There, Alone, Sits Lawrence Mitchner
The New York Times, op-ed page
When the Army Corps of Engineers, thinking reservoir thoughts, announced intentions of eradicating the small farms ing village of New Burlington, Ohio. from the face of its tillable earth, Lawrence Mitchner said quietly to his neighbors that he would not move. The seven widows who lived up the street (and across) said: That is like Lawrence. And strained by premonitions of their own displacement, they turned to face moving deadlines, forgetting him.
In the fall of 1972, all but four buildings had been bulldozed away—the old cobbler’s shop, the Quaker church, and two houses. One of the houses was deserted. The other, a small frame building that was once the village undertaker’s parlor, belonged to Lawrence Mitchner. It sat in the middle of the empty bulldozed lots of the village which, like a garden in late summer, were filled with weeds and vines. By summer’s end, the vines had snaked across his yard and made tentative probings onto the porch. That was as close as anything seemed to get to Lawrence Mitchner.
He refused to see reporters, Corps appraisers and some neighbors. He took the Corps’ letters from his postman and tore them up with no other acknowledgement. He watched the house-by-house failing of his village, and shuttered his own house, as if to stave off the future itself. He protested, and he paid the price of protest. It occurred in the loss of the reference points of his life—at least those points outwardly visible—and in a growing isolation.
Many villagers remembered Lawrence’s first protest. A Quaker, he refused induction into World War I. Unlike some pacifistic Quakers who found marriage and agriculture a healing poultice for the ambiguities of conscience, Lawrence Mitchner went to prison for his proclaimed beliefs. The time in prison is only darkly hinted at by members of the family.
After he returned from prison, he became a farmer. His neighbors remember him as a good one. Here, he began his second protest: he refused to use the developing components of mechanization. He was perhaps the last horse farmer in the county. There was no moral or esthetic question concerning agriculture; he simply did not understand the intricate modern equipment, and chose not to. Often, he had his ground broken by a tractor-driving neighbor, then worked the crops through with his team.
When he and his wife became too old to farm, they moved into the village. Although the farm on Cornstalk Road was less than a mile away, he refused ever to see it again. Soon after, his wife died. At Christmas, he placed a photograph of her against the glass of the front door, facing out. Frequently, he drove his ancient automobile into Xenia, seven miles north, where he visited the funeral home that buried his wife, sitting through long afternoons in those wide, quiet rooms and their sense of ungovernable resolution.
The village children occasionally saw him on his porch in his green underwear. They found it an incongruous image. One called him “a spook,” but the tone was more frightful than mischievous. When the villagers tried to name the possession of Lawrence Mitchner, their vocabulary became dull and stunted. No one speculated grandly about his resistance. Their words were not unkind, rather they were … meager. Like the villagers themselves in the face of their village’s extermination, the words had no imagination, no spirit of hopeful conjecture.
“He has always been Lawrence,” one of the widows said, rolling her eyes heavenward, innuendo heavy in the gesture. “Very …odd,” she said, all judgment suspended tactfully in the ice of implication.
“I wonder what he does with his time?” they asked among themselves. The Methodist minister, pondering Lawrence from retirement in a distant town, said: “He is trying to hold onto the past. He thinks that is his inherent right … ”
Everyone asked questions. Everyone offered opinions. Lawrence himself did little talking. He told his relatives that God created the village, and Satan was destroying it. The relatives said Lawrence was “bitter.”
Across the bottomlands, Quaker farmer Don Haines has moved but still commutes twenty-five miles each day to farm 320 acres under a Corps deadline. “I was combining oats one night and looked across the creek to where the village was and there was nothing. No landmarks, no house, nothing but Lawrence’s light in all that dark space. I saw a Corps appraiser not long afterward and I asked him about Lawrence. ‘We’ll leave him as long as we can,’ he said. And I said, ‘What you mean is, you know he’s almost 90 and you hope he’ll die before you get ready for his house.’ And the appraiser said, ‘Well, yeah.’ I said, ‘I expect he’ll outlive that, then what? And he said, ‘Well, we’ll have to go in and take him out, take him someplace.’”
One thing about Lawrence Mitchner asserts itself: his privately unpolitical protest is more than mere obstinance (his neighbors would say, “contrariness”). In the first false days of spring, the newly-turned farmland lies in great coils outside New Burlington, Ohio. On warm days the fresh, sweet smell of earth pervades the one remaining house with the easy but false security that the outside world is far away and inaccessible. Inside, Lawrence Mitchner has nothing to say, yet his persistence is a reminder of a tragic fact of the national life: how hard it has gotten to say “no.”