A farm friendship, illustrated over decades

| 30 Aug 2013 | 01:23

It was when I shook Robert Fletcher’s hand that I could tell I was in for a captivating afternoon. Fletcher, an 82-year-old farming man and artist, led me inside his rustic white house to a table where prints of his upcoming book, High Breeze: An American Family Farm, were spread out. Glasses of fresh squeezed lemonade in hand, we began.

The story gets off to a halting start in 1966, when a young Bob Fletcher from North Hilton, NJ, hiked the Appalachian Trail with a friend. Walking along Barrett Road in the Warwick Valley, the pair came across High Breeze Farm. The farmer was in the field working with hay, Fletcher recalled. “I remember that. I tried to get his attention.” However, the farmer seemed extremely focused on his work and didn’t notice them.

A year later, Fletcher found himself searching for a home. Recalling the breathtaking views, he moved with his wife to a small farm in Warwick. He started asking around for a good local farmer from whom he could purchase calves. Luther Barrett came highly recommended. Fletcher stopped by to find the farmer he’d seen haying his fields two years before.

“Yes, I think I have some calves,” said a reticent Barrett. So began an 18-year friendship.

“I liked to stop by Wednesday mornings for coffee,” said Fletcher. Fletcher would provide pastries that his mother had baked. Barrett supplied the coffee. They would talk for hours.

“I’d bring my sketch pads and draw his dogs or the farm. He was a marvelous, knowledgeable man so willing to share what he knew about farming. His storytelling was great. He always had a twist of humor,” Fletcher laughed.

Luther Barrett was 20 years older than Bob Fletcher. He lived alone, never married, and always did his farm work on his own. He was known for his ambition and his traditional farming methods passed down from generation to generation since 1860.

“He used two teams of horses until he died and he was getting good results,” said Fletcher. Barrett used his horse team to mow hay, for instance, which he then raked by hand. “He loved what he did,” said Fletcher. “He was always interested in the weather conditions.” He raised cows and chickens, and even had a team of oxen.

“His animals…he always knew if they were healthy or not,” said Fletcher. “I would go tell Luther the symptoms of [my own] cows if they were sick.”

Fletcher, who grew up on a small farm in New Jersey, had always been drawn to the pastoral aesthetic. His first drawing was of the neighbor’s barn. “I think I put the neighbor up in a hay loft,” Fletcher chuckled. He admired Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, and one of his favorite artists, German-born oil painter Otto Benz, lived near him. “He did paintings of local neighborhoods and farms. He was a big inspiration. As a boy, I would see him coming with his easel and ask him to watch.” Fletcher continued on to the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, then made a career in illustration and advertising art. Even during his downtime, his art supplies were always in tow. He’d usually start with a sketch or a thumbnail and move onto a larger scale and include some more details. Eventually he would achieve the final piece using watercolor.

“Sometimes I’d spend so long with Luther in the morning, I might do the whole thing there,” he said.

Over years of mornings on the farm, Fletcher’s paintbrush documented what he looks back on as “an era of farming that has passed us by because of mechanization.” Come September, those decades of two men’s mornings’ work will be bound together, offering glimpses of a simpler time and perhaps, for those who seek it, a sense of the way back.