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The Jean Family Farm

| Bob Hill | Brown-Forman Silo Center

The classically faded photographs and newspaper clippings of the Jean family at work and play on their Stout Road farm along Floyds Fork say as much about a way of life now gone as they do of an enduring family.

Foree Jean (Debra Jean's great grandfather) with Earl Rhea Jean Sr., and Sara Jean-Luna on the horse. 

 

They are grainy snapshots of history – of picket fences and hay stacks; of being posed riding bareback on an old horse and stealing time to play baseball on town teams. There’s the1898 wedding photo in which the participants don’t seem to be allowed a smile and the 1927 photo of a small child  – one Earl Rhea Jean Sr. – looking a little unhappy taking a bath in a galvanized tub

 

The images fast-forward the family into the 1970s – the time of selling corn, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins along Broad Run Road from the back of a hay wagon.

It was summer 4H Fairs, repairing fences and the four Jean children slopping hogs in pens. It was milking cows in stanchion barns and raising baby rabbits to be fussed over by their grandmother who, slowed by a stroke, lived in the old house on the big hill just above the barn. She waited in the house – or on the big porch – to meet her grandchildren, who carried the rabbits in a shoebox.

It was working in the barn, sheds and fields 14 to 16 hours a day seven days a week – and sleeping on cots while showing animals at the Kentucky State Fair. It was being isolated from school friends by hillside woods and bottomland hayfields – and yet being so comfortable in that setting at the same time.

                                                               The old dairy barn and a cow. 1966.
 

It was always knowing that no matter how much work was done during the sunlight hours, those cows were waiting to be milked early morning and early evening, twice-a-day, every day…every day…every day.

It was all part of Jean family genealogy trail that included such prominent Floyds Fork names as Seaton, Ward, Mills, Wheeler and Stout.

It was an ancient lineage summed up in this unintentionally funny, 1871 accounting done for a family genealogy: “The whole family of Jeans are very temperate, none of them using tobacco or spirituous liquors, and none of them having more than one living wife.”

It was all part of being on farmland along Floyds Fork which stayed in the family for 170 years – and then enduring family strife, a terrible fire and debilitating illness to the point where the only logical choice was to sell most of their old homestead in order to protect it, and save a small piece for themselves.

“I’ve always heard that I’m the sixth or seventh generation on this farm,” said Debra Lynn Jean in January, 2010 interview. “It is just a lot of memories.

“The biggest event, it seems to me, when we were little, was every year Daddy went to the tractor pull at the Farm Machine Show and Mom took us out to a movie.”

If current plans hold those Jean memories are to be converted into The Parklands' “Brown-Forman Silo Center” – a family adventure center, a modern take on the old-fashioned fun the Jean family had all along.

Their old barns are to be repaired and adapted for park use, the towering silo over the dairy barn to become a visitor overlook. A picnic lawn and mountain bike park will be created where the Jeans once worked and played. Trails will be added to speed the next generation of children down the big hill – making new memories.

Some of that idyllic view will be forever spoiled with a big power line that was run through the property when the Jean children were small, but Debra Jean said they have long gotten used to it being there.

Her first memories of the farm take in her grandparents, Orville Rhea “O.R.” Jean – shown as a chubby baby with his hair parted in the middle in a 1902 photograph. Her grandmother, Sarah “Sallie” Tennill Jean, is posed as a young woman in a summer dress sitting on the ground behind a vintage automobile, a white picket fence trailing off into the background.

Her grandparents go back to a time when they farmed with mules. They lived in the big house with its wide, brick-columned front porch at 8700 Stout Road on the very crest of that steep hill – a sweeping view in all directions.

 “I remember the story about the basement being hand dug and the concrete all hand-poured,” said Debra Jean.

Debra’s father, Earl Rhea Jean Sr. – the child photographed in the galvanized bathtub – was born in 1925. True to the family tradition, he had his own registered dairy herd at age 12. The 1940s photos show him posed with a registered cow, standing in a pen of hogs, and dressed up in suit at the front of the house.

