How a Blind Man Runs His Farm
With instinct, sheer strength and rare courage Emil Strand overcame a staggering handicap. He can chop wood, drive fence posts and stook long straight rows of sheaves He even rides his horses bareback at full gallop
EVERY morning at 5.30 Emil Strand, a thickshouldered fifty-three-year-old Saskatchewan farmer, scrambles from his bed, swallows a hasty breakfast and jogs with restless energy across the hundred yards of prairie between his farmhouse and barn.
He climbs through a barbed-wire fence, milks five cows, feeds a half-dozen calves, turns the cattle out to pasture and leads his long-horned red bull to the watering trough. Then he harnesses a team of frisky horses, cleans the stables and hauls the manure away in a wagon. After that he’s apt to slip a bridle on the mare Polly and ride bareback two and a half miles west to visit his neighbor. Archie Taylor.
In the past twenty-five years Strand has öfter traveled this hilly dirt road but even now, as he gallops by, his neighbors wag their heads in admiration. Emil Strand is blind.
In 1929 when Strand was 28 his vision, whicl' had been weak since birth, failed completely. He had no education and farming was his only trade On a prairie farm a blind man is liable to plunge
headlong into barbed-wire fences, lose his way in 160-acre fields and cripple himself around power machinery or skittish livestock. The rumor circulated that Strand would enter an institution.
What happened then is a story often retold in his home town of Readlyn—the story of how he kept his independence. Since Strand feared institutions more than any farmyard perils he stayed to prove that a blind man—given rare courage, instinct and physical strength can run a farm. His twenty head of cattle and three hundred acres of wheat and pasture land are now debt-free. His only helpers are his 64-year-old sister Lena who keeps house and who is also blind, and a lifetime friend, 76-year-old Alex Strubeck, who tends whatever jobs Strand can’t handle.
There are few such jobs. Strand chops wood, patches fences, shovels grain, repairs machinery and pitches hay. He drives fence posts with a heavy maul, and hammers nails as accurately as men with normal sight. At harvest time he builds wheat sheaves into stooks. This involves picking up scattered sheaves and propping them, butt end down, into a tepee shape which sheds rain and snow. Strand sometimes misses a few sheaves as he moves along the field, but neighbors say his stook rows arv. straighter than theirs.
In the evening he rounds up cattle on horseback, guided by the tinkle of a bell on the lead cow’s neck. He herds them into the barn and moves
from stall to stall, clapping a hand to each rump to make sure they’ve all come home. His constant companion Rover, half collie, half German shepherd, rounds up strays that elude Strand but the dog is never his guide. Sometimes Strand plods about the fields on foot. He claims he has lost his way only once. That time the wind, from which he’d been taking his bearings, changed suddenly, confusing him.
He lets his helper Strubeck operate machinery, with its dangerous whirling belts and gears. But Strubeck, ailing with diabetes, leaves the other chores to Emil. Sometimes Strand does handle machinery. In 1945 when hired men were scarce he mounted the binder, a machine which cuts grain and ties it into sheaves. The job is not dangerous but calls for a quick hand and eye. One lever must be manipulated to raise the cutting blade over stones and bumps, or lower it to catch short stands of wheat. Another lever regulates a rotating wooden reel which bends the standing grain in against the blade. A third trips a mechanism which dumps bunches of finished sheaves on the field.
To manage all this Strand used his own hands and Strubeck’s eyesight. Strubeck, driving the tractor which tows the binder, tied a length of twine to Strand’s arm and relayed signals. One jerk meant “Raise the cutter knife”; two meant “Trip the bundle carrier” and so on.
“We did a slick job,”
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Strand says proudly. He operated the binder again for three consecutive harvests.
Strand thrives on such adventures. Instead of being a burden on the community, as predicted 25 years ago, he’s more industrious than ever. He drives himself from morning until night, as though to make up for his lack of sight.
Good-humored and brimming with vitality, he is of medium height and weight with a strong weather-beaten profile, rumpled grey hair, shaggy eyebrows and a pixielike grin that reveals a broad gap in his upper teeth. He walks briskly in a slight fighter’s crouch. An hour of inactivity around the house sets him pacing the floor, restlessly opening and closing his jackknife or flexing his thick powerful hands.
Although age is slowing him down, his strength was once legendary in the Readlyn district. In his yout h he often hoisted the end of a solid-oak horse trough with one handa two-handed lift for the average man. Sometimes he would seize a 100-pound sack of wheat in each hand and raise them from the ground. Even now, if a nervous horse or his massive bull begins to prance at the end of a rope, Strand easily subdues it with sheer muscle.
