Fulfilling their dreams, right at home
Some people fulfill their dreams and accomplish great things by traveling far from home, like Marco Polo, Columbus, Lewis and Clark. Others, like Ray and Mabel Campbell, do it by quietly and courageously meeting a lifetime of challenges right near home.
Ray was a year and a half old when his mother died in 1929. He was raised by his mother’s parents, Will and Maggie Cowden, on their farm near New Wilmington. Except for a brief tour in the Navy, Ray lived his entire life on that farm. “My grandparents’ advanced age made a setting for living in the past,” Ray once wrote in a family history. “We lived in the country, dirt road, without electricity, and used horses to farm and for transportation.”
The day his class graduated from New Wilmington High School in 1945, Ray left to serve in the navy. His grandparents were in their eighties, too old to take care of the farm. They had to sell their cows, leaving them with no income. Ray made an agreement with them to buy the farm and take care of them the rest of their lives.
When Ray came back to the farm, he bought a surplus military jeep and used it both as his car and tractor.
At a square dance in 1948, Ray met Mabel Swartz, who lived just five miles up the road in Bethel. She was Hickory High School Junior with a passion for journalism
“We had a fabulous teacher, Mrs. Sara (Gaugh) Tarr,” Mabel said. “She got us involved in things outside the classroom. During my Senior year, our journalism class reported the Hickory Township news to The Herald. They paid us ten cents an inch, and we earned enough for several of us to go to on our first train ride to a journalism convention in Indiana.”
Mabel was awarded a journalism scholarship to Westminster College, but she didn’t accept it. Instead, she married Ray on June 11, 1949, less than a month after her high school graduation.
Ray took advantage of the GI Bill to take agricultural courses.
“He was very progressive,” Mabel said, “always doing new things. The farm was only 55 acres, too small to make a living. We had to constantly expand the acreage and the operation. The house, built in 1880, is the only original building. Ray built all the rest.”
Because of the limited potential for farm income, both Ray and Mabel worked outside the farm. Ray operated a truck crane for his brother at T. Bruce Campbell Construction Company.
“It took his income to update the machinery, the cattle, the buildings,” Mabel said. Then she laughed. “I always kidded him that he brought the money home and poured it down a rat hole. But we were never sorry we did that.”
Mabel also worked outside the farm.
“My family and farm were at the top of my priority list,” she said. “so I only worked part time jobs that didn’t interfere with family life. That’s how we bought the little extra things. I enjoyed that, too.”
Her favorite job was at The Globe, the weekly newspaper in New Wilmington, where she was news editor for five years.
“I did everything,” she said. “I covered the meetings, wrote the stories, took the photos. I could put it together in about twenty hours a week, so I could still take care of things at home. Chris Hernley, the owner of the Globe, was wonderful. So were the typists, ad people, and office staff.”
Mabel gave birth to seven children. One died shortly after birth. The other six were as involved in the farm as Ray and Mabel.
“They all had to work,” Mabel said. “They didn’t get paid, but they got spending money. My husband didn’t allow them to work away from the farm or have a car until they graduated, because he thought they would get interested in those things and forget to study.”
The Campbells raised not only their own children, but also foster kids.
“It was a challenge and a great sense of satisfaction,” Mabel said. “Most of them weren’t problem children, but were kids who didn’t have adequate housing or homes. My husband really enjoyed that because he always appreciated what his grandparents did for him.”
The Campbell clan did whatever they could to improve farm income. They were avid supporters of the milk strike in 1966, when subsidized cheese imports caused milk prices to drop dramatically.
“Demonstrating the same open rebellion our American forefathers exhibited when they dumped chests of tea into the sea, we dairy farmers dumped our milk,” Mabel wrote in a 1967 article that reads like a manifesto.
“We were selling our milk through the National Farmers Organization to Jack Marti’s cheese plant at Routes 18 and 208,” Mabel said. “He couldn’t pay the farmers for the milk because his cheese couldn’t compete with the low-priced imports. The plant owed the organization a million dollars. The officers told him we’ll advertise and go out and sell cheese. So every Saturday for I don’t know how long, our kids and the other farmers and their kids would go to West Middlesex, Greenville, and all around. We sold enough cheese to get back the million dollars owed to the farmers.”
The Campbells had a personal setback in the fall of 1969 when their dairy barn burned down.
“The cows were out to pasture, so we didn’t lose any,” Mabel said. “The New Wilmington firemen were here in five minutes. I don’t know how they got here that fast. They got the calves out, and most of the machinery, but we lost the winter’s hay.”
Within a month a new barn was built.
“We hired one man to supervise, but family and friends volunteered to do the construction work,” Mabel said. “I felt that I should be here to cook for them. I told Chris Hernley I needed some time off. He said we can’t run the paper without you, so if you come in and do the paper, my wife and I will go to your house and do the cooking. For that month, when I had to be in the office, they came out and cooked the meals. Wasn’t it wonderful of them to do that?”
In 1985, Ray developed severe emphysema. Their youngest son John and his wife Bonnie bought the farm in 1992. Ray and Mabel moved into a mobile home that was already on the property. The clan came together as always, building a family room on the back and put a hospital bed in it for Ray.
“He called it his ground hog hole,” Mabel said, “but there were large windows so he could view all the farm activities. He loved that.”
They also added a handicap-accessible bath.
Ray and Mabel gave each of their offspring a plot of ground on which to build a house. Now all of them live within a few miles of each other, except for one son who lives in Florida. Their oldest son was killed in a freakish accident in August, 2001, when a deer bounced off another car and crashed through the windshield of the car in which he was riding.
After living a great life, Ray passed away in December, 2000.
With 14 grandchildren, 3 great grandchildren, and four more on the way, the family is still thriving.
“They’re an exciting bunch,” Mabel said. “We’re very clannish, and we love to do things together.”
When Mabel married Ray, she joined the Neshannock Presbyterian Church where he was a life-long member. All except John and Bonnie still go there. John and Bonnie go to the Church of Christ in Hermitage where Bonnie’s family belonged.
“The biggest thrill for me is that we were able to live our dream,” Mabel said. “We had everything we needed. We enjoyed life, our family, and our community.”
And, not incidentally, did a lot of great things for others.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007