Barker – You can be assured of an education into farm techniques, American history, family ancestry, painting and just about any other topic when you meet C. Gordon “Gordie” Porter.
At age 88, the Barker resident still accomplishes more in a day than most people half his age, and has written a book reminiscing about his growing up called, “A Time to Live – A Country Boy’s Life Through the 20th Century.”
Porter, who laughs when he remembers that he failed history as a boy, has certainly made up for that in his later years, after tracing his family history back to the Mayflower and beyond.
He also learned of his family’s link to a spy in the Revolutionary War and frequently speaks to community groups about his ancestor, John Honeyman, who posed as a Tory, while providing information to Gen. George Washington, including misinformation that led the British to let down their guard at Christmas, allowing Washington to cross the Delaware and rout the Hessian forces in the Battle of Trenton.
He is also a talented and in-demand artist, painting more than 500 oil paintings – many on commission on a number of subjects over the years, including some of area wildlife that are featured in his book. He said he paints when he gets bored.
In “A Time to Live,” Porter muses on what it was like to grow up on the farm and how machinery and technology changed things, many times for the better, as farmers were able to advance from horsepower to tractors, as well as electricity, refrigerators and hot water heaters. And for those too young to remember or those who may have grown up in the city, Porter recounts the days of square dances, single-room schoolhouses, fruit farming, milking a cow and dangerous bulls.
After leaving the farm as a young man, Porter made a career in breeding cattle, on the leading edge of genetic technology for providing bull semen to Niagara County farmers, a job that changed greatly over the years as computer technology provided a way to catalog some of the best breeding bulls.
“Everywhere I go people give me hugs. I don’t know why. I guess I am just friendly,” he said with a grin.
He is widower after a marriage of 52 years to his beloved wife, Nancy, who died in 2003. He is also the proud father of five successful grown children and, if possible, an even prouder grandfather of 11.
How did you get involved in history?
My mother died October 2003 and my wife died in December that same year of pancreatic cancer. So here I was with these records [pointing to a family Bible from 1812 and boxes of family records.] The farmhouse was empty and no one had claimed the records. So I claimed them because I didn’t want them thrown away. My great-uncle did a lot of research about the Porters.
How far did these records go back?
I’ve got all the dates and everything way back to the Pilgrims and all the dates of who they married and everything.
It sounds like your family members were good record keepers
Yes they were. I have the records of John Alden trading with the Indians and trading for land. I never knew about the King Philip’s War until I started doing this research. John Alden was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact.
Are all of your family really interested in history?
It just happened to be that way. I went to Connecticut Street Armory in Buffalo and met my wife. She was a city girl and it turns out that she had just as much history as I did. We both go back to John Alden. I didn’t know that until about 10 years after I married her.
You don’t live in the family farm house anymore. Where was it located?
Out on Countyline Road, and we lived on the Niagara County side. My great-great-grandfather built the farmhouse. So I was born in the tenant house next door in 1925, and I lived on the farm for 24 years. My father trained me to be a farmer, but my brother stayed on the farm and the farm wasn’t large enough for three men so he encouraged me to take the course at Cornell in artificial breeding. Artificial breeding was new because it eliminated the bull. As we got good conception with artificial breeding, everyone started to call us.
Did your career move you away?
No. There was so much demand in Niagara County, it built up so that we had to divide the county in half. I got the eastern half from Millersport to Olcott to Countyline Road. I was recognized as the first in the country to breed over 100,000 matings in 1987. It was my lifetime profession for 38 years, after I left the farm at 24.
What was the job like?
They would draw the bull semen in Ithaca and deliver it in boxes and I would take my daily supply with me. The farmers would call me, seven days a week. Nearly every Niagara County farmer called me.
The computer played a big role [in updating the profession] because instead of tracing 10 daughters we could trace 40,000 or 50,000 daughters on one bull [to trace the best milk producers]. We went from 30 to 40 pounds of milk per cow per day, to 100 or 120 or 130 pounds of milk per cow per day. So through genetic breeding, we got high production. I don’t know where it’s going to end, because instead of milking twice a day with high production, they have to milk them three times a day, every eight hours. Some are going to four times. It’s a good thing, but all this high production has wiped out the small farmer across the state. These big farms have 2,000 cows. We had five cows.
Are technology changes what inspired you to write your book?
The 20th century was a progressive time. It changed from milking a cow by hand to the milk machine. When we got the milking machine, I didn’t have to milk the cow alone for two hours by hand. We went from horse-drawn to rubber-tired tractor and got a small tractor to do the cultivating. We used to have to fill the barn with hay for the horses, now a couple gallons of gas took their place. We loved our horses, but it was a lot of fun to drive a tractor. Now they have tractors that can plant straight rows using satellites.
People look back to simpler times, but they were tough too.
It was a tough life. We didn’t have any money. It was reinvested. My mother didn’t have a single appliance for the first 10 years of my life. She had no equipment other than a hand pump from the cistern for washing or taking a bath.
What made you decide to write it all down and make it into a book?
I didn’t even think about writing a book. I’d wake up at 4 a.m. when I couldn’t get back to sleep and write notes and reminders and then write about it when I had time. As it all built up, my daughter said why don’t you publish a book, so I did. She did all the business end of it. I don’t want to get involved with things like distribution. I just want to have fun with it. I don’t want to make money. I’ve had a good time getting the history. If there’s a story, I tell it. I’m a happy man.
Porter’s books are available at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, the Niagara County Historical Society and Crafts and Creations, all in Lockport, and in local gift shops in the Barker area.
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