Up Ferguson Way: in history, literature and spirit

‘Up Ferguson Way’ is a high ridge of forest and fields, riding the rim between Pleasant Valley and the valley of the Clear Fork River; on land that is a part of Malabar Farm State Park.  It was given that name by author Louis Bromfield when he established Malabar Farm in 1939; though he said the name was already old when he was a youngster.

He wrote about the place several times in his career, and his stories about it—fiction and non-fiction—appear in at least six of his books.

His non-fictional articles about Up Ferguson Way are of a documentary intention: narrating the history of the property’s ownership, explaining his farming strategies on the land, and accounting his understanding of the soils and topography through the eyes of a farmer.

These writings established a toehold for the Ferguson place in American literature within the context of Agriculture and History.

It was his fictional writing about Up Ferguson Way however, that captured the imagination of readers around the world, by placing the locale into a context that was mystical, spiritual, and barely within the realm of objective reality.

Bromfield defined the land on the map; but he explained that the place existed also in another alternate reality.  That’s how he described it: going Up Ferguson Way was “as if I were leaving this world for a time…”

To truly appreciate Up Ferguson Way, both the place on the map and the place in American literature, it helps to have an understanding of both aspects: non-fiction and fiction.

Non-Fiction

This particular place on the planet became the Ferguson Place in 1819 when President Monroe signed a piece of parchment conferring ownership of Sec. 34 to John Ferguson.

At that point in history, nearly all of Monroe Township surrounding Ferguson’s land was in its primordial wilderness state: still traversed by passing bears, wolves, Wyandots and Johnny Appleseed.  Ferguson’s property included fertile bottomland for crops; an energetic stream running strong enough to turn the wheel of a water-powered grist mill; high hills covered with tall timber; and scenic sandstone caves and waterfalls.

A pile of hand-written deeds document the passage of Ferguson’s place through generations of the family.  This deed in 1847 transfers the land to William; who later passed it on to Isaac.
This 1873 map of Monroe Township delineates the era when the road to Newville passed near the Ferguson house.  That 19th century thoroughfare is simply an overgrown, rutted path today at Malabar Farm State Park leading Up Ferguson Way.

Of all this varied landscape where Ferguson could have situated his home, it was a lonesome, secluded vale, high and away from Pleasant Valley, where he chose to settle.

Eventually the road connecting Pleasant Valley with Newville ran right past his home, and one could argue that it was his prescience in anticipating the route of farmers that led him to pick that otherwise reclusive spot on the Earth.  But Bromfield came to believe that Ferguson could sense the peaceful power of the place, and gravitated to the spot as if to a natural homing beacon of serenity.

There is no way of knowing really, because John Ferguson left no diary, no letters.  He invested his life into the land, and that is what he left behind.  The only paper trail traces ownership of Up Ferguson Way through several generations of Fergusons—deeds and surveys, diagrams and maps.

The last Ferguson died off in the early 20th century, and the house stood empty until the walls tilted and someone set fire to it.

The last Fergusons to live in the house were these three old folks: an unmarried gentleman and his two maiden sisters.  A close look at this photo shows the concrete front steps that can still be found today Up Ferguson Way.

When Bromfield acquired the Ferguson farm in 1939, all that was left was a small stack of paperwork, some photos, and the concrete steps at the Ferguson’s front door.

There was one more legacy to the valley remaining from the pioneer family however—it was the name: Up Ferguson Way.

Fiction

In 1943, Bromfield wrote the story Up Ferguson Way that was published in Cosmopolitan Magazine and subsequently in the book The World We Live In

The story was a masterful example of what Bromfield did best: synthesizing his real-life experiences of places and people with imagined plot elements of romance, drama, conflict and pathos.  In this case, the real-life aspects of the tale were the Ferguson Place at Malabar Farm, and the character of an old woman he had known years before growing up in Mansfield.

He had written stories about this woman before.  In real-life Mansfield, her name was Phoebe Wise; but in his fictional renderings of her he gave her other names, and invented dramatic twists to her life story.

Bromfield’s first fictional account of Mansfield’s Phoebe Wise was published in Collier’s Magazine in 1925.  Every subsequent reconfiguration of her tale he wrote was illustrated with a new image of the theme ‘woman with firearm.’
The fictional short novel Up Ferguson Way was included in the collection The World We Live In, 1944.  The first non-fictional account was a chapter titled Up Ferguson Way in Pleasant Valley, 1945.  The fictional story has been reprinted twice since then, in 1981 and 2014.
The movie rights to Up Ferguson Way were purchased in 1944 by Bing Crosby’s movie company; and a screenplay was written by D.W. Griffith intended for Lillian Gish (left).  The movie was never made, but the script was revised and filmed in 1952 as an episode on the Gloria Swanson television series Crown Theatre.  The film aired 1953-55 staring Frances Rafferty in the role of Zenobia Ferguson.

In actual history, she lived north of Mansfield near the Reformatory; but since he was retelling her story within the context of his new farm, he gave her the name Ferguson: so her legend could be entwined with the Ferguson Place.

The anchor he used to bind together this fiction and non-fiction was the century-old riser of front door steps that stood among the wildflowers at the site of the vanished Ferguson homestead.  The steps are a concrete landmark—figuratively and literally—upon which he built his bittersweet tale of his real and imagined Zenobia Ferguson.

If you understand the special way he felt about Phoebe Wise, and how he felt whenever he went up onto the old Ferguson farm, then you will know why it was so natural for him to combine these two things together.

She became for him the physical and symbolic embodiment of a sensation he experienced when he was Up Ferguson Way.

He described her as ‘tetched,’ which he defined as a quality of personality and perception that makes a person closer to animals and trees and the natural world than to our common human society.

This is exactly the same quality of perception he experienced whenever he was on the hilltop farm, near the old steps of the vanished Ferguson house: uncannily in touch with the trees and animals, wildflowers and birds of the place.

It was less of an experience of mind than it was a quality of spirit.

There is something different about the energy up there, and Bromfield wasn’t the only one who felt it.  After he wrote about his experience of extraordinary, almost metaphysical perceptions there, his readers either assumed it was a literary device and discounted it as fiction, or else they wanted to go there themselves to have the experience of transcendence.

I have met people from Europe who came to Malabar Farm simply because they read Up Ferguson Way.

The stories Bromfield told about the Ferguson Place suggested there is an aura to the land that is, at its deepest experience, highly spiritual and mystic; and at the very least, creating an atmosphere that is restful, healing, restorative and peaceful.  He said he went up there when his soul was frazzled from too much society; and being in that rarified presence put him back in touch with his better nature, so that when he emerged at the bottom of the hill he was reenergized, positive and unburdened, with his unruly mind quieted.

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