He was a good businessman, and very successful showing his cattle in county fairs and the Kentucky State Fair, but his real love may have been baseball. 

Debra said her father pitched for several town teams – and a team sponsored by the Jefferson County Police Department. The most poignant and evocative of all the Jean family photos shows Earl Jean Sr. in 1947, at age 22, sitting on the ground wearing his “Lebanon Junction” baseball uniform while leaning back against his first new car – the big family house looming in the background.

 
    

The photo sums up what Debra Jean said was a turning point in her father’s life.

“He was really big in baseball,” she said. “He pitched for several teams. He even received a letter from the Cincinnati Reds asking him to come up and try out as a pitcher for their farm team.

 “My grandfather talked him out of it. He thought he needed to stay home and work the farm.”

That father-son operation grew to farming 700 acres on three area farms near Floyds Fork, raising the five-acres of burley tobacco for Philip Morris, caring for a 51-head herd of registered Angus beef, along with the big dairy operation and raising brood sows – a mind boggling amount of work.

Earl Jean Sr. stayed home from baseball, worked the farms with his father and won a box full of blue ribbons and cash for the quality of his livestock. He was briefly in the service during World War II before being honorably discharged due to a problem with one of his legs.

In 1955 he married Lois Schuyler, a native of the Owensboro, area. They met while she was a nursing student in Louisville. They had four children, Earl Rhea “Buddy” Jean Jr., Carolyn Jean Davis, Mary Kay Jean Gideons, and Debra Jean – who did not marry. The couple lived in the farm house just down the hill from O. R. Jean until they separated in 1983.

Earl Jean's work habits were inevitably passed on; Debra’s early farm memories include tending enormous gardens, raising lima beans and cucumbers to sell, raising hogs from a farrow operation to market – all of that punctuated by milking as many as 130 cows.

Debra Jean said the children did do some fishing in nearby ponds, and did spend some time walking the woods, “but we mainly went looking for the cows.”

Every August the family would haul their prize dairy cow and hogs the 23 miles to the Kentucky State Fair, madly running back and forth to various show areas – cows to hogs, cows to hogs.

“With the hogs we showed four different breeds,” said Debra, “My brother had the Hampshires, Carolyn had the Yorkshires, Mary Kay had the Durocs and I got the mixed breeds because I was the youngest.”

The Jean family farm exploits were often chronicled in Courier-Journal newspaper stories; the photos showing all four of them brushing down hogs that easily outweighed any of them.

That story line abruptly changed on July 21st, 1973 when lightning struck the tool shed near the dairy barn during a violent storm while Earl and his wife, Lois, were inside the barn doing chores.

Lois, who was milking the cows, was thrown to the ground, frightened but unhurt. Her husband led her from the barn, then looked back to see the hayloft above the barn was on fire.

“My dad ran through the barn and got all the stanchions undone and got all the cows out,” said Debra, who was in the house at the time.

“But the same night we had a flood…the fire department couldn’t come across there at Bardstown Road and Seatonville Road...

“They finally got the fire department out here…and…at that point there was nothing left to save.”

The fire killed all the chickens that had been in the barn and one steer that had been headed to the butcher. It also “scorched” several of the prize hogs – who were taken to the state fair a month later anyway.

“We just used a lot of talcum powder on the Yorkshires,” said Jean, “and a lot of black shoe polish on the Hampshires.”

Another of the old photographs shows the remains of the dairy barn; charred and twisted sections of tin roof and ashes. The Jeans led their herd of cows down the hill to a neighbor’s empty barn and kept farming and milking as a new barn and silo were erected on their property.

“It was a huge setback…because my grandfather…didn’t hardly have any insurance on it (the old barn),” said Debra Jean.

“We ended up having to completely rebuild the silo and the whole dairy operation…The only advantage we had was we didn’t have a mortgage on the farm…The land was already paid for.”