His strength has helped compensate >r other deficiencies. When blindness finally enveloped him in 1929 Strand had no education. Born in Minnesota of Norwegian parents he spoke no English until he was six. This, combined with weak eyesight, made his first days of school a nightmare. He withdrew after a few weeks. His mother tried to continue his education with books printed in large type but. he grew up scarcely able to read.
“I’d read for a while but my eyes got so sore I could hardly stand it,” he says.
Strand suffers from retinitis pigmentosa which causes atrophy of the retina, that sensitive membrane of the eye which relays images to the brain via the optic nerve. The disease is hereditary and incurable. It generally begins with slight reduction of vision in early life, increasing gradually to j complete blindness.
The disease struck one other member | of the family, his sister Lena, at 13. Patient bashful Lena, a small stooped woman with grey hair braided neatly into a bun, keeps the four-room house tidy, cooks meals over the coal-burning kitchen range, but seldom goes out and never leaves the farm.
Emil has always been the extrovert and the adventurer. Throughout childhood his weak vision didn’t interfere with work or play outdoors and friends remember Emil as boisterous and happy-go-lucky
One sister and two brothers died as children. An older sister married and settled in Saskatchewan. In 1907 the remainder of the family—-Emil, Lena, an older brother, Ole, and the parents
-climbed a train and rattled over the border into Saskatchewan, the newest frontier and the promised land for settlers.
The Strands homesteaded near Weyburn, seventy miles southeast of Regina In the summer of 1910 Emil’s father went to Weyburn to hire a man for a month’s plowing. He brought home another Minnesotan, Alex Strubeck, who’d come north looking for harvest work It was probably the most significant day in the lives of
Emil and Lena, for Strubeck is a gentle slow-spoken man with an honest homely face, a face you instantly like and trust. The Strands soon accepted him as one of the family and, instead of a month, Strubeck stayed with or near the Strands for 44 years. Emil and Lena, the youngest, became his favorites and over the years Alex virtually adopted them. He was always near when they needed a friend. As it happened, they needed him sooner than expected.
In 1911 Strubeck and Ole Strand took neighboring homesteads of their
own near Readlyn, fifty-seven miles south of Moose Jaw. Ole, who is now 72 and lives in St. Paul, Minn., soon tired of farm life and sold the place to his father who died in 1919, whereupon the farm reverted to Emil’s mother.
But the postwar years were difficult, the farm was too great a burden for the widow and in 1922 she lost the place to creditors. Emil, who already had the reputation of a hard worker, went to the creditors, asked for a chance to buy back the family land and was permitted to lease it for a year
with an option to buy. But his lease was running out when he glumly told Strubeck one day, “I’ve got to raise $2,500 if I want to keep the place.” “I’ve saved a little money in the last ten years,” Strubeck said quietly. “Guess I can help you out.”
Then the ex-hired man produced the cash that saved the Strand farm.
Since then the Strands and Strubeck have been inseparable. Theirs is a warm enduring friendship, so much a part of their lives that all three take it somewhat for granted. If you mention it to Strubeck he looks surprised,
then embarrassed, finally says lamely, “Well, I been with Emil pretty steady since 1921 . . .” and leaves it at that. It is a bond based on simple everyday things. For years they shared farm machinery and labor at seeding or harvest time. As Emil’s and Lena’s sight grew weaker, Strubeck’s eyes and hands helped them light fires or write letters or run the tractor. There were long winter evenings together, Emil and Lena listening to the radio, Alex reading books and magazines. No one said much on such occasions but conversation wasn’t necessary. Although Alex kept land of his own until 1947 he has lived with the Strands since the 1920s. Now, their home is also his as long as he wishes to stay and, of course, Strubeck will never leave.
With Strubeck behind him, industrious Emil made the farm prosper and later added another three hundred and twenty acres. By the late 1920s, Emil was a successful robust young farmer in physical prime and in love with life.
Ilis Dog Saved IIis Life
Then his luck ran out. Ordinarily a person with retinitis pigmentosa can hope for partial vision until middle life but Emil’s sight, aggravated by a spell of influenza, failed rapidly. One day in 1928, he found he couldn’t see well enough to drive horses and machinery in his fields. A year later he was blind.
It was a heartbreaking time for Strand. His pets, the horses and cattle, were now merely shapes under his hand. The physical labor that he reveled in now had to be approached gingerly or not at all. His blind sister was dependent on him. His friends advised him to sell the farm before he went bankrupt.
But he hated the thought of entering an institution. With Strubeck on a neighboring acreage always ready to help, Strand began the slow task of learning to farm all over again. He gashed his hands on fences, blundered into barn doors, stumbled and fell often. But he never stopped trying and somehow he avoided serious accidents.
