Erwin A. Thompson Brush-Clearing Workout for Longevity and Health

Since my mother’s death on May 1st, 2006, my father Erwin Thompson has taken on clearing brush on our 100-acre place, Evergreen Heights, in a major way…this, in addition to completing several new novels, calling squaredances, and hosting a weekly musical open house. Oh yes, and he’s about to celebrate his 92nd birthday on November 9th, 2007.

Since I grew up in the era of the Jane Fonda workout, a breakthrough for mature women, I’ve been teasing my father that his brush-clearing project is his workout program. Unfortunately, his workout probably doesn’t have the same commercial potential as Jane’s because not that many folks have a 100-acre parcel to workout on.

Still, the principles behind what he’s doing and why he’s doing it…and the enormous benefits we’ve seen in his health in the last year hold promise. His heart, lungs, voice, outlook, and sleep have all improved since he’s been dedicating himself to the Brush-Clearing Workout Program. To learn more, listen in on a conversation between the two of us right now.—JGR


Pop working in garden
Erwin A. Thompson, nearly 92 years old, at work on the land

Riehlife: Pop, how long have you been clearing brush?

Erwin: Since I was big enough to hold an axe I guess.

Riehlife: What was it that called to you to begin clearing brush in the wide-scale way you have been in the last year or so?

Erwin: I got tired of it reaching out to swipe us off the tractor as we mowed the field.

Riehlife: You also had a memory of what the place looked like when you were a boy, and a vision of what you hoped it would look like again if you applied yourself with concerted effort.

Erwin: Yes. It will never look like it did when I was a boy.

My Grandfather Riehl had three steady hired men. The tillable soil was all tilled. The rougher ground was planted in chestnut trees which were grafted varieties that my grandfather had produced; first by cross pollination and then by grafting the wood of the promising seedlings onto other unproved seedlings. These he had planted on the hills that were too steep and rough to farm. To keep the weeds down he pastured sheep on this area.

In two of the rougher “hollows” he planted evergreen trees. The hired men kept the native brush under control. The sale of evergreens for Christmas trees was at that time a reasonably good source of income. (Today, of course, the trees are shipped in from the north and Christmas tree lots are on many of the corners or store lots.)

Another good source of income was the peony flowers that we grew, cut at the right stage, and shipped to Chicago for Decoration Day.

E. A. Riehl died in 1925. This left three daughters and a son in law to manage the property and either do the work or see that it was done.

I graduated from high school in 1933. In the late 1930’s the chestnut blight migrated from the East and wiped out the chestnut groves. The sheep had been a sort of trade off, costing about as much in labor and fence fixing as the actual income from the wool and lambs. We decided to discontinue the sheep. (A down side of this decision that we did not foresee at the time was that the weeds and brush began taking back the area that had been the chestnut orchards and pasture.) Brush invaded the “pine tree hollows.”

In 1937 the Federal Government condemned our fifty-six acres of bottom ground for “National Defense”, and flooded it by the construction of U.S Dam # 26.

The peony business deteriorated for several reasons. Plastic flowers began to be used, and they did not wilt. New varieties of peonies were introduced, and our old ones were looked down upon. We tried the new ones, but they did not come up to our requirements, let alone our hopes. In 1936 it was decided that we could no longer afford a hired man.
Modern business experiences have prepared us for the word: “Down size.” Well, we didn’t use the word, but we did it.

Brush invaded the places where the chestnut orchards had been, but it was not too noticeable if you didn’t look in that direction. Our income shrank.

On January 30. 1942 I was drafted into the armed services. There was no brush cut from that time until I was discharged in November, 1945. The peony fields were gone. The nurseries, which had helped get us through the dark years of “The Great Depression” were overgrown with weeds and brush, and what grafted varieties were left were too big to transplant and therefore un-saleable. Our evergreen nursery, likewise.

I started clearing out the fields, but due to financial conditions I was forced to go to work in town to provide a living for my family. The brush clearing was a losing battle.
Maybe twenty years ago a new menace appeared in the form of the “bush honeysuckle.” This new thing has red berries, and the berries are eaten by the birds and planted everywhere.

Our tillable land narrowed down to about four acres of hay. But we can’t even get someone to come in and cut it if we give it to them! So we cut it and let it fall, just to keep the fields mowed . The elm and box elder trees are reaching out from the “edge” and threaten to sweep us off of the tractor as we mow.

These are the reasons that I am cutting brush.

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  1. I didn’t realize that you were doing so much work, but Court says you’re a hard man to keep down! Lindsay says we have some of those bush honeysuckles & she keeps cutting them down but they keep coming back. Also, she keeps trying to cut down a black locust tree with no success. We’ll see you Saturday night. Happy Birthday! Love – Court, Pam & Lindsay

  2. Here’s wishing a belated Happy Birthday to Mr. Thompson.
    I was really inspired by a segment we put together on your dad for an Arts Council website a little over a year ago.
    All the best to you and your family in 2008!

    With admiration,

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