About 5 miles west of Iola, at the rural intersection of Missouri Road and 400 Street on the crest of a high hill, stands a 125-year-old farmhouse with a view of three counties. To the north, on a clear day, you can see the steeple of St. Martin’s, in Piqua; to the south, the tower at the Ash Grove Cement plant in Chanute; and, nearer, to the east, the view drops onto Humboldt.
“We never did go anywhere to watch fireworks,” said Dorothy Catron, who, with her husband Leon, has lived on the Allen County farm for a half-century. “You can see everything from here.”
“Plus, it’s cheaper,” joked Leon.
The large front lawn at the Catrons rural home is renowned for its beautiful garden — at least among those locals who hold such things in esteem. The mail carrier, taking a break from her rounds, occasionally parks her truck and gets out to wander among the plants. Iola’s Molly Trolley used to stop there. Riders would dislodge for tours of the grounds.
A diverse regiment of trees surrounds the house: globe willows, hackberrys, weeping willows, Bradford pears, curly birches, redbuds, cypress oaks. There’s a tulip tree, which took 20 years to sprout its first flower, but which now produces huge clusters of heavy yellow flowers every year. And a giant pin oak, whose branches lean out over the second-story roof, providing shade for the old farmhouse. There are 50 blackberry vines out back and a strawberry patch nearby.
But the prize attraction has for years been the roses. “These rose bushes,” said Leon, indicating the many pink-blossoming plants studiously arranged across the sloping lawn. “Most of them I started from cuttings. They are my babies.”
The Catrons moved into the old farmhouse a month after they were married. They raised five children there. Last week, though, the pair — who are in failing health and no longer as able, physically, to answer the demands of the land — left their home of 55 years and moved to Iola.
“Doesn’t do any good to complain,” reasoned Leon. “We’re going to move to town. I got to where I couldn’t take care of it. … I had the kids in town Easter Sunday and said: ‘I’ve got to tell you guys something. I’m either going to stay out here and it’s going to kill me, or I’ve got to move to town. I just can’t keep up.’”
The Cantrons’ children, grown and with lives of their own, were supportive. Leon’s young grandson, who sometimes helps his grandfather water the nearly four acres of lawn, went upstairs and cried.
Leon, who farmed the surrounding land during the years that he was healthy, reflected on the recent turn of events. “When I moved here I always said that I wasn’t going to move again, I was going to cut the middle man out; that I’d just go from here to the cemetery.”
Leon is the talker in their marriage and an inveterate jokester. Dorothy, his wife of nearly 60 years, speaks very softly, weighs her words, and listens to her husband’s stories with a patient smirk. “Well, you changed your mind, didn’t you?” she said.
“Yes, well, I guess we don’t always get our druthers.”
DOROTHY, an only child, grew up just a mile down the road from the farmhouse she would eventually own. Leon was raised with his siblings “on the other side of the river,” as he describes it — in Gas, mostly. The two never met as young people.
At 17, Leon joined the Navy and soon found himself aboard a ship in the waters off Korea.
“While over there, I wrote to my niece quite a bit. The only other person I wrote to was my mom. But I thought I’d like to get mail from some girl I could write to. So [my niece] sent me three girls’ addresses. Well, I went to school with two of them. This one, though,” said Leon, tipping his head toward Dorothy, “I didn’t know. So she got the draw. And so I wrote to her for about two years. How long was it that I wrote before I come home on leave for the first time?”
“It was over a year,” remembered Dorothy.
“We wrote to each other a lot,” Leon said.
“That’s right. I’d write to her every day when I was on the ship,” said Leon. “But the mail don’t go out every day. It goes to the post office but sometimes it racks up for months. Anyway, the old man that was the postal carrier for years, he’d get up on the hill and he’d start honking for her and so she’d come out and pick up her package of letters.
“I did the same thing,” continued Leon. “She’d write to me and there were times I didn’t get the mail for a month, and then all of a sudden here comes all this mail for me, from her.”
“So by the time we did meet,” Dorothy said, “we felt like we knew each other, because we’d been corresponding with each other the whole time.”
“Right. But when I first got home, my brothers had put the word out that her dad was going to shoot me on sight. So it took me a day or two before I got up the nerve to come out and see her. I hadn’t met her yet. And when I got up there, I honked the horn as I drove up and here she comes dancing out of the house, the apple of my eye.
“I asked her — don’t know if it was the first date or the second — anyway, before I went back to the Navy, I asked her if she would marry me and she said yes. But her dad said no. Well, we got married anyway, when I got out of the service.”
“We’ll be married 60 years this next June,” said Dorothy.
“I left the Navy in April and we got married in June of ’56,” recalled Leon.
“He always tells everybody I’m his mail-order bride.”
As for her dad, his attitude toward Leon eventually softened. “He didn’t like the idea at first, but after he met [Leon], why everything was fine. … I lived with my grandparents then; they raised me. And my dad lived down here on the corner, just a little ways apart. My mother died when I was born, so my grandparents took me. And my dad helped, of course. So I grew up taking care of my grandparents. Didn’t get to go to high school. The grandparents needed a caretaker, so I took care of them. I was never sorry. Because my grandmother was 60 years old when she took a tiny baby to raise. … No, I never did have siblings. My parents got married late. And then I was born a year later and that’s when my mother hemorrhaged to death.”
“She was 37,” said Leon.
“Anyway,” said Dorothy, “we come a long way.”
“The story’s sad,” said Leon, “because her mother loved little kids. She took care of her nieces and nephews and she just loved little kids. But she didn’t get to have one of her own to keep. Everybody said she was one of the most wonderful women you could ever meet. … Her dad never remarried. But every year, when it come around to their anniversary — why, you just couldn’t even visit with him. He just felt like the world let him down.”
“He ended up living with us for nine years after his health went down,” remembered Dorothy, “until he passed away. It was congestive heart failure,” a disease that has attached itself to both Catrons.
“That’s true. Basically we’ve both got the same problem with our heart,” said Leon.
“We do everything together,” said Dorothy, “including being sick.”
“They did five bypasses on her in ’99,” said Leon. “And I had a heart attack in December of that year.”
On Friday, Dorothy had a pacemaker-defibrillator inserted in her heart and Leon is currently awaiting diagnosis on a mass recently detected in his lung.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that Leon was one of the originators of Farm-City Days, and served for five years as head of the committee. When the festivities return to Iola next week, the lifelong farm couple will have made the leap across the hyphen and will enjoy their first parade as residents of the city.
ON AN early afternoon last week, Leon moved with his cane through one of the rose beds in what is now his former lawn.
“It’s hard to believe these old roses were once just a little bitty stick. I built all these flower beds, planted all these trees. This area here used to be a pig pen, before we got the land. After I had to retire from farming, I put in all these roses. I’m a great lover of roses. I just love flowers but roses are my favorite. Mostly Knockout roses. I have some other types, too. There’s 25 in this rose bed here.”
Dorothy rested on a bench beneath the shade of a willow while her husband walked deeper into his bed of waist-high flowers.
“See my roses over here,” continued Leon. “This is how they start.” He picked up a coffee can full of soil, from which one slender, naked stem poked up. “I’ll take a cutting that’s two years old, about the size of a pencil — say, eight inches long — then I cut everything off but one leaf and I score the bottom with my cutters. Then I plant it in half sand and half soil, and water it about every day. See this here.” Leon lifted the coffee can higher and pointed to a bump on the stem. “This is going to be a leaf. I’ve got a lot of hope for this one. It’s going to make it. This one I’m taking to town with us.”