Once a team of horses bolted with his wagon but Strand was off and safely out of the way at the time. Once he tumbled from a bale of hay but merely sprained an ankle. A wagon wheel passed over his foot but no bones were broken. An angry bull knocked him down but his dog kept the bull from goring him.
Meanwhile he developed the un-
canny instinct and learned the tricks that help him run the farm. The wind became his compass. Now he takes a bearing from some familiar landmark like the barn, determines the wind direction and sets off confidently about his chores.
He memorized every barnyard contour underfoot until the layout became a picture in his mind. Now he automatically slows down within a few steps of a fence or building. Partly from memory, partly from the feel of it underfoot or under his horse’s feet, he has acquired a remarkable knowledge of the surrounding country. He stands by his barn and points directly to “that ridge to the south” or “my neighbor’s cattle over west there.” Once a truck driver asked Strand the way to a farm four miles distant. Emil gave him a detailed briefing and concluded, “Watch that last quarter-mile, there’s a bad bump there.” There was, too.
His memory grew keen. Kenneth Emery, a lean bespectacled servicestation and machine-shop proprietor in Iteadlyn, once hauled several loads of tractor fuel to the Strand farm. “The day I took the last load I stopped in with the bill,” says Emery. “But Emil had the whole thing totaled up in his head, correct to the last penny.”
Strand learned to “see” with his hands. His touch is now so sensitive that he accurately estimates the weight of cattle by running his hands over them. With the same skilful hands he can often repair his own machinery, as well as that of neighboring farmers. He can drive nails; the ring of the hammer tells him when his blows are true.
By 1930, when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind discovered the Strands, Emil was able to look after himself. He was offered and took Braille instruction, the only assistance he has accepted.
In November 1930 Margaret Liggett, a spare white-haired “home teacher” who has been instructing in Braille since 1921, spent three weeks at the farm. Emil Strand and his sister Lena spent hours with her, groping over the baffling pages with their tiny raised dots. Lena, who was 40, learned the alphabet. Then the intense concentration began to give her headaches and she dropped her lessons. Strand doggedly fumbled over the pages until his finger tips tingled and his shoulders ached.
“That Braille was harder than pitching sheaves,” he says.
But he mastered the equivalent of Grade II English and, with the fascinating world of reading at his disposal, he eagerly browsed through books and magazines. Now, although his grammar sometimes falters, Strand is a more stimulating conversationalist than many farmers with sight and schooling.
He especially enjoyed Charles Kingsley’s adventure novel, Westward Ho, and he read the Bible which, in Braille, comes in several volumes. Lately the radio has displaced his interest in novels but he still enjoys his Bible, for Strand firmly believes in divine guidance.
“Some people might laugh at that but I figure someone or something is looking after us,” he says. “Lots of times, for instance, hired men have been scarce hut we always get one at the last minute. That’s not just an accident.”
The time Strand lost his way in a pasture, when the wind changed direction, he struck out aimlessly and might have wandered for hours, hut in a few minutes he walked directly to his barn. He's certain that was not mere luck.
Strand says he’s cautious but his neighbors think otherwise. One autumn Dave Crosson, a lean dark young farmer, helped Strand haul grain. Crosson drove a truck equipped with a grain loader, a long pipe enclosing a whirling spiral auger that draws grain out of wagon boxes or granaries into the truck. Strand stood in a wagon shoveling wheat towards the mouth of the motor-driven loader.
Forgot to Close the Door
“I kept telling him to be careful,” says Crosson. “He was standing in wheat and as the loader sucked it up the wheat kept shifting under his feet. If that loader caught a man’s pant leg he could get badly hurt. But Fimil wasn’t scared. He stood there shoveling, reaching out with the shovel now and then to touch the loader and get his bearings. I was more scared than he was.”
“He has no fear in him,” agrees Archie Taylor, a middle-aged farmer and Strand’s close friend. “Look at the way he handles horses.”
Before the war Emil sometimes rode seven miles to Readlyn on horseback. For a few years he hauled water a mile over hilly roads with a team and wagon, opening and closing two gates along the way. Nowadays on trips to the Taylors’ his horse needs little guidance over the familiar trail. Sometimes the beast wanders, though, and the Taylors see their blind neighbor calmly dismount, walk around to get his bearings, and then show the horse where to go.
At home Strand mounts one horse, leads the other, and boldly gallops the 300 yards to the watering trough, riding bareback with only a halter rope.
He closes the barn door before he leaves; otherwise on the return trip the horses might charge directly into the building and crush him against the doorway. Once, on the way back, he realized the door was open. He slid from the galloping horse, landed on his feet at a run and hauled the animals to a stop.
