Watching the Hummingbirds

Bob Richards’s Life
in Brown County

by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater

It was one of those classic humid Indiana summer evenings, the air as thick as potato soup, as my car trundled deep into the north Brown County hills.

I spied a mailbox and stopped in the middle of the gravel road to make certain I was at the right house, then pulled into the drive of Bob and Elaine Richards. Friendly dogs waddled about, barked a little, and sniffed the air as Bob waited on his expansive porch where hummingbirds flitted from feeder to feeder.

Richards’s family has been a part of Brown County history from the earliest days.

“The best we know the Richards family came from Hawkins County, Tennessee, about 1830. The land they owned was around (Slippery) Elm Shoot Road. My great-great-grandfather, John Richards, helped the organization of the county. He was kind of a town commissioner.”

He was also a constable, justice of the peace, and representative to the Indiana State Legislature. His wife, Joanah, was a midwife.

“Brown County is a wonderful place to live and a very poor place to make a living,” Richards says. “You’ve got to work a lot of jobs or you’ve got to work someplace else, that’s all there is to it.

“I started out working on the farm when I was five years old with a team of horses and riding plow. When I got a little bigger I’d go to the woods with dad and help drag logs for people that made crossties. When I was thirteen I started driving a truck hauling logs.”

When World War Two erupted, Richards, like many young men, tried to enlist in the armed forces. “All my friends were in the service and I felt that I should serve someplace, too. But I just couldn’t pass. I had been trying since September of 1942 to get in some branch of the service. I tried everything.” His final attempt at enlisting occurred in June of 1943. “They thought I had tuberculosis. I had been hauling agricultural limestone dust all of the summer of 1942. I had that in my lungs. The next day I was hitchhiking my way to Windsor, Ontario.” Richards was accepted into the Canadian Army, landing with their forces on D-Day.

“I went in sometime around noon as Advanced Reinforcement. There was one platoon of us, Reinforcement Serial B.

“On D plus one a French Canadian regiment entered a walled garden in France that was booby-trapped. There were Teller mines that jumped about 3 feet high before they exploded. It got the entire platoon. So they took all of us and kept us 36 days because they were taking an awful beating.

“After that I went to the original outfit I was scheduled for, the Highland Light Infantry. We wound up on the edge of Germany, around the coast. We’d make raids across Holland or Belgium into Germany to capture a place and then somebody else would hold it. We didn’t get very far into Germany, actually.”

After the war Richards returned to Brown County, bought land, built a house, and married Elaine Percifield, whom he affectionately calls `Shortie.’

“When I came back from the army I drove a truck until 1947 when I got a school bus route. I tried to farm a little, too, but I was still on the road a lot. When our boys came along (Alan, Phillip, and William) I couldn’t see leaving my wife here a week at a time with three little boys so I quit truck driving and farmed. In 1973 I got a chance to work at the Waycross Camp, 15 years.”

It was after their family was raised that Bob and Shortie discovered the great passion of their lives—motorcycling. “I never had a motorcycle until I was 50 years old. After we bailed hay on a hot day like today we’d get on a bike and maybe ride a hundred miles. We’ve been in 39 states in the lower 48 and 6 provinces of Canada. We had a lot of fun. Met a lot of nice people. Seen a lot of beautiful country. I guess that’s what it’s all about.”

Bob doesn’t ride much anymore. “I wouldn’t dare undertake it now, there are too many deer. We’ve had three friends who have been hurt in accidents with deer and it kind of scared me a little bit.”

Good interviews always go to unexpected places This one was no exception as Bob talked about the amazing Gil W. Roth who lived “up the road” during Bob’s childhood.

“He was an inventor and spinner of tall tales. Gil invented quite a few things but he couldn’t keep quiet about it and somebody else would patent it.

“For one thing, he invented the self-starter for automobiles. But he couldn’t keep still and, I think his name was Kettering, he got the patent. The only thing that I ever saw that Gil invented was the `Roth High Compression Head’ for a Model-T Ford.

“He tried to make a perpetual motion machine but couldn’t control it. It just kept running faster and faster. It

completely demolished his shed. Some of the old timers said it made matchwood out of the building. Gil said the world wasn’t ready for a machine like that and he dismantled it and buried it in different places. It’s still up there someplace.” Bob laughs. “That’s all I know about it.”

Roth was a master of the tall tale. “Gil made a set of rawhide leather harness. If you’ve read anything about rawhide, when it’s wet it’ll stretch and then when it dries it shrinks. His wife wanted some wood for the cook stove so he put this rawhide harness on the old mare and went out in the woods, cut down a dead sassafras, and drug it back to the woodpile. While he was dragging it, up came one of those March snowstorms. Great huge big flakes and real wet. He just turned his overcoat up over his ears and went on. When he come up out of his coat he saw that the rawhide harness had stretched so far that the sassafras pole was still quite a ways off from the wood yard.

“He said, `I drove the old mare in the barn, hung the collar up on the harness hook, went into the house and set there by the window, played my fiddle and watched. Sure enough the sun came out and in a little bit up come this log over the bank. When it got to the woodpile I went out and took the chain off it, unhooked the log, and the harness just went right on into the barn.’

“I can remember that like it was yesterday,” Richards laughs. “I was about five years old, I’d say. He was quite a character.”

Nearing eighty, Richards hasn’t slowed down much but he and his wife do get to relax in the evenings. “We spend a lot of time out here in the swing watching the hummingbirds. Some years we’ve used two gallons of sugar water a day. We’ve been feeding them for twenty years, I guess. They always come back from the south between April the 18th and April the 28th. If for some reason we don’t have the feeders hung up, the first ones will be hovering around where a feeder was last year.

“I’ve seen a lot of places in the U.S. and Canada that I thought was lot prettier but I wouldn’t want to live there permanently. I’d still want to come back to Brown County.”