A lot of history to this shutterbug

Ken Thompson relaxes in his room at St. Andrew’s Residence. The avid shutterbug and retired farmer enjoys his time there, and never goes anywhere without his camera.
Ken Thompson relaxes in his room at St. Andrew’s Residence. The avid shutterbug and retired farmer enjoys his time there, and never goes anywhere without his camera.

Have you ever been pelted with wheat seeds as you let an aircraft “bomb” you? Ken Thompson has.

That’s just one element of his life which he’s catalogued in his book, My Life Story & The People That I’ve Met Along the Way.

Thompson, 88, is a resident at St. Andrew’s Residence in Chatham these days, but for years he lived in South Kent. It’s where he grew up on the family farm, and where he took over a plot of land of his own.

Elmrow Farms on Charing Cross Road, now part of the Ridge Landfill property, for years was home for Thompson and his family.

And in September of 1990, it was where Thompson got bombed by wheat seeds while standing in his field of soybeans. It was something he actually asked for.

He said it had been a poor crop year, and the soybeans hadn’t ripened when they should have that year. If Thompson couldn’t get his winter wheat on the field, it wouldn’t be ready the following spring.

Considering the close proximity to the Chatham Municipal Airport, Thompson went over and asked a pilot if he could drop wheat seeds by air onto his soybean field.

The next thing you know, Thompson was in the field to provide the pilot with a clear target.

“I had a slow-moving vehicle sign on a stick to signal the pilot,” he recalled. “I had to wear a hard hat because I was getting pelted by the wheat.”

Thompson said the wheat grew as the soybeans finally ripened. With the wheat at three inches in height, he set his combine to the same height. It pulled off the soybeans without damaging the wheat, which was in turn harvested the following spring.

Thompson said it was the one and only year he acted as a beacon for a seed-planting pilot, as the insurance company didn’t like the idea.

“They decided that was too dangerous, so we had to discontinue it,” he said.

Thompson is an avid photographer. A camera has remained close by for most of his life, starting at the age of 10. His first camera was a gift from his mother, Dorothy, and even its arrival has a story.

“People came from Detroit to get chickens from us, and they brought me a Polaroid camera. You couldn’t get them here,” he said.

Today, Thompson carries a small digital camera with him wherever he goes. In his six years living at St. Andrew’s, he’s filled 68 small photo albums with images of his time there.

His photography is the foundation for his book, as it is filled with images over the years.

The book is littered with humour. That includes a photo of a large black walnut tree on the family farm. He called it his family tree.

In some way, it is, as Thompson’s father, Archie, and his Uncle Lloyd ultimately planted that tree. They were plowing the neighbouring fields one spring in the 1920s when they stopped to rest the horses and have a snack. As the horses rested, the men nibbled on some nuts, and then got the idea to plow the unworked stony knoll and plant a few nuts. Up came the “family tree.”

The book is filled with a combination of Thompson’s life story and the history of agriculture in Chatham-Kent, which fairly accurately depicts Thompson’s Elmrow Farms.

In 1999, he created a museum of agriculture, named Times Gone By, cleaning out an old chick pen to create the space.

Thompson came into this world on Sept. 26, 1928, born in the upstairs of his parents’ farmhouse on Raleigh Harwich Townline.

He had two sisters, who unfortunately died at or shortly after childbirth.

He comes from a time before electricity reached all the rural areas of Chatham-Kent, well before televisions were even designed, let alone in every living room.

As a result, he’s seen a great deal of change over the years, including on his own land.

It wasn’t until 1940 that the family had hydro at the farm, which allowed water to be pumped into the family home.

His farm life began with using horses to lead the plough, but the family eventually purchased a tractor, and later one with a cab, making the cold late-fall ploughing efforts much more bearable.

Growing up, illnesses that have all but vanished in First World countries were a grim reality. Diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever, the measles, you name it, were present.

Thompson was an avid member of Junior Farmers, and was part of a group to lobby the province for the widespread use of slow-moving vehicle signs.

Thompson’s daughter Sheila Satchell said her father was always a champion of the little guy, even on the farm. She said when he raised pigs while she and her siblings were young, if there was a runt of the litter – one that looked like it wouldn’t survive, he’d try to give it a better chance.

“He’d bring it into the house under his coat,” she said. “We’d run warm water over it and rub it until it was pink and healthy. It would go back out to the barn to be with its mother and would have a fighting chance.”

Looking back on the book, which was aided by a storytelling toolkit from the VON, Thompson said it helped him to review how his life evolved and what he endured.

“When you get it together and figure out what you lived through and how you survived, you also realize you had a lot of fun. Sure, there was a lot of hard work, but everyone shared the load,” Thompson said.


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