I cannot remember when I first knew Wilkes Mac Donald. He was simply part of life’s fabric on our farm in Sanford. From our house we could see his small white clapboard house perched on the crest of the small hill toward North Sanford.
I vaguely remember a nice lady who sat with Wilkes on the small kitchen porch next to the driveway. From there they could look up the long, narrow valley defined by forested hills, watch the changes in the seasons and the weather, and keep track of the neighbors.
As a widower, this was where you’d find Wilkes with his dog, Sport. Sport, the recipient of too many table scraps, was a short white and brown-spotted hound dog with long floppy ears. Sport went where Wilkes went. Then, he sat patiently waiting until it was time to go home.
My very earliest memories of Wilkes were looking out of the window in the evening to see him moseying down our long driveway and carrying a two-quart tin pail for Dad to fill with warm fresh milk. Wilkes always lingered in the barn talking as Dad moved from cow to cow with the milking machine, or carried full milk pails to pour through a filter into large cans in the milk house. Dad listened to Wilkes the way he listened to my prattle–interjecting appropriate “”umms”” and other nondescript expressions in what was otherwise a monologue. Wilkes discoursed on the events in the morning newspaper, neighborhood gossip, fishing, and the weather. It was from him I learned about the great blizzard of eighty-eight, 1888, that is. After a while, Wilkes would amble back up the driveway with Sport at his heels.
Wilkes made pancakes for breakfast every morning. There was always one left over. Our dog, Chum, was a friend of Wilkes and Sport. Every morning when Dad came into the house for breakfast, Chum trotted up the hill to Wilkes’ house. Every morning Wilkes threw him the leftover pancake. It was Chum’s daily treat, a change from his normal dry dog food.
In the 1940s, Hills’ bakery trucks from Binghamton traveled the country roads delivering bread and baked goods door to door. We bought bread sometimes, but rarely anything else. Wilkes bought bread, cakes, and cookies from the driver. Before eating the cake, Wilkes carefully removed and wrapped any candy or frosting decorations. When I met him to walk with him down the driveway, he’d pull these treasures from one of the many ample pockets his fishing coat, and give them to me. They were wonderfully sweet and delicious.
Wilkes had a passion was fishing. From early spring to late fall and sometimes even in winter, he and Sport came down the driveway and continued on through the pasture to our “ice pond, ” that never froze because it was fed by cold underground springs. In winter, the water appeared black in the white snowy landscape. In summer, the cold water, protected and shaded from the afternoon sun by tall hemlock trees appeared green and cooled the air around it. Day after day in summer’s cool morning hours, Wilkes went fishing. As the sun climbed to its zenith, Wilkes came back through the pasture with his morning catch of suckers, catfish, and sunnies. Knowing that my mother and I liked fish, he would sometimes give me some nicely cleaned catfish for our dinner. These, too, came from a pocket of the same fishing coat.
Wilkes was a man of principles.
Wilkes believed that if one insulated oneself against the cold with layers, it worked as well to insulate oneself against the heat. Therefore, he always wore layers of clothing. We knew it included long underwear, long-sleeved shirts and a coat. What else? We were not sure. Only when the temperature climbed above ninety did we see Wilkes without his coat. And I never recall seeing his arms bare.
Wilkes also believed in moderation. My father loved to bait him. One incident, I recall, happened one night in the summer when we were a little late eating supper. We were still at the table when Wilkes and Sport came down the driveway. Dad called out to him to come into the house while we finished our meal. There were four of us around the table–Dad, Mom, our hired man, Roma, and myself. My mother was a good cook and very good baker. That evening Mom set a barely cool coconut layer cake on the table for dessert. The two yellow layers were filled and topped with white boiled frosting, generously sprinkled with sweet shredded coconut. Mom cut half the cake into six pieces. Wilkes accepted a piece and we each ate one. Then Dad, the hired man and I had a second piece. Wilkes refused. This left just a quarter of the cake. Dad, with a wink at Roma and twinkle in his eye, said, “Roma, have another piece,” and cut the remaining quarter into two pieces.
The plate was empty. Wilkes couldn’t stand such gluttony. He stood up in disgust and went outside mumbling, “Enough for any goddam hog!” Dad laughed over this incident the rest of his life.
Wilkes also believed that when you were too old to take care of yourself, you should die.
Sport was a smart dog. He never crossed the road without checking both directions. He grew very old. One day after his hearing and sight were dimmed, Sport was grazed by a passing car on the road. Although the dog would have all right, Wilkes shot him.
As he aged, Wilkes contracted with a family: they would live on the farm and care for him; in return the farm would be theirs when he died. No one knew Wilkes’ age. He always seemed to be the same. One day, while the family was away, Wilkes took his shotgun and went to the woods. After several days of searching, his body was found. Had he been sick or just tired of living? We never knew.
The story that circulated about finding his body involved Mrs. Banco, the wife of a Chicago preacher, an area resident. It was said that the police contacted her, and she used her fortune telling ability to direct them to the exact spot they would find his body. True or false?
Wilkes was a man of principles. He lived and died by them. He was a man of idiosyncracies, but I will always remember him for kindness and thoughtfulness.
Photo from about 1947 showing Wilkes’ house and barn in the background