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Strawberry memories

by Graham Thomas | July 1, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.

Strawberries and sulfur water. The commingled fragrance of those two items prompts memories of summer days spent at my grandparent's home. The annual trek from the desert of eastern New Mexico to the little community of May in Missouri was eagerly anticipated during my childhood years.

My grandparents lived off county road B west of Goodman, Mo., next to the May Community Church on Buffalo Creek. County road B intersects county road Y just a few hundred yards from their house. My uncle had a dairy farm there. He would allow us to "help" him milk and feed the cows. We would play with our cousins in the hay barn and walk the pasture down to Sugar Fork, which joined Buffalo Creek. Wading in the shallow creeks, fishing for smallmouth bass and bream occupied our days.

If you headed east on B highway, you would see a sign for Neff's You-Pick Strawberry Farm. Archie Neff had a grand idea back in 1950 to establish the biggest strawberry farm in Missouri. Not content with ordinary strawberry plants, he found virus-free plants to plant in his 800-acre farm and other properties he owned. The Neff family were hard workers. Archie and his wife were teachers in nearby Hart, Mo. During the spring, they often worked until two in the morning, packing strawberry plants to ship. The strawberry fields required constant work and attention, which provided jobs for the area. People would come from St. Louis, Kansas City, and Texas to pick strawberries. The Neff's built small cabins for those who wanted to vacation near the fields.

If our vacation's timing coincided with the strawberry season, Dad would take the family out to pick strawberries. The rows seemed to stretch out forever. Wooden quart boxes would fill quickly as the berries were enormous, even as we ate as many as we picked, which the Neff's did not mind. The sweet, sticky juice would cover our hands and fill the station wagon with that strawberry essence. Granny would clean and slice them to make strawberry jam. The majority were frozen to be brought out later for all kinds of desserts.

My grandparent's water well produced sulfur water, and the mild sulfur smell didn't bother us at all. Washing strawberries in sulfur water created a fragrance embedded in my brain. When we moved to Siloam Springs, our well had sulfur water, and the memory would often come back when Mom cooked strawberries. Now, we treat the water to remove the sulfur odor. The memory comes less frequently.

Archie Neff died in 1965 at the young age of 48. He had the largest strawberry farm in the 4-state region. He led the McDonald County Extension Council and was Postmaster General in Goodman from 1961 to 1965. The farm stayed active for several years after his death but eventually shut down, was sold, or relocated. I hope his daughters, son, and grandchildren chance upon these words. I thank Mr. Neff for seeing his dream come true and producing delicious memories of simpler times.

-- Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to devin.ho[email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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