The three Jean sisters gathered in Debra Jean’s house on Stout Road one Sunday afternoon to talk about their lives growing up on the farm – their memories good and bad.

Carolyn Jean Davis, a mother of two, had been working for many years as an accountant with the Louisville law firm of Greenbaum, Doll & McDonald. Mary Kay Jean Gideons, mother of one child, was manager of an orthodontist’s office. Both women had worked for the same firm for about 30 years.

Almost of necessity, their stories blended, one sister beginning a tale and the other finishing it. Their days often began with milking the cows, would slide into setting tobacco, baling hay, repairing fence – with the evening milking still facing them – and then maybe some time watching a black-and-white television.

The fire did bring some beneficial changes. With the old stanchion barn each cow’s milk was pumped into small stainless steel cans the girls had to carry into a separate room. There they would strain the milk as they dumped it into tall metal milk cans their father would have to truck to the processing center until someone began picking them up.

“We had like a 40-stanchion barn and we would just rotate the cows in and out,” said Debra. “I think we started helping when we were like eight or nine.”

 The new more mechanized barn had a “pit” with steps in it. As the cows filtered in above the pit the milkers could be attached at eye level; the milk pumped into a bigger bulk tank.

“Daddy and I would have water fights,” said Carolyn. “He’d be trying to listen to the University of Kentucky basketball games and it would be freezing cold outside. We had a big blow-in heater going and we’d spray each other with hoses.

Mary Kay told a story of a big Jersey bull used to breed the cows, a rowdy bull they called “Paul” because he was purchased from a farmer on Old Heady Road named Paul McCarthy.

“Our Dad never had a fear of him,” said Mary Kay. “He’d go after him with a tobacco stick if he went to chase one of us.

 “But if you weren’t careful, if you were out there gathering up cows, he’d come after you and you’d have to make a quick getaway…One or two times he went up behind our Dad and kind of lifted him up and sat him down in the manure.”

One year the girls raised a pet deer; their father had accidentally run over its mother in a hay field and he didn’t want to leave the fawn to the coyotes.

“It was really small and covered in spots,” said Debra. “We brought it up and put it in one of our calf pens. We bottle fed it until it got to where it would claw you to death with its hooves.

 “…We gave it to a guy that had a place with a big pond and let it run.”

Another of the family photographs is of the deer in the pen, its head slightly cocked; alert, curious and seemingly unafraid; the look in its eyes saying what am I doing in here?

And then sometimes childhood memories can be distilled down to the simplest of pleasures.

“The biggest thing,” said Debra “was when we were kids, if we went up to Gran and Grandaddy’s we got us a Coca-Cola in a bottle.”

As the sisters got older and completed high school at Fern Creek, they drifted away from the farm – in varying degrees.

“I was helping Dad until I got married in July of 1983,” said Mary Kay. “The last time I milked a cow was the day I got married…one last hurrah…”

Carolyn said she would continue to help her father even after starting a full-time job: “I’d come and help him in the evenings, after work. And I would even take vacation days to help with setting tobacco and cultivating and stuff like that.

 “It’s a great way to get a tan.”

Carolyn said when the sisters were young, tied to the farm – and isolated from the school friends until each got a car at age 16 – “It didn’t seem like much of a childhood then.

 “…But now looking back on it, it’s a great learning experience and taught us a lot of good values as far as accomplishing things and working with animals and dealing with responsibilities.”

Their brother, Earl Rhea “Buddy” Jean Jr., 54, would end up inheriting about 183 acres of family farm land at the bottom of the big hill along Floyds Fork and Broad Run Road. His memories of childhood were similar to his sisters: “There was always something to do.”

Soon after graduating from Fern Creek High School Buddy Jean set up a machine and automotive shop on his property where he worked on and rebuilt engines – “any kind of engines.”

Debra Jean also drifted away from the farm after graduating from Fern Creek High School in 1979, working as a legal secretary for a group of Louisville attorneys.

