stylistic problems typical of an inexperienced author, Dr. Lorne Pierce, editor-in-chief at Ryerson, decided to publish it with few changes to preserve its flavour of sincerity and honesty.

A surprise visitor at the Leatherbarrow farm in late summer was Pierce himself. Though in poor health and near the end of his active career (he was deaf and suffered from lupus), Pierce wanted to see the farm for himself.

Gold in the Grass appeared on Nov. 6, 1954. Some local people eagerly paid $4 for their copy. Others tried to borrow one, or signed up on the list at the library. Margaret did not hesitate in using the real names of most people. Only those who were portrayed in an unfavourable light received anonymity, but everyone could still identify them.

Reviews in the Canadian dailies were mostly enthusiastic. The London Free Press thought that the author depicted Alfred as a man of superhuman insight and energy. Modern readers will echo that criticism. Margaret continually diminishes her own role in the success of Friendship Farm.

The local reception was decidedly mixed. Some neighbours did not like seeing themselves portrayed as unwelcoming and petty in their dealings with the Leatherbarrows.

Strongest criticisms came from the Fergus realtor who had sold the farm back in 1946. He never sold played-out farms, he insisted, and he never exaggerated the qualities of a property.

Margaret claimed he had assured them that the creek was full of trout, and the well spouted the purest of water, among other things.

Even Margaret’s mother had objections. She objected to the occasional use of slang in the book.

Gold in the Grass brought fame and many visitors to Friendship Farm. For a few years, the Leatherbarrows were among the pioneers in new agricultural practices.

The couple’s idyllic adventure did not last. The couple divorced in the 1960s, and Alfred later established a fish farm on the property.

Gold in the Grass enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, with the renewed interest in conservation and organic farming of those years. In 1975, The Rateavers of Pauma Valley, California reprinted the book in paperback. Today it is still considered one of the classics among organic and conservation-minded agriculturists.

And for Wellington County residents, it is a classic by one of our local authors.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 29, 2004.

Thorning Revisited