He loves his horses and cattle and spends hours in the barn fondling them. Most farmers let their cows run outdoors night and day during the summer. Strand stables his every night. “They like a dry place to sleep,” he says. “They don’t like that cold rain on their backs. I’m softhearted with them, I guess, hut they appreciate it. They wouldn’t hurt me for anything.”
With this he scratches his 2,000pound bull, Truls, under the chin, pounds him affectionately in the ribs or even climbs on his back saying,
“Truls don’t mind, do you, Truls?” So far Truls hasn’t minded but Strand leads the animal to water every day, which worries his Rumanian-born neighbor, Mike Bochico, a little bachelor who lives in a lonely shack sheathed with black tar paper and trimmed with yellow boards.
“When those bulls get mad, nothing stop them, not even pitchfork,” says Bochico. “Emil wouldn’t have a chance. He goes out in blizzards too and that is bad. In those storms even I have missed my way already once or twice.” But Strand says that in blizzards his
remarkable sense of direction gives him an edge over men with eyesight. One day last year Alex Strubeck set out for the field on Strand’s new tractor. Strand, who longs to drive it, was so excited that he actually ran ahead to open a gate.
Although he roams freely around the farm Strand avoids cities. He’s amazed that blind people walk alone on busy streets. He went to Moose Jaw once with a friend but didn’t leave the truck. Strand is at home in Readlyn, a village of 130. He walks with a sure step into Melvin Dean’s store for his groceries,
stops at the post office next door, strolls the two blocks to Kenneth Emery’s shop for implement parts and gossip, then walks back uptown for lunch at the Readlyn café, a nameless frame building on the sun-baked main street.
Sometimes Archie Taylor drives him to Assiniboia, 25 miles west, where Strand has a savings account. He signs cheques with an illegible scrawl, using a ruler or envelope as a guide. He keeps track of his money by storing $10 bills in one pocket, fives in another, ones in a third.
During the 1930s Strand was as
penniless as any farmer but he accepted no more charity than anyone else. When prosperity returned he was one of the first to recover. “We are not really without means now,” he says. “We have six thousand dollars in savings and bonds.”
Now Strand gives money to the needy. “He’s a good old fellow,” says Imperial Rank manager J. W. S. Kelly, in Assinihoia. “He’s always sending donations to Rible institutes or the Salvation Army or some other charity.” One day this spring Strand asked Kelly, “What sort of an outfit is this CARP]? Do they do good?”
“Far as I know, they do,” said Kelly. “They send food parcels to Europe and so on.”
“Retter send them $45 for me,” said Strand.
No Sons to Take Over
Aside from these village trips, in which Lena never participates, life on the farm is simple and monotonous. The low-roofed oblong house with imitation brick siding is clean but colorless with living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, a few Saskatchewan Wheat Fool calendars on the walls and a motto: Christ Died For Us.
On Sundays the Strands and Strubeck listen to church broadcasts. On weekdays they follow the newscasts and a quartet of soap serials. Visitors are infrequent and Strand says wistfully, “We like folks to drop in. It gets kind of lonesome here.”
He often yearns for a family hut is a little wary of women. Whenever one is at the farm to visit Lena, he is suspicious that her motive is really to marry him for his money and the farm.
Similarly, although he gives generously to charity, Strand is a shrewd businessman. He boasts of deals he’s
made: “Got nearly a freight car of
used lumber for $Í80,” “That radio cost me only $10 and hasn’t needed a new tube yet,” “My combine’s paid for and I didn’t take out a loan, either, like some of these farmers with eyesight.”
George Wilson, an Assinihoia farmer who once lived near Strand, recalls, “I hauled a load of coal for Emil once and he climbed up on the wagon and ran his hands over it to make sure it was all there. Naturally I wasn’t going to cheat him but I guess somebody gave him a raw deal and he’s not going to let it happen again.”
Actually, these are symptoms of a sense of insecurity. Today Strand is as independent as any man, hut someday, he knows, his strength will fail, Strubeek will be gone, and there’ll be no sons or daughters to take over the farm. Two years ago he sold half of his original 640 acres, partly to reduce his work, partly to increase his savings.
“I worry about going bankrupt,” he admits. “Then they might iry to put me in some institution and I couldn’t stand that. I’d just pine away.”
Strand rarely voices such misgivings. For the present he is master of his fate and when the future looks uncertain he turns to his Rible. Within an hour after I first met him, he suggested hopefully, “Maybe you’d like me to read for you?”
Then he meticulously scrubbed his hands, brought out a thick greenhound volume and turned to chapter 22, The Revelation. The drab little farmhouse was dim with shadows but Emil Strand began to read softly, his fingers flickering over the Rraille symbols, a contented half-smile on his face as he lingered over his favorite passage “. . . and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light ...” if