In 1984, with her parents separated, she returned to the farm to help her father, who needed both hips replaced, with all the work: “It was just so hard to get good help.”

She moved into her grandparents’ old house and stayed with her father – whose health was deteriorating – for 11 years; the two of working a reduced dairy and farm operation but still putting in an incredible amount of work while also beginning to suffer with lupus and rheumatoid-arthritis-like symptoms that caused her hands to swell and left her perpetually tired, barely able to get out of bed and – at times – unable to get up on a tractor.

Yet she continued to milk the cows and do the farm chores until it all abruptly ended with a phone call one morning in January, 1995:

 “My Dad’s health had gotten real bad. He was having problems with congestive heart failure and so, for about a year, I pretty much did (the farming) by myself.

“And one morning I got done milking…and I picked up the phone and I said “I’ve had it. I’m done.”

“And he said, “Well, I’ve been waiting for you to say that…So in two weeks time we had an auction and sold off the dairy herd.

“The day after we sold the dairy herd…I’m sitting there in my recliner and looking out and thinking...I don’t have to go down there and milk cows…It was just like all of a sudden you had a new world…there’s the holidays and there’s the weekends..”

A month later they sold the farm equipment, rented out their farm land and Debra – who was already dabbling in the antiques and collectibles business – began to hit the auction and antiques circuit with her father.

“Me and him would just take off,” she said. “We’d hit the different antique malls and different flea markets…And that’s what we did.”

Debra moved in with her father to help take care of him until he died on July 4, 2000.  She continued to rent the farm and handle her antique business until about 2005 when a neighbor contacted her about selling the property.

Jean wasn’t that interested: “I never wanted it developed. I wanted to live here in my own little corner of the world.”

The neighbor eventually got her in touch with Jeff Frank of Future Fund who explained the Floyds Fork/21st Centurys Parks project to her, but she still wasn’t very interested.

“At first I was kind of under the impression that the City of Louisville had something to do with it. And I thought, you know, I’m not going to sell anything to the City of Louisville because even if they tell me it’s restricted and it will never be developed if they get into a money crunch it’s gone.”

 Debra Jean said she – and her sisters – continued to talk to Jeff Frank until they became comfortable with the idea of selling their land – and that it would be protected:

 “We just all decided if it’s not going to be developed…and it’s more than I can take care of...”

The sisters would sell 246 acres of land vital to the Floyds Fork project – with half the money going to Debra because she had stayed on the farm and cared for their father. In a separate sale – with the siblings no longer on close terms – Buddy Jean would sell 33 acres along Floyds Fork that he said would enable a needed bridge to be built connecting the various properties.

Buddy Jean said the negotiations for the land sale went on for about four or five months before being settled: “We just got together…I wasn’t going to give it away.” He added he didn’t expect the sale to change where or how he was living along Floyds Fork.

Debra Jean said she would be allowed to stay on seven acres of the farm for as long as she wanted – and then sell it to another family member.  If she sells to anyone else, 21st Century Parks would get first rights to buy.

She had the old Stout Road house where they had lived as children torn down, replacing it in 2006 with a handicap-accessible home she designed herself to help deal with her slowly deteriorating body.

She had learned she was dealing with lupus and inclusion body myostis, a very rare and presently incurable disease that slowly weakens the muscles in the arms and legs until they can no longer function.

The illness causes her to fall down a lot. Sometimes when she is alone and has to call a relative on a cell phone for help getting back up – once having to wait two hours until someone showed up.

“I’ve learned a couple of tricks,” she said. “If I can get to my couch I can kind of throw myself over on the end of it and eventually make my way up.

“I’ve tried all kinds of IV’s. I feel like I have jumped through every hoop there can be…I still keep going...I won’t give in.”

The three sisters have remained close; they and their families come back to the home farm almost every Sundays for big meals; a nephew got married there last June. They also celebrate all the holidays together on Stout Road – taking photographs, making new memories.

“If I die,” Jean said, “You can shove me out in the back yard and leave me because, you know, I just love it out here